If there’s anyone who can take Warner Bros’ seductive skunk Pepe Le Pew and turn it into a full-length movie, it’s Max Landis. The 30-year-old filmmaker and screenwriter earned his writing stripes after penning the sci-fi film Chronicle. Soon after, he created a popular YouTube Channel, Uptomyknees in addition to back-to-back theatrical releases including his directorial debut Me Him Her, along with American Ultra, Victor Frankenstein, and Mr. Right. After witnessing his scripts becoming watered down by the studio’s metrics-driven development process, Landis publicly (and widely) vocalized his frustrations, turning his grievances into another creative outlet.
The controversial creative is known for his polarizing candor, hyper-productivity, and opinionated rhetoric—a bombastic combination that often finds him at the top of Twitter and Facebook trending lists. Most recently for his attachment to the aforementioned animated film Pepe Le Pew, and prior to that, #maxlandis was a trending topic after his candid take on “whitewashing” in Hollywood. He shot up the charts once again when two of his spec scripts were optioned: the Will Smith-attached script Bright, which Netflix threw down a cool $3.5 million for, and MGM’s Deeper.
His roll not slowing, Landis is currently in development for Channel Zero for the Syfy network (a limited series Creepypasta anthology) as well as continuing his gig writing the Superman: American Alien comics for DC and most recently, a limited, nine-issue series called “Green Valley,”Skybound’s newest book through publisher Image Comics. The crux of Landis’ success is thanks to his storytelling prowess; he’s a captivating, clever, and impassioned artist whose IP has become its own brand.
We caught up with Max to pick his brain about his latest endeavor: a TV series for BBC America, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, adapted from the work of writer Douglas Adams, which premieres this October. We got to chatting about his fascination with narrative, the details of making a television show, and the reason he’s so outspoken about filmmaking.
Tell me about Dirk Gently, what’re some of the challenges of showrunning?
Everything. Anything. It’s sort of the ultimate push; you’re fighting against time and money and the limits of human communication to execute your vision. There is always something out of your control going wrong, or something unavailable or broken or done wrong or going sideways. It’s anarchy. My co-showrunner and life’s savior Robert Cooper has a whole deck of great analogies about it.
The biggest change for me is not being able to multitask; normally I’m working on four or five scripts at once, comic stuff, all of that. But since Dirk Gently started I’ve just been in one mode, just fully Dirked Up 24/7. Because there’s so much multitasking within doing TV; you’re doing pre, post, writing, and shooting all at the same time. It’s a hurricane.
Let’s talk about the process of creating a TV show. What is it like to have creative control over your vision this time?
Well, what is control? You’re still trapped by your own limits; it’s still a constant compromise. But this time the compromises are with yourself. God and the universe are your new asshole exec. But the ability to change things—to make calls on the fly—it compensates for a lot in a way that working in movies just doesn’t give you. Oh we forgot something in this episode? We can get it in the next one. Moments like that are incredible.
So working together on a bigger production, there was already a bit of of a shorthand inasmuch as we both know the other guy isn’t going to be a dick. That feeling of safety is rarer than you’d think.
What’s a typical day look like for you as the writing honcho?
Well, we only had three other writers, and only two of them actually wrote episodes. I wrote 5 1/2 of the first eight episodes, and of course did rewrite work on the two episodes written by our other writers. But they were absolutely vital; I never could’ve done it alone, just because of the sheer amount of cognitive processing this season took. It’s a VERY complicated show, with a lot of moving pieces; developing it, I found that I had all these little holes where the other writers would jump in and save the day with a suggestion or an idea. I kind of loved it, if I’m honest. It was just a lot of laughing and pitching progressively crazier stuff to each other.
Is working with a network more challenging than working with a major studio or do you find the process easier?
With BBCA, much easier. They knew early on what kind of crazy show they bought, and just kind of accepted that this process was gonna be us out here writing and producing stuff that was really fucking crazy, and there was no “less crazy” button available to push.
Why did you decide to adapt Douglas Adam’s material into a show?
The challenge. Because I felt that pull. I only sign onto stuff if feel like I can help make it interesting or different in some way; I’d seen too many bad Adams adaptations. When the opportunity presented itself, I thought: well maybe I can do this different. Maybe I can get to some kind of place of verisimilitude with this nearly unadaptable author.
I knew I’d have to to some degree invent my own story; the Dirk books, on the page, simply don’t translate clearly because so much of them requires Douglas Adams’ lovely narrative voice explaining to you in the funniest way possible what the fuck is going on. So there’d have to be a new story, a simpler (but still hopelessly convoluted and complex) story, wherein Dirk could exist as a character and a plot-tonality but not as a golden rule.
For the uninitiated, tell us what audiences can expect from the show?
The way we talk about movies is kind of generally broken; it’s like experiencing turbulence in a transatlantic flight and writing an angry letter to the person who designed that model of airplane.
You’ve worked with Elijah before, what’s it like getting to work with him on a larger scale?
Well, I mean, Elijah is just the sweetest man in the world. As you said, we worked together on my internet short Death and Return of Superman, where he agreed to work for free hanging out in backyards screaming and being a total weirdo in simple costumes in back yards and parking lots. So working together on a bigger production, there was already a bit of of a shorthand inasmuch as we both know the other guy isn’t going to be a dick. That feeling of safety is rarer than you’d think. He’s just such a good actor; something about him is so warm and magnetic. It translates to his real self, too; he’s just plain kind, and calm. Almost too calm. Being negative around him makes me really self conscious.
