John Landis wrote the screenplay for this film following an incident while shooting Kelly's Heroes (1970) (while he was a go-fer) in the countryside of Yugoslavia. While driving along a country road with a colleague, Landis encountered a gypsy funeral. The body was being buried in a massively deep grave, feet first, while wrapped in garlic, so as he would not rise from the dead.
Only four American work permits were requested of the British government for the production: for director John Landis, makeup artist Rick Baker, and actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. The first three work permits were granted by the British government without question. But the British office of Actors' Equity questioned the necessity of a work permit for actor Dunne, claiming that there were already plenty of young American actors living in Great Britain who could portray the role of Jack. It was only when director/screenwriter Landis threatened to rewrite the script and re-title the movie "An American Werewolf in Paris" that the equity office reconsidered the application and granted Dunne his work permit.
While John Landis was trying to get this film made, Rick Baker became tired of waiting (over eight years) and decided to use what he had been planning for this film on The Howling (1981). Eventually Landis called Baker and told him, "I have the money. Let's make 'American Werewolf'!" to which Baker replied that he was already doing a werewolf picture. Landis started yelling at Baker over the phone. Baker decided to leave The Howling (1981) in the hands of his protégé Rob Bottin and would only consult on that film, leaving him free to do this one. Reportedly, Rick Baker's initial decision is something for which John Landis has never forgiven him.
Rick Baker claimed to have been disappointed by the amount of time spent shooting the face changing shot for the transformation after having spent months working on the mechanism. John Landis only required one take lasting about seven seconds. Baker felt he had wasted his time until seeing the film with an audience that applauded during that one seven second shot.
During a preview of the film the marquee said, "From the Director of Animal House (1978)." Because of this, many people in the audience thought they were seeing a comedy. Reportedly, people ran out of the theater when they discovered it was a horror film because they were frightened.
The opening scene of the movie - also the first scene filmed - depicts friends David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) on a walking tour of Yorkshire, Northern England, traveling on foot toward the nearest town. Because of the cold and dampness of the location, Dunne's nose was running. While delivering a line of dialogue, Naughton glanced over at Dunne just in time to see Dunne catching and wiping away a stream of snot running from his nose. Naughton laughed at the sight of Dunne's discomfort, making Dunne begin to laugh while responding to Naughton's line of dialogue. Because of the spontaneity of the shot - and because the scene was largely improvised anyway - director John Landis decided to use that imperfect shot in the film's release print.
Rick Baker and John Landis had several disagreements over what the design of the werewolf should be. Baker wanted it to be a two-legged werewolf saying he thought of werewolves as being bipedal. Landis wanted a "four-legged hound from hell".
Because of this film, makeup and industry technological contributions became recognized by the Academy Awards in 1981. Makeup artist Rick Baker was the first to receive an Oscar in the new category. William Tuttle was the first makeup effects artist to receive an Oscar (being an honorary one) for his work on 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).
Michael Jackson was so bowled over by this movie - most especially by the the makeup and special effects - he insisted on hiring the responsible personnel for his planned music video Thriller (1983). When John Landis agreed to direct (his first music video), he brought on board his foremost "werewolf" crew including, Robert Paynter (cinematography), Elmer Bernstein ("creepy" music), Rick Baker (special makeup effects) and his wife Deborah Nadoolman (costume design).
At the close of the credits is a congratulatory message for the wedding of 'Prince Charles' and Princess Diana (as Lady Diana Spencer). It was included because when David is trying to get arrested, he shouts, "Prince Charles is a f--got!" The film was shot months before the preparations for the couple's July 1981 wedding.
John Landis originally wanted three other songs to add to the soundtrack: Cat Stevens wouldn't allow "Moonshadow" to be used because he had stopped allowing his secular music to be licensed for films following his conversion to Islam; Bob Dylan wouldn't allow his version of "Blue Moon" to be used in an R-rated film, as he had just begun his brief conversion to Christianity; and Elvis Presley's version of "Blue Moon" proved unavailable due to the ongoing lawsuits involving his estate.
When trying to call home, the telephone number that David Kessler gives the operator (516-472-3402) contains a Long Island, New York, area code. It is also an unusual case in which an actual phone number is used.
When David calls home to speak to his family, he speaks to his sister Rachel. During the conversation, they talk about their brother Max. Max and Rachel are the names of Director John Landis's children.
In 1997, the movie was re-recorded as a Radio drama by Audio Movies Limited for BBC Radio 1 in Britain. It was broadcast during Halloween that year, in short snippets throughout the day. Brian Glover, John Woodvine and Jenny Agutter reprised their roles from the movie.
