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'Maps to the Stars' writer Bruce Wagner's life informed his dark take on Hollywood

Novelist and screenwriter, Bruce Wagner.
Novelist and screenwriter, Bruce Wagner.
Ricardo DeAratanha

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Director David Cronenberg's new film "Maps to the Stars" explores the darker sides of Hollywood and holds little back.

The film was directed by David Cronenberg but written by Bruce Wagner, who grew up in Beverly Hills and had firsthand experience with Hollywood types himself.

He recently took time to speak with Take Two's, Alex Cohen about the film and his life in tinseltown. The Q&A below is taken from theinterview.

The film made the film industry seem so depraved and so disgusting. What was it like when you were growing up in Beverly Hills as a kid?

I refer to it as my Norman Rockwell period, or my Norman Rockwell town. It was a small town. ... There was a 24-hour coffee shop in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where I used to pick up the Variety for my father, and I'd see Groucho Marx there and Tony Curtis. And I went to school with kids who were celebrities and kids who were the children of celebrities. And so that world is not foreign to me at all.

It's not Norman Rockwell town anymore, is it?

Well, you know, with Kardashian world. And now the Internet, which lets us know in real time where celebrities are eating, it's a different world, of course.

For me, many things did not change, and that was the extremity of human behavior. David and I did not set out to write a satire of Hollywood or a commentary. Or an expose of the morés and manners of people's behavior in show business.

We were writing a kind of fever dream that drew more from the playwrights August Strindberg and Joe Orton than it did from movies such as "The Player" or "Mulholland Drive." We wanted to make our "Sunset Boulevard."

I've always felt that "Sunset Boulevard" was a movie about artistic sellout and how a man allowed himself to become kind of a gigolo and destroyed himself in the process. "Sunset Boulevard," the original script, I met with Billy Wilder when I was working with Oliver Stone on a project, and that script begins in a morgue with all of the cadavers telling each other how they wound up in the morgue. So it's very much a ghost play as well. That was very inspiring for me when I found that out.

Bruce, the characters in this film seem at times almost too over the top to be true. How did you walk the line representing Hollywood and the just utter shallowness of it all, without it becoming too stereotyped?

I kind of have an old-school definition of satire. For me, satire is Monty Python. ... It's an extreme and unrealistic exaggeration that illuminates or throws light on the truth.

In "Maps," we did not want to do that. It was naturalistic for me that people are extremist and speaking in such a way — off the cuff and candid and terrified — was for me something that did throw light on the truth. So [Julianne Moore's] character really speaks the truth. ... It's unsavory the way that she speaks it, but she's very honest. Brutally so. And it's not pleasant to listen to or to watch, but she holds nothing back.

For the actors in this film, what was their reaction to playing these sorts of characters? Because this is their world, right? I've got to imagine that they're thinking, "Oh, this isn't me, but I know a lot of people like this."

Well, they were thrilled. I mean, John Cusack saw a lot of his experience in Evan Bird's character, Benjie Weiss. ... And John related to that a lot. And John is quite savage in his own critique of Hollywood and the business in which he grew up in that he relished it.

His character was a celebrity therapist, which is a species unto itself. I think everyone had great fun. And it's always great for an actor to inhabit a role of a character that says and does things that are extreme. You know, I think that that's what actors enjoy doing, so I think everyone had a really rollicking good time, as one might say.

The film isn't just about the movie stars, but also about the whole kind of species of people, the constellation around these stars. The agents, the masseuses, the personal therapist. John Cusack plays this self-help guru that works with Julianne Moore's character. Can you describe your experience with people like this in real life?

Well, it's a kind of rancid ecosystem. You know, celebrity shrinks are not immune to the virus of their famous clients. ... As rigorously professional as therapists may claim to be, there's this seduction involved. So much of Hollywood and celebrity and fame is seductive.

You know, I kind of amended [Andy] Warhol's quote that "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes" to "In the future, which is now, everyone will be famous all the time." And I think that that world where one is at the beck and call, or on the other side. ... It is a vast and complex ecosystem that is now sponsored by TMZ, essentially.

So everyone feeds the other, and it's a massive food chain that's in a loop. So part of "Maps to the Stars," we, of course, showcase that. But, in the end, "Maps to the Stars," as David and I wanted it to be, was an exploration or exhumation of a dysfunctional Hollywood family.

You have on your hand, a tattoo of maps and stars. Why?

When we finished the film, David gave me a gift, and it was a 1936 map to the stars that was Beverly Hills. And there's a section of it that was important to me as a boy, because I was raised in Beverly Hills.

I lived on a few of the streets that are depicted on it. So I have a number of tattoos on my body, and I added this last one to my writing hand because it contains the history of my psycho history, so to speak, and also geographic history of where I was raised. So it shows the streets that were near and dear to me and the path that the bus tours took and the little red stars marked the houses. And it also, from a distance, looks skeletal. The streets look like bones. So I thought, in the forth trimester of my life, why not?