Max Landis knows how to tell a story. If you aren't familiar with Landis, one thing you should know about him, there's no one even remotely like him. Secondly, he's currently one of the most prolific screenwriters in Hollywood, with four theatrically released movies this year. Pretty sure he is the most successful screenwriter in America, under the age of thirty. Thirdly, while I've met a lot of writers, I haven't met anyone quite as offputtingly blunt, comical and extraordinarily sharp-witted. He's a self-professed “acquired taste” and once, and if, you've gotten a taste of Max Landis, you'll probably want more.
Few weeks ago, Landis released his directorial debut ME, HIM, HER, an unorthodox dramedy he scripted about love, identity and friendship in millennial Los Angeles. Later this year, a number of his scripts are seeing major theatrical release: AMERICAN ULTRA starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, with Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy and MR. RIGHT, starring Anna Kendrick and Tim Roth. That doesn't count his viral YouTube shorts (THE SLAP, DEATH OF SUPERMAN), his Arianna Grande music video, his upcoming TV shows and his under-wraps project with DC Comics.
Landis first gained attention from penning the Sci-Fi indie hit CHRONICLE in 2012, crowning him one of the next-big-things in screenwriting. In subsequent years, he rose to internet infamy in the manner of self-branding. He did what most writers rarely do—he put his face out there, doing idiosyncratic interviews discussing his unfiltered no-nonsense views on... everything. For a screenwriter to have a strong, forthright public persona painted a bullseye on his back, inciting both fascination and controversy. Immediately he came under the usual internet scrutiny and hyperbole—accusations of highfalutin bravado, questions about nepotism (he's the spawn of director John Landis), and backlash for his personal views, or what people interpreted them to be. But what underpinned this desire for attention, was the aspiration to bring attention to his projects, rather than his personality. It's known that Hollywood is characterized by an often inexplicable acuity of excess, and after being an internet punching bag, unapologetic Landis decided to no longer perpetuate the myths and instead let his work do the talking. His meticulous attention to crafting unique characters speaks for itself.
What I've come to know of Landis, really boils down to this: he's a ginormous cinephile, lover of all things nerd fare; he's unbridled and talks exuberantly always; he has a hyper-bizarro imagination and he can say some evocative big-mouth shit, anytime he feels like it. And he feels like it a lot. Whether or not you find his personality polarizing or abominable, or both, it's refreshing to see someone who fights mediocrity and isn't afraid to piss people off—he's too busy to worry anyway. So if you're curious what goes on in the mind of a vanguard screenwriter, what really happens to a script once it sells, and what it feels like to inadvertently make yourself into a web celeb that's equally loved/hated, then keep reading. Otherwise, just go see his movies.
ROGUE: You've got a half dozen projects in the pipeline. Let's start with ME, HIM, HER.
Max Landis: ME, HIM, HER has been a long road, it's the first thing I ever directed. When a movie comes out that has no big stars, sort of a controversial subject matter and that isn't a political movie, it's very hard to find a home for it. It's interesting because pretty much everyone who sees it, likes it, unless they come in expecting CHRONICLE, then they're sorely disappointed and confused and terrified. It really caught me off-guard how much people took to it. You feel very naked when something that you're personally involved in comes out. You feel extremely exposed. But then again, I supposed my entire YouTube channel is stuff where I'm extremely exposed. And that stuff I have way more control over than anything that's coming out in theaters, so maybe I'm a hypocrite. I'm emotionally a hypocrite.
What were the challenges of directing a feature for the first time?
ML: Oh my god, it's insane! The amount of responsibility, the amount of compromise and concessions you have to make are incredible. It really alters your opinion of other directors and screenwriters, because you have become aware of what a mosaic of difficult choices go into actually making a feature film. How little control you have in some ways and how much control you end up having in others, it's always a crapshoot. Every day is different. It's like being the captain of a pirate ship that's on a stormy ocean and you're working with all these people, some of whom you really like, some of whom you don't, and you don't know if they can make the call that you need them to. Suddenly you're losing scenes that you love because people couldn't get things set up in time. Or stuff you put on the page that seemed great on the page, but you find out you're unable to execute it the way you wanted. You're always haunted by the things that could have been and the choices you would have made. The hardest thing about watching your own stuff is you always see everything you'd change.
It's totally different when you write something and don't direct it. It's completely out of your control.
ML: Yeah. One thing that I've started to say publicly, which is controversial is: critics shouldn't be allowed to comment on screenplays in their reviews. I got lucky most critics loved CHRONICLE, and it's pretty much the script I originally wrote, but that was really luck. I've started to feel like even the best screenwriter in the world can get their figurative dick just shot off by other people's bad decisions, that they never had any control over. I used to be very gungho on the idea of screenwriters being brought to the forefront, but now I've sort of done a 180 on that opinion. I've realized that ultimately our contribution is so hard to see filtered through so many other people's talent or lack thereof. The things that are great in the movie may not be in the script and things you hated in the movie could have nothing to do with the script. I've watched scenes with great dialogue be gutted just in editing for time restraints. It's weird to watch holes punched in architecture that you set up. Ultimately the people who follow me, people who are fans of a screenwriter, will never be sure unless the screenwriter tells them, what they were responsible for and what they weren't—which is hard. I think that the only way to tell if someone is a good screenwriter is if most of their movies are okay. If their movies are reliably okay, they're probably a good screenwriter. If their movies are reliably bad, they're probably a bad screenwriter.
