Before I can even introduce myself, Max Landis looks up from his laptop, makes eye contact, and asks, “You wanna see something crazy?” As I sit down at West Hollywood’s Palihouse, he slides the Mac in my direction, presents me with his pastel earbuds, and hits play on a Quicktime file. A strange little trailer rolls — not a preview for one of the 32-year-old screenwriter’s many, many developing projects, but rather for a novel-length exegesis he’s written about the lyrical corpus of Carly Rae Jepsen. The towering, lanky, broad-faced Landis stars in the glossy clip, ranting eloquently and respectfully about the Canadian pop star, for minutes on end, and eventually being placed in a straitjacket by concerned hospital orderlies. The finished text, released a week and a half later, clocked in at 55,215 words — more than double the size of The Old Man and the Sea — and Landis released it for free online.
It’s hard to imagine how on earth he found the time. “You have to keep in mind, while writing the Carly thing, I also wrote three movies, I wrote most of a season of television, I did producing work on a show, I wrote a play, I started a dozen scripts,” Landis says matter-of-factly. “And that stems from a place of need.” Indeed, Landis is dead serious whenever he talks about how his sometimes-volatile emotional states have contributed to his becoming one of Hollywood’s most successful — and, in some circles, derided — scribes.
“I think ‘obsessive,’ as a word, has a bad rap,” he says in his typical tone, somehow even and controlled despite the fact that he’s constantly shouting. “Once I have these ideas and I feel these things, I start to feel a very strong emotional need inside me to see it through. And that comes both from a need to create artistically, and also a need, not for validation …” He trails off, then corrects himself with a puckish smile. “But maybe for validation. When I have an idea for a show, or have an idea for a movie, it’s very important to me — because I’ve always felt like I’m a little crazy — to show it to other people and have them go, ‘No, that’s not crazy.’”
A bevy of producers, executives, and directors have provided Landis with validation. He’s become an object of loathing for his critics — most of whom direct their ire toward his conduct online, rather than his work — but that hasn’t seemed to slow his lightning-fast rise in the past five years. He already has an impressively long résumé for someone his age, having written genre-bending outings like Chronicle, American Ultra, Victor Frankenstein, and Mr. Right; written and directed Me Him Her; executive produced the TV series Channel Zero; and created and acted as lead writer for the BBC America show Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which is about to begin its second season. But just as impressive are the deals he’s made for products that haven’t hit the screen yet: He sold a spec for this winter’s Bright for a reported $3.5 million (an insane figure for the largely dying sector of mid-budget, non-franchise pictures), Bradley Cooper is set to star in his story Deeper, and he’s working on a movie about cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, as well as a remake of An American Werewolf in London, the original of which was helmed by his father, John Landis.
Oh, right — the dad thing. Landis the younger is well aware that having “a familiar name” and being a native Angeleno helped open a few doors for him, but hastens to say that his struggles with mental illness prevented him from making potentially lucrative connections at a young age. “I had a lot of behavioral and emotional issues, and I didn’t have many friends, and I didn’t …” He pauses. “There was sort of a whole generation of people who hung out together. Jonah Hill, Max Winkler — those are nice guys, but that sort of generation of guys, a lot of them all sort of knew each other coming up in L.A., and I didn’t know anybody. I was totally on the outside. I wasn’t even on the outside looking in. I was a complete alien to that scene of people.”
More important in Landis’s estimation of his childhood’s influence is his youthful habit of talking. “I spent my whole childhood tantrum-ing and begging for attention,” he says. He was a storyteller, too — in a way. “I was a big liar for years, but I would lie about stuff that didn’t make sense. I would be like, ‘Guess what happened to me at school today?’ And then I would tell a story that could not have possibly happened to me at school today and sometimes didn’t involve me. I was always a super, super prolific guy in that sense. There was always a story. There was always an idea. There was always something.”
