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Connecting On-Screen

'I'm Losing You' novelist Bruce Wagner turned director to keep intact his vision of the emotional Hollywood social chronicle.

July 16, 1999|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bruce Wagner's acclaimed novel "I'm Losing You" was the kind of book that had movie written all over it, even before it hit the bestseller lists. As arguably the most-talked about fictional Hollywood chronicle since, well, Wagner's "Force Majeure," there was no way somebody wasn't going to make this Boschian panorama of entertainment industry anomie into a film.

Indeed, that somebody turned out to be the author himself, also a successful screenwriter and film creator ('Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills," "Wild Palms").

"I wanted to preserve the soul of my book but without the almost pornographic savagery that the first part of it includes," says the engagingly warm yet introspective Wagner, 45, who grew up in the city that has become his metier. "People sometimes mistakenly feel my work is about satire or black humor. I don't agree; my books are above all else emotional. I wanted to make a film that reflected that, and I had to conflate the book because it has such a profusion of characters."

Written and directed by Wagner, "I'm Losing You" opens Friday in a limited engagement at the Laemmle Sunset 5 as well as in New York. Executive produced by David Cronenberg and produced by Killer Films ('Happiness," "Velvet Goldmine"), the film, which was one of only three American films showcased at the Telluride Film Festival, marks Wagner's directorial debut. It features an ensemble cast led by Frank Langella and Rosanna Arquette, as well as a debut film score by composer Daniel Catan, whose "Florencia en el Amazonas" was seen at the L.A. Opera in 1997.

Suffice it to say, this isn't the kind of opening one would have expected for a film with a pedigree of this caliber. Originally financed by Lions Gate Entertainment, "I'm Losing You" is being distributed by Strand Releasing. And the story of how this came to be underscores the vagaries of the indie game--wherein a film can be more or less made to order for a company and still wind up without theatrical distribution.

"I'm Losing You" was never intended to be the kind of blockbuster that opens on scores of screens nationwide. A character-driven drama like this couldn't be, particularly coming from a daring novel that combines an unblinking look at Hollywood social intercourse with a complex meditation on existential themes.

Yet the film has some passionate fans, including some within Lions Gate. "I was very pleased with the film and very impressed by Bruce as a filmmaker," says Michael Paseornek, one of the film's executive producers and president of Lions Gate Films Productions. "The greatest thing that Bruce accomplished is dealing with sadness in an uplifting way." "This is a beautiful film," concurs actress Meryl Streep, who has honored with a tribute at the Telluride festival where "I'm Losing You" premiered and where she became one of its ardent and vocal supporters. "It's brave work [filled with] yearning for ritual, family and children and a really tetherless looking for hope. It's so unexpected.

"I think it's quite unusual in the landscape of films now," continues Streep. "There is nothing like it that I know of. It's ironic that in the age of diversity there isn't that much in terms of what people see. The business at large vastly underestimates its audience and they create a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Canyon Calls and Emotional Fallout

Praised in the New York Times, the New Yorker and elsewhere, the novel "I'm Losing You" spent numerous weeks on the L.A. Times bestseller list in the summer of 1996. The book is, on one level, a portrait of a collection of lives from various L.A. social strata, in the entertainment industry and on its fringes--producers, writers, agents, actors, has-beens, wannabes and never-weres. On another level, as the title's cell-phone speak suggests, the book is about privation and mortality--the emotional fallout of aborted relationships and shortchanged lives.

Not long after completing the novel, Wagner adapted it into a screenplay, focusing on the book's final half. Left at the heart of the narrative in the movie version are a wealthy TV producer who's got cancer, his psychiatrist wife, their son and adopted daughter, and sundry significant others and acquaintances. Themes of death and redemption, sketched with literary wit and style, connect the fates of these disaffected Southland denizens.

Wagner first met Killer Films' Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler when Vachon reviewed the novel for the Advocate, a national gay newsmagazine. Shortly after that, the two women decided to produce his script. Cronenberg, already a fan of Wagner's writing, met with the author in Canada and agreed to be an executive producer. It was Cronenberg, in fact, who persuaded John Dunning, then at the Canadian company Cinepix Films, to provide the financing. (Cinepix Films was subsequently purchased by Lions Gate, but this didn't affect "I'm Losing You" or change the executives in charge of the project.) The film was shot in L.A. in early 1998.

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