CANNES, France — Shortly after his new Hollywood black comedy “Maps to the Stars” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, David Cronenberg had an eye-opening conversation.
A Hollywood executive told him that he couldn’t get some of the film’s scenes — which include a washed-up actress secretly celebrating a tragedy because it will allow her to land a part as well as a child star verbally abusing his representatives — out of his head.
“He said, ‘I’ve been having nightmares about your movie,’” Cronenberg recalled in an interview Tuesday. “He told me he went to [Southern France’s uber-posh hotel] Du Cap, and everywhere he looked he saw scenes from the film.”
Hollywood is no stranger to satirical arrows, with movies including Robert Altman’s “The Player” and the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink” skewering the entertainment business and its malcontents. Cronenberg’s movie, written by longtime showbiz bluster-buster Bruce Wagner more than a decade ago and updated regularly since, arguably pushes things even further.
The film, which opens in Europe this week ahead of a U.S. release in the fall, tells a set of overlapping stories centering on the Weiss family. There’s Bieberesque child-actor twit Benjie (Evan Bird); Weiss patriarch and New Age guru Stafford (John Cusack); Stafford’s wife and — gulp — sister Cristina (Olivia Williams); and psychiatrically disturbed daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), back in town after a long stay in a mental hospital to unleash another dose of crazy as a Hollywood assistant.
Meanwhile, washed-up actress Havana (Julianne Moore) is campaigning in an unseemly fashion to land a role in a remake of a film her mother made famous before she died in a tragic fire. Robert Pattinson turns up too, as a limo driver and would-be actor and screenwriter. He is one of the better-adjusted people on this island of misfit egos, though that isn’t saying much.
The movie also features a pretentious director, a producer taking a work call in the middle of a ménage à trois (he tells the caller he is engaged in bedtime reading with his children) and the kind of lines that everyone in Tinseltown says but few mean, such as Havana telling an actress who is about to remake a part played by her mother to “make it your own.” There are specific digs at the likes of Garry Marshall and references to awful sequels like “Bad Babysitter 2,” inspired by, well, plenty of awful sequels.
It hardly takes a degree in English literature to see the incest as a metaphor for business in Los Angeles. Ditto for a scene where a Hollywood personality is bloodily bludgeoned by their own movie-award trophy.
Despite the over-the-top moments, Cronenberg said he was seeking to capture the very real culture of the business. “We felt we didn’t heighten it. All of this happens,” (minus the bludgeoning, one assumes). “That’s why Bruce doesn’t think it should be called a satire. A satire is exaggeration for effect, and this isn’t that.”
“Maps” has already become something of a social-media sensation, trending immediately on Twitter after its media screening Sunday night and generating chatter among industry insiders here over the moments that do and don’t resonate.
The Los Angeles-based trades Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, have given it tepid reviews, in part citing it as being “severely negative,” while the foreign press has been more kind. The film’s producer, Martin Katz, says this is not a coincidence, wondering if it hit a little too close to home for Hollywood-oriented publications.
Pattinson, who after the “Twilight” series has been on his share of big Hollywood sets, said he was surprised at some of the naysayers.
“Are people saying it’s mean?” he asked when told of some early reactions, adding, “The child actor part felt very real. Almost every set I’ve been on has had someone like that.”
Asked about his experiences with some of the more narcissistic portrayals, he said, “Well, Hollywood attracts crazy people, and then you add a lot of money, so…" his voice trailing off.
Cronenberg pitched the movie to numerous studio executives dating back 10 years. He received numerous rejections, with executives telling him, as he recalls, “I wouldn’t do that to the business I love.” (The film cobbled its budget together independently.) He did not ask those executives if they felt the script was off-base or too accurate.
The actors, at least, said they saw their own experiences in the film.
“There’s something about L.A. and the fame and the hunger and the need for acknowledgment that’s a little more infantile,” Cusack said in a news conference. “It felt a little” — he paused — “familiar that way.”
Cronenberg, a Toronto resident and longtime Hollywood outsider known for such movies as “The Fly,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method,” said the L.A.-based Wagner’s inside-baseball observations combined with his remove from the entertainment capital helped them craft the story.
“Maps” will screen again at a festival, likely in Toronto, before opening in the U.S. in the fall via the Canadian-based independent distributor eOne.
“The reaction of Hollywood is very important,” Cronenberg said. “If it’s good, it’s validation of what we were trying to do.”
The movie will no doubt be seen at Hollywood studios by some of the very people that it’s torching. Would Cronenberg want to be there to see their reactions?
“I would,” he said. “But I’m not sure they’ll let me on the lot.”