Though he may have been a precocious storyteller, he struggled academically and socially, eventually leaving Beverly Hills High School before attending an alternative school in Connecticut. He was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a bipolar-esque mood disorder, and though the more manic end of that equation was a possible boon for his creativity — he claims to have written 47 movie scripts before he turned 23 — it’s also repeatedly burned him and those around him. “There is a freneticism to my personality that’s dangerous to me and can hurt people’s feelings and also make me look like an idiot or a prick,” he says. “The hardest part for me is to remember that, even when I’m feeling teed-up or I’m feeling extremely drawn out of myself, the most useful thing in what I’ve been doing with mindfulness is remembering that I don’t need to be in that state.” He takes a half-second and lets out an almost undetectable sigh. “Which is hard.”
No doubt one of the reasons it’s hard is the fact that the world rewards him when he’s switched into the “on” position. His ability to capture a room during a pitch meeting is somewhat legendary. “It’s like nothing else,” says BBC America executive vice-president Nena Rodrigue. She struggles to find the words to describe being in the room for his Dirk Gently pitch: “Max is … It was awesome.” “He’s a force of nature,” says Peter Saraf, the producer of Me Him Her. That film drew heavily from Landis’s own experiences, and when he met with Saraf over lunch to sell him on it, the tête-à-tête quickly escalated. “He wanted to tell me about himself, about what it was like growing up as Max Landis, and what his family was like, what his school life was like, what his whole experience of growing up was like, as a way of explaining himself,” Saraf recalls. “We were eating at a restaurant with paper tablecloths, so he took out a pen and started drawing out cartoon panels of the Max Landis life story.”
You don’t need to hold filmic purse strings to get a sense of what Saraf and Rodrigue are talking about. You merely need to watch his videos. Landis is tremendously active on an array of online platforms, but the most entertaining and enlightening one is his YouTube page, where he publishes clip after clip of himself being himself. Some of the pieces are elaborate, such as his much-watched short film Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling, in which he and some friends dramatize sections of the modern history of pro wrestling; but most of them are just lo-fi affairs in which he speaks directly to the camera about writing, life, and geek culture. They’re all compelling in one way or another, but the most essential of them is a nearly 43-minute-long epic entitled Death and Return of Superman Pitch by Max Landis, in which the viewer gets the full Max Landis Pitch Experience. It’s a rehashing of a proposal the unabashed hypergeek made to comic-book publisher DC Entertainment for a reimagining of the company’s famed early-’90s saga about the Man of Steel’s perishing and resurrection.
“Meanwhile, outside the gate: Doomsday!!!” he screams around the 11-minute mark, naming the beast that eventually defeats Supes. Landis, clad in a sleeveless tee reading “INDUSTRY PEOPLE ARE SHADY,” clutches desperately at the air and shouts, “Ten feet of raw, destructive energy! If the Hulk was on the school ground, this is the kid who shoves the Hulk’s head in the toilet and gives him a swirly. Nothing! can stop Doomsday. Even being near him gives you toxic radiation sickness. And he is ripping through! ripping through! the archaeological dig.” Herein lies one of the things that allows Landis to stand apart in a cutthroat market: He can turn any of his plot descriptions into tent revivals. One almost feels like having actual actors play out the story would cheapen the experience.
YouTube videos like that rarely get him into trouble. The same cannot be said of Twitter, where he posts at a rapid pace and has found himself involved in a fair number of memorable squabbles. Shortly after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he accused the female lead of being a so-called “Mary Sue,” a derisive term from the world of fanfiction, and incurred wrath. (He now says his critics had a point, and that the incident taught him that “I just don’t need to be negative.”) After being attacked by director Lexi Alexander for being indicative of the way a “mediocre screenwriter” can be rewarded by Hollywood because he’s white and male, he launched into a long self-defense that was, itself, viciously criticized. He tweeted about not liking Arrival and was critiqued by Vanity Fair writer Joanna Robinson for having “sourness of the grapes variety” due to the fact that Chronicle has been Landis’s only bona fide hit. He still grapples with the resentment fostered by a 2013 interview (which Landis now regrets and claims he was drunk for) in which he talked about his distaste for groupie hookups, and which prompted the Jezebel headline, “Screenwriter Bro Just Might Be Hollywood’s Biggest Fuckwit.” It takes a little longer to find him railing against people or pieces of art on his Twitter timeline these days, but scroll for a while and you’ll come across something.
