Director John Landis recalls filming An American Werewolf in the capital

Director John Landis recalls filming An American Werewolf in the capital: the efforts to win over the Met police, the shooting of a bespoke porn movie and too many white extras

Maggie Thatcher put a stake through the heart of the British film industry. When I was shooting An American Werewolf in London, Warren Beatty was shooting Reds here and there was also another little film in progress called Raiders of the Lost Ark. These were all made under a very useful tax-break agreement called the Eady Levy, which began the boom of Americans coming to make big pictures with largely British casts and crews in London in the 1960s. Turns out mine was one of the last Eady pictures made.

I always loved those 1960s films and the things Dick Lester had done with the Beatles, and I conceived Werewolf with that spirit in mind. London was horror central, of course, home of Jack the Ripper, Jekyll and Hyde, so I wanted all that Victorian Gothic, but I also wanted to show the real London of 1981. I wanted as few Americans involved as possible, but I did have to bring over Rick Baker because you didn't have advanced special effects guys yet. Michael Jackson saw what Rick did on Werewolf and that's how we both ended up making the "Thriller" video with Michael two years later.

Everyone remembers the Piccadilly Circus scene. London was quaintly chaotic as far as filming went - it was basically a case of persuading the local bobby on the beat, and if they said you could do it, you were sort of OK. So I put on a free screening of The Blues Brothers in the Empire Leicester Square and invited 300 members of the Metropolitan police. They loved it - and, whaddaya know, suddenly I had permission to shoot in Piccadilly Circus.

I got two February nights, between 1am and 4am and was allowed to stop traffic three times, for two minutes maximum. So we rebuilt the Circus off-site and rehearsed the big crash scene many times and my crew were drilled like a Formula One team, so when it came to the big bus crash we could clear it up and do another take in seconds. Vic Armstrong, who was the bus driver, went on to design many of the James Bond stunts. Boy, we worked fast.

Cities are like children. You turn away for the briefest time and they've completely changed. The London of Werewolf has probably disappeared now. When I was working there in the 1970s I went to those little cartoon theatres they had, such as the Eros on Piccadilly. So in the original script, I had him going into the Eros and there was a Road Runner cartoon playing. But when I got back to London in 1980, all these theatres had become pornos. So I had to change the script to show a porno called, in the best smutty British tradition, See You Next Wednesday. We made the porno ourselves and it was the first scene we shot. It starred Linzi Drew, who was a Page 3 girl at the time; she went on to have an impressive porn career.

I had terrible trouble with the unions, too. At that time, you couldn't find what they then called a "coloured" face to be an extra. I remember after George Lucas shot Star Wars in London, he showed it to all of us and I said to him after the screening: "George, is everybody in outer space white?" I knew London to be a multicultural place - we filmed in the year of the Brixton riots, remember - but I just couldn't get Indian or black faces to be in the crowd. Eventually, after a big stand-off, the unions gave in and we got "coloured" faces into the background.

Frank Oz and Jim Henson were in London making The Muppet Show and they took me to the Comedy Store on a night off and there was this act on, two guys called Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. They were basically just screaming at each other, but it was hilarious. I went to meet them afterwards and, I don't know why, I just offered them a part in the movie.

I don't think they really believed me, because Ade didn't turn up but Rik did - he was right, I didn't actually have a part for him but I loved his face so we sat him down in the Slaughtered Lamb pub for the opening scene and his presence really helps to establish the mood of the movie. It's a classic gag I got from old westerns, but it works. Actually we Americans were far more welcome than that in London and I'm so thrilled British fans now see it as part of the British film canon, because that's exactly what I wanted it to be.

• An American Werewolf in London is released on Blu-Ray on 28 September


Interview by Jason Solomons

The GuardianTramp

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