Archive | October, 2013

LSF #4: Basic Instinct, blow by “blow”, with Joe Eszterhas

31 Oct

Moderator Chris Jones (left) and Joe Eszterhas giving live commentary on Basic Instinct

At the London Screenwriters’ Festival on Sunday, there was a full screening of Basic Instinct. Its writer, Joe Eszterhas, gave a live commentary from the stage, moderated by the festival’s creative director, Chris Jones. Thriller expert Lucy V Hay was also on the panel, but Joe blanked every single one of her questions – “Listen, I just type this stuff”, he said at one point, evidently no fan of critical analysis.

Eszterhas’s wife Naomi and their 15-year-old son were in the audience, which made watching the very graphic sex scenes even more surreal, particularly when you remember that Eszterhas claims to have had a fling with Sharon Stone, preserved here in her prime, at the time of Basic Instinct.

So come, Watch With Joe. I’ve recorded the best of the in-flight commentary for your benefit, so fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be a bumpy night. 

George Dzundza comes up on the credits. Joe: “My suggestion for this part was Willie Nelson. That’s how much I know about casting.”

Jerry Goldsmith’s score plays. Joe: “I kept hearing Stones songs while I was writing Basic Instinct. We actually bought the rights to Sympathy for the Devil for $700,000 to use over the closing credits, but Paul (Verhoeven) elected not to use it.”


The very first scene is full-throttle love-making with some white-scarf bondage thrown in. Chris: “We’re already straight into the action.” Joe: “The ‘business’, as we say in Hollywood.”


Suddenly, the woman frenziedly stabs the man again and again with an icepick. Chris: “Holy shit, Joe!” Joe (shrugs, deadpan): “She was excited.”


Roxie is introduced. “I’m her friend,” she tells detective Nick Curran. Chris: “That’s so charged, the way she says it.” Joe: “Camille Paglia [influential feminist commentator] praised the film for its modern take on sexual politics.”


The first scene between Dr Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a psychiatrist, and Nick Curran. Chris: “Great sexual charisma between her and Michael Douglas.” Joe: “It doesn’t hurt that they were having a blazing affair while filming.”


Nick watches Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) undressing. Chris: “That’s very inappropriate behaviour. It tells us something about his character.” Joe: “He likes to get too close to the flame.”


Catherine Tramell offers Nick a cigarette even though he’s given up, lights one, smokes it suggestively. Joe: “There is no doubt that these scenes glamorise smoking. Especially with Sharon doing it. I regret that, especially in the light of what happened to me later [Eszterhas contracted throat cancer in 2001; his husky voice is due to the removal of most of his larynx].”


The notorious interrogation scene. This was Verhoeven’s idea, inspired by a woman who uncrossed her legs, pantieless, at a party to embarrass him when he was younger. Joe: “Close your eyes, John! [This to his 15-year-old son in the audience.] This is a terrific scene but the downside is that this is, in my mind, a really intricate film noir, but it’s rather overshadowed by the world’s most famous pussy shot. It may have done Sharon a disservice, too. She does seem really fine, subtle performing here.”


A passionate sex scene between Dr Garner and Nick Curran turns violent. Joe: “This attracted a lot of criticism, but I think it’s obvious that it isn’t date rape in the context of their relationship.”


Um… really? “No!” says Dr Garner, as Curran bends her over an armchair. “Stop!” she says, as he rips off her black panties and thrusts himself into her from behind. Chris: “Blimey!” Joe (drily): “‘Blimey’ indeed.”


After a terrific chase scene down a winding road which Eszterhas intended as a visual echo of the twisting plot, Curran tracks Tramell to the house of Hazel Dobkins, a former killer. Joe: “Hazel Dobkins was an old landlady of mine when I went to College.” Chris: “Did she mind?” Joe: “She sent a note thanking me.”


A great line: Tramell says to Curran, “Soon I’ll know you better than you know yourself.” Curran replies, “I doubt that. I’m very –” “Unpredictable?” she says, in unison with him. Chris: “So who is the killer, Joe?” [He asks that again and again. I hadn’t realised there was any doubt.] Joe: “The usual thing is for me to say buy the DVD and watch it several times, because I still get the residuals! But maybe I’ll tell you at the end.”


