Max Landis on ‘Dirk Gently,’ ‘Ghostbusters’ and Elijah Wood’s Straight-Man Qualities

Max Landis read his first Douglas Adams book when he was a preteen at summer camp. A survey of the camp library revealed few books physically intact. Among them was Adams’ “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul,” the second of the British sci-fi humor writer’s two “Dirk Gently” novels, about a so-called “holistic detective” who uses “the fundamental interconnectedness of things” to solve cases.

“That was my first exposure to Douglas Adams,” Landis says. “I’ve read everything he’s written.”

Though not as well known in the U.S. as Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, the “Dirk Gently” books have had a strong pull on television writers. A young Chuck Lorre pitched a version to Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey in the early ‘90s before being steered instead toward “Grace Under Fire.” A U.K. adaptation of the first book lasted only one season on BBC Four.

Landis’ take, “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” on which Landis serves as executive producer, borrows its title from the first of Adams’ books, but riffs liberally on it, relocating the titular character from England to the U.S. and creating a new story around him — complete with a new assistant, Todd, played by Elijah Wood. It premieres Saturday on BBC America.

What’s the most difficult thing about adapting something you loved as a child?
In that respect there’s nothing difficult. It’s just very exciting. But to adapt Douglas Adams directly is a fool’s errand. It would be a ridiculous thing to do, because the glory of his writing is in the tangents and the way the story is told, not the story itself, and the individual ideas within the stories, the way that they’re presented to you — and the sort of acerbic, funny, warm-but-measured, anarchic presentation of his narration. I just wanted to mimic that tone. Trying to adapt the original “Dirk Gently” book or “Long, Dark Tea-Time” felt ridiculous. I didn’t want to step into the same gum that previous Douglas Adams adaptations have stepped in.

So how do you avoid that gum?
You don’t compromise. You create a contract with the material on your own terms, rather than trying to go all the way, like the “Hitchhiker’s” movie, or doing a half measure, like the other “Dirk Gently” TV series. You negotiate a compromise on your own terms, not the terms of the material. Or you say, “I’m going to do a Douglas Adams show. Even if I can’t do ‘Long Dark Tea-Time,’ I’m going to do a Douglas Adams show.” You cherry-pick the elements that you feel are most important, then wrap them lovingly in a story that you think is exciting and good.

Not that the types of people who got angry about ‘Ghostbusters’ should be pandered to, but you saw the response to that movie. Do you worry about irritating the fan base of this thing by putting your own imprint on it?
The issue with ‘Ghostbusters’ was there was a level of deletion happening. The chance for a third “Ghostbusters” film that would live up to the original film was being deleted and replaced with something people didn’t recognize. The level of backlash you saw — beyond the sexism, the fan backlash and the box office backlash — was because the thing in the trailer, even though it looked like “Ghostbusters,” it didn’t feel like “Ghostbusters.” You could smell that from a hundred yards off. It felt like some other thing. It felt like “Spy” or “The Heat.” That’s not even anything that has to do with the women. That’s just the tone of that director. The nice thing about what we’re doing with “Dirk,” even if it doesn’t necessarily look like “Dirk,” it’s going to feel like Douglas Adams.

If so much of Adams is in the tangents, how do you capture some version of that for screen, where you can’t have those tangents?
You spit out storytelling as much as possible, and you don’t try to chase down any dogs you can’t catch. You know, there’s always a temptation to do a Babel fish, to do a wander-off, to spend an enormous amount of time on a story element that doesn’t mean anything other than that you’re happy that you read it.

Was it intentional to have Dirk played by a British actor doing a British accent even though the show was going to be set in Seattle?
Well, depending on how much you know about Dirk Gently, you know that the British accent isn’t even real. Yes, we wanted a Brit, but Dirk Gently isn’t even that guy’s real name.

How did you find Samuel Barnett to play Dirk?
Sam’s an actor who’s been around forever. He’s one of “The History Boys,” who’ve all gone on to do amazing things. Everybody in that movie has all grown up to be somebody pretty impressive. Sam being the lead of a TV show to me is him fulfilling his “History Boys” destiny.

And what about Elijah Wood? This feels similar to other things we’ve seen him in, where he’s playing the straight man to a lunatic or a group of lunatics.
I’d argue that via Elijah’s career choices — even on “Wilfred,” the eventual reveal was that he was an insane, almost dangerous figure. And “Dirk Gently” is no different. Todd’s straight man-ish beginnings beget something much different as you move forward.

Why is this story so attractive a thing to turn into a TV show?
What’s attractive about it to me is it’s not a detective show. You don’t have to think about it like a detective show, you don’t have to structure it like a detective show, because the key storytelling element is that everything is connected and therefore anything can happen. So you can touch any genre. You can touch any trope. You can play with any toy in the toy box of the entire universe. That to me, as long as it comes back to Dirk Gently, is thrilling.

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