Juliet Landau has proven that the word “longevity” isn’t just a myth when it comes to having a successful career in Hollywood. She’s worked in film, television and has lent her voice to several successful projects.
From the mesmerizing Drusilla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, to Claws, Bosch and Millennium on television to roles in films such as Ed Wood, Dark Hearts and The Bronx Bull to voicework in series such as Thundercats, Justice League Unlimited and Green Lantern: The Animated Series, she definitely continues to be a force in the business.
Now, her latest project is her most daring and personal. She co-wrote, co-produced, stars in and directs the film A Place Among the Dead. The film looks at the repercussions of growing up under the sway of narcissism and evil.
We had the chance to sit down the Juliet to talk about the film, what it was like directing for the first time and what message she would like viewers to take away from the film after seeing it.
Pop Culture Principle – You co-wrote and co-produced this film with your husband Deverill Weekes. Can you talk a little about your inspiration for this film and what it was like working with him on this film?
Juliet Landau – A Place Among the Dead explores the repercussions of growing up under the sway of narcissism and evil. We look at evil in the non-religious sense. My husband Deverill Weekes and I co-wrote and co-produced the movie. We both come from this background. We wanted to make a movie, which we hadn’t seen before, to delve into something that hasn’t been tackled in movies and really is something society is resistant to speak about. But that reticence is changing. There is a real deep yearning to talk about it.
When you type the word narcissism into a Google search, there are 9,120,000 YouTube videos on the subject. There are 70,400,000 Google results. When you type in psychological abuse, there are 188,000,000 Google results.
We taped a few segments with Dr. Ramani. She’s a psychologist, author, the premiere expert on Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Abuse. Each of her videos get 400,000 to 1,000,000 views. Dev and I recorded a podcast with Dr. Catherine Barrett. She’s a forensic psychologist, a professor at USC. She also gets astounding numbers. Both doctors say we are doing through art and entertainment, what they are doing in academia.
As far as working with Dev, it is the best! We have similar tastes and different strengths. He’s the most amazing partner in life and in creativity. We feel so fortunate to have discovered what love is, neither of us having experienced it in our upbringings.
Pop Culture Principle – Who better to personify and encapsulate what a true narcissist is than a vampire? Was that one of the main reasons you chose the vampire to tell this story?
Juliet Landau – Yes, that’s a great observation. We landed on the vampire genre for a number of reasons. First of all, we wanted to make an entertaining movie. If you type the word “vampire” into a search, there are 278,000,000 million Google results. It is a trope people adore. Second of all, I wanted to lull the audience into a sense of safety to explore unsafe and radical ideas. Thirdly, it was a way to bring in my history, having appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, as well as the rest of the known cast, who all have ties to the vampire genre.
Last of all, you hit the nail on the head, so to speak. We thought the vampire was the perfect metaphor for the ultimate narcissist. It’s a being, which drains all for its own needs. You have to invite the undead in. We are looking at familial / parental narcissism in the movie. You don’t invite those people in, but you do often invite other narcissists into your life, and if you have been primed to accept that behavior from a young age, you repeatedly do so.
Vampires mesmerize and keep people in their thrall. Narcissists are often incredibly charismatic. Vampires do not change. Narcissists do not change their behavior. Vampires often have only remnants of humanity. Narcissists have no empathy. Vampires see no reflection in the mirror, Narcissistic people don’t have the ability to self-reflect. It just goes on and on.
In exploring the nature of evil in A Place Among The Dead, we look at the entire range, from the systematic snuffing of spirit and liveliness, all the way to the heinous snuffing of life. We have a particular character who personifies the absolute extreme of that spectrum. It’s really the idea of how we often replay the unwinnable parent, over and over in our lives, but each time, it gets worse and worse.
Juliet Landau – We were really fortunate in that Guillermo Del Toro mentored us on this picture. Also, I’ve been so honored to work on sets as an actress with phenomenal auteurs. I’ve watched and learned what I saw worked really well, what engendered a spirit of focused creativity. Tim Burton, who I worked with on Ed Wood creates an environment where everybody’s inspired to bring their “A” game. I tried to draw from every experience that I’ve soaked up.
