Joe Eszterhas is a veteran screenwriter and Hollywood legend, who’s work has grossed over a billion dollars in film revenues. Considering he was an immigrant to America, writing in his second language, that’s proof of his talent and heart as a writer. He came along to speak candidly about working as a screenwriter, dealing with the industry and how to bleed onto the page the stories we hold inside us. Through a Q&A session his wisdom and experience as a writer flowed out to us and it was humbling to hear him speak so frankly and from the heart about the work and the craft of writing he clearly loves and respects. The usual questions of Mel Gibson and Robert McKee throwing up the usual answers aside, there was a frankness to his words that reached us all and made him feel like family, imparting his thoughts so that we might make use of them to better our lives.
‘Basic Instinct’ only took 13 days to write but, says Joe, he thought about it for a decade beforehand, considering the nature of a female protagonist who could do evil without qualm and how anyone could become enamoured of such a person. “Let the characters tell you what they want to do.” he advises. Advice I heard echoed from other speakers during the festival. The film was initially called ‘The Love Birds’ after a country and western song he liked, but at the last minute the Basic Instinct title came to mind and he went and changed the title page before submitting the draft.
Not always a stellar screenwriter, Eszterhas was an immigrant refugee child at the age of six and grew up from that point within a Hungarian neighbourhood in Cleveland. It was his adult entry into journalism, he says that really allowed him to know America and be American. Journalism taught him to understand people, seeing them close up in their most traumatic moments. He recalls arriving at a crime scene as a young 22 year old, before the police showed up and finding blood splashed walls and bodies inside, with an elderly Hungarian woman keening for her loss, and he just empathised and held her, this old woman who spoke his mother tongue. The police on arrival turfed him out but it was moments like those that stuck with him as a writer. Transitioning to screenwriting through a story he wanted to tell he was, he says, so green that his first script was 500 pages long. Although he hadn’t read any screenwriting books he took the notes he got from people of what to do with it and grew into the craft. His first film wasn’t a commercial success but he had written a good story and worked with some good people and it led him further into the industry. “Write what’s in your heart, your gut,” he advises, “you can never tell if it will be a success or not so don’t try to figure that out.” Some screenplays bleed out, some need more research. After ‘relentless’ (he jokes) research on Showgirls it disastered in every way and was nailed commercially and critically. Over time though it’s over the top status made it a cult classic that found a gigantic following.
Though he’d never wanted to be a screenwriter, imagining he’d become a novelist, Joe had always loved the movies, going along with his father who would take him to Italian neo-realist classics at the local theatre. With opportunity and income being more prevalent in screenwriting that’s where he found himself flourishing into the storyteller we know so well today. Reading he suggests is the best way to learn about storytelling because you construct stories in your own head. Not reading screenwriting books though, which he says are bullshit from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. His views on that are well known of course, calling screenwriting gurus “..con men and hookers who take advantage of people like you.” His advice is not to swallow the cool aid. “Learn about life. Learn about people and how they tic.” he proffers instead, “Then you’ll bring a reality to your stories.”
Knowing when to walk away seems to be one of his talents too. During development for Basic Instinct, a script which had been highly sought after from numerous studios, Michael Douglas had suggested killing off Stone’s character at the end and Paul Verhoevan, Irvine Winkler et al, had agreed. Unable to agree to kill his baby, Eszterhas walked away from the project to allow another writer to come in to murder his darling without his complicity in the heinous act. However, a couple of months later down the line, Paul eventually understood the screenplay, something he admitted he had not really done before. It was that glamour of evil that made the script unique and to kill Stone’s character would have been to destroy that. Paul went back to the original draft and the film we know was made. The flashing scene in the film came from Paul expanding on a voyeuristic idea within a prior scene that Eszterhas had included and had not been in the original screenplay. Dealing with adult themes can have it’s criticisms. Eszterhas is clear that he doesn’t think it’s our job as screenwriters to legislate morality in the work we put out.
Ironically, the piece where he knew he could really do this screenwriting thing well, never got made. On rewrites, Joe says he was not a technical person and so always used to use a typewriter and re-type every word from page one for each rewrite draft. Even now, he says if something isn’t working he can begin retyping from the beginning and that usually works out the problem. His dedication to craft and to his own ethics and championship about writers is what has earned him his status and respect as well as the income his movies have generated. Writing books to reinforce his views on the industry and advice to writers about how not to lose their souls to the LA merry-go-round is something he cares about. “We all need examples of different things that can give us courage.” he says about dealing with directors and producers. People who went with their gut and the old studio system are gone, everything is cost analysed and focus tested now. It’s made a huge difference to the way writers are treated. Love of craft comes with a cost too, with Maccabees he was commissioned by Mel Gibson to write the story after Mel had read one of his other screenplays and liked his work. Writing a story he loved his way, he was finally brought to comment in a NY Times article about his concerns that Mel was co-opting the story in an anti-semitic vein and was fired from the project by Gibson and Warner Brothers. His need to speak out had come from very real apprehension about Mel Gibson’s frightening demeanor and his feeling that an intervention was truly needed as well as knowing that if he didn’t come clean, he’d bear the tarnish of someone claiming his screenplay work was the issue at fault for the parting of ways. The oppressive anger of Mel had required a response too. Joe recalls an instance of discovering his teenage son had slept with a kitchen knife under his pillow one night out of concern for his safety because of Mel’s frightening rage. It’s a sad story, and though legal advice was sought, because the script had been commissioned by Gibson, Eszterhas was unable to use or even write the story another way and was unable to retrieve the rights to the original. “When you get your heart broken by a script you get close to, all you can do is move on and write another script.” he concludes confiding that selling a script is like selling a house and if someone wants to come in and paint the walls or turn it upside down they can do so because it’s theirs now.
His learning shared and his wisdom being passed on through books and frank speaking, he is still ballsy enough a person to punch back against the system when it comes to writers and craft, advising using heart and soul and treating screenplays kids he recommends that we fight for the stories we put to the page. He also advises keeping tabs on life, with love, land and especially family clearly close to his heart and creativity it was hard once again, to not feel like we were a very large room of brothers and sisters, listening to this bold yet avuncular soul strengthen our spines and brace us for the world of screenwriting by imparting his own rich experience with sincerity and great humour and we were slow to leave the room, but glad to have him with us championing what we all do with our lives regardless of the level we do it at.
Leilani Holmes at the London Screenwriters’ Festival
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