The Great ‘American Werewolf’ Reunion

A dream come true for this AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON die-hard fan: I was able to reunite John Landis, Rick Baker, David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne for the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine to share fond memories and new insights about the iconic horror-comedy classic on its 35th anniversary.

By David Weiner

Famous Monsters Executive Editor David Weiner with Rick Baker, David Naughton and John Landis celebrate American Werewolf at the Famous Monsters Silver Scream Fest in 2016.


It all started with a real-life, superstitious gypsy funeral in Yugoslavia. John Landis was an 18-year-old production assistant on KELLY’S HEROES in 1969. Driving along a country road, he says he witnessed “this extraordinary thing.” A man was being buried upright, wrapped in a shroud with garlic and rosaries, and was subsequently tarred over. He was a criminal who had done something unspeakable, and the gypsies were going through this effort to prevent him from rising from the dead. “Literally, the week before, we had landed a man on the moon, and these guys were worried about the living dead,” laughs Landis. “It just struck me as so outrageous and nuts that I thought, ‘Okay, there’s a movie in here somewhere.”

Almost immediately, Landis started writing and cranked out the screenplay for AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which follows two U.S. friends who are backpacking through Europe and meet tragedy when they are attacked by a werewolf. One lives and the other dies, but returns from the dead to warn his friend that if he does not take his own life, he will transform and kill others. Inspired by Curt Siodmak’s script for Universal’s 1941 classic THE WOLF MAN, Landis set out to confront our sense of reality with shocking supernatural occurrences in a contemporary setting. Landis explains, “The real key to the movie was, ‘How do you make something unreal real?’ I mean, a premise of a guy who turns into a werewolf with the full moon is not true. It’s impossible. The supernatural does not exist. So you have to create in the story … what’s called suspension of disbelief.” Landis was struck by the fact that Lon Chaney Jr.’s embattled Wolf Man is simply a victim of cruel circumstance. “It just was so fascinating that he wasn’t a bad guy,” says the filmmaker. “He’s always waking up going, ‘What did I do last night?’ He’s just totally a victim! In fact, the through line in all those WOLF MAN movies is he’s trying to kill himself, usually. So I took that idea: They’re victims of something that’s impossible, and that’s why the movie’s funny, because in my experience an educated person’s response to the supernatural is to laugh at it.”

After working on various films in a variety of positions, Landis made his directorial debut with 1973’s clever mockery of monster movies called SCHLOCK, working with an equally young Rick Baker. The director was was already plotting how to pull off the bravura werewolf transformation in his WEREWOLF script, which he was convinced would be his next film, and recruited Baker to start brainstorming ideas. Baker says, “I had, like, ten years to think about it because people weren’t breaking down John’s door to make AMERICAN WEREWOLF. SCHLOCK was not a big commercial success by any means.”

“The script actually was rejected by everybody,” recalls Landis. “There were only two reactions to it, basically. People said, ‘This is too funny to be scary,’ or, ‘This is too scary to be funny.’ And I would say, ‘Well, it’s both!’ And they would say, ‘Thank you. Get out.’” But Landis would score big with three movies in a row — KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS — and WEREWOLF was finally up next, financed for $8 million as a negative pickup. “Which meant I took the financial risk,” says Landis. “I’ve made a lot of movies and television, and WEREWOLF was the most pleasant and easiest picture I ever worked on. And I realized it’s because I was signing the checks. There was no fighting about anything.”

With WEREWOLF lining up its financing and ready to shoot after a decade of rejection, Landis was shocked to find that Baker had pretty much given up on the film ever getting made — and had ironically agreed to work on another werewolf movie: Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING (see sidebar at bottom). Landis, livid, let Baker know exactly how he felt using every curse word in the book. Then he persuaded Baker to return to WEREWOLF, giving him the time and budget to do a proper job.I have a lot of respect for Rick,” says Landis. “I said, ‘OK, so what do you need?’ He said, ‘Well, I need six months.’ So I said, ‘OK.’ Which meant that I had to cast the two parts of David and Jack before I actually had closed the deal. I was taking a big risk.”

Before WEREWOLF, David Naughton was an actor who had starred in a short-lived GARRY MARSHALL disco sitcom for ABC called MAKIN’ IT, and was well-known on TV for his series of song-and-dance Dr. Pepper commercials. “I thought he was very likable,” says Landis, referring to the ads. “And I thought, ‘OK! Can you act?’ And he came in and he read for me.”

