Over the course of a midday lunch with American Ultra scribe Max Landis, as critical reviews and anemic box office estimates roll in ahead of what will become a stomach-dropping opening weekend for the Kristen Stewart-Jesse Eisenberg stoner-spy action-comedy-romance, a multitude of tiny human moments flash by in the life of the most divisive screenwriter in Hollywood.
Bounding with restless energy, one side of his head shaved like a gregarious Travis Bickle minus the menace, he briefly interrupts our conversation to compliment a stranger. “I’ve always wanted one!” he exclaims, pointing to the delighted stranger’s forearm, which boasts a tattoo that simply reads “a tattoo.”
He makes mental notes out loud to tell his girlfriend of two years about the ballet class for adults that’s being held in a dance studio adjacent to the café in which we’re sitting and appreciatively recalls the time—in the midst of the most controversial period in his short time as a public figure worth scrutinizing—when she advised him, simply, to tell his haters to fuck off.
Most unexpectedly, his eyes well up with actual tears as he recounts, in vivid detail, a story about three young men who live in his heart. The story is actually his rejected pitch for Chronicle 2, the dark sequel to his 2012 low-budget sci-fi hit that he was initially hired by Fox to write before departing the project, which is now highly unlikely to be greenlit, filmed, or shown to any audience, ever.
“The truth is that I’m a very easy person to get wrong,” says Landis, who’s almost constantly broadcasting that outsized personality that people inside and out of Hollywood love to hate. “And it’s a majority my fault.”
Or, as Landis’s close pal, actor Matt Bennett, explains it as he stops into the same Pico Boulevard coffee shop, years after randomly meeting Landis in front of L.A.’s cinephile mecca, Cinefamily: “Max makes a terrible first impression…but he’s the most loyal friend.”
Technically, Landis shared his first credit with his father, Animal House director John Landis, on an episode of Masters of Horror a decade ago. He earned his first real notice in the film world in 2010, when he landed on the industry’s radar with his Black Listed script for Chronicle, a fresh take found-footage superhero origin tale that scored a surprising $126 million worldwide when Fox turned it into a surprise sleeper hit in 2012.
This weekend’s American Ultra now marks Landis's second produced script to hit theaters. Along with it comes the kind of splashy fanfare screenwriters rarely get. More people know the name “Max Landis” than “Nima Nourizadeh,” the Brit helmer behind 2012’s Project X who directed American Ultra, about a stoner sleeper agent (Eisenberg) discovering his lethal potential as trained assassins descend on a small town to kill him. Notoriety comes partly from Landis’s savant-like ability to churn out poppy genre scripts—he’s written over 80 features, has seen five of them turned into films including the upcoming Daniel Radcliffe starrer Victor Frankenstein, and just wrote his latest script, literally, in a week. Mostly, fans and haters alike know Landis from the Internet, where he tweets constantly and, to everyone’s delight, with no filter.
“I wish I could say that I was a victim, but I’m not,” Landis admits. “If a guy outside a bar is yelling, you look at that guy and go, ‘That guy’s yelling—that guy’s a crazy person’ and that’s your impression of him. What he’s yelling about becomes less important. And I’m a guy outside a bar yelling. I think I have been, more than I am now, but I think the way that I say things often becomes more important to people than what I’m actually saying. And I’ve been making an effort to change that.”
Public scrutiny is nothing new for Landis, who grew up watching his father deal with the fallout of the Twilight Zone tragedy and an increasingly unfriendly studio system. He’s been fighting cries of nepotism since he started writing scripts. Now he’s got five produced films under his belt, cashed in several spec sales, and has begun moving into directing and producing. “I think there used to be a perception of me as a very above it, doesn’t give a fuck, son of a rich person—as I say, ‘Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,’” says Landis. “That just wasn’t really my life story. I would never say I did it on my own. I’d never claim that being John Landis’s son certainly didn’t hurt—well, sometimes it hurt.”
“My dad’s been through a lot, personally and professionally,” Landis continues. “My dad still has PTSD from something that happened to him the year I was born. He’s a very fragile guy. And he’s a very tough, smart, strong guy. You know what I learned? Nothing. I follow my dad’s example, which is to say whatever pops into my head at the time, which has not helped my father. There’s a reason you’re not seeing many movies made by John Landis. He’s a very good director. But I think eventually his brashness in some ways handicapped him. I’ve never been that level of brash, as he is.” Landis pauses. "He’s also very kind.”
