Dan Epstein talks to Wild Palms creator Bruce Wagner about his new novel I’ll Let You Go
I first met Bruce Wagner in Los Angeles around the middle of 1997. I was and still am a rabid David Cronenberg afficionado. I was walking along the Venice Beach walk when I passed two gentlemen wearing suits. One of them reminded of David Cronenberg. I followed them for a little bit when one of them said the word “virus”. I knew it had to be David Cronenberg. I stopped them and I ended up speaking with David Cronenberg for about a half hour.
He introduced Bruce Wagner to me and I recognized him as the creator of Wild Palms. Since then I have done my best to sample Mr. Wagner’s work as much as possible. I saw his adaptation of his excellent novel I’m Losing You and when I read his new book. I’ll Let You Go, I realized that he has really developed beyond criticizing the excesses of Hollywood into a powerful novelist who can take on any subject.
Dan Epstein: In the new book I’ll Let You Go, why such an abundance of characters?
Bruce Wagner: The novel is in a sense a Victorian novel. I didn’t set out to write a kind of 19th century novel but that’s what I wound up with. I’ve always enjoyed large ensembles of characters particularly when all of the lives of those characters knit together in some shape or form by the end of the story. It is a very simple story in effect, a son’s search for his father, but along the way many other things happen many other lives intersect with that boy.
DE: Like you said the book came out almost Victorian, so it wasn’t a conscious act to do so?
BW: I knew that I wanted to write a story that was very rich in character and rich in detail and very emotional. The story was taking place in Los Angeles but was not the turf of my previous book I’m Losing You; it was not a cynical story though many terrible things happen within. So I found myself writing the book with a narrator in a style that was perhaps reminiscent of Charles Dickens.
DE: The characters seem quite Dickensian, all the weird people he meets in LA.
BW: These characters are very close to my heart and certainly not modeled after any Dickens characters although there is echoes and reverberations that one may find. But these are just characters and themes that I always try to explore. They were just explored in a fashion that was different than my past two books.
DE: Did you want to get away from the kind of books that you had written before or it’s just that you had another idea for a story?
BW: I just think that that’s what artists do. They pursue a line and that line is often not a tidy extension from what they have been doing. I’m a writer first and foremost; I’m not a Hollywood novelist. I will always write about people in this town and tangentially people in show seines. But there are many things I wish to explore and will continue to. They will not fit people’s perceptions of what I should be doing.
DE: With all your success are you maybe feeling less cynical?
BW: I don’t think I was ever cynical really. I think people projected that into me. I think my last book, I’m Losing You, struck many people as cold or unmerciful. It’s also filled with emotionalism. It’s a very passionate book that has its moments of tenderness to offset those moments of horror. I never saw myself as writing bleak and apocalyptic books where there is no way out. There are always ways out in my books.
DE: You’ve said that I’ll Let You Go is the second part of a trilogy started with I’m Losing You. Was this always the intention?
BW: It’s more of a titular trilogy. My first book, Force Majeure, was not part of that trilogy. I’m Losing You, I’ll Let You Go and the last book will be called Still Holding.
DE: As you said, it’s just a title, not concept.
BW: Well sort of. All of these books are about loss and reconciliation. Of I’m Losing You, one review said it was a more desperate title. I’ll Let You Go already has some resignation within it and Still Holding really means how difficult it is for us, even when we do decide to let go, how hard it is to do so. We tend to hold on. On that level the books are about loss, love and death. And how do we live in a mortal world.
DE: There are three children at the core of I’ll Let You Go. How much is each one of them a part of you? (Tull is the sensitive boy, Lucy is the smartass mystery writer and Edward is grossly disfigured)
BW: They’re all a part of me. You write characters and you become terribly enamored of them. You write from a place of love so you ultimately love them. There’s always been a place for physically damaged children in whatever I’ve done. I remember in a movie that I wrote a long time ago, called Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, there was a damaged boy who played piano. So deformity that overt damage is something that I’ve always enjoyed exploring in terms of children. Tull is a boy who has been wounded in a different way not in the absence of a limb or of a gene but of a father and the lies that have been told to protect the mother. That’s interesting to me because Tull is quite sane and sober and an ordinary boy in a sense who’s living in extraordinary circumstances. Lucy is a very smart and acerbic little girl. Who has a different set of longings than either Tull or Edward. But they’re all very much a part of me.
DE: You mentioned that Tull doesn’t have a father. In the book there are awkward bonds between the boys and their moms. Does this reflect your relationship with adults and parents specifically?
BW: I think everyone has awkward bonds with their parents. The book is dedicated to my mother so it could hardly reflect that. She is alive and well and I have a good relationship with my father. I think when growing up everyone has difficulties with their parents. This one is just obviously magnified because this boy was lied to. His mother was humiliated or used as an excuse for what happened. Her being jilted was used as an excuse for a kind of a personal downfall and the father of course is quite disturbed but far less disturbed than we imagined once we learn that he is alive. So it’s just a complexity for purposes of story. Obviously a child having difficulty with a parent, you need to know what that difficulty is, otherwise you don’t have a novel. You have an anecdote.
DE: Bluey, one of the main characters in I’ll Let You Go, has Alzheimer’s disease. Did you do research to portray that accurately?