You can have a great script and it can get so diluted.
ML: You can also have a bad script and it winds up great! It's the amount to which people outside the industry don't understand the industry. Not because of any kind of willful ignorance or stupidity, but because you haven't made leather until you've made leather, you haven't mixed paint until you've mixed paint, and so it gets very hard to explain to people. You can't exactly say 'oh I didn't write this scene that way—that's not the scene in the script.' You have to swallow your pride in that way.
Is it hard to watch a movie you wrote and distance yourself from it?
ML: It's not hard, it's impossible. It's a Herculean labor. The weirdest thing is when I'll see a scene that's my from script re-cut and I'll watch it with my friend and they'll think it was a great scene! That's really the victory of my scripts and the thing that I've gotten good at is that I think they're fun to read and that's really the most important skill you can have. I just try to do that these days because ultimately directing a movie shows you how many compromises are gonna get made that are going to be totally out of your control, so I just try to deliver as best I can on a ground level.
Yeah I get that, even as a journalist, I've experienced that on some level—having editors butcher my work. Change the flow, put a quote somewhere else which takes it completely out of context, and it's your name on it and people have no idea it's been so altered from what you actually wrote.
ML: Yeah but you're lucky. You're not stupid like me. You don't put your face out there. You let yourself be a silent partner in your art and so when it's great, it goes to you, and when it's shitty people don't care. I did a dumb thing which is I got a Twitter following and I stuck my face out there. So now if one of my movies is shitty, everyone will blame me, whether or not it has anything to do with what I wrote. Why did I paint a bulls-eye on my forehead? It was all ego. And now I kinda regret it.
I think screenwriters should have a voice. It's good to hear their point of view.
ML: I don't know if we should anymore. I'd be happy to just be Max Landis, guy who comments on movies and stories and makes YouTube videos, and have my screenwriting career be totally separate from that.
ML: Yeah, too late. Too fucking late. You can't stick your face out without somebody throwing a pie at it.
Tell me about these TV shows you're working on, at least what's you're allowed to say at this point.
ML: Not entirely certain what I'm allowed to say or not. But about two years ago, I optioned a horror story from Creepypasta called CANDLE COVE and recently sold the premise to a cable network. I really believe that the next wave of great horror fiction has arrived digitally from the voices of the masses. I think people who have never had stories published before are coming up with some of the most innovative and interesting horror.
Sounds awesome, hope it sees the light of day!
ML: Yeah! The problem with being a screenwriter is, the more you sell, the less you can guarantee. I was writing a SPACE MOUNTAIN movie three years ago, or a POWER RANGERS or MEGAMAN movie, or something like that--or even CHRONICLE 2, but when these things don't materialize, they come across as false promises or failings. When really, it's the fact that screenwriters don't have a voice that prevents you hearing about things behind the curtain. If every time a screenwriter booked a job they talked about it, you'd be talking about a living ghost. It's like Tweeting a picture of a girl and saying the girl is your wife because she smiled at you, y'know? It's a very illusory business, so I hope no one takes anything I say as a promise.
What's the second TV show about?
ML: The other TV show I sold is called DIRK GENTLY'S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY. Again, I can't promise these shows will ever exist. I'd be on CHRONICLE 3 right now if I could. The funniest thing about this show is that it's something that I chased my entire life and then I finally got it. It's based on a series of books by Douglas Adams, the writer of HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. He wrote a story about a guy named Dirk Gently, who has a very unique type of psychic ability which allows him to see the hidden connections between things and sort of piece them together to solve stuff. A sci-fi Sherlock, if Sherlock wasn't actually a good detective. He sort of sucks at everything. He's kind of a blowhard stupid guy, an eccentric goofus. It's a lot of fun, but now I have to write all these fucking scripts! [Problem] with TV is you have to go in an office and you work and you work and you work. I can't do it all in my underwear the way I'm used to. Who am I kidding? I do it naked. I write naked. Anything from me was written while naked.
Let's talk about another one of your screenplays, MR. RIGHT...
ML: I am pumped about that. MR. RIGHT is fucking awesome. I wrote that script over six years ago and it loitered around and people would read it and say it was really good, but it never really got over that one hump of production. Until Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell signed on and suddenly it was getting big. It's very fun and weird, it's like a goofy cartoon. The director, Paco Cabezas, really nailed the tone of it because it's such a specific silly, weird tone. It's unlike most movies you'll see and it's absolutely ridiculous.
