This Is Not The Max Landis Exposé You're Looking For
On October 5th, 2017, The New York Times published a report about Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment. Five days later, in the New Yorker, Ronan Farrow presented the results of a ten-month investigation into Weinstein’s behavior, including multiple accounts of sexual harassment and assault. And since then we’ve heard allegations against countless other public figures, from Oscar winning actors to morning talk show hosts.
The message was clear: There have always been sexual predators operating in the shadows, but that doesn’t mean they need to remain there. All it takes to shine a light on them are survivors who are willing to come forward and tell their stories. And since that dam broke back in October, we’ve all been thinking the same thing:
Which brings me to writer/director/Hollywood scion Max Landis (Bright, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Chronicle). And I’ll be upfront with you — I have no first-hand accounts of sexual assault or harassment to report. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But I think there is a story to tell about this cultural moment of accountability we find ourselves in. A story about silence, and the reasons why survivors might not want to come forward. So if you’ll stick with me, I’d like to share it.
On October 19th, 2017, we received an anonymous tip. The email alleged that Max Landis serially abuses women, including sexual assault, and that he “threatens, bribes, plays victim, pretends to be reformed, does whatever works to keep them quiet, and then does it again.” The tipster claimed to have witnessed Max’s behavior, and provided a few names to reach out to for first-hand accounts. I volunteered to do some digging.
We now know that we were not the only outlet to receive this tip.
If you’re at all familiar with Pajiba, you probably realize that this sort of thing isn’t our typical beat. We may be a feminist hug-box, and we will absolutely cover sexual predators and other assorted scum, but we don’t often break or try to break these kinds of hard-hitting news stories ourselves. And cold calling (or cold DM-ing, to be more accurate) possible assault survivors is a little outside our comfort zone. But seeing this tip, just weeks after the Weinstein story broke? There was no way we could ignore it, because… well, what if it was true?
I had to be careful, though, in general because accusations should not be casually thrown about and specifically because it’s already known that we’re not exactly Landis fans. In fact, in the midst of all the Weinstein stories coming to light, Landis was at New York Comic Con complaining to Newsweek about how he’s been criticized by, well, us.
“I’m sick of being a controversial figure,” Landis told Newsweek at New York Comic Con on Friday. “If Pajiba, or The Mary Sue, or any of these sites want to interview me, I’m here.”
“I’m not a sexist guy,” Landis says.
(To be fair, he’s right — we’ve absolutely criticized him in the past and we’re hardly alone. He makes it really goddamn easy to criticize him, especially whenever he gives an interview or tweets or basically says anything, which is a point I’ll come back to.)
I had to consider the possibility that the reason we were getting a Max Landis tip in our inbox, instead of say Ronan Farrow or Jodi Kantor, was precisely because we were clearly on Max’s radar — for good or for ill. Someone could be banking on the fact that we’d believe these allegations against Landis because of our past coverage. What if the tip was not genuine, but in fact was an effort to tempt us into publishing something libelous?
So I proceeded quietly, and carefully. I reached out to the names I had and kept an eye on social media, looking for more leads. And over time more mentions of his behavior came to light. At first his name wasn’t mentioned directly:
And then things came to a head when actress Anna Akana (who starred in Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling, which was written and directed by Landis) tweeted this in response to a promotional tweet from Netflix about their new Landis film, Bright (the one with the fairies and orcs and Will Smith):
That tweet, in many ways, was the dam-breaking moment for Max Landis rumors. Only it wasn’t an article filled with multiple accounts, vetted and sourced. It was a social media mention that led to many, many others — none of which, at this time, appear to include any first-hand accounts of sexual harassment or assault. The tweets are really divided into two categories: second-hand accounts, written by someone who says they know a person he has allegedly assaulted, and first-hand accounts alleging his more generalized asshole tendencies.