We did a ton of prep and pre-production. We compiled a look book that every department worked from. We rehearsed for two weeks with the actors. We did camera and lighting tests. We worked painstakingly with FotoKem on the color-correction. We worked hand in hand with our brilliant editor, composer and created much of the sound design, etc.
I think as far as nerves, the mission and message of the film felt so much bigger than my personal story or my personal needs as a director and producer. Dev and I had a fire in our bellies, a passion for telling the tale and trying to make the best movie possible. I think this is what galvanized us and in turn it seems, all of our cast and crew. I think every creative venture generates nerves. It’s finding the way to harness them so they work for you.
Pop Culture Principle – Although this film is fully scripted, including the faux interviews, it truly seems that those particular interviews are spontaneous. Was that something that you hoped came across as the viewer watched those interviews?
Juliet Landau – Thank you so much! Yes, absolutely! We really wanted those sections and much of the movie to feel spontaneous and unscripted. We wanted to capture those segments to feel as if we were just having impromptu conversations. It was so fulfilling working with our brilliant cast. The interview sections are like a Greek chorus. They delineate the chapters in the movie. They start out one way and change timbre as my character Jules goes on her journey. It was really exciting that every cast member we approached said yes right away! It was a serendipitous process in that way.
Pop Culture Principle – How do you feel as a filmmaker knowing that this project is opening up a dialogue about this particular subject and that you weren’t the only one dealing with narcissistic individuals?
Juliet Landau – It means the world to Dev and I. We say, if we’d seen a film like this when we were eighteen, it could have changed the course and journey of our lives.
I embarked on a career as an actress, and now a storyteller because when I was young, movies made me feel less alone. Films, television, art, music, dance and books made me feel less stranded. I recognized and understood things about the human condition and imagination was my ticket out.
We wanted A Place Among The Dead to be entertaining, and to give voice to what has affected many, to provoke a much-needed conversation, just like we are having right now!
At each one of our worldwide, interactive screening events, we’ve been striking an artery, not just a nerve! Whether it be a spouse, partner, ex-partner, boss, co-worker, friend, family member(s), or our world leaders, there comes a point where the entire audience laments that it is as if we are describing one person. The traits are so much the same. Every single time our audience zooms have lasted 4 hours! It has been so profound. We are humbled by how open everybody has been.
Pop Culture Principle – Do you think each and every one of us has a little bit of a narcissistic nature?
Juliet Landau – I do, and it’s a developmental phase as well. I think it’s around the age of 2. Children are narcissistic. It is something that you are supposed to grow out of and have a balance with. We all see the world through our own filter and think about our own needs, but the hope is that there is empathy for other people and that there is the understanding that we live as a community. Being human is all about connection with others. Hopefully it’s paramount to help and take care of one another.
Also, the difference is that malignant narcissists aren’t just self-involved, needy of adoration and desire themselves to be successful, they can’t tolerate the success of others, so they scapegoat, gaslight and suppress the people around them. They hurt other people. They do not want others to thrive and fulfill their full potential.
Pop Culture Principle – What is interesting to me is as a viewer, we don’t really know if this person is an actual vampire or a serial killer who is obsessed with the idea of vampires. Was that intentional?
Juliet Landau – Yes. I have a clear viewpoint as a filmmaker, but we crated the film with ambiguity. Whether the character is a vampire or a serial killer who emulates a vampire, the traits are the same. The dark behavior and the wreckage are equal.
Pop Culture Principle – We noticed that when Jules did come near that particular individual during the film, you used different techniques such as static during those scenes. Can you talk a little about that decision to use those types of shots?
Juliet Landau – We based the movie largely on a book by psychologist M. Scott Peck, called, People of the Lie. Dr. Peck delineates a number of case studies. One of the things he describes is how when you are in the orbit of evil, of a malignant narcissist, you often feel a combination of confusion and revulsion. Cinematically we employ blurs and statics as Jules gets near that character. We want to elicit a cellular response, for the experience to be visceral and emotional; for the viewer to feel what it’s like when you are in this kind of relationship, how disorienting, destabilizing it is, how harrowing it can be, how you feel lost in a fog and like you are losing yourself, bit by bit.
