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The Nerve Interview: Joe Eszterhas

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At some point, Joe Eszterhas was labeled “the most reviled man in Hollywood,” and the sobriquet has been reprinted in so many places that it’s become, as they say, the first line of his obituary.
    And it’s true. During the 1990s, Eszterhas became the highest paid screenwriter in history by spitting out schlock like Basic Instinct, Sliver and Showgirls, outraging film snobs everywhere. To them, Eszterhas was the epitome of unjustifiably lucrative Hollywood trash, collecting record paychecks for scripts containing lines like, “Nicky got too close to the flame . . . Nicky liked it.”
    But Eszterhas, a Hungarian immigrant who essentially invented the concept of the brand-name screenwriter, can’t be dismissed as a bottom-feeding hack. Like them or not, his films conquered the decade. The debate sparked by Basic Instinct engulfed everything from second-wave feminism to the constitutionality of the MPAA. Sliver presciently explored the consequences of making sex tapes. And even the universally maligned Showgirls, in all of its ludicrousness, has since been reinvented as a midnight-movie classic that’s been deconstructed more vocally than any ’90s Oscar winner.
    Slate’s David Plotz once called Eszterhas the Shakespeare of the Jerry Springer crowd. No one’s ever voiced that strong an opinion about the guy who wrote Dances With Wolves, because no one knows who that guy is. But everyone knows Eszterhas, and whatever he’s known for — good or bad — the simple fact that he’s known has burnished his credentials. When he signed on to direct Sliver, Phillip Noyce said, “I liked the script a lot. Or at least, I liked the idea of jumping on the Joe Eszterhas bandwagon.” Even those who purport to revile Eszterhas don’t really revile him — lesbian activist Camille Paglia once told a reporter that Basic Instinct, a film protested by gay-rights groups upon its release, was her favorite movie ever.
    So one could argue that if Eszterhas really is reviled, it’s in the best possible way. In fact, there’s a running theory that his outsized catastrophes have been carefully calculated to propel his career. Did he fashion himself as a despised loose cannon to grab some of the celebrity that directors enjoy? Even the source of his unsavory honorific, “the most reviled man in Hollywood,” is hard to pin down. Who said it exactly?
    Eszterhas, a throat-cancer survivor with Hell’s Angels hair, is sixty-one and speaks in a raspy baritone. He fled Malibu for a quiet Cleveland suburb with his second wife, Naomi, several years ago. He hasn’t written a script that’s been produced since 1997. Instead, he wrote a 752-page autobiography, a book about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and, most recently, The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God. It’s filled with great anecdotes, gossip and survival wisdom for young screenwriters — advice like, “Writing during a Writers’ Guild strike can be extremely lucrative.” On Tuesday, September 19, he’ll screen Showgirls at the IFC Center in downtown Manhattan. — Will Doig

This book is a guide for how to make money as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
I would view the book as an anti-textbook. I think most textbooks are boring as piss. I wanted to do a book that tells the truth about writing, and more specifically, about being a screenwriter in Hollywood.

Right, much of it reads like a Hollywood survival guide, preparing young writers for the insanity they’ll encounter there. My favorite anecdote is the one where producer Bob Evans likes one of your scripts and sends you a woman with a congratulatory note in her vagina. Does that sort of thing happen to everyone in Hollywood, or just to you?
It happens all the time. But I have a completely absurdist eye, and I usually remember and take note of the absurdities. The reason I put those anecdotes in the book is that I think screenwriters really need to understand that this is the world they’re going into.

It’s also a very aggressive world, and you’ve become infamous in that world for not letting producers or directors mess with your scripts. Why is that so important to you?
I don’t like fighting, but the truth is that in almost all of my fifteen films, I did have big fights. In a sense, this book contains a series of strategies for how to fight the bastards in the simplest way. Otherwise, as [screenwriter] Ron Bass says, you end up being there to service the director’s mission. Well, forgive me, but the word is screenwriter, which means you are the writer, you make up the story, you come up with the characters — the vision is yours. To use a music analogy, the screenwriter is the composer and the director is the conductor who makes it work with an orchestra.