Living out loud while caring a little too much about what people think of him has landed Landis in more than a few pickles. Few working filmmakers would be able to get away with his level of polarizing bluntness and still keep their relationships intact. “I don’t have people telling me what to say. Occasionally I get very angry emails yelling at me about what not to say,” he giggles, noting that he’s never had media training or a publicist. “I made a tweet about Spider-Man a year and a half ago that got me into hot water. I made a tweet once that I had to delete three minutes after I made it, because I got, no exaggeration, 17 emails saying, ‘There will be legal action if…’”
“I really believe I lost a job from a tweet,” he says, his eyes lighting up with unapologetic glee just thinking about it. “I tweeted a joke about a casting choice for a movie I was under consideration to write, and it was a harmless joke, not a mean-spirited joke, and I had a really good pitch meeting where it sounded like I got the job. And then the producer of that project tweets me, ‘What a shame—and you had the job.’ I thought to myself, and this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you’re going to fire me for tweeting a joke, I’m so glad I didn’t have to work with you. You sound crazy.”
Still, Landis has a few regrets, not the least of which is a controversial drunken interview he did years ago with a writer pal about sex and dating that earned him an anti-feminist rep and a public tarring and feathering. “I think in that interview I felt like I needed to punish myself. There was a lot I felt guilty and bad about. I can be kind of obnoxious. I can be arrogant sometimes. I can be a lot of the things I’m accused of. But I’m not a sexist, and I’m not a douchebag, so it was like, ‘Hey—excuse me!’”
More recently, he admits, his timing was a little tactless when he tweeted four pages of a script he’d written years ago for Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot—a project that was ultimately directed by Chronicle collaborator Josh Trank, whose career infamously imploded this year in a flurry of bad press, catastrophic reviews, and one ill-advised tweet of his own. It was only by sheer coincidence, Landis says, that he posted his Fantastic Four script pages the same weekend Trank blamed Fox for the lackluster final product.
“I actually feel bad about that because I’d always intended to post them that day, but I was not aware of what was going to be happening with that movie at that time. It was kind of thoughtless of me in hindsight,” says Landis. Although he and Trank are often linked together because of Chronicle, he says they haven’t spoken since. “We weren’t close before. We were sort of frenemies in high school. He’s a very intense personality, and I think he’s a very good director. But in this business—and I know this better than anyone—having an intense personality is a double-edged sword. It wasn’t fun to see all of that happen to him, because who knows what happened there?”
And yet: those four pages of Landis’s Fantastic Four were posted, devoured and applauded almost instantly by geek legions that had been left deeply troubled and unsatisfied by Fox’s lackluster reboot. Landis explains that after pitching his idea to Fox, he’d gotten so excited that he went ahead and wrote 50 pages of script. Alas: The studio said they were going in a different direction.
So what would your Fantastic Four have looked like? I ask. Landis’s eyes light up again, and as he tends to do, he happily launches into pitch mode.
“My Fantastic Four was an on-the-run movie. It begins with their origin, which is an illegal Branson-esque space launch where they want to go see this thing. They become the biggest celebrities in the world, except then they wreck and they get these horrible powers. The government is hunting them and they split up, and you really get into the dynamics of these people as they’re learning to control their powers. So the origin takes place in the first two minutes and then you learn it’s a character movie. Avengers had just come out, and I wanted to present Fox’s superhero team so that any one of them could beat all of the Avengers, and any one of them could be the villain of an Avengers movie. Reed Richards is indestructible. Sue Storm can control light. Johnny Storm can burn hotter than the sun. The Thing is impossibly strong, and you can’t hurt him no matter what you do. I thought, what a cool idea, that these four friends have accidentally become gods. I had Doctor Doom as a good guy, one of Reed’s college friends, and my whole movie he’s trying to find and help them but it wasn’t clear if he was good or bad—until the finale of the movie when you realize his connection to Reed, and that they’re best friends. The audience who knows Doctor Doom thinks he’s going to turn bad, but the movie ends with him saving them. And in the sequel he’s probably good, too. You know, you Sam Raimi-Spider-Man it—at the end of the sequel he gets all fucked up and shows up in the Doctor Doom armor. But then in the third movie he’s like, ‘What have you done to me?’”
