“They Want to Kill You, Rape Your Wife, and Eat Your Children.” This was the heading of the chapter on critics in Joe Eszterhas’s wildly entertaining warts-and-all book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood. It made this critic laugh when I read it in 2006; less so when I re-read it the night before interviewing him!
Eszterhas is 68, his voice is still hoarse from the throat cancer he overcame in 2001, he has a bad foot (his wife Naomi says she told him not to wear those cowboy boots), and he had just given a two-hour Q&A and a near-two-hour script session with six lucky writers at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. I was expecting a rough ride.
In the event, he was a pussycat. A very large pussycat, admittedly: when I had my photo taken with him, I had to reach up to fit my arm round his broad shoulders, and his white hair is more leonine than feline. He even signed my book afterwards, “To Dominic, who asked me smart questions. I enjoyed our conversation.” The old smoothie…
Still in his own words, these are the highlights of our chat, from Hunter Thompson’s syