‘Maps to the Stars’ Writer Bruce Wagner on Raising Hell with David Cronenberg

'Maps to the Stars' Writer Bruce Wagner on Raising Hell with David Cronenberg
'Maps the Stars' Writer Bruce Wagner on Raising Hell with David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg’s scabrous new nightmare “Maps to the Stars” is a pitch-black ghost story writhing in the filth of writer Bruce Wagner’s Hollywood rock-bottom, a demimonde of deluded pill-swilling actresses, schizophrenic burn victims, incest families and drug-addicted child stars. In other words, home sweet home for the Canadian director of films like “Crash,” “Dead Ringers,” “Naked Lunch,” “A History of Violence” and “Videodrome.”

His first film ever to be shot in the United States—at least in part—”Maps to the Stars” landed in Cronenberg’s lap a decade ago when his friend Wagner gave it to him without any intention of a film being made. Finally, in 2015, it’s here in all its messy, horrifying, grand guignol glory.

Author of nine books between 1991 and 2014, Wagner grew up on the fringes of Hollywood, working at bookstores, as a limo driver for celebrities from Orson Welles to Larry Flynt and as an ambulance driver (“same coin, different side”), a would-be actor and a pencil-pusher at Paramount, where he wrote his first story collection “Force Majeure” and where “Maps” got its start. (An early version of the script almost ended up in the hands of Oliver Stone, which Wagner unpacks below.) 

The film follows a menagerie of lethally entwined characters. Havana (Cannes Best Actress winner Julianne Moore) is a Hollywood has-been living in the shadow of her dead mother, a Golden Age starlet whose brief life story is becoming a movie, and Havana is sickeningly desperate to take on this plum role. Meanwhile, badly burned teenage schizophrenic Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) drops into town seemingly from the sky to enact a grand plan involving her estranged family: her bloodless self-help guru of a father (John Cusack), her unctuous showbiz mom (Olivia Williams) and her entitled child star brother (Evan Bird). Robert Pattinson co-stars as the fame-mongering limo driver who drives Agatha to Havana’s Hollywood Hills home, where she becomes her personal assistant or “chore whore,” as Havana puts it.

Wagner insists that despite the easy parallels to such Tinseltown figures as Lindsay Lohan, Kris Jenner and Justin Bieber, the film is not a satire but instead a “ghost play” containing Hollywood as he has known and lived it. Our conversation follows below.

“Maps to the Stars” opens Friday, February 27 in theaters and on VOD via Focus World. Review roundup here. 

In The Guardian, you said “The thought of an industry satire makes me want to vomit.” Why?

People’s definition of satire has become so watered down. When I think of satire I think of Jonathan Swift or Monty Python, and I’m capable of writing satirical things but my novels are, for the most part, realism. The world that I inhabit is that of the sacred and profane. My concerns are extreme fame, extreme anonymity, extreme wealth, extreme poverty, humiliation and shame, and rampant egotism, pride. David has said anytime something is funny or humorous, the word “satire” is invoked and when you add Hollywood to the mix, it’s as if that’s the only word that one can use, so David and I had no interest.

Why was the idea of writing a satire not interesting to you?

I’m from Los Angeles, the entertainment industry is part of my DNA and it’s really a backdrop of the stage in which my melodramas unfold. For me, “Maps to the Stars,” which was written decades ago, was really inspired by Joe Orton and Strindberg more than anything else. My work is often compared to Nathaniel West; I don’t think anyone would call Nathaniel West a satirist, though I’m sure people do. David and I really were repulsed by the idea that we would want to write something that was a state-of-the-art expose or satirical observation of Hollywood that had a moral or a message behind it. It was a melodrama, a fever dream, a ghost story really, for me, that is of course very funny and can be abrasive and brutal. The most brutal scene for both of us and the scene that gave us most pleasure was when Julianne Moore does the celebratory dance when she’s got this part because the child of her competitor has died. Is that satirical? I don’t think so. It’s human behavior.

And it’s not like David Cronenberg has ever intentionally directed a satire before.

