Max Landis' Geeksgiving: American Ultra, Mxyzptlk, Modern Action Gals & Expendables Of Horror
A little gab to go with your gobble. Max Landis ("Chronicle") has given his time to tells us what's on his plate this holiday season. It's a bountiful feast, but make sure you save room for a wonderful rant about a hypothetical horror version of The Expendables.
He quickly burst onto the scene as a YouTube sensation with his accurate, low-budget and hilarious "The Death of Superman" and "Drunk Comic Book History: The Robins" videos. In 2012, he made his professional screenwriting debut with Chronicle. It introduced the talented 28-year-old screenwriter to the mainstream audience and cemented him as a writer on the rise in Hollywood. Now, Max Landis is ready to embark upon a new chapter in his life. In April, filming will begin on American Ultra. A film that Max Landis penned about Mike, an unmotivated stoner (Jesse Eisenberg) living in a small, sleepy town with his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). When Mike's past catches up to him, a government organization is hot on their tail with plans of wiping Mike out. Then there's this new Frankenstein movie that he wrote starring James McAvoy ("X-Men: Days of Future Past") as the doctor and Daniel Radcliffe ("Harry Potter") as Igor. It's being directed by Paul McGuigan ("Lucky Number Slevin") and the story is told from the unique perspective of Victor Von Frankenstein's assistant, Igor. If that wasn't enough, Landis just wrapped filming on Me Him Her. The film marks his directorial debut. He describes it as "Reality Bites on acid." The indie-comedy will tackle issues like: sex, love and friendship.
CBM: What do you think of the casting of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart for American Ultra?
Max Landis: SO FUCKING EXCITING. They're perfect; both of them essentially play "a character and a half" in the movie in an interesting way, and they were actually both my first choices. I think both of them are associated with iconic roles, and that excites me for the same reason Heath Ledger's casting in Dark Knight excited me. Not to compare my movie or my actors to that one, but it's the same sort of "VERY different characters than you're used to seeing these people in" situation.
CBM: You make yourself very accessible to your fans: via Twitter, Comic-Con events, and etc.. Do you think as your celebrity grows you'll have to step back from those more personable interactions?
Max Landis: It's weird, I've already sort of had to start doing that. I hate it too, because I don't really think of myself as "too busy" or "too important" for most people, but it's gotten to a point where returning every message on facebook has become this intense commitment. This weird thing happens where one response isn't enough, too, and people sort of take you being polite and trying to be friendly as an invitation to a correspondence, and then if you don't get back to them, or even just don't get back to them quickly enough, people get really offended and sometimes get mean and crazy.
I'm a millenial, so I'm very about my phone/facebook/twitter, but it's getting to a point where I'm starting to feel like that stuff should be limited to just my friends. Still, if you see me on the street or in a comic book store or at a con, you shouldn't hesitate to come say "hi." That's usually really fun and exciting.
I should mention, you guys hit me up on Twitter. I already feel a little over-exposed, after the Buzzfeed article, which was a really emotional thing for me. I don't want people to get sick of my dumb face. So, I think I'm gonna back out on interviews in general for a little while, at least until Me Him Her is finished. I hate when stuff that isn't news is reported as news; if I've got something new to announce, trust me, you'll know. I've got more work to do than ever in my career; it's been an insane ride these past few months, and 2014 is going to be completely bonkers. I'm under-water.
I used to throw these house parties that were basically like the party at the end of Dead Alive, complete with the zombies. But no parties these days. I'm trapped out in New York. I go from editing to writing on one project, to writing on another, to taking producing calls. It's all pretty heavy. And of course I want to be making more goofy videos, talking about comics and stuff, but I'm so slammed at this point it's like, you know, a high class problem. But just because it's a high class problem doesn't mean it doesn't give you heartburn, and take up all your time, and leave you stressed out and greasy at four AM on a deadline. I'm trying to decide the best way for a teenager to realistically react to seeing an Eldritch abomination.
CBM: You wrote the screenplay for a new Frankenstein film that is told from the perspective of Igor (will be played by Daniel Radcliffe). I think Igor is an interesting choice. Why through his eyes?