The total duration of composer Elmer Bernstein's original score for the film is a total of seven minutes much to the surprise of film music aficionados who have wanted for a release of this music for years. The music is more in the vein of transitional orchestral cues in between the pre-recorded songs featured throughout the film to give the film more dramatic weight where needed.
Peter Ellis, who plays the 'Bobby in Trafalgar Square', 3 years later went on to star in the famous long-running British police procedural TV series The Bill (1984) although instead of a Police Constable he would play a Chief Superintendent (a much higher rank).
John Landis had to avoid filming any full-frontal nudity of David Naughton during the transformation scene and dream sequences after Naughton informed Landis that he was not circumcised, even though his role, David Kessler, was written as being Jewish.
Much of the British cast, including actor John Woodvine, playing the role of Dr. Hirsch, were appearing in the Royal Shakespeare Company's London stage production of "Nicholas Nickleby", simultaneous to the film's production.
Humphrey Bogart can be seen in two posters in Alex's apartment. There is one for Casablanca (1942) on the front wall in the living room, and there's a black-and-white solo shot of Humphrey Bogart in the kitchen.
The hospital scenes where David was brought to after he was attacked by the werewolf, were filmed in a disused hospital. Room 21, Floor 4, Princess Beatrice Hospital, in London. Now used as a homeless clinic.
The London Underground station used in the film is Tottenham Court Road, and the name sign is visible in some shots. It was refurbished in the late 1980s. The platform with the train arriving and departing is the northbound Northern Line platform. This is NOT Aldwych station as previously reported.
The wolves used in the London Zoo scene were kept privately by Roger Palmer in the UK and appeared in several TV programmes and in adverts. Roger went on to found the UK Wolf Conservation Trust which keeps wolves to this day.
The Miss Piggy/Yoda creator/voice talent plays Mr. Collins of the American embassy, who attempts in vain to console David. His voice is also heard later, during a Britain-only excerpt of The Muppet Show: Señor Wences (1980). He appears in all of Landis's films as a good-luck charm.
John Landis had a bit of a communication issue on the set with the effects crew. He told them to take the head of Inspector Villiers and throw it across the hood of a car. They looked at him in puzzlement, and after he picked up the head and threw it himself, they replied, "Oh, you mean the bonnet."
David Naughton said the transformation scene took 6 days to complete, roughly 10 hours a day spent on applying the makeup, 5 hours on set, and 3 hours of makeup removal. Because the makeup took so long to apply and remove, there was only enough time for one setup a day. Rick Baker estimated that only half an hour of footage was shot during the entire week. The snout protrusion was the last shot to be filmed and it did not include Naughton, but an animatronic head. In fact it was the last shot in the entire production and was conducted after the wrap party had been held and the cast and crew started going home. Baker found that a little anticlimactic.
The scene when the werewolf runs riot in Piccadilly Circus was filmed at that busy intersection when police stopped the normal traffic and the public. Everyone took their places, it was filmed with multiple cameras and it was all cleaned up within the half hour. It was the first time in many years that filming had been allowed in Piccadilly Circus, due to lingering resentment over an unannounced smoke bomb which director Michael Winner set off while filming a scene for The Jokers (1967), after which he sped off in a taxi with the film magazine while other members of the crew were arrested; however, John Landis' cordial experience in working with the Chicago police on The Blues Brothers (1980) helped overcome official reluctance to approve the filming, especially as he had completely worked out a plan, using a scale model of the area, whereby traffic would be minimally disrupted.
In an interview with Mick Garris on "Take One," John Landis stated that in a preview, he included a scene in which you saw more of how the three bums in the junkyard were killed. People reacted so strongly, and loudly for the rest of the preview, that he was afraid that people would miss some of the key plot points at the end of the film. He added that he felt it was a bad idea because it might have made the movie stand out more.
Director/screenwriter John Landis advised actor Griffin Dunne that the key to the character of Jack Goodman was that he was always to be encouraging, optimistic, and cheerful as a member of the undead, no matter what his stage of ghastly corporal decay, deterioration, and decomposition. Dunne claimed to have found this requirement to be difficult as he was, for the first time in his life, seeing what he would look like as a rotting and mutilated corpse.
John Landis initially wanted to keep the werewolf's screen time to a minimum, having it only appear in a couple scenes, just enough to give an impression of something huge and ferocious. The long shot of the werewolf cornering Gerald Bringsley on the Underground escalator was an example of this. Landis' decision to show the werewolf as much as it was shown was based on the fact that Landis loved Rick Baker's design of the monster.
When Jack is killed by the first werewolf, makeup artist Rick Baker told Griffin Dunne to be careful with the wolf's head as it was new and quite delicate. During the first take Griffin rip the foam rubber off the head. Rick was so irritated by this that he considered putting hard teeth in the wolf but instead used the backup head to 'beat the crap out of Griffin'.