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Throwing the Book at Hollywood : Filmland Novel Makes Bruce Wagner a ‘Force’ to Be Reckoned With

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bruce Wagner is a man with a mission: “If I can evoke nausea and laughter, I will have done my job,” he says, chuckling at his own queasy powers.

Not surprisingly, Wagner’s method is that time-tested, knotted-stomach, gut-buster form--the Hollywood novel. With his scathingly satirical and bleak new book “Force Majeure,” Wagner has become the town’s writer du jour , someone touted as part of the filmland literary tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West, with added comparisons for good measure to Carrie Fisher and even Jackie Collins.

Just out from Random House, the novel follows the gradual nervous breakdown of a failing screenwriter--an experience to which Wagner can relate less and less. Formerly among the swollen ranks of anonymously toiling script doctors, Wagner has been signed by producers Oliver Stone and Ed Pressman to write and direct the film version of “Force Majeure,” set to go into production this fall with Jim Belushi, Debbie Reynolds and Faye Dunaway starring.

Asked if the mood of the movie version could possibly dare be as dark as the novel, Wagner hedges slightly, offering a line that sounds like it could have come from one of the self-consciously glib characters in his book:

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“The tone will be, I would say, like a combination of ‘Doc Hollywood’ and ‘Marat Sade.’ ”

He’s kidding, but only sort of. His lead character, screenwriter Bud Wiggins, is--despite being a cynical lothario with delusions of grandeur--essentially a corrupted innocent adrift, exaggeratedly subject to every sort of humiliation known to Hollywood.

In the midst of these mishaps, Wiggins runs into every conceivable type of film business character in Los Angeles, which Wagner considers a true “company town.” Already, readers are guessing about who is based on famous whom, as they would with a Collins potboiler. The author, citing higher aspirations, tries to discourage pseudonymous speculation.

“I had no interest at all in writing a roman a clef ,” insists Wagner, a bookish-looking but aggressive sort in spectacles and power tie. “You leave that to people who write books called ‘The Studio’ or ‘Malibu.’ And I certainly don’t have the desire to do something a la Truman Capote, where you’re doing serious literature and yet thinly disguising real figures. This is more like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’

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“I would hope they (Angelenos) are not so self-obsessed that they’re reading this like it’s documentary or ‘Naked Hollywood’ or something. Most of the characters are so weirdly brutal that I hope people would laugh. This is one man’s nightmare, rather than a tapestry of Hollywood. The canvas is large, but it’s seen through very specific eyes. It’s like in a funhouse--you flap through the doors and then you make a sudden turn and see someone illuminated.”

Protagonist Bud Wiggins shares much of real-life Bruce Wagner’s background: Both are in their mid-30s, were brought up in L.A. on the periphery of “the business,” have worked odd jobs like limousine driving while waiting for agents to call back, have had a highly touted first script go into production and then never get released.

But Wagner has subjected his “delusional” doppelganger to a certain authorial sadism he has avoided himself. Among agents, Wiggins’ name is a joke. He pitches a rewrite to studio executives--triumphantly, he thinks--then happens to hear them mocking him from the back seat of a limo while he moonlights as a driver. He allows himself to be picked up by a gay studio chief he recognizes, to make a contact, but to no end. He’s pursued by credit-card companies, sued by the Writers Guild for working non-union, plagiarized by more successful writers. He’s initially impotent with a series of girlfriends, winning them over with lies about side effects from being on Prozac. Deeply depressed, he eventually enters a mental hospital--for script research, of course, and to impress an ex-girlfriend who’s big on therapy and Adult Children groups.

“There’ve been a lot of whining and puking Jewish screenwriter stories,” Wagner allows, “but I wanted to do something that was more like a cosmic mugging.”

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The recent fortunes of Wagner have been significantly brighter than those of his creation, with successfully produced scripts on the resume ranging from “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors” to the comedy “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills” (on which he also took a producer credit).

“Force Majeure” first took shape as a series of short stories about Wiggins--obviously taking off from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories, which similarly had a struggling screenwriter subjected to embarrassing epiphanies, and a little less obviously from a Henry James collection titled “Stories of Artists and Writers.”

Published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies by a friend’s vanity press signature in 1988, the original version of “Force Majeure,” made up of four separate stories, became an instant collector’s item. Esquire magazine republished one, about a pitch meeting from hell. Random House contracted Wagner for a collection of Wiggins stories, but he eventually opted for a nearly 500-page novel incorporating the shorter pieces.

And though he says he “absolutely never dreamed” of “Force Majeure” ever being adapted into a movie during most of the three years spent working on it, executive producers Stone and Pressman snapped up the film rights--and Wagner began working on the script--even before the novel was finished. Though they talked to different directors about tackling the project (including Billy Wilder, whose “Sunset Boulevard” was in some ways a predecessor), Stone, a big supporter of first-time directors, finally opted to give Wagner himself a shot.

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Though the book has enough viciously observed and detailed character observations to seem like it might be the ventilation valve of a frustrated veteran of the filmland wars, Wagner insists, earnestly if not entirely convincingly, that he honestly likes Hollywood.

“There are people who say about me ‘Everything he’s saying is bull, he’s the darkest person on earth.’ But I think the idea of being angry is a joke. Angry at what? Angry at the way you were treated on your last deal? I can see you being angry at one guy, but the whole town?

“To write off Babylon is just too easy. It’s too funny and too interesting a place to be angry at, Hollywood.

“Someone asked me, do you think people will be scared off by your book? I said I looked on it as a recruitment manual. If you’re up for it, nothing will dissuade you, not even the worst horror story.”

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Wagner isn’t worried that his unflattering and detailed portrayals of studio executives, producers and agents will hurt him the next time he has to take a meeting or pitch a project. Though the book is already a hot item among other writers--Terry Southern, Carrie Fisher and Michael O’Donoghue have been among those supplying fervent endorsements--he doubts many high-level types will actually dig into the narrative.

“It’s a book. Need I say more?” he asks, laughing. “Not only is it a book in a movie town, it’s a book about the movie town.”

On the other hand, says Wagner, “I think it’s a myth that people don’t go to movies about Hollywood.” The film version, he foresees, will be “brutal, too, but less bleak and perverse than the book. I want to make a movie that’s wildly funny, but without a lot of the morbid stuff that’s in the novel.”

Should the story lose too much of its rancid flavor in the translation or otherwise be co-opted, Wagner will have more raw material for the sequel to “Force Majeure,” the second part of a Hollywood-based trilogy he expects to continue writing after wrapping his directorial bow.

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