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Getting Naked: An American Werewolf in London Revealed -- An Interview with David Naughton
conducted by Sandy Auden

© David Naughton
David Naughton
David Naughton
How many movies stand the test of time and remain popular two decades years after their release? There are a few notables that come to mind immediately: Star Wars: Episode 4 (1977); Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). But what about the Horror genre?

Back in 1981, An American Werewolf in London had unsuspecting cinema audiences jumping out of their seats or leaving the auditorium in revulsion. It was a tightly-told tale of two young Americans coming face-to-face with an ancient legend, and the movie's sharp editing, ground-breaking special effects and convincing make-up created a werewolf benchmark that still endures today.

To celebrate its 25th Anniversary this year, actor David Naughton -- who played David Kessler, the doomed US-tourist-turned-werewolf -- talks about the gruelling hours spent in make-up; the experience of being completely naked for most of the movie; and also reveals how a soft drink was instrumental in his being cast for the role...

How did you get involved with the Dr Pepper commercials?
I initially went in to do some dance auditions which I thought, well, I'll go because my agent sent me for this. But I didn't really think I stood much of a chance. I was living in New York at the time and New York has a whole lot of professional dancers. There were hundreds of guys showing up for this particular commercial campaign and it was just one of those things that worked out.

The object of those campaigns was to convert people to being Dr Pepper drinkers and the whole four year experience of those commercials really put me on the map and gave me national exposure in the US, because they were successful and aired a lot. I was under a standard contract with Dr Pepper -- which basically meant I couldn't do commercials for other soft drinks -- and I was doing personal appearances for them out on the west coast when this whole werewolf thing came up. Hey, there's a movie being directed by the fellow who did the Blues Brothers and Animal House.

And then?

My agent sent me to meet with John Landis and that's really all it took. Normally you have to go through screen tests and so on to win a role but it was really won just by an interview. It didn't hurt that John Landis was an avid Pepper drinker. He was familiar with those commercials and he responded to having the interview with me. Like he said, we're both Peppers.
An American Werewolf in London

I had a nice long chat with John Landis in his office. I don't know whether it actually clinched the job for me but I told John Landis how I had lived in England, previously having studied acting in London and had gone across Great Britain on a bicycle. John said, 'Hey, that's really interesting, cause these guys are backpacking!'

He asked me to call him in the morning and I thought, this is odd but OK, I'll call you tomorrow. And next day he said, 'D'you want to be a werewolf?' And that was it. It was a little unusual, but it was probably that straightforward because John had written the script for the movie and was also the director and executive producer. He was the guy for this project.

Do you think your squeaky clean Dr Pepper image helped to add to the shock value of the movie?

I was fairly unknown so I didn't really have an established image. I'd studied acting in London and I'd come back to New York fully prepared to attack the world and play all the 'Great Roles' by the time I was 30. Little did I know I'd be becoming a Pepper within a couple of years of leaving LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). I did have a wholesome image so I guess I was not your first thought of 'who could be a werewolf' but I don't think it helped with the shock impact of the film.

Really what it was, was the chemistry between myself and Griffin Dunne [who played David's friend Jack and was eaten by the werewolf in the opening few scenes]. That chemistry and the fact that these guys looked like they were just very unsuspecting and innocent victims. I don't think that it had anything to do with who we were and I think John Landis wanted to go with unknown people. He wanted to make his story even more feasible -- here's two unsuspecting innocent guys who you don't really know and look what can happen to them out there!

I didn't know Griffin before we started the movie. It turns out, when we finally met in London, that we had a lot in common. He'd grown up in the same part of the world as me, in Connecticut New England. We had mutual friends but he came from a somewhat celebrated family himself, his father had been a well known journalist. And it was just luck that we hit it off as well as we did. We became fast friends and you just hope that that's the case when you work on a project, that you like the other actors and you're able to have a kind of chemistry.

What was your first impression of the script?

It was a hush-hush thing cause there were other werewolf scripts going around at the time. This was something that John Landis had written when he was a young guy, when he was (as legend has it) working as a production assistant on Kelly's Heroes -- which was a film shot in Europe with a lot of well known actors like Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas, a World War II movie. John got his whole idea of backpackers being attacked by a werewolf and wrote the script years before we actually made it. It wasn't until John had his own successes with other projects that he got to shoot his own ideas.

The story was very much there and intact in the script and that's what we shot -- which I thought was a fairly straight forward tragic love story. Tragic in a sense that here are these characters that don't really have any control over what happens to them. And then there's the idea that the two buddies -- one of whom is killed on the moors -- continue to have scenes together, which I thought was very funny and unique. But it reads as a straight forward story where a guy can't believe what his friend is telling him, and he falls in love with a nurse and ultimately succumbs to the tragedy of being a werewolf.

