A four-legged hound from hell. That’s the evocative direction that John Landis gave to Rick Baker when he hired the makeup maestro to design the monster who appears in the title of the 1981 horror classic, An American Werewolf in London.
“He also said, ‘I want to do a transformation like you’ve never seen before,'” Baker recalled to Yahoo Entertainment in 2018. “It was one of those rare times where I had total artistic freedom. [John] said, ‘You’re the expert, just make a cool werewolf.’ Which I did!”
But it took one other player to bring Baker’s “hound from hell” to horrifying life: the “American Werewolf” himself, David Naughton. The actor and Dr. Pepper pitchman tells Yahoo Entertainment that he wasn’t a horror fan prior to landing the literally transformative role. He was, however, a fan of Landis’s other movies — including 1978’s Animal House and 1980’s The Blues Brothers — and admits to feeling intimidated when he dropped by the director’s office for what was supposed to be an informal meeting.
“It was just by luck that I was able to get a meeting with John,” Naughton remembers now, adding that some of Landis’s Animal House stars had already pitched themselves for the part. “This young guy comes in very hip and full of energy. One conversation later, I found myself getting ready to be a werewolf!” (Watch Naughton describe his transformation in the video above.)
Granted, the job came with some major demands — chief among them spending hour upon hour in Baker’s makeup chair before and during production. “I had molds made of my arms, legs and head numerous times at his shop in Los Angeles. And then he had a little shop in London where he applied all the makeup. It was painstaking: Rick is a real perfectionist, so he’d just keep painting and touching up. It required a lot of patience.”
But Landis wasn’t necessarily the most patient director. “He would be like, ‘Okay we’ve got it, let’s move on!’ Naughton says, chuckling. “And Rick would say, ‘Wait a minute, it’s taken me months to do this little thing!’ Watching the back and forth between them was very funny.”
At least, Naughton had some companionship in the makeup chair: His co-star, Griffin Dunne, also got a lot of elaborate (though non-lupine) prosthetics applied to his face during the course of the film. Landis cast the pair as David and Jack respectively: two young Americans on a backpacking trip though the English countryside who make the mistake of crossing a muddy moor during a full moon. One werewolf attack later, and Jack is a corpse who returns from beyond the grave in various states of decomposition to warn David of his impending wolfish makeover.
“Griffin was not exactly enjoying the makeup either,” Naughton remembers. (“It wasn’t comfortable,” Dunne confirmed to Yahoo Entertainment in a 2017 interview.) “Everything that he had to be going through, all the tears and rips and decay that went into him decomposing. He talked about how it was going to be a wonderful career opportunity and here he was looking worse and worse in every scene!”
In a narrative choice that would almost certainly not be allowed to happen today, David doesn’t go full werewolf until an hour into the 97-minute film. That gives him enough time to strike up a romance with British nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), who is drawn to the doomed American. “We were editing as we were shooting in London, and weren’t under any sort of pressure from Hollywood. We were just out there doing our own thing, and it was really fun. Rick would be off in his little shop while John, Griffin and I were shooting and trying to impress Jenny and failing at it.”
Fortunately, Baker and the rest of the American Werewolf team didn’t fail at impressing audiences with the pivotal transformation sequence. Forty years after the film roared into theaters, it remains a high-water mark for practical makeup effects. Baker also made Hollywood history by winning the inaugural Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling — a victory he’d repeat six more times over the course of his career. (Baker retired in 2015, after receiving a record 11 nominations.)
“It was shocking to be nominated for an Oscar,” Baker told Yahoo Entertainment in his 2018 interview. “At the time, I thought, ‘There’s no way in hell that the Academy’s going to give an Oscar to this bloody horror movie with nudity and odd stuff.’ So I was in shock when they called my name. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right skill set.”
Naughton considers the victory well deserved. “He invented the category, and he walked away with it and it was the first of many for him,” the actor says. “It’s funny: he says that of all the movies he’s done and all the Oscars he’s won, he always gets comments about American Werewolf. The number of people I’ve met over the years who have gone into makeup and special effects because of him and because of this film [is huge]. It’s crazy to go to shows or conventions and things that I’ve appeared at and hear people talk about what an impact seeing this movie had on their lives and career. And on me too!”
