Grantland logo

Q&A: Nima Nourizadeh and Max Landis on ‘American Ultra,’ the State of Hollywood, Josh Trank, and Their ‘Lethal Weapon 5’ Pitch

A candid conversation with two of Hollywood’s hottest young talents.

A director and a screenwriter walk into a Culver City bar …

There’s no real punch line to that setup, except for maybe the outfit that Max Landis, the writer half of the duo, is wearing: a rainbow-striped top, heart-shaped sunglasses hanging from the shirt’s deep neck, and a vintage army jacket. The right side of his head is shaved. “I thought it was going to be on camera. I got all pretty for this,” he says.

Joining him is the English director Nima Nourizadeh, less peacockish in a navy blue T-shirt and a backward baseball cap. As the pair get ready to give their drink orders, Landis’s eyes widen and he abruptly starts repeating, “Mario. Mario. Mario! Mario.” He nods his head toward one of the retirement-age customers clustered on the stools: mustache, red T-shirt, overalls.

American Ultra, the first collaboration between Nourizadeh and Landis, is in theaters now. The film is about a young couple in West Virginia, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, stuck in a mucky life of bong rips and hick-town hassles. That is, until Eisenberg’s character is forced to defend his life using a spoon and a cup of instant ramen and his CIA-implanted training for efficient killing becomes activated. Landis came up with the concept at a Los Angeles bus stop on Third Street and Wilton Place, where there’s now an ad for American Ultra.

The film is a bit bonkers — full of blood spray, Connie Britton in turtlenecks, and a rural black-lit basement club where 2 Live Crew’s “Hoochie Mama” plays. It understands the modern stoner landscape, where a domestic drone strike is as an important a signifier as Ethiopia’s Lion of Judah flag. American Ultra’s August release date is key, too, sneaking in a final deathgasm after the bloated summer blockbusters have receded and before the studios parade out their prestige thoroughbreds for awards season. It joins other stylized, self-consciously clever action comedies that previously arrived in August, including Kick-Ass 2, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Pineapple Express.

American Ultra is the second feature for both Nourizadeh and Landis. Coincidentally, the debut from each came out in 2012, during the low expectations of the year’s first quarter, and each became an unexpected box office success. For Nourizadeh it was Project X, the found-footage teen party movie of escalating mayhem. Meanwhile, Landis wrote the script for Chronicle, Josh Trank’s unnerving teenagers-with-superpowers origin story that used the same aesthetic approach. “It’s funny, both films, they’re not just found footage, they’re both about a set of three unlikely friends who discover a horrific power, they briefly have fun, and then it ends badly,” says Landis.

Landis is the better known of the two creators, despite having the typically lower-profile job. He’s the 30-year-old son of John Landis, director of such gifts to humanity as Animal House, Coming to America, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” But more notably, he’s become famous as a hyper-productive screenwriter, who last year detailed all 71 screenplays he’s finished since he was a teenager. A frequent guest on nerd-courting podcasts and a prolific uploader to his YouTube account, he’s given to pronouncements like, “If you think about it at all, Batman is the biggest Batman villain,” and, “Wrestling is melodrama, wrestling is mythology, wrestling is action, wrestling is comic books. The only thing wrestling isn’t, is wrestling.” His speaking voice sounds like Paul Giamatti at his most agitated. In 2013, he said in a BuzzFeed profile that he has cyclothymia, a milder form of bipolar disorder, and dysgraphia, a learning disability. 2015 will be a big year for Landis — not only is there American Ultra, but he also wrote both the James McAvoy–Daniel Radcliffe vehicle Victor Frankenstein and Mr. Right, an Anna Kendrick–dates-a-hit-man film that’s going to close this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Additionally, he wrote and directed Me Him Her, which played the Seattle Film Festival in June and is currently looking for distribution. At the end of July it was announced that Landis will write a TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently character for BBC America.

Nourizadeh is a more low-key figure. Though he’s had a Twitter account since March 2009, he’s tweeted only 195 times at the time of this writing, a figure Landis sometimes reaches in a little over two days. He began his career making videos for U.K. acts like Hot Chip, Lily Allen, and Bat for Lashes, eventually landing high-profile commercial clients like Adidas. He’s more gruff than Landis, but still excitable. After Project X, he became sought-after in Hollywood, but waited several years before choosing American Ultra as his follow-up.

If American Ultra is a success, Nourizadeh and Landis could have the pick of their next project. Sitting below a Budweiser surf board, the two friends discuss the making of the film and what it could mean for them.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in 'American Ultra.'