No, but his movies are very funny. In person he is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. David and I have known each other for a long time. He was a fan of my books. If you ask David what has influenced him more in his career between movies and books, he’ll say books. He wrote his first novel last year at the age of 70. We always wanted to work together and, in fact, he executive produced a movie I directed, “I’m Losing You,” an adaptation of my second book. “Maps” was a script that I showed him eight or nine years ago and he called me and told me he wanted to make it, and he flew to New York and met with Julianne and she agreed to do.

Why didn’t the film pan out at first?

David wanted to shoot the entire movie in America, obviously because of the light and certain landmarks. It was prohibitive, it was too expensive and it fell apart and he wound up doing “A History of Violence” and many other movies in the interim and then a few years ago he was in Cannes with “Cosmopolis” and he showed the script to Robert Pattinson, who signed on immediately, and we re-approached Julianne Moore, she was available and it came together. But David somehow couldn’t shake the story or the script. It was like we got into the same pod in “The Fly” and our DNA co-mingled because David rarely develops more than one thing at a time and you certainly can’t convince him to do something. It has to resonate with him very deeply and I think in “Maps” the idea of mutilation of spirit, the actual body manipulation of Mia’s character, the boldness and perversity of it appealed to him.

How much of the film was shot in Los Angeles?

We shot in LA for five days. It was the first film David shot on American soil, as you know. It just came together. I got lucky.

Was David Cronenberg always the man you had in mind to direct?

You have to imagine, no one would sign on to make this script. Not only is it difficult to make movies about the industry but given the nature of this material, there is no one who’d say that they wanted to do this and in fact I didn’t really seek David out to do it; I just gave it to David because it was part of my arsenal, a script sample that I wanted to share with him as I would share a new novel with him. But I had no fantasy of the movie ever being made. It wasn’t the idea that I was looking for a director. I was looking for no one.

You initially wrote this while working at Paramount. What sparked you?

My first book “Force Majeure: The Bud Wiggins Stories” was my re-imagining of Pat Hobby, Fitzgerald’s failed screenwriter. Fitzgerald wrote this series of stories toward the end of his life about an alcoholic and failed screenwriter. They were very morbid and funny but I wanted to take them further. Oliver Stone optioned that book and I was hired to write a screenplay based on those stories and that character. My mistake was it was a bad fake deal I made. I thought Oliver was going to direct so I wrote a script that I felt Oliver would want to direct. It wasn’t true to the story. Then something really grotesque happened, which would have happened to the character, which was that Oliver wanted me to direct. Suddenly I had a script that I couldn’t relate to. It wasn’t a bad script; it just didn’t reflect me and those stories. So I rewrote it and wrote “Maps to the Stars” and Oliver thought I was quite insane, and that was the end of it. I completely forgot about it. That was the genesis. It was written as a visceral antidote to everything that I had written for Hollywood up until then, which was not authentic. 

There’s a poem by Paul Éluard, “Liberty,” threaded throughout the film, almost as an incantation that unites the characters. Where did that allusion come from?

Way back in the day, I used it as an epigraph at the beginning of one of my books to seduce a woman that I was in love with. I dedicated the paperback to her and used that poem. That poem was a wartime poem written during the French Occupation and we later learned that it started as a love poem. So I suppose my instincts were correct because I didn’t know the background of the poem. Its repetitive nature, the incantatory nature, was erotic to me and I thought it was quite beautiful. Again, it was that part of the sacred and profane of the script where that was the “Sacred” part, this mystical incantation that became a thread that linked all the characters, and it ends the entire film during that perverse wedding ceremony.

It is like the kiss of death. How interesting that it was a seduction ploy for you.

I chose it as the epigraph for the book long before writing “Maps” and by weaving it into this horrendous narrative, I was trying to bring some beauty to this doomed couple.

There is that mythological undercurrent. Agatha keeps talking about this inevitable grand plan.

