The hero of Force Majeure is a screenwriter on the skids who suffers at the hands of back-stabbing agents and coarse producers, but author-screenwriter Bruce Wagner, 37, wants to make one thing perfectly clear: this is not a novel about Hollywood.
”This is a book about a man who’s had a complete psychotic breakdown,” Wagner says. ”It didn’t interest me to do another book about Hollywood.”
Well, maybe so. But despite Wagner’s protestations, Hollywood has been gossiping about his thorny book ever since an excerpt appeared in the July issue of Esquire. And for a work its author says isn’t about Hollywood, Wagner’s book has had a history that itself is pure Hollywood.
A modestly successful screenwriter (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills), Wagner started dabbling in fiction a few years ago. A friend issued some of his stories in a private edition, and in 1989 Random House signed Wagner for a short-story collection Looking for a way to ”go deeper,” the writer began to weave the stories into a novel. But before he could finish, director Oliver Stone (Wall Street) — who had seen the stories — came calling, and Wagner stopped working on Force Majeure, the novel, to write Force Majeure, the screenplay (the title refers to a standard contract clause stipulating that a writer serves a the producer’s whim). ”It was an offer I couldn’t resist,” he says. ”It was just like something that would have happened to Bud,” his screenwriter-hero.
Wagner denies that he had a movie in mind all along. ”Oh, no,” he insists. ”It was the last thing I anticipated.” he also denies that the book is a roman à clef. ”Not that I’m above that,” he admits. ”Sure, it’s autobiographical in some of the little details, but that’s all. Hollywood, after all, is full of archetypes — the nympho actress, the vicious producer.”
Force Majeure, starring Jim Belushi, Debbie Reynolds, and Faye Dunaway, goes into production this fall with Wagner directing and Stone coproducing with Edward Pressman and Caldecot Chubb. The book is now at a bookstore near you.
Yes, it all sounds very Hollywood, but Wagner is quick to say that readers expecting a trashfest, in the manner of Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, are going to be disappointed. ”It’s a weird book,” he says of his own. ”I can’t imagine it selling a lot of copies.”
Wagner makes this last remark between stabs at his breakfast of fried eggs and french fries at an L.A. coffee shop. With his dome of close-cropped black hair and his black T-shirt, he looks like an errant monk. But he seems sincere, and his denial that he has written a roman a clef is seconded by coproducer Chubb, a longtime friend.
”People in Hollywood love to talk and think like that, so I’m sure there are people poring over it wondering if they’re in it in some disguise,” Chubb says. ”But I don’t think it’s true. The characters come alive because their life is accurately observed.” Both the producer and the author maintain that even the numerous and striking parallels between Wagner’s career and that of his fictional alter ego, Bud Wiggins, are just ”surface similarities.”
Like Wiggins, Wagner was born in the midwest (in Madison, Wis.) but grew up mostly in Los Angeles. He bummed around after dropping out of Beverly Hills High, working a number of odd jobs. He wrote his first script, a comedy called Young Lust, with then girlfriend Robin Menken, but the film, starring George Wendt (Norm on Cheers), was never released. The same fate befalls Bud’s first movie, although not before he briefly enjoys being romanced by agents all over town.
”It doesn’t take much in this town to be courted by an agent,” says Wagner. ”There can be a rumor that you’ve written a script about, say, a blind girl. Suddenly that gets a buzz, then it becomes a rumor of a rumor.”
In Force Majeure, the movie business comes off as a fickle field where humiliation and betrayal are a way of life. But, Wagner says, the savageries are usually only ”little betrayals.” He claims that he enjoys the real-life counterparts of treacherous characters like the novel’s Joel Levitt, a producer: ”There’s so many guys like Joel Levitt. He’s a brute, but so many of these guys that are brutish are also attractive.”
Chubb calls his friend a ”gregarious misanthrope” with deeply divided feelings about the Hollywood party-go-round. ”He likes being invited, but he doesn’t like actually being there.” Having completed about 12 screenplays and having three of them actually filmed, Wagner is already far more successful than his fictional character. But he insists that that doesn’t make him a Hollywood insider: ”I’ve never been an insider,” he says. Then he laughs,”I’m dying to be one.”
The ambivalent Wagner may or may not be on his way to being the insider he may or may not want to be. But Doug Lindeman, a friend who worked as a publicist on Scenes From the Class Struggle, thinks he’s make a start. ”Hollywood eats its young,” he says. ”The only ones it doesn’t eat are the ones who bite first.” Even if they deny they’ve bitten anybody.