A Place Among the Dead marks the feature-film directorial debut of Juliet Landau, who is best known for her role as the fan-favorite vampire Drusilla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The film is a meld of fact, fiction, and the fantastical – exploring the cultural obsession with vampires and what they reveal about the human psyche.
Landau also stars in the film as “Jules,” an alter-ego version of herself, who embarks on a journey that blends the best of true crime, vampirism, and horror, against the backdrop of emotional abuse and narcissism. The documentary-styled film also features alter-ego cameos from major players in Hollywood's own obsession with vampirism: Gary Oldman (who starred in Dracula), Ron Perlman (who starred in Cronos), Robert Patrick (who appeared in From Dusk Till Dawn 2), as well as legendary vampire authors Charlaine Harris and Anne Rice.
Juliet Landau Discusses Her New Film A Place Among the Dead and the Line Between Vampirism and Narcissism
Maggie Lovitt (ML): What inspired you to make A Place Among the Dead?
Juliet Landau (JL): The movie explores the repercussions of growing up under the sway of narcissism and evil. My husband and I co-wrote and co-produced the film. We both come from this type of background. We wanted to make a movie that we hadn't seen before, to talk about something that isn't covered in film, which really isn’t talked about in society as a whole. But there is a yearning for it. If you type in “narcissism” on YouTube, 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. Of course, we are getting at this through art and entertainment.
The vampire is the perfect metaphor for the ultimate narcissist.— Juliet Landau
ML: What can audiences expect from the dialogue that the film creates about kind of growing up under the sway of narcissism?
JL: The movie is crafted in a very unusual way. It is entirely scripted: part fact, part fiction, part fantastical. Dev and I had always talked about the fact that we’d never seen a film, where the voiceover sounded remotely like the thoughts or voices running through our minds. We all make agreements with our parents. These become the voices or the thoughts in our minds. If you come from this kind of background, you are not your authentic self and you let these negative thoughts run the show. They often lead to destructive choices.
The whole point of the movie is that there is a different way. As an adult, you can make different choices. In the film, I play an alter ego version of myself named Jules. She’s letting the unconscious run the show and is making destructive choices. Hopefully, in my own real life, I’m not doing that anymore, but I did for a long time. The movie is really about breaking those agreements. Gary Oldman, Ron Perlman, Robert Patrick, Lance Henricksen, Joss Whedon also play alter egos of themselves, as do best-selling authors Charlaine Harris and Anne Rice, both appearing for the first time ever in a scripted movie.
ML: How did you arrive at the idea of using the undead as an allegory for narcissism?
JL: Well, for a number of reasons. First of all, genre can be exceedingly entertaining. If you type “vampires” into Google, there are 278,000,000 results. Second, to lull the audience into a sense of safety to explore unsafe and radical ideas. Third, it was a way to bring in my and the other actors’ histories. And last, the vampire is the perfect metaphor for the ultimate narcissist. In the movie, we're never really sure if a certain character is a vampire or a serial killer who emulates a vampire. But either way, the characteristics are the same.
ML: Interesting. I know that pre-COVID you were able to hold a couple of audience talkbacks. Were there any responses to your project that you weren't expecting?
JL: Just before locked down, we had some “sneak peek” screenings. Now we have been able to have a virtual worldwide premiere and a number of interactive worldwide screening events. The response has been so powerful and beautiful. At our sneak peeks, many people came out crying. The entire audience stayed for over two hours to talk about the film and then everyone began sharing intensely personal stories. At our special screening events, each interactive each time the entire audience has hung out on Zoom for nearly four hours talking about the movie and again, sharing extremely personal stories.
We made the movie to open up a dialogue. It has been profound to be at this juncture with the film and to have that happen. People that don't come from this kind of background, relate in different kinds of ways. They’ve had experiences with an ex-husband, an ex-girlfriend, a boss, a friend, a relative. Clearly, at this particular moment, where narcissism, cruelty, and evil actions are escalating in our society, it was timely, relevant and a searingly important discussion to be having.
ML: This was also your directorial debut. Was there anything you learned from this experience?