The movie, rather than being a Hollywood satire, is a chamber play or fever dream about a ruined family and her parents committed a taboo by having this incestuous marriage in which they produce two children. It was a very sexualized and perverse union. Agatha, who is schizophrenic, spawn of that union, still possesses morality but can’t escape the circle of incest. Her incest is not eroticized; it’s theoretical. Yet she has enough energy to put an end to this corrupt dynasty, but not to escape its formula, its formality, which is to marry as brother and sister. She can’t escape that and she can’t escape her schizophrenia or her body scars but she can end it with her brother. She’s the most sane person in the entire movie. Mia is so wonderful. She really brought such tenderness and emptiness, in a way, to that role.

The script demands a lot of bravery of the actors. The scene where Julianne Moore is doing that dance disturbed me, but also Stafford punching his daughter and calling her a “cunt” — that was rough.

That was a very tough scene. 

Were you on the set?

All the time. That was one of the first scenes we shot, too. No one was quite sure. You settle into a rhythm on a film and you don’t get there for a week, so that was tough.

One of my favorite lines in the movie is Havana saying to her agent, “Everything is stunt casting.” What does that mean to you?

In her life, everything has become a stunt and everything is exploitative. The idea that she is the daughter who now wants to be cast in a role that her mother made famous has had to convince herself “That’s all right,” that her desperation is no different. Julianne Moore is so fearless and what I liked so much about writing that character was, when you’re writing an ensemble piece, to have one character, you have Mia, who suppresses everything and then you have Havana who suppresses nothing. She’s completely uncensored and that’s really fun as a writer. Whatever comes to my mind through her, I don’t have to worry about cleaning it up. I can write about the most base and defamatory things without a filter,. When she says “everything is stunt casting” it means that her soul and her very being are a stunt at this point.

Were you ever scared of this script and the fact that you could be capable of producing something so vicious?

When you look at the books, you’ll see, I don’t censor anything. I go to the absolute blackest and worst places and in many ways “Maps to the Stars” is a PG-13 version of my books. For real. My books are, in terms of the exploration of what human beings are capable of and their behavior and actions, “Maps to the Stars” is pulled back.

I’m curious about the tattoo on your hand. Is that a star map?

I have a lot of tattoos but David gave me a star map from the ’30s when we wrapped. I grew up in Beverly Hills, and this is my writing hand so I thought, “There’s my psychohistory.” This is the route the busses took, and these are the star homes. This is what the map looks like. I used to drive a limousine and I’d give fake tours because you didn’t want to be bothered memorizing what fucking celebrities lived where. You’d say, “Oh, Red Skelton! Frank Sinatra! Lucille Ball!” They would never know. In fact, one time, to this day I have trouble believing it but it’s true, I had a group of tourists from Texas that wanted a tour and we went into Bel Air and I saw a man in a robe in the middle of the street, barefoot, and pulled up. He asked for a light, he had a cigarette. It was Brian Wilson, during that crazy beach-boy sandbox period! They couldn’t believe it — I got hundreds of dollars in tips that day — and I couldn’t either because that was around the time there were these bumper stickers on cars that said “I brake for Brian Wilson” and I thought it was an urban myth. And it wasn’t!

Who else did you drive?

I had Orson Welles, I had Larry Flynt after he got shot. I would pick him up in Century City where Hustler had its office and bring him to the hospital for rehab. I had people from the mafia, I had fight promoters that I’d go to after hours clubs with and I was the only white person there and was treated royally. I had Andy Warhol, all kinds of people, and I had the wannabes, people that were desperate to have people look at the car and think there was someone inside of note. There were hookers who blew you for a tip. I had the full experience. I drove an ambulance for years and it was really the same coin, different sides.

Why did you stay in LA?

In many ways I started writing the books in order to survive spiritually and psychically because I was really being brought down. I was a hack writer, writing two scripts a year for money that I hated, I was not successful and I was losing. The Pat Hobby stories were a revelation to me because they were so funny and I thought, I can write about my experience in a literary way and explore the darkest parts of myself and others, and that was the antidote for me. I just kept writing. No other city called to me. The only way I could stay here and stay sane was to explore the city using this craft of mine. I had always wanted to be a writer but not until I was in my thirties did I start to publish, you know. So do I need to stay in LA anymore? No. But I’m still here.

