Joe Eszterhas ranks as one of the highest-paid, most powerful, and most reviled screenwriters in the history of film, three distinctions that, unsurprisingly, have a lot to do with each other. To his critics, Eszterhas isn't a hack so much as The Hack, the living embodiment of everything wrong with Hollywood. Born in Hungary, Eszterhas began his career as a buzzed-about journalist for publications like Rolling Stone, as well as the author of critically acclaimed non-fiction books like Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse and Nark. F.I.S.T., a brawling epic about labor unions, was Eszterhas' first produced screenplay; it hit theaters in 1978 and promptly tanked. But in spite of scathing reviews, his next film, Flashdance, became a huge word-of-mouth hit. Eszterhas followed it with Jagged Edge, a slick courtroom thriller that similarly struck a chord with audiences. The writer's well-publicized feud with super-agent Mike Ovitz threatened to derail his career, but in 1992, he teamed with director Paul Verhoeven and scored the monster hit Basic Instinct, a sexed-up thriller that made a star out of Sharon Stone. Eszterhas and Verhoeven reunited for 1995's notorious Vegas exposé Showgirls, which flopped upon its release but easily ranks as Eszterhas' finest hour. A cult classic and one of the funniest movies ever made, Showgirls is an over-the-top pulp masterpiece of glorious excess along the lines of Switchblade Sisters and Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. After Basic Instinct, Eszterhas famously commanded million-dollar fees for his scripts, though many of them wasted away on studio shelves, and his next two films, the autobiographical coming-of-age movie Telling Lies In America and the Hollywood satire An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, barely broke even. Eszterhas has subsequently battled alcoholism and cancer and written two high-profile books, American Rhapsody and the recent Hollywood Animal: A Memoir. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with the veteran screenwriter about his critics, his career, and Showgirls.
The Onion: Could you talk about the screenwriter's place in the Hollywood hierarchy?
Joe Eszterhas: As I say in Hollywood Animal, the screenwriter has always been at the bottom of the totem pole, going back historically to [F. Scott] Fitzgerald's days, when he did the Pat Hobby stories, where the screenwriter isn't even invited to his own première, and if he is, he isn't let into it. That's always been the case, and it's the case today. I think I was an exception to that, and the reason I was an exception, I think, was that at every opportunity, I hammered away at the notion that the way Hollywood treats its screenwriters is wrong.
O: Why do you think screenwriters are perceived as disposable?
JE: Because everyone in the world thinks they can write, from the studio heads to producers to directors to cab drivers who always try to tell me the story of their lives, and think that it'd make a great movie. Everyone thinks they can write. Writing doesn't involve the kind of technical knowledge a director has to have. Writing has to do with your own heart and gut and brain in terms of trying to tell a story, and everyone thinks they can do that.
O: Do you think screenwriters today are better off because of the way you've handled your career?
JE: I really don't think they are. I think I was a mutation. I continue to be an exception to the rule. I noted a couple of years ago that the Writers Guild was engaged in a program where on a certain night each week, they brought together screenwriters with members of the media in an effort to give the writers more publicity. They're still involved in the same struggle that they were involved with 40 years ago, in terms of trying to make the screenwriter more visible. The studio system and the producers and directors will do everything to keep the screenwriter in the dark and in the background. Screenwriters are supposed to be neither seen nor heard. I certainly violated that rule. [Laughs.] Among others. But in terms of changing it within the system, I don't think I did.
O: In Hollywood Animal, you insist that the director's job is to fulfill the screenwriter's vision, which is sort of the opposite of the conventional wisdom. Why do you feel that way?
JE: Let me be specific: When it's an original screenplay–and most of mine have been original screenplays–with characters created by you, the story created by you, and it's a single artistic vision from the beginning, where you sit down in a little room by yourself and make up this story, that is your story and your vision from the get-go. I differentiate with screenwriters who do adaptations of novels, for example, because that vision belongs to the novelist, in that case. With original screenplays, it comes out of your heart, soul, and gut, and it's then handed to a director. I view myself as the composer of a piece of music, and the director is the conductor working with other musicians–the editor, the makeup people, all the other technicians–in terms of presenting it up on stage.