BW: I did some. The book was heavily researched but more in the area of childcare and homeless because one doesn’t really need to research Alzheimer’s. We can all project dementia, we know what that is in our bones. In our daily life we have moments of dementia. There is some research regarding that. I was already familiar with the Motion Picture and Television Hospital because I had written an article about that place for the New Yorker and there is an Alzheimer’s care unit there. There was a certain amount of familiarity I had with that world, but you don’t want to become a TV movie of the week. You don’t need to become an expert to describe it, if fact it becomes more poetic. I became a court appointed special advocate in the process of writing the book and I had a caseload and I was over at the Los Angeles children’s court. Those were the areas where I did most of my research, being downtown with the homeless and the encampments, visiting SROs becoming involved in a marginal way with homeless healthcare. Those were the rich areas for me.
DE: Tull meets such a different array of characters; do such interesting people really exist in Los Angeles?
BW: I hope so, there’s millions of people here – if they didn’t it would be kind of an Orwellian world. These people are all drawn from a collective unconsciousness. I say over and over in the book that fiction is far less interring than reality. I would say that anything exists that you can imagine.
DE: You directed the film adaptation of your book I’m Losing You. How hard is it to adapt your own work?
BW: Well I’ve done two films based on that book. The second one is called Women in Film. I think I’m finding my way as a filmmaker. I chose a different path with the film I’m Losing You and made something that a lot of people may have wanted it to be more scabrous or closer to the book. But I had a different view of the book than those people. There are two camps, there’s those who want you to continue doing what you have done or to endlessly explore this world of depravity and there are those who are comfortable with the exploration of other things. The second film was more of director’s film, its something where I found my legs as a director. I haven’t looked at the first film in a while. As being the author of these books you make choices and once you make them its not difficult to adapt. Its that initial choice in tone and how I am going to do adapt. Then it writes itself. Whether the choices I made are ones that people approve is kind of irrelevant.
DE: Women in Film is an InDigEnt, does that mean its shot on digital video?
BW: It stands for Independent Digital Entertainment. There’s been about 8 films so far. It’s a collaboration between the Independent Film Channel, the Independent Film Channel and Killer Films (producers of I’m Losing You and Todd Solondz’s Storytelling). Its three monologues, Beverly D’Angelo, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Portia de Rossi. Three women who hold very different roles in moviemaking. One is a masseuse who can steal energy from her clients, another is a casting agent who’s just given birth to a blind baby and the last is an independent film producer. I had a wonderful experience with that and the film was shown at both Sundance and Venice Film Festivals. I’m anxious to do another film next year now that I’ve gotten this giant book off my shoulders.
DE: Will the next film be a totally original script?
DE: David Cronenberg is one of the more strict directors – what is he like as a producer on I’m Losing You?
BW: He is incredibly supportive and generous. I never met anyone that was quite like that. He didn’t interfere at all. He was only helpful and only supportive. I was very honored to work with him. He’s a dear friend and a person who’s friendship doesn’t exclude collaboration. Its impossible for him to have a hostile moment or notion. He’s a kind and very dear man.
DE: What did Cronenberg bring to the table with I’m Losing You?
BW: He helped get the film made as its godfather. He gave an air of legitimacy to the project. He was very helpful in the editing process.
DE: What is it about Hollywood and Los Angeles that makes you want to write such things about it?
BW: I’m from here. I went to elementary school here. I grew up on Rodeo Drive. Whatever it is about people’s hometowns that makes people write about their hometowns makes me write about it as well.
DE: You were born in Wisconsin, why did your family move to Beverly Hills?
BW: My father was in the broadcasting business and hopped around the country working in various radio stations and eventually settled in Los Angeles. He worked for a moment in the television business. So that’s how we landed in the showbiz world.
DE: You have deep horror film roots, you worked a bit with Wes Craven, how did that work affect what you do now?
BW: No I always liked horror and Paul Bartel [director of Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills] introduced me to Wes and I showed him a script that was never produced. But Wes was sufficiently impressed and asked me to work with him on Beetlejuice, Tim Burton later replaced him. Bob Shaye [head of New Line Cinema] asked Wes to do another Nightmare on Elm Street and he was in the middle of doing a film called Deadly Friend at the time and called me out of the blue and asked me if I would like to work with him on it. It was a very generous offer and I had a huge amount of fun working on that movie. I have always loved horror films and been moved by them, disturbed by them.
DE: You also acted for a little while. Did you do it for fun?
BW: I don’t act anymore most of what I did was ten years ago. That’s was stuff I did because I needed the money, I didn’t enjoy any of it. It just happened because I had friends who wanted me to be involved.
DE: You also appeared in two Savage Steve Holland films – One Crazy Summer is a classic where you appeared as the crazed uncle who wins the radio contest. What was it like working on those films?
BW: That was a very dark period for me, a close friend of mine had died and I was having a kind of a breakdown. I had no money and I don’t quite remember how I met Steve but he asked me to appear in the film, so that suddenly I was on a place to Martha’s Vineyard where we shot it. It was a good thing for me to get out of town but it was all a very dark period for me that I then wrote about in Force Majeure. Its not something that was fun for me.
DE: Are you still trying to make the film How To Marry a Billionaire?
BW: I’m not sure if that’s the project I should do next. I have to give that some more consideration. I really love that script. You write a script sometimes and certain people hold onto stuff forever until they can make it. But I’m not one of those people. Sometimes I feel the moment for something has passed and I want something new to breeze in.
DE: Who are your favourite writers and directors?
BW: Of course Cronenberg and Todd Solondz is one of the finest directors out there. I wrote an essay for the screenplay book for his new film Storytelling. Todd’s work continues to be amazing, with each film he make she goes farther into an area of human concerns and passions that other people are afraid to enter. I love his work. As far as books, I don’t read any contemporary authors. I like David Foster Wallace but I’m a slow and poor reader and I don’t read that much at all. When I do I tend to focus on dead authors.