To celebrate 40 years of An American Werewolf in London, Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Naughton about how the crew nearly walked off the set on the first day, and why Landis always intended to end the film on a tragic note.
You mentioned that you were a John Landis fan. Were you surprised that this horror script came from him of all people?
Yeah, I was. He prefaced it by saying “This is my heartfelt first script that I wrote when I was 21 years old as a production assistant working on [the 1970 movie] Kelly’s Heroes.” And the script is pretty much the movie that we shot. I had no idea what I was in for, but with his enthusiasm and sense of humor, I knew that it was going to be fun. It was certainly his intention to make it horrific, even though a lot of people saw it as this comedy.
He had just come off of making The Blues Brothers, which was this very big studio production. Did he enjoy making a small movie as a follow-up?
I think he certainly enjoyed London, but they were not ready for him. There was an all-English crew and they didn’t understand that this is a high-energy guy. That’s not the tone of what they’re used to. His nature and his personality was so foreign to them. But he loved being in London; we all enjoyed it. I had studied and lived in London, and now five years later I was there with a per diem being able to enjoy a beautiful city and shoot this film.
John got off on a weird foot with the crew, because the very first scene we shot was the movie that plays in the porn theater at the end. The crew never got the script, so on the first day of shooting they made this mock-porn movie. They were ready to walk! They were like, “We don’t know what this is, but we don’t want to be part of it.” John said, “No, no — this is a movie within a movie!” He had some convincing to do.
That fake porn movie is called See You Next Wednesday, a quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey that became a running gag in almost all of Landis’s films. How much of it did he actually shoot, and were you surprised when you saw it?
Oh yeah, we were surprised! We’d heard stories from the crew saying, “You should’ve seen the first day of shooting.” I said, “Yeah, I wonder why we weren’t anywhere near the call sheet!” They actually had a casting session for those roles. There was a lot of angst after day one of shooting — like, “What is this movie about” and “Is it something I can add to the resume?” [Laughs]
I remember him being so serious on set; I wasn’t sure if it was nerves or the fact that it’s hard to walk in and just do one day on a movie. They were shooting The Muppet Show in London at that time, which is how he became available. And Landis just calls people up and they show up. I don’t know how much preparation Frank had, but you would never guess if you didn’t know who he was that this is the guy who does Miss Piggy and a number of other characters. He was very serious that day, as were the rest of us. We were just eager to do whatever it takes. And then when Rick Baker showed up that’s when things really got interesting because nobody really knew how he did what he did or what it was going to look like.
The transformation sequence happens very late in the film, which is something that would never happen today today.
That’s the big payoff, and we shot it at the very end of production. We wrapped the whole movie, and then did the transformation. It was really fun to watch people from the back of theater when that happens. People were freaked out! I got a big kick out of that. John told us there were all kinds of songs that they were trying to get the rights to and one of the songs he wanted was “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens, but he couldn’t get it. Cat was going, “Nope, not for a werewolf movie.” [Laughs] But we got “Blue Moon,” which was added in post.
That was the fun part: seeing it cut together with music. As a kid, I thought that when you hear music in a movie, they hear it too while they’re shooting. But that’s not how it works — you don’t hear the music while you’re acting. Unfortunately, I saw it at a screening alone just before we were going to do publicity for it, and that’s not the way to see that movie. You want to see it with an audience. Of course, I did that many times afterwards to get a sense of what scares people. There were some big scares — the audience literally jumped out of their seats and those are fun to watch when you’re in the back of the house going, “This is going to get them.”
Which set of fake teeth was the worst for you to wear?
The bigger they were, the worse it got. And they’re in there to stay, because they glue them in. But I think the eye stuff [was worse] — any of the lenses. Actors will tell you, they can go right along with makeup right up until the point where they start messing with your eyes. It’s like when you’re getting those molds made: you’re okay with it until you can’t hear because your ears are stuffed, and then your mouth is stuffed with it, and then you’re just trying to breath thinking, “How long is this going to take?” I keep talking about it like it’s pain and torture, but we all knew there was going to be a big payoff.