O: Even though screenwriters are treated as disposable, so many people want to be screenwriters.
JE: There's another element I skipped. Let me just add to that. Screenwriters behave like hookers. Bill Goldman, in one of his books, describes a situation where he's sitting with a producer in a meeting, and he's trying to get a job to be the screenwriter on this project. The producer comes up with this cockeyed idea, and Goldman pretends to take notes, pretending to treat what the producer's saying as wisdom, just so he'll get the job. As Goldman says over and over again, it's all about getting the job. Well, I think that's hooking. I think that's bullshit. That has nothing to do with the kind of original vision I'm talking about from the screenwriters.
O: Do you think that mentality applies to most screenwriters?
JE: I think there have been exceptions to the rule, and I think that there have been some really militant, famous exceptions to it, most especially Paddy Chayefsky, who viewed himself as a screenwriter the same way he viewed himself as a playwright. He even had a clause in his contract for Altered States, saying that his words simply couldn't be changed. Of course, what happened there–one of the saddest and darkly funniest stories I know about screenwriters in Hollywood–is that Ken Russell, who directed the film at the height of his fame as an auteur director, was also at the height of his alcoholism. He began changing the script upside down, at which point Chayefsky and the studio reminded him that he couldn't do that, by contract. At which point Russell, angered, began purposely trying to destroy Paddy's dialogue by having the actors eat while they were delivering it, or having them deliver it in a staccato, machine-gun kind of style, so that you couldn't make out what they were saying. Ultimately, he was able to destroy both Paddy's script and the movie, which was a critical and commercial failure. It was a heartbreaking experience for Chayefsky, who had fought for decades against that, and for protecting his material. It was such a heartbreaking experience that he died shortly afterwards, some say from a broken heart.
O: What do you think of high-profile script doctors like Richard LaGravenese and Steven Zaillian?
JE: I think they're studio assassins. They're brought in shortly before a movie is supposed to shoot. They're given memos and ideas that the producers and the studios want in the movie that the previous screenwriters didn't put there, for either creative reasons or other reasons. They very quickly translate those ideas into the film. They assassinate the script that was there before them.
O: Do you think it's possible that their contributions cause films to be better?
JE: It's always possible, but in my experience, most ideas that come from studios and producers don't make movies better. [Laughs.]
O: Why do you think you've evoked such strong feelings in people over the years?
JE: I think it's probably easier for my critics to answer that. I've spoken out on a lot of issues. I've gotten into my share of fights, many of them publicized ones with directors or stars. I got into a very famous fight with a powerful agent. I've had movies that have been huge hits, and I've had movies that were equally big disasters. All of those things come together in a rich, roller-coaster career.
O: What do you think are your best films?
JE: Picking one is a little tough. I like Basic Instinct very much. I liked Telling Lies In America a lot, and I liked Music Box. I should add that I'm one of the few people on this side of the world, maybe, who really likes An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn.
O: You've said the marketing for that film was inadequate. Do you think that with better marketing, it could have been a hit?
JE: I think we would have had a chance for more people to see it, at least. All that means is maybe more people would have hated it, or wouldn't want to see it, but at least it would have had a larger test audience. It was infinitesimal, what we got, because of distribution problems. I also think that the very structure of the piece, the way I wrote it in my first draft, which was a series of talking heads in a mock-documentary piece, may have been its ultimate doom right from the beginning, because one of the things that really didn't work for most people was one talking head after another. It was devised that way, and it may have been that the piece was stillborn because of the structure I used in my first draft.
O: Robert Evans plays himself in Burn Hollywood Burn. The portrait of him that emerges in your book is very different from the one in his book and movie [The Kid Stays In The Picture].
