Screenwriter Bruce Wagner on Writing David Cronenberg’s Haunting Hollywood Satire, ‘Maps to the Stars’

“The movie was never meant to be anything like an exposé of the mores and manners of Hollywood, nor as it a takedown because that would be so boring to us,” says screenwriter Bruce Wagner when we sat down at SoHo House last week to discuss his new film, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. “I was influenced more by people like August Strindberg or Joe Orton when writing the script. I wanted it to be tight and wild and subversive and funny, and in a mystical way.” Having begun writing the script in the early 1990s, two decades would pass before his debauched Hollywood melodrama meets elegiac meditation would come to fruition through the mind of iconic master of psychological horror David Cronenberg. Sharing an uncannily similar artistic sentiment with Wagner, the two melded their brilliantly twisted minds to create an epic tale of Hollywood’s tortured underbelly and the haunted mythology that lurks like ghost through its streets.

Starring a dynamic cast of Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusak, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, and Sarah Gadon, the film centers on the Weiss family—a seedy Hollywood household filled with secrets. As a crude and formerly drug-addicted 13-year-old, Bird plays Benjie, a child-star whose disaffected attitude and violent behavior are sabotaging his young life, while his mother Cristina (Williams) attempts to maintain her sanity and his spiraling career. Husband and father, Stafford (Cusak), is a sleazy and narcissistic TV self-help guru to the stars. But when the final member of the family—a mentally ill young woman, Agatha (Wasikowska), physically scarred by a fire—arrives back in Hollywood, their already hazardous lives are thrown into disarray.

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After forming a friendship with a young limo driver, embodied by Robert Pattinson as if he stepped right off the step of Cosmopolis, Agatha begins working for aging actress Havana Segrand. Played by Julianne Moore in one of her finest roles, we see a beaten-down, emotionally raw, and wonderfully uncensored women—who could easily be a long-lost older sister to The Canyon’s Lindsay Lohan—destroyed by her vanity and the still-present pain caused by her deceased movie star mother. Searching for redemption and escape from this hollow earthly existence, Agatha inserts herself into everyone’s life, determined to get what she wants at any cost.

Shot with chilly Cronenberg remove and his wonderful affinity with tantalizing our psyche, Maps to the Stars transcends its satirical beginnings to explore the evocative ways in which we become trapped in the past and our own cycles of destruction. With Wagner’s wild and wonderfully messy touch, we’re given an unflinching and immersive look at the horrors of everyday Hollywood.

Before he and I begin talking about his script for the film, I notice that the top of his left hand is covered in a simplistic black and red tattoo of a street map. When I asked about it, he tells me that after they wrapped on the film David gave him a 1930s map to the stars. Pointing to his hand, he explains that, “This is the route the buses took and these are the stars’ homes. I lived on these streets as a boy, so this area means a lot to me—that was my Norman Rockwell world.” And thus, we begin.

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When you first came across David’s work, did you immediately feel there was a simpatico between you as artists?

Unquestionably. When you see David’s horror films, which are also intensely comedic, you have the sense that this is a visionary, this is outside the norm. Then as he matured and made a masterwork like Dead Ringers, I was fully onboard. David will tell you he’s been far more influenced by books and literature than he has been by film, and we had the same agent and I had learned from my agent that David was a fan of some of my books. When I found that out I immediately flew to Toronto because I had such high regard for him and was so flattered.

So that began a long friendship and association, and ultimately I gave him Maps to the Stars, not as a solicitation to direct, but more the way I would have given him a novel of mine that had remained unpublished. I was absolutely surprised when he said that he wanted to make it because he never speaks lightly, he means everything he says. The gravitas of it was significant and important for me at that time in my life, that such an artist would find themes that were buried in his DNA in my work as well, because I knew that was a prerequisite. He doesn’t take on another’s work unless there’s a significant part of himself in the corpus of that work. 

Were you thinking about David at all while writing the script, either in atmosphere or in how your world on the page might translate to the screen?

Absolutely not. I wrote it as a cry in the dark because I had embarked on a career in Hollywood that was damaging to me. I was being hired to write things for money that I didn’t care about in any way, and in order to not die on a number of levels I wrote Maps to the Stars as an antidote for the poison. The least of my worries was that it took place in Hollywood, which is simply anathema to financiers and then the material itself. A woman menstruating on a couch and the savagery and the language—a little boy telling his agent, “Show me your cunt, I know that you have one, Jew faggot.” I mean, how in the world…So I wrote it as a catharsis. I purged myself, but I was never thinking that anyone would direct it.

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Is that because of the roughness of the material and its challenging tone, or because of the way you’ve portrayed Hollywood?

It’s my feeling that Maps to the Stars is an art film. We of course tried to make it entertainment, but it’s view as we present it, and particularly as translated by David, is tonally challenging. The movie begins as this scabrous satire and by the end it’s an elegiac, sorrowful meditation on liberty and death and all kinds of things. So it was also the shifts in the piece, the complexity, the mandala of the piece.

It’s part telenovela and part existential meditation and part tragedy, and I think that confounded people as well. The critics, before they even saw the movie, said, “This is either going to be The Player or Mulholland Drive,” and that was fixed. There’s almost an insanity that comes to movies that have their backdrop of Hollywood in Hollywood itself, they’re considered to be, Oh you must be making a satire, you must be doing this, you must be doing that. So we compounded all that because that’s what David Cronenberg does, he adhere’s to no one’s idea of what he’s going to do. 

You briefly mentioned writers whose work you admire, but I’m curious where you go to find inspiration? Is it a more insular or exterior search?

I’m a lover of film but my influences don’t come from it, and they don’t come from literature either, though that is where my heart is. My heart is in books, so I was not so much influenced by books as I was nurtured by books. By Dickens, by Genet, by so many writers, they became my family in a sense, replacing the dysfunctional family I had. But my work, as David has said in the most succinct and perfect way, it comes from our nervous systems. I really think that’s the most poetic way to put it: all of my work comes from my nervous system, with all of its kinks and tender biases. 

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Can you tell me more about your personal history in Hollywood and how that was transposed into this script.

I grew up in Beverly Hills and I went to school with the children of celebrities, Liz Taylor’s kids and many others. I also went to school with kids who were celebrities, who’d be shooting a television series and then come to school in wardrobe. I lived next door to Broderick Crawford, and I would pick up a newspaper for my father at the corner store and Groucho Marx or Tony Curtis would. I would see Alfred Hitchcock. Crawford’s wife was estranged from him and she died of an overdose when I was 13 or 12; I remember that had a great impact on me. So Hollywood Babylon was never too far from my own experience and personal taste.

I then went on to drive a limo and chauffeured people like Audrey Hepburn, Orson Welles, and Andy Warhol. I used to take Larry Flint for physical therapy after he was shot. So I was really saturated in the town, and the only way I could achieve balance was ultimately by writing about the things that possessed me, rather than writing for hire. I did that and needed to do that, but at a certain point, if you don’t do what you feel you’re called to do, you do experience a kind of, what David calls, a “pre-death.” It’s a terrible thing to happen to anyone, whatever their endeavor is. So Maps to the Stars had archetypes that interested in me.

I look at Juliane Moore and Mia Wasikowska as flip sides of the same coin. Julianne Moore’s character endlessly displays her shame, her desperation, her panic, and her emotional scars are hidden on the inside. Mia’s character, her emotional scars are visible as burn scars and she represses everything. There was a girl that was in a terrible fire when I was in high school who appeared at school months later with a stump for a hand. All these things make impressions on one, and as an artist one never knows who you’re going to use the.

My work is all about exploring the extremity of human behavior, whether it’s extreme fame or anonymity, or whether it’s extreme wealth or poverty, it’s always the mixture of a sacred and profane in what I do. There’s also a heat to it for me. Julianne said that I brought a hot, messy quality to the script and David brought a cool and format quality to it. It was those two elements converging to make that melodrama.

Did you impart a lot of your own past onto Robert Pattinson’s character?

I drove a limousine and an ambulance, which you could say those are flip-sides of the same coin just like Mia and Julianne’s characters—Juliane would be the limo and Mia would be the ambulance. They were all with people in extreme situations: people that were every famous or people who were pretending to be famous, and in the ambulance were people who were dying or in many cases were people that didn’t need an ambulance. So it was a strange mixture in all that.

Talk about human vulnerability, people were very vulnerable to me in both limo and ambulance. I used it as a, no pun intended, vehicle that was a window into a world. The limo driver is transient, he’s a bystander and a witness and observer, and that’s really what Rob Pattinson did and he did it very well. He was very cool and measured and very nuanced; he didn’t have a desperation yet. He was a little bit green, a little young and handsome, but ten years later if he’s doing the same thing the story would change.

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Having written the script so long ago, were you constantly updating small details so that it would stay relevant, or did that not matter to you?

I wrote the script in the early 90s and put it away for a long time. I changed little things, but I never thought the movie would get made, so there was no reason for me to do that. Then when it looked as if we were two months before shooting, even then I was suspect. I went over the script with a fine-toothed comb and made adjustments, but even while we were shooting I thought that someone was going to pull the plug. I’d been through this so many times, it was a waste of my time and energy to be delusional to try to fix the script up when I wasn’t certain it was going to be made. I didn’t want to participate in that delusion.

Did you have any involvement when David was casting?

I put myself completely in David’s hands. He’s a genius ad a master; anything that he was going to do I knew would be in the best interest of the film. Julianne was a no-brainer for the role. I certainly had a front seat, backstage pass while we were shooting, but I never interfered. The most collaborating we did on set was language or pronunciation, or topicality issues. I felt like I’d won a contest, to sit behind David Cronenberg while he shoots a film.

As a writer himself he understands the nuance of language and I’m sure can have a very specific dialogue with you.

He’s a really strong writer and he really honors the written word. His film novel last year, Consumed, is hilarious. He’s always wanted to write and now he’s actually doing it. He was very, very rigorous in terms of the script.

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I read that you described the film as a “ghost play,” which I loved because the film not only examines the personal ghosts that haunt our lives, also the ghost that lures everyone still dreams of coming to Hollywood.

Yeah, and David is more anti-ghost than I am. We had more ghosts in the script originally than wound up in the film. David felt that every time you saw a ghost there needed to be a strong psychological underpinning as to why the character would be seeing a ghost. I was a lot messier about it. I’m more supernatural in my orientation than David is, but I think this life is a dream and there’s ghostly quality to our experience and daily life. I was always a huge fan of ghost stories.

When I was little I saw a movie called Kwaidan, which is all ghost stories and I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories presented without special effects, which is what we do in Maps to the Stars. Sarah Gadon, the little girl who dies, or the little boy who drowns are all real people saying sometimes vicious things. One of my favorite lines is when Sarah Gadon says, “Do you know what hell is? A world without narcotics”—and this is a dead person. But David played it very naturalistic to avoid a camp quality and make it spookier really. 

The film’s most interesting characters are these two very complicated and damaged women. What attracted you, as a writer, about bringing these characters to life?

What drew me to Julianne’s character was the absolutely uncensored quality of it. I could write monologues that, in a most socking way, reflect her utter sense of shame and desperation as a woman who is aging out in the business and who has experienced a “pre-death,” a career death. David has said very trenchantly said that to not be famous is to not exist for many actors, and culturally it’s become that way as well. To not be in a reality show is to not exist. So what attracted me as a writer to her character was that I could say anything and it would be said; there was no holding back whatsoever.

With Mia’s character, it attracted me that she was terribly scared from a fire. That moved me and that touched me. In the script she was far more deformed than she is in the movie. So I was dealing with two women that had been mutilated—one by vanity and the other by destiny. So I’ve always written strong women character, they’ve dominated all my books. Perhaps that’s because I grew up with two sisters and a mother and no father, that might be behind why I’m drawn to a woman and a strong woman or a damaged woman. So they were the lynchpins of the movie for me.

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I always think of the scene where Julianne is sitting in bed watching a scene from her mother’s movie. She’s just so vulnerable and raw, and while still being incredibly beautiful, she looks so hardened—

And beaten. What she’s doing is watching a home movie, in a sense, of the woman she wants to be and the woman who destroyed her, and it’s frozen in time forever. That film, that home movie will always exist and she’s doomed to watch it like a soap opera from her home. Her mother is immortal and she is not, so it’s that terror.

I see you’re credited with an acting role in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups—how did that happen?

Yeah, I got a call from Wally Shawn [Wallace Shawn], an old friend of mine. He goes way back with Malick, they went to Harvard together, and he said that Terrence expressed interest that I play myself in movie that he was shooting in Hollywood. So I was in a movie, and I was one of these torpedos. I got to the set and thought I would just say hello to Mr. Malick and I was immediately introduced to Antonio Banderas and Christian Bale and was told that they would be talking to each other and I was to interrupt them.

“And say what?” I asked, and he said, Just interrupt them.” It was then about four hours and outside with Chivo shooting, and it was just one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. People who’ve seen the movie said they saw me in it. I never thought I would make it because you have these huge actors that suddenly wake up and are no longer in the movie, so I’m hoping it’s not too humiliating, but I promise not to turn into Havana Segrand if it is.

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