The Amazing Origin Story Of A Hollywood Wonder Boy Learning To Use His Powers For Good, Not Evil
The once-troubled son of a Hollywood legend, Max Landis has become one of the hottest writers in the movie business — despite his background, not because of it. How he got here is a wild narrative unto itself.
Max Landis stands in the middle of the floor of the Javits Center in Manhattan, next to a gigantic pop-up shop of superhero T-shirts and an aisle of vendors hawking sci-fi and comics memorabilia. A small crowd has formed a semicircle around him, including a dude in homemade body armor. They have marched up to this lanky 28-year-old writer-director, best known — so far — for penning 2012's surprise teens-with-superpowers hit Chronicle, to say hello and declare their appreciation for his work, like so many others at New York Comic-Con that day.
After a tit-for-tat exchange of fawning and gratitude, Landis asks if they'd be up for hearing about a new idea he'd been working on. Heads nod in eager unanimity, as he suspected they might.
Tall and dressed in his standard sleeveless tee, Landis has long and wavy hair that frames a face marked by a perpetual smile. He towers over everyone there, his wiry arms waving around as he pitches, his arm muscles formed presumably from the calisthenics of his endless kinetic existence. He has the fans' rapt attention, their eyes wide as he spits out, rapid-fire and with total certainty, a story that concerns a happy family ripped apart by a mysterious disappearance; the plot is flecked with wild letters, comeuppances from the past, and the onset of madness. Landis' hair bounces as he hits each unexpected point, a minor annoyance he brushes aside endlessly.
"The guy goes home to his parents' house, and the mom shows him this box she had from when he was a kid, and she says, like, 'You used to spend all day in the woods and write all these letters to yourself,'" he says, building suspense. "You sent them from your imaginary friends."
His story, he reveals a few minutes later, is a warped and dark take on a childhood classic; the boy in the tale is now grown and, in Landis' vision, forced to deal with his confusing, fanciful, and isolated upbringing. Movies, he says, "are a form of telepathy."
The son of legendary Blues Brothers and Animal House director John Landis and famed costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, he is a prolific writer — bordering on savant-like, really — who has thus far completed 79 screenplays and sold over a dozen of them, and counting. Those include a new take on Frankenstein that stars Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy, and most recently, an action-dramedy called American Ultra that will feature Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. Right now, Landis has so many projects in development, he struggles to name them all.
He's in New York this fall to edit his directorial debut, Me Him Her, which will be by far his most personal work to date, and continental displacement does little to discourage the free flow of pure, unleaded Max.
Several sides of Landis pop up at once during a visit to a friend's booth at Comic-Con's Artists' Alley. He helps sell copies of her self-published macabre storybook, pulling passersby — some that recognize him, a few that don't — in with loud and friendly solicitations. Even when people seem disinclined to make the purchase, he keeps them engaged with a mix of sweet talk and challenge, even offering tips about the event's after-parties to one fan in exchange for a sale. Another proffers up his own manuscript.
"I'm not allowed to read this," he says with a smile, "but it looks good. No long blocks of text, that scares people away.
Landis revels in this kind of breezy interaction, but things weren't always so easy.
In a company town that prizes secrecy until a well-timed revelation can help sell a movie, Max Landis is an anomaly, a promising filmmaker with both the talent and flair to help drag Hollywood out of creative stasis and into a more open communication with the fans that pay its bills. With that last name, he is not the traditional underdog, no dreamer with a dead-end job or little conception of how to get ahead or who you need to know. But he's also far from a case of pure nepotism, because for every one of the advantages into which he was born, Max Landis has faced a disadvantage to offset it, both of his own doing and those that he could not control.
As a kid, he was friendless, the problem child whose very understanding and darkly humorous parents called him "Little Hitler," such were the severity of the tantrums he threw over things like lost games of Nintendo. He broke car windshields and screamed his lungs out, the abnormal chemistry of his brain leading to regular explosions. His emotions were always past maximum volume, turned up to 11 like a human amplifier from This Is Spinal Tap. He suffers from cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder, which made childhood a nightmare.
