Max Landis, The Most Opinionated Screenwriter In Hollywood, Turns To TV

A bracingly honest conversation with the creator of 'Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency'

Photo by John Sciulli / Getty Images

At just 31 years of age, Max Landis has already become one of the most prolific and in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood. A compulsive storyteller, Landis first gained widespread recognition as the creator of Chronicle, the found-footage superhero movie that launched Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan to stardom. Since then, Landis has been behind movies like Mr. Right, Victor Frankenstein, and the criminally underrated American Ultra, which starred Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. And for all his movies that make it to theaters, Landis has written and sold many more that are currently in some form of development around town. Remember, he’s just 31.

This Saturday marks the official beginning of a new phase in Max Landis’ gleaming career, as the creator and showrunner of the BBC America series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. The show, based on the Douglas Adams novel of the same name, follows the title character (played by Samuel Barnett) and his sometimes reluctant assistant Todd (Elijah Wood) as they solve crimes not based on traditional clues, but on the idea that everything in the universe is connected, and that their ability to figure out the case is based on forces beyond their control. Keeping true to his genre-blending ethos, Landis manages to blend comedy, mystery, and menace into one truly unique viewing experience.

And unlike other mostly invisible screenwriters in Hollywood, Landis has parlayed his profile into a very visible online presence, obsessively engaging with fans on social media, where he shares his very strong opinions on just about everything, whether it’s calling out the latest Star Wars movie or his somewhat misguided (by his own admission) attempt to explain why Scarlett Johansson was cast in Ghost in the Shell over an Asian actress. We caught up with Landis, who’s gearing up for production on his Will Smith-led film Bright, to talk about diving into the potent TV landscape, how he dealt with the tepid reaction to American Ultra, and what it’s really like being a screenwriter in Hollywood.

As someone who is a compulsive storyteller, were you extra excited to be able to tell a story over the course of eight episodes as opposed to the two hours you typically get?
Oh hell yeah, dude. It's like the opposite of what you normally encounter in feature storytelling. In feature storytelling, you're almost always looking for what can you cut. In television, you're looking for what can you explore more deeply; like, "What can I add?" And you know, as a writer, the most exciting notes you can get are "let's add more," rather than let's cut out or change. Going deeper into a story is, for me, the most exciting part of the development process.

How far ahead are you in terms of where you know want this story to go? In a lot of TV shows, the characters we meet in season one are very different than the ones we meet in season five. Have you thought that far ahead?
That's just a gimmick. That's a gimmick some shows reel into, and some shows don't. The idea of watching an evolution. I think that's a useful toy to have in your toolbox, and characters should always grow, but the Walter White mechanic of storytelling is by no means a necessity for every story.

Do you already have an endgame in mind?
There's always an endgame.

How hard was it finding the right person to play Dirk Gently? That is such a huge decision that you absolutely cannot screw up. The pressure must have been enormous.
Auditioning is stressful not only for the actors who have to get up there and do the dialogue and put themselves out there but also, in a different way, it's very stressful for the writers and the creators. We watch our material get tested and get expressed in all these different ways. As I was watching a billion different people do Dirk, this deep anxiety started in me that perhaps I’d written some unplayable character—the way his dialogue goes back and forth, the way he constantly questions himself—because more and more, I found people doing this sort of Jack Sparrow impression or a Sherlock impression, and neither of those is really right. They were sort of just acting big to act big, and there was no sense of depth to their choices. I started to get very, very afraid and frustrated by these actors. There were a few standouts that really stuck with me, but the moment we saw Sam, I just freaked out. I was like, "That's the guy." 

So it was complete catharsis?
Relief. I don't suck as a writer. He's funny. That’s exactly what it was, this overwhelming sense of relief. We had a few other people who were in the running who were doing different versions of it, but Sam, he really was the author’s version.

When you were writing that character, did you have an actor in mind as a placeholder?
No. It was a shape. This sort of elastic, very springy shape. He looked like Roger Rabbit.