JE: I don't know about that. He doesn't have a very big part in Burn Hollywood Burn. I still consider Bob a friend. In Hollywood Animal, I view him affectionately. He is very human, and I describe him certainly in very human terms. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. One of the reasons why some people in Hollywood might be taking umbrage at the book is that they're not used to being described in human terms. Everybody who's very successful in the film industry thinks that they've become a sort of demigod, and that the rules should be different for them. They're all human beings. They all have warts and all the other things. I happen to describe those things in my book as I do about myself. I happen to view myself in a very human way, and I describe the mistakes I made and the way I acted sometimes as being pretty reprehensible. In terms of my general approach to the book and the people that I write about, I hope it's as honest as the way I write about myself. Incidentally, one of the responses I've been getting to the book is that a lot of people think it's very funny, and some people see it as a series of antic actions and antic behavior that really amuses some people and makes them laugh. I think if I write about people's humanity and Hollywood, it's bound to be funny, because there's a certain absurdist humor in most of the things that go on there, and certainly how the business is done.
O: Do you think you'd be subjected to less scrutiny if there were less publicity about the money you've made selling your scripts?
JE: Oh, sure. When Basic Instinct was sold, you've got a banner headline in Variety that says "The Dawn Of A New Era In Hollywood: Script Sells For $3 Million." Absolutely. CBS Evening News came with a helicopter crew and found me on a beach in Florida and interviewed me about the money I got for Basic Instinct. The other thing that I don't think was quite fair was that after that whole period, where scripts–mine and Shane Black's and half a dozen other writers' scripts–went for a lot of money, the media zeroed in on the box office for some of those scripts, and they always zeroed in on the failures. I remember with Shane, it might have been The Last Boy Scout, but he was really nailed for it, because the movie went down the tube. A critic pointed out how much he earned for it. When Basic Instinct went on to earn $400 million worldwide, there were no stories that said, "[Executive producer] Mario Kassar paid three million bucks for this."
O: In the book, you publish a letter you wrote concerning an unfilmed script, Male Pattern Baldness, which you say had the potential to "force America to pay attention." What did you mean by that, and what is Male Pattern Baldness about?
JE: Male Pattern Baldness was about a guy who lives in the Midwest and works in a steel plant, who finds himself in a battle with all the precepts of political correctness. He's just an ordinary guy who goes up against all the sort of politically inspired and enforced social rules that we've looked at in the past 20 years. Everything goes to hell for him. He loses his wife as a result. He loses his son, and he has to take anger-management classes. Ultimately, he can't take it. The tone of the piece until now is comedic, it's dark, and it has a really striking comedic tone, to the point where Betty Thomas, who directs comedies, after reading it decided that she was going to make it. Suddenly, near the end of this piece, the comedic tone startlingly ends and he goes on a rampage and kills four or five of his workers and kills himself. The movie ends with an epilogue of irony. Betty's take and the studio's take when I sold the script was that it was very hard-hitting, and was certainly going to be very controversial. It proved to be so controversial, finally, in the studio's view, and also Betty's–she felt that it was an assault on political correctness–that they opted not to do the picture, and it's still up on the shelf. I do think that it would have startled some people, and I think it would have made us take a hard look at the effects of political correctness.
O: Was it cathartic or difficult to write about your relationship with your father?
JE: It was excruciatingly difficult, but it was also cathartic. I felt when I got to the end of it that in some ways, the book is a love story about my dad, that I was able to get to the point where I forgave him and was able to tell him, at least in my writing and in my book, that I love him. It was very, very difficult. I felt that if I was to write an honest memoir about my own life, my dad certainly was the biggest influence on me. He inspired me, he guided me, he loved me. I wouldn't have been much, I don't think, without him. So if I was going to say all of those things because they're true, I also had to tell the rest of it, which was how I felt after 1990. [In 1990, Eszterhas learned that his father had been an anti-Semitic writer. –ed.] I opted to do that, and it was excruciatingly difficult, but it's one of the things I love about the book, and that I think will stand for posterity. Not to sound Smithsonian about posterity, but still, grandchildren will read the book, and I'm very happy that it's in there.
O: You begin the book by talking a lot about your success. It seems like you're baiting your critics.
JE: You're absolutely right.
O: What was the purpose of that?
