- ISSN 2039-800X
Trimestrale online di cultura cinematografica
Diretto e fondato da Luigi Abiusi
anno VIII | UZAK 28/29 | autunno 2017 / inverno 2018

«We are all ghosts... Everything has already happened». An interview with Bruce Wagner

La redazione

altWho watches the watchmen?
(Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?)

Why this question by Giovenale, which inspired the title of the series Watchmen?
Because Bruce Wagner, like Alan Moore, more or less consciously, comes from the school of the Roman satirist.
Wagner too, by his work, obliges contemporary society's vices and ills to public laughing stock. A work which includes novels (I'm Losing You; The Chrysanthemum Palace), screenplays (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors; Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) and directions (I'm Losing You; Women in Film).
Bruce Wagner is the screenwriter of the latest film by David Cronenberg, Maps to The Stars. We interviewed him.

How did you feel to accompany Cronenberg in Hollywood’s hell? Do you seemed to be like Virgil in Divine Comedy?

Maps to the Stars was written many years ago – a kind of cri de coeur that I turned to in the middle of Hollywood script hack-work – which I never expected to be made. It was always closer to me in spirit to Strindberg than, say, Nathanael West. I showed it to David ten years ago. (We had the same agent back then. I first met David Cronenberg two decades ago, after sending him a few of my novels, which he kindly said he enjoyed; I promptly flew to Toronto to introduce myself). It wasn’t until only recently that I realized the close intersection lin Maps of so many themes that are important to David Cronenberg. It’s obvious one could never “tailor” a script for David Cronenberg; he either responds deeply to material or not. I’ve said that on this one, we both seemed to get into the same chamber together as in The Fly, and our DNA commingled.

Your scripts and your novels continue the work begun by Fitzgerald with The Last Tycoon and continued by Kenneth Anger with Hollywood Babylon. Hollywood Babylon is introduced by the verses of Aleister Crowley: «Every man and every woman is a star». The expression keeps the tagline of MGM «More stars than there are in heaven». Before, the dark side of the star system has fed the unreal light of the screen. Is this still the case? Or now on the screen darkness prevails?

You mentioned The Divine Comedy and I’m sure you know that each section – Hell, Purgatory, Heaven – ends with the word stars. I used that for each book heading of my novel Dead Stars, which, contrary to rumor, is not the source material from which Maps was adapted. (Maps is an original screenplay that invariably draws on material from all my novels.) In terms of Fitzgerald, there is more of The Pat Hobby Stories of his in my work – the spirit of those sad, hilarious exegeses on showbiz failure – than anything else of his. Those are the stories he wrote about a failed, alcoholic screenwriter while he was in Hollywood at the end of his life; many were published posthumously. In terms of fame, I do believe that in the Kardashian Age, the Warholvian maxim can be altered: “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” has now become “In the future everyone will be famous all the time”. I am from Beverly Hills and write about what is in my blood. My father was marginally in the Business and when I was a boy I would walk to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and buy him «Variety». There, I would see Groucho Marx, Tony Curtis, starlets. We lived next door to Broderick Crawford, whose wife overdosed and died after their separation. I went to school with Liz Taylor’s children. It’s the petri dish I was raised in. My work is about failure, anguish, mutilation and death. Those are the handmaidens that allow one – if one is stalwart – to transcend.

You appear for a few seconds in a sequence of the movie, performing a limousine driver. Also Bud Wiggins, the main character of your first novel [Force Majeure, ndr], was a limousine driver in Hollywood as well as a frustrated screenwriter, like the character of Rober Pattinson in the movie. In your works there are often overlappings, repetitions, (in)congruences: the real seems (con)fused with fiction. Is it because you believe that there is no difference instill?

I believe there is no difference. I drove a limousine for years at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My passengers were Audrey Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland, and many others, not just from their era. Mick Jagger, Johnny Winter. I drove Warhol to a signing at Pickwick Books and still have the book he inscribed: “To Bruce, the best driver”. I also drove pimps, whores, fight promoters, billionaires. The Shah of Iran. I drove writers and agents whom I would later come to know. I also drove an ambulance in Hollywood for years. There wasn’t too much of a disconnect between driving a limo and driving an ambulance – both seemed to me to be situations in extremis. Fame and illness for me are inextricably intertwined. Fame is a very old concern. I was recently reading a Buddhist text that mentioned that of all things, the need for fame was the most difficult thing to renounce. «Even the most reclusive cave monk wants to be known as the most reclusive cave monk».