A sex scene between Curran and Tramell ends with her tying him down with a white scarf, just as in the murder scene at the beginning. He lets her do it, even though he knows she may be the killer. Chris: “Why?” Joe: “He likes getting close to the flame. And Catherine likes to take him there.”


Over the end of the movie, Joe Estzerhas talks about the bidding frenzy over his script, which was bought by Carolco for a record $3m. “Screenwriters never made that kind of money. I was on holiday with my family at the time, and news teams helicoptered in to talk to me. After it was released, Mario Kassar, the head of Carolco, called me in and said ‘Joey, I paid you peanuts. I’m going to make a hundred million dollars for this f***ing movie.’”


Curran and Tramell make love, Tramell’s hands occasionally going under the bed as though about to pick something up. When Curran agrees they don’t have to “raise rugrats”, just “f*** like minks and live happily ever after”, she leaves whatever it is alone and kisses him. There’s a fade to black, then, unusually, a fade up again… on the icepick under the bed. Chris: “Why the fade to black?” Joe: “I didn’t want to pan to it at that point. When the fade happens a lot of people are going to think she didn’t do it. Then when it fades back…” Chris: “So who really is the killer?” Joe: “She is wonderful, and manipulative, and so smart, and omni-sexual…” [Effectively confirming Tramell as the killer. So there, conspiracy theorists.]

And that’s all for now, folks! Come back tomorrow for Joe Eszterhas on Showgirls and other films. For part 1 of his wit ‘n’ wisdom, click here. For part 2 on the origins of Basic Instinct, including fighting Michael Douglas’s alternative ending, click here. Thanks to for the screengrabs.




LSF #3: Joe Eszterhas on the origins of Basic Instinct

30 Oct


I like Basic Instinct. It’s smart, it’s sexy, it twists and turns but does not insult the audience’s intelligence, and the performances are spot-on. I put it on the cover of Time Out, a few months after I became Editor.

It was the most talked-about movie of 1992, and took $350 million worldwide. Joe Eszterhas himself was paid a then record $3m for his spec script after a frantic auction – just 13 days after he first sat down to write it.

Joe tells us how the film got made – and how it very nearly didn’t – in my second daily dose of his movie masterclass from the London Screenwriters’ Festival:

Let your characters live. “Writing starts with characters. When it’s going well, the characters tell me what to do – within certain boundaries, or you lose the spine of the story. I’d wake at 3am and take notes.”

Keep it real: “It took 13 days to write, but I had thought about it for a decade. It started with a policeman I knew. He was a great guy but he’d been involved in three fatal shootings, and I decided that he liked it. Then I thought of this woman smart enough to manipulate him.”

[Eszterhas also based this woman, played in the film by Sharon Stone, on a real person. He didn’t say this at the London Film Festival – perhaps because his 15-year-old son was in the audience – but he tells the story in his gloriously indiscreet book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood:]

“One night when I was a young man, I was with a girl I’d picked up at a go-go bar in Dayton, Ohio. She was one of the dancers. We went to a hotel and, after what we’d done what we went there to do, she pulled a cute little .22-calibre revolver on me and asked if I had any real good reason why she shouldn’t pull the trigger, considering the way her life was going and considering how used she felt at that moment. She told me I wouldn’t be the first guy she’d pulled the trigger on, and I believed her… and somehow talked her out of pulling it on me. When I was writing Basic Instinct many years later in a little room in my house in San Rafael, California, I remembered the girl in that hotel room in Dayton, Ohio.”

For God’s sake, pick a title that suits the genre: “It was originally called The Love Birds, after a Country & Western song I loved. I was about to send it to my agent, when I suddenly stopped, in a grittier version of Paul on the road to Damascus, and the words ‘Basic Instinct’ came into my head. I turned around and changed it.”

Include at least one scene that everyone will still talk about 20 years later: “The flashing scene was not in the original script, that was all Paul (Verhoeven). There was a scene where Michael watches Catherine change, and she’s nude, and you see she’s not wearing underwear. Paul in his mad genius Dutchman way took that scene over into the interrogation scene, flashing ‘those little bitty hairs’, as he called them.”

