The old axiom, “The more personal, the more universal,” certainly applies to the independent film, A Place Among the Dead, which is the directorial debut of actress Juliet Landau.
“I chose to make the story searingly personal,” said Landau, the daughter of actress Barbara Bain and the late Martin Landau, both of Mission: Impossible and Space 1999 fame. An actress in her own right, Landau is best known as the insane vampire Drusilla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, as well as for her roles in Ed Wood, Bosch, and Claws. Not only does Landau star and direct in Dead, but she also co-wrote and co-produced it with her husband, Deverill Weekes.
In Dead, Landau explores the concept of narcissism, playing a fictionalized version of herself named Jules. In fact, actors and creators indelibly connected to the vampire genre also play fictionalized versions of themselves in faux documentary interview sequences, including Buffy creator Joss Whedon, Interview with the Vampire author Anne Rice (making her film debut), True Blood author Charlaine Harris (also making her film debut), Lance Henriksen (Near Dark), Ron Perlman (Blade II), Robert Patrick (True Blood), Mariana Klaveno (True Blood), and Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula).
“We thought that blurring the lines of reality would be the best way to tell this tale. The picture is entirely scripted, but it’s crafted as a meld of fact, fiction, and the fantastical,” explained Landau. “The movie explores the repercussions of growing up under the sway of narcissism and evil. Dev and I both come from this background. We wanted to make a film we hadn’t seen before, to talk about something we’d never seen covered in a film; in fact, it’s something that truly isn’t talked about in society as a whole. We felt there is a yearning for the kind of discussion (Dead) provokes. We’re living in a time where the escalation in narcissism, cruelty, and evil is daunting, but people are interested in addressing this topic.”
The plot of Dead has Landau and Weekes (playing a fictionalized version of himself, too) investigating a serial killer named Darcel (played by Seth Bewley and Bryan Michael Hall) for a documentary they’re filming. Darcel’s M.O. is leaving two puncture holes in the necks of his victims, which resembles a vampire. Whether Darcel is a vampire or not, Landau left that ambiguous.
“Darcel means ‘darkness’ in French. He is the epitome and the extreme of all that is horrendous, heinous, and vile,” she said. “Whether he’s a vampire or a serial killer who murders in this style, the characteristics are the same: A being which drains all for its own needs and survival. He’s a monster, regardless. The answer does lie in the picture.”
According to Landau, Dead – which is a genre-bending art film – utilizes the vampire genre for numerous reasons. “First: To make an entertaining movie. Second: To lull the audience into a sense of safety to explore radical and unsafe ideas. Third: To bring in my and the other actors’ histories. Last: Because the vampire is the perfect metaphor for the perfect narcissist.”
Landau spoke about why Darcel’s played by two different actors.
“That’s because people like this are amorphous. It’s almost impossible for empathic and sensitive people to understand and reconcile not the façade they put forward, but the real nature behind the public face,” she explained. “Psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula, the premier expert on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse, absolutely loves the movie! She said we are doing with art and storytelling is what she does in academia. In two of her books, she breaks down how narcissists are essentially interchangeable. They may vary physically, but they behave in prescribed patterns, which often involves scapegoating others to preserve their own self-image.”
Eventually, Jules’ pursuit of Darcel becomes an unhealthy obsession. Soon thereafter, Darcel begins targeting her.
“Jules sure does go on a rollercoaster of a ride. She keeps descending further and further. It’s compelling how many people have related to her denial of red flags, ignoring them and doggedly moving forward with insistence. A lot of people have discussed this experience with their exes. They talked about at their core, their true self knew something wasn’t right, but they let the unconscious run the show,” she said. “We wanted these sequences to be raw. While editing this section of the movie and designing the sound, I kept stressing how I wanted the audience to experience this – not to be watching outside of it, but to feel like they are trapped.”
The interviews with her fellow actors and creators are interspersed with her pursuit of Darcel, which follow a certain order.
“The interview sections are almost like a Greek chorus, which delineate chapters,” said Landau. “At first, the interviewees give Jules good advice. They warn her to stay away. They discuss the nature of evil. At a certain point, my character reinterprets that. In Jules’ mind, they become additional voices pushing her forward, telling her to go toward evil, toward the darkness.”
Landau spoke about how much of her actual self is in her fictionalized alter-ego.
“It’s a mix… Being inside Jules’ POV for much of the film captures what it feels like to be near a malignant narcissist, how destabilizing, confusing, disorienting it is… how you lose your sense of yourself bit by bit. How harrowing it is,” she explained.
The beginning of the movie has a collage of photos of Landau’s parents and herself as a child that has a disturbing voiceover where she’s berated. Veteran character actor/fellow Buffy alum Harry Groener and his wife Dawn Didawick (Erin Brockovich) portrayed Landau’s parents.