"It was an exhausting way to be, but for my parents, I think it was an exhausting experience," Landis tells me during a late night conversation at an East Village diner. "They'll say like, 'You're a fabulist. You tell stories about your life and you make it sound worse than it was.' And then we'll be out in public together, and I'll turn suddenly to look at something, and both of them will duck."
Indiscriminate in their timing, the hypomanic mood shifts made school hell too.
"I was like a geeky, really intense, volatile bully," Landis recalls. "I wasn't even like a proper nerd; I was like a weird, loner, special ed kid. My parents were incredible and very patient, but I was this scary, impulsive, unpredictable kid, and child of the '90s, so Prozac, Ritalin, all that shit, Effexor, but at the end of the day, none of it helped."
He escaped from the isolation of his bedroom into countless fantasy realms, which is where having a master storyteller of a father came in handy. A voracious reader, the young Landis had an endless supply of books from all eras, and from an early age, took a particular interest in classic sci-fi.
"I started with Robert Heinlein, a lot of his simpler stuff, Space Cadet and stuff like that, and then a guy named Forrest J. Ackerman, who is one of my mentors, gave me a giant box of books," he explains, a casual memory that will make all sci-fi movie nerds crazy jealous of his time with the legendary collector. "There was everyone from Clark to Asimov, all of the Hitchhiker's Guide books I read as a kid, and weirdly from there I took a step backwards, to Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, when I was 8 and 9. And by like, 1995, I took some weird lateral step where I found Goosebumps and Animorphs."
Those last two series, I remind him, are where most people started their chapter-book reading.
His "career" began with pitches to his dad for Godzilla movies that played like Toho-style Moby-Dick. As an excited 6-year-old, Landis would lisp these mash-up concepts about monsters and lonely hunters while trying desperately to write down the other startlingly detailed ideas that were popping up in his hyperactive mind.
The irony, given his current profession, is that it was impossible at first, because he suffered from dysgraphia — more or less the written form of dyslexia. For years, that forced him to draw out reams of illustrations. He still has the artwork for stories like The Three Troll Brothers, a tale of rival siblings that had to put aside their differences to carry their dead fourth brother up a mountain to heaven, and Starships: The Adventure of Boochie, a tale he started weaving when he was 8 years old, about "a whimsical solar system where God, Heaven, and Religion are a bureaucracy, led by a single guy who decides he wants to go on a vacation."
In that serial, a sweet messiah turns evil, and the bad antichrist teen becomes the savior.
Studios don't buy movie ideas from preteens, but the groundwork was being laid.
"I was obsessed with inventing stories constantly," he remembers. "I had this thing called an AlphaSmart, and I would type hundreds of pages of stories that no one will read, because I didn't have any friends. And I'd just write novels that have never seen the light of day and are dreadful."
As he worked on these epic fantasy sagas, things in his real world were falling apart. Asked to leave Beverly Hills High School completely during his freshman year, Landis was sent to a "therapeutic" boarding school in Connecticut, which he — in typically cinematic style — describes as a cross between the psychiatric institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Harry Potter's magical Hogwarts academy.
"It was a place where people who didn't fit were taught not how to fit, but how to be OK with not fitting," he remembers, "and how to be OK and try not to let any your rough edges knock people down and cut people off." Landis spent three years there, where the faculty doled out punishments and restriction of privileges for any behavior that could be "associated with not having empathy and social skills."
"The first two years, you're fighting the system, but then you're like, Hey, wow, I suddenly have friends! People find it fun to be around me!" he says, shaking his head and widening his eyes, as if the realization just hit him all over again.
He talked briefly about his decade-long use of lithium for behavioral and mood issues in an appearance on Chris Hardwick's Nerdist podcast last year, but found the reception more icy than he expected.
"In the comment section, people are like, 'Uhh, he's a psychopath.' And I'm like, What?!" he says, laughing and throwing his arms up in mock exasperation. "And it's so funny because I've met people with antisocial personality disorders, I've met psychopaths, I've met real narcissists, I've met borderline personality disorders. I've encountered these buzzwords that people in the pop-psych world throw out loosely, but it's always like, Wow, you don't know what you're talking about. But I don't want to correct them. I spent my whole childhood bumming people out, and I'm sick to death of it. I want to entertain and I want to inspire and that's it."
