Just in time for some seasonally-spirited distraction amid the looming suspense of real-life anxieties, A Place Among the Dead marks the feature-film directorial debut of Juliet Landau. Landau is the daughter of acclaimed actor Martin Landau and an actress best known for her role as Drusilla in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and films like Ed Wood – all horror with a hefty dose of camp. In the same vein, A Place Among the Dead is more quirky and kooky than spine-tingling terrifying. It jumps from trippy, psychedelic musings to a documentary (or perhaps a “mockumentary?”) about vampires featuring interviews with those who know the legendary creatures best – actors Gary Oldman (who iconically embodied Dracula in the 1992 film), Ron Perlman (Hellboy series) and author Anne Rice, among others.
The feature slips into a true-crime drama as Landau trails a mysterious killer and is haunted by her past, adding a bit of a Law & Order: SVU element. Visually, A Place Among the Dead pays homage to classics of the genre, such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Saw, David Lynch films (particularly Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive), TV series like True Blood, American Horror Story, and of course, Buffy and Angel. Some stylistic choices seem to come from the heightened melodrama, more grandiose than Grand Guignol, of slasher flicks and B-movies. While there is certainly room for growth and improvement, A Place Among the Dead and its creator have considerable potential; to nitpick the film or tear it to shreds would be missing the point entirely. It’s a commendable first endeavor, a fun ride to be enjoyed as pure entertainment, much like the series that solidified her career. And yet, the film also contains unexpected depth, relatability, and personal vulnerability in many moments. It also aims to hold a harsh mirror up to the villainous dangers of narcissism.
Juliet Landau, quadrupling roles as lead actress, director, co-writer, and co-producer of A Place Among the Dead, offered some insights on her labor of love and exploration of the eternal fascination with fanged immortals.
Cindy Sibilsky for Film Inquiry: Fascination with vampires never seems to go out of fashion but only increases as the decades go by, and seems to defy any limitations of genre or style. What do you think the eternal fascination is?
Juliet Landau: I think it’s an enduring way to explore different facets of our own natures. It is a dance with the intriguing idea of getting to stay young and vital forever, cheating mortality. I use the genre for many reasons, first to make an entertaining movie but also to lull the audience into a sense of safety to explore unsafe and radical ideas. I use the vampire as a metaphor for the ultimate narcissist. You are never sure if the character is a vampire or a serial killer who emulates a vampire, but either way, the characteristics are the same.
A Place Among the Dead clearly pays homage to numerous film and TV classics from horror and suspense genres. Who or what were your influences?
Juliet Landau: Aww, thank you, I love that. Rather than films, the movie is largely inspired by two books, M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie and Robert W. Firestone’s The Fantasy Bond. My husband, Deverill Weekes, co-wrote and co-produced the movie with me. We both were raised by narcissists. There are three case studies in M. Scott Peck’s book, which are profound. Of course, with A Place Among the Dead, we are talking about this through art and entertainment.
If we had seen a movie like this when we were eighteen, we think it would have changed the course and journey of our lives. I became an actress and now an emerging filmmaker, mainly because movies made me feel less alone. They helped me process things I recognized, was grappling with and gave an outlet for my feelings. Human stories have always been the sustenance of what interests me as an artist. All great work is personal, and therefore universal. It provokes conversation. That is what I am after with the movie.
Themes of vanity, narcissism, and ego are pervasive throughout the film and are even part of Gary Oldman’s answer to the query, “What is Evil?”. What do those traits mean to you, and how were they a driving force for the narrative and characters?
Juliet Landau: We are living in times of escalating narcissism, vanity, cruelty, and evil. In A Place Among the Dead, we focus on familial narcissism and evil, affecting one’s choices going forward. The movie’s whole point is that it is important to take stock and not be ruled by this, not to let the unconscious keep leading to destructive choices. Society has been reticent to discuss this, but people are hungering for this conversation. Many are struggling with this, if not in their families, then in their choice of partners, their friends, their bosses, and, of course, in our world leaders. If you type narcissism into a search, the numbers are staggering! YouTube has 9,120,000 videos. Google has 70,400,000 results. Type in psychological abuse, and there are 188,000,000 Google results.
