David Naughton calls it “lightning in a bottle.”
A pretty understated description of one of the most groundbreaking horror films ever made.
He is, of course, referring to the classic 1981 film from John Landis in which he starred, An American Werewolf in London.
The perfect blend of scares, gore, music and laughs, it is one of those few motion pictures that still stands up on every level, that still looks as if it could have been made today, despite the fact that it is actually the template for so much that has followed in the intervening three-and-a-half decades.
Naughton will be in town as part of Calgary Horror Con, which takes place Saturday, June 2 and Sunday, June 3 at the Clarion Hotel, Undoubtedly he’ll be asked to revisit that film, as well as a career that has also featured other TV, film, video game voice work credits and, yes, a brief dabbling in the musical realm, which yielded a charting single that was featured prominently in one of the earliest entries in Bill Murray’s brilliant canon.
Prior to his arrival in the city, Naughton spoke with theYYSCENE.
Q: I have to say this right off the bat: You are part of two of my favourite films of all time.
Q: Yes, An American Werewolf in London, obviously, and Meatballs.
A: (Laughs) Oh, Meatballs.
Q: I don’t think I even knew that was you until I started doing the Googles.
A: Meatballs was one of those things where I had a song, it was a record that was for another thing really, but Makin’ It was at Paramount and so was Meatballs, so it seemed like an appropriate fit.
Q: It is and every time I watch it — I watch both of those films at least three or four times a year — every time it comes on I go, “Yeah. That’s perfect.”
A: (Laughs) I appreciate that.
Q: How are you? What’s your life been like these days?
A: Well, you know, I’m in the seniors centre. (Laughs) No, as a senior member, I should say, I guess I’ve been referred to as a “veteran actor,” that’s always a nice (thing). So you take it as it comes and I’m happy to be here and that’s sort of where I’m at. I enjoy going to certain places for conventions and, having never been to Calgary before, I said, “Well, I think it’s certainly time.” I got invited and I’m on my way.
Q: The lineup this year is amazing — you, Linda Blair, P.J. Soles. It’s an incredible group of actors.
A: Yeah, that’s great. I know both those ladies and, yes, they’re certainly a lot of fun, and where you’re at the show they’re at, it’s generally a good turnout.
Q: I mentioned Meatballs briefly, but the one that everybody — yes, your career has continued and you’re still busy doing video games and TV and movies — but obviously the one that everybody goes back to is the, I believe, second film you ever made?
A: Oh, gosh, you know I’m not exactly sure if it was the second. It was certainly early on in my career and it was one of those movies that had some staying power for I guess a lot of different reasons.
Q: I think for every single reason. Even the special effects, the makeup, the story, the acting — everything — I think that’s a film that you could release it now and it would still stand up.
A: Well, I appreciate that, too. I think one of the great things it has going for it is that it is in London … and London doesn’t change all that much, so there’s that aspect of it — it could be shot today. And, yeah, the category of special makeup was created in the American Academy Awards based on movies like An American Werewolf and Rick Baker won the first Academy Award. It was one of the things that I’m sure none of us expected that we’d be talking about all these years later, but here we are.
Q: Another interesting thing I read in an interview with you, and I think this was on the 25th anniversary of the film, that John Landis wrote it when he was working on Kelly’s Heroes — which, again, is one of my Top 10 favourite films of all time.
A: Yeah, that is a great movie, and, yes, as he tells the story, he was a production assistant — a PA, which is, just, you’re a gofer, you know, “Go get me —.” So he started right at the bottom of the heap as far as the pecking order on a crew, but he did find the time … to be inspired to write this script and he stuck to it. That’s pretty much the script that we shot.
Q: Let’s talk about how you got involved with it, how you got the role.
A: Well, unlike a lot of subsequent meetings that I’ve had over the years, this was just meet with one guy, meet with the man, the writer, director, meet with John Landis. I went to his office, sat down, I was really taken by his informality, he was just a really, easygoing — well, I wouldn’t say easygoing, but a very high-energy guy, he kept me laughing, I’d never met anyone like him and had never been in an interview, per se, like it. We just chatted and got a chance to talk about our experiences — I told him that I lived in England, and I’d studied acting in London, as well. I hadn’t actually done a backpacking thing, but I’d done it on a bicycle, I went over to Ireland and done the Ring of Kerry and did a whole bicycle tour. He thought that was pretty neat. And he was familiar with some of the things I’d done — I didn’t have a ton of credits at the time. But it was really that simple, he said, “Here, here’s the script, read it and call me tomorrow.” I went, “Really? OK.” And that’s really how it happened. And the next day he said, “Do you want to be a werewolf?”
Q: What do you think it was? Was it just the connection you made on a personal level?
A: I can only quote him, what he has said on subsequent panels and things over the years where we have done some interviews together, he was saying he needed some guys that were likeable and that you could identify with, primarily, and what was going to happen to these guys was something that he would get a lot of audience empathy. So that’s, I guess, somehow what he went for, and both Griffin Dunne and myself went, “OK, sure. Let’s do this.” Nobody really knew what we were getting into, of course, because you read the script and there’s just a line or two about the transformation and it wasn’t until we got over … to Rick Baker’s shop that we realized, “Oh, my goodness. What did I get myself into?”
Q: You said it, one of the things that makes the film work so well is the fact that you guys are so likeable. Even the scene where Griffin Dunne is holding the Mickey Mouse doll and he’s a talking “hamburger.” And Jenny Agutter, she’s one of my first crushes.
A: Oh, yeah, all of ours. (Laughs)
Q: It was so human, and that was a big part of it, it wasn’t just about the special effects, it wasn’t just about the scares, it was about the people and the relationships and we felt it. When, spoiler alert, you get shot at the end, it’s one of those things where you actually feel bad.
A: Yeah, I think that was the hope, I know. And certainly it’s a very abrupt ending, and I just remember Landis saying, “That’s right, now get out!” He was pretty unemotional about it, but we were going, “Gosh, is that really how you want it to end?” We were thinking that there would be a possibility that we’d survive it, but that’s not the way it went and that was the whole purpose of it, to say, “This is kind of a tragedy, folks. This is something that happened to them on the moors and subsequently they have no control over it — they’re doomed, they’re doomed!” And they were in denial the whole film until it actually happens to them. And I think that’s what got the audience.
Q: Another thing that’s been said is that you spend a lot of the film naked. How tough was that?
A: (Laughs) Well, you know, it was a lot easier 35 years ago, I’ll tell you … I don’t know what the percentage was, but I’ve had people come up to me and say, “How come you’re (naked) 70 per cent of the time?” and I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, 70 per cent of the time? No.” But it’s like anything, you’re hopefully very much into the role to where it can make some sense, and while the cameras are rolling it does make some sense, you’re in that role, you’re in your own moments that you’re creating in this film. And when they yell, “Cut!” you’re just a naked guy out in the woods, so you gotta sort of adjust to that, too.
David Naughton appears at the Calgary Horror Con June 2 and 3 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Clarion Hotel (2120 16 Ave N.E.). For the complete lineup and schedule of events please go to http://www.horror-con.ca/.