Thursday, August 13, 2015

Interview: Max Landis, screenwriter of the upcoming AMERICAN ULTRA, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN and CHRONICLE (2012)

Max Landis
It was the noon of March 2nd in 2012 that I watched “Chronicle”, the American science fiction thriller. A smart found footage film about three boys with sudden superpowers. In the bombardment of Super-men, Bat-men, Spider-men and Iron-Men it was a breather, a completely different take on the superpower genre. These high school boys get superpowers and get baffled. First they play with it and later the side effects play with them. Their carefree lives get over. It gets tragic. Most importantly, they don’t save or destroy the world as it’s always done in Hollywood. Since then I wanted to know the mind of its young screenwriter – Max Landis.

Over the weekend, he released the first four pages of the unmade “Fantastic Four” script of his, perhaps in context with the criticism surrounding the third “Fantastic Four” film (a reboot) directed by Josh Trank (director of “Chronicle”) which released on August 7. The film did miserably at the box office. Josh himself displayed his displeasure that this is not the film he set out to make. Soon after the release he tweeted, and deleted, “A year ago, I had a fantastic version of this. And it would have received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”Indirectly, he blamed the studio (Fox) for the final outcome.

Jesse Eisenberg in "American Ultra."
Now it is Max’s turn to face cinemas. On August 21st “American Ultra”, written by him, is releasing. It’s an action comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg (the “The Social Network”guy who is playing super villain Lex Luther in the 2016 movie“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”) and Kristen Stewart (The Twilight Saga). The story revolves around Mike who’s a stoner but in reality a mind-altered sleeper government operative. Deemed a liability he is to be killed but he’s way too high-trained for it. 

Then “Victor Frankenstein” is lined up. It is a modern adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein.” In the San Diego Comic Con last month (July) director Paul McGuigan said about Max, “What he did basically is, he cherry-picked all the good ideas from the movie, from the book itself and he’s created his own monster within that. He’s made the script which has Igor in it, and of course Igor was never in the book. It has these other little monsters that have never been in the film.” Daniel Radcliffe who is playing Igor in the film said, “…and I think it is unashamedly entertaining all the way through and exciting. The energy behind the film is from him.” 

The other main lead James McAvoy playing Victor Frankenstein commented at the Comic Con, “I think in Mary Shelley’s original, for me, there was something missing and I know it’s sacrilege for a lot of people who know the stuff... it’s an amazing book... a very important book, but for me Victor was obsessed and crazy because he was. I didn’t really see a reason in the story. What Max did, what you (Paul) did and what we’ve done together (with Daniel) is giving him a reason for being so bloody crazy and then not cure him of that half way through. In the book, he kind of like goes into the woods for 18 months of vacation and then comes and says let’s kill the monster, whereas in this we keep him mad all the way till the end. And I think it is truer to his trauma, his back story and who he is.” 

Max is also making his debut as a director with “Me Him Her” which is a comedy. It got premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in June. The release is awaited. One of Max’s scripts “Mr. Right” is in filming stage. It is a romantic action comedy which stars Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick and Tim Roth. This story is about a woman who’s unlucky in love. When she meets a perfect man, it turns out he’s a hitman.

Max is writing from the age of 18 as he comes from a film family. His father Jon Landis is a known director, writer and producer. His mother Deborah is a costume designer in Hollywood films and theater. On the day “Chronicle” released Max uploaded a short film “The Death and Return of Superman.” It was his perspective of the superhero. His friends and actors like Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings series) and Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible series) were seen acting in it. In March this year, Max released another short “Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling” on YouTube. Again several actors, his friends and wrestlers had cameos in the film. It follows the career of Triple H and talks about the nature of professional wrestling in a light-hearted yet analytical way. Max regularly creates stuff like this and comments on subjects like these.