You manage to balance many different tones on this show, from funny to creepy to emotional to strange. Is that a really difficult juggling act as a writer?
For me, as a writer, it's fun and easy and, I think, necessary. But the bad thing is how hard it is to execute well. It's very easy to say, "Now this happens, and it feels like this." That’s just the osmosis of a person processing a story. But once you write that, it’s now incumbent upon the director and the actors to do this incredibly hard juggling act that has to be both very sincere, very menacing, and very funny. We went into it with a mentality of, "This is what it fucking is. If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Everybody keep up." That worked out well for us.

Was there a void in television that you were hoping to fill with Dirk Gently?
I was not consciously trying to create something that was like nothing else, but Dirk is like nothing else. It was not an effort to be iconoclastic or genre-bending. It was just the story I wanted to tell. We've been really struggling to try to compare it to anything. We try to say Dr. Who as The Big Lebowski, but it's even kind of stranger than that. Even that undersells the oddness of the adventures we go on with these characters.

I am a very big fan of American Ultra and thought that that critical and box office reaction did not match how entertaining that movie is. How do you cope with that kind of disappointment and rationalize it?
American Ultra is baffling to me. I wish I could be more humble. It isn't exactly the movie I wrote, but it's close. To this day, as dumb as this will sound, and it maybe makes me sound absurd or not self-aware, but I do not understand what happened on any level, because I watched the movie on TV the other week and thought, This is a good movie! The performances are good, and it’s charming and sweet, and the action is cool. And it got so attacked by critics, so eviscerated, and, to me, it didn't describe the movie. They would say the acting is bad, or it's too violent. No, it's not; compared to what? It was really strange for me. It was also sad because it had such a small marketing budget compared to everything else that came out that weekend. What you said is so true: for a while, online people were like American Ultra sucks, and it would be like, "Have you seen it?" And it would be like, "No, but I know it sucks." It's like, "Well, there you fucking go!"

Most people just don't know what the movie is.
The best defense of American Ultra is watching American Ultra. That, to me, is the true story of that movie. I had so much fun making it, and then you ask how I process it? I don't. I cry and I kick and I tantrum and I yell and complain on Twitter. It’s incredibly emotional.  

Does that kind of failure make you question yourself as a writer at all, or do you have supreme confidence?
I’ll let you in on a secret about being a screenwriter that you’re not really supposed to say out loud: You can't judge a screenwriter really by their movies. You can get a sense of them, but I’d be happy to be judged on American Ultra and Mr. Right and Me Him Her and Chronicle. Those to me are four fucking really interesting, weird, good movies. I like those movies. But at the same time, the process is so fucking out of our control, in a way that is never advertised, in a way that is never talked about, in a way they don't teach you in film school, in a way that really can only be experienced. To question yourself, based on the movie that is made is, bananas, it's something a crazy person would do.

It's kind of surprising to see how few movies you've had made because I know that you are a very prolific writer. Is that a testament to how hard it is to get a script to a final product?
It's hilarious that you’d say that because I've had an insane amount of movies made compared to most writers. I've been in the game for five years, and I have six movies now.

How many unproduced scripts do you have?
Sold and unproduced? 14.

So then how hard is it to get them from page to screen?
It's not about the pages, often. That process itself is so byzantine and complicated. Anything can kill a movie—a bad script, a good script, an actor doesn't want to do a movie, someone just forgets about it. I have this script Houdini at Sony, it’s a pretty fucking good script, and I have no idea why we didn't move forward with it. I have no idea if that project is even happening anymore. Everyone was like, “Great job,” and then it sort of disappeared. I don't know what the story is.