What are the differences you’ve experienced writing for television versus film (other than the obvious things like getting to develop characters over time etc)?
Time is the enemy. In screenwriting, time is your friend, but in TV? It’s a slasher. It’s a serial killer stalking you down. Time is coming for you, and it’s holding a big club that says “WE ALREADY SPENT ALL THE MONEY FOR THIS EPISODE” and it’s going to beat you to fucking death with it. That’s the realest difference on the writing side, leaving out the production side of it, which is just a whirlwind.
How do you feel about the major studio’s current issues with producing original content?
They’re bad. Really dark. It keeps leveling up in terms of what feels like desperation, but you have voices in there now, Lord and Miller of course sticking out, that are doing new things with brands, adding their own new ideas. That gives me some sunshine.
Do you think Netflix will change the game by making big budget movies now?
Maybe. I hope so.
You’ve now written in several different mediums from comics to adaptations to original screenplays, would you ever write a novel?
I’ve thought about it. When I was young I wrote a couple novels, but the fact is that I’m just not nimble enough with prose. I always feel like I’m five steps behind the reader, who’s rushing through my words. I never get the good feeling I get from screenwriting, where I can sense that I’m guiding the eye across the page. When I write prose, I just feel clumsy, and a little bit lost. I’ve thought about it though. I’m not sure who’d even want to read a novel from me.
Tell me about your other scripts Bright and Deeper.
They’re both meant to be my segue into writing more adult material; I hate putting it that way, but I don’t know how else to phrase it. They both deal with more grown up feelings than my previous work; Deeper, Higher, and the yet to be written Further are really my most emotionally complex work. Deeper \especially is me really trying to say something about the human condition, which is something I’ve always shied away from previously, because a lot of my scripts I just aspire to make “fun.” But I’ve never taken my stuff lightly. I always go by the imperative that I’m not just trying to write “good” movies. I’m trying to write movies that will be someone’s FAVORITE movie, that will speak to individuals, and the newer stuff is me really going for the throat on that. In a lot of ways, they’re my return to darker stuff like Chronicle. I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to grow.
I’m trying to write movies that will be someone’s FAVORITE movie, that will speak to individuals, and the newer stuff is me really going for the throat on that.
Netflix threw down 3.5 mill for your script which is the largest sum they’ve spent on a script not to mention one of the highest sums a writers has seen in years, that must’ve felt validating. Do you feel like you still have to prove yourself to the industry?
Yes. I think it’s the 6th highest ever, or at least that’s what someone told me which is just….crazy. But yeah. I’m still a fluke. 2 TV shows and a comic and 3 viral shorts and 5 sole-credits on 5 movies in 6 years and I’m still a flash in the pan, and a product of nepotism, and just this loud goofy joke to a lot of people. Did you see what I just did, I actually listed my accomplishments because I need to because I SO OFTEN feel like I’ve accomplished NOTHING. But in those dark moments the facts never make me feel better; what gets me is how much I love this. My addiction to creating stuff is enabled by how much I love doing it. Proving myself was never really the point. I just want it insanely bad.
I think the light you’ve shed on the screenwriting process, your frustrations & informing the general public about the confining infrastructure is important. Do you plan to remain “outspoken” on that subject or are you tired of the scrutiny it tends to bring?
Despite all appearances, I never meant to become “that” person. It’s not an additive property that I have to think about. All the things that I think people assume are part of a “persona” are actually a product of the lack of one. I am very, very impulsive. I don’t censor myself. And I have a lot of passionate opinions on things. I put my foot in my mouth all the time; I’ve actually said a lot of things I regret putting out there. But at the same time the nicest thing my “fame” limited though it is has offered me is people saying I’ve inspired them, gotten them back into wrestling or comics or writing or told them about a movie that they now love. That part of it has been absolutely wonderful.
Being one of the few screenwriters with a public voice, do you still feel it’s important to speak up about the issues you’ve experienced in the industry?
Absolutely. Absolutely no question. Most people outside the industry, even a lot of critics and film students and cinephiles, do not, do NOT understand what the job of a screenwriter functionally is. That isn’t condescension, it’s just real; the role of a script is deeply misunderstood, in ways that are tremendously frustrating and even emotionally painful for people working this job. People fundamentally don’t understand how weird it is; the mix of art and function; notes and compromise; production and a thousand details and differences.
Every time I see a critic talk about “the script” in a review it makes me cringe, because unless you have read every draft of the script, and been there during production and editing, you really have no idea what’s a product of the script or the screenwriter or the overall collaboration. The way we talk about movies is kind of generally broken; it’s like experiencing turbulence in a transatlantic flight and writing an angry letter to the person who designed that model of airplane.
So I think it’s important that I present a more frustratingly real and complicated look into what it is to be a screenwriter. I want to do that for everyone who wants to be a writer. They deserve to know, and even people who just watch movies deserve to know.
I know you want to buck the system that isn’t rigged in favor of the screenwriter, do you feel like that’s an uphill battle that you can win?
Maybe not. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.
All photography by Sela Shiloni