Landis has taken note of his online conduct and says it has, historically, come from the fact that he loses track of his place in society. As he puts it, “I repeatedly over the years have forgotten that I am no longer just a fan and I occupy a bizarre station that no one else occupies, where I’m doing pretty good in my career, but I act on Twitter like I work for Bloody Disgusting” — a news and reviews blog. “Like a snarky film critic.” He’s trying to kick the habit of being so confrontational on Twitter. “I don’t need to feed it anymore. I used to feel a need to feed it. I think that came from not understanding that my Twitter audience wasn’t there for that. They were there for the stuff I liked. The stuff I loved. All of my successes in life haven’t come from things I’ve torn down. They come from things I love.”
Despite all the digital mishegoss, when I ask Landis if his online presence has been a boon for his career, he’s emphatic in his reply: “I mean, like, fuck yes!” he says. “How do you think I got famous people in all my shit? I wasn’t famous. Being John Landis’s kid didn’t introduce me to Ron Howard. It didn’t introduce me to Elijah Wood. The fact that I have something of a following definitely helped me. Has my social media hurt me from getting a job? Never one that I’ve wanted.” In other words, one of the things that makes him so successful is the exact thing that leads some to dislike him.
Popular distaste for Landis hasn’t abated. Indeed, it reached a surreal zenith last year when a script called The Untitled Lax Mandis Project made it into the famed Black List, an annual index of worthy-but-unproduced scripts voted on by industry insiders. Written by, of all people, a development executive, Lax Mandis is an unfilmable, feature-length piss-take designed to tar Landis as indicative of everything that’s wrong with showbiz. “6 foot 2 inches of douchebag, he is LAX MANDIS, lanky, overgrown man-child,” is how the titular Landis pastiche is introduced. Mandis, as we find out, is a louche, petty, ostentatiously wealthy pissant who gains no redemption by story’s end.
The real Landis hates the script, but says it’s not because he feels hurt. Rather, his issues were that it had nothing new to say about Hollywood, wasted a spot that could’ve gone to a real screenplay, and — perhaps most important — it didn’t parody him accurately. “It’s tragic because of what that script could have been,” he says. “Because there’s a lot to say about me as a person. There’s a lot of different angles of attack. And it took none of them, and instead created a fake, easy-to-make-fun-of version of me that isn’t reflective of anything. That’s disappointing.”
So what would a good angle of attack be? Why is he so despised? For one observer’s opinion, let’s turn to Landis’s harshest critic: an amateur psychoanalyst named Max Landis. Never let it be said that the man isn’t self-aware. The best evidence can be found in a 2013 interview he did for the online talk show ETC. Ostentatiously clad in a heavily zippered green jacket, a black fedora, and red-tinted John Lennon glasses, he at one point goes on a tear about why people hate him, a vaguely unsettling grin on his face the whole way through. It’s best consumed in full:
Think about the character, free of any interaction we’ve ever had. The character is: son of a Hollywood director, pretty successful. Like, obnoxious, loud, outspoken. Almost confident to the point of arrogance. Super confident of his own stuff to the point of arrogance. This sounds like a second-tier villain. Like, I am the stooge, the dumb, rich stooge and the real scary guy is behind me, but I get killed in some dumb way by the female lead. I am so easy to dislike just by virtue of who I am that I’ve dealt with it my whole life. Not just my public persona. I dealt with this in private. And people who get to know me, like me, generally, but it’s hard. And I have no reason — I did this to myself. Because screenwriters aren’t famous. I mean, like, there are a few. But to people outside the film industry, no one should know my face. No one should connect this with this. I made a dumb choice.
