Hauling visibility and insight into the often invisible practice of screenwriting, “Chronicle” and “American Ultra” scripter Max Landis is also content to let the public decide how his many opinions and work affect one another. He’s a writer director/director who reliably has an inventive screenplay idea for any online argument he might inspire. This is why his “Chronicle” sequel script “Martyr” remains in the conversation alongside his thoughts on the theatrical reception of “American Ultra,” why his current run of Superman comic books “American Alien” is garnering praise, and why his opinions on Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” all stirs up so much more debate.
Landis’ enthusiasm for the art he consumes and produces is deeply felt, which may have played into the decision to helm his directorial debut “Me Him Her.” For its opening ten minutes, “Me Him Her” is exactly the romantic comedy that it might look like on paper, as network TV star Brendan (Luke Bracey) beckons his friend Cory (Dustin Milligan) to Los Angeles for emotional support while heading into a life-altering decision. But then a run-in with Gabbi (Emily Meade), facing her own life changes, sets off a series of events that are “fucking tweaked by the end,” as Landis puts it.
Standard it is not —sword fights, subtitled commentary, and a coked-out Haley Joel Osment ensue— and Landis’ outspoken personality is strong onscreen. It also translated over the phone recently, as Landis discussed “Me Him Her,” his latest feature script “Bright” (emerging with director David Ayer and stars Will Smith and Joel Edgerton attached), and much more with The Playlist. But first, he spoke about his recent forays into television, “Dirk Gently,” the Douglas Adams adaptation that is also Landis’ first showrunner gig, and the horror anthology show “Channel Zero”, which Landis is producing with “Hannibal” writer Nick Antosca.
How familiar were you with the showrunning process going into “Dirk Gently”?
I know a guy who in some ways is a mentor for me named Carlton Cuse (“Lost”). He’s very tall and has a reassuring voice. Whenever I talked to him about showrunning, he’d say “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.” And I’d never worked in TV before. Directing a movie is a very high intensity, high stress job, and I’m lucky that I had a great time making “Me Him Her.” I got along very well with all the actors, producers and my department heads. But this is directing a movie times eight. Eight episodes with eight completely different things in them. Luckily, Robert Cooper, who showran for many years on “Stargate,” is serving as my Obi Wan Kenobi for all this. And I’m the head of a staff of writers who have been my back up, and we’re just in there like the fucking Three Musketeers.
What’s happening with “Channel Zero” in the meantime?
With that, I’m just tuning up the scripts to the best of my ability and letting Nick Antosca really run it. “Dirk Gently” is all me, man. I’m in there up to my nuts every day outlining episodes, re-outlining episodes, overseeing casting, starting to approve department heads, watching the directors who might direct the episode blocks and working with the other writers. And then there’s the logistics of how we’re shooting, whether we’re doing block scheduling, if and how we’re using sets, and how many hours a day we’re shooting. It’s fucking crazy.
How would you describe “Dirk Gently”?
I wouldn’t. [Laughs] I think it sounds terribly hipster and pretentious to call something a “remix,” but that’s the most accurate way to say it. I’m a massive fan of Douglas Adams, and doing “Dirk Gently” as a TV show was a lifetime goal. I would say that you can’t adapt Douglas Adams by adapting Douglas Adams. The reason his adaptations are so often odd or don’t really work is that so much of the specialness of his work is the kind of telepathy you have with his voice as a writer. I can’t offer that, and I’m not going to try and fucking fake it, so I’m doing my own thing. I think fans of the book will really like the show. I’m confident in that, but I also think if you’ve never read the books before, great.
You’re hyper-aware of how your projects are marketed and how those decisions filter down to what an audience eventually sees and reacts to. Even down to “Me Him Her,” when you’ve actually been in charge of marketing, what have you learned from those experiences?
I don’t want to criticize previous marketing, but I’ve believe that “American Ultra” got less attention from the marketing department and was not advertised as the movie it was. I know that contributed to it losing to “Hitman” and “Insidious 2” that weekend at the box office. I’m starting to believe that marketing and expectations are 99% of [the perception of] movies. Like “Ex Machina” and “It Follows” both over-performed for what they were expected to do, and I think they’re both good movies. But I think there’s a myth that a movie being good means it will be successful. You’ve seen enough good movies to know that that’s true.