You may have to fight for what’s right. “Paul wanted to change the Basic Instinct script. We had a big meeting, including the producer, Irwin Winkler, and Michael Douglas, the star. Michael was leading the fight, feeling that Catherine was one-upping his character all the time, and that there was no redemption, and he wanted the movie to end with him shooting and killing her. Paul backed him up. I said if you want to do this I won’t be involved in killing my own child. It would make it into a bad TV movie. In my mind, this was film noir, not a morality tale, and that’s what made it unique and daring.

“Paul stood up and said, ‘I am the director, you are the writer, you do what I tell you.’ I said ‘Like f*** you do!’ Irwin Winkler called Paul ‘a f***ing Nazi’. And that was the end of a great creative session!

“Three months later I get a call from Paul, who’s decided to go back to my original draft. He said he hadn’t understood the ‘basement’ of my script, as he called it, that it was about good and evil. He not only went back to my draft, he actually held a press conference and said this. For a director to mumble these words is quite something; for him to hold a press conference is mind-boggling.”

Read the first part of Joe’s wit ‘n’ wisdom here. Joe Eszterhas’s scene by scene commentary on Basic Instinct is now up here.

LSF #2: Joe Eszterhas, the $4m man, on screenwriting

29 Oct

Joe Eszterhas (left) with the winner of his icepick award, Eran Creevy (maker of Shifty and Welcome to the Punch), and London Screenwriters’ Festival founder Chris Jones

During the London Screenwriters’ Festival this weekend, I spent four and a half hours with Joe Eszterhas, the most successful scriptwriter of his day, in a Q&A panel, a one-on-one interview, and a live-commentary screening of Basic Instinct. The festival also announced a new award: the Joe Eszterhas British Screenwriting Award, won by Eran Creevy.

Eszterhas, irreverent as ever, whispered to me after in a voice still husky from his 2001 battle with throat cancer: “He seems like a nice guy; hope it doesn’t jinx him!” Perhaps Eszterhas was thinking of the late ’90s when, with his own star falling after Showgirls and Burn Hollywood Burn, the Golden Raspberries renamed their screenwriting category the Joe Eszterhas Dis-Honorarial Award.

Eszterhas may not be the critics’ darling, but for more than a decade his spec scripts attracted $2-4 million payoffs, even those that weren’t produced. In one year alone he made $10 million.

So you might figure we have something to learn from him.

And there is. It’s mostly about listening to your heart, writing from your gut, and the giant brass clanking balls you need to protect your work. I’m going to let Joe tell it in his own words. He’s as entertaining in speech as on the page, so why not?

On the goldfish bowl of Hollywood: “You need a short memory. They can screw you, and you can screw them, but you need a short memory if you’re going to carry on working.”

On why screenwriting is, as Swiss Tony might say, like making love to a beautiful woman: “What Warren Beatty said, talking about trying to bed every woman he met, applies to screenwriting too: ‘You get slapped a lot, but sometimes you get laid.’”

On writing: “Keep writing. Even if you’re throwing up. For the first couple of years I was so nervous about writing I used to throw up every morning before I started. Still, that’s better than throwing up afterward! I’ve done that a couple of times, too.

“Don’t make changes without agreeing to them. Always fight your corner. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. Don’t sell your children.

“Don’t figure out what will be a hit. Write what is in your heart, in your gut, because we just never know what is going to be a hit.

“I still write on a manual typewriter, I’m a technical ignoramus. If I get stuck on page 45, I start again from the beginning, rewriting every word, and usually I find somehow what was wrong and fix it by doing that.”

On script gurus: “Let’s be euphemistic here [we know he’s joking: Eszterhas always calls a spade a spade, not a soil-relocation facilitator]: I think they are con men and hookers, and they take advantage of people like you, because they haven’t done it themselves. What’s Robert McKee written, one TV movie? What they give to you guys is bullshit. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

“The danger of focusing too much on film is you get caught up in the technical aspects. Learn about people, how they talk, what makes them tick. I know a guy who worked for the phone company; he wanted to be a scriptwriter, he would listen in on people’s conversations for hours a day. Another friend, he used to put a little bug in the flowerpot in the café.”

