With three feature films penned by Max Landis slated for release in the next year — American Ultra, Victor Frankenstein, Mr. Right — along with his feature directorial debut, Me Him Her, short film Wrestling Isn't Wrestling and a gaggle of smaller projects, the 29-year-old filmmaker has to manage a heap of fictional and in-the-flesh characters every day.
Amidst the hyperproductivity, Landis has become one of his own most notable/notorious characters. Frequently emerging from behind the camera to interact with fans (and foes) online and send out polarizing public rants, Landis has earned equal amounts adulation and vitriol.
In October 2013, Jezebel scathed him in a piece that picked apart a sex-and-relationships–oriented interview he did for Shelby Sells, calling him "Hollywood's biggest fuckwit” and a "screenwriter bro" in the title alone. The trauma registered as surreal. “It was the most famous I ever felt,” Landis says of the resulting fallout.
He emailed the reporter and attempted an exchange. “I asked her, 'Why did you do this? I'm not sexist.' The whole interview was about creepy sex stuff. That's what that website is. The girl wrote back, basically, 'You shouldn't have said these things in public if you didn't want us to report on them.' And now 'Max Landis douchebag' is a pre-search term on Google.”
Blind hatred toward Landis has significantly abated in the intervening year or so but remains an insidious force. Three months ago he posted an open letter to screenwriters on Reddit to discuss personal branding (using himself as a case study) and vent frustrations about the industry. “It all got ignored in favor of saying 'what do you know' and 'you're a douche,'” he says.
While Landis continues to engage with the public on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other social forums, he's done perpetuating his own myth.
“If I have my way, this will be the last interview I give that addresses the public view of me,” says Landis, who is best identified through Death and Return of Superman, a 2011 YouTube hit he wrote, directed and starred in. “I'm sick of talking about myself. I'm ready to just talk about stories.”
Landis is the Hollywood-steeped spawn of legendary director John Landis and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, and his first foray into the public eye — via Death and Return, in which he narrates and critiques a Superman storyline — was a calculated move to stake out a recognizable persona.
“It was me trying to be a brand because I wanted to be associated with my own stuff,” Landis says. “When you're a writer, you don't get to do that. So I was, like, maybe I'll try to be the writer that people know. You know what it got me? Hatred. But ultimately it did help.” The following year saw the commercial release (and success) of his sci-fi psuedo-superhero thriller Chronicle.
Career triumphs notwithstanding, Landis says he's pained by backlash to his uncensored personality. But he hasn't receded.
In Wrestling, a loose sequel to Death and Return, Landis narrates a 20-year-long story in the pro wrestling world, acted out pro bono by friends and previous collaborators. Death and Return featured cameos by Mandy Moore, Elijah Wood, Ron Howard and others, but the cast and much of the plot for Wrestling is being kept under wraps. Landis did divulge that the title of the film stems from his revelation that he could retell a wrestling storyline without fighting — and without guys doing impressions of wrestlers. All the leads are played by women dressed as “the idea” of the wrestlers.
Landis says the short, which he wrote and directed, may be the most important thing he's ever made. A pro wrestling fan since he was 15 (“I started later than most”), he believes it's “the thing that's most purely an avatar about the way I feel about something," i.e., his most successful, seamless translation of idea to film yet.
"Wrestling's an underappreciated art form," he asserts. "It's mythic storytelling in a populist way. Best of all, it's an ephemeral media that, when you examine it closely, you can find themes, tropes and ideas that wouldn't have been evident on just a glance, because there's a new one every week. It's like comics.”
A self-professed momentum junkie, Landis' unbridled enthusiasm for what he creates helps propel him through the haterade and into novel territory. While much of his work is born from his love of comics, superheroes, classic horror and other nerd fare, his feature directorial debut veers. Me Him Her is an indie comedy about sexual identity, suggesting inherent fluidity therein. He describes the experience in his signature hyperbole, “Directing is the most emotionally taxing, exciting, exuberant, bizarre experience. It's like being the captain of a pirate ship, and I want to direct a million movies.”
Landis' other feature films on the horizon are equally tonally eclectic. Frankenstein retells the Mary Shelley classic from the perspective of oft-marginalized lackey-assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). Mr. Right (Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick) and American Ultra (Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg) are both romantic action comedies about people involved with government programs gone wrong. He says of his films, “They're genre-mashing movies about oddballs, who'd be side characters in most other things.” (Though the majority of scripts he's sold went to big studios, the ones that actually got made have mostly been indie.)
With the “streak” part of his career behind him — three solid years of continuous script sales — Landis feels he's at a turning point and must tread with caution. The direction and severity of the turn will depend on how well these next projects fare.
Though he consciously carved out a “face” to brand and help sell his own work, some will inevitably compare Landis to his father, John Landis. He says they share superficial similarities (loud, opinionated, outspoken) but diverge in creative vision.
“The way my dad talks about movies, I mean, that's my soul. He makes you care. He made me care,” Landis says, describing how his father just being his father angled him toward a filmmaking career. “I love a lot of [his work], but I only really find myself creatively resonating here and there. An American Werewolf In London is one of those. I feel like that's something I'd maybe write.”
While Landis wants to stop talking about himself, he admits he'll never stop being himself — or whatever quasi-villainous brand he's decided to inhabit.
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“If I could be pizza, if I could be universally loved, I would be thrilled. But it's never going to happen because I am not universally lovable,” Landis says. “I am a loud, obnoxious person. Even if I change, even if I cut off my fucking tongue, I will still go online and say, 'Hey, this movie sucks.' You know who doesn't do that? Edgar Wright, Drew Goddard, Joss Whedon, all the people who people just love, who occupy the spaces I want to occupy. They're quieter than me and nicer than me. And God bless them. I love Edgar Wright, but he's not going to piss anyone off.”
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