(Please note: Lexi Alexander has recently deleted her twitter account)
While hot takes on Bright and reactions to these allegations have come fast and hard over the past week, there have also been defenders who have jumped into the mix, pointing out that right now there is no proof. Which — yes. Right now we don’t even know whom he may have allegedly assaulted. It’s all whispers in the social media ether. It’s the same problem I ran into. I spoke to a few people who could tell me their own stories of his bad behavior. For example, musician and writer Allie Goertz (one of the first to hint at his misconduct) gave me this on the record account of an interaction with him:
As soon as I moved to LA, I was warned by a friend to “stay away from Max Landis.” I’m trusting by nature, but for whatever reason, this warning stuck with me. The first time I met Max, I was with a female friend who I had just learned was dating him. My friend’s phone had died and she had been using my phone to make plans with him. When Max met up with us later, I felt as though I was watching a scene from a romantic comedy unfold. Max literally swept my friend off her feet and threw her over his shoulder and they laughed and hugged as we walked to a diner. Watching the way he treated my friend, I softened towards him a little. Then, he went to the bathroom and I got a text. “Come to the bathroom.” I laugh, assuming the text was for my friend. I told him, “This is Allie” and he said, “I know.” I looked at it and said nothing. He texted again, “Come to Never Never Land.” After long enough went by that it was clear I wasn’t joining him, he returned to the table and shot me a death glare while putting his arm around my friend. The next time he saw me he “couldn’t remember my name.”
Sounds shitty, right? But no more shitty than any of the other tweets I referenced above. No more shitty than the time he created a YouTube video response to director Lexi Alexander when he realized she’d blocked him on Twitter (an act that was explained in a tweet above).
No more shitty than the time he went on a Twitter rampage against Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson (a former Pajiban herself!) after she covered his reaction to the film Arrival (spoiler alert: it was kind of sexist).
Or the time he lost his marbles when he fan-boyed out over YouTuber Harris Bomberguy and didn’t get the response he wanted as fast as he wanted it, so he posted a fake screenplay about the experience.
It’s easy to prove that Max Landis is a shithead. He’s done all the legwork himself. Perhaps the most damning aspect of this story so far is the fact that Max has gone silent on social media since the rumors started ramping up. Which, as illustrated above, is not like him. But determining if he’s more than a semi-famous run-of-the-mill asshole is harder. I spoke with a lot of people who know him. I heard claims that they knew other women who were allegedly assaulted by Landis. I heard about behavior ranging from alleged public groping to (alleged) true horror stories, and even though they were off the record, the stories shared a lot of similarities. But the women in question often weren’t ready to talk to me directly — and they certainly weren’t ready to share their pain with the internet masses.
And guess what? That’s OK. These kinds of allegations aren’t a spectator sport, and the survivors don’t owe it to us to perform. So instead of focusing on everything we DON’T know, let’s look at WHY we might not know everything yet, if there’s truth to these allegations. One person I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, put it this way: “I’ve never come across so many people who have been sexually harassed, assaulted, manipulated, and/or emotionally abused by the same person, who all don’t feel safe enough to speak about it. It’s pretty horrifying, and incredibly sad.”
Why would it be hard for women to come forward? Well, exhibit A: see those examples above of Landis flying off the handle at people who criticized him, or simply didn’t respond to him. People who were completely unknown to him, personally. Now imagine you were making a public accusation against him, and he actually knew you. Despite all his justifications and protests that he’s not as privileged as we might think, he’s still the son of a famous Hollywood director: John Landis, who directed Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and that Masters of Horror episode that is Max’s first writing credit on IMDb. So family issues or childhood drama aside, that last name alone can and will open and shut doors. And on top of that, he is well-paid for his work by some of the biggest companies in the entertainment worls. He has money and clout that his alleged victims likely don’t have. For young actors or models or anyone trying to make it in the industry, pissing off anyone with the resources, social media support (over 100k Twitter followers), and connections that Max Landis has would be hard enough. Knowing how he often reacts to any perceived slight against him on top of it could just make it that much harder to put yourself on the line like that, publicly.
It would be easy to dismiss Max as another entitled Hollywood prick, but I think the truth may be more complex than his detractors want to admit. For one thing, he has been quite open about his struggles with mental and emotional issues. According to a recent Vulture profile, he has been diagnosed with cyclothymia, a rare mood disorder which causes emotional ups and downs. It’s like bipolar disorder, only less severe. You may not like his works or his online persona, but he’s clearly passionate, prolific, and bursting with ideas. People I spoke to who know Max often described him in the same ways: he gives a bad first impression (obnoxious, egomaniac), but if you stick around you’ll find someone who is clever, charismatic, funny, and generous. A guy who really listens, and will go out of his way for his friends. Being close to him can be an emotionally rewarding experience — as one person put it, “So rewarding that you often find yourself looking the other way on a lot of red flag problematic behaviors, but they seem small in comparison to the overall portrait. The good things feel worth the bad things.” But if you get even closer to him, you may find something more extreme. “If you present a problem or a conflict in any way, if you get between him and something he wants, it’s like you never existed. He will isolate, alienate and crush you. He will pit other people against you. He will be vicious. It is scary to be on the wrong end of.”