In Über das Tragische, Jaspers wrote something like that: «in the world every great thing is doomed». It seems that in the hollywoodian representation the greatness of tragedy has been expunged: as Laius and Jocasta did, Agatha’s parents turn their daughter away, because she is the only one that accepts her fate (maps to the stars) and, at the same time, breaks every order. Is Agatha the character that introduces the tragic element in the great theater of hollywoodian world?

altEven “doom” is doomed; and it, perhaps, is the greatest thing. That’s beautiful, I think. That the idea of Death itself is doomed. Agatha is like the Unconscious, who is living and breathing for her parents, because they cannot afford to be conscious. Of course, consciousness – or awareness – brings with it a penalty: that penalty is light or truth, which often burns like a fire. Agatha has the disfigured marks of truth from that fire, on her face, her body, her arms. The “tragic element” is often simply that: Truth. Agatha’s father ironically has written a self-help bestseller called Secrets Kill. Well that may be true, but sometimes the revelation of secrets kill as well! Everything kills, but nothing dies.

In the movie, Paul Eluard’s poetry, Liberté, is repeated like a prayer by charaters. Do they play poetry to elevate themselves to an higher reality (to the stars) or to expiate their guilt?

No – but the poetry expresses something unconscious, something tender, something divine, even though it’s complex: what does Liberté refer to? The liberation from the body? The liberation from the dysfunctional myth of incestuous marriage and childbirth? The liberation from anguish and misery? Is liberation rebirth and transformation or simply death? Difficult to answer. But the incantation of the poem reflects the incantatory rhythm of what has happened to these characters; that they are trapped in a mantra, one that can be interpreted - over over-interpreted - in many ways. Our lives in a sense are incantatory poems. Mark Twain famously said, «History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme». Moment to moment, our lives are like that. And sometimes the rhyme is gorgeous; other times, not so much. It’s always fatal though. To me, Liberté is a great love poem. That’s how I always saw it, not as a political poem. David recently pointed out to me that it was originally written by Eluard as a love poem.

In one sequence, there is a kind of russian roulette with a gun that emits the shot just before a dog and not against the young star. This form of “predeterminism” is a kind of need affirmation of the existence of these icons in the world, in the system? As if their presence is essential in order to maintain a balance between those who are “famous” and who is not?

That sequence was simply meant to show how reckless Benjie had become; he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. In the script, the actor is supposed to put the gun his mouth and pull the trigger (before mistakenly killing the dog), but Evan Bird didn’t feel comfortable with that and David didn’t want to press the point. Obviously, the scene is perfect as it was filmed.

The universe described in Maps to the Stars is “incestuous”, it’s doomed to remake. You and Cronenberg show Hollywood strangled by its ghosts. It’s a machine that perpetuates itself without producing anything. Can Hollywood still create something new?

We were not making a commentary on Hollywood! Hollywood is the laboratory in which I work – one of heightened theatricality and emotions that is comfortable to me. My directional and spiritual home, in a literal sense, so to speak. The idea that either David or myself would be interested in lampooning or satirizing Hollywood is absurd. That holds zero interest. David is a major artist with recurring themes. David is a social satirist – among many other things! –, but that is the smallest component of his visionary work. As wonderful as it is, and it’s quite wonderful, we were not making The Player! People who say “Wagner insists on exposing the hypocrisy of Hollywood” have grossly misread my work. Hollywood is always creating and recreating New and Old. One could argue that everything is incestuous; everything is recycled; we are all born of Adam and Eve (goes the Myth).

What kind of relationship you wanna show when you put in your plot the dichotomy between the History and the contemporary Culture? In Maps to the Stars the ghost (the past) crush everyone and push them to death. Agatha also talks about Myth but she doesn’t leave behind her situation, the past crush her too. What is the position of the History in the Culture now? The past can be only a ghost?

altWe are all ghosts. We are already dead. Everything has already happened; that is something that we try to show in Maps, something that’s contained in the narrative. «It’s all ending now», says Agatha to her brother – and it was already ending, before the opening credits of the film! It has already ended. One sees the end in the beginning, when Agatha arrives in LA by Greyhound bus, from Jupiter, Florida. Sometimes the dead – ghosts – are more real than the living, because they no longer have the crushing task of fulfilling the narrative that will kill them; they are liberated from Story and exist now as bodhisattvas – or demons –, the haunted – to the living. The Greek Chorus. Agatha fulfills her destiny – the destiny of her family – she completes the circle of fire, and that is her haunting strength. Not even she understands what she is doing, but she is compelled. That is her tragic beauty. No one understands what has happened to the Weiss family and yet she arrives as the mystical assassin, to deliver that final wounds to the head.

What is Hollywood today?

Hollywood today is Maps to the Stars – and Godzilla! Which had moments of great beauty – the monsters slugging it out in chiaroscuro, with the orange-red lanterns of Chinatown in the foreground. I hope we too achieved such moments of beauty.


Jaspers K. (2008): Sul tragico, Sapere Edizioni, Milano.


A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russel 1987)

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards 2014)

I’m Losing You (Bruce Wagner 1998)

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg 2014)

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (Paul Bartel 1989)

The Fly (David Cronenberg 1986)

The Player (Robert Altman 1992)

Women in Film (Bruce Wagner 2001)

Ho visto cose


Speciale Crossroads 2017

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