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 screenmusings.org for the screengrabs.