How did it feel to be on the other side of the production? What were the greatest joys? The biggest challenges?
Juliet Landau: I loved it! My husband is the best partner in the world, both in life and creatively, and we’ve found an incredible home with Modern Films. We’ve learned so much through this process. It’s hard to know where to start. It is amazing to bring an idea from its inception all the way to completion. There have so many different stages in the process of bringing A Place Among the Dead to life. We raised the financing, co-wrote the script, co-produced, and secured all of the talent. After shooting, I worked very closely with our brilliant team, including our editor, Patrick Sheffield, who was nominated for a BAFTA for Tim’s Vermeer, our composer, Monica Richards, and created a lot of the sound design with Steve Bucino. I am not a patient person, but I am somehow infinitely patient and interested in the creative process. I learned how to edit so that I could show Patrick what was in my head. I found it easier than communicating in words.
I recorded a lot of the sound elements. I worked with Harry Groener and Dawn Didawick, recording what initially was going to be temp for the parent’s voices. But it was so perfect emotionally; we kept it. I think Patrick and I spent four days just layering the opening whispers. The greatest joy is the discussions the movie provoked at our sneak peeks, just before lockdown when we completed the film and our virtual worldwide premiere and subsequent special screening events.
Each time the entire audience, many were moved and crying, stayed unprovoked for hours afterward to talk about the picture, and then began sharing intensely personal stories. We truly have never experienced this kind of response at a movie before! The greatest challenge right now, workwise, is not having enough hours in the day. I was shooting a recurring role on TNT’s Claws, which resumed in the midst of this initial window of the film release. But this is a great kind of challenge! In the midst of the real challenges we are all facing in the world right now, this is, as my husband Dev says, a quality problem.
The film is distributed worldwide by Modern Films – a London-based, female-led film production, distribution, and event cinema company, working with rising and established talent from around the world and bringing innovative stories to global audiences. What was your experience working with them, and do you have any advice for filmmakers starting out or established actors interested in getting into producing or directing?
Juliet Landau: As far as advice for filmmakers starting out or established actors directing for the first time, I would say learn from the masters. If you are an actor who has worked a lot, take all the gold from the best sets you’ve been on. In either case, do as much preparation as possible so you can be fluid. Surround yourself with talented folks who collaborate and pick a project you are extremely passionate about – a cause that will sustain you and your whole team.
Modern Films is incredible! Betty and Eve, who run the company, are a dream! They have superlative tastes. They just released Werner Herzog’s new film and will be releasing Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, among a stellar slate of other movies.
They are highly innovative. In addition to all the traditional release windows and press, they work with partners to produce special screening events. It was one reason we knew they were the right fit since we wanted a dialogue about the movie.
Our company, Miss Juliet Productions, and Modern Films crafted a new distribution model, which is exciting! New York Comic-Con and M.A.C Cosmetics sponsored the worldwide virtual premiere. We all saw a gap in the market and filled it. People have done panels at Comic-Con, which generate later ticket sales, but this makes the film available right there (virtually.) Everyone worldwide streamed the movie and watched it together – followed by the Q & A where they interacted right then!
That’s a brand-new way to reach the audience. With the closure of cinemas everywhere and the general direction movies were going before COVID-19, this will be some aspect of the future. It is the water cooler/cinema experience, which has been sorely lacking culturally, where everything has been so spread out and dispersed. Also, it puts the fans at the forefront. Modern Films and Miss Juliet Productions partnered with other exciting sponsors Halloween weekend and will continue doing a special preview series, screening events through November and December.
Film Inquiry thanks Juliet Landau for her insightful interview.
A Place Among the Dead held preview events on October 29, 30, and 31. The film’s official worldwide release is November 9. For tickets to all events and more information, please visit: https://www.modernfilms.com/aplaceamongthedead
Watch the official trailer for A Place Among the Dead.
Watch A Place Among the Dead
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