Naughton jokes, “I think he was a Pepper. That was the key. I had the inside track.” He then explains, “[Landis] went about casting the two lead parts primarily because Rick Baker needed those guys to get their dimensions and get the makeup going. So he started doing the casting before he really had the financing in place. But nevertheless, we had just a meeting at his office at Universal and it went very well. … He gave me his phone number of his office on the script, and I took it home and read it and called him the next day, and he goes, ‘Well, do you want to be a werewolf?’ … And he sent me right over to Rick Baker’s shop, which was just basically like a rented garage in the San Fernando Valley with all these young kids that were apprenticing with him, and away we went. Little did I know what I was in for.”

With David cast, Landis turned his attention to the role of Jack, and was taken by his meeting with Griffin Dunne. In landing his first major film role, Dunne remembers, “Landis said, ‘I only have one question for you before you read the script: Are you claustrophobic?’” And even if I was, I would have said no. And I expected to read a story about a guy caught in an elevator. … And, of course, what he meant was, to do the special effects, the makeup, Rick had to put your head in a plaster cast, and you breathe through these two little straws, and if they fall out, god, that would be a hideous way to go.”

For the role of Alex, the English nurse that David falls for in the hospital, Landis had already set his sights on his friend of many years, Jenny Agutter, an established star in the U.K. with THE RAILWAY CHILDREN and WALKABOUT who had crossed over internationally with the big-budget Sci-Fi epic LOGAN’S RUN in 1976. “If it hadn’t been Landis, I don’t think I would have done it,” recalls Agutter. “As horror movies go, Alex was a really nice role. Usually, particularly at that time, women in horror movies were not strong roles. You’d spend your time running and screaming, and that’s about it, whereas Alex was very well-written.”


Little did Rick Baker know at the time, but WEREWOLF would be the best film he’d ever work on in terms of pure creative freedom and minimal meddling from producers. “The way I thought things were going to work in the film industry, I was very wrong,” says Baker. “I mean, I argued with John for a while about the werewolf because I wanted to make a biped werewolf, and also I was very concerned about doing this transformation in a brightly lit room. But John’s [argument] was, ‘That’s the whole point of the movie! I want it to be real. This is happening to a real guy in a real apartment and it’s not all of a sudden going to have horror-movie lighting in it. I want it lit just like it is normally.’ I said, ‘No, I understand, there’s just no way to hide anything!’ He goes, ‘Well, then just do it right! That’s why I’m giving you all this time and money!’”

For the final look of the werewolf, Landis had always envisioned a quadruped, declaring, “I want it to be a four-legged hound from hell. Make it!” So Baker sculpted his ultimate werewolf and actually used one of his dogs, Bosco, as inspiration: “He was interesting-looking; the type of dog that has a big mane of hair around its neck, as the werewolf does. Bosco wasn’t as ferocious-looking as the werewolf, but he definitely influenced the design.” Baker also agonized for a time over just how he was going to pull off the movements of a quadruped werewolf: “That was like a problem for a while, and one sleepless night, I just kind of remembered as a kid doing these wheelbarrow race things where somebody holds your feet and you’re walking on your hands. And I thought, yeah, we can kind of use something like that if we actually lay a guy on a board that supports his weight, and his feet are just sticking out the ass of the wolf. Since John said he’s never gonna see it that much, we’ll just frame that part out.”


The first major attack in WEREWOLF finds David and Jack wandering off the road onto the moors, only to be confronted by the hound from hell. The crew was filming the night scene in Windsor Great Park in Berkshire, England in the middle of winter. Baker was very concerned that the fragile werewolf head he had constructed would not get damaged while shooting the attack on Jack, and he told Dunne, “This is pretty fragile. It’s foam rubber. It took us a long time to make. All these hairs were individually planted into the rubber. I know it’s supposed to be killing you, but you have to be careful with it because it could get damaged.” And on the first take, according to Baker, Dunne “grabs onto the side of the face and rips the face off the skull. It was like, ‘Aaagh!’ So I had to take my gloves off and try to find a place where I could actually see enough to glue this thing back together. And it was freezing, and the glue didn’t want to work right, and it was like, ‘Dammit, brand-new thing just got torn up. This is how we’re gonna start the movie?’ I thought, ‘OK, if Griffin wants to play rough, I’m gonna play rough.’ I just decided I was just going to beat the crap out of him with this rubber wolf head, which I think made the scene a lot better. I think he’s really screaming because I’m pounding on him with this thing!” When reminded of the intense scene, Dunne reflects, “I think I was told make sure when I grab the wolf’s head I didn’t try to destroy it, and that was easy enough to follow. But it was a wolf’s head and half a body on top of, like, a wheelbarrow, so it was very performance driven to do that. … I knew the deal was to go f-ing crazy like you’re being eaten alive.”


