LOS ANGELES — The fate of " Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind " hung on a Robert Wagner interview. Director Laurent Bouzereau knew that it would be a delicate conversation. If it didn't work, there would be no documentary. So they filmed it first.
"If there was nothing interesting in it or something that just didn't feel right, we were not going to proceed with the film," Bouzereau said.
With his stepdaughter Natasha Gregson Wagner in the interviewer's chair, Wagner sat for two days to tell the story of life with his wife — their highs and lows, their first marriage, their second marriage and how it came to an end with her tragic death in the waters off Southern California at 43.
"We didn't want to do something that was just a love letter," said Gregson Wagner, who also produced the film. "We really wanted to portray her and all of her humanity. Obviously we had to deal with that night and we had to deal with the controversy around it."
And they did in a conversation that is humane, candid and emotional, which curious audiences can see for themselves when the film airs on HBO at 9 p.m. EDT. But while the lingering fascination around Wood's death might draw you in, it's everything else that'll keep you glued to the television.
"If you don't know Natalie Wood and you don't love Natalie Wood, then you don't love Hollywood. You don't love movies," said Bouzereau, who also directed the documentary "Five Came Back."
In "Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind," Bouzereau tells the story of Wood's life through her personal belongings, photos, Super 8 and 16mm home videos (some of which the family hadn't ever seen) and interviews with those who knew her best.
"We were not trying to do investigative reporting," Bouzereau said. "We're telling the story of a family, the story of an incredible career, the story of a wife, of a mother and ultimately also the story of a tragedy."
Wagner, Wood's ex-husband Richard Gregson, Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, her daughters and more lend their voices and stories, which proved to be a cathartic experience for some.
"I felt that people for so long out of respect for my parents didn't ever talk publicly about my mom because it had become so nefarious in a way. I think for them, they were relieved they finally had the opportunity to share," Gregson Wagner said. "They really wanted to speak about her. They wanted to tell their story. They wanted to reminisce."
They talk about how Wood advocated for herself throughout her career. She fought for the freedom to choose her own projects while still under contract in the studio system (which is the only reason she was able to be in "West Side Story") and battled for equal pay for "The Great Race." Redford even credits Wood for jumpstarting his film career by throwing her weight around to get him cast in "Inside Daisy Clover" when he was still relatively unknown.
Wood also gets a part in telling her story through revealing archival interviews she did throughout her career and a beautifully honest (but unpublished) magazine article she wrote called "Public Property, Private Person," which Gregson Wagner reads.
"It was super important to give her a voice," Bouzereau said.
He was excited to discover that her film choices in the latter stages of her career are in some ways autobiographical.
"What she chose to star in were movies that had themes and storytelling that really spoke to issues she cared about," he said. "The films we were discussing in the documentary became like illustrations of Natalie herself."
What the documentary is not, however, is an investigation into her death. They don't talk to police or yacht captain Dennis Davern, and never intended to. And both Christopher Walken and Wood's sister Lana declined to participate.
But the interview with Wagner, the one that was going to "make or break" the film, may prove to be enough.
It was Bouzereau's idea to have Gregson Wagner do that one. After Wood died, 11-year-old Gregson Wagner stayed in California to be raised by her stepfather. She would visit her father, Richard Gregson, who died in August, in the summertime.
"I really wanted to showcase that relationship," Bouzereau said.
Gregson Wagner wanted the same. Her stepfather, she said, "Has been so (misrepresented) by people who don't know him. He is somebody who's just so incredibly forthcoming and so genuine and so authentic."
And she said this film shows him as the person she knows him to be.
"We obviously don't rehash the night she died that often, but it was important to me that he that he felt safe enough to share," she said. "He got to share his story on his terms."