Natasha Gregson Wagner always intended for the new documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, to be a celebration of her late mother’s life and career as one of Hollywood’s most fascinating stars. But she also knew that the film, which she produced and appears in, would have to wrestle with a subject of equal fascination: how her mother died. Natalie Wood drowned in 1981 during a boat trip to Catalina Island in the company of her husband, Robert Wagner, as well as Christopher Walken — her co-star in the film Brainstorm. Although Wood’s death was eventually ruled to be accidental, to this day there has been intense speculation about Wagner’s possible role. In 2018, Los Angeles County Sheriff investigators re-opened the case and identified the actor as a person of interest.
Wagner presents his side of the story in What Remains Behind; in a lengthy sequence towards the end of the film, Gregson Wagner — whose biological father is Richard Gregson — sits with her “Daddy Wagner” as he recounts his memories of what happened that night. “We shot that over the course of two days,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment, adding that if the interview went poorly, there was a very real chance of scrapping the documentary altogether. “It informed if we were going to move forward with the doc. It was very hard and painful and uncomfortable, but very essential.” The film’s director, Laurent Bouzereau, echoes Gregson Wagner’s sentiments about that key scene: “It was kind of a very important benchmark in the documentary, and if this didn’t work, I’d argue that we potentially were not going to do it.” (Watch our video interview above.)
Gregson Wagner characterizes her role in the scene as being a member of the audience, as opposed to a family member. “I knew those were questions that needed to be asked, and I felt I was the best person to ask them because my dad would feel the most comfortable and safe with me,” she explains. “I wanted him to feel safe, even though I was asking him to go outside of his comfort zone. I did try to put myself in the seat of the audience to ask him those questions and hopefully clarify so those questions don’t need to keep coming up ”
With Gregson Wagner sitting across from him, Wagner recounts his memories of the trip, including a dinner with Wood and Walken — who were rumored to be having an affair — at a Catalina bar, followed by more drinking back on their boat. “I sat there with Chris, and we started talking,” Wagner says in the film, adding that he and Walken got into an argument about Wood’s career, at which point the actress went to the stateroom she and Wagner shared. “I was really angry at him about it. As I look back at it, unjustifiably so.” (According to Bouzereau, Walken declined to appear in the film.)
Wagner goes on to say that he eventually calmed down, and both he and Walken struck a truce before going to bed. But when he entered the stateroom, Wood was no longer there. The next morning, her body was found. “Everything just went out from under me,” he says in the film. “We were all stunned.” The presence of bruises on Wood’s wrists, though, have led some to question Wagner’s version of events, including the actress’s sister, Lana Wood, who did not participate in the documentary. “We don’t have a relationship with her and haven’t since my mom died,” Gregson Wagner tells us. “I don’t know Lana Wood.”
Wagner’s appearance in What Remains Behind will undoubtedly be the subject of intense scrutiny when the documentary premieres on HBO on May 5. Gregson Wagner, for one, feels the case on her mother’s tragic death is closed. “I’ve always had closure,” she says. “I hope [the film] provides closure for the people who haven’t. I really do hope that this documentary puts that speculation to rest, and we can move on and keep the focus on her life — not her death.”