“Rick is an artist who can draw a detail like M.C. Escher, or something that is so specific and so anatomically correct,” says Dunne of the now-seven-time Oscar winner. And it may be a bit surprising that Baker did not do any specific morgue research when he designed Jack’s now-iconic torn-out throat makeup. ”I had done that kind of stuff before, but not a lot, because I’m actually really squeamish,” confesses Baker. “Looking at real stuff really bothers me, so I don’t like to do that. … More than anything I was looking at anatomy books and what’s in a throat, and they were more like illustrations.” Baker says that due to the ultra-realistic detail on the torn-out throat makeup, Dunne got very depressed: “He was just kind of sinking lower and lower in the chair and just looking like he was gonna cry. It’s like, ‘What’s going on, Griffin?’ And he’s like, ‘This is my big film break, and this is what I’m going to look like, and nobody’s going to look at me!’”

“My mindset in the chair and looking at myself in the mirror stayed pretty much the same every time I got into the makeup, which was I found it very disturbing,” says Dunne. “My mother was ill at the time and she had suffered a tragedy, and I remember being terribly concerned that this would really shock her to see her son torn up like this, so I gave her lots of warning about it. But it was so real that I found it kind of disturbing, like I’m looking at myself as a dead person.” He adds of the later stages of his makeup, “I remember having to walk from a hotel in Piccadilly Circus to the movie theater through the streets of London, and I knew it was like so much fun for everybody else to see. People would want to take me into pubs on the lunch breaks near the studio … they would have LOVED to have somebody actually get a heart attack by looking at me. … But I just didn’t want to do that. I could see how it was fun for everybody else, but it wasn’t really fun for me.”

“He became more and more WALKING DEAD, and his makeup calls would get earlier and earlier,” remembers Agutter. “You’d arrive at 6:30 in the morning and to be greeted by Griffin, who’s already been there, with the flesh hanging off his face. It was pretty disgusting.”

Of that especially memorable bit o’ dangling flesh on Jack during his first hospital visit with David in the movie, Baker explains, “That was just one of those kind of happy accident things. … To keep the blood looking fresh, what I would do is spritz it with a water sprayer before the takes, and the water would get on that little wiggly bit of flesh and give it a little more weight, and that’s what caused it to wiggle like that. And it just was one of those things that was unplanned, and happened because it happened. A cool thing. I’m glad it worked out that way.”

As the film progresses, Jack goes through several stages of decomposition, to the point that he’s practically a talking skeleton in the porno movie theater scene, the location where David has his final transformation. A puppet was used for a more authentic look, and Dunne reveals that he was not pleased to be replaced by a dummy. “I was really bummed, and I was incredibly threatened by this marionette,” he says. “And I made the point that I should run it, that I should do the hands, because I know what gestures I would do. So they showed me how it worked, and somebody did the eyebrows and head movements, but I did the hands and, obviously, the voice, which I think turned out to be the best for the performance.”


When Alex takes David to her London flat and confesses that she’s “not in the habit of bringing home stray, young American men,” we all know what will happen next, and WEREWOLF doesn’t disappoint. That steamy love scene set many a pulse racing to the music of Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” but of course the reality is that filming it was as technical and unromantic as the majority of loves scenes are in the history of film shoots. So how did this one manage to make people blush? “It’s an editing-room job, more than anything,” says Agutter. “It’s not about recreating a great passion, it’s about shooting something that looks passionate. … I had to leave it in John’s hands that he was going to do something good with it. I think I was probably reacting to my feet being massaged at one point. You know, you edit it together different ways, it looks different.”

“Yeah, I was trying to get her to smile,” confirms Landis of Agutter’s natural response in what seemed like a pretty racy moment — a reaction used in an entirely different context. “I’m shocked she told you that!”

“I think day one is the perfect day to shoot a love scene,” offers Naughton. “For one, you get it over with. Everybody’s on their best behavior on day one. Nobody knows anybody. There’s no history to speak of. And it’s just, as they say, it’s over and done with. … And I was always thinking it must be much more difficult for ladies, because the crew is primarily men, so I didn’t feel as self-conscious as I thought Jenny might. But she was a trooper.”