JL: I learned so much about every aspect. My husband and I raised the financing. We learned about that whole process; the investor paperwork, all of the elements in pre-production, the shoot, and post-production. Our editor is the brilliant, Patrick Sheffield, who edited the BAFTA-nominated Tim's Vermeer. I actually learned to edit so that I could show him what I had in my mind, rather than trying to communicate in words. We work in tandem in a phenomenal way. Our composer is the supremely talented, Monica Richards. We worked very closely on crafting the score. I love working with Monica so much!
It is so rewarding to have an idea and to take it from its very inception all the way to fruition. We reached out to this unbelievable roster of talent and every single one of them said yes. It was a serendipitous experience. It felt like this movie needed to be made. I think everybody believed in our mission, the message of the movie, as well as the vision that I had for it.
ML: Do you have plans to do more projects as a director?
JL: Yes, I do. I have a project called The Undead Series. All of the talent in A Place Among The Dead came back to work with us again, plus Tim Burton, Willem Dafoe, and many others. It is completely different in nature and tone. The series is an unscripted, documentary, interview show. Have you ever seen Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee?
JL: This is Vampires In Coffins Getting Blood.
ML: I love that. That's a really cool concept. Congratulations!
JL: Thank you, Maggie! We have a number of other projects, which we have optioned, character-driven pieces, all different genres. We will have to see which one gets financed first.
ML: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is something that has endured for twenty years. What do you think it is about that shows, twenty years on, that has endured with the fan base?
JL: I think it is the writing. Genre is a fabulous way to explore deeper themes, which resonate. It’s also a show that can be watched with the family. Generations can watch it together. The people who watched it when it was on the air, now watch it with their kids and their grandkids. Buffy has been trending again recently. True Blood, for instance, you can’t really watch with the kids. Some parts of it are just too graphic. With Buffy, there can be that communal, generational experience.
ML: When you were playing Drusilla, how did you keep her grounded?
JL: I never approached Dru as a supernatural or fantastical character. I fleshed her out as a human being, as a person with a history and all of the layers, which make each one of us individual. I think that's the way that I kept her grounded. There was a logic to her illogic. I got inside and understood what made her tick.
ML: Did you have a favorite Drusilla storyline?
JL: I have to say three episodes: “School Hard” because it was Dru’s introductory episode, “Surprise” because it was where Dru got strong, and then on the Angel, “Reunion” where Darla and Dru ate the lawyers and wreaked havoc on Los Angeles. Julie Benz and I got to stretch our wings…. Or our teeth!
ML: Did the costume choices that were made for do Drusilla help to shape how you created her mannerisms?
JL: That's a great question. The movement and physicality came from the choices I made. The wardrobe was brilliantly designed by Cynthia Bergstrom. We worked in tandem on certain elements. For instance, in the episode that I was just mentioning, “Surprise,” where Dru was in a long maroon dress I thought it would be great to have a scarf. I then asked if we could tack it backwards on the front of the dress so that I could be free with the movement, hold the edges, and dance in those sequences.
Wardrobe and acting do work hand-in-hand, but the movement and physicality came first, and then we figured out how to incorporate the wardrobe. Sometimes the wardrobe inspires choices. Cynthia built these great chiffon sleeves on a black and purple dress. The flowy sleeves gave me a lot to play with.
ML: When you're choosing roles to play, what motivates your choices?
JL: I look for great material, great writing that has depth and dimension. I look for the arc of the character. I look for it to be different from other roles, which I’ve played. I became an actor to portray all different kinds of people. I love the diversity and range. I’m fortunate to have had and to have the opportunity to play a vast array of characters. I also look for the director's vision. That is critically important.
I just finished shooting a movie with the director Thomas Negovan. The film is produced by E. Elias Merhige, who directed Shadow of the Vampire and Suspect Zero with Sir Ben Kingsley. It is a very interesting project. We just got back from the desert where we shot. I'm very excited about it. It’s a role I've never played before. The whole concept, the world that Tom created is really unique and special.
ML: Is there anything else readers should know about the upcoming release of A Place Among the Dead?
JL: A Place Among the Dead is currently playing virtually at Laemmle Theatres across the United States. We are continuing our special, virtual, worldwide, interactive screening events. Our next one is on December 5th. The worldwide release will be soon. Tickets for all of these ways to see the film are available through our distributor Modern Films, at www.modernfilms.com/aplaceamongthedead
Thank you so much Maggie! I’ve really enjoyed talking with you!