On the real reason fewer films are being made: “When I began, producers and studio heads were showbiz people who trusted their own instincts. They weren’t surrounded by business graduates and focus groups and cost analysers, they went with their gut. One reason that fewer and fewer films get made is not just budget, but people are afraid to green-light things because if they do, and it doesn’t work, they could lose their jobs and usually do. That’s why we get so many comic-book tentpole movies that don’t take any chances.”

On priorities: “I’ve always preferred reading a book to seeing a movie, always preferred having sex to reading a book, and for a few years I preferred having a drink to anything.”

On the most important thing of all: “This is the most important thing I can tell you: ‘Don’t let them take your mojo. Keep the thing that makes you write hidden deep inside of you.’”

Part 2: Click here to read Joe Eszterhas on Basic Instinct — why he originally wanted to call it The Love Birds (?!), and why he had to fight Michael Douglas for three months over the ending

LSF #1: Starting a daily series of reports from the London Screenwriters’ Festival

28 Oct

Dominic Wells (me) with Joe Eszterhas, writer of Basic Instinct and usually no friend of critics. “They want to kill you, rape your wife and eat your children” is the typically understated chapter heading in his book.

What an exhilarating, exhausting, mind-altering three days the London Screenwriters’ Festival has been! There were 100 guest speakers to choose from, including a two-hour Q&A with Joe Eszterhas, the highest-paid, most successful and most belligerent screenwriter of his day, plus a surreal afternoon in which 300 people packed into the main hall to watch Basic Instinct with Eszterhas providing a live running commentary – and occasionally warning his 15-year-old son in the audience to shut his eyes…!

The 68-year-old living legend was good enough to give me a one-on-one interview, as well. Given that in his scabrous warts-and-all book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, Eszterhas headlined his chapter on critics “They want to kill you, rape your wife, and eat your children”, it’s an interview I approached with more than the usual trepidation. But in the event he talked candidly of the death of his father, the battles with drinking and smoking that almost killed him, and his wild first meeting with Gonzo journo Hunter S. Thompson, who got him his breakthrough job with Rolling Stone.

During the London Screenwriters’ Festival I also interviewed Doon Mackichan of Smack The Pony and Steve Pemberton of League of Gentlemen and Psychoville; attended a terrific seminar with Graham Linehan of Father Ted and The IT Crowd fame and a very candid talk by David Hare, plus “how-to” lectures by a Brit who’s made it as a sci-fi blockbuster writer in Hollywood and great ones on character, structure, and thriller writing.

I’ve written about it today in The Times (click here), but a single piece doesn’t begin to do justice to the event.

So I’m going to write a series of daily blogs until I’ve shared with you all the great stuff in my notebook. Do keep coming back, and pass the link to any filmy friends.

As Chris Jones, the inspirational founder of the festival likes to say… onward and upward!

Read the first of my daily LSF blogs here, featuring the inimitable Joe Eszterhas

Of Jesus Christ Superstar, Borges, and Alan Moore

18 Oct

The devil has all the best tunes: Tim Minchin as a dreadlocked Judas in the O2 Arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar

I had no idea that a super-sized Jesus Christ Superstar could work so well. The version that filled the O2 Arena last weekend was updated to modern dress: the apostles were recast as hoodie-wearing Occupy protesters in dreadlocks, and the Pharisees as an Illuminati-style cabal; the expulsion of the money-lenders from the temple was reset in a nightclub called The Temple; slogans such as “Rome Lies!” and “Follow The 12!” were daubed on walls and placards.

But it would be an empty spectacle without Tim Minchin. He alone is flat-out extraordinary as Judas; it’s the most passionate performance I have seen in a musical (as well as, on a technical note, the clearest diction). And it’s Judas who has always fascinated me in JSC: the idea that he was a dupe of the divine plan, a patsy set up by God for a pre-destined betrayal, with Jesus’s reluctant consent.

Actually, the South American short story master Borges went further in Ficciones (1944), positing that Jesus had it easy. A little whipping and torture, followed by death on the cross, in exchange for eternal life and the hosannaed worship of millions? Sweet. Whereas Judas, for his part in the drama, is reviled across the ages, his very name becoming a byword for betrayal. Borges’ story argues that Judas, not Jesus, was the son of God; the one who made the true, unheralded sacrifice.

