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
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."