Let's talk about your next release, AMERICAN ULTRA.
ML: It's a really cool movie, it's funny and romantic and violent. It's quite silly and weird but also kind of dark and edgy. It's a movie about identity and choosing the identity that works best for you and the one that makes you happy and makes the person you love happy. All the main characters in some way grapple with their identity in the movie. Ultimately, the ones who make the right choice about their identity, things work out for them, and the ones who make the wrong choice are punished very severely. That script is one of the most fun to read out of the things I've written. I would describe myself as very happy with AMERICAN ULTRA.
Now that you've directed, do you take into account when you're writing a big action scene, how much that's going to cost the studio?
ML: Oh my god, YES. The way I write action and dialogue has completely changed. All of my scenes are now shorter. Not just because of cost, but because of executability. I make sure not to write scenes, unless it's really important, that are over two or three pages long. I will be very economical. I have learned to be an economist in such a brutal and direct way that I would say directing a movie and getting movies made is the most helpful screenwriting class you can take. Because they cut so much out and there's so much you just can't do and all your little special dreams that you were writing in your script you realize aren't executable. So you need to, not kill your darlings per say, but choose your battles.
You have quite a reputation for being so outspoken on the internet.
ML: I have to be careful these days! I used to talk freely in interviews just about whatever I was thinking, but I found that when I talk about myself, people complain. I have a problem in that I lend enormous credence to assholes on the internet and that's because I came from a place of insecurity, so I tend to listen to negative voices louder than positive ones. For a guy who sort of has a big ego, I'm very easy to rattle. It's easy to put me off balance, which kind of sucks because I'd rather just have the ego.
Writers are generally pretty sensitive creatures, so they're sensitive to criticism irregardless of ego.
ML: Which is funny because it's such a brutal job. It's like the ultimate “you can't be sensitive job” except I found the writers who aren't sensitive, who just go out there and do their work are, by-and-large, not very good. I don't know how they disconnect that way. It alarms me. If someone attacks my work it's almost worse than them attacking my personality. It's scary to be attacked, it's scary to be out there. I don't know what I was thinking.
If you went back in time, would you not have done that?
ML: No because I still want to have made DEATH OF SUPERMAN. That's what started it. My YouTube channel is so not a YouTuber channel. It's just some guy's personal YouTube channel that occasionally has viral videos, but none of the things I've made for YouTube were intended to be viral. I'll post a silly video of me and my girlfriend [Dylan Meyer] at a party being ridiculous, just for my friends and I'll get all these comments from people criticizing. I wanna tell them to go suck a million dicks in hell. And because I'm not media trained I will engage with these people and tell them to leave me the fuck alone! Don't fuck up my night! I'm proud of this dumb video of my girlfriend and I. I'm not famous, but I'm just notable enough to have people insult me for no reason.
It's hard to know how to react to internet haters.
ML: I never know how to react to shit like that. If I had a brand, I hope it's "inspiring cynicism". I try to be very realistic and to give people insights into how fucked this business is and the struggles screenwriters face, while at the same time telling them not to give up. And that's a weird brand for a YouTube channel.
What would you say is the biggest misconception of you publicly?
ML: I don't know that there are that many anymore. I think the idea that I'm a spoiled rich kid is a common misconception of me. I was a very misbehaved child and throughout my teenage years, so I got punished just like anyone else would've been, I was basically always grounded. My parents didn't buy me a car, I inherited my grandma's car. I didn't get allowances. I was a dorky social outcast, not in a cool way—I mean in an ADHD bully way. What's interesting is that most people don't really don't care about those rumors anymore. All the John Landis nepotism stuff has sort of faded away to a degree. I'm just lucky people like the stuff I put out there.
That's probably the major misconception about you, the whole nepotism accusation. People falsely assumed you didn't have to work hard for your success.
ML: Yeah. But truthfully there is a minor element of nepotism, because I started where I need to be. I didn't have to move to L.A. I started closer to where I needed to be than 99% of people. But I didn't use my father to hook me up. He doesn't really have the ability to do that right now, no offense to him, but he's not there now and hasn't been there for a while. But honestly, the biggest misconception about me publicly comes down to the biggest misconception about screenwriters generally—which is the amount of control that I have over any given project.
What it's feel like to see something that you wrote come to life on the big sreen, like seeing Kristen Stewart say the line that you conjured up?
ML: Very surreal. It's rewarding and sometimes very surprising in a really great way, because someone adds something that's way better than you expected. But I tell ya, there is no worse feeling than seeing a great scene that an actor fucked up and no better feeling than seeing a scene that they hit out of the park. There are moments in AMERICAN ULTRA that are exactly how I saw them in my head and that is like being Zeus. It feels better than anything. It's the thrill you chase, but you know you can't exist on that high. Because it comes rarely as a screenwriter. You can't live on that high. You have to find a way to make the writing its own reward.
Story by Heather Seidler
Photos by Candace Boysen