David Cronenberg specializes in psychological horror, so it’s no surprise that his skewering of Hollywood in Maps to the Stars is as disturbing as any film he’s ever made. Written by novelist Bruce Wagner, Maps tells the story of the scarred Weiss family—most famous because of son Benjie (Evan Bird), a Culkin-like star of the hit comedy Bad Babysitter who’s growing uncomfortably comfortable with his growing clout while he simultaneously crashes in to puberty. His chain-smoking mother (Olivia Williams) plots his next career move, while his father (John Cusack) is a renowned TV psychologist with famous clients. One of them is the aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is obsessed with starring in the remake of her famous mother’s greatest film.
Any sense of serenity is disturbed when Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in L.A. on a bus from Florida. Sweet but awkward, with severe burns on her body, she befriends her limo driver (Rob Pattinson), expresses an interest in tracking down the Weisses, and finagles a job as Havana’s assistant based on a recommendation from Carrie Fisher. Hollywood is a small, small world. Practically incestuous.
Maps to the Stars is a nightmare of celebrity and entitlement, and true to form, Cronenberg steers the story toward a ghastly endgame. When the movie debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, critics immediately pounced on his depiction of Hollywood, a bubble that Cronenberg has mostly watched from afar as an independent Canadian filmmaker. “There was a headline, I think it was in Le Monde, the French paper, which said “Je Ne Déteste Pas Hollywood,” which was a quote from me, saying I don’t hate Hollywood,” says Cronenberg, most famous for his films The Fly, Dead Ringers, and A History of Violence. “Because all the French critics were saying, ‘Well, you must really loathe Hollywood to make movie like this.’ I said, ‘No, not at all.’ I have great affection for Hollywood actually.”
If there’s a perception of bitterness in Maps’ tragicomedy, it comes from Wagner, a writer who grew up inside the Hollywood fishbowl and quickly learned that truth is stranger than fiction. “We like to say it’s not a satire because it’s too realistic,” says Cronenberg. “It’s like a docudrama almost.”
Wagner actually drove a limo in Hollywood years ago, not unlike Pattinson’s character—an aspiring writer who’s contemplating Scientology just for the possible networking boost. In this exclusive scene from the film, which opens in theaters and on-demand on Feb. 27, Moore quizzes Pattinson about his blossoming romance with her assistant, Agatha.
EW: As someone who loves movies about movies—Sunset Blvd., The Player, Get Shorty—I think I was your perfect audience. But Maps to the Stars is maybe a little bit bleaker and darker than those.
David Cronenberg: That comes from Bruce. He’s written about nine novels, mostly about Hollywood. His father was briefly in the business, and he grew up there and has great stories to tell when he was a limo driver and drove Orson Welles, and Olivia de Havilland, and Mick Jagger. You name it, he’s done it.
Was the tone there from the first draft, or was it even more acerbic?
He wrote the first script 20 years ago, and I first saw it about 10 years ago. It was [always] pretty much what you were seeing. Bruce could’ve written a 1,000-page script, with all the stories that he has. He’s actually said that every line of dialogue in the script he’s actually heard spoken somewhere along the line.
There’s this famous Billy Wilder story that Louis B. Mayer berated him after screening Sunset Blvd., saying he disgraced the industry. What type of reaction have you sensed to your film?
When I first tried to get it made as an American production, the response I got from one very well-known indie producer—who also has done some big studio movies—was the classic thing. He said, “I could not do that to this business that’s been so good to me.” And at the Cannes Film Festival in May, a studio head, also someone who declined to be involved in making the movie, after the screening, came to me, draped his arms around me, hugged me, and said, “Your movie scared the shit out of me. I had nightmares all night and then today, when I went to the Hotel de Cap for a party, all I could see was scenes from your movie.” I thought, “That’s a pretty good review.”
You’ve dipped your feet in Hollywood’s waters over the years, but mostly, you work as an independent. That has to give a certain objective point of view about life in this Hollywood bubble.
I think I have a bit of that outsider’s maybe more balanced perspective. I don’t live in the middle of it—therefore it hasn’t really roughed me up the way it has to some people. I have dipped my toe into it enough, as you say, to know that what Bruce has written is true. I mean, I’ve had studio meetings that were more surreal than anything in the movie. So I know that what he was writing was not an exaggeration; a condensation, maybe, but not an exaggeration. But Hollywood doesn’t owe me a thing, really. And I don’t owe Hollywood anything.