He’s so passionate about comic books, superheroes, Hollywood and American soft culture. I asked him a few questions quite a while back including the status of “Chronicle-2” which he’s off now. He also talked about his perception of India, Bollywood and Indian mythological superheroes. Here it is:

Q. How is the script of “Chronicle 2” coming along? 
ML: Well, I've been off Chronicle 2, so it's hard to say. My original sequel followed a young couple; a punk, anarchist man, and his girlfriend, a troubled, mentally unstable girl who it was gradually revealed was a genius of the highest calibre. The couple, documenting themselves, were obsessed with the events of the first film; they even hacked the government servers, editing together and releasing online the film that we the audience know is Chronicle. They did this as a way to bait out of hiding Matt Garretty, the surviving member of the trio from the first movie, so as to attack and kill him for ideological (as well as painfully personal) reasons, using next-gen technology created by the genius girl. However, as their plan spiralled out of control, our hero Matt and his liaisons in the US Government found themselves in an increasingly difficult and violent series of confrontations with villains who we, the audience, cared so much about that we didn't really want to see either side win. 

But alas, I left Chronicle 2 after differences with the studio; they want to go a different way with the property, and I respect that. I also had other projects to tend to, as well as directing my first feature, so I couldn't continue to develop the script. 

Still, Chronicle was an amazing experience, and I'm thankful every day to the people who allowed it to happen.
Daniel and James in a still from "Victor Frankenstein."
Q. What other projects are you doing right now and how excited are you?
ML: HOW EXCITED!? CRAZY EXCITED. I've got a lot of things going at once, but as a screenwriter, it's hard to guarantee any of them. There are two I'll talk about though, and happily: Frankenstein (is expected to release in November), starring Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy, and directed by Paul McGuigan. It's an extremely different take on the story, and I'm very grateful to Fox for giving me the opportunity to tell it my way. That's what's great about iconic stories; ultimately I think all you need are the touch stones, and the rest becomes up to the interpretation of time and the storyteller. I have finished editing on my first directorial project (Me Him Her). I also wrote it, but even so, the plot is kind of hard to describe. It's mainly a movie about identity; it's a comedy, but that doesn't really peg how weirdly intense and hyperactive of an experience I want the film to be. It's almost kind of Bollywood, actually; there's a surreal, larger than life quality that I associate with Eastern films. It's not often you see a Western romantic comedy that ends in a big swordfight. 

Directing a film was a bizarre experience for me; I'd imagine it's how a musician might feel on stage in front of thousands playing a hit song. Even if the movie isn't a hit or even is just completely terrible, on set I had this amazingly active feeling of creation; like I was painting or drawing or some other fine art with measurable lines and colour. I felt constantly stimulated by every choice, and kept finding myself going back and tweaking dialogue and changing things so that they flowed better, it was like writing live for an audience and there's absolutely no feeling I've ever had that can compete with that.

Q. How long did it take to write the script of “Chronicle” way back? What was the process like?
ML: It was actually extraordinarily quick; a little less than three weeks to write the first draft, two months till it sold, four months of development and six months of production, I believe. Trying to explain the process of development would be very difficult for me to do in any kind of concise way, because, while it has its purpose, the “rules” behind it are often arbitrary and unique to the situation. I got into the project because my friend Josh Trank pitched me the very basics of the first act and a half of the movie as it stands; I was enamoured by the idea of it and decided to make it a more tragic, darker story focusing on an antihero character.

Q. Which is your favorite superhero movie?
ML: I would have to say Spider-Man 2. Of all the superhero movies that exist, it most perfectly executes what has made the superhero it's about so iconic. The action, the story, the characters, the direction, the acting, the cinematography; everything is pulled off exactly right to create a movie that truly sings the idea of Spider-Man. It's bright, it's pop, it's fun, it catches you off guard with somber moments; everything the Spider-Man comics have always been about. Watching it was a thrilling experience for me.

Q. You are so critical and deconstructive of superhero movies, but at the same time crazily in love with them and seem mesmerized by them. How come the two personalities in you?
ML: I love mythological and character-based story-telling, so comics have always appealed me as a marriage of the two. I'm an escapist guy, so I look for compelling worlds, and hey, there's a lot of that in comics, too. That said, I'm an outspoken person; I've never been quiet about my opinions, and I will always call a spade a spade when I feel something isn't living up to what I want it to be. I never claim to be an oracle, or that my opinions are definitive. I just state them loudly, with confidence, because doing that, starting a discussion, makes me happy.