Which leads me to another possibility: that Max Landis isn’t guilty. Or at least, not guilty of what people want him to be guilty of. Right now the focus of these ongoing scandals has been on clear-cut cases of sexual assault and harassment or workplace misconduct. But what we haven’t grappled with as much in this age of reckoning are all the instances of abuse that are primarily emotional. There are ways to manipulate and coerce people, or tear them down, that can leave very real scars and leave the victims confused and hurt. That, too, is a form of abuse. It was something that was mentioned in the original tip we received, and it’s something Landis has already said himself. He admitted to emotionally abusing an ex-girlfriend and more in a long interview for the blog Shelby Sells in 2013 (the page has been taken down, but you can find a web archive of it here or you can read Jezebel’s analysis).
Here are some excerpts (emphasis mine):
i think people perceive me as a very sexual person - i flirt a lot, even with guys. my personality is very flirtatious and coy. there’s a lot of eye contact and touching. even if you’re not down i’ll come at you like jack sparrow.(Note: That’s even creepier now, given the revelations about Johnny Depp)
i’ve been in some super fucked up things. the most fucked up thing was that i cheated on a girl who i also gave a crippling social anxiety, self-loathing, body dysmorphia, eating disorder to. i mean you can’t really give someone any of these things, but the seeds of these things were there inside of her. we were in such a sort of unfair, fucked up relationship - not the kind where there’s a lot of yelling and screaming - the actual relationship was very nice and loving, but i was so fickle about her body. i’m not shy, i would just blurt out shit all the time. she ended up completely changing how she dressed and how she looked for me. that chick will never talk to me again.
A more recent ex-girlfriend confirmed that he still treats women this way. She said she has spent several years re-gathering her confidence and self-worth after Max’s never-ending commentary on her body not being up to his standards (he even went so far as to buy her workout classes) took a toll. She described their relationship as full of terrifying tantrums, gaslighting, controlling behavior, and that she absorbed an endless stream of criticisms that made her feel self-conscious and insecure about every aspect of herself.
So is Max Landis an entitled, damaging bully? It sure sounds that way. Hell — so was Weinstein! Weinstein was able to operate for a few decades before his other habits caught up with him, and it took the coordinated efforts of many, many women working with journalists to bring it all into the light. And the thing is, a lot of the allegations that came out against Weinstein detailed events that occurred YEARS before anyone felt comfortable enough to come forward. Healing takes time, and the same may be true for the allegations against Landis — if he is guilty of assault, it may be years (if ever) before anyone is willing to step forward to share their own story publicly. If there are such victims, think about the impossible position they’re probably in, stuck between the expectations of all of Twitter and the reality of their own pain and healing process. Trying to balance their careers, lives, and health with the specter of an unpredictable Hollywood princeling looming over them. A princeling who may have even charmed them at some point.
All we have right now are claims that Landis’s sexually abusive behavior is an “open secret” — and maybe that will change tomorrow, or next month, or next year. Maybe someone will come forward. Maybe they won’t. Maybe we’ll never know for sure what truth there is to this open secret. Nobody is required to give us, the public, any sort of “proof.” But also remember that innocent until proven guilty is reserved for a court of law, and for better or worse this reckoning is largely being hashed out in the court of public opinion right now. When it comes to Landis (and anyone else who has accusations swirling around them), each of us can choose to believe the whispers and believe women, or we can choose to ignore it all. We can take the ample evidence of bullying, manipulation, and being an asshole — from his own mouth and pen, no less — and we can hold him accountable for at least THAT. We can choose to watch the next Max Landis joint, or we can skip it. We have that power.
But the survivors of sexual assault, harassment, or emotional abuse? They don’t owe us a damn thing.