You’re credited with creating the concept of the celebrity screenwriter. How critical has your celebrity been to your success?
I think it’s worked both for me and against me. Coming off Basic Instinct, the biggest hit movie that year, the next time you’re talking about a script with another set of executives, they’re going to be very nervous about trying to inject their ideas. Now, you come off Showgirls, the greatest disaster that year, and suddenly you ain’t a genius anymore.

You’re famous for your sex scenes. When you write a sex scene, how detailed do you get? Do you describe it very clearly, or do you just write, “They have wild sex in a pool”?
No, I don’t do that. I get very detailed, because I don’t trust how much the director really knows about sex. And the way I see it, it makes a great deal of difference how they have sex. Do they both exhibit a certain shyness, or is there bravado with one of them? Who’s on top? Who’s aggressive? Are they gentle? I really choreograph it, because in some ways, I think sex is a dance. The way you choreograph dance, I try to choreograph sex on the page.

Is there a key to writing a great sex scene?
I’ll be frank with you. I’ve always loved sex. I think it’s one of the most enjoyable things in life. I pay attention to it. I have “researched” it all my life. When I was doing research for Showgirls — this was before I met Naomi — I had my producer with me, and after our third night of “research,” he looked at me and said, “Man, you are relentless.” And that was accurate.

That’s funny, because I was going to ask how you research films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
I began my career as a police reporter, and I met a cop who just liked the action too much. He was always in the middle of shootings. He was a great cop on one level, but on another, you suspected he liked it too much. That’s what Nick Curran does in Basic. As Catherine says in the movie, he got too close to the flame. He loved the flame.

In terms of Catherine herself, when I was in my late twenties, I picked up a young go-go dancer in Dayton, Ohio. We left when the place closed, and we came up to my hotel room and did what we were there to do. And afterward, she reached into her purse, and she pulled out a .22 and pointed it at me. She said, “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull this trigger.” I said, “I didn’t do anything to hurt you. You wanted to come here, and as far as I know, you enjoyed what we just did.” And she said, “But this is all guys have ever wanted to do with me, and I’m tired of it.” We had a lengthy discussion before she put that gun down. Those two random characters are where those parts of Basic Instinct come from.

With Showgirls, I did it differently. I went to Vegas with [director] Paul Verhoeven, one of the producers and a researcher. We sat down and did interviews with, like, a hundred showgirls and lap dancers. I had relationships — some very cursory, some not — with these women. It was a particularly dark period of my life. My first marriage was coming apart and my drinking was out of control.

Did that nadir you were at influence the tone of Showgirls? It’s really quite a dark film.
Absolutely. Naomi was the first person who read it. This was in Maui, right after the separation with my wife. Naomi read it and she hated it. She loathed it. She said, “It’s so dark. There’s no redemption, no light. It’s so cynical.” I was heartbroken, because this was the woman who I was head-over-heels in love with.

I know it’s not one of your favorite films that you’ve made, so why are you screening it tomorrow here in New York?

Showgirls? I don’t have any real problem with Showgirls. There are certainly things in it that misfired. If I had a chance, I would rewrite parts of the script, and the acting wasn’t what I wanted it to be. On the other hand, I’ve had people come up to me over the years and whisper in my ear, “I loved Showgirls!” Actually whispering so no one would hear them. And I’ve sat in theaters during these campy screenings where people go crazy for these lines. I have to tell you that what Paul [Verhoeven] and I had in mind was something darkly funny. We went through the script line by line, and we were really laughing at some of it. I defy people to tell me that a line like, “How does it feel not to have anybody coming on you anymore” isn’t meant to be funny.

So even though you were in a sort of darkly serious mood when you wrote it, you had a campy sensibility as well.
Absolutely. I was in a dark mood, but I’ve always had a dark, absurdist sense of humor. Most of the writing I’ve been drawn to is funny and dark, like Nathanael West and [Milan] Kundera. So the humor was dark. Henrietta Bazoom, walking around with a device that pops her tits out every five minutes — I mean, that’s pretty fucking surreal I think.

But when it first came out, you really defined it to the media as a kind of morality play. You called it a “deeply religious experience,” though you retracted that quote years later.
I think what I meant by that was that at the end of the picture, she does turn her back on all of it. The final image is of her walking away from everything that’s made her a star, and in a sense, she cleanses herself. But to call it a deeply religious experience was not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. I’m Hungarian, and Hungarians are noted for doing some singularly stupid things, and I don’t think I would consider myself an especially intelligent Hungarian either, so there you go.