He sits back, visions of a character-driven Fantastic Four trilogy that will never be dancing in his head. “I mean, who would care if Luke fought Vader at the end of Star Wars? But that’s not what movies are about these days.”
Ask Landis about any of the scripts he’s ever written and he’ll launch instantly into a vivid, eloquent, and enthusiastically animated pitch on the spot. That goes double for his aforementioned sequel ideas for Chronicle, which he was hired to write before Trank departed the would-be franchise to sign onto a handful of big budget blockbusters.
“I don’t want to shit-talk Fox,” says Landis, “but it really became clear that Chronicle is not a movie they would have made if they knew what they were making. So when I wrote the sequel to that movie, they said, ‘This is dark. Where is the aspirational fun stuff? This is a dark dramatic thriller about superheroes that’s found footage. No one’s going to want to see this.’
Landis came up with two different pitches for Chronicle 2 before he and Fox parted ways. One of them was an alternate version of Chronicle that retconned the first film’s ending so that its trio of main characters could live on in a new adventure.
“It begins in the storm with Steve (Michael B. Jordan),” Landis says, his voice dripping with drama. “Lightning is going behind Steve and you hear Andrew (Dane DeHaan) going, ‘Leave me alone!’ and then you hear Matt (Alex Russell) go, ‘What’s going on? You have to come down right now!’ The next shot is the sun is rising over Seattle, they’re on a cliff outside the city, the camera’s been put down all the way, laying on the ground. Dane is going, ‘You don’t understand, my mom is really sick and I hate my dad, I’ve got to get out of the house—’”
Landis pauses, smiling through tears. “I’m crying, because I love this scene so much.” He collects himself and continues. “Matt goes, ‘Dude, you’re my cousin. Stay with us. Get the fuck out of there.’ Andrew’s like, ‘I’m sorry, I feel like I’m going crazy’ and Matt’s like, ‘It’s okay, man, we’re here for you.’ And Steve’s like, ‘First things first—enough with this fucking camera.’ He turns it off, and the title comes up: Chronicle 2.”
The pals with secret super powers graduate from high school but then go on the lam across the world as government forces hunt them down. They discover a new power: the ability to manipulate time. “The end of the movie is the government descends on them, there’s this whole fight, it’s very scary, Andrew is killed. Matt is killed. Steve’s alone and he’s being closed in on by the government going, ‘This didn’t happen this way.’ The government’s going, ‘Put your hands in the air!’ Steve looks at the camera and goes, ‘This didn’t happen this way.’ And just like that, it rewinds to the beginning of the second act of Chronicle 2 and you see them being filmed by these French girls that they were hanging out with, and you see Steve go, ‘We’ve gotta go.’”
In another Chronicle sequel pitch entitled Martyr, Landis focused on a new female character: Miranda, a schizophrenic villainess-in-the-making who faces off with reluctant superhero Matt after the death of her anarchist boyfriend. “There’s this really interesting moment where she’s turned into this supervillain, she has a mechanized suit—like a real thing they can build now that would cost $20 million, but if you’re a genius you can do it—and she’s totally insane, living in this house with garbage everywhere, filming herself and talking to the camera on drones like it’s her boyfriend,” says Landis. “It’s one of my better scripts. It’s very dark. It’s not Chronicle. It has a much happier ending than Chronicle!”
Landis, of course, already has a sequel in mind for American Ultra that would put co-star Kristen Stewart front and center and turn her character, Eisenberg’s long-suffering girlfriend Phoebe, into a bona fide action heroine. But he’s also aware that such fates are determined on the strength of box office returns, and things aren’t looking so great for American Ultra 2, aka International Ultra.
“It went more into why Phoebe would give up her life (for Eisenberg’s character Mike). American Ultra might not make enough money for a sequel, but the sequel is a Kristen Stewart action movie. Mike at the very beginning gets taken away and hypnotized, reprogrammed, by a bad guy—so Jesse and Kristen are apart the whole movie. It’s Kristen against everyone. But that’s a dream. And I’ve learned my lesson after Chronicle. These worlds are so big in my head. These characters are so real, and I can tell you anything about them. And then something doesn’t make enough money.”
