Over the course of nearly four decades, actress Natalie Wood built a household name for herself by starring in some of the greatest films of all time, such as Miracle on 34th Street, West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause. Sadly, her life was cut short in 1981, when she accidentally drowned while on a weekend boat trip to Catalina Island. That truth has since been questioned, as allegations arose that Wood's husband, Robert Wagner, may have been involved with her death, something he vehemently denies.
In the years since Wood's death, her legacy has unfortunately become more synonymous with her controversial passing, rather than the amazing life she lived. Wood's daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, wants her mother's incredible life to outshine the myths about her death, so she partnered with seasoned documentarian Laurent Bouzereauin (Netflix's Five Came Back) for a new Amblin TV/HBO documentary titled Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind. The film tells the story of Wood's life from childhood, through her prestigious acting career, up to her death, carefully spending only the time necessary to cover the details of the tragedy. It's a truly beautiful film that humanizes Wood in a manner absolutely necessary for her iconography, because of the amazing work that she did, and the kind-hearted person that she was.
During an exclusive conversation with PopCulture.com, Gregson Wagner — Wood's daughter with Richard Gregson — revealed that she got the idea to create the film after working with Manoah Bowman on the 2016 coffee table book, Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life. "It was something that sort of came to me when I was working on this," Gregson Wagner shared. "When we finished the coffee-table book and Manoah and I had just mused like, 'Wow, we should make a documentary one day.' And then I think a year went by and then he called me one day and he said, 'I think I have the person to make the documentary." So during that time I wasn't overly thinking about it, I just sort of felt if it was meant to happen it would happen." Manoah eventually introduced her to Bouzereauin, and it became "clear that we were the right team."
While he has been part of documenting countless Hollywood projects in the past, Bouzereauin revealed this film holds a special place in his heart, saying "there was not one interview that I did where I did not break down and cry." He continued, "It was the closest that I've ever felt to doing, to really channeling a subject matter and feeling a great sense of connection. My work so far as being, doing a lot of the things that are about the making of movies and yes, I've tackled personal stories, but I would say that there was a much more historical approach to those films, even though there are emotions in them."
When it comes to What Remains Behind, however, Bouzereauin knew that every interview would have to eventually lead to Wood's tragic death. "That's not easy to do," he explained then going on to use a scripted movie analogy to explain himself. "It's a little bit like when you make a narrative film and you know that you're going to get to this emotional scene where the actors are going to have to perform this. Well, this is similar, except it's real life. And you know you're getting to that moment and you want to be respectful and yet you want to really get the truthful reaction. It was so different that way." Notably, Bouzereauin confesses that he "grew as a filmmaker" and a human being" while working on the project.
Being the living, breathing evidence of Wood's incredible legacy, Gregson Wagner — an accomplished actress herself — hopes What Remains Behind will give viewers a better understanding of who her mother was, and the life that she lead. "I walked around in my life with a version of my mom and my dad and my family, that I don't think everybody else is aware of. The documentary illuminates that. Those memories, that childhood I had, the incredible connection I share with my family and our close friends. The woman that my mom was. The man that my Daddy Wagner is. And so that's what I want people to take away. I want them to know that she was brave and bold and funny and smart and had a great life. It ended to soon, but she was living her best life. This was a tragic accident."
Gregson Wagner went on to say, "Now that I'm going to be 50 this year, and I'm a mother myself, I consider myself also a protector of not just my daughter, but of my mother. This person she was, is plain as day in the documentary, and so people should go out and they should celebrate her. They should watch her films, they should take a page out of the book of her life of how she lived it and just thank God that it was an accident. But that's all it was. I want her life to overshadow her death. I don't want her death to overshadow her life."
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind will premiere exclusively on HBO on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET. HBO Go and HBO Now users will also be able to stream the film starting at 9 p.m ET. Additionally, Scribner published Natasha Gregson Wagner's memoir MORE THAN LOVE: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood, on Tuesday.