It’s always striking to me that we don’t see the full werewolf on the first night of attacks — that’s saved for the final sequence in Piccadilly Circus. Were you ever in the suit crawling around at any point there?
No, that wasn’t really a full suit. It was just as much as was going to be needed. It was very primitive. They had a wheelbarrow and a plank with a guy lying on it just working the front arms and then having the head on. I went, “I can skip that. I don’t think I’m going to miss anything doing that part.” [Laughs] But watching them do it was fun, and just trying to get to the point where the camera doesn’t see anything. Like, “I just saw the wheel of the wheelchair you were pushing the wolf in! We’ve gotta go again.” That stuff happened. But throughout the film, we tried a lot of stuff. We were out in the real world and were really able catch lightning in a bottle.
That scene is the closest the movie gets to The Blues Brothers, with all the cars crashing into each other.
Well, for one thing they didn’t have permission to shoot in Piccadilly Circus and do a big car crash. They couldn’t get it because it was a major thoroughfare. So they literally had to steal the scene at dawn, with cameras mounted all over these buildings and stuntmen coming in and converging on Piccadilly. When John said, “Action,” they all drove in and crashed and when he called “Cut,” they drove off. And just like that it was over. It was like, “Did we just see what we saw?” And then they had a set they built where they could do all the insert shots of cars crashing. But that main master in Piccadilly was phenomenal to watch.
Were you comfortable with the amount of nudity you had to do in the movie? I’m thinking of the zoo scene in particular. How conscious did you have to be about protecting your private parts?
It was March and it’s London, so you know that you’re going to need all the help you can get. [Laughs] But when they’re rolling, it’s just part of the script. It’s not at all self-conscious. When they cut, now you’re a naked guy standing on a street corner. Like any scene, we had an allotted amount of time to be in a public place like the zoo. We’re about to do the scene where I grab the coat and streak across the screen. I was like, “Why do we have all those extras up there?” And they said, “Those aren’t extras — the zoo’s open.”
Then we shot the wolf scene where I’m in the cage with these wolves. The trainers said, “It’s okay, they’ve been fed!” And I thought, “Oh wonderful, that’s the extent of the safety we’re going to have on this one.” I told everyone it was only going to be one take, because I didn’t want to get back in the cage! It worked out okay, but the trainers were saying: “No fast movements, not loud noises.” I wasn’t going to be tiptoeing out of there when the time comes! You can’t tell what a wolf is thinking: they just give you this moon stare and you don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s best not to stick around.
The ending always gets me with the way it just cuts to the credits after David is killed. Was there every any discussion about adding an extra scene?
No, John was always adamant about it being, “Boom, it’s over. Cue the music, he’s gone.” There’s that little moment that people try to make way too much out of: does the wolf recognize Jenny at the end? You’re supposed to think that’s the moment where you can change the ending, but no — he’s a werewolf so he’s going to charge, she’s going to be in harm’s way, and they’re going to kill him. There’s also that whole tradition of silver bullets, which was a Hollywood tradition. People also say, “In a sequel, you start in the alley and he starts to move and you realize he’s able to get away because he wasn’t shot by silver bullets.” No, it was always supposed to be, “Roll credits, get out.”
There was a loose sequel years later, An American Werewolf in Paris, where Julie Delpy plays David and Alex’s daughter. Did they consult you about that?
We were trying to keep our distance. The very fact that people were calling it a sequel to me was stretching it. What defines a sequel — is there someone in it from the previous movie at least? We certainly had to live it down in terms of questions over the years about whether we saw it and what we thought of it. I’ve always said I was disappointed they did that. Recently, the new question I’ve been getting is, “How about the remake of American Werewolf in London?” I’ve given it some thought and if they do, whatever the remake would be like, inevitably people would say, “Did you see the original?” That would keep the film going for another generation of young horror fans. Here we are still talking about it 40 years later, and that’s okay with me.
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo
An American Werewolf in London is currently available to stream on Peacock