If he was in it just to cash in blockbuster checks, Landis would be a lot better at playing the studio game. But that world has “zero level of appeal,” he admits, “which is embarrassing because they control everything I love. I’d been approached recently with some properties that I’m a good fit for, but if you hire me you’re getting an idiosyncratic, more character-grounded version of that. I thought Ant-Man was an example of a movie that’s only as good as it needs to be. It’s fine. But his daughter is not a character, and everyone’s mad at him for being a thief. He’s the most one-note character; he’s charming, because he’s Paul Rudd. But do you know why Marvel got to do the Marvel Universe? They took a risk, sort of accidentally because Robert Downey Jr. said they had to. And what a surprise, you do what’s true and what people have liked about the comics for 50 years and it’s a success. Everyone thinks they’re smarter than the material.”
Instead, he’s diving in soon to his first TV show, a BBC adaptation of Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently comic novel. He’s still looking for distribution for his directorial debut, the $5 million indie Me Him Her, a coming out comedy which is “very gently” about “white CIS male entitlement” and is based on his own experiences. From this point on, he’s also producing his projects to retain a bit of what most screenwriters never get these days: control.
“The thing you learn from getting a movie made a multitude of ways is that the role of the screenwriter can ultimately be less than 10 percent of the final film, because a script is such a malleable, vulnerable document. There’s no more vulnerable piece of art than a good script,” he says.
“One of my movies got cut up by people who were brought in for a million a week by a studio,” he recalls. “They get paid so much to ruin scripts, to make it really bad in a way that someone else wanted it. I’ve had guys come in, be paid a million dollars on this one project—which is more than I was paid for doing all of the work on the project—for eight pages that were then not filmed. A MILLION DOLLARS. People always ask about the secret to success, to making good movies. The answer? Clearly no one knows, because we spend a million dollars on eight pages that didn’t end up getting shot. Clearly no one has any fucking clue how to do this.”
Although he was aggressively polarizing in his 20s as overcompensation for his own insecurities, Landis says, four or so years of modest success and serious introspection left him if not a smidge wiser, at least more self-confident. “I’m much less anxious, I feel much less like I have to prove anything to anyone, I have a thing that I’m completely proud of, and I think as an insecure person for a long time I was looking for that,” he says. “Even now, with American Ultra getting mixed reviews, I can still watch that movie and go, ‘Haha—no, fuck you, it’s good.’
Don’t expect the 30-year-old to go dark on Twitter, or in the YouTube videos where he doles out screenwriting advice. “The bad part is that if you put your face out there, it’s not going to be long before someone throws a pie in it. I have incidentally exposed myself to the judgment of millions of people who don’t understand what it is to be a screenwriter, don’t understand how confusing and weird the job is, don’t like people who are loud or brash, and form their own opinions of me from the second they see me. And I’m such a sensitive, stupid guy that I listen. And it hurts my feelings, every time. That’s how much of a pussy I am. But I’ve become a much more inclusive person. I’ve got less to prove.”
If all Landis once wanted was to find his place in Hollywood and to put the stories and characters who live in his mind onto a screen, future Max Landis has bigger ambitions. “I want that JJ Abrams spot,” he laughs. “That Simon Kinberg spot. But I’m not those guys. I’m an idea machine. Dalton Trumbo, Preston Sturges, Shane Black, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, James Cameron—these are the guys whose heels I’m chasing. I’m not trying to be Quentin Tarantino. I want to learn to be good enough to do it.”
As we wrap our lunch amid side-eyeing café-goers, Landis has American Ultra on the brain: the mixed reviews, his opening night screening that evening, and what critics are missing about his love of low-key kickass women like K. Stew and Connie Britton. And as always, he’s also thinking of the haters. “A big criticism I kept seeing was that I talk about myself too much,” he says, a grin spreading across his face. “I realized watching my interviews, they’re right—I do. So if you put a headline on this interview, can you please put something like, ‘I Asked Max Landis To Talk About Himself’?”