It seems like fate that Landis would end up in the movie business, and upon his return from New England, he took a tentative first step into the industry, co-writing — with his father — an episode of the Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror.
And yet, his career was far from kick-started; the next few years, Landis says, feel like a gray blur now. "I worked at McDonalds, a comic book store, at a costume store, and then [got] heavily involved with a lesbian friend group on the periphery of Fort Lauderdale," he says. "I'd been in a program for kids who'd gone to schools like the one I went to, but I kind of flunked out of it, and through a series of weird coincidences ended up admitted into the continuing studies program at the University of Miami."
Mostly, he hung around the campus, with no degree at play; he took one screenwriting class — and failed. Between high school graduation and his 23rd birthday, Landis says he wrote 47 feature film scripts, some of which were in excess of 300 pages long, with many serving as sequels to never-produced originals.
"There were no rules, none of the decorum I've come to work into my stuff now," Landis says. "Final Draft was the Wild West."
In 2010, things started getting on track. Landis found himself in a backyard in Los Angeles with a film editor and aspiring director named Josh Trank. The pair, just a year apart in age, talked about an idea for a found footage series about teenagers who stumble upon a mysterious source of superpowers. The conversation would propel Landis to begin the script for what would become Chronicle, which centered on three friends — Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) — who gain superpowers from a large hole in the woods and discover the peril of having godlike abilities.
The script made the Black List — a yearly collection of the best unsold screenplays — though mega-producer John Davis, who happened to be old friends with the elder Landis, snatched it up for Fox.
"He has his own style, he has his own vision, he's got his own way of looking at the world," Davis says. "Funny enough, there's a little bit of Max in the characters in the movie. Somewhere, the characters are embodied of Max. They have juuuust a little bit of his voice."
The film was a critical success and the No. 1 movie in America when it opened in early February 2012; eventually, it would earn $126 million worldwide.
As Chronicle hit theaters, Landis released another comics-inspired production, the far scrappier web video Death and Return of Superman, which featured his own quirky narration and goofy reenactments of the Doomsday storyline in the Man of Steel's comic series. Among the participants were Elijah Wood, Mandy Moore, Simon Pegg, and Ron Howard, and the video became the calling card that made him the rare recognizable screenwriter; it now has over two million views on YouTube.
He didn't tell Fox about the short before he put it online, but says that the studio had no problem with the extra shot of publicity — even if Superman is property of rival Warner Bros. A lifetime comic book obsessive, he's written for DC and frequently chimes in on his favorite story lines on Twitter, the only place he is more prolific than Final Draft. He posted another video, a 40-minute pitch for his own version of a new Death and Return of Superman that he had hoped to make for DC, and that also went viral. At this point, there is a minor archive of Landis' frenetic, unedited creative bursts on YouTube, as well as a growing collection of satirical comics he writes on the side.
In some ways just a hobby, the internet videos are also a means of staking out his own identity; fans of his online output likely have little idea that his dad directed Animal House or what that meant to a previous generation.
"I'm going to tread carefully here because I don't want people to jump on me for this, but people who think in 2010, you're selling scripts because your dad is John Landis, are woefully misinformed," he declares, bucking up like he's delivered this speech to himself a million times before. "No one buys scripts as favors. They might as well buy you a boat."
What he means to say is that sure, his dad goes way back with John Davis — the guy was at his bachelor party — but the money at stake precludes any real legacy deals. Yes, Davis had a meeting with Landis after the success of Chronicle and asked for some more movie ideas, and yes, Davis bought his pitch for the reimagined Frankenstein right then and there. But there's more to it than that, just from his output alone.
"He's one of the most prolific writers I've ever seen," Davis says. "He's literally got 50 ideas a year. I think he's probably writing right now 10 or 12 scripts for different studios."
So yeah, right now, he's going great, succeeding in the meeting room, harnessing his natural charm when it comes time for business. In addition to the Radcliffe–McAvoy Frankenstein adaptation, he's got a scripts kicking around Disney and Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment, and a twisted tale called Villains that is moving through development at Universal.