And then there’s Jesus. He is, we are told, God made flesh; as human as he is divine. He can foretell the future, heal the sick, walk on water. He could, presumably, avert his own crucifixion if he chose. And yet he chooses not to, and the agony of that decision is far more powerfully expressed, I feel, in Tim Rice’s lyrics than in Mel Gibson’s blood-thirsty Passion of the Christ. It’s also, kind of, what Alan Moore has spent much of his career doing in reverse: while Moore likes to imagine what it would be like, really like, to be a man made super-powerful, effectively a God, Tim Rice tries to imagine what it would be like, really like, to be a God made man.

I have a soft spot for the musical, I admit. JCS was the only semi-rock record in the house, apart from the Beatles, when I was growing up, and was a powerful point of connection with my late father. He took me to see it in the ‘70s in the West End, as well as the dreary 1973 film version; I subsequently went to a Kabuki version at the Dominion in 1991. This is the best production by far.

And certainly the only one featuring King Herod played by Chris Moyles as a game show host in a scarlet velour suit in which a “Fraud or Lord?” phone-in seals Jesus’ fate. 

LFF gala premiere: Kate Winslet’s Labor Day

15 Oct

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin in Labor Day

Last night was the May Fair Hotel Gala Premiere of Labor Day, starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. It was great to be back on the red carpet – I used to go to all the LFF galas when at Time Out and The Times. Kate Winslet looked radiant in red, though she complained of “pregnancy brain” to one interviewer on the red carpet. What awesome timing, though – to be pregnant while promoting a film called Labor Day!

As to the film itself, it’s nearly brilliant. It has a great set-up: an agoraphobic mum (Kate Winslet) and her young son are forced to drive an escaped con (Josh Brolin) to their home, where he lies low until he can escape. The sense of menace is mixed with a palpable sexual tension as he ties her up “for her own good”, so that she can’t be accused of being his accomplice.

But later, when he unties her and starts doing jobs around the house, it becomes clear that he is not merely a good man, but an absurdly good one, the kind you wouldn’t find outside Mills & Boon (the film, by Jason Reitman, is based on a novel by Joyce Maynard). He fixes the car, the furnace, the garden wall; he cooks, he cleans, he irons with his shirt off; he teaches the son baseball and is kind to his disabled friend. In a faintly ludicrous sequence, reminiscent of a three-handed version of the pottery scene in Ghost, he teaches mother and son to make a peach pie, one of many heavy-handed visual metaphors for the family they are building together. Once the looming menace is replaced with the simpler fear that the police will find him before they can live happily ever after, the film loses much of its tension.

Me interviewing Francesca Cardinale

Me interviewing Francesca Cardinale

And then on to the after-party at the May Fair Hotel, which specialises in putting up stars from the world of film and fashion. Here I bumped into my old Cannes mucker, director Paul Wiffen, always with a stylish hat on his head and a beautiful actress on his arm. This time the young lovely was Francesca Cardinale, niece of the great Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, currently at a top acting school in Rome, opposite Cinecita.

I interviewed Francesca briefly, though between my lack of Italian and her lack of English, all I could glean was that she has a small role in Those Happy Years, an Italian film  well received at the Toronto Film Fest, and showing at the London Film Festival on Oct 18 and 19; and that in Paul Wiffen’s forthcoming secret agent romp SpyFail she plays the daughter of one Maria Gratis Tuttilenotte (geddit?) who is bent on revenge.

Wiffen also says he is on the verge of a casting coup for his secret agent character, Roger Most. I am sworn to secrecy until the ink has dried on the contract, but it’s someone handsome, debonair, ludicrously funny, and richly deserving of another big-screen outing. Watch this space.

The Commitments: a soul survivor on f***ing stage

10 Oct


It’s easy to see why plays should become films: they can, in the wrong hands, fall into the trap of being “stagey”, but the dialogue is necessarily strong and the few location changes make them cheap to film. It’s less easy to see, artistically as opposed to commercially, why so many plays, particularly musicals, are being made out of films.

