Max Landis: Love him or hate him, he’s going to be around for a long time.
I first started taking notice of writer/director Max Landis in the post Star Wars: The Force Awakens round of reviews and opinions. Landis had caused a bit of an online storm with some comments on the movie on an episode of the YouTube channel Screen Junkies. Drawn to the controversy by some click bait headline, I decided to check out the comments for myself.
Now, before you get out your pitchforks, let me say that I did like The Force Awakes. I saw it three times on opening day, and a few more times in the weeks to come. That movie got lots of my money. But I did think that it was maybe a little too safe. And I did also have a problem with Rey.
Not a gender problem (I said put the pitchforks away!). I just found that her competence was a little unbelievable. She could fight, she could fix the Falcon, I could believe that. I couldn’t believe that she could also fly it as well as Han, that she could so easily figure out how to use the Force and also defeat Kylo Ren in battle (and while on that subject…).
Character competence, or rather their incompetence, helps an audience to connect with them. If you know that they suck at something, you’ll be more emotionally invested when they’re tested (unintentional rhyming).
As I watched the footage that got Landis in trouble, I found myself agreeing with the guy’s criticism of the character. Rey’s apparent infallibility did make for a less compelling protagonist.
As he points out in one of his vlogs, Luke was interesting because he failed so often. In contrast, just about everything Rey touched turned to gold in The Force Awakens. It made sense to me.
The fallout from his words though was quite severe and the issue was intensely debated online. Landis was labelled a sexist, a misogynist and many other things.
I’m not trying to reopen that debate, but I think that if he’s guilty of anything, it’s that he didn’t tread carefully enough through a conversation (streamed online!) that is a very sensitive subject for many, many people. Landis is often very unfiltered and it get’s him into trouble.
Landis isn’t Landis
Intrigued by the issue, I looked a little Deeper (potential upcoming Landis film title pun) into Landis and his work. I was pretty impressed with what I saw.
He’s young, but has had a lot of success. He’s been involved in some really great projects, like Chronicle and Dirk Gently. Landis also regularly engages with his fans on social media and provides insightful comments on current films and television. He’s also written some great comics, including Superman: American Alien and Green Valley. And most interestingly he’s a creator who regularly and generously comments on the craft of storytelling.
Max Landis seems to get a lot of heat for things he’s said, with people quick to characterise him or label things he says (the Shadow Max phenomena). Variety wrote a particularly scathing piece last year.
But if you can put all that aside – and you should – Max Landis is an interesting person to follow. He’s polarising for sure, but if you took the time to look through his comprehensive online presence, you might end up liking what you see.
Let’s have a look at his career to date, some exciting looking upcoming projects and some of his thoughts on storytelling.
A Bright Prospect
I’m not sure what exactly he would label himself as these days, but I’d say that first and foremost, Max Landis is a writer.
His first start in the business was a piece he co-wrote with his father (director John Landis) for a TV horror anthology called Masters of Horror. In the years that followed, Landis did a lot of writing, and also some selling.
His detractors (there are quite a few) will say that he’s the beneficiary of a nepotistic industry. That his name has got him to where he is. Which wouldn’t be entirely untrue. It’s probably slightly easier to be heard in a noisy industry when you’ve got a famous name. But once you’ve gotten their attention, you have to keep it.
Chronicle of Success
His big break as a screen writer came with the surprise 2012 hit, Chronicle. Directed by Josh Trank (infamous for the 2015 Fantastic 4 reboot), the relatively small budgeted film made a bunch of money with its fresh take on the superhero story. Landis was able to springboard off this success into selling a few other projects.
Three films written by Landis were released in 2015: Me Him Her, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. None of these films achieved much commercial success, and reviews were mixed. The worst received by critics was Victor Frankenstein, a movie that departed significantly from Landis’ original script. For what it’s worth, I quite liked Me Him Her and American Ultra (didn’t see Victor Frankenstein).
2016 was also an interesting year for Landis with another movie release and a foray into TV show-running. The former being the hit-man comedy, Mr Right and the latter being a series for BBC America, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (a Douglas Adams adaptation).
Again, these projects received mixed reviews. But Dirk Gently was given a second season (not bad in this day and age) and Landis’ name was still getting attached to other upcoming projects, unlike his partner on Chronicle, Trank. He’s only now emerging from movie jail.