Lionsgate Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in ‘American Ultra.’

How did you decide to work together on American Ultra?

Nourizadeh: Max and I met at some place in Los Feliz. I had seen Chronicle and I had read his Frankenstein script. I didn’t know the extent of how crazy and out there he is, but when I saw him in the day, in the heat, he was wearing a green leather jacket and leather pants or something. I was like, “This is going to be good.”

Landis: I had finished two scripts recently and when I heard he wanted to meet with me, I thought he’d be good for either of them. So I pitched him Ultra up to the first twist and Nima immediately got the humor, and I was like, “Oh thank god.” What I try to write are movies that encompass at least two genres and try to melt those together, and American Ultra was born out of my desire to write a movie about a guy whose slackerness is holding back his girlfriend who is an overachiever, who then discovers that he has a secret skill or talent that will allow him to be useful to his girlfriend. I looked at a bunch of different ways to do that and then I thought, Oh yeah, the CIA would take people, dose them to the eyeballs on acid, put them in mazes, train them in karate, and then send them back out in the world.

Nourizadeh: This was a spec script that no one had seen apart from his team. I got home and normally when you get pitched stuff like this, it sounds so good, and as soon as you start reading the script, nine times out of 10 you go, “Why? Why did you do that? Why did you mess this up?” I was so nervous, because I loved the sound of it, and I was turning every page and just going, “Shit, this is fucking good.” Max had set up this relationship so well. It felt like this intimate love story in the beginning. I really loved it because it completely threw me. I had no idea where it was going, even though he gave me a really basic pitch. I turned the page and turned the page, and at no point did I go, “You fucked this up.”

Did you even pitch the second idea?

Landis: I pitched the second one first, to sort of softball it in.

Nourizadeh: I liked the second one, too, but I just don’t know if I could make that movie.

Landis: Knights versus dinosaurs.

Nourizadeh: I feel like that might be something Max wants to do himself.

Landis: I’m just going to do that with Legos in my room.

Did the script change much from what you gave to Nima and when they started filming?

Landis: Not much. They were incredibly respectful. I was talking pretty regularly to Nima or [producer] Anthony [Bregman] or Jesse about certain scenes and shaping it so it was more executable.

Nourizadeh: We were communicating all the time. Max came down to New Orleans early on.

Dane DeHaan in 'Chronicle.'

20th Century Fox Dane DeHaan in ‘Chronicle.’

Have you been invited to the sets of other films you sold?

Landis: It’s actually been very frustrating. During Chronicle, I was working on Frankenstein and this other Ron Howard thing, so I couldn’t go to fucking South Africa for a week, although I went for the reshoots in Vancouver. Me Him Her I directed, so I was invited to set every day, ideally on time. Frankenstein, I was directing Me Him Her, so I couldn’t go to England. And Mr. Right, I was there for a bit of the time. But the truth is, it’s all about how close I am to the director and how much the director understands the piece.

Nourizadeh: The script never lacked something you needed from another writer. It’s not like the comedy wasn’t right, or the romance wasn’t there, or the relationships aren’t right.

Landis: The scary thing about a good script, or a script that a lot of people like, is that it’s an incredibly vulnerable document. When I say in the script that there’s this incredible action scene, the weight is then entirely on Nima to execute it. All the action scenes you see in the movie, I’m not writing, “Then he does this … ”

Nourizadeh: In the script, he kind of gave up. He had written all this action and literally by the end he goes, “This is going to be the most incredibly one-take action sequence.” Then he starts to describe it for maybe two lines, then he goes, “Listen, there’s stunt coordinators, there’s professional people that know what they’re doing, use your imagination.”

Max, is it hard for you to let go of your scripts and trust the filmmakers with it?

Landis: Project to project. American Ultra it wasn’t. I trusted Nima, I trusted the producers. There was never a point where I felt panicked. On certain projects, yeah, you feel way more scared, because you know they’re fucking up. And you can’t tweet about it, you can’t complain about it.

How do you know that they’re fucking up?

Landis: Because I watch movies. I watch movies and I watch what they’re shooting. The problem is that my definition of fucking up might not be real. For writers, there’s two ways to be in the industry: bitter and not getting hired or realistic and getting hired. At the end of the day art is subjective, and this is a business hemmed around the idea that art isn’t subjective and that if we do this, this, and this we’ll get this result. And every weekend at the box office we find out that’s bullshit and it doesn’t matter what you do. But the people with the money can’t give up on that system, because then there is no system, which is crazy. So yeah, it’s scary sometimes, but that’s why it’s a job.