Max Landis: Well, this isn't your average Frankenstein, and he's not your average Igor...even though he is, too. It's all about the angle you're looking at it from. You tell the story one way, it's a horror story. But sort of the central premise of the movie is that Frankenstein, in all its versions, has never been given a fair dramatic shake. It's always a monster movie. Even the original book was very much about the monster, and made no effort to explain the genius behind its creation. This is a different look. It's all about science, and collaboration. The idea that genius and innovation must be balanced with compassion and empathy to truly take the big, revolutionary leaps forward.
CBM: You've mentioned in the past that your version of Wonder Woman would be the anti-50 Shades of Grey. Would you expound upon that?
Max Landis: I'm just a little sick of the "women need men to tell them how to be heroes/important to the story" thing. Fifty Shades of Grey played with a lot of dominance/self-shaming/S&M stuff. That can definitely be sexy, and fun, and compelling, but it did it in this cipher-y, disengaged way that's infuriating.
Then you have movies like Sucker Punch, Sin City, or Kick-Ass, that have these 'bad ass' female characters. But they're SO fetish-ized in such a kind of subtly demeaning and ugly way or not subtly at all. The women in Sucker Punch were all headcases getting molested and their badass-dom was an imaginary fantasy. The "badass" women in Sin City were all hookers and strippers. The "badass" in Kick-Ass is a swearing-little-kid/schoolgirl fantasy archetype. I just don't think women need that. There have been so many great female heroes in fiction, I can't figure out when it became so reductive."
A lot of the female characters out there are frustratingly "every-woman," moving from scenario to scenario, not on their own narrative drive but in-pursuit-of or even directly in-obedience-to a man. I'm sick of "the man" being the plot. That's why I liked Hunger Games a little more. Although, I had my problems there, too. They all feel...I don't know, "woman-y." They're crafted to a specific audience in a way that's kind of snarky and makes me nervous.
You look at the hero of the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger. She's a fucking fantastic character. She's smart, vulnerable, and better equipped to be the protagonist than Harry. Ultimately, they really do great justice to her in both the books and the films. She's not a sidekick in any way. If you'd called those books the Hermione Granger series, and made them about her, what do you lose? The Dursleys? I mean you'd only have to change the narrative focus by a nudge. That's brilliant writing, and that's a great character.
I think I just want a Wonder Woman movie to be like that. There was a fan film made that was all 300-y. A couple of my friends made it. Actually, it was pretty cool. But do we really need it to be that way? Isn't the fun of superheroes in film grounding them a little? I guess when I said I wanted it to be the anti-50 Shades I meant I want it to be about a female character who's consistently forced to make her own decisions, isn't "clumsy" or "awkward," and really only becomes vulnerable when the shit hits the biggest fan.
CBM: Did the response to Regarding Clark (dissection of Man of Steel) surprise you?
Max Landis: Eh, one response definitely continues to surprise me. People comment on it and say versions of "UM, HELLLOOO, IDIOT, SUPERMAN COULDN'T TAKE THE FIGHT OUT OF METROPOLIS ZOD WAS TOO STRONG!" They take my criticism of the story, of the plot, and interpret it as criticism of the fictional events of the movie. It's incredibly bizarre and funny to me. It's like they think I'm Monday Morning Quaterbacking Superman, "Hey dude, you could've done better."
It's meant as a criticism of the notion that those things would happen that way in a Superman movie at all. It's not about what was possible or impossible in the fictional city of Metropolis on that fictional day during that fictional incident. The fact that this is like a quarter of the responses to the video is kind of astounding to me.
CBM: You're a big Superman comic book fan. Which Superman villain do you think would be the hardest to translate to a live-action film?
Max Landis: The hardest? I mean, come on. There's really only one who'd be hard, especially with the current glum, dour tone of the DC films. Mxyzptlk.
CBM: If you were asked to write Mister Mxyzptlk into a live-action Superman film, how would you go about doing so?
Max Landis: I'd have an incredibly hard time writing him into a "first" film for Superman. He's more of a "Part 3" character just because of how powerful he is. For the first movie you want the villain to be Kryptonian, Zod or Brainiac. This is so you can tie their origin in with Superman's and you don't have to do double duty and waste story real estate you could be spending on character instead setting up the villain. In the sequel, of course you want Luthor; another character heavy villain with an easy and fun dynamic with Superman. You probably also toss in Parasite or Metallo, as a Luthor-created heavy, for the physical peril.
