Maps to the Stars: Interview with David Cronenberg

maps_to_the_stars_posterMaps to the Stars combines the savage writing of Bruce Wagner’s Los Angeles with the riveting filmmaking of director David Cronenberg.

A stellar ensemble cast takes a tour into the darkly comic heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts. The result is a modern Hollywood Gothic at once about the ravenous 21st Century need for fame and validation, and the yearning, loss and fragility that lurk in the shadows underneath.

The incendiary mix of Wagner and Cronenberg has been two decades in the making. The origins of the story go back to the 1990s when Wagner, then a struggling actor/writer working as a limo driver, not unlike Robert Pattinson’s character in Maps to the Star, began a screenplay encapsulating his experience of Hollywood. In what would become a major career theme, he dove headlong into all its roiling contradictions: the glory and the wickedness, the ambition and the delusions, the soaring excess and the spectacular falls.

The story took many turns over the years, as Wagner developed into an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter. After a decade, Wagner decided to show it to Cronenberg, since the two had long talked about working together. “With its themes of the dark side of ambition and fame, I felt only David could make this movie,” says Wagner.

maps_to_the_stars_2_cusackThough it would take several more years before the project would come together with the right cast and financing, Cronenberg was immediately intrigued by the fearlessness of Wagner’s screenplay, which balanced on a razor-sharp line between comedy, horror and invigorating honesty. “It’s a story that is really of the moment and it also ferociously attacks the moment we are living in, culturally, pop-culturally, technologically and in every way, which I really admire. I think that is Bruce’s strength. He is not afraid,” says the director. “The force of Bruce’s script was so compelling and so charismatic, I felt I had to do it.” Cronenberg is equally known for not flinching from any subject, and for making films that are as challenging and substantial as they are suspenseful and visually compelling.

maps_to_the_stars_4_pattinsonEarly in his career, Cronenberg made a series of vivid, fantastical thrillers including Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, eXistenZ and Spider. More recently, his filmmaking has become even more expansive with the high-style crime thrillers A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, the psychological, sex-infused historical drama about Freud and Jung, A Dangerous Method, and his adaptation of Cosmopolis which takes place almost entirely in a billionaire’s limousine on one fateful trip through the city.

For Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars was another chance to switch gears entirely into what he calls “a family drama, just not the usual kind of family drama.” Indeed the Weiss family at the center of the story includes a self-help guru father, a teen heartthrob son fresh from rehab, a manager mother intent on keeping her son’s price in the stratosphere, and a mysteriously scarred, banished daughter dangerously obsessed with trying to re-enter the family circle. Living amidst the insatiably rich-and-famous, they are nevertheless driven and haunted by dark forces they can’t seem to escape.

maps_to_the_stars_3_moore“Of course a family in Hollywood that has eaten of the Hollywood apple – that has eaten of the desire for celebrity and achievement in the public eye — is not going to be a normal family,” Cronenberg notes. “Bruce’s father was in the business and he grew up with all of that, so I think he really is able to evoke the distortion and the pressure on a family trying to play the game.” As outrageously extreme as the Weiss family is, Cronenberg saw Wagner’s script as having more than just satirical bite – and he took a performance-based approach to exploring the complex depths of the characters.

“The interesting thing about Bruce’s script to me is the tension that he creates between satire and a very intense kind of reality,” the director explains. “We could have gone in an exaggeratedly comic way with the Weiss family — but I wanted to mute that a bit. I wanted to see each character played as realistically and as low-key as possible under their very pressured circumstances.” Over the years and even during production, Wagner and Cronenberg continued to update the script so that it would feel a part of the immediate now.

“Every time we had another go-round at trying to get the movie made, Bruce and I would go through the script and say, ‘Oh, man, we better forget that reference, that’s obsolete now,’” explains Cronenberg. Throughout, Wagner says he trusted Cronenberg implicitly. “There was no compromise in writing this script, for better or for worse. It really came from a place of darkness that I hope becomes light in the end,” comments the writer. “I knew that David understood both the darkness and the light of it, because I think those qualities suffuse all his work. So I felt very grateful and fortunate.”

In 2011, Cronenberg introduced the script to producer Martin Katz, while they were making Cosmopolis, and soon after, the project began taking off in earnest. Says Katz: “I’ve read a lot of Bruce’s novels and I’ve enjoyed reading him in The New Yorker – so I was drawn to the tone of the film. It also marks the very first time David has filmed in the U.S., and since it’s a film about celebrity obsession in Western culture, to have the chance to film in Hollywood was both poignant and exciting. It’s fundamental to the story of how this family was formed.” Once the film got off the ground, Wagner continued to stay close to the creative process, with Cronenberg inviting him to stay on the set and write on-the-fly.

Day by day Cronenberg turned to Wagner with queries about subtleties in the dialogue, even pronunciation. “Bruce was a perfect validity check,” says the director. Wagner in turn says: “David was gracious letting me be part of the production, but I really felt that whatever I wrote was, in the best sense, in his hands. And he brought something so mysterious to what I had done.”

Mystery is elemental to Wagner’s screenplay, which is as rife with the undead as any haunted house or Shakespearean tragedy. Cronenberg says finding his way into the ghost story was one of his biggest challenges, for though he has been known to push the edges of sci-fi and horror, he has never been one for the supernaturally numinous. “I’ve never really been that into the idea of ghosts, because I don’t believe in them,” he explains. “But the idea of being haunted by memories…that is very real for me. I understand that completely. I lost my parents many years ago, and I can say that, yes, I’m haunted by them and I can hear them and I can see them and I can feel them. I don’t think of them as ghosts who actually exist somewhere, but they do exist in my memory and my mind. And so to have characters haunted by ghostly memories made perfect sense to me, psychologically and emotionally.”

Wagner notes that ghosts have always been part of the Hollywood landscape – which is a realm of the uncanny, the hidden and the emptied out; and which is itself constructed atop a dense, intangible plasma of mixed-up memories, fleeting hopes and unresolved needs.

“There are ghosts of course in ‘Sunset Boulevard,’” he says, referring to the Billy Wilder noir classic that was one of several inspirations, “and there are ghosts in this movie, which I think gets to some of the same themes of death, depravity and resurrection, but in a very contemporary way.” Those themes and the heady admixture of Cronenberg and Wagner was soon attracting an A-list cast, who would embody the excess of their characters with no limits.