Writer Max Landis Discusses The Controversial “Ghost in the Shell” Casting And What’s Wrong With Hollywood

Rage against the machine

by Lisa Eppich

People were unhappy when they heard that Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role of the upcoming live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, which was originally a Japanese manga and then an anime series. People were then really unhappy when Variety posted the first picture of Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi and heard rumors that her features had been CGI-d in order to make her look more Asian. Another example of Hollywood whitewashing films. Another lost opportunity for Asian actresses and people of color to even have any opportunity.

The anger is understandable and, according to Hollywood writer Max Landis, anger is what we need—just in the appropriate places. Landis, the writer of Chronicle and director of Ariana Grande's "One Last Time" posted a video to YouTube saying, "The only reason to be upset about Scarlett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you don’t know how the movie industry works.” Over the course of five minutes, he explains that the entire culture, no, the entire system of Hollywood is broken because although blockbuster movies are making more than ever, smaller and riskier films are making less and less. So, studios have become less likely to cast anyone but the biggest stars—who are all white—because they want to make their money back. They cannot fund a product without a guaranteed return on investment. 

Landis admits that not only is this broken and messed up, it's also messed up that there are no A-list Asian actresses currently with the same star power of Scarlett Johansson, and that there continue to be fewer huge celebrities in general that can make a movie. Because of the current state of things, Landis argues that Scarlett Johansson is the best thing that could have happened to "Ghost in the Shell," because without her and her star power, the movie would not be getting made. Period. It's a double-edged sword, and he is outraged that that is the way it has to be.

Landis does bring up a lot of interesting and valid points. But there are a lot of minority actresses who have become huge, household names from breakout roles. Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave, Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionnaire, Tao Okamoto in The Wolverine, Gabourey Sidibe in Precious, Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim and Rumiko, The Treasure Hunter. In fact, Kikuchi has almost unanimously been voted by fans as the actress who should be playing Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. But she wasn't, even though we have proven before that non-white actresses can make a profound and powerful impact in Hollywood. If we let them.

Many will watch Landis' video and think of him as "whitesplaining" or "mansplaining," despite the fact that he calls this out in the very beginning of the video. But there is a lot of truth to his words. The system is what's wrong, not Scarlett Johansson or the producer or the director. Landis says that the current culture is keeping us from putting non-white actors in starring roles (or any roles), but we've also been seeing a cultural shift, haven't we (#blacklivesmatter and #oscarssowhite and so on)? How do we make things better if the system won't cast non-white actors and we simply give up putting them into films... and then end up with films not getting made because there's not enough star power for the studio's financial interests? How do we keep from casting non-white actors in stereotypical or bit parts? Or give them the leading roles they’re meant for? 

Landis offers no path forward in his video, but he implies that getting mad at the problem is the first step towards inciting change. We already know that minority actors and actresses can be huge, breakout stars. So what's the problem? Is the problem that opportunities for them are too few and far between or that we are continuously afraid of taking a chance? And how fucked up is it that we even have to say that casting a non-white actress is taking a chance? 

So maybe we have to get mad and keep getting mad, and keep pushing for more diversity. We have to call out every instance where a non-white actor or actress was not given their chance. And maybe then we can really start to change culture.

Check out Max Landis' full comments below.