It’s been 35 years since “An American Werewolf in London” hit the movie theaters. It started out slowly; at first the audiences and critics didn’t know what to do with it, asking is it a horror film or a comedy? John Landis normally did comedy, so they tried to pigeon hole it. Comedy and horror, what a unique combination! Well this amazing horror comedy became a runaway hit and one of those movies that ends up on almost everyone’s top horror movies list. Back in 1981, “An American Werewolf in London” had unsuspecting cinema audiences jumping out of their seats or leaving the auditorium in disgust. I remember some of my friends telling me that the movie made them throw up. Silly people, of course, I loved it! How many movies stand the test of time and remain popular over 30 years after their release? “An American Werewolf in London” is the story of two young Americans friends on a backpacking trip through moors in the U.K; when they come face-to-face with the ancient legend of the Lycanthrope. Teamed up with the amazing makeup and ground-breaking special effects from Rick Baker, this John Landis classic, set a bar for werewolf movies that’s been hard to beat. Your Zombie Examiner got a chance to meet and talk to David Naughton, and find out a little bit about the movie and his experience playing the werewolf, David Kessler in the movie.
Los Angeles Zombie Examiner: David, How did you end up getting the role in “American Werewolf in London”?
David Naughton: “My agent sent me to meet with John Landis, who wrote, directed and produced the movie, and that’s really all it took. Normally you have to go through screen tests but it was really won just by an interview. Did you know that he wrote this when he was about 20 years old? He was working on a film as a production assistant in Europe and got the idea for the film, but didn’t have a chance to do it, until after the success of “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”. Anyway, he was looking to cast “the two boys”, as he called them. So I got a chance to talk to him- he is a very funny, animated guy, and he gave me a script and said read this. I don’t know whether it actually clinched the job for me but I told him how I had lived and studied acting in London, and had gone across Great Britain on a bicycle, and rode around the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, and John said, ‘Hey, that’s really interesting, because these guys are backpacking!’ I read the script and there were just a few sentences that said ‘David turns into a werewolf and a transformation takes place.’ And I thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder that’s going to be like?’ Overall, it was an amazing script and when I talked to him the next day he said ‘Do you want to be a werewolf?’ That’s it, that’s how easy it was.”
ZE: What was the makeup process like?
DN: “Well, Rick Baker was a perfectionist and I didn’t realize that so early in my career that I’d be working with one of the best that Hollywood has ever had. His werewolf effects are some of the best effects ever. It was the first day when I got to Rick Baker’s shop that I realized what I was in for. I went into a small rented space and Rick came out and asked who I was. I told him I was David and I was playing the role of David Kessler and he said, ‘I feel sorry for you!’ We finished all the principle photography in 10 weeks, from start to finish. It was a quick film. We got to England in February, shot the film and released it all in the same year. It was a race for these effects to get out, since there were other werewolf movies like “The Howling” being made. After we wrapped the filming all we had left was the transformation. They saved the hardest part for last as far as I was concerned and Rick needed as much time as he could to pull it off. We started the process by making the molds. Most people now know about the process, but at the time it was, you want me to do what? First we did my arms, then my legs. Then I had to put my body into containers of quick drying cement. When it came time to do my head with different expressions, it was really claustrophobic. I said, have you guys done this before and they said, yeah, once! We were doing things that had never been done before. It took 6 days to shoot the transformation that on the screen is about 2 minutes. I was in the makeup chair for sometimes 10 hours a day, before I’d get out on the set. Writhing in pain, naked, for hours is very tiring and the crew enjoyed a lot of jokes at my expense. But I was motivated to perform, best I could, based on what I was seeing in the mirror as we did the make-up. It was phenomenal! I tried not to complain, I was a team player. John would tell me, at least I wasn’t the Elephant Man and have to wear the makeup every day! I felt an obligation to do well once we got all the make-up on, to do it in one take. The transformation wasn’t fun and I didn’t want to do it again.”
ZE: You ended up naked in a lot of the scenes. How was that for you?
DN: “I was young and in good shape, but never good enough. You train, diet and exercise; it’s something we actors struggle with our entire lives. I needed to run more in the film than I was really trained to do so I was literally running around the streets of London in February, which is not the best month to be training. John would tell me, ‘Can you run like it’s warm?’ That’s rather difficult to do because it’s cold and you’ve got no shoes on and I don’t jog in bare feet in any weather even back in California. That’s the hardest part, you’re running in the woods trying not to look like you’re going, ‘Ow ow, ow!’ And they were saying, ‘C’mon, it’s warm, this is a dream, you’re leaping, you’re like a deer.’ So I just had to go for it. The crew always gave me a hard time, but the British people were really polite, and saying, I can’t believe you’re having to do this. We shot at night and early mornings in the park and the zoo. It was closed then but they were open in the morning at 9am. We would try to get in the shot before the public would spot us. I’d say, ‘Who are those people?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh that’s the public, the zoo is open.’ So yes, that was me naked with balloons in public. I was not one of those actors who said,’ OK that’s it, I’m done’. I was really a team player. Which means I’d stay there and keep shooting ’till John was happy.”