By the time you get to the third movie, you've got to up the stakes again. It can't be Dark Knight Rises. It has to be Return of The Jedi, Die Hard With A Vengeance, or Lethal Weapon 3. You've got license to get funnier and more self-aware, but you've also got to escalate the emotional and physical stakes. So for me, the answer there would probably be Warworld and either Darkseid or Mongol. But you said Mxyzptlk, so...I'd write him big, silly, but contained. A character who confronts the idea that Superman is a "Christ-savior figure" in a funny and unconventional way.
CBM: Now that you've ventured into the land of directing films, I'd like to know if there is any character(s) whose star has dimmed over the decades that you would like to feature in the hopes of rejuvenating their career?
Max Landis: Freddy Krueger. Jason Voorhees. Chucky. I'd love to do total left turn sequels for all of these characters to the original series. They deserve a big going away party, in the same way that the Expendables is the going-away party for the traditional action film stars. I want to do a Del-Toro-esque modern fantasy adventure film that plays with all the classic 80's Horror Figures in a big, loving, thank-you-so-much-let's-have-some-fun way. It's been a dream of mine for a long time.
CBM: An Expendables, but with famous horror characters, I like the sound of that. Which other characters deserve to join forces with Jason, Freddy and Chucky?
Max Landis: Ha! Oy, this has become like my gimmick, hasn't it? Pro-league fan-fiction. I can't complain, a few of my obsessions have already led me into new stories of my own. Chronicle was a riff on Carrie and Akira. American Ultra is duping The Bourne Series in a sort of totally sincere way, and Frankenstein, shooting now...well, I mean, the less said there the better. Frankenstein is rad. Other stuff too, but what I can and can't talk about is pretty strictly marshalled these days. Which, you know, is a nice place to be in, to be perfectly honest.
But let's be real; no one over at the studios wants to do a fun PG-13 rated mid-budget fantasy-action epic starring Freddy Krueger and a kid in a coma who he's trapped with go on an incredible adventure through the dreamworld. They've got a mission statement for that character and it doesn't include the words "epic" or "heartwarming." My idea is that it would be the adventure kicked off by the realization that Fred Krueger was actually innocent, and it was the parents on Elm Street, who were in a satanic cult, that summoned the demon "Freddy Krueger" and sacrificed their children to him.
But if I could do it? In the dream world, we'd meet and befriend, Lord Of The Rings/RPG Style, Young Jason Voorhees (able to transform into his larger form when in peril), the spirit of the Candyman, Carrie, and Pumpkin Head spirit. Against them would be the trapped ghost of Charles Lee Ray, Pinhead, and the Cenobites (really the main villains of the piece). Of course, to deal with Jason, an ultimate, nightmare-world form of "The Shape," a.k.a. Michael Myers.
But this is nothing that fans haven't jerked off to a million times before. "OOH, A MONSTER ROYAL RUMBLE, REAL ORIGINAL IDEA." But that's not what I'm pitching. This isn't Freddy Versus Jason. This is like Labyrinth, or more accurately The Princess Bride, or Lord Of The Rings. This is as viewed through this sarcastic, self aware eighties horror lens. I'd wanna take people on a really visual, emotional journey, using these iconic figures no one is scared of any more as real, fully fleshed out characters to tell a cool story and make a commentary on the nature of fear. Hmm. Maybe it's a video game.
CBM: You recently released a Mickey Mouse comic, that you wrote and was illustrated by AP Quach. What was your inspiration for that? Do you have any plans to continue this narrative?
Max Landis: I wondered about him. You know, Mickey is this guy, he's an actor, he used to be huge but these days you don't see him in movies really anymore. Donald and Goofy too. They've all been portrayed, within their characters, as actors with implied life contracts to Disney Studios, who've played dozens of roles in different shorts and several features. So, I had this image of this successful guy in his late thirties who's been running with the same crew of male friends for a long time...
Click on the image above to view Max Landis' Mickey Mouse comic, "Boy's Night Out."