Q. Seeing your videos and public expressions, you seem to have a say on almost everything, then how come you've never spoken on political and social issues of your country?
ML: I do tend to stray slightly away from political and social issues in public, but as an American liberal, my cut and dry humanistic view of the world seems pretty rote to me. I don't think I have anything truly intelligent or new to say on the subject, beyond that I feel all humans deserve to be treated humanely, to have the same rights. I don't need to get on that soapbox; it's already much too crowded with smarter, less obnoxious, more eloquent persons than me. If you need a guy to pick apart a movie, or create a new one, or tell you a story, I'm here for that. But I don't know at this point that I'm ready to start acting like my hippy-dippy Californian “can't we just all be chill to each other” politics are unique enough to merit voicing loudly.

Q. You know in the newer editions of Comic book superhero movies, we have different villains with updated “criminal” images. Do you really think they are criminals? For instance, in Nolan's “The Dark Knight Rises” we have Bane and Talia al-Ghul which are identical with the “Occupy Movement.” In Sam Mendes' “Skyfall” we have Raoul Silva who can again be easily connected to Julian Assange. Who knows next we might see Edward Snowden as an antagonist. What is your take on this? If they are criminals then Superman in the last film “Man of Steel” hasn't killed less civilians either.
ML: Bane and Talia WEREN'T ultimately the Occupy movement, and I think that's kind of what killed them for me. They weren't really ultimately anything, other than “bad guys,” whose motivations of revenge felt tiny compared to the actions they took. Bane especially was hard for me to take, because, despite his silly look in the comics, he's probably my favourite Batman villain. He's presented as a massively intelligent, but more than that, incredibly CUNNING man, Batman's strategic cerebral equal. Imagine if Gus Fring from Breaking Bad could rip you in half with his bare hands, THAT'S the character. They turned him into this confusing, Welsh “bad-ass” who ultimately was basically a goon for Talia, and that hurt because I wanted so badly to see the real character. Imagine if at the end of Dark Knight they'd revealed Joker was just an actor hired by a more powerful mob boss. It confused me.

The same can be said of the VERY muddled motivations of Raoul Silva; he starts out as an Assange figure, but again, this is a phantom menace. He ultimately is just another psycho out for revenge. This is actually a theme in recent blockbusters; villains are presented as having some kind of topical or political motivation, but ultimately are reduced to “evil insane criminals” and their original, complex motives swept aside. Star Trek Into Darkness, A Good Day To Die Hard, Skyfall, Dark Knight Rises, and others; at first the villains are presented as having some kind of “ripped from the headlines” goal, which is dismissed in favour ultimately of evil laughter and shooting innocent people.

You could argue that all real world evil is ultimately like this; that it's a bunch of sound to mitigate a bunch of fury, and that ultimately the ideologies of people like Osama Bin Laden or Adolf Hitler are really just psychotic ideation and the ranting of lunatics, but at least those people really did seem to believe their own nonsense. Every time a villain in a movie reveals that their complexity was just a ruse to hide how much they wanted to stab someone, it completely robs meaning from the conflict presented in the film.

“We're going to take over Gotham – for the people” became “we're going to blow it up with a nuclear bomb.” So quickly my head spun. And in doing so, I lost track of what was happening.

This happens because studios have this misguided desire to have “strong villain plots,” but ultimately the villain plots become too complex and you have a guy spouting Shakespeare in the first act and spitting and screaming in the third. It's a bad trend.

Q. Going by the law of the land, don't you think heroes and superheroes across the cinemas are criminals?
ML: Yes, very much so. That's one of the many things that's sexy about them.