"[Villains] takes place in a world where high science criminals are essentially supervillains, but the criminal celebrity culture still exists, so Perez Hilton interviews them, and they get jumped to the front of nightclubs," Landis explains, rattling off details in the back corner of a diner in a way that makes obvious how easy it must be for him to entrance executives in boardroom pitch meetings. "They're all dorks who were like, Why should I win a Nobel Prize when I can be famous for being a fucking supervillain? Guys in Armani suits with laser guns and jet packs, and it's about a very brilliant girl who becomes a mole in this society."
You'll notice that he doesn't write badass heroes so much as people on the outskirts who are pressed into action by the confluence of circumstance and their own potential.
One minor disappointment was his removal from the Chronicle sequel, a result of Fox balking at a very dark script that presented two embittered souls as antiheroes trying to catch the survivor of the first film. Landis had a whole trilogy mapped out in his mind, including the revelation of the mysterious source of the heroes' powers, Massive Organic Geoelectric Objects, which he says are "a race of crystalline organisms that communicate and propel themselves through radio waves, and turn higher life forms into telekinetic drones."
Like any other writer in the business, some of his projects have fallen apart or stalled, setbacks that he takes personally.
"Sometimes he gets down on himself and he has a tendency, for some reason I don't completely understand, to feel like he's failing when he's not," Davis says. "So I constantly try to remind him to put it in perspective, and say, 'How many writers are getting two movies made at his age? There will be some writers who get one movie made their entire lives, or none at all.' If he doesn't, he's liable to get burned out."
At the moment, at least, Landis is riding high, buzzing about the Stewart-Eisenberg project, the idea for which he first had at a house party; he wrote "American Ultra" on his hand, and after about a month and a half's worth of work in between studio projects, the script — about a sad stoner couple in their twenties — was completed.
"I was imagining one of those intense, action movie phone calls, you know the ones," he explains, "where the villain and the hero trade one-liners and the audience knows badass shit is going down and everyone is all dialogue-y and smirking or stone-faced and grim. And I thought, wouldn't it be funny to do a twist on that side where one of the people just has absolutely no idea what the stakes of the situation are, and the villain, also a bit of an idiot themselves, gradually becomes too frustrated to explain it to them and things just get really awkward?"
Nima Nourizadeh, who directed Project X, will helm Ultra.
One project that definitely isn't happening: Landis' idea for a Wonder Woman movie. Because the internet seizes on rumors and passes them along in a big game of click-bait telephone, when he told a Reddit user during AMA that he'd like to adapt the classic DC heroine, it soon blossomed into a "possibility" worth a few days' worth of blog posts. This is a one-way conversation — Warners ain't biting — but if he did get the opportunity to make it, though, there is already the germ of a major idea in his mind.
He envisions the character as a 25-year-old girl — "not gorgeous, but interesting" — who washes up on a beach in Miami, with no memory of how she got there.
"It turns out Diana is the scout for an Amazonian invasion of the real world," Landis says, unfurling his hypothetical pitch. "It becomes, now that she doesn't remember what it was like to be an Amazon, a question of identity, I see her as sort of the anti-50 Shades of Grey; it's all about a strong female character making her own decisions."
That he's got this interest in strong female characters — they crop up throughout his scripts, including a TV pilot he wrote for Fox with 24's Howard Gordon — might come as a surprise to those that know Landis solely from his most recent internet controversy. In an October interview, he admitted to having cheated on girlfriends and performing other acts of sexual conquest in cringe-inducing detail. It resulted in a minor shitstorm, including a Jezebel story that called him "Hollywood's Biggest Fuckwit."
"I think he got a rush of attention," Davis posits. "Everyone in town wanted him right away, and I think you've got to adjust to that. When you're making a lot of money all of a sudden, and there's a lot of money coming in and you're meeting all these studio heads and you're directing for the first time and all this stuff is happening, that takes a while to adjust to."
