“I’m not part of this community. I don’t even have an agent. It doesn’t affect me in any way,” says Bruce Wagner of his place in his hometown of Hollywood, on this day tucked into an office space in the heart of the film business as if he were dagger in its breast. He appears in person as the tough customer you’d suspect from his prose, not a hair on his head aside from his eyebrows, with black-rimmed glasses that draw attention to his intense gaze and his right hand covered in a tattoo that outlines the streets he first traversed as child growing up in Beverly Hills, then driving an ambulance and subsequently, a limousine down Carmelita Avenue.
Wagner was marked by the city steeped in celebrity culture long before he ever got the ink, spending his days since leaving his mark on it with novels and films showing the human toll of the town’s obsession with fame, wealth and status. But with “Maps to the Stars,” a portrait of a family clinging onto each of those things when the image carefully crafted by their self-help guru patriarch (John Cusack) threatens to be destroyed by the arrival of the daughter (Mia Wasikowska) they cast off years earlier, something seems even more permanent, not just on his skin – a memento he gave himself when production commenced after a 20-year wait.
Recruiting his longtime friend David Cronenberg to direct, Wagner illuminates the grotesque in Lalaland, trailing Wasikowska’s Agatha as she comes to reassert herself in the Weiss household, taking an assistant job to the needy actress Havana Segrand (a fearless Julianne Moore) and being shepherded around Hollywood by a wouldbe screenwriter (Robert Pattinson) while trying to find a way to reconnect with her famous and irredeemably spoils13-year-old brother Benjie (Evan Bird). All are in search of something that the largesse of Hollywood can’t possibly provide while being fundamentally broken by the pursuit, no one more so than Agatha, whose growing influence over everyone in her orbit stems from being the only one with the self-awareness to recognize it.
Filmed with Cronenberg’s keen eye, which can make a meeting at a Hollywood agency feel as horrific as anything in “Videodrome,” and full of perfectly poisoned observations only Wagner could conjure – who else would imagine a child star comforting a Make-a-Wish kid with bragging about his box office receipts, “Maps to the Stars” offers a travelogue straight to hell, yet is as devilishly fun along the way as you might imagine. Shortly before the film opens, Wagner reflected on his continuing wellspring of inspiration, the unreleased film that changed his perspective on screenwriting and how he ended up in Terrence Malick’s latest film.
What’s the continuing fascination with Hollywood?
I don’t see it as a fascination. I’m from here. I’m not putting myself on his level, but you’d say, “John Cheever, what is your fascination with the suburbs?” It’s the world that I inhabit. Hollywood throws a marvelous bright light on human behavior in its extremity and that’s often what I write about, human behavior in extremes, the sacred and the profane. So much of that is convenient. But I grew up here. I went to school with movie stars’ kids and lived next door to movie stars. It became a natural launching pad for my interests and obsessions.
I’ve read that your last novel “Dead Stars” actually grew out of “Maps to the Stars” since you were still looking for financing. Was that the case?
Let’s kill that rumor. “Dead Stars” was a novel that I wrote after I had been hospitalized for narcotics addiction. “Maps to the Stars,” you could say, is contained within “Dead Stars,” the novel, but it’s an extension or a tributary of that river, not a literally contained [inside of it]. But “Dead Stars” was an unbridled, unvarnished, chaotic yet very controlled look at the zeitgeist and “Maps to the Stars,” I really feel, is an apotheosis of my work in terms of my novelistic work.
One of the interesting things about this being written 20 years ago is that so many people have assumed that the real-life inspirations are from contemporary celebrity culture, such as the bratty child actor suggested to be influenced by Justin Bieber when that couldn’t possibly be true. Has it been interesting to see how much things have changed, how much they’ve stayed the same?
This movie isn’t a satire to me. It’s a family melodrama. Of course, there are templates that remain the same. People say that Julianne Moore’s character is an older Lindsay Lohan and just doesn’t matter that the ‘40s and the ‘50s and the ‘60s, each decade has its own cast of characters that fulfill that archetype. There are archetypes in “Maps.” There is the desperate middle-aged actress whose time has passed and she, in Julianne’s case, wants to play a role that her young mother became famous for before her death. There is the archetype of the monstrous young prodigy who’s making amounts of money and getting attention that is crippling. In the family, there is the black sheep of the family, which is Mia Wasikowska’s character who’s literally been exiled and returns to actually right a wrong and knead out a kind of justice through deliverance, so it’s the archetypes of human behavior that endure in any work of art.