When the moon finally becomes full, David learns the hard way that he is indeed a werewolf. While the transformation raised the bar for special makeup effects and would become the standard that all subsequent monster transformations would be compared to, Baker confesses, “Itwas nerve-wracking. I knew [Landis] was counting on this transformation being kind of a showstopper, and I just hoped that it all was going to work. I was pretty confident. I mean, the tests worked out, but you still don’t know how it’s all going to work on the day.” The scene was meticulously storyboarded and planned with the intention of having the camera focus on moment after moment, rather than one fluid transformation. The scene was also scheduled to be the last part of the shoot over the course of a week. Baker remembers, “[Landis] was very smart about it, and he said, ‘We’ll shoot the whole transformation in post-production. We’ll have the wrap party, we’ll keep Alex’s apartment lit from when we worked before, we’ll just leave it there. We’ll come in with a much smaller crew, as a post-production shot. And you can have the whole day to do the makeup, and they’ll come in at the end of the day, and we’ll turn on the camera and shoot that part, and then we’ll come back the next day and do what you have ready for that day.’… We had a plan. So many movies now are made without plans.”

“I was the only one working, and it would just be me in the makeup chair for hours,” recalls Naughton of the transformation. “The first thing you do is you sit down and they take your hands away. … Now your hands are in these big paws and it just makes for a long day. Lunch time’s going to be drinking through a straw, some kind of shake or something, and you’re just constantly being bothered, pestered, touched up, not quite ready, ‘Gee, it’s gonna be a while.’ You have to give yourself over to the process, and so that’s what I was trying to do. You’re watching the transformation right before your very eyes in the mirror — it’s very interesting to see how Rick Baker’s doing it and seeing his artistry. … It’s just a crazy collaborative effort that you’re saying hopefully will be a big payoff.”

“He was kind of at our mercy,” says Baker with a laugh. “David was a great sport. The day that we did that stretched-out body, it truly was like 10 hours of makeup. It was a ridiculously long time, and he’s stuck in a hole in the floor with him leaning back, his shoulders on the floor, his head on the floor, but his ribcage arching backwards into the hole in the set, with the whole stretched-out body stuck on — he’s stuck there! … I didn’t paint a pretty picture of what his life was going to be. I try to be honest about what I’m going to do and what their life is going to be like. … He knew what he was getting into and he manned up about it.”

Naughton reveals that he had nightmares during the course of shooting the the film because the nature of it was so bizarre: “It was enough to be a little disconcerting. It’s not like we’re making this rollicking comedy. It does have an effect on you.” He adds of the process, “We’d go out and shoot for a while and Landis, who was so unemotional about it, goes, ‘Okay, we’re wrapped!’ And Rick would say, ‘W-w-w-wait. I mean, this took six, eight hours to put on,’ and Landis goes, ‘Well, does it do anything else?’ ‘Well, no, that’s about it.’ ‘Well, then we’re wrapped!’ And so Landis was just real cut and dry about that.”

“He was so upset!” confirms Landis with his trademark enthusiasm. “It was very funny! Because poor Rick and David, they would start work at like two in the morning and then we’d all show up at seven and get our first shot at eight, and then they’d go away for two hours and we’d shoot a piece of a puppet, then they’d come back and then they’d go away for two hours. I think we were lucky to get three shots a day with David. … He was a trooper! … I don’t think people realize how exhausting it is just to sit in a makeup chair for hours and hours having people gluing things on your face. And then wearing the stuff’s very uncomfortable.”

“It was just so anticlimactic for me to have worked on this thing for months, and you do a couple takes, and then we were done,” says Baker. “It wasn’t until we saw the movie. I took my crew to Westwood to see it with a real audience, and when the transformation happened, people just stood up and cheered. And then it was like, ‘OK. Now I get it. Yeah, yeah, it was worth all the work.’”


“Seeing it done, it was quite moving to see the whole thing cut together,” says Naughton of the final cut. “I would subsequently go to screenings and sneak in [just to watch] the audience reactions, and they were always so predictable. We knew exactly when they’d be literally jumping out of their seats. From the back of the house you could watch, and people would leap, and I’d go, ‘Yeah! There’s some really big scares in this!’”

“The first time I saw the film was when it was premiered in New York,” recalls Agutter. “Landis insisted that we all went to a bit of a dive of a cinema, where he said, ‘We’re gonna go to a real cinema. We’re gonna see a real audience in there.’ … Landis really, really wanted for David and myself to see it, particularly for the first time, with an audience who reacted the way he felt that they would react, which was to really be shocked by it, and really laugh at it, and really talk back at the screen and be fully involved.” She adds, “I think it captures the imagination. That’s what you really want to do more than anything with a film, is you want to carry an audience with you. And I think because the storyline is good, because the characters are really intriguing characters that people identify with, that’s what pulls you through it. That’s what you really enjoy.“

“I thought it was really, really great,” says Dunne. “I still jump out of my skin. … I’m quite honestly not a horror movie aficionado, but I loved it because it was beyond just that. It was two kids you really cared about, who were really funny, who had this terrible thing happen to them. And then it goes on to a horrific experience, and it treats werewolves in a very kind of serious way. And seeing a kid have to go through that was good storytelling, you know? It wasn’t just defined by one kind of genre.” He adds, “There were a lot of critics that did not appreciate that. You know, it wasn’t until GHOSTBUSTERS, I think, that people thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that amazing? How clever to do humor and horror together.’ I went, ‘Well, yeah, but it was done a little earlier.’ That was always John’s conceit.”