I was watching the scene [in America Ultra] where Jesse and Kristen have that conversation that then builds to them fighting in the car. I never could have shot that scene the way Nima did. It’s so fucking good! And it’s so visual without being arty. You feel so in there with them. I look at that and I think, This is stuff I wouldn’t have thought of doing, so thank fucking Christ I had collaborators, because my version of the scene would have sucked. Once you’ve seen that happen once, once you see in Chronicle the way Josh [Trank] shot the spider scene, you realize there’s another side to having your stuff fucked with that is good and important.

Nourizadeh: You have to trust that person, you have to trust the people you’re working with. Everyone is letting go of something. The day I meet with someone to hire them, I’m letting go of something. You’re letting go of things all the way through the process, right up until where we are sitting right now, in terms of marketing. You’re constantly letting go.

Landis: That’s a beautiful way to look at it. You’re like a tree covered with fruit.

Nourizadeh: And it’s all dropping.

Landis: Into different hands.

'Project X'

Warner Bros. ‘Project X.’

Both of you seem interested in projects that combine two different genres and twist them together. There are jokes about Hollywood pitch meetings, and if you heard someone say that they wanted to do The Bourne Identity meets Dude, Where’s My Car?, that seems like a crazy thing to want to make right now.

Nourizadeh: But why is it crazy?

Landis: It’s not, because they used to do it. They used to not be afraid of this and they made so much money.

Nourizadeh: I love that [American Ultra] mashes up all these genres. It makes Lionsgate’s job really hard, because they’re like, “How do we define this movie?” But it’s so fun when you watch it, because you don’t know what the fuck is going to happen. Real life is you laugh one second, you cry the next.

Landis: And no one goes, “That’s tonally inconsistent.”

Nourizadeh: Life can have those extremes, so why not have that in a movie and have it be real and grounded?

Landis: As an addendum to that, every script I write is a game where I take a normal story that doesn’t need a weird element, and then add a weird element. Chronicle is a movie about a school shooting, but told on this extremely macro level. American Ultra is a movie about a guy finding his purpose and redeeming himself to his girlfriend, except the Ultra program is there.

At this stage in your careers, how much of what you have to do is convince people with money to give you more money for your next project because you didn’t lose money the last time someone gave you money?

Landis: I guess we’ll see how the weekend box office does for Ultra. If Ultra does well, then that means he and I have been involved in two hit movies, which will give us a little more credence, but they still never believe you.

Nourizadeh: It’s always going to be hard. It’s a lot of fucking money. No bank would loan you that kind of money with that kind of risk.

Landis: My job will never not be people looking at me and to some degree being like, “This guy is crazy.” And maybe that’s because I shaved the side of my head. In a lot of ways, all I do, all I’m enabled to do within the film industry, is essentially a very elucidated, luminous form of begging. I give people documents and say, “Please read all of this.” You know how hard it is to get someone to read a script? Even people who like reading scripts don’t like reading scripts.

My struggle — as long as I try to push original ideas instead of becoming an assignment guy, because assignments are not as emotionally rewarding for me, and not as financially rewarding ultimately —will always be me looking at someone in the face who thinks I’m crazy and going, “Here’s my good idea,” and them going, “I’m not so sure.” It’s very rare that you get someone like Nima, or Paco [Cabezas] who directed Mr. Right, or Josh Trank on Chronicle, who gets it. And you are blessed if you get three people who get it.

With the money, how much do you feel like you need more?

Nourizadeh: You always need more, man. With my sort of background and my experience in making videos, I started off making zero-budget music videos. I’ve always been having to deal with monetary issues or budget issues. Over the years, you find a way to make a thing you want with less money. That’s why it never scares me if someone says, “American Ultra, you’ve got $20 mil instead of $30 mil.” I’m like, “Fuck that’s painful, but I’ll figure it out.” Because when you have $30 mil, you need $50 mil. You never have enough. You’re always having to cut a little scene, cut a big set piece, or trim back something.

Eisenberg, Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Nourizadeh, Tony Hale and John Leguizamo at the "American Ultra" premiere at the Ace Theater Downtown LA.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Eisenberg, Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Nourizadeh, Tony Hale, and John Leguizamo at the ‘American Ultra’ premiere at the the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown L.A. this week.

What about in terms of the profile of your projects? Your guys’ first movies came out in the first quarter of the year; American Ultra comes out in August. So what’s next? Are you looking for big blockbuster franchises?