Q. For American progeny, comic book characters and films might be the mythology and folk heritage. Have you heard of Indian mythological characters/heroes with extreme superpowers who are hundreds and millions of years old? (Like Lord Hanuman, Rama, Krishna, Bheema, Arjuna, Kumbhakarana and many-many more). What do you think of them? Can they be an exciting prospect for Indian and global audiences?
ML: I have of course! When I was young, I had all the comics, telling the story of Ganesha, all of that, people with blue skin. I think of course they're relevant, or could be made relevant to American cinema, but like everything else that gets adapted they'd have to be whittled down to their core elements. And with characters that precious to a culture, I worry that would be destructive.

Q. What interests you in life? What is your philosophy of living?
 ML: Experience. I constantly seek out new experiences, or at least, I try to live in a way that enables me to do this. I think of myself as an adventurer, and I crave adventure and exploration; not even physically, though that too, but mentally. I'm very much in the moment; I'd say my philosophy of living is “The more things you say you won't do, the more things you don't end up doing.” 

I feel like that's a terrible answer, though. I often feel as though I'm not as smart as people seem to think I am, if only because I can't instantly produce an eloquent answer to a question like this. Like there will be occasional bursts where I find myself soliloquizing and groups of people rapt in attention and I feel smart and well spoken and like I'm the sort of person who has an answer to the question “What is your philosophy of living?” but, more often than not, I'm just dicking around on YouTube.

Q. Your father John Landis is a well known American filmmaker and your mother Deborah is an Oscar nominated costume designer. What influence both of them had on you? Which of their teachings you still carry?
John Landis with son Max.
ML: They were really incredible parents. That was the most important thing. I had a very difficult childhood and they were there for me the whole time, even if that meant dealing with some dark and troubling stuff. What are their influences? To me, they're shockingly obvious; my mother taught me that every visual element can be used to tell a story. Her ability to make the visuals indistinguishable and inseparable from the narrative intelligence of a piece, the “life force” of the story, is reflected in every visual decision I make while both writing and directing. My father is an even more outright steal; the way I tell stories, both professionally and amongst friends, is a very direct evolution of his style. Down to getting all high pitched when I'm excited.

Q. According to you who are the most influential filmmakers in American cinema?
ML: When you say influential, you've sort of got me at a loss. I am not a film historian, and I was never a film student; hell, I'm barely even a proper cinephile when it comes to dates and directors and “the essentials,” I'm just a guy who really really really loves movies and has seen a whole lot of them. I think the director who's most influential, to me as well as to film history, is probably Scorsese (Martin). His ability to perfectly nail any tone, to recreate instantly entire worlds within characters and then build those huge characters into even bigger stories is just something that absolutely terrifies me in the best way possible. That the guy who directed Taxi Driver is the guy who directed The Departed is the guy who directed King of Comedy is the guy who directed Bringing Out The Dead is the guy who directed Casino is the guy who directed Gangs of New York is the guy who directed Goodfellas is the guy who directed After Hours is the guy who directed The Last Temptation Of Christ, I mean COME ON THAT'S INSANE. SO MANY STYLES. So many great stories, so many incredible performances, he's done something like fifty movies and HE'S GOT MORE COMING OUT. Sure, there's some misses in there but his ratio is CRAZY, he's like an exploding oil well of great American cinema. To know that someone like that can exist and prosper isn't just influential; it's inspirational.

Q. Your favorite Indian movies and makers?
ML: Well, I don't know many filmmakers other than Gurinder Chadha, who's been a family friend since I was little. But I'd have to say my favourite Bollywood films I've seen are Kal Ho Na Ho (every time Mahi Ve comes up on my iPod it's an instant dance party) and Om Shanti Om. Om Shanti Om has to stick out to me over Kal Ho Na Ho because I love the story; reincarnation, murder, great music, evil producers, and the final scene where he does the whole play to show the villain that they know what he did and re-enact the soundstage burning down is probably not just one of my favorite Bollywood sequences, but one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever.