The flare-up happened the night before our first meeting, inspiring a concerned text message. "People fucking despise me. Now more than ever," he wrote. "I always do these things in this bubble where I think, 'I should just try to be honest' and now it's like people who don't know me despise me more than ever and no doubt they're just going to absolutely shit all over me."
The fact that he knows this seems to inoculate him when it comes to his friends.
"He can be a huge asshole a lot of the time, but there's always been two sides of him," says actress Chloe Dykstra, one of his close friends. "Maybe hundreds. Maybe there's a bunch of parallel Max universes. There's one side I can't fucking stand and that's the one that throws stupid fucking parties. I can't stand that Max. And I feel this really deep side of Max if you ignore that whole other head on his shoulder."
The Jezebel incident came ages after he made the decision to make Me Him Her, but similar moments, and his quest for identity and confessional proclivity, were concentrated into the screenplay for Me Him Her, to the point that there was no one else that could direct it.
Peter Saraf, the Oscar-nominated producer of Little Miss Sunshine and Adaptation, read the script and liked it enough that he flew out from New York to meet Landis in L.A. In part, Saraf was sizing the writer up, to see if he seemed capable of making the transition to behind the camera. He was duly impressed with both Landis' vision for the film and encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history; other fears were allayed soon after.
"Max is such a character, so whether he could work with actors was a real wild card," Saraf says. "But we started auditioning people, the way he worked with actors was certainly unconventional, but it was effective. And his energy was infectious and his imagination is infectious, and you go, this is a guy who's worth going for."
So, despite reservations that he'd be compared to his father, Landis took the plunge when Saraf came on board, making his feature directorial debut on this film about a pair of best friends — one gay (played by Luke Bracey), one straight (Dustin Milligan) and a girl played by Emily Meade. Much of the movie — which also has supporting turns from Alia Shawkat, and Haley Joel Osment, with Geena Davis and Scott Bakula as Fisher's parents — deals with gender and sexuality, including one character that oscillates between dating men and women.
"It's all about the fluidity of sexuality," he explains. "I think to people who have dealt with the stuff that happens in the movie, it will be incredibly cathartic and freeing to see it, because the movie is about breakups, it's about chemistry, it's about love, it's about lust, it's about selfishness, and anxiety and self-sabotage and impulsiveness, and all the things I think about every day, and almost everyone thinks about every day."
All the innuendo, heavy conversations, and hang-ups get brought to life in a gay pride parade scene that Landis staged as the backdrop for a closeted character's personal crisis. That shoot was one of Milligan's more fond memories, and a late night that sort of encapsulates Landis' "unconventional" approach to actors.
"He had...like five outfits that he brought to change into in various stages of the night, and sure enough, I think he got into three and a half of these outfits," Milligan laughs, both in admiration and wonder. "Basically like every two hours, he would run off and change. Many of the parade-goers were volunteers from the actual Los Angeles Gay Pride parade, and he was just entertaining these people and jumping on parade floats and charming them and getting their energy up."
For all the fun and fashion on set, the film is hardly just a lark; in many ways, it was a purge of conflicted confessions. Landis dated a girl who identified as a lesbian, and he spent time hooking up with men. All three characters drew from Landis' life and personality — Meade says the director was open and honest about it all — but according to Milligan, Landis was flexible when it came to how the story and performances took shape.
"He'll always give a reason to why that chunk is in the script or why that scene is there or why this matter or how it relates to the overall arc or his life personally," Milligan says, "But he's never precious about it. He was so great about, if this isn't working, we can cut it."
Osment, who plays what he calls a "fantastical" version of a typical L.A. guy — a role that was initially supposed to be kept secret — says that Landis seemed in no way a first-timer, and after every cut, he'd stand 100 feet from set and "just yell things to try, lines and ideas after the planned dialogue," in an effort to generate genuine reactions and improvised tangents.
It wasn't that he was indecisive so much as his brain works fast enough to adjust to changes without ripping everything up; Saraf marvels at his young charge's ability to map everything out in his head. And so, while Landis has a "weird" relationship with his dad, he says, given the scars of those manic years, directing, as it turns out, actually brought them closer together by providing a common language.