I’ll take this opportunity to mention his curious fascination with the music of Carly Rae Jepsen. Stay tuned for his thesis in July!
— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) June 26, 2017
Scripts and Movies in the Works
When he’s not writing unsolicited theses on Carly Rae Jepsen, Max Landis is writing scripts. Which has probably helped contribute to his success as much as his talent has. A compulsive writer, Landis will often share excerpts form these scripts to tantalise his fans, or to help illustrate a screenwriting tip.
Max has sold a lot of these scripts too, but as is often the case, not all of them have been made yet. Maybe some won’t be at all. For example, Landis was hired to write a script for the new Power Rangers movie, with Lionsgate hoping to get a Chronicle like piece from the formerly rainbow haired writer (the rainbow locks are gone now). However when he turned in something closer in spirit to the original TV series, rather than his 2012 hit, they moved on to other writers. You can read his original script online. It’s an entertaining read that gives you a real sense of his manic energy and style.
Another project in the works is Bright. This is an interesting prospect that stars Will Smith as a cop in a fantasy influenced Los Angeles. And when I say fantasy, I mean it in the genre sense, complete with Orcs, Elves and magic! It’ll be released in December this year and will be directed by David Ayer.
I think Bright will become a good study into the mind of Max Landis. It’s an original idea in an industry that currently seems to prefer remakes and reboots of established brands.
Son of The American Werewolf in Paris
And speaking of reboots, in late 2016 it was reported that Landis was going to direct a remake of his fathers classic movie, An American Werewolf in Paris. While this certainly won’t help him get away from the ‘product of nepotism’ tag his detractors saddle him with, it will be interesting to see what he does with the film.
If you’ve seen enough of Landis’ movie pitches online, you’ll know that he has some interesting takes on reboots. He creates these pitches often to convention crowds for entertainment or for storytelling exercises.
If you want to check these out, just google ‘max landis pitch’. I won’t name them specifically for fear of spoiling their endings!
Max Landis’ Open Source Storytelling Agency
These pitches are often accompanied by explanations of their storytelling devices and are of great educational value for anyone who likes to write. His own YouTube channel is packed with musings on writing, movies and storytelling in general. In fact, less than 24 hours after I began writing this piece, Landis dropped some high octane writing motivation. Watch below:
It’s rare for people in the industry to drop advice as freely and regularly as Landis does. And as far as I can tell, his advice seems pretty good. At least it corresponds with most conventional wisdom that can be found on storytelling.
Also, you can’t deny that his methods aren’t working for him. Which I think just gives another reason for people to hate him.
Landis’ ideas for his writing and storytelling vlogs seem to originate with a particular career experience he might have had. If you watch through in publication order (not an easy task – he’s uploaded a lot of videos), there seems to be a story there. Earlier posts deal more with story synthesis and how to have ideas. While later posts, from when Landis involved in more complex collaborations, detail the reality of getting scripts through to production.
In other words, because of his compulsive vlogging, we have a historical account of a screenwriter’s career unfolding. Which is kind of cool.
The Death and Return of the Spec Script
Many have complained about the apparent lack of originality in the movie industry of today. Studios, interested in protecting their bottom line, are less likely to take a chance on a property that doesn’t come with a built in audience. This is why we get so many remakes, reboots, unwanted sequels and adaptations of average dystopian teen novels.
This is where I see a place for a creator like Landis in the future of the movie business. He’s positioning himself as a bit of a spec script specialist (spec script: an unsolicited screenplay. Usually a completely original idea. E.g. Thelma and Louise or Good Will Hunting). And if the big studios aren’t willing to take up his ideas, online streaming companies, like Netflix are poised to benefit from their caution.
These V.O.D. services, without the built in franchises of the big studios, are beginning to fulfil the demand for original movies. With the release of Bright (remember: starring a relatively well known actor called Will Smith), we might be witnessing the rebirth of the spec script.
This is a good thing for audiences. Let the big studios continue to make Terminator 8, Fast and the Furious 13, and so on. Companies like Netflix and Amazon Prime may one day produce an Oscar winner (providing they change their admission rules… a discussion for another day).
For a young creator, Max Landis has had quite a lot of success – and this success has maintained his career momentum.
Currently filming a second series of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and with his name attached to many future projects (including a Pepe Le Pew movie!) Landis is probably going to be around for a very long time. And if the last few years are anything to go buy, there won’t be too many dull moments!