Billy Elliott is my all-time favourite honourable exception: moving as a film, it is absolute genius as a musical. The dance is integral to the storyline, natch, Elton John’s melodies are as catchy as ever, and the miner’s strike politics come through even louder and clearer.

I had similarly high hopes for The Commitments, which Roddy Doyle has finally adapted for the stage after 20 years of being asked, and they are nearly fulfilled. Here, the music is integral to the story: man puts together 11-piece band to bring soul to Dublin. And Roddy Doyle’s famously caustic wit remains intact; indeed The Commitments has more f***s on its way to musical success than Madonna.

“And, And, exclamation mark And!” says one youth, explaining his band name. “F***, f***, exclamation mark f***!” comes the reply. There is a hilarious audition sequence in which a succession of no-hopers enter, sing one line – eg “Don’t You Want Me Baby?” – and are booted out. The most succinct: “Re-lax!” “F*** Off!”

It’s often been said that f*** is the most versatile word in the English language, and that’s never been better demonstrated than here. Doyle even drops the “C” bomb within the first ten minutes: “What’s the soup like?” “C***ish.” It’s like an inoculation: an initial barrage to inure the audience so that Doyle can later drop even the N-word with impunity. “Do you not get it, lads?” says band leader Jimmy Rabitte in the original 1991 film, in a key speech about the power of soul. “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.” The stage version substitutes the N-word instead. Interesting to see how that will go down in future, though there were scant few black faces in the audience to object.

Overall, I was surprised by how easily the well-heeled West Enders adjusted to the f***s sprinkled around the dialogue like a salty, peppery seasoning. But that begs the question: where’s the meat?

There are good performances all round, but no great ones (special mention though to the mad-bastid skinhead security guard, and to the heavenly voice of the lead singer whose ego threatens to break up the band). There is a love rivalry, but it never really hurts. Most unforgivably, right at the end (without giving too much away) when all seems lost… everything’s suddenly fine again, as though the producers had suddenly cut 20 minutes from the climax.

Ah well. It’s no Billy Elliott, but with several laugh-out-loud moments, some dynamic staging and blistering musical numbers, The Commitments still delivers a f***ing good time.

The Commitments is on at the Palace Theatre, London

The Masks We Face: Rachell Smith distinguishes herself from the Rankin file

7 Oct

Left to right: photographer Rachell Smith, one of the masked models, and make-up artist Khandiz Joni

It’s great when a Big Idea hits you. A Big Idea is simple, so simple that as soon as you say it, people respond warmly. The best film pitches are like that: simple ideas, with heart as well as a twist.

The Masks We Face, an art/photography exhibition on a massive street wall in Shoreditch, is a Big Idea. It consists of giant portraits of 24 people, each of whom is shot with a mask painted on their faces – including new eyes drawn over closed lids, sometimes manga-sized, which looks freakishly real and yet not quite.

At the launch this weekend, photographer Rachell Smith explained how photography is about trying to get to the “real you” – her last exhibition, Beauty Portraits Un-Touched, was of models without any retouching or post-production; now she is using make-up to recognise the fact that we all adopt a mask, a public persona, to make us look better than we really are.

Rachell’s collaborator, make-up artist Khandiz Joni, adds: “Can I let you in on a secret? The masks I drew are their faces.” I look baffled, so she adds: “We asked them to send in pictures of themselves; I based the masks on the expressions they wore in these pictures, then painted them on for Rachell to shoot.”

The results, as you can see for yourself if you walk down Great Eastern Street before October 11, are stunning.


Rachell, incidentally, worked as Rankin’s assistant for three years before striking out on her own. Rankin used to shoot our Time Out covers for mate’s rates in the ‘90s when he was starting out (I particularly remember his North v South London dual covers; Kylie in boxing gear, with just ten minutes for the shoot; and saving our arses on the night before we went to press with an improvised cover shoot for London Fashion Week — no clothes, so the model was draped in a Union Jack tea towel).

ImageRachell, in turn, has done some fantastic fashion and portrait shoots for The Book, the student glossy I’ve been helping out on till recently. Having dropped in on one of Rachell’s cover shoots (right), I can honestly say she is AMAZING. Huge positive energy, great at putting subjects at their ease, overflowing with ideas, but also a dedicated perfectionist who gets everything just so.

Remember the name.