I read the script and there were just a few sentences that said 'David turns into a werewolf and a transformation takes place.' And I thought, 'Oooh, I wonder that's like?'

When did you get to find out what it was going to be like?

Pretty quickly! After John Landis gave me the offer on the phone after our interview, he said, OK, I need you to get over and meet with Rick Baker cause there's a lot of preliminary make-up things that we want to do.

Little did I know that that was going to be a huge ordeal. Rick Baker needed to start the head-casts, so as soon as I got this part in October -- we started shooting in February -- I got right over to Rick and started with them. I didn't really know anyone working on the film then but, of course, I got to know Rick and his gang very quickly and would meet the cast once we all arrived in England.

I understand there were issues with British Equity, when you were coming across to England?

I think they were just really tough in terms of issuing work permits and giving permission for John to shoot there, which is crazy. He was creating this whole production company and employing lots of people because all the filming and post production was to be done in England.

There were sets to be built and lots of employment opportunities but they just looked at it and said, You need to hire British actors for these roles. John said, Well, I've kind of got people in mind for the parts -- two Americans. But British Equity said they'd have to see people. So he had to hold casting sessions in the UK for these parts -- mine and Griffin's.

For all the other parts, because he didn't know many British actors, he went to the theatre in London. He met lots of people and started casting right off the stage, which is what made the film so effective really. When you go into the pub and you see all those well known faces, you think, Oh my! But he was determined that these two American parts were going to be played by Americans. It wasn't easy and I think John even went as far as to thinking about making An American Werewolf in Paris instead -- which is an idea he'd had long before the sequel was considered. In the end, Rick Baker and all his crew didn't have work permits. They went in as visitors.

Did you enjoy the location filming?

I'd been in London as a student five or six years before. Living in London on a student budget was really difficult, only to come back and now we're making this movie. Wow! It was really exciting.

It wasn't a new foreign city to me at all. I knew London already but now here I was filming and it was a completely different experience. I actually got to live like a regular person as opposed to a student. I was in a town house and got a little car from one of the transportation guys who had this fleet of cars that he was going to wreck in Piccadilly Circus. I said, You've got to save one for me. He said, You want to drive around London? Sure I did because having been student I was at least used to the whole idea. I really enjoyed being there and the whole experience was fun.

What about the filming in Wales?

That was right at the beginning of the movie. It's a little unusual to shoot a movie in sequence. We shot the opening first. It was scheduled to give Rick Baker as much time as possible to finish up on the things which would require special makeup, prosthetics etc. So all his stuff was going to be shot at the back end of the ten week shoot.

Everything that they could shoot beforehand they did, which was helpful to us actors because it's great to shoot the beginning at the beginning, to ease into the whole idea. Being in Wales was all new. The first scene we shot was in the truck that opens the film coming down with the sheep in the back. I just remember it was so cold and anytime we shot at night it was, Oh well it's a horror movie, so it's going to be bad weather! Can't have nice weather and make it scary! So they got out the rain machines and I'm like, Why do we need rain machines in England?

What about away from the locations, how much studio work was involved?

The sets were at Twickenham Studios where they had the interior of the apartment as a set (although some scenes were shot at the real flat too). The transformation scene was on a stage because they needed to have a floor for me to go through for part of the transformation so they could control all that. Then there was the dream sequence where I'm in an apartment and they had to burn things, in the Nazi demon scenes. That was all at Twickenham because they really burned the set -- that's always fun!
An American Werewolf in London

The interior of the pub was a set too. When we were in Wales, we used just the exteriors of those buildings which were in a little village. People have since told me, Yeah, we've been over there looking for the Slaughtered Lamb public house. And I say, Well, you didn't find it did you?

The hospital stuff was shot in an abandoned hospital so we shot a lot in practical locations but anytime it got really crazy, it was a set -- burning the apartment, the house with my flashbacks and the dream sequences, that kind of thing.

What was the atmosphere on set like?

It was good. John really sets the tone although the Brits didn't quite understand that John is an animated guy. They would think of him as being either mad or angry but John's just sort of crazy upbeat so he'd be yelling a lot and people said, Is he upset? And it's no, he's just loud but it took a while for the crew to understand that this was just John, he was just a crazy fellow.

Didn't John have a habit of setting the actors up by changing things at the last minute?

Occasionally he'd be putting you on and you were never sure whether he was serious when he was telling you how to play a certain scene. Things were loose and jokey and fun, if you like to work that way. You've got to be loose rather than rigid or strict -- like, Oh I need to know what my character is doing! I certainly wasn't from that school of acting. You just trust your instincts.