Juliet Landau – First of all, it’s such a great way for us to explore facets of our own natures. Anne Rice wrote Interview with a Vampire after she lost her daughter from leukemia, so she created a child, who becomes vampire and lives forever. Leukemia is a blood disease. Kevin Grevioux says he wrote the Underworld franchise based on his experiences with interracial dating. He created two species, which don’t get along. Charlaine Harris, who wrote the Sookie Stackhouse novels, True Blood was based on, said the books and series were a metaphor for homosexuality in our society. Joss Whedon has described Buffy, as high school as a nightmare.
It’s also a way for us to dally in the dark side of ourselves and hey, no one is too fond of aging and dying. It’s the fantasy of staying young, virile, powerful and attractive for eternity. I would wager those are some of the reasons.
Pop Culture Principle – Due to the current pandemic, you haven’t been able to do in person screenings and panel events, but thanks to today’s technology, you’ve been able to still get your film out to festivals and have virtual screenings and panel discussions. How important has technology been for the promotion of your film?
Juliet Landau – It has been extraordinary. Our distributor is Modern Films, an awesome female- based distribution company. We love their taste in content. They are located in London and usually release films in the UK and Ireland. A Place Among The Dead is their first worldwide release. A strong component of their model is supporting female filmmakers. Other current releases include Werner Herzog’s newest film and Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling. One of their thrusts is conducting screening events and since we made the movie to have a dialogue, we thought they were the perfect partner.
We literally completed post production one week before the lockdown. Initially, we were going to be doing live events but, of course, the pandemic happened. Due to the success, demand and momentum of our interactive screening events, Modern has extended this current phase of distribution before we release worldwide and then go onto streamers, so it looks like we may be doing some live events after all!
But the online screenings have built something special. It has been beautiful to talk with people from all over the globe. It turns out, we created something revolutionary, brand new, watching a movie all together, across continents at one time, then engaging in a Q&A and subsequent discussion with the audience right then!
With the closure of cinemas everywhere, as well as the general direction movies were going before covid, this will be some aspect of the future. This is the water cooler / cinema experience, which has been sorely lacking culturally, where everything has been so spread out and dispersed.
We’ve had incredible partners such as NY Comic Con, MAC Cosmetics, The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, NYU Film School, events with high schools such as George Stevens Academy, Dr Ramani, Dr. Catherine Bennett -both who we discussed in with your opening question, the NAAA (Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Alliance,) to name a few.
We are having a shared experience and sadly, everyone, has been relating to the subject matter. We’re living in a time where the escalation in narcissism, cruelty and bad behavior is daunting. It is one of the most important issues of our time.
We’re building a kind, empathic community. It’s beautiful. Many people are now calling themselves the, “A Place Among The Dead Heads,” like the Grateful Dead. They have come to every single screening and are treating it like a tour. It’s such a wonderful thing.
Pop Culture Principle – There are aspects of this movie that are extremely personal. As a viewer, I could feel that coming through the screen. Did you have any reservations or concerns about putting this film out there knowing parts of it were very personal?
Juliet Landau – We chose to make the movie searingly personal. As they say, the more personal, the more universal. I want to invite the viewer to become the participant, rather than sitting back as a spectator. I felt like the best way to do that was to tell this story in this unconventional way. We play with the first and third person. You are inside Jules’ POV for much of the film.
I just had an interview with a journalist, who I’ve worked with throughout the years. She works for a major publication. We’ve pretty much done interviews on every project, prior to Buffy through now. She said she was really excited to talk about A Place Among the Dead and encapsulated what many people have expressed. She explained that because of the way the movie is structured, she felt like it spoke directly to her, not even to the rest of the audience, just to her.
She first went into Jules’ journey then began looking at her own life. I keep the anonymity of everyone who shares their experiences with me and I am doing so here. She shared that she’d been sexually molested from the time she was 12 to 15, and that it’s something she hasn’t talked about openly. We were supposed to have a 20-minute interview but we talked for over 90 minutes. I asked her how she became the warrior that she is, with a great relationship, how she carved out the incredible career she has. It was so inspiring! The point of A Place Among The Dead is that you don’t have to let your unconscious run the show, you don’t have to allow trauma to lead you. As adults there is another way. You don’t have to make destructive choices and let the stuff that has been imposed upon you define you.
