For over two decades, novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner–writing from Los Angeles, the epicenter of “corrosive” pop-culture excess–has been using Hollywood and our celebrity culture not so much as satirical grist but as a doorway toward greater spiritual understanding. Think of it as seeking Nirvana by passing through the hottest flames of Kardashian Hell.
Wagner’s written nine novels, including Wild Palms (a serialized graphic novel that was turned into TV mini-series in 1993 by Oliver Stone), 1996’s I’m Losing You (the film version of which Wagner himself adapted and directed in 1998), and 2012’s Dead Stars.
Like his novels, Wagner’s recent screenplay for David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is set amid Los Angeles and the Hollywood culture and is populated (by way of several interwoven narratives) with a variety of desperate, damaged individuals seeking not just fame and fortune, but some sort of redemption. Directed with sun-bright detachment and unsettling naturalism, it’s another terrific, boundary-pushing work of cinema from Cronenberg, following 2012’s Cosmopolis.
John Cusack plays Dr. Stafford Weiss, a successful New-Age Spiritualist Guru-huckster whose wife Christina (Olivia Williams) manages the lucrative career of their teenage son Benjie (Evan Bird), a famous child actor just out of rehab.
Benjie’s mysterious (and literally scarred) older sister Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) has just returned to town, and her attempt to find closure with her family hooks her up with both relatively grounded limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattison) and high-strung, aging actress Havana (Julianne Moore). Additionally, there are a couple ghosts on hand–Benjie is haunted by the spirit of a young fan who died of cancer, and Havana is taunted by the ghost of her actress mother.
I spoke with Wagner a few weeks ago by phone about the screenplay, the toxicity and spirituality of popular culture, and how he works to find illumination between its sacred and profane extremes.
Maps to the Stars opens today in select cities and is available on demand and iTunes.
Bruce Wagner: Maps to the Stars was a script I wrote over 20 years ago and showed to David Cronenberg 10 or 12 years ago. He wanted to make it and flew to New York and met with Julieanne Moore a decade ago, and she wanted to do it. But at that time, David wanted to shoot the entire film in Los Angeles, but the cost was preventative. So he went on and did A History of Violence and other movies.
Then a few years ago, David was at Cannes with Cosmopolis and showed this script to Robert Pattinson. Robert signed on, and Julianne was still available, and that was how we were able to get John Cusack. The financing was such that we were only able to have one American star, but by that time Julianne had duel citizenship, British and US. We adjusted things so that we only shot five days in Los Angeles. And David, at 70, with his long career, had never shot a film on American soil, ever.
Dead Stars is confused with Maps to the Stars for obvious reasons, starting with their titles, but Dead Stars was an absolutely corrosive book that I wrote a few years ago, and none of the characters in Maps to the Stars are in Dead Stars. However, Maps to the Stars is very much an apotheosis of all of my novels—it contains the sacred and profane, people in extremis, which is generally what I’m drawn toward. But Maps is really a family melodrama, a fever-dream of a movie.
You’ve mentioned how writing Dead Stars was a sort of cleansing of toxins for you. Do films like this act as a sort of cultural cleansing? Flushing out the worst of our toxic celebrity obsessions?
Wagner: It was certainly cleansing for me when I wrote it, but it may be more toxic for viewers than cleansing [Laughs]. I’ve always maintained that I write about the sacred and the profane. If one only writes about human depravity, then that in itself is a depraved act. It’s bad faith. So I really do work toward if not redemption, then some kind of light or illumination in everything I write.
Maps to the Stars is no different—it begins as a kind of corrosive, almost anthropological essay about show business, but it ends in a far different way, a liberation for the doomed characters. Mia Wasikowska’s character, who’s schizophrenic and mutilated from a fire she was in as a child, turns out to be the most sane character in the film–she wants to break a cycle of bad faith that her parents began.
The movie is not really a commentary on or exploration of the morays and manners of Hollywood as it a kind of excavation of the human spirit. It’s a look at the worst and best of us. People may find that hard to believe, but that’s really where I write from. I like to expose the worst of our inclinations and juxtapose that with the best of our intentions.
In that sense, it seems to echo Greek tragedy, where a child like Orestes, Electra, or Antigone sacrifices him or herself to put an end to their parents’ cycle of sin and violence.
Wagner: Very much present for me was this notion of sanity—Agatha gets sane when she throws away her medication. One gets a sense that she has not fully escaped the cycle, but she does perceive that she must smash that template. I think that what she does is noble.
Wagner: Of course Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, but I think the new model of that mantra is that in the future–which is now–everyone will be famous all the time. I think fame has a really interesting place in our being human. The desire for acclaim is not new—the attention one calls to self. An old Buddhist text said that the desire for acclaim is so strong that in many ways it’s a more difficult hardship to overcome than poverty or disease. This particular Buddhist text I was reading said that even the most reclusive of cave monks will have the desire to be known the world over as the most reclusive of cave monks.
I’ve always written about extremes–extreme poverty and extreme wealth, extreme fame and total anonymity. Those poles illuminate for me, so I’ve always thrown myself headlong into the abyss of both ends. Both of them are bottomless pits. I and David wanted Maps to the Stars to be entertaining, so there’s a lot of humor in it. But at the end of the day, its not funny. We were thrilled that Julianne was nominated for a Golden Globe, but it was under comedy or musical.
Our movie is difficult to categorize because it begins as a kind of corrosive and raucous comedy, but by the end it’s a full-blown tragedy. I don’t make comments about Hollywood or show business—I try to observe the human comedy and tragedy. And because I was essentially raised in this town, it’s my backdrop; an extraordinary laboratory to observe and record human behavior.
But this movie is not anecdotal. I don’t write as a memoirist, I try to write as an artist who draws on deeply unconscious things. In many ways, I’m every character in the movie. I’m John Cusack’s character, the megalomaniac New Age spiritualist; I’m the young man, the prodigy and drug addict; I’m Julianne’s character, the desperate actress who is losing her grip and feeling the death of her career – I’m all of those.
Since I spend most of my time studying and thinking about popular culture, I sometimes wonder if I ascribe too much cultural (and even political) influence to it. But I do keep wondering what impact all this pop culture we’re all immersed in now 24-7 on the Internet and cable TV is having on how we view, understand, and interact with our world.
Wagner: We give as much attention to Bruce Jenner’s transition as we do to a Jordanian pilot being burned alive. It all becomes part of this insect-life-like news cycle, but that will have to sort itself out. I don’t see the times we live in as being better or worse than any other times, it’s just a new time in which everyone is linked in a way that is almost absurdly collective.
I think we’re in the middle of a storm right now, and you can’t really assess the damage or be hopeful until there’s a pause in the storm. But we’ve always been in this storm. One always has to keep in mind that the world is composed of dualities. Our universe is constructed with a night and a day, and if you settle into that equation, then the mess in between the extremes gets a little easier to deal with because it’s more dreamlike. Everything informs this equation of opposites, and most of the time we live in the spaces between those opposites.