Dan Aykroyd and John Landis: how we made The Blues Brothers

Dan Aykroyd, actor (played Elwood)

My original script was called The Return of the Blues Brothers and had two movies in it. John Landis turned it into a manageable 150 pages. He was the keystone of the project – he pulled it all together.

Landis wrote the “four fried chickens and a coke” scene after seeing John Belushi [who played the other Blues Brother “Joliet” Jake] consume four fried chickens. Elwood’s dry white toast came from when I grew up in Ottawa and moved from my parents’ place – my toaster was a coat hanger on a stovetop. That was an old trick. We were inspired by John Lee Hooker’s House of the Blues record – he had the suit and the shades. Who wouldn’t want to look that cool? We put on a suit and tie and ended up looking like FBI agents. It was a universal look that worked so well.

I remember coming into the diner with Aretha Franklin’s backup dancers when we were shooting her number, Think. My legs, stomach and solar plexus turned to jelly when she started to sing. Honestly, I didn’t know how I was going to get up from the stool and do the moves.

We lost John one night. But it wasn’t because he was high, it was because he was hungry and didn’t like what was available to eat on set. I couldn’t find him anywhere. Finally, I saw this path going through a parking lot and into a nearby neighbourhood so I followed it. The neighbourhood was dark except for one house. I knock on the door and say, “Excuse me, we’re shooting a movie and missing one of our actors.” The guy goes, “Oh, Belushi? He came in about an hour ago, raided my fridge and crashed on my couch.”

At the time, cocaine was a currency. For some of the crew working nights, it was almost like coffee. I never liked it myself but I wasn’t going to police others’ behaviour. We drove John Landis crazy. Sometimes he didn’t know whether we were going to show up for work after the parties, but Belushi was a professional and there was no way he wouldn’t come through.

Southern cinemas didn’t want to screen the film because of the African American artists but when it became a hit they opened up and people got to see it. It acts as cultural preservation. We made sure the writers of the material kept their publishing rights. John and I took performers’ rights only. Every one of those songs we recorded remunerated the original artists 100% due to album sales. It was an ethical decision and the songwriters today and their estates have benefited from it.

John Landis, director

My wife [costume designer Deborah Nadoolman] designed Jake and Elwood’s look. On Saturday Night Live – where the characters had become widely known – they had always worn any old hats and sunglasses but she said, “No – Ray-Bans.” But they’d stopped making them so finding a pair was an epic quest. We’d go into dime stores and search through racks of sunglasses that’d been there for 30 years. We ended up with about 140 pairs and, of course, John used to give them to girls. The director Paul Brickman visited our set and we gave him about 30 pairs. He made Risky Business and Tom Cruise wore those glasses.

By the time we were shooting, John had become addicted to cocaine. Cocaine makes you drink, and drinking makes you take more cocaine. Strangers would see him and give him drugs. It was difficult to keep them away. He almost died on the movie. For me, the biggest tragedy is that in Animal House he was there 100% for me and himself. In The Blues Brothers at the best moments he’s there 75% – but he’s great, so most people don’t notice.

It was amazing making the movie but it was complicated. Lots of the wild stories come from the movie itself – you can’t just shoot 42 cars going 110 miles an hour in downtown Chicago. When you see those shots there’s no speeded-up footage. That took so much work and cooperation with the police. We had a 24-hour auto-shop. There are stories that we used hundreds of cars, but no: when you see those pileups, we took the same 20 cars and fixed them. We probably destroyed 25 vehicles by the end of the movie.

I put the whole “mission from God” thing in as a homage to Dan because he was downright evangelical about the music. It’s hard to believe, but in 1979 rhythm, blues and Motown was in decline and the popular music was disco. People ask: “How did you get all those amazing acts?” We called them up! The whole point of the movie was to showcase these extraordinary artists.

The Blues Brothers is a testament to John and Dan’s passion for the blues. They took advantage of their celebrity to focus attention on soul music. I’m proud of it, I also think it’s a totally insane film. There’s many reasons to make a movie and you’re successful or not on many different levels. On the level of Dan wanting to proselytise about this music, it was an enormous success. It brought everybody involved with it back with a vengeance.