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The Screenwriter Behind Some of Your Favorite Films Talks LA, and His New Book

Bruce Wagner has written the screenplays to such films as "Maps to the Stars" and "Nightmare on Elm Street 3." We spoke to the writer about his new book, working with Julianne Moore, and how Beverly Hills used to feel like a small town.
Photos courtesy of Bruce Wagner

"I've been in Los Angeles since I was eight years old, and California since I was four," says novelist Bruce Wagner. "You could say The Beach Boys are a spiritual group. I'm in the Beach Boys camp—I'm certainly not in Lou Reed's camp or even Bowie's camp, whom I adore. My work and my bean are shot through with an apocalyptic and sunlit cultist mentality."

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I'm meeting with the author at the Soho House in West Hollywood to discuss his latest book, I Met Someone. The novel tells the fictional story of Academy Award winning actress Dusty Wilding's search for her lost daughter, and how the relationship affects her wife, Allegra.

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Wagner understands LA. He's written ten books about the city, while also writing screenplays—like the critically acclaimed Julianne Moore film Map to the Stars (Moore reads the audiobook for I Met Someone), and Nightmare on Elm Street 3.

"There were things that interest[ed] me: cameos by Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and heavy dream sequences," Wagner says of the horror film. "We had freedom to do whatever we wanted. I was a huge fan of [filmmaker] Luis Buñuel [Portolés], and I thought, Well, shit! I'm writing a horror movie for a popular franchise and we really have carte blanche."

The novelist also loves LA. While wearing a black beanie and drinking a coffee—he never touched his croissant—Wagner looked out of Soho House's green windows to take in the city's white suburban houses, foliage-covered hills, and smog-filled sky rise. On his hand is a tattoo of several Beverly Hills streets—like Rodeo Drive.

"When we wrapped [Map to the Stars], [director] David Cronenberg gave me an old movie star map from the 30s," Wagner explains. "I used to live on Camden and Rodeo, south of the elbow—this is the route the buses took and these were the stars' homes, so I just had it imprinted here. It's where I'm from."

I spoke to the author about his new book, working with Julianne Moore, and how his hometown, Beverly Hills, used to feel like a small town.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Broadly: How did you come up with the idea for I Met Someone?
Bruce Wagner: The new book is a companion piece to Maps to the Stars. In Maps to the Stars, Julianne Moore plays a desperate B-movie actress whose mother was a legend and died early but won an Academy Award. I thought, What if I write a companion piece where Julianne Moore is an Academy-Award winning actress?

[On the surface], I Met Someone almost sounds like a Lifetime movie—it's a mother searching for her daughter. But the reveal, the twist in the story, is something out of Marquis de Sade. It's one of the more brutal—and hopefully poetic—travesties that I've committed in fiction.

The novel revolves around a Los Angeles resident dealing with the consequences of events from her past that took place in another city. Do you see this play out in town?
Hollywood is a hotbed of invention and reinvention, so people come to Hollywood not so much to escape their past, but to step into a new dream. In the case of I Met Someone, there's a real collision. [For] many women (such as Joni Mitchell), there is a late-term longing to reconnect with someone—in this [novel's] case, a daughter from the past that she had effectively excised from public knowledge.

You write both novels and screenplays. How do you decide what's going to be a screenplay and what's going to be a novel?
I wrote a play once that became a novel—The Chrysanthemum Palace—because it was too difficult to produce as a play. Certain ideas present themselves as screenplays, but with I Met Someone, I originally wrote it as a screenplay. With the experience of Maps to the Stars—where I'd written that [screenplay] over 20 years ago [but the movie came out in 2014]—I [don't] want to be dead when I Met Someone is finally made [into a film]. As I began the novel, it became so much more rich and complex than the screenplay had been—it's really a mélange. It's an odd, mystical process of how something is born.

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You wrote the third installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Did horror films influence your prose?
I think I'm just attuned—genetically—to horror. I gravitated to those things, and opportunities arose that fit my sensibilities. There are always elements of horror in whatever I do. Hopefully, there are elements of poetry and light as well as darkness. It's just part of who I am.

What was your perception of Hollywood, growing up in Los Angeles?
I lived in Beverly Hills and my father was on the fringe of the business—he produced television—but I went to school with Liz Taylor's kids, and I broke into Greystone [Mansion] when I was a little boy, as we all did. It was very common for me to be out walking and see Groucho Marx or [Alfred] Hitchcock or Charles Bronson. I felt a real kinship—I felt at ease, let's say—in the somewhat bizarre, grotesque world of fame and wealth and exclusivity.

How has Beverly Hills changed since you were a kid?
Beverly Hills was a relatively small town. There was a Rodeo Drive, but it certainly didn't look like it does now. There was a JJ Newberry's five-and-dime store. There were four or five bookstores. There were shops where as a young boy, you could buy a magic trick, and the person behind the counter would give you a lesson on how to do that trick. We all rode our bikes, and it was very much a small town.

Now there are no bookstores. The only place that I really believe is left is Nate 'n Al's—the delicatessen [from] when I was a boy. Everything else is gone. It's not without its charm, but when I was young, I remember Olivia de Havilland asked a group of us to [help her]. She would give us 20 dollars if we found her diamond ring, which she [had] lost somewhere on the lawn.

This was how I was raised. This was a while ago.

Now there's a different kind of low-end in Los Angeles. Do you feel like the definition of celebrity has changed while you've been here?
I like to say that Warhol had this famous quote, that in the future, everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. For me, the quote should be, "In the future, everyone will be famous all the time." Forget the fifteen minutes, and [the claim that] there are different levels of fame. Eventually, it's almost like you meet a schizophrenic homeless person who thinks he's famous for being homeless and schizophrenic and unknown. Fame has become a kind of catchall term, just like billion has become meaningless.

You have a scholarly knowledge of old Los Angeles. Do you pay attention to contemporary culture, like Drake?
With [the novel] Dead Stars, I was completely immersed in the world of pornography and rap and drugs. I got sober about six years ago, and I had been in the hospital and rehab for two months. When I came out, I was completely uncensored and on fire. Dead Stars is a complete, vivid section of our culture—I was deeply immersed in those worlds.

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about LA?
That it's not a city. It is a dream of a city, and a dream of a city is perhaps the most solid city of them all.