Landis: I want to do International Ultra.

Nourizadeh: You do, you’ve already written it.

Landis: I wrote 30 pages of it.

Nourizadeh: People ask me, “Is there a sequel for this?” And I say, “We’ll have to wait and see how it does,” but we hadn’t even finished shooting and Max had written the sequel already.

But careerwise there is a danger in taking on a franchise, most notably right now if you look at what happened with Josh Trank on Fantastic Four.

Landis: Josh Trank … yeah, no comment. I’ve already commented enough.1


1.

To hear the extremely Landis-ish pitch that Landis delivered for the Fantastic Four movie, check out his recent appearance on The Indoor Kids podcast around the 40-minute mark.

Nourizadeh: There is something very appealing about doing a movie like that, because as a creative person you feel like the world is going to see your movie. Personally speaking, it would excite me to do something like that, only if I truly felt like what they wanted was what I have, and not where they’re really telling me what the fuck to do every day. That would be the most painful place to be. I don’t know, maybe I’ll fall into a groove like that, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll keep doing movies that I feel like I have a lot more control in.

Landis: For me, I have my two TV shows I’m getting into.

Nourizadeh: But you could write something big.

Landis: I’ve gotten those fucking jobs. I’ve gotten big superhero and property jobs, and they don’t want my version of that. They don’t want anyone’s version but theirs. I gave up, and that’s why all of my five movies I’ve done are original ideas. And if I can keep living in that sphere, I’ll keep living in that sphere forever.

Nourizadeh: As a writer, Max, you can jump onto those movies and do a draft, or come in and do a couple weeks of a rewrite. You don’t even have to be credited for it.

Landis: I’ve done that, too. But with Nima, you’ve got to commit a whole year and a half, two years.

Nourizadeh: You are jumping in deep.

Landis: And you’re everyone’s bitch. When you’re working for a studio on a property, you are bottom bitch as the director, because if you fuck up, you get blamed, even if it’s not your fault. And when it is your fault, you still get blamed. You stand to lose everything and gain nothing, unless you’re the Russo brothers, who killed it and have just won.

Do you think that process of studios looking for new talent to take on these projects is too accelerated? Are they asking people to make too big of a leap before they’re ready?

Nourizadeh: I love it. In the case of Josh Trank, that was an unfortunate situation. Studios are being ballsy and daring and they are able to take these risks where they are able to seize on talent. That’s happening in everything, from the music business to the art world. You see a talent and they can explode overnight. It doesn’t always work, but the intention is there of: This is something very exciting that not everyone knows about. They’re going to take that and give them something huge and see what they do. And that’s kind of exciting. And it does work.

That approach paid off for studios with Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World.

Landis: I despised Jurassic World. But it made them a lot of money.

Nourizadeh: Those movies are hugely successful. They’re not your immediate choices for director, or at least not the obvious ones. All those big superhero movies are going for these smaller, independent comedy guys.

Landis: I honestly believe that’s because …

You think it’s because the studios can push them around?

Landis: I’ll let you say that. One of the weirdest things about this industry is because it’s an internalized art industry based on a very tight social bubble of maybe 10,000 people, there’s only so much you can publicly say before you risk stepping on someone’s toes or breaking omertà, exposing the fact that for all the talk about art and science in filmmaking and box office, and which actors are B’s and which are A’s, and what we need in this, and what will appeal to that, movies and what makes movies successful is this dumb mystery. And ultimately in the development of movies, have you ever gotten into a fight about a movie you saw with your friend? Development is just that, except it’s before the movie even exists. No side is right, necessarily, no side is wrong.

Nourizadeh: In the process of preproduction, I check out these production designers. I’m not choosing like, “Oh, he did Guardians of the Galaxy.” I’m going, “He did Guardians of the Galaxy, but he also did this fucking tiny French movie, and then he did this comedy, and then he did this horror film.” That guy is interesting to me. You’re trying to find the right people for your project that you’re excited about, or that you see a spark that’s unusual or different about them. Studios are doing that with these new, younger directors now. They’re like, “He did a short film and then he did this little independent feature, he’s right for Spider-Man.” And you’re like, “What? That’s going to be a $200 million movie, that guy is going to be so overwhelmed.” But maybe not. The movies are super-successful …

Landis: Ultimately that’s what it comes down to. You can mumble the words, “The movies are super successful.” Then they won. They gambled and they won.

How do you deal with your projects that don’t get made?

