Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind explores the life and death of the actress Natalie Wood through her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner's eyes.
The new HBO documentary features the first-ever interview with Wood's husband, Robert Wagner.
Speaking to OprahMag.com, Gregson Wagner opens up about interviewing her stepfather, calling the conversations "triumphant, from an emotional point of view.”
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, a new documentary on HBO, begins with the last time Natasha Gregson Wagner, then 11-years-old, saw her mother, Natalie Wood, alive. It was a drizzly Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. Despite her well-documented fear of dark water, Wood boarded a yacht with her husband, Robert Wagner, and Brainstorm co-star, Christopher Walken to sail to Catalina Island, located off the coast of southern California.
Gregson Wagner heard about Wood's death by drowning two days later, on a radio news broadcast. Four decades on, and these news reports haven't ceased. Now the stuff of Hollywood lore, the circumstances of Wood’s tragic death at 43 have been analyzed, argued, and pored over in books, articles, investigative specials, and episodes of Dr. Oz. Was her death an accident? Or was Wagner involved, as the yacht's captain, Dennis Davern, and Gregson Wagner's sister, Lana Wood, claim?
With the HBO documentary, Gregson Wagner, now 49, hopes to put a stop to those lines of questioning—especially those casting Wagner, who raised her as his own daughter, as a suspect. (Gregson Wagner's biological father, agent and producer Richard Gregson, was married to Wood from 1969 to 1972).
“I feel that the night my mom died was an accident. And so I hope that that kind of media speculation ends with this documentary,” Gregson Wagner tells OprahMag.com. "The tragedy is that my sister and I lost our mom and my dad lost his wife and the world lost their beloved actress. That's the tragedy."
Ever since the case was reopened by LAPD in 2018 and Wagner, now 90, was named a person of interest, Gregson Wagner's mission to clear her stepfather's name has taken on greater urgency. The documentary features Wagner's first, and only, interview about the events of that night at sea.
For Wagner and the other family members interviewed, the decision to participate in the documentary was simple. "Everyone immediately wanted to participate, which was great. There has been so much misinformation, and there is so much about her that we all know so well that is so glorious that it should be shared," Gregson Wagner says.
Director Laurent Bouzereau was struck by atmosphere present during the interviews conducted with Wood’s loved ones. “Not to trivialize the word, but it was like a religious experience. It's very rare that you find yourself in an interview situation where you know at some point there will be tears, and it was the case for every single one of those interviews,” Bouzereau tells OprahMag.com.
Still, Wagner's interview was especially crucial to the legitimacy of the project. "Natasha and I knew that if that interview didn't work for whatever reason, then there would be no movie. So the stakes were really high," Bouzerau says of the interview, which was conducted over the course of two days.
Sitting across from Gregson Wagner in a sunlit house in northern Michigan, Wagner, now 90, pieced together the heated conversations, broken wine bottles, and anxious searches that marked Wood's last evening alive.
While other friends were invited to go along on the trip, including Wood's longtime pal Mart Crowley, only Walken accepted the offer. It made for a tense trip. According to Wagner, he and Walken spent the evening arguing about whether Wood should return to acting full-time. After a particularly heated moment shared between the two actors, Wagner went looking for his wife.
"I went below, and she wasn't there. I looked around. The dinghy was gone. I came back up and I got Dennis and Chris and said, 'Natalie's not here. she's taken off, I guess in the dinghy. Did any of you hear her?' None of us heard anything," Wagner said in the interview.
Afterward, Wagner said he called a shore boat and asked for his wife on the mainland. When she didn't turn up, Wagner called the Shore Patrol and Coast Guard and waited. "It seemed like forever," Wagner said, before recalling the moment he learned her body was found. "Everything went out from under me."
Notably, Gregson Wagner and Wagner do not dispel any recent theories regarding Wood’s death, including one saying that her body was found with bruises, or that Wagner waited hours to call the Coast Guard. They also avoid touching on captain Dennis Davern’s allegations that he heard Wagner and Wood fighting before she disappeared. (However, earlier in the documentary, Brainstorm director Douglas Trumbull dismisses any popular rumor of an affair between co-stars Wood and Walken, saying there was "no sexual charisma between them at all.")
Simply put, Gregson Wagner says, delving into theories wasn't the point of the documentary—celebrating her mother's life was. There's a reason why the interview with Wagner comes so late into the documentary: Most of Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is a multi-faceted portrait of Wood, the woman, not another embodiment of the "dead girl" trope.
“Of course we knew that we had to deal with the night she died and the controversy or media speculation surrounding it. But, the focus was to be on her life,” Gregson Wagner says.
Following two emotional days of interviews, Gregson Wagner recalls the quiet dinner she and her stepfather had, basking in a sense of catharsis.
“It was like a shared moment of, I love you. We've come so far, we've worked so hard on ourselves. We've gotten through so much and here we are, able to sit across from each other and talk about the worst night of our lives with cameras rolling, and be okay doing it,” Gregson Wagner says.
She calls the interviews “triumphant, from an emotional point of view."
“To be able to repair a broken heart is hard. And not everybody can do it. But I feel like in a lot of ways, my dad and I have been able to do it. Obviously, there are parts of our heart that will always be broken, but we were able to repair enough to get through our lives. And I'm so grateful for that,” Gregson Wagner says.
Ultimately, audiences expecting a fact-based, play-by-play of Wood's death won't find it in Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, which leans more on storytelling than investigative reporting. But they might be surprised by what they get, instead: A memorial to a woman who was so much more than her last night.
"If can shine a light on who she really was and round up all the people that knew her best that are still alive, then that's my duty, and my great honor as her daughter to do that," Gregson Wagner says.
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