ZE: Were those real wolves in the cage with you?
DN: “Yes, they were real wolves. The trainers said for me to try not to make any sudden movements and not a lot of noise. So of course the direction was to get out of the cage as fast as you can. There were two females and a male and supposedly two weren’t getting along very well. One female was in heat and the cage set wasn’t very sturdy. I asked if the wolves were safe to be around and the trainer said, ‘We fed them’. The crew was trying to light the set for morning, even though it was evening. It was getting darker and colder. I wasn’t in the cage too long but it was long enough. We were rolling and you’re not sure what the wolves are going to do. One of them came over to me, which was not part of it, and I’m like, Hello! We had tried to get ourselves familiarized with the wolves beforehand, but the trainers said you can’t read them like dogs. Wolves don’t tell you anything. Dogs will at least give you warnings that they’re not comfortable with you but wolves just look at you with these blank yellow eyes. Even when you’re climbing out and you think you’re up and above them; it’s still at the back of your mind that they can leap ten feet in the air. Fortunately, in the end, it turned out OK.”
ZE: “American Werewolf in London” came out 35 years ago. Why do you think it is still such a favorite of horror fans today?
DN: “I think the main reason the movie holds up so well is that London is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it still looks the same, so it makes it timeless. If you look at the taxis and the buses now a lot of them are the same and it helps when you look at the film again, it doesn’t look dated. Also, the script was so great and the writing sort of went against what you were seeing. That shows the brilliance of John Landis. Like how the neck piece on Griffin in the hospital scene has little pieces of flesh dangling all gross, while he’s eating toast and the conversation was all light and lively. The movie is a fairly straight forward tragic love story. It’s tragic in the sense that here are these characters that don’t really have any control over what happens to them. And then there’s the idea that the two buddies, one of whom is killed on the moors, continue to have scenes together, which I thought was very funny and very unique. But it’s also a straight forward story where a guy can’t believe what his friend is telling him, and he falls in love with a girl and ultimately succumbs to the tragedy of being a werewolf.”
ZE: When did you know that “An American Werewolf in London” was a hit?
DN: “I used to like to go to the theaters and see some of the reactions that I knew were scary. I just wanted to confirm that people would jump out of their seats, and they did! What was cool was that the Academy created a special make-up category the year it was released just to honor films like these. So we at least knew that the special effects in the movie were special and appreciated at the time.”
ZE: What was it like working with John Landis?
DN: “John is hands-on, very animated, very in tune to what’s going on and doesn’t miss a thing. He’s very decisive too. One of the great things about working with him was that he wouldn’t sit there and do a scene over and over. Once he’d got it, he was ready to move on and if you wanted another take, he would let you. He’d say that’s good, that’s what I want, or he’d yell, which confused the British guys, thinking that a yelling director is an angry director. But he wasn’t angry; he was just crazy, which made for a very goofy, happy set, lots of fun, never a dull moment. He also liked to play tricks on us. He would tell one actor to do something different than what was in the script and I wouldn’t always know, but he did that to get a authentic reaction from an actor and hopefully not throw them. He didn’t trust us to be actors. As an actor you learned to trust your instincts with him. He always wanted the tone of the movie to be light and let the audience do the worrying.”
ZE: What was your favorite memory of the movie?
DN: “I’d been in London as a student five or six years before. Now I got to come back and make this movie. Wow! It was really exciting. I knew London already but now here I was filming and it was a completely different experience. I actually got to live like a regular person as opposed to a student. I really enjoyed being there and the whole experience was fun. Also there was the chemistry between myself and Griffin Dunne who played Jack. I think John Landis wanted to go with unknown people. Our chemistry and the fact that we looked like we were very unsuspecting and innocent victims made us perfect. He wanted to cast two guys that would get along and be credible as long-time friends. Here are two unsuspecting innocent guys who you don’t really know and look what can happen to them out there! I didn’t know Griffin before we started the movie. We were thrown together quickly. It turns out, when we finally met in London; we discovered we had a lot in common. He’d grown up in the same part of the world as me, in Connecticut. And it was just luck that we hit it off as well as we did. We became fast friends and you just hope that that’s the case when you work on a project; that you like the other actors and you’re able to have a kind of chemistry. It helped being the only two Americans, on the cast and crew. We were in it together.”