So what’s a worse fate for one of your movies then? For something to come out and not be how you wrote it, or for something to not come out at all? Which do you fear more?
Neither. I'm emotional, I cry, I tantrum, but at the end of the day, I'm lucky to be here. I have nothing to complain about. I have a lot I will complain about, but at the end of the day, if you ask me if I'm happy in my career—dude, I’ve got two TV shows, Bright starts filming in two weeks, Deeper starts shooting in April, I'm developing new stuff all the time, I have a comic I love. Every time I complain publicly, it's not for me. I know that will sound crazy, but I am always on some level trying to expose and illuminate what it actually feels like emotionally and professionally to be a screenwriter. It's not what you're told [it is].

When you came out and tried to explain why Scarlett Johansson was cast in Ghost in the Shell over in Asian actress, is it just because you have an urge to explain how the industry works to a broader audience?
A powerful urge, and yeah, I think I did a really bad job.

Do you regret it?
No, because I think it started a lot of good discussions and it didn't hurt me, really, and the people who understood what I meant understood what I meant. But I do feel like I took a condescending part, because to some degree, what I was saying was interpreted as the opposite of what I was saying, which is frustrating but that’s the nature of the internet. We live in a zero-nuance world, and that's why the people who are mad at me online cover the entire spectrum. I've been accused of being literally everything, and it's because I have a lot of opinions which are nuanced, and don't fit directly into a mindset.

Do you ever worry that your opinions can get you into serious trouble and affect your career? 
At this point, I've pushed the limits of what it’s okay to tweet in my position anyway. And honestly, I have so many balls in motion right now that it would be hard to ruin me with one tweet. At the end of the day, I'm not racist, I'm not homophobic, I'm not sexist, and I'm not a jerk to the little guy. I try to never attack individuals other than Donald Trump. When I frame things like the Mary Sue thing or the Ghost in the Shell thing, I try to talk about the nature of the industry and the storytelling in the medium as it stands. I try not to be like, "If you like Star Wars, you are an idiot." I try to be like, "Here's a flaw that I think is much bigger than anyone is talking about and representative of a trend." I try to identify trends.

What does having a Will Smith coming onto a project mean to you personally and professionally? Movie stars don't get much bigger than that.
Yeah, of course, it's exciting. I just think he's just good for the part. It’s interesting because it did immediately mean I wasn't one of the big dogs on the project. Before Will joined, it was me and [director David] Ayer. But now Will’s there, and, of course, if Will wants something changed in the script, he can say, “I want to add this or take this out.” And there's not much you can say to Will Smith because, as you said, movie stars don't get much bigger. I got lucky in that it is a movie star who is perfect for the role. It was a relief.

How has the ability to binge-watch shows affected you?
I would say it destroyed my life. Initially, it was really bad because I would sort of just binge-watch everything, but now I'm much pickier. I'm much pickier about what I even start because I know it will kill me. I just did both seasons of UnReal, and it again reminded me, watch out because you can get hooked. That needle goes in your arm, with the good stories, and then you're hooked.

Can you describe to me what your writing space is like?
I don't have one. I write everywhere. Anywhere. I write all over Los Angeles, Santa Monica, downtown, Malibu, my condo I do a lot of writing in. Anywhere and everywhere. I do my fastest writing on planes.

You're a staunch critic of comic book movies. How optimistic are you about the upcoming movie Justice League?
Out of 10? Zero. I don’t believe for a fucking second that they can pull it together. The trailer looks silly. They don’t understand the characters. I’m not going to point fingers at any individual, but there seems on some level a misunderstanding of the DC Universe. And it’s pervasive to everything they have created, going back as far as Superman Returns and Green Lantern. There is a misunderstanding of the uniqueness of that world. And the thing that is making the Marvel movies successful is that they feel like Marvel comics that have been successful for 50 years. The DC movies do not feel like the DC comics. They feel either like blockbusters or Zack Snyder movies. And the trailer for Justice League made it look like they want it to look like a Marvel comic. So they still haven’t found the DC tone, and the longer they live in that space where they don’t develop their own thing, the more hopeless it becomes.