We’re not done with Joe Eszterhas yet! At the London Screenwriters’ Festival, the wildly entertaining raconteur discussed some of his less successful projects, and the lessons to be learned. From the crazed fiasco that is Showgirls to the even more crazed fiasco that is Mel Gibson, these are the best bits:
Showgirls, 1995. Lesson: don’t do so much “research” you forget about the movie.
“I’ve always done a lot of research for my films. For Showgirls, Paul and I went to Vegas and did a lot of research – that was before I met Naomi here! [Aha, that kind of research.] Paul accused me of being relentless about it. But yeah, we really got nailed both commercially and critically for Showgirls. The problem is it was an NC17, and I desperately wanted it to be an R.
“The movie is over the top – flagrantly, violently, viciously over the top [laughter]. It’s globally over the top [laughter]. Perhaps that’s why it’s found a cult audience. I saw the movie last about 12 years ago, at a special screening in New York, where the audience were dressing up and reciting lines of dialogue. So many people over the years have come up and whispered to me, ‘I love Showgirls’. It is what it is. It became something I never intended, but if so many people found something they love in it, God bless ‘em even if I didn’t intend it.”
The Maccabees, unproduced. Lesson: if Mel calls, hang up.
“I was commissioned to do a piece [Eszterhas always says ‘piece’, not script or screenplay] on The Maccabees for Mel Gibson. As I researched, I thought it was one of the most profound and moving stories about Jewish independence I had ever read. I asked Mel why he wanted to do it, he said, ‘Because I think I should.’ We took it to be a sign of repentance for his anti-Semitic statements, which were undeniable.
“Then one day, he said, ‘What I really want to do with this movie is,’ quote, ‘convert the Jews to Christianity.’
“I came to realise there is a dark well of wild-eyed anger and hate there towards people he has worked with, and an overall volcanic rage. Mel needs an intervention. We were in his house in Costa Rica once when he went off completely, screaming at the guests, knocking over totem poles – my 15-year-old son was so frightened he grabbed a butcher’s knife from the kitchen and slept with it under the bed. But I loved the story, so I decided I would write it in my way, and let the chips fall where they may.
“Then it hit the fan.
“Part of the experience that was very painful is I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever done. It was very violent in the fight scenes, but it ended with the words ‘Never again’, which had an echo across the ages. I was fired because Mel didn’t like the script, and I can’t now do anything with it because he commissioned me. It truly was a tragic and heart-breaking human experience on all levels.”
Basic Instinct 2, 2006. Lesson: take the money, do nothing.
“The executive in charge thought that Basic Instinct was misogynistic, and she wasn’t going to let the sequel be. So they made me an offer I could easily refuse. My deal on Basic Instinct called for me to get $2m for any sequel, whether or not I worked on it. They offered me $2m. For the sequel to the biggest-grossing movie of 1992 [NB: he often claims it’s the biggest, but it’s actually No9 domestically or No4 worldwide], they offer me the same as I would get if I did no work at all. Hollywood does these screwy things. They’ve got the golden egg and they screw it up.” [Basic Instinct 2, which Joe had no hand in, grossed only $39m worldwide. Sharon Stone’s salary alone cost a third of that.]
Betrayed, 1988. Lesson: don’t cheat the margins.
“My original script for Betrayed was too long – so I just made the page margins wider! That made the right page-count. I got a call half-way through filming from the producer, saying ‘Come up here, we’re screwed, the film’s going to be too long because the margins are too wide, so we have to cut’ – from what hasn’t yet been shot. It was the ugliest creative process. I never cheated the margins again!”
Original Sin, unproduced. Lesson: the postman always fakes twice.
“I wrote a piece called Original Sin, and they had trouble putting it together. I’m in Hawaii a year later, and I get this desperate call that a scriptwriter had sold this script to a TV company – he was paid $350,000 or something. And it was my physical script: I always type on a manual typewriter, he’d just put his name on the top!
“I discovered it was a mailman who’d taken a screenwriting course, and they gave out scripts as samples, and one was Original Sin. He just Xeroxed it and put his name on it. The final pinpoint I love is that they discovered that a couple of years before he had tried to sell another of my scripts, and this one he couldn’t sell – but then it was a film called Sacred Cows, about the President having sex with a cow!”
More Joe Eszterhas: click here for his advice to screenwriters; click here for the origins of Basic Instinct; click here for his blow-by-blow live commentary. NEW: for my one-on-one interview, from his dying father to Hunter S Thompson and his syringe, click here.