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.”