Landis: Since I became a working writer, which is close to five years ago, I have written and sold — via either pitch of spec — 19 scripts. Five of them got made, and that’s an obscenely high ratio. And it’s all luck. I really believe it’s all luck. My new modality as a creator — and Nima doesn’t have this luxury — is that I choose things that can get made and are weird enough to get noticed. I really started that with the script for Mr. Right, which I wrote ages ago, and I’m sticking to those guns.

Nourizadeh: I’ve never gone for something that never happened.

Landis: Fuck you.

Nourizadeh: There actually was another movie called Cali, which I was really excited about.

Landis: Fuck Cali. It was distracting him from [American Ultra].

You talked about International Ultra. Is the hope for you to turn this into your own franchise?

Nourizadeh: I would love to make another American Ultra sequel, offshoot, whatever it is. It’s a cool, interesting story that has a lot of scope still.

Landis: I desperately want to do that, but I got burned pretty bad with that on Chronicle.

Nourizadeh: What happened with that?

Landis: Josh went and did Fantastic Four. I didn’t get fired. I just sort of gave up, because it was clear they didn’t know what type of movie they wanted [the sequel] to be. That’s no fault of theirs; Chronicle is a fluke. Fox would never make and release a really dark movie where all the characters die. We had no real heavy push for ChronicleOur success was a surprise. I wrote a sequel, which is dark. It was cool. Hopefully one day it will leak. Honestly, we should be on Chronicle 3 by now. The capitalizing on that sort of came and went.

You’re saying because Josh left, it ended your involvement?

Landis: No, I was still involved, but I had no one standing next to me going, “Yes, these are good ideas.” Josh had been attached to a bunch of other stuff and I was like, “Let’s fucking do this. Let’s make nine of these motherfuckers.” Josh was never there. That’s not a fault of his — he had been offered Fantastic fucking Four, go with god. International Ultra, if we ever get to make it, would require this movie making a lot of fucking money — we’re talking fan fiction right now. I’ve written other scripts that involve the CIA as an incompetent, buffoonish entity filled with bureaucrats who can’t do shit, dealing with hyper-capable mercenaries. It’s a theme I write. In Mr. Right, it’s implied that Sam Rockwell’s character came from an earlier generation of Ultra people, but we never say that out loud. There are little connections if you look close, but I’m not Tarantino, so there’s only so much they’ll let me get away with.

Hypothetically, the film does well and on Monday morning a studio comes to you guys and they say, “We’re starting Lethal Weapon up again, we think you have what it takes, we’re going to give you $130 million.” Are you in?

Landis: In! I have to do my TV show, but I’d be in.

Nourizadeh: I love Lethal Weapon.

Landis: Would you be scared?

Nourizadeh: I’d be scared because it would be one of those, “Who’s going to play Mel Gibson and Danny Glover?”

Landis: You’re thinking of it as a reboot, not a sequel about old-ass Mel Gibson and Danny Glover?

Nourizadeh: I’d be more into doing the sequel than the reboot.

Landis: If it was bad, that’s the first bad Lethal Weapon movie. There are Lethal Weapon movies that are OK, number four isn’t great, but it sure as fuck isn’t bad. It’s a fucking cool movie.

Nourizadeh: Can you imagine a sequel with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson?

Landis: They’re retired. They have to be retired.

Who would the young cops be?

Landis: It’s Chris Rock. Fuck it, bring him back.

But Chris Rock is getting too old for this shit at this point.

Landis: The final Lethal Weapon, if I have to pocket-pitch it right now, is Murtaugh and Riggs are asked to work with a group of, like, four cops who are younger, who were all involved in an action movie that we didn’t see. You hear the report, and it sounds like a Lethal Weapon movie: “They drove a school bus off of an oil rig?” Then Murtaugh and Riggs are assigned to take them on like an Outward Bound program and try to teach them to be better cops and respect authority. Then it turns out the villain from the action movies that we missed is coming to kill them. Murtaugh and Riggs in the woods for the first time in any of the movies, with four characters we really like, do a slasher movie.

Nourizadeh: This is exactly how he pitches, by the way.

Landis: That works, but I’m sure there’s a better way than that. That’s the one that jumps to the front of my eyes, because you want them to be sitting around the campfire, being old men. You don’t want them to be like Bruce Willis in A Good Day to Die Hard. You remember that scene from Lethal Weapon 3 where they are on the boat and they get in the argument and they start crying? That’s writing right there.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Eric Ducker (@ericducker) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.