I got to this point in my head where I started to think "how far can I go with these guys? Can I spend one night just with these three guys being honest about where they are in their lives?" And it kind of fell out of me. I wanted to shoot it; try to get Elijah Wood to play Mickey, Jack Black as Donald, and Jason Segel as Goofy. But I was so underwater with all my other projects there was just no way it was gonna happen.
But then Ashley, a "webquaintance" of mine who'd done one or two other fun collabs with, just volunteered to do it. I can't possibly emphasize enough how much her art added to it. She did the panel layouts, everything. There was something about it. The inherent energy, still touched by those somber watercolors. It really touched me. I'm thrilled that it's been so well received, but I don't know if I'm going back to Mickey any time soon.
CBM: How has directing your first film (Me Him Her) affected your screenwriting?
Max Landis: Holy shit my dialogue got ABRIDGED. It's heightened what I view as the most important thing in screenwriting anyway; that being crispness, succinctness. I like neat pages, without too many big blocks. I like a karate-chop over an uppercut. I want it to be easy and fun to read, and directing made me really see for the first time how fluid a script needs to be. That added to my desire to be crisp. Here's the script: it's a lovingly made cracker. Now put something delicious on it.
CBM: Do you think there is value to test screenings?
Max Landis: Ha! Less so now that I'm a director, but yes, a bit. Inside of a movie you tend to get snowblind; you're watching it so many times you become sort of oblivious to its obvious faults. That said, audiences at test screenings don't watch a movie the same way an audience in a normal theater does. Someone who would've been like "Yeah, that was pretty good" leaving a normal theater will have A THOUSAND NOTES AND IDEAS in the group-discussion after a test screening. It's kind of infuriating because for every good note you get, you get five telling you to fix something that ain't broken. That's the devil in the details; it's all subjective.
CBM: How important is it to you to write a sympathetic villain?
Max Landis: Not even kind of. The "need" for a villain to be "sympathetic" and relatable is a total contrivance and the product of modern films all trying to be more "complex" than they actually are. Most of the great villains in the history of fiction are not the slightest bit sympathetic and or even likable. They're interesting, and compelling, and a few of them conflicted. But the idea that their plans have to make sense and we've gotta hear how their dog died when they were six is a totally new and very arbitrary thing. Coherence is necessary. Sympathy is not.
CBM: What do you treasure more, a genuine compliment or an insightful critique?
Max Landis: In my line of work, the primary part of my job is having my work critiqued, and then being obligated to change my creations to better fit a perceived commercial/production need. The whole process is pretty intense and artistically dismantling. That's why you get paid. So, when I show stuff to friends, I pretty much always just say "no suggestions, only compliments." I know that sounds silly, but being a screenwriter is super emotionally taxing. It's the retrofitting to fit someone else's vision; it's the bulk of the job. So, from people who are close to me I'll take love and support over intelligent criticism any day.
CBM: As the screenwriter of Chronicle, which scene was the most exciting to see played out on film?
Max Landis: If I'm being honest with myself, it was the final confrontation between Andrew and Matt in Seattle. Which I think is kind of funny to say, since I'm not sure it's the most exciting scene in the movie. It's a very personal answer, really; as I wrote the script, I was writing to a budget. I was trying to write a "go-make-it" movie, not a development project.
But then Andrew attacked his dad in the hospital and I realized, you know, I'm going there. Fuck Seattle. Let's do it, a super-powered fight told only from the perspective of people who aren't involved. I wanted to only show the edges, and by virtue of that, create this sense of pandemonium, of "Wait, what's happening?" because I refused to break the found footage rules I'd set out for myself. The fact that it then actually happened, blew my mind.
CBM: Which scene from Chronicle do you think Josh Trank made so much better on film than you ever dreamed possible?
Max Landis: Every scene. Writing the script, I kept thinking "there's no way we'll pull this off." Josh added a little something and in many cases A LOT of something to literally every scene in that movie. The flying, the pranks, the baseball test, the mugging, the talent show, there's just so many things I wrote in there that I was like "God, I hope they can pull this off." And Josh went out to South Africa on his FIRST feature and absolutely murdered it. It's incredible to think about.
To learn more about Max Landis, I encourage you to check out this in-depth interview at Buzzfeed (click here).
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