The trailers for “Victor Frankenstein” were… weird. But I never like to say I could do better, because part of what people always hear me repeat is that no one person is responsible for anything. So unless they really obviously are trying to [sabotage a film], blaming the marketing department always sounds like whining. That’s what was so funny about when I tweeted about it being so weird that “Insidious” and “Hitman” beat “American Ultra,” and I wondered if it had to do with the film being original. You guys reported on it and were very mean to me. People took that as me attacking the audience, but I never attacked the fucking audience. I got tweets for months after “American Ultra” came out asking me when it was coming out!
I think it was your definition of “original” —that “American Ultra” was original story-wise when it was working in genre tropes that we’ve technically seen before.
They intentionally re-contextualized what I meant by that. By original, I didn’t mean revolutionary. I meant that it was not based on something, and wasn’t a sequel. But people love a villain, and people love being right. And then the marketing for “Me Him Her” is so small. It’s an underdog. I was put in charge of it and I feel totally ill equipped to deal with it.
You did get a baby eating chips nonstop out of the process, though.
And that’s my attempt to market a movie! I wasn’t allowed to use any footage yet when we made that spot, if you can believe it. I had two weeks and no money —I had to do whatever I could.
“Me Him Her” has taken a bit to actually come out [it was shot in 2013]; How do you view that time when you first entered into directing the film?
I would say… contemptuous admiration. I’ve grown a lot since then—not just as a writer or director, but as a person. Directing a movie is like training on Dagobah: you’re in there with your lightsaber in the cave confronting the limits of your own ability, your budget, and the day. It’s a wild ride, and there are parts of “Me Him Her” that I wouldn’t change. And there’s the rest of it. I’ve talked to other directors since then, and they all say the same thing. They go back and watch their movies, and they only see the things they’d do differently.
I watched “Me Him Her” recently at the Seattle Film Fest with an audience that really enjoyed it, and it had been so long since I had seen the movie that I forgot that it was good. The lack of distribution had talked me out of my confidence in the movie. But I look back on it, and I think the people who like it are going to really like it, and the people who don’t like it are going to fucking hate it. I just hope it connects with people, because I think it has some important things to say in its own stupid way.
And in its own “stupid way,” you’re talking about identity and how you view white male privilege. On the surface, it could be a million other “white guys making it in LA” plot.
If you actually want to talk about [that idea] for a second, I think a problem has arisen in movies, which is the black character. Murtaugh was not written as a black character in “Lethal Weapon“; he’s a character who is black. Axel Foley in “Beverly Hills Cop” is not a black character; he’s a character who is black. Lando Calrissian didn’t have to come onscreen as the black guy; he was Han’s friend Lando. When Winston joins the Ghostbusters, he’s a blue-collar guy who is the audience’s perspective and is well written. You even go back to Samuel L. Jackson in the ‘90s —he was never the black guy. So I think we’ve entered an era in movies where black characters are being outed as “the black character.”
They’re always the best friend or the black guy in the group. You don’t hang out with a token black guy every day, and black guys don’t hang out with a token white guy every day. It’s frustrating, because what that’s effectively done is eliminated the number of black celebrities or celebrities of color in a huge way. In the ‘90s, we had Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu —these are A-list celebrities. Who are the A-list Asian celebrities in America right now? Think about the ‘90s, when a black leading man could open a movie. Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Chris Tucker: you can go on and on. Who are the black A-list actors now? Some of those same guys, and Michael B. Jordan who’s brilliant and great, but if I had my fucking way, there’d be more. So it comes down to this weird moment where if you write a story about something that happened to you, and you don’t want to arbitrarily make one of the characters black for the sake of marketing, you run the risk of getting criticized for it. But I just wish the industry as a whole would try harder.
Do you think studios are afraid to let go of this one view of black masculinity, which is why they keep holding on to these older black actors, instead of a more diverse group of black characters?
I think there’s fear. There’s a fear more than ever that you can’t turn right and that you can’t make the choice. I got into a lot of trouble for criticizing the Rey character in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and I think the reason I got in trouble was because she’s a woman, which was incidental to what I had to say about the character. If it had been a male character, it would’ve been like I was talking about Scrappy Doo and everyone would’ve reviled the character. But I think the truth is that people are more and more scared to give leading characters that are women or people of color flaws. I think they’re worried, but what makes a character memorable are depth and flaws.