“When we recorded it, there was never any talk about that; it just ends up being that way in the film. We’re in her head. Even though it has clips of her actual parents, we never thought of it that way. We just recorded those awful things being said to a child and approached it that way. It’s so interesting how it’s incredibly effective at the beginning of the film to hear all these things,” said Groener. “There really wasn’t any preparation. They asked us if we’d record this. We said sure. We went to their house, where they’d set up a recording area and give us the lines and we recorded it. They gave whatever notes they wanted to give about the individual readings of individual lines. That was about it.”
It took Landau nearly four days to get that 44-second scene just the way she wanted it.
“The parents are shown in 44 seconds of a 77-minute movie,” she said. “This is a metaphor for our lives. We spend 15-18 years being reared – and the next 50-60 operating out of that, unless you take stock. Unless you make conscious choices, which my alter-ego, Jules, isn’t doing. Jules is re-enacting the unwinnable parent, but it is worse and worse each time.”
Dead had a virtual worldwide premiere Halloween weekend since theaters are closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Its premiere was sponsored by M.A.C. Cosmetics and New York Comic-Con. At NYCC, there are usually panels about upcoming films with some teaser scenes in order to generate later ticket sales. However, Landau made the entire film available virtually for everyone all over the world to stream simultaneously and watch it together. It was followed by a Q&A with the audience featuring Landau, Patrick, Henriksen, Oldman, and Harris.
“Our company, Miss Juliet Productions, and Modern Films saw a gap in the market and filled it,” said Landau. “We crafted a new distribution model, which is exciting! This is a brand-new way to reach the audience. With the closure of cinemas everywhere, as well as the general direction movies were going before COVID-19, this will be some aspect of the future.”
So far, Dead has been well-received by audiences who have participated in Zoom roundtables with Landau, Groener, and other cast members. This puts fans at the forefront.
“One of the interesting things in the talk backs with the audience has been that whether it’s familial or an ex-husband, ex-girlfriend, spouse, boss, friend, co-worker, or world leader, the traits and the experience of dealing with these types of people is exactly the same,” said Landau. “Dev and I say, if we’d seen a movie like this when we were 18, it would’ve changed the course and journey of our lives. Nobody talks about this… We’re not ‘allowed’ to, but shining a light and opening up a discussion is always positive. It really is the issue of our time.”
Groener praised Landau’s efforts.
“I’m so happy for Juliet,” he said. “She and Dev did an amazing job. It’s really, really hard to make a film. In this town, just making a film gives you street creds because everyone knows how difficult it is to make a film – from its original concept to writing it, the logistics of it, getting it organized, getting the cast together, filming it. Once it’s done, you have to edit it and sell it and get it distributed. It takes a long time. You have to love the project to make a film… I’m so happy that it’s turning out the way it’s turning out for her. They’re being smart about where it’s been shown and how it’s been distributed… Dawn and I admire them so much.”
According to Landau, if you type in “narcissism,” on a search engine, the numbers are staggering. There are more than 9.1 million YouTube video results, 70.4 million results. Psychological abuse has 188 million Google results.
“There obviously is a need for people to look at this. And, clearly, in our society, there’s sadly been an escalation in narcissism, cruelty, and bad behavior. It’s time,” she said. “At the worldwide virtual premiere and at all of our screening events, the audiences have been very emotional. They stay for hours to talk about the movie and then begin sharing intensely personal stories. People are hungering to talk about this. It’s been so powerful and beautiful.”
Landau continued: “Someone we didn’t know personally before but who is a powerhouse in the movie business, having been nominated for Oscars, sent me an email after viewing (Dead). Her email started with, ‘I’ve never talked about this before but…’ which is how many of the conversations have been starting. She continued to explain how her mother was a narcissist and how every day of her life was like crossing an abyss. She didn’t feel that she was worthy or deserved all of the successes she has had, and she has had many.”
Landau really enjoyed being in the director’s chair. She made the movie to provoke conversation and is excited by the productive discourse about narcissism Dead is eliciting.
“It’s amazing to see something from inception to fruition. As an actor you are a component of the whole. As a director, you are shaping the entirety,” she said. “Talking with the audience has been fascinating and inspiring. People find different ways of dealing with this in their lives. Whatever works and is healthy is valid. The whole point, along with making an engrossing movie, was to give voice to what has affected many, to open up a dialogue – like we’re having now!”
A Place Among the Dead is showing at Laemmle Virtual Theatres in the United States. It will be available worldwide soon. The special, interactive, virtual, worldwide screening events continue through Feb 1, 2021. For tickets to all, visit: https://www.modernfilms.com/aplaceamongthedead.