I lived in Hollywood for awhile. There was a certain alluring depravity about it. But really, it’s dark.

People have a strong reaction toward LA, period. The people that hate LA hate it with such a passion. For me, there’s a mystical element to LA. I’m a real California boy, you know. Brian Wilson, I do brake for him. He’s a mystic to me. And you know, the Santa Anas just blow through my novels. I can’t escape that. I see the entertainment business as this monster, this gollum, I can’t escape it, but it’s all been a wonderful laboratory for me. And ultimately you do the best with whatever shore you wash up on, and I washed up in LA. So I’m, I’ve done the best with it that I could, but I never had the aspiration to be king of the hill of the tear-down artists, somebody that wants to take a shit on LA, that has no interest for me. I’m enthralled, I’m married to the mob in that way. What interests me is exploring the sheer poignance and triumph and degradation of what it is to be human, not what it’s like to be Scott Rudin or any of these people.

You can map anyone you want to onto these characters, but they’re just archetypes.

When we showed to movie in Cannes, oh, they jumped on me. “That’s Justin Bieber!” This movie was written before Justin Bieber was born. But there are always archetypes. I mean, “Game of Thrones” is gonna have archetypes. Never did it occur to me, “I’m gonna fuck ‘em here,” “watch me fuck ‘em here.” It’s boring to me.

There’s a real brokenness to Havana that you don’t see in these pill-swilling Real Housewives types.

Yeah, because she’s unfiltered and I think most of the time everyone is so armored. To show that shame, that is the worst thing you could do. It’s one thing to have a naked selfie leak to the world, but it’s another thing to show your own desperation and weakness. That’s far worse. But one thing I repeat over and over again is that in many Buddhist texts, and these are hundreds of years old, they talk about the idea of fame and self-acclaim being one of the most difficult things to confront and resolve. Far worse, they say, than that of physical or financial hardship. There will always be the most reclusive cave hermit will always have this thought during meditation that he wishes to be known and have renown as the most reclusive cave dweller. You know what I mean? So this is part of human nature. That’s the world I swim in.

Working in LA, I’ve attended many red carpets. You see, unvarnished, these people and how they really work and how they are really desperate at times. Everyone is pancaked like you wouldn’t believe. It was horrifying to me at first, but now I kind of love that.

You gotta love it!

I’m curious about one scene that’s getting a lot of heat. Toward the end, there’s a self-immolation and the special effects are, well, kind of cheesy. You can see the artifice.

Some of that was budget.
We didn’t have a lot of money and it’s really interesting because people comment on that but for me watching it, even with my enormous bias, it was fine. There’s an empty lot beneath the Hollywood sign where we shot all of those things. And when I first saw a photo, I was traveling and David sent me a photo of it, and it looked like the set of an opera. And I thought that when people saw the movie, It would not look real that we actually shot it there. Of course, we made the stump of a fireplace so it looked like a house used to be there. And same with the fire. To me, I’m incapable of seeing it as a mis-fire, you know what I mean? Its part of an operatic feeling that the movie has. So I can’t see it that way. The actor had a very complex and expensive suit that they wore that was charred from our makeup guy. It’s not something I dwell on, but people are always going to say X, Y and Z.

Are the ghosts we see meant to be real or are these the hallucinations of people?

That’s the one thing we changed. I had more ghosts. David is anti-ghost. He doesn’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural. I do. So David wanted any ghosts to be considered to have come from the mind, that when Julianne sees her mother it’s because of unresolved things, et cetera. We had one scene that we cut, half for budget but mostly because David wasn’t on board with it, which was when, at the very end of the movie, when Mia and Evan see ghosts on the road, a number of them, adults and children. And of course Mia, when Evan feels he’s going mad, she tells him that she saw children, and he says “How did you make that go away?” and it was by invoking that poem. And so I’m someone that is very much steeped in ghosts. One of my very favorite movies as a boy was “Kwaidan,” so I’m all about ghosts, and David is not.

Since the script was decades in the making, were you continuing to revise it toward the end? And when you were entering production, were there a lot of changes that you made to update it?