"That's a tremendously emotional thing for me, watching a movie like Into the Night, and watching my dad in that movie and being like, Holy shit!" he exclaims. "After just having done Me Him Her, it's like, unbelievable that he did that incredibly intense, viciously personal process, he's done it like 12 or 15 times. And there it is, he made this movie! And it raised my level of respect for him."
Wherever a conversation with Landis goes, it always lurches back to the intertwined concerns of his outward persona, the loyal group of friends he has accrued over the last several years, and what he calls a "two-mile-wide chip" on his shoulder drilled by his past and charges of Hollywood nepotism. Years of therapy, hyper-introspection, and his own unfiltered tendencies have left him torn between trying to find a socially acceptable persona and ignoring the judgment of others, all in service of both furthering his career and maintaining a healthy sense of self.
He left his school in New England behind long ago, but the scars of his past are still there, as are the remnants of his unpredictable adolescence.
"I'm obsessed with the perception of me," he admits. "So I take a lot of criticism deadly serious, and it's interesting because amongst my friends, when they say, 'Hey, you hurt my feelings,' I always say, 'I bet I did.' And my friends help me because they're honest with me. If I piss people off, they'll tell me I pissed people off, and they know I'll listen."
Dykstra is maybe the most honest in both her private advice to Landis — he comes to her with girl issues quite often — and public assessment of him. Even the way they met gives you an idea of their relationship: Landis spotted her at a gas station and offered up some unprovoked ribbing for the ripped stockings and cliché punk outfit she was wearing for an audition. She's been giving it back to him ever since, though even she understands the underlying person is not what is often projected.
"I think it's a façade, a big big barrier in order to keep people from hurting him," Dykstra suggests. "And it worked. After that crazy article, he feels weird and terrible and he feels like he's hurt his friends. He's very awkward and he's fucking crazy, and in order to fit in with society, I think he puts on this persona to elevate himself and protect himself."
His friends tell anecdotes like he pitches scripts, whether it's about wandering the streets near his Koreatown condo, crashing parties, throwing his own gigantic ragers (like KissQuest 2012), or embarking on wild benders during San Diego Comic-Con, an event that he calls his Mardi Gras, complete with drunk marching and mushroom trips.
"He used to tell me all these long and insane stories about running around the desert and being attacked by scorpions," Dykstra adds with a laugh. "I didn't believe him, and then I started hanging out with him more, and I realized they're all true. He puts himself in situations where he makes amazing things happen. My go-to one is the time we were in a bar and he convinced Jeremy Renner that I was a transsexual — without me even realizing it."
The daring and risky outings are fun for personal life, and so far, he's found a way to channel enough of that energy to create boardroom success.
At Comic-Con, the Landis whirlwind — with its disarming charm, machine gun dialogue, and notes of sensitivity — takes the place by storm. A steady stream of people recognize him — in a convention center filled with hero-worshipping cosplayers dragging homemade armor and bodypaint, Landis is in a tank top that he frequently sheds to try on different geeky T-shirts, so he's not easy to miss.
For all the protests he makes about not being famous, here, he is definitely a genre celebrity, with attendees on the packed floor staring him down and sometimes working up the courage to say, "Hello, I'm such a big fan of Chronicle and YouTube videos. You fucking rock."
Occasionally, you can see the side that stumbles into controversy, when he playfully teases a guy over a script he's toting. And when he gets asked about the Chronicle sequel, there is a bite to his explanations of why he's off the project. There are times when his nonstop, fully unfiltered dialogue can seem confrontational, especially when he's talking at people he's never met before. But in person, his rainbow belts and self-deprecating asides wink at the silliness of his hostility.
As we leave Comic-Con, a fan from Europe stops Landis to tell him how much he admired his work, and the conversation soon turns to the guy's own screenplay. After a few minutes, the twentysomething continental fanboy works up the courage to say that he himself had been diagnosed with a behavioral disorder, and that Max's story inspired him to pursue his dreams in filmmaking.
This is the only moment over the course of several weeks that I see Landis at a loss for words; after the two hug and part ways, he walks quietly up 34th street, his eyes welling with tears.