JE: I don't know. I was enjoying being the bad boy. I was saying, "You pound me around for this and you pound me around for that. All right. Bring it on. Let's do it again." I had a lot of fun doing it. I do it in a humorous way. Yet at the same time, things that I think I made mistakes on, I come out and say, "Hey, that was a dumb-ass thing to do." Like telling kids to bring their fake IDs so they could go and see Showgirls. The other stuff, where I talk about treating some directors very badly, I think I'm also very honest about that in that first chapter. I sort of wanted, from a creative point of view… In the first chapter, I wanted for people to see how out of control it all got. The rest of the book, I think, showed the beginning of how it got there, and what happened after it got there, at the point where I got out of control and what I did about it, in terms of my alcoholism and, ultimately, my throat cancer.
O: Does criticism bother you?
JE: No. If you are in my shoes, and if you've written 15 movies and–let's see–1, 2, 3, 4, 5 books, many of which were severely criticized, it's obvious that criticism doesn't bother you. Does it stick a little pin in you now and then? Oh, sure, yeah. Absolutely.
O: But then you occasionally get good reviews for something like Telling Lies In America.
JE: There's one thing that you've got to do. If you are at a point where you say, "Critics, they can't bother me. I'm going to write my next thing," then the flip side of that is when the critics write about something that they really love, you also can't get too excited. On the other hand, when I say that when they don't like something, it sticks a little bit in you, it's also true that when they really like something, it puts a little smile on your face, too.
O: How do you feel about the fact that Showgirls has become such a cult film?
JE: From the beginning, when Paul [Verhoeven] and I went through the script, Paul laughed his head off, and so did I. I never understood from the beginning how lines like "How does it feel not to have anybody coming on you anymore?" weren't funny. I went to see it three or four months after the release date, and it was packed with audiences that really laughed. I laughed, as well, and I laughed when I wrote those lines. You have no idea how many people have come up to me through the years and very quietly, nearly whispering, said "Loved Showgirls. Loved Showgirls." [Laughs.]
O: What do you miss most about living on the West Coast?
JE: We've only been back [in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio] for three years. I grew up here. This is my hometown. I've gone through a very difficult recovery in terms of my cigarette addiction, which was four packs a day, and my functional alcoholism. I was drinking, at the end, half a bottle of gin and three bottles of wine a day. My drinking was out of control, so it was very difficult for me to stop my addictions. I started smoking when I was 12 and drinking when I was 14. I say all that because I don't think I could have done the recovery I've done back there. The people here are very low-key and warm, and when they see me walking–I walk five miles a day, because of my cancer–they say hi, or they come by and say you're in their prayers, or "Welcome home. You never should have been out there in the first place." I couldn't have done this back there. There would have been too much pressure, too many phone calls, too many distractions. I also had to deal with my cancer, which was its own double whammy with the addictions. The truth is that I miss some friends, but I talk to people from back there all the time. We've gone out three or four times, and we've seen people for dinner, all of that. We're very happy here. We have four little boys who are between 9 and 2, and we live in what I call faux-country, with a lot of acreage and a park-like setting with woods and acres and a school bus that comes up to the driveway and takes the kids to school, and we go to all the Little League games. We're enjoying the seasonal changes. Naomi is from Mansfield, Ohio, which is down the road. We're enjoying the seasonal changes and love the snow and have learned a lot. We celebrate the time we have left with each other. We celebrate our holidays. I spend more time with the kids and with Naomi than I ever have. The Midwest and Ohio and Bainbridge Township are much more conducive to living that way than Malibu would have been. So I'm very happy we came.
O: You write a lot about your personal life in Hollywood Animal. Did you feel like you were sacrificing some of your privacy?
JE: Yes, I did feel that. It's a very odd feeling, now that the book is out and people who have read it know everything about you. I felt that if I was going to write a book about my life, it should be very, very truthful. I remember reading John Huston's autobiography, and Huston was a larger-than-life figure who really lived an interesting, roller-coaster kind of life, and the book never gave any hint of the flavor of the life he led. It was written from kind of a superficial, Hollywood point of view, essentially filled, I think, with a lot of lies by omission. I didn't want to write that kind of book about my life. I wanted to write a book where my grandchildren could one day see it and say, "Okay, that's Grandpa. That's the life he led." For better or worse.