John was very specific. He knew what he wanted. One of the enjoyable things of working with him was that he wouldn't sit there and belabor a scene. Once he'd got it, he was ready to move on and if you needed another take, you could do it. But there were times when he would ask us -- either Jenny or me -- to play it a certain way and not tell the other one so that when you're in the scene your fellow actor suddenly does something different and you get a real reaction to it and John captured it.

You seemed to have spent most of your time on set with no clothes on. How did you prepare for the lack of costumes?

You train, diet and exercise. It's something we actors struggle with our entire lives. I was in reasonably good shape but needed to run more in the film than I was really trained to do so I was literally running around the streets of London in February, which is not the best month to be training. And I was also looking at the schedule thinking, OK, when's this scene, oh good that's not for a while yet, maybe we'll get some warm weather!

The one thing you don't realize is that they said, Can you run like it's warm? That's rather difficult to do because it's cold and you've got no shoes on and I don't jog in bare feet in any weather even back in California. That's the hardest part, you're running in wooded areas, on slick paths, trying not to look like going, Ooh, ow, oh, ouch! And they were saying, C'mon, it's warm, this is a dream, you're leaping, you're like a deer. So I just had to go for it.

Did you feel self conscious?

The only time you do is when you're not shooting, you know. Because you're just waiting around covered in a blanket and you can't believe you're joking about it. There's lots of humor involved, at least that's my technique. In London, people were being really polite, and saying, I can't believe you're having to do this.

Obviously yeah, you're self conscious because even the wooded area was close to an urban spot and people. They had to clear large areas of wood, especially on those long shots. You didn't want to see any of the crew so they were running off and I'd be standing around saying, Hey, let's roll please! It's cold!

We shot early morning in the park. It's closed then but they were open in the morning at 9am. We would try to get in the shot before the public would spot us. In those days I was not one of those actors who said, OK that's it, I'm done, we've done it. I was really a team player. Which means I'd stay there and keep shooting till John was happy. But hey, we do a sequel and that'll change!

That was just the way I was taught to work, you keep going until you get the scene. And I read stories about temperamental actors who'll only do one thing or one side. Or this is it, you only get one take from me. I wasn't in a position to do that, nor do I think I would ever do that.

At one point in the movie, you're naked and in a cage of wolves. What was that like?

It was a two-take situation. As I recall it, it was the end of the shoot day and we had the scene to do. They were trying to light it for morning even though it was evening. It was getting darker and colder.

I didn't want to be in this cage too long. They were trying to say to us that the wolves had been fed, that we should have some comfort in knowing that. There were three wolves and two weren't getting along supposedly. The trainers were around -- they were two women and I'm like, Do we have to have women trainers here, fellas? I'm naked you know! But that's just who the trainers were, it was all part of the fun!

I wasn't in there too long but it was long enough. We were rolling and you're not sure what they're going to do. One of them came over to me, which was not part of it, and I'm like, Oh hello! We had tried to get ourselves familiarized with the wolves beforehand but wolves don't tell you anything. Dogs will at least give you warnings that they're not comfortable with you but wolves just look at you with these very distant yellow eyes:

What are they thinking?

We don't know.

Are they happy?

They're just neutral. And don't forget, no sudden movement and don't run fast when you're leaving!

Was it hard to slow down? Didn't you want to get out of there as fast as you could?
Yeah, even when you're climbing out and you think you're up and above them, it's still at the back of your mind that they can leap ten feet in the air. Fortunately, in the end, they turned out to be somewhat docile.

The make-up was another new experience for you wasn't it? What did the preparation stages involve?

I went along to Rick Baker's place. These days it's a very elaborate three-story building that he has in southern California but at the time he was working out of a garage, a rented space, with his group of young apprentice make-up artists and big tubs of fast drying cement.

It's a slow process where they have to mix something up and I said:

Have you tried this before?

And they said, Yeah, we've done it -- Charlie tried it.

Where's Charley?

Oh, he's not in today!

Oh great!

They cast all the different parts of my body. It was a bit claustrophobic when I got my arm in. I could feel it drying and there was a pressure on my arm as it dried around me. I had to slowly pull my arm out, but it didn't come out easily so I really had to work it out and untangle it while trying to save the mould and keep it intact. It took twenty minutes per arm and then they did my legs.

It was certainly a quick drying process but it wasn't until I got my head done that it became a whole new game because obviously I wasn't seeing, and I couldn't hear when they put that stuff in my ears so I'm encased inside this little tomb. It's not for the faint of heart -- it's just not easy to do. I felt like I couldn't escape and I just wanted to have them stop.

