Juliet Landau Discusses Her Meditation on Narcissism & Evil in ‘A Place Among the Dead’
I’m going to have to check those books out. And this evil that Jules chases in this fantastical narrative, it represents depression, anxiety, trauma manifested, mental and behavioral disorder, psychosis, unseen carnage and destitution that looms over our society and ideology – violence, war, death, all of the above. And you weave in a personal childhood trauma subnarrative into this segment of the film. How did the process of making this film affect your relationship to that trauma over time?
It’s a through line throughout the film, and the mission was sort of to make a movie where the subject matter is tackled because we haven’t really seen that before, and society as a whole is reticent to talk about this. I used my experience as a device. We did some sneak peeks just when we completed the film before lockdown, and then Halloween weekend we had the worldwide virtual interactive premiere and some special screening events. And every single time, the audience has been very moved. Many people crying and staying – at our sneak peeks, they stayed for over two hours. On each of these events, it’s been like three and a half hours where the entire audience stays on Zoom with the cast and crew and is talking, first, about the movie, and then sharing intensely personal stories. And what’s so interesting is whether it’s familial or it’s an ex-husband or an ex-girlfriend or a boss or a friend or a coworker or our world leaders, the traits are the same, and the experience of dealing with these type of people is exactly the same.
The parents are shown in 44 seconds of the 77-minute movie. To me, that’s a metaphor for our lives. We spend 15 to 18 years being reared, and then we spend the next 50 or 60 operating out of that unless you take stock, unless you make conscious choices, which my alter ego, Jules, is not doing. It felt like the best way to sort of frame this discussion and provoke a conversation.
This film firmly falls into the category of Art as Therapy.
I believe in art as a way to explore the human condition. It’s a way to hold a mirror up to ourselves and to provoke much-needed conversation. Dev and I think if we’ve seen a movie like this when we were 18, it would have changed the course and journey of our lives. Often art is a place where we talk about things that society shuns illuminating.
A Place Among the Dead begs the questions, “Does our past define us?” And we have a choice. We can either let it or we can either make an ongoing effort to overcome our past. Do you conflate then evil with narcissism?
I do. “Does our past define us?” is the question posed in the movie. The film shows a character who’s letting her past define her rather than changing those tapes and carving a different present. She’s reenacting the unwinnable parent, but worse and worse each time. The film shows the systematic snuffing of spirit, life, life force, all the way to the heinous snuffing of life.
Another theme that this film tackles is the inevitability of aging and death, and humankind’s tendency to deny that truth. That’s amplified by not only Hollywood, but also society in general. Is that part of the reason why we, as a society, are fascinated with immortal vampires?
I think so. I chose the vampire genre for a number of reasons. First, to make an entertaining movie. Second, to lull the audience into a sense of safety to explore unsafe and radical ideas. Third, to bring in my and the other actors’ histories. And last, because the vampire is the perfect metaphor for the ultimate narcissist. You’re never quite sure if a particular character in the movie is a vampire or if he’s a serial killer who emulates a vampire, but either way, the traits are the same. He’s a being which drains time, life, life force for his own needs, for his own survival, with no regard for any other being. Societally, there’s an obsession with youth, and as you were mentioning, it’s another current that runs through the picture and ties into vampirism. The idea of staying youthful in appearance forever feeds into narcissism, too, because it values superficiality over substance.
And oftentimes, like vampires, narcissists don’t realize the destruction they cause.
It doesn’t even register. We’ve been talking with Dr. Ramani who’s the premier expert on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse – psychologist, author, lecturer. She really loves the movie, and it’s been interesting talking to her about that, and just also about how societally, this is a time where narcissism and cruelty and evil actions are escalating, sadly. Narcissists don’t change, and so it’s inherent in what you’re saying with the vampire character who basically does not change. And also, the thing with narcissistic personalities is that they not only are just self-involved, it’s that they actually don’t want others to do well. They basically don’t want others to thrive because they feel it’s some reflection on them, so they always need to be above and keeping people below them as well.
I want to talk about The Undead Series.
Totally. A Place Among the Dead is entirely scripted. It is a meld of fact, fiction, and fantastical. And one of the factual elements in it is that we are making a vampire documentary project, which we are doing, which is called The Undead Series. So it is completely separate except that it’s one of the factual elements that’s in the movie. One of the things that’s been fun with the screenings that we’ve been having is, from our premiere to the three previous screenings, many people came to all four for a number of reasons, but one of them being that they wanted to pick out more and more of the factual elements and more of the Easter eggs that are in the film.
Is this series something you’re still working on?
Yeah. We have 35 interviews in the can. All of the same people who worked with us on A Place Among the Dead came back to work with us again, plus Willem Dafoe and Tim Burton. The Undead Series is completely different in tone to A Place Among the Dead. It’s an unscripted/documentary/interview show which I host. Have you ever seen Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee?
And then basically we’ve gathered the who’s who of the genre together in one place, which has never been done before. Each episode is 20 minutes with one interviewee. And we’re signing paperwork this week on the project. That’s pretty exciting.
Congrats. That’s super exciting. I’m sure Tim Burton is an interesting interview.
He’s amazing. It was wonderful because working with Tim on Ed Wood was a phenomenal experience. And then interviewing him for The Undead Series, it was really fun because we were in England, and he had availability for us to go to his office, and his office previously was Arthur Rackham’s home, who was the creator of Winnie the Pooh. And it’s this beautiful, whole street with these amazing houses. And as we approached, there’s one particular house that had this crooked, unbelievably Tim Burton-esque tree in front of it, and we knew that must be Tim’s, and of course it was, and then we interviewed him there.
Oh, that’s so cool. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Willem Dafoe before. He’s a very nice and insightful person, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say about the genre.
He is. And it’s interesting with Willem because he has such a strong, intense face, and he’s such a lovely, sweet, gentle soul.