His haters — himself included, at least during moments like the above soliloquy — may be numerous, but living well is the proverbial best revenge, and it seems like Landis has been finding his center as he rises. After a recent breakup, he shaved his distinctive rainbow-dyed hair (“The truth is, is that I’m a bombastic enough motherfucker that I don’t need to wear rainbows every day to let everyone know that”) and got a bicep tattoo of four mysterious symbols (“If you can’t read it, I’m not going to tell you what it says,” he tells me; after I incorrectly guess, he sticks to his promise and just sarcastically claims that it spells “ARBY” in honor of the fast-food chain). He says he’s trying to make his scripts tighter and more specific, so they can’t be so easily misinterpreted by directors and warped in the finished product. In general, it seems like he’s trying to err more toward being focused than frenetic. That means scripts with fewer locations and characters, a deeper dive on just a few themes that can unite his oeuvre, and fewer Twitter tirades. As he puts it, “I try to be a little more cautious with how I frame things now.”
But he’s not getting too focused. This is Max Landis we’re talking about, after all — another key to his success is the simple fact that he has so many pies cooking at any given time. He works with astounding quickness, claiming to have written the first draft of Mr. Right in a day and Deeper in five hours total. When I ask him if that means sleepless nights, he swiftly replies, “No, no” — the trick is how quickly he can write. Recently, he’s been spending most of his days co-showrunning Dirk Gently and writing other projects during down time. “I feel like he’s almost a victim of his own brain’s ability to generate ideas,” says Robert C. Cooper, co-showrunner for Dirk Gently. “If one thing doesn’t work, he’s already on to the next three, anyway.” That said, lots of people are prolific, and many are good in a room. Cooper — a 25-year veteran of the screenwriting game — says you can’t discount the sheer delight of his prose for a reader: “His writing is incredibly digestible and very witty, and so not only does it work onscreen, but it’s incredibly vibrant on the page. So when you read it, it comes to life. That is unique.”
But maybe the real secret sauce is the fact that Landis meshes with the present pop-culture moment better than most. He fits squarely into today’s lucrative target demographic of millennials who love sci-fi, superheroes, and comics; therefore, he knows — or at least can argue that he knows — how to deliver for that demographic. In an age of referentiality and self-exposure, he speaks fluently in the language of geeky touchstones and rips his chest open for everyone to see exactly what he thinks and feels. Though he’s an outspoken social progressive, he shares with Donald Trump a very germane talent for loudly saying exactly what he means, thus drawing you into his orbit and forcing you to engage with his words passionately, whether you like them or not. For a world fixated on ravenously consuming and compulsively creating content, and on relentlessly building one’s personal brand, he is a patron saint.
So will he truly rise to the moment and start writing Hollywood’s most beloved treasures: sequels and spinoffs? Here, uncharacteristically, his lips are sealed. “Do I have a Superman movie in my head? Yes. Do I have an X-Men movie? Duh. Some of these are jobs I’ve gotten and I’m not allowed to talk about, or some of them are jobs I almost got,” he says. “Of course I have a Star Wars movie and a Star Trek movie and a Fast and the Furious movie. I have a Transformers movie. I had a Pokémon movie. But like, I have learned that I am best suited not to share that. I am best suited to keep those cards close to my chest until I can play them and make money. Because otherwise, I’m just another fanboy.”
There seems to be little risk that Landis will become just another fanboy anytime soon. The question is whether or not he can keep up the galloping pace of output and success — and whether some future outburst might bite him harder than any have in the past. He doesn’t seem too worried about any of that, and in talking about where he’s going in the future, the conversation once again turns to self-analysis.
“I think all human comfort is based around safety,” he says. “It’s based around, Oh, there’s something wrong. People who seem awful, if you break it down to This person is scared that there’s something wrong, all human behavior makes sense. It’s not all justified, and it’s not all sane, but it all becomes rather sensible. In dealing with the issues that I’ve had with bipolar, that has been invaluable. I also have been lucky in that as I have gotten older, my cyclothymia, the edge has really come off.” In other words, Landis feels safer these days, and that leads to a better Max Landis. But the fight, like his rise, continues. “A lot more now,” he says, “it’s just not indulging these shadows.”
*A version of this article appears in the October 2, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.