It might be one of the last days of shooting (the 38th of 39 in fact), but March 18, 2010, was a very good day indeed to be on the set of John Landis’ new comedy horror movie Burke & Hare . For a start, three of the total seventeen murders carried out by the infamous corpse sellers William Burke and William Hare in Scotland between 1827-28 are being filmed at the Luton Hoo location, and one of those is actually the ‘Burking’ explanation death. Burke was so proud of purposely smothering his victim’s mouth while compressing their chest that the Edinburgh-based gruesome twosome conceitedly named the killing method after him. Then there’s the reason why practically all the headline cast has arrived at the Bedfordshire country estate set in a state of real excitement even though they aren’t scheduled to work. Because today is when legendary genre icon Christopher Lee shoots his cameo performance as Old Joseph and everyone wants to witness this moment in history.
As usual, you can hear director Landis long before you see him. His booming voice echoes across the tiny set, constructed in an old barn to resemble Hare’s frugal lodging house. In this instance King Kong and Gollum star Andy Serkis, playing Hare, is asking his director if he can shoot another take suffocating Lee’s character. Landis grumblingly yells, “It had better be f**king brilliant then.” Once more the cast and crew laugh at yet another Landis’ forthright comment, and again when Serkis puts another comic spin on the action and the director roars, “That was horrible…but in a good way!”
“John really is a force of nature,” remarks Serkis when his director is out of earshot tucking in to his favorite British snack, ginger nut biscuits. He continues, “Everybody working on Burke & Hare is having an absolute ball. No one has a bad word to say about John. His constant stream of movie business anecdotes has kept us entertained throughout an arduous shoot. And his encyclopedic knowledge of film is astonishing. If he asks me if I’ve seen yet another film I haven’t, it’ll be embarrassing. He keeps on providing me with lists of must-see movies! I’ll tell you this though, John is one of the hardest workers I’ve come across – his stamina is amazing. He really was a great choice to direct Burke & Hare.”
That directing opportunity arose for John Landis when he trawled London two years ago looking for an interesting project as he explains. “I hadn’t made a film in England since Spies Like Us in 1985 so I met up with loads of independent producers because I wanted to see what was out there away from the Hollywood mainstream which is making such crap these days. I was on the lookout for something interesting, unusual. Okay, I was still given a lot of bad scripts, but then I met Ealing Studios’ producer Barnaby Thompson through my friend Gurinder Chadha [director of It’s a Wonderful Afterlife and Bride & Prejudice] who has an office there. Barnaby asked me what I wanted to do and normally when you reply ‘something of quality’, producers are usually at a loss because they want you to say a rom-com, a monster movie, etc. I didn’t care what the genre was as long as it was good and I could do something interesting. So he gave me a couple of scripts to read and one was Burke & Hare by writers Nick Moorcroft and Piers Ashworth.”