It’s a film very much about actors. I’m curious what you’ve learned about actors over the years.
My technique of working with actors comes from my temperament, which is I suppose fairly Canadian. [Laughs] It’s very collaborative and congenial. I like to have a really happy set with lots of humor, and the actors have the feeling on my set that they are observed. I see everything that they’re doing. An actor wants to know that you’re watching what they’re doing, and they want to be directed. They don’t want to have no guidelines. And I’ve also found—and I suppose this is somewhat like the Woody Allen technique—if you cast it well, you really don’t have to do a lot of directing of your actors. If they understand the script and you’ve made the right casting choice, they just go do it. I’ve never believed in the sort of svengali thing where you hypnotize the actor to do your bidding, or you take an actor and break him down psychologically so you can rebuild him as the character. I’ve never felt that was remotely realistic, and I never felt that any actors that I worked with needed that.
You mention getting the right actors for the right roles. For Maps, you have a very eclectic cast playing characters who are flawed, if not warped. Was it easy to attract actors, or were there some who reacted the same way as those spooked executives?
I did have some actors who are afraid of the roles because they were so extreme. For example, the scene where Havana Segrand is sitting on the toilet while she has a long conversation with her assistant and she’s farting and doing all that stuff. There were several actresses who were approached during the long development of this script of the movie who couldn’t do that scene. They just could not bring themselves to do that scene. And you accept that. People say, “How do you talk your actors into doing things like that?” I say, “Well, you don’t. If you have to talk them into it, they are the wrong actor for the role.” So with Julie, we never even discussed it. It was just business as usual, and we had a lot of fun with it, because in some ways, it’s a very funny scene. And in some ways, it’s a very disturbing scene. We all understood all of those things. You need the right actor to do that and one who is not afraid or intimidated. There is no calculating that; you just have to really talk to the actor and find out.
More disturbing to me than the incest that’s in the film was the entitlement of the child actor, and the way that people around him treat him. That’s Bruce’s perspective—but do you find that pervasive in this industry, with young stars who attain that kind of success?
Sure. I can tell you that John Cusack said, “I was Benjie.” John was a child star, and he could say from his own experience that that would’ve been him at that time. That having fame, adulation, lots of money thrown at you, weird kinds of power that you didn’t know you had, is completely deforming to a kid who has no self yet to shape those kind of events.
All of my actors could vouch for the veracity of those characters. Not that they were those characters, but they knew people who had undergone those things. Julianne Moore, for example: She’s in her 50s. How many actresses did she start with who were really hot for awhile, and after the age of 40, completely disappeared, like they didn’t exist anymore? It becomes like an existential terror—a kind of pre-death in Hollywood that you suddenly don’t get those phone calls. Nobody wants you on the screen. And if you’re not on the screen, you don’t exist. And that happens to women more than men.
Some of the phoniest characters in the film punctuate their exchanges with “ciao.” Is that a Hollywood thing you’ve heard over the years that makes you cringe?
No. I’ve been saying “ciao” for years in Toronto because we have a huge Italian population, which I’m very involved with. I have many Italian friends. So for me, “ciao” doesn’t have quite the grating friction that it would for someone in L.A., where it sounds pretentious or whatever. But for me, actually, I’ll say “ciao” to you when we hang up.
I don’t think you’ve ever made a sequel of one of your films—something I had hoped for for Eastern Promises.
I think that was the only movie I’ve ever been interested in doing one. It just didn’t work out for various reasons that had to do with Viggo [Mortensen]’s schedule, and what Focus at the time wanted to do and didn’t want to do. I was really interested in seeing Nikolai’s character and Kirill, played by Vincent Cassel, seeing what would happen if they went back to Russia. I’m very fascinated by Russia and what’s on going on there. I had a good idea for a plot for that sequel, which Steve [Knight] wrote quite beautifully. But it was doomed somehow not to happen, I’m afraid.
Not happening period, or it’s not happening soon?
No. It won’t happen.
Do you have a next project?
I’m at a point where I don’t feel like I have to make another movie just to make a movie—unless there’s some project that’s terrific. In the meantime, I’m writing a second novel. I wrote a first novel, called Consumed, that was published in late September, and it’s been published in 20 different languages.
I’ll have to pick up Consumed then. Thanks for being so generous with me.