If we’re to believe exclusively what we’re told, Max Landis is a big deal. And we’re repeatedly told he’s a big deal for reasons having nothing to do with his famous father (director, John Landis) and everything to do with the fact that … he gets paid a lot of money for scripts that end up not being successful? So basically, the entertainment industry brags about indulging him despite his lack of an actually successful track record. Great. Sure, let’s call that success then.
There is currently a Vulture profile out on Landis, written by a writer named Abraham Riesman, who is clearly all-aboard the Landis train. Now listen, there’s nothing wrong with profiling someone for an outlet from the point of view of a fan. We here at The Mary Sue are huge fans of many of the people we’ve profiled. However, that fan lens shouldn’t get in the way of facts or journalism.
The Vulture piece proceeds to bend over backwards to downplay Landis’ bad behavior, painting him as a “wacky eccentric,” while disproportionately praising his successes. Yes, Landis’ show Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency on BBC America is about to begin its second season, and has been doing well (with a little help from Douglas Adams, obviously). I’ve never watched it, so I cannot speak to its quality. However, Landis seems to jibe with Adams’ work, and it’s earned him a second season, which is great. That’s a legitimate success.
The label of “one of Hollywood’s most successful” screenwriters, bestowed on him by Vulture, becomes more ill-fitting as you look at Landis’ film career. You know, the one in which he keeps being given huge paydays despite his films being less-than-financially-successful. As Dustin Rowles over at Pajiba pointed out on the occasion of a previous fawning profile of Landis at the New York Times:
“First off, it’s worth noting that this is the kind of decision that put MGM into bankruptcy four years ago. Two million dollars for a screenplay from a writer whose last movie made $35,000 at the box office, despite starring Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell. $2 million for a screenplay from the writer of Victor Frankenstein, which made $5 million total, despite having both Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy in it. The movie before that, American Ultra, made $14 million on a $28 million budget.Also, who brags about finishing a spec script in 7 hours? That’s like finishing a math test half an hour before everyone else, but getting a C.”
It’s interesting then that, in this Vulture piece, Landis’ speed is addressed this way:
“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.””
So … he’s actually trying to be a writer now. Like a normal writer person. Which is what, you know, you should do if you wanna be an actual writer. Tight, clear, purposeful scripts—even if they’re experimental or challenging—should always be the goal of writing. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was experimental and challenging as hell, and yet even on a first watch it was clear how purposeful and intricately-planned everything in that film was. Whether it’s ultimately your cup of tea or not, there’s no doubt that it’s a well-crafted film.
The fact that Landis only seems to be getting around to craft now is very telling. And yet, Riesman seems to be giving him extra credit for just, you know, doing what writers are supposed to do. Also, it’s funny that Reisman explains this focus on craft as happening so that Landis’ work can’t be “misinterpreted by directors,” putting the blame on directors for “not getting” Landis as opposed to on Landis for not being an effective writer.
Quantity does not equal quality, my friends. I can write a lot of shit in seven hours, too. Doesn’t mean it’s filmable, or worth $2 million.
The profile also addresses Landis’ mental illness, mentioning that “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.”
This is something worth bringing up, and it’s certainly something that should be understood when discussing Landis’ history of bad, and usually sexist, online behavior. However, it shouldn’t be used to excuse or explain away his bad behavior. After all, I know plenty of people who are bipolar, or have other mental illnesses or disorders that manage not to be raving sexists online. Dealing with mental illness does not absolve someone of personal responsibility.
The Vulture profile also talks about Landis being “attacked” online while providing zero context. For example, Riesman mentions that “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.”
What Riesman doesn’t do is go beyond the surface of that, which is extremely important. Because Landis’ “long self-defense” was, in and of itself, indicative of privilege and entitlement:
Why yes. Yes it is. Alexander was criticizing a general trend in Hollywood, using Landis as an example, and Landis made it about himself and went on-and-on in a video, being passive-aggressive in his demand that Alexander talk to him.
Alexander was doing what I’m doing right now. She wasn’t talking about Landis as an individual, but rather, was talking about how Hollywood treats him and how that is a problem. However, privilege means getting to make every comment about systemic injustice about you. He responded by not respecting her boundaries and having fans bombard her with a video demanding that she talk to him.
Further down in the thread, Former TMS EIC Jill Pantozzi reminds us of another moment of Landis “miscommunication:”
It just so happened that his worst Internet behavior happened with or around women, so there’s a reason why his behavior has been labeled sexist, whether Landis or Riesman believe that he is sexist or not. The behavior certainly has been (as is being outlined in this ongoing Twitter thread that you should definitely check out).
Now, according to Riesman’s Vulture profile, Landis is in the process of reexamining his behavior, and Landis himself seems to want us to know this:
I’m glad to see this willingness to examine past behavior and change, I truly am. I hope the “New Max Brand” recognizes that women aren’t “yelling at him” just to “yell at him,” and that when they use him as an example of how white males get ahead despite bad behavior and failed projects, whereas women and men of color have to be damn-near-perfect to be taken seriously in the same field, that it’s not about him, Max Landis, personally.
It’s about a systemic problem in the entertainment industry. And he has two options: he can either get defensive, and perpetuate the problem, or he can acknowledge the disparity and use his platform to change things.
Because as things stand now, the Max Landises of the world can continually screw up and always manage to stay afloat, and it happens at the expense of others. And Hollywood doesn’t seem to care. And that is a problem. The Vulture piece, despite framing Landis as the hero of its narrative, nonetheless betrays all the things that are wrong with putting Landis on a pedestal:
“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.”
Reisman later praises his online presence as a part of his success. So…should we focus on his online self, or not?
“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.”
So, Landis is rewarded not so much for actual writing talent, but for being able to
bullshit sell a pitch. I mean, I know pitching well is a skill anyone looking to make a career for themselves in entertainment needs to master, but if it’s all pitching ability and little substance and talent? That’s a problem. Especially when all the risks are being taken on the same filmmaker over and over when there are equally or more-talented filmmakers not getting opportunities at all.
How much money does a white male screenwriter have to lose a studio before someone else can have a chance at those jobs?
Of course, the profile is quick to assert that Landis does have actual talent:
““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.””
Even this, however, seems like lukewarm praise at best. “Digestible?” Mm’kay. And Cooper starts by basically saying that rather than addressing or caring about the things that don’t work, Landis moves on to the next thing.
Again, quantity is not better than quality, and yet so many from the press to Hollywood executives, to fellow screenwriters and showrunners all seem to want to praise him for sheer output while being significantly more muted about whether or not any of his vast output is actually any good.
Reisman tells me I should be grateful for Landis, and maybe that’s true. After all:
“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.”
Troubling comparison to Trump aside, I’m picking up what he’s throwing down. I could just not write about Max Landis, willfully ignoring him and his place in Hollywood. Yet as someone whose values include making the entertainment industry and pop culture as a whole more equitable and inclusive, I can’t ignore it. I would be doing my own values a disservice.
So, while Reisman is using Landis to create content that does nothing but allow him to fanboy while blowing smoke up Landis’ skirt, I choose to use Landis’ public platform as a springboard from which to address much larger problems.
This is not about Max Landis. This is about what Max Landis represents. This is about the sexism and racism that permeates Hollywood and continually allows a less-than-artistically successful screenwriter to be financially successful even when his eventual films aren’t, all as he engages in questionable, hurtful, and sexist behavior.
Meanwhile, those without his significant privileges would never be able to get away with any of those same things.
(image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
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