Q. What perception American entertainment industry has of Indian movies?
ML: Honestly? I think there's a pretty big cultural gap; the styles are so wildly different that it's hard to even measure a Bollywood film against American Studio stuff. I think there's a perception of them as silly, but in an inimitable, alien way that can't easily be described. They certainly aren't condescended to; if anything, studios wish they could really crack the Indian market in a meaningful way, but since there's such a storytelling-style barrier, it's hard to say how and when and even if that's going to happen.

Q. As an individual what do you think of India and Indian people?
ML: I think that India is one of the best examples of a culture that has endured. So many countries, as we hurtle forward technologically and everything gets all Starbucks'd and Wal-Mart'd, have started to blend together in the inevitable singularity of globalization. But India, with its menagerie of mythological characters still riding high in the nation's zeitgeist, its own entertainment industry and really even its own fashion iconography of what's sexy and what's cool in an indefatigably different way than the west, seems to still be doing its own thing.

So yeah, I think India is pretty neat.
Max Landis standing in a fantasy fight with "Man of Steel."

मैक्स लैंडिस अमेरिका के कैलिफोर्निया से हैं। फिल्म लेखक हैं और काम के सिलसिले में लॉस एंजिलिस भी रहते हैं। बतौर स्क्रिप्ट राइटर उनकी पहली फिल्म "क्रॉनिकल’ 2012 में प्रदर्शित हुई थी। ये तीन युवाओं की कहानी थी जो हाई स्कूल में पढ़ते हैं और अचानक कुछ शक्तियां प्राप्त कर लेते हैं। सुपरहीरो फिल्मों के तय फीके सांचों के उलट ये बेहद ताजा रवैये वाली फिल्म थी। इस साल मैक्स की दो बड़ी फिल्में प्रदर्शित होने वाली हैं। 'अमेरिकन अल्ट्रा’ 21 अगस्त को लगेगी जिसमें जेसी आइजनबर्ग और क्रिस्टन स्टीवर्ट मुख्य भूमिकाओं में हैं। ये फिल्म एक ढीले लड़के के बारे में है जो बेहद विशेष क्षमताओं वाला सरकार का सुषुप्त लड़ाका है लेकिन अब वो सक्रिय नहीं हो पा रहा, ऐसे में उसे मारने का फैसला लिया जाता है लेकिन उसकी शक्तियां सक्रिय हैं और वो किसी के हाथ नहीं आता। 

इसके अलावा जेम्स मेकवॉय और डेनियल रेडक्लिफ की मुख्य भूमिकाओं वाली "विक्टर फ्रैंकेंस्टीन’ इस साल नवंबर में रिलीज हो सकती है। ये मैरी शैली के 1818 में लिखे मशहूर उपन्यास "फ्रैंकेंस्टीन’ पर आधारित है जिसकी स्क्रिप्ट मैक्स ने अपने अंदाज और बदलावों के साथ लिखी है।  वे बतौर निर्देशक भी अपनी पहली फिल्म "मी हिम हर’ बना चुके हैं जिसकी रिलीज बाकी है। "मि. राइट’ नाम की एक फिल्म भी मैक्स ने लिखी है जिसकी शूटिंग पिछले साल शुरू हो चुकी है। इसमें टिम रॉथ, सैम रॉकवेल और एना कैंड्रिक जैसे अदाकार हैं। ये एक औरत की कहानी है जिसे कभी सच्चा प्यार नहीं मिलता लेकिन जब मिलता है तो बाद में ज्ञात होता है कि वो एक हत्यारा है। मैक्स 18 की उम्र से लिख रहे हैं और अब 30 के हैं। उनके पिता जॉन लैंडिस हॉलीवुड के निर्माता-निर्देशक हैं और मां डेबरा ऑस्कर नामित कॉस्ट्यूम डिजाइनर हैं। वे समय-समय पर सुपरहीरोज़, वर्ल्ड रेस्लिंग एंटरटेनमेंट, हॉलीवुड, कॉमिक बुक्स और अमेरिकी एंटरटेनमेंट पर टिप्पणियां करते रहते हैं। 

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