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