That’s why I love the “Fast and Furious” movies. Those movies are composed of almost all minority lead casts, and I love that no one is like, “Look at all this minority cast, what a great thing for women and minorities.” You wanna know why? They don’t have to, because the last three films were all dope. They don’t need a pat on the back for being progressive. “Me Him Her” has a lot of gay people in it, but I would never say it’s a gay movie. The characters are just gay. Even the shit that they’re dealing with in the movie that seems like “gay stuff,” isn’t. It’s all identity stuff. Brendan is a famous actor who’s afraid he’s going to lose his identity if he changes something about himself. Gabbi is a girl who has tied herself and her self-worth to a monster. Forget whether she’s gay or straight, [Gabbi’s ex] Heather is like Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” — she’s a fucking sociopath. And Cory is a guy who’s doing nothing with his life and feeling miserably unhappy.
The movie is about white privilege and entitlement, making choices for other people, getting hurt for it, trying to do the right thing even when it might be the selfish thing, and trying to determine if that’s selfish. And if those are white guy L.A. problems, then I think we all have white guy L.A. problems.
I noticed that element of race in the page of dialogue you released online for “Bright,” in which the Orc character talks to the Jakoby character about humans loving that “they have an Orc friend.”
Yeah, to Jakoby: “You’re just a big old teddy bear, never had a claw raised for him in his life.” I wrote that script after watching “End of Watch” and “[The Lord Of The Rings]: The Two Towers” back to back, and it occurred to me like a bolt of lightning: “Why are the only people with dark skin in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies the Orcs?” I really hope that all comes together with the David character, because it’s one of my proudest works as a writer. I hope I didn’t come off as too big of a douche in this interview — like you won’t want to have “Max Landis Thinks Black People Aren’t Allowed to Be In Movies” as the headline.
No, I’ve agreed with you on several points. What you face though is the contrast between the low reaction on opinions that some might agree with up against major statements and reactions like the “Star Wars” one.
Can I tell you the annoying truth? With the “Star Wars” thing, and every time I express an opinion about narrative in film: I’ll tweet, “I thought this-and-this about the characterization about this character and the story they chose to tell.” And there will be all these people yelling, “You hate women, you hate women.” And anyone who really follows me on Twitter knows that’s baloney. But the thing that gets me every time and the thing that scares the shit out of me are the people with the little swastika symbols saying, “Yeah and fuck Anita Sarkeesian! Women in video games should be whores!” And I’m like, “Oh, fuck.” I’ll say this: it seems like the Internet isn’t a medium suited to nuanced opinion.
So even with the two TV shows and “Bright” going on, what’s the one scene you’re itching to get out right this second?
So I’m writing this scene in this script called “Higher,” which is the spiritual sequel to “Deeper,” which I think is the best thing I’ve ever written and which David Goyer‘s producing for me. But I’m writing this other movie that’s like a two-person play —it all takes place in a barn and it’s about a woman. The whole script is 75 pages of one scene and then 25 pages of going up into outer space. But for the whole script, it’s just a lawyer talking to a woman who’s shirtless and covered in writing and equations and who’s building what appears to be a spaceship. At first it seems like the guy’s just a mean lawyer or a government agent who’s been sent to shut down what she’s doing. And then the scene I’m writing right now, page 25 —I’m so excited— shows her going back and forth with this lawyer, and less and less of the things she’s saying are making sense.
It’s clear that she’s made a tiny nuclear reactor —she’s a genius and it’s clear she wants to go into orbit for reasons we don’t fully understand. But she’s also saying weird things about the stars going out, and she says her daughter is 16 while he says her daughter is 9. She goes into this very long rant, and it ends with him going, “Are you sure what you remember is accurate to reality?” And she says, “Yes. Yes, stop bullying me.” And he goes, “Who am I?” And she goes, “I don’t know.” He goes, “Who am I? Look at me.” And she realizes it’s her fucking husband. She’s having a schizophrenic break. So that’s the end of the first act.
“Me Him Her” opens on March 11th in New York, Los Angeles, and on VOD platforms.