Was it interesting to collaborate with a filmmaker in David Cronenberg who had literally never shot a foot a film in Hollywood before?
I’ve known David for many years. We were going to make this movie 10 years ago. At that time, David wanted to shoot the whole movie in America and it was cost prohibitive, so he made “A History of Violence” and many other movies in the interim. He’s 70 years old and this was his first movie he shot on American soil, so I think he was excited to come out here and do that. That was just another cherry on the whole hot fudge sundae of experience for me.
Did it evolve much over those 10 years you were trying to get it financed?
No. We made some cuts mostly for budget and we had to update some technology and proper names. When Julianne screams, she’s doing the yoga pose, and the script said “close in on the answering machine.” We made that an iPhone. Instead of people saying call me, they said “text me” We replaced certain names. Lance Armstrong suddenly was in the script. Other than that, nothing was changed.
Coming from the literary background you have, what’s the appeal of writing movies?
It’s so different than the literary experience. If you talk to David, he’ll tell you he was more influenced by books than movies. David is an author now himself. For me, “Maps to the Stars” was a kind of literary endeavor. When I wrote the script, it felt more like I was writing a book and to see its elegant interpretation was close to the novelistic experience, except that David is a canonical and iconoclastic film visionary. I had the best of both worlds – the literary and I had the pure cinema aspect of it.
You’ve also said it was a cathartic experience to get this out. After 20 years, did it feel like a load off?
You have to realize that I’ve written nine novels now, and many of them that take place here [in Hollywood], so it’s a constant bloodletting that I have to perform. The catharsis was we were going to make the movie 10 years ago and it crashed and burned. If you’ve been in the film business or television business, there is something quite distinctive and not reproducible about actually having the camera roll and having actors speak those lines. You can’t replicate that experience in any other fashion. It’s really a waking dream.
In that sense, it was cathartic, but not in a personal sense. My books are all about families and dysfunctional relationships within the family. This was just a specific family that I don’t have to revisit anymore and you feel that it’s unfinished business that is finally done.
In an essay you wrote for The Guardian, you explained how this did draw on some personal experience. I don’t want to rehash what you wrote there, but there was a detail I did want to ask about – you said you wrote “Maps to the Stars” in the aftermath of a film that was made but never released by Paramount. What was it?
That one was called “Young Lust.” Robert Stigwood produced it. I think the director was having some problems at the time with the studio and it was never released. It was a protracted death because a year was spent editing it. In that time, I was able to get a lot of employment because in Hollywood, all anyone cares about is you have a film and it’s in the can. But a year went by and then a year-and-a-half, then I was re-approached with my partner to work some more on it for possible reshoots. That was also the year where a lot of movies like “Young Doctors in Love,” and raucous comedies like “National Lampoon’s Vacation” [were released] and this movie “Young Lust” was very transgressive. The fact that it was not made informed a lot of my future work in writing about failure and shame. I certainly would have written about those things anyway, but in terms of my Hollywood experience, my entrée was one of defeat rather than of triumph.
So was “Maps to the Stars” the first script that was written with that in mind?
Well, 20 years ago, I wrote a miniseries called “Wild Palms.” It was six hours and directed by people like Keith Gordon and Kathryn Bigelow. I also wrote a movie called “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills” and I’ve written horror films. But this for me was a real cri de coeur, a cry from the heart – very intimate, very personal, very unvarnished where I tried to not just show the profane but the sacred as well. It was fairly unique in terms of my small body of work.
This may be off-topic, but early reports from the Berlin have said that you appear in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups.” So many people get cut out of his movies, so how did you feel about making it in?
I haven’t seen it, but that was really an extraordinary experience. We share a mutual friend. Terry Malick reached out to my friend [Wallace Shawn] and said he wanted me to play myself in this new film he was doing that took place in LA. I spent six hours doing improvised scenes with Christian Bale and Antonio Banderas. I have no idea [how it turned out], but it was great fun, great fun.