Not a lot. Some technology. When the script was written and she’s doing her yoga position and screams at her phone, that was originally an answering machine. “Close on answering machine.” So we changed things to iPhones. Some lines we changed to “why didn’t you text” instead of “why didn’t you call.” The script for me was timeless in that it was a melodrama about a family that was doomed. It was not about much else.

In the first scenes, you see Benji as this entitled little prick but you get the sense, as he’s throwing up in the bathroom after the casting meeting, that he’s smarter than he lets on.

He begins as an entitled cunt. He’s awful. Oddly, his sister’s sanity is contagious. I think he realizes in a sense that he’s doomed and he seals his fate by harming that little boy, and there’s no place for him to go. He tells his sister that when he drops by Havana’s house. “There’s no place for me to go.” He acquires through contagion the virus of Agatha’s sanity. It’s another thing many Buddhists say that suicide is not sinful in some cases. I’ve heard that many times. Even the Dalai Lama has said that. Certainly in cases where one is paralyzed and losing all of one’s bodily functions, that’s a personal choice, and certainly not in cases of shame and humiliation. But who can assess someone’s agony? It’s not up to me. It’s not up to anyone. At the end, you have the most sane people in the movie committing this terrible act. Pretty much everyone’s finished in the end. It has elements of a Greek tragedy in that way.

How does David Cronenberg work on a set?

A Canadian set is much different than an American set. There’s a quiet. David is shockingly prepared. He’ll block a scene out with actors, and then they disappear to do makeup and wardrobe, and he goes into his trailer where he has a huge screen and the camera crew goes through each shot with doubles so that by the time the actors come back, he knows exactly what’s going on. Anything he has wanted to change he has already informed them by walkie. He’s so prepared that you don’t have the stress. He does most shots in one or two takes. He said that early in his career, when he was first learning, the editors said “Get everything. Get as much as you can.” Now he says he only gets what he needs so he truly does edit in his head. When he wraps a movie he usually has a cut within ten days. In our case it was within five days. With that comes a lot of comfort and calmness as opposed to someone that is unsure of himself and that filters down to crew and actors, of course.

And what about Julianne Moore?

Someone like Julianne, who knows more about a set than many directors, if she has a question, he’ll answer it immediately. Sometimes she would want to do another take and he’d say yes. Other times she’d say, “Can we do one more?” and he’d say “I think we have it.” She listens because it’s David, you know? The set was very formal and yet very loose. As a writer it was a dream because he treats it like a theatrical production. No words are changed whatsoever. If an “and” or a “the” is changed, the script supervisor will let him know and David will either tell him to let the actors know or to leave it alone. It’s that specific. One word.

Cronenberg has been deferring to you a lot over the past year at festival press conferences when asked certain questions.

I don’t even think he’s joking, but he said, “If the movie fails it’s Bruce’s fault.” He smiles when he says it but he has said it enough times– I think that anyone who knows my fiction, I’m very present in the movie. It wasn’t like I wrote a story about something that happened in Alabama or a story about gangs. This was a movie that contains all of the themes I write about. Poverty, wealth, extreme fame, hubris, triumph. It’s all the things I obsess over in my books. David is very funny and all of his movies to me are funny and humor’s an enormous part of my work. The two of us really gelled. We had so many concerns that dovetailed and merged in the making of this film. He’s very respectful and has worked DeLillo, Ballard, Burroughs and I add my sad little name to the caboose on that train. He’s very writerly, and a wonderful writer himself. That’s why he has paid homage in that way.

Has this reinvigorated the desire to do more filmmaking or screenwriting?

I might want to direct a movie that is a small and radical movie that’s doable. One of the appeals of novelwriting is I can sit down to write a book and a year later have it published. I’d like to replicate that experience if I can with something that is very contained and extremely radical, doing and saying things no one else is and exploring themes in the way that gets me off. I don’t have a presence in Hollywood whatsoever. I don’t even have an agent. I’ve written other radical screenplays but certainly I won’t be around if it takes as long to get them made as it did “Maps.” I will be buried by then.

Ryan Lattanzio is a staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter @ryanlattanzio.

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