Natasha Gregson Wagner is 49 years old, six years older than her mother, the vibrant, gifted actress Natalie Wood, was when she died in 1981, and that gives her pause.
“I feel like her mother, the mother of her legacy,” she says, considering the reasons behind the potent documentary “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,” which she produced and which is debuting at Sundance ahead of a spring HBO release.
Directed by Laurent Bouzereau (the excellent “Five Came Back”) and fueled by Gregson Wagner’s keen, intimate perspective, it’s a deeply moving attempt by a daughter to both bring a sense of balance to portrayals of her mother’s life and come to terms with the terrible loss that early death was.
“Grief is such a tricky thing, it comes in so many forms,” she says. “This has been a nice antidote to my grief.”
The shocking nature of Wood’s death by drowning off the coast of Catalina Island has, Gregson Wagner feels, overshadowed not only her exceptional career — three Oscar nominations before she was 25, still-iconic roles in films like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “West Side Story — but also the kind of individual she was.
“She was a joyful person and she had an amazing life, she was so alive and having a ball,” her daughter, an actress herself, says. “But because of the circumstances of her death the narrative has been skewered toward the tragic. That’s not the mom I knew.”
Yet, as director Bouzereau points out, the film has nothing to do with “my least favorite word, ‘celebration.’ It’s something that had almost an urgency to it.”
Gregson Wagner, who was only 11 when Wood died, found that a similar sense of intensity infused her own interview as well as those she and Bouzereau did with people who were close to her mother, including actors Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Elliott Gould, writer Mart Crowley and her half-sisters Courtney Brooke Wagner and Katie Wagner.
“Every time I did an interview, everyone was so present, so emotional, it was almost confessional, like they were in a church,” Gregson Wagner remembers. “I felt people wanted to speak, wanted to be unburdened.”
Friends of Wood and her husband, actor Robert Wagner, Gregson-Wagner’s stepfather, had been reluctant to speak in part because of a tabloid-fueled controversy around Wood’s death, which happened while the couple and actor Christopher Walken were spending a weekend on their yacht off Catalina.
Gregson Wagner also had her doubts about this kind of a biographical project — “all my life I’d been so guarded because of the way the media had treated the night she died” — but when she and her husband, actor Barry Watson, had a daughter of their own, that made all the difference.
“I really wanted to have a child, all my friends were having babies, I was hosting showers and thinking ‘What about me?’” she remembers.
“When my daughter Clover was born in 2012, that was a big jolt of responsibility. Having her really healed me in so many ways. My mom was someone who made me feel safe in the world, and the love I felt for Clover reminded me of the love I knew from my mom.”
Gregson Wagner started dipping “a toe in the water” with a coffee-table book suggested by archivist Manoah Bowman. She made her first trip in years to the storage area where her mother’s memorabilia was housed and “it didn’t feel heartbreaking, it felt nurturing.” Bowman knew director Bouzereau and the film idea took shape.
Researching the documentary did not so much reveal new things to Gregson Wagner as deepen knowledge she already had about her mother, like her confidence and her shrewdness as a business person.
“Growing up she was the boss, she was the boss of both my dads, she was the boss of us, she was the boss of everybody, and she had a plan like that in the world,” Gregson Wagner says.
“I remember her talking to us about money, about our allowances, about the importance of saving money. She was shrewd with money, she fought for equal pay for ‘The Great Race’ and demanded points for ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.’ She’d become her family’s sole earner when she was 12, so she had a savvy business sense.”
A key discovery among her mother’s papers was the draft of a bracingly honest unpublished magazine article Wood wrote called “Public Property, Private Person.”
“She knew she was a movie star, she knew what her duties were, but she never confused them with being a real person with real responsibilities. She knew how to balance that. She chose to be around real people.”
Another meaningful document, a letter her mother had written to her best friend, actress Norma Crane, had come to Gregson Wagner when she turned 18.
“It was six pages, handwritten in hot pink, all about giving birth, about how she felt when she first saw me. She wrote, ‘The love, it just KNOCKS YOU OUT, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH,’ in all caps. I was feeling very motherless and that empowered me.”
Gregson Wagner is grateful that she was able to interview her father, writer-producer Richard Gregson, before he died in August, and she says that interviewing her stepfather, Wagner, who was 88 at the time, was the hardest thing in the film for her.
“I had always been so protective of him,” she notes. “He and my mom had been my model for relationships, for love, intimacy and connection, and for the press to make accusations, to make it seem like it wasn’t so, was hurtful to me.
“I was scared to ask him about what happened that night, and after the first day of shooting Laurent said, ‘This isn’t working.’
“So I went to his room and I said, ‘Daddy, I think we need to go a little deeper tomorrow. This is a pivotal scene, how you felt the night she died. Is that OK?’ And he just said, ‘Uh-huh.’
“I felt if he couldn’t get there, the documentary wasn’t meant to be. But the next day he knocked me out, he was so honest and pained and so elegant, he even complimented Christopher Walken. That scene means so much to me.”
Gregson Wagner reached out to Walken to appear as well but was told “he felt he just didn’t want to do it. I’ve never met him, I’ve never spoken to him, but I don’t have any ill feelings, I admire the elegance of his decision never to speak about it.”
Also on tap for Gregson Wagner is “More Than Love,” a book she calls “a deeper dive into my relationship with my mom,” due to come out, like the HBO film, on May 5, which by coincidence would have been Richard Gregson’s 90th birthday. (The memoir’s title comes from an endearment, “I love you more than love,” that her mother and Wagner shared.)
All of this has enabled Gregson Wagner to come out the other side of her grief, to be sure of herself and feel able to “model for my daughter the self-love my mom modeled for me.”
“I had to go through my own process, I had to have my heart broken, I had to fall into pieces, but I feel OK, like a grown-up who can handle my life.”
More than that, Gregson Wagner senses her mother’s spirit behind her. “I feel her being so excited, saying ‘Yes, Natooshie, go out there, tell my story, you can do it!’ She was so brave and she wanted us to be brave too.”