“I’m still frankly surprised it holds up as well as it does,” says a candid Baker. “So many people still say, ‘That’s the best transformation ever; forget the CG stuff.’ I get a lot of that. But I cringe at certain points of it, and there are things that I just know that we could do so much better now. The business has changed so much, and there’s new materials, and there are people who are experienced in mechanics and sculpture and things that we just didn’t have at the time. I mean, I’m still quite proud that we managed to pull it off and that still, 35 years later, people are talking about it.”

“I always see the problems,” says Landis. “It takes a long time for me to watch a movie of my own. There’s scenes I like in all of my films, but I just see the things that I wish had been different or better. I think Rick will not like this, but I really feel that I show the wolf too much in the movie. I was very enamored of Rick’s work, it was so amazing, that I think in the finished film you see the wolf too much. The best shot in the movie is the high-down shot after the guy falls on the escalator in the tube, and you’re way high up shooting down and the wolf makes an entrance and it’s like, “Holy F%@*. That thing is huge!” And you see it, but you don’t really see it, you know? That’s really the best.”


A decade after WEREWOLF, Landis was approached by PolyGram to write a follow-up, but ironically it was not well-received. “I wrote a sequel that took place exactly 10 years after AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON that had almost the entire original cast, including the dead people,” he reveals. “And [the exec who hired me to write it] was horrified by it. He just couldn’t figure it out. He said, ‘This is outrageous. Outrageous!’ But what was true was he would have had the same reaction to the AMERICAN WEREWOLF script. … I gave them the money back, and I took the rights to the film back.”

Still, the possibility of a modern-day remake of WEREWOLF remains a possibility, and Landis is very optimistic and philosophical about the prospect. “I realized that if someone does remake it or do a sequel or whatever, what happens if they do a good job? That’s great! I mean, I think Cronenberg’s remake of THE FLY is great, and Carpenter’s remake of THE THING is great. So I think that you can do it. And if they fail, like I thought AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS was terrible, it just makes me look like a genius. So I’m in a no-lose situation. … My AMERICAN WEREWOLF is there. It’s available. You can watch it.”



From SCHLOCK and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE to THE BLUES BROTHERS and AMERICAN WEREWOLF, keen eyes will notice a recurring faux “film” that appears in Landis’ movies, and it even comes up in Michael Jackson’s THRILLER video, which Landis directed. “People are always disappointed when I tell them what it is because what it is,” Landis says, explaining, “I wrote a script called SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY. ‘See you next Wednesday is a line of dialogue from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. And I wrote a screenplay that was fairly outrageous. It was kind of an autobiographical phantasmagoria. It was nuts. And it would never get made. It was probably terrible. But I’ve taken or stolen either scenes or gags or dialogue from it, and whenever I do, I make sure the screenplay gets a credit in the movie. So it’s nothing metaphorical or anything. It’s nothing profound. It just means I cannibalized it from an old script.”


Timing is everything: With a decade to craft his ultimate werewolf transformation, Rick Baker had practically given up on John Landis ever getting WEREWOLF produced. When Joe Dante came knocking to recruit Baker for his own werewolf film, THE HOWLING, the effects maestro bit — and Landis bit back. “I thought AMERICAN WEREWOLF was never going to happen,” says Baker. “I had thought up a lot of neat ways to do this transformation and I wanted to do it. So I said yes! And as it works out, shortly after I said yes, I got a call from John. … So I kinda had to tell him. … And then John starts screaming at me — every name he could call me. And I totally understood him being upset about it. And I said, ‘Well, these are things I thought up for your movie, basically, so I really should be doing them in yours. I’ll figure out a way that I can turn this over to Rob Bottin,’ who was my protege.” Baker says he only did one sculpture before he got the call from Landis, and everyone seemed to be quite understanding, especially with Baker staying on as a consultant for THE HOWLING. Bottin, of course, went on to drive the special makeup effects for such films as JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING and Landis’ TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, among many other projects.

(This article first appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland issue #285)


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