As far as the personal nature, I use elements of my own story as a device. My husband uses his in the same way. An interesting thing is that the parents appear and are heard in 44 seconds of a 77-minute film. They are so indelible and persuasive that everyone thinks it is much, much longer. That is an interesting analogy. We spend 15 to 17 years being reared in a particular environment and then unless we take stock, spend the next 60 years, give or take, operating out of that, out of something that is no longer useful.
I should mention that the movie is entirely scripted, using a meld of fact, fiction and the fantastical. One of the things people seem to enjoy are the Easter eggs of picking out more and more of the factual elements each viewing.
Pop Culture Principle – What message, if any, would you like viewers to take away after watching A Place Among the Dead?
Juliet Landau – I would love people to enjoy the movie and then turn the lens on how it reflects on their own lives, how they can be their best selves and live their optimum lives, how they can give to others.
As well as the discussions, we keep getting an outpouring emails and social media posts. I’m going to refer to some intense thoughts, which have been shared, to answer, but I’ll use initials to keep anonymity. K has come to a number of screenings. Her fiancé of four and a half years killed himself due to the abuse of his narcissistic mother. She said the film has given her peace by helping her understand her fiancé’s struggle. G said the first time she watched the movie, everything clicked and she had an “aha” moment. She hadn’t realized the nature of her longtime ex-boyfriend. Now 4 years later, she is just starting to get a sense of herself back. D said it has been like an onion.
After watching the film, she identified her father as a narcissist but the blinders are off in relation to his toxic and abusive behavior and now she’s seeing what she’s enduring from others. F, who by the way has been nominated for a BAFTA, said she has never spoken about her mother, who was a narcissist. F felt like she had to pay for every one of her successes. She is better now, but each day used to feel like crossing a dark abyss just getting out of bed. Y said that she decided not to see her abusive family for the holidays. She said she hadn’t ever thought that was an option till she saw our film. She felt less alone being by herself on the holiday than she ever did spending time with them. C talked about escaping from a cult. She described the cult leader as a narcissist, as well as all the parents who subjugate their families to them.
One of the things that has been striking a deep chord is the voiceover in the movie. Dev and I had never seen a film where the VO sounded remotely like the thoughts running through our minds. We started thinking about where that inner monologue comes from.
We all make agreements with our parents and these become the voices in our minds and these can lead to destruction. If you come from this kind of background, you are not your “authentic self.” You let these negative thoughts/ voices run you and lead to unhealthy choices. These poisonous thoughts can also be planted by others at a myriad of places such as school, or in love relationships.
The whole point of the movie is that as an adult we can choose to change these tapes, which we assume are true. A Place Among The Dead is about breaking these agreements. It is a cautionary tale of sorts. My alter-ego, Jules, is making destructive choices. Hopefully I’m not anymore in my real life, but I did for a long time.
Dev and I didn’t realize when we scripted these thoughts, just how similar and prevalent this thinking is in everyone’s minds. We read a study, which concluded that the thoughts in all our heads, even those from the healthiest upbringings, are 80 percent negative. That is an astounding percentage!
Speaking of healthy backgrounds, one of our co-producers, who comes from a loving family, said he got inside and therefore understood psychological abuse in a way he hadn’t before. As a result, he’s been looking at the agreements he’s making with his kids and thinking about how he might alter that messaging. He’s a phenomenal parent anyway, but that is incredible.
I could go on and on, but I fear I’m doing an outer-monologue here! Sorry about that!
Dev and I are deeply touched by all of this. I guess if I boil it down, we went about making a genre-bending art film, a roller coaster of a ride, but inherent is the idea of self-reflection for the viewer. It’s about overcoming trauma. It’s about the choice between light and dark. We have a short time on this planet. Let’s look at what makes it worth being here for each of us, how we can build connection and community.
A huge thank you to the wonderfully talented Juliet Landau for talking with us about A Place Among the Dead. If you would like more information and to purchase official movie merchandise, you can visit the official A Place Among the Dead page here.
If you would like to keep up to date with all of Juliet’s latest projects and social media accounts, you can visit her official website.
**All photos courtesy of Deverill Weekes**