An American Werewolf in London
It still took about twenty minutes inside but it felt longer. They pulled my head out from under it while trying to preserve the impression then they said, 'That was great, we only need three more!'

Nowadays, many people have head moulds done. In fact, Rick Baker had a whole wall of actors that have had face moulds done -- Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy etc. -- but those were all after me. So I felt like a pioneer.

On the one hand, it was interesting but when you're the subject of this stuff, you've just got to point out that all this was just the preliminary work -- when they actually apply the make-up to you, when they have all the finished pieces, that's when it really gets fun.

Once we got over to England and we were in the shooting of the film, those transformation scenes finally came on the schedule. I'd be picked up at 4:30am and taken to the studio and we'd start the make-up session which would take all day.

It's not pleasant, you know. After a while, I just didn't want to be touched and there was people around me continually and I'm sitting in the chair for ten hours with nothing to do. I couldn't even sleep! There's always someone spraying this freezing cold glue on my body and applying hairs strand by strand. And I had to participate by holding my arm up when required and being active and conscious.

I watched the slow transformation as the make-up went on and people sometimes came in to see how it was going and they were like, 'Ooh, wow, that looks awful!'

It's like you're on a long flight that never gets there. And at the end of the day, I remember them saying they'd gone as far as they could with this make-up, we're going to wrap and let you go back and get the make-up off -- which would take a couple of hours because they'd want to preserve it. Then they'd say:

Hey, we'll see you tomorrow for the next stage.

Couldn't we do this like one day a week?

Oh no, this'll be consecutive days.

So you'd go home and dread having to get up next morning to do it all over again. I hadn't been able to prepare myself for this experience because I'd never done it or seen it done before. At the time, the comparison was the Elephant Man movie in which John Hurt had to wear his make-up all the time and I just had to suffer one week. But I don't believe he was in that outfit the whole time, he could have had doubles pretending to be him!

How did you keep yourself going through the long hours?

The real reason you do it all is because you know there's going to be a big pay off. That comes when you go in and see the end product.

The movie was over but I still had to do a series of added and changed lines. Doing those screams or growls and seeing it on the screen, even in its rough form, I thought, Wow, this is going to be cool! We had a good idea that the story would work but the effects were what we were waiting to see on film. And once we saw it, we couldn't wait for it to be released.

When it finally came out, didn't your Mum and Dad go along to the premiere?

They did. There were press everywhere, interviewing everybody afterwards: This is your mother? Hey, what did you think? And they couldn't answer, they were in shock. Yeah, they got over it eventually, but it was the initial suprise of having your son involved on the screen. I couldn't even say if they liked the film or not. They were just in shock. I thought, well, that was successful then, we accomplished our mission.

What was the reaction of the critics at the time?

People didn't know how to handle the humor aspect of it. John Landis' reputation was one of comedy director. People were expecting a spoof, or at least a lighter film, and it starts off on a light enough note. But as soon as we were attacked it was hang onto your seats folks, this is going to get pretty horrific. So I think that was the biggest shock. People didn't know how to review it. This isn't a spoof guys, this is John's attempt at scaring you -- and he did.

The fan reaction has grown. It wasn't a huge initial hit but, over the years, it has become one of those films that has stood the test of time and one that you-have-to-see. And the Academy created a special make-up category the year it was released just to honor films like these. We knew that aspect of the movie was special and appreciated at the time.

Fans continue to talk to me about how scared they were. When I go to conventions and signings somebody has to tell me where they were when they saw it, were they able to sit through it, or did they have to leave or look away, did they have to see it again because of the parts they'd missed.

What is your most enduring memory of the film?

The whole thing back in London. Having been a student there and then going back to do the film was fun. As a student in London, we all wanted to work there and we couldn't. Who knew six years later I'd be back doing a film. So I really enjoyed that part of it.

Overall I'm just surprised that the movie has held up as long it has and it has got the reaction that it has. People look at it as one of the better werewolf movies and certainly Rick Baker was recognized for his make-up -- it was his first big movie too. So the enduring memory of it is really: Hey you know what, it's a good story, it still holds up and the make-up was pretty darn good too!

David Naughton has a cameo part in the upcoming movie Big Bad Wolf. In Little Hercules in 3-D, which is currently in production, he plays the track team coach. Hulk Hogan stars and The Rock plays Zeus in a story about a little kid who comes down to Earth and joins a High School track team where Naughton's coach character sees what this kid can do with his special abilities. Naughton is also continuing his career in commercials.

Copyright © 2006 by Sandy Auden

Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent book reviews editor for Interzone magazine and a combination interviewer/reviewer for and She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.

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