Multihyphenate Juliet Landau’s feature length directorial debut, A Place Among the Dead, deconstructs the nature of the narcissist through an acutely apt metaphor of vampire mythology, ever prevalent in the pop culture narrative of our society, presenting a searing thesis about the genesis of evil. Landau, most recognizable for her role as Drusilla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff series, Angel, has built a steady career in film and television, creating a name for herself separate from her famous parents, Oscar winner Martin Landau (Ed Wood, in which Juliet also starred), and Golden Globe nominee Barbara Bain. Both victims of narcissistic households growing up, Juliet and her husband, and co-producer and co-writer on A Place Among the Dead, channel their collective experience to invite the audience into an interactive, therapeutic viewing experience through a breaking of the fourth wall, making the film truly unique among its documentary counterparts. With interviews from Gary Oldman, Ron Perlman, Anne Rice, Lance Henriksen, and Joss Whedon, this scripted documentary plays with fact, fiction, and the fantastical.
In the middle of her press tour, Landau had some free time to chat about A Place Among the Dead, the conflation of narcissism and evil, growing up under the tight grip of narcissists, our societal fascination with vampires, her past and future work, and her upcoming docuseries, The Undead Series.
Congratulations on your first feature. It sticks with you like the passing of a dear loved one, lingering like its haunting ghost.
Thank you so much. They’re beautiful words. I really appreciate it. It means the world.
I loved how, from the very beginning of the film, you use the narration device to expose these negative inner thoughts, and you slowly turn the volume up. The juxtaposition between those thoughts and the flashing of the images of your parents was so effective.
I’m so happy. My husband, Deverill Weekes, and I co-wrote, co-produced the movie. And we come from similar backgrounds, and we really talked about the fact that we had never seen a film where the voiceover sounded remotely like the thoughts running through our minds. And if you come from this kind of background, you’re not your authentic self. You let these negative thoughts or voices run you and lead you to destructive choices. The whole point of the movie is that there’s a different way that, as an adult, we can make different choices. But my alter ego is not doing that. She’s making destructive choices. Hopefully, I’m not doing that in real life anymore, but I did for a long time. And it’s interesting that you say that because we all make these agreements with our parents, and if you don’t break those, they become those voices that drive you. One of the other interesting things that we found out when we were doing research for the movie is that 80% of the thoughts in everyone’s minds, whether you come from the most stable, loving environment or not, 80% of the thoughts that everybody is thinking are negative.
And we thought that was a really interesting percentage, because what if we could change that and even make it 40%? How much better would life be and how much more could we accomplish and give to the world rather than sabotaging?
No kidding. That is a disturbing but not exactly surprising statistic.
When you think about it, if you look at your inner monologue, how nice is that voice inside your mind most of the time?
Right. We’re often so self-critical. And would you say your shared background is a lot of what inspired you to make this fourth-wall doorway for to beckon the audience to acknowledge their own thoughts?
Yes. I chose to make the film searingly personal. There’s the old adage, “The more personal, the more universal.” I’m inviting the viewer to become the participant. The whole point is to make an entertaining movie and to give voice to what has affected many to open up a dialogue like we’re having right now. I played with the first perspective and third perspective. This was to make the film experiential and visceral and emotional. I want the audience to be not the spectator, but engaged and inside the experience. And I chose to be inside my alter ego, Jules’ POV, for much of the film to capture what it feels like to be near a malignant narcissist, how destabilizing, how confusing, how disorienting, how you lose your sense of yourself bit by bit, how harrowing that is. The psychologist, M. Scott Peck, described it as feeling confusion and revulsion at the same time. So I implemented blurs and static when Jules is near that character.
That is a really great visual touch. And speaking of that, the imagery is beautiful and evocative. Creatively, what are some of your filmmaking or visual inspirations?
Thank you so much. Well, Dev and I gave a lot of attention and detail to the look of the movie. We put together a look-book, which every department worked from. We did a whole series of camera tests. We spent a huge amount of time on the color correction with screen grabs before we even went into FotoKem to color correct. From day one, we talked about the juxtaposition between the look of the film and the subject matter. We wanted to create a dreamlike, mesmerizing beauty to collide with the stark psychological terror of the story. Rather than films so much, A Place Among the Dead is largely inspired by two books. M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie, who I mentioned before, and another psychologist named Robert W. Firestone – his book, The Fantasy Bond. There are three case studies in M. Scott Peck’s book which are profound. But of course, with A Place Among the Dead, we’re talking about this through art and entertainment.