The sex in these movies — Showgirls, Basic Instinct, Sliver, Jade — is very clean. There’s never any body hair or blemishes, no bodily fluids or stains of any kind. In reality, sex is a fairly messy affair. Why not portray it that way?
Well, certainly Verhoeven has a history of making very gritty sexual movies. He did a Dutch picture where the first scene is of a penis being severed and then it levitates, so Verhoeven doesn’t hold back much in that area. I certainly have never described in a script any lack of body hair or fluids. On the other hand, nor have I described in a script their existence. But it’s a damn good idea, and in the next one I’m going to talk about fluids and hair, because I think that’s absolutely real.

What do you think of people who say that you’re sex-obsessed?
Look, I’ve done fifteen movies. I’ve done movies like Music Box, Big Shots, F.I.S.T., Telling Lies in America — those certainly don’t have any sexual themes. The ones that have gotten big media attention, especially after Basic Instinct — because Basic Instinct is in some ways the first movie of mine that had a real sexual theme — are Sliver, Jade, Showgirls. So no, I don’t think I’m sex-obsessed. Do I think sex is an important part of society? Yes, I do.

In your autobiography, you wrote that the “Twisted Little Man” in your head is responsible for films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Who is the Twisted Little Man?
Hmm. I can tell you that he had a real taste for alcohol, cocaine and nicotine. But I don’t drink anymore and I don’t smoke anymore, and Naomi and I are monogamous. We have an absolutely sensational sex life. So he’s not being fed the kinds of food that he likes anymore. God knows what that means for my writing.

Were you surprised by the gay backlash to Basic Instinct?
Yes, I was. There was a gigantic shitstorm in San Francisco when the script got out. Paul didn’t want to sit down with the gay community, and I did. And [he and Michael Douglas] viewed me sitting down with them as a kind of betrayal. Michael Douglas was especially vocal about that. But I grew up an immigrant kid. Words like kiki and queer and refugee were always hurled at me, and as a result I’ve always been drawn to black people, to gay people. The last thing I ever wanted to do was cause pain to anyone who was marginalized. And one of the reasons I was surprised was that my view of Catherine [in Basic Instinct] was that she was sort of omnisexual. She was able to manipulate both men and women on a sexual level. I didn’t view her specifically as a gay person, and when people at that meeting [in San Francisco] started voicing what they felt I was truly horrified. And I made some changes to the dialogue.

Another disagreement you and Paul Verhoeven had over Basic Instinct was the inclusion of a lesbian sex scene. He wanted it in, and you felt it would have been gratuitous. Do you ever put gratuitous sex in a film purely to titillate, or is every sex scene meant to propel the plot forward?
No, I’ve never done that. I guess what you’re asking is the equivalent of some moron producer who has a theory that every eleven-and-a-half minutes you need an explosion and he calls it “the bang-bang scene” or something. The sexual equivalent of that. No. In terms of sex, I think less is more.

As far as arguing about the lesbian sex scene, Paul wanted to show Catherine with Roxy, and I felt that we had got it. There was no reason — everybody already got it. We got the point. It would take a complete dimwit not to understand that she had sexual relationships with different sexes.

That film’s most famous scene, where she uncrosses her legs in the interrogation room, was actually Paul’s idea, correct?
Yeah, it was. In the script, it’s in the previous scene, when Nick is in the house and looking at her dressing, that he realizes that she wasn’t wearing underwear. And Paul took that notion and used it in such an absolutely brilliant way in the next scene instead.

Somewhere during the course of making Basic Instinct, did you sleep with Sharon Stone?
Yes.

Do things like that often happen while a movie is being made, or was that an anomaly?
No, things like that happen a lot with people who work together on a film. You get to be friends, and there is something — especially when you have a really big hit movie — there is an absolute kind of wonder and magic ensuing that . . . that those things happen. Though they happen less often when the movie is a disaster.

Right. You didn’t sleep with Elizabeth Berkley.
No. But I’d met Naomi by then and I was completely and totally in love. So, only looking, thank you.

©2006 Will Doig & Nerve.com