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Q&A: Screenwriter Bruce Wagner on David Cronenberg’s “MAPS TO THE STARS”

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David Cronenberg’s MAPS TO THE STARS, out now in theaters, explores the topic of fatalism—sins of the father (past choices coming to a reckoning)—much like his previous A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES. Novelist and filmmaker Bruce Wagner adapted his own book, and discusses the project with FANGORIA below.

Rife with observations about engaging in a corrupt system, in this case Hollywood, MAPS TO THE STARS shows us that there is only the guarantee of destruction, lies and self-delusion, for the organisms that make up this world are deeply disturbed and psychologically deformed—haunted by their pasts and their lack of humanity. “It’s meant to be,” a line repeated throughout the film, is a less the expression of comfort the characters think it is than a prison; whatever happens in the story is meant to be, because no one admits to their agency within this ugly universe.

MAPSTOTHESTARSWAGNER1MAPS TO THE STARS is a project that has found itself on screen at last after 20 years of development, and we had the honor of asking Wagner (pictured right) about its themes, his early work in the horror genre and more…

FANGORIA: How do your and Cronenberg’s tastes compare and contrast?

BRUCE WAGNER: If you ask David, he’ll tell you he’s been more influenced by books and literature than by movies. And certainly, you could make the case—I would make that case [about myself] as well—that we share certain themes that probably cross over between literature and film. We embrace the mutilation of mind, body and spirit—and hopefully the transcendence that is on the other end of that mutilation. Both of us have an interest in the exploration of human behavior in extremis, and we also share humor in common. We like comedy. I find all of David’s films very funny, and certainly his new novel CONSUMED—his first one at 70—is hilarious. We have similar tastes in thematic work. We share a kind of DNA that way.

FANG: It took you 20 years to get MAPS TO THE STARS made. Why did it take that long, and did it change dramatically over that period?

WAGNER: It didn’t change hardly at all. It wasn’t as if I was pursuing MAPS TO THE STARS in terms of getting it made. I wrote it as a kind of diary, when I was embarking on a kind of corrupt life, as a hack screenwriter in Hollywood, and I saw the future—and the future was not rock ’n’ roll, it was bad. I wrote MAPS TO THE STARS the way I would write a novel. It was really something I did as a catharsis, a way to purge myself of a lot of the bad blood I was feeling. I didn’t really seek directors to make a movie, because I felt it was unfilmable. There were so many things in it that were taboo, not the least of which was that it took place in Hollywood, which is generally not a subject that financiers are clamoring to support. But it also had many other taboos—menstrual blood and incest and so many things having to do with dysfunctional families.

I showed it to David about 10 years ago, the way that I would show a novel I kept in a drawer—an unpublished book. I was startled when he said he wanted to make it. It became clear later that it embraced many of the same themes David’s interested in.

Ten years ago, we tried to make it; Julianne Moore had signed on, but David at that time wanted to make the entire film in Los Angeles, and it was simply too costly to do that. So he went on to make A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and other films. Two years ago, he was in Cannes with COSMOPOLIS and showed the script to Rob Pattinson, and Rob said he wanted to do it. Julianne was still available, and that’s how it got made—but it’s kind of miraculous that it did. There was something about it that David couldn’t let go of. When he sinks his teeth into something, you have to look out, because he’s not going to let go of it.

FANG: Having grown up in Hollywood, how do you feel any aspects of the business have changed, like the role of the foreign market in the box office?

WAGNER: I think that’s the only significant change. I believe it’s as difficult to get a movie made now—certainly an art film, which our movie is—as it was 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 30 years ago. The difference now is that one might find out a movie has made a billion dollars and be shocked by that, because it was a film that has barely been on one’s radar, but you learn it made 70 or 80 percent of its profits overseas in China and other places, and did not make much of an impact in the United States. That is the most significant change that Hollywood has undergone.

Another change is that, because of the Internet, there so much more knowledge about celebrities, and the intricate, inside details of deal-making. Things that were trade secrets are now exposed on a minute-by-minute basis. And of course, in terms of people who are interested in fame and celebrities, it’s easy to find out where they live, to get maps of where they live, to get real-time drone-like views of their houses, to know what restaurants they’re eating at and when they’re leaving—that kind of thing has changed. But Hollywood remains the same; that’s one of the strange things about it. It’s kind of a dirty diamond that never changes its shape.

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FANG: Can you speak about the false spirituality in the film?

WAGNER: I don’t consider myself “spiritual.” To the extent that I am a human being who is sensitive to my environment, and to other human beings, I suppose there is a spirituality behind that. Otherwise, I don’t identify myself that way. If you’re referring to John Cusack’s character, Stafford Weiss, he’s a celebrity psychotherapist. We have them in Los Angeles. Celebrity is a kind of contagion; it’s a virus. Therapists are affected by that: If you’re a psychotherapist with a famous client, whose call are you more likely to take, the famous client or someone who has an occupation that is not of renown? I’m sure therapists would argue with me, but we’ve seen that happen in the medical profession, and I know it occurs in terms of psychotherapy. There’s a seduction that therapists undergo.

Stafford is a kind of celebrity guru. He’s a brand, and he exploits his brand-ness to further his career, and invariably he exploits others. I don’t see that Stafford is a spiritual character. In that particular instance, I wanted to create a portrait or observation of a certain kind of Hollywood denizen—in that case, someone who is in the food chain of celebrity and fame, and also creates his own.

FANG: How did you first meet Cronenberg?

WAGNER: I’ve known David probably for 20 years. We shared the same agent, who told me that David was a fan of some of my books. When I learned that, I flew to Toronto to meet him, because I had a great respect and regard for him. Over time, we became good friends, and he executive-produced a movie I directed based on one of my books called I’M LOSING YOU. And we’ve remained friends over the years, sometimes developing projects for television.

FANG: You have also worked with Wes Craven?

WAGNER: That was great fun. I remember meeting with Wes and [New Line’s] Bob Shaye in Venice, when Bob said he wanted to do the third NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Wes had read a script I’d written called THEY SLEEP BY NIGHT that he’d become enamored of, and felt I was a good person to work on this [NIGHTMARE 3] script with him. So we wrote that, and then Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont came onboard and did some rewriting, and we all wound up sharing credit. Wes and I have story credit, and we share a screenplay credit with Chuck and Frank. That was great fun. It was one of my first experiences being on a film set, and I remember Patricia Arquette. It was just a very strange, dreamlike experience. We had a tremendous amount of freedom in writing that script because Wes Craven was involved, and no one was going to f**k with Wes.

It was the same with MAPS TO THE STARS. I was on the set every day, and no one was going to f**k with David Cronenberg. I got very lucky in those two instances, where I had these two men with a very powerful vision who were backed by a lot of people, had a lot of people on their side. It was kind of unusual in that anything I put on the page for NIGHTMARE 3, no matter how surreal, I thought it would get translated—and it did.

Certainly, MAPS TO THE STARS was not collaborative in the initial stages because I’d written the script, and that was very much as David encountered it. We made some trims; there were probably a few more ghosts in the original script for MAPS TO THE STARS than wound up on camera. David doesn’t believe in ghosts, and he felt it was important to have a strong psychological underpinning whenever a character did see or encounter a ghost—that there would be a psychological reason for that, something historical. I’m a little messier when it comes to that, and I have more of a fluid relationship with the supernatural. David is more rigorous and formal when it comes to that.

FANG: Are you a fan of horror films? Your work incorporates a lot of grotesque imagery and a bleak outlook.

WAGNER: I’m primarily a novelist, and my books are quite extreme in their, I guess you could say, horror and brutality. The horror comes more from the observation of human behavior. It’s not FANGORIA-like horror. I’m a tremendous fan of horror films, though—always have been. I absolutely love the odd factoid that I wrote one of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETs.

FANG: You were also attached to write SHOCKER 2 with Craven at one point…

WAGNER: [Laughs] I don’t know what happened to SHOCKER 2. I’ve been involved with… There was a movie called THE GATE a hundred years ago that two friends from college did, and I was involved with the sequel. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve been part of a lot of projects that were miscarried or aborted—horror, and all other kinds of things. But I have a very close relationship to horror. Horror permeates all my work—even my comedies.

FANG: You have cameos in both MAPS TO THE STARS and I, MADMAN, which is great.

WAGNER: [Laughs] I, MADMAN! That’s correct! And I think I’m in the new Terry Malick movie, KNIGHT OF CUPS. It remains to be seen whether that’s a horrific cameo or not. That was David’s idea to put me in MAPS TO THE STARS. I used to drive a limousine, so that was his idea. There was a moment when I worked with people in that sequel to THE GATE, and they threw me into that.

FANG: Do you think we’ll see more of your TV series WILD PALMS?

WAGNER: I hope so. WILD PALMS has a cult following now. I think it was ahead of its time and I wasn’t fully formed at that time either, which was a great benefit and also worked against me. I’m not sure how that would be revisited, but I’m quite fond of my experience with Oliver [Stone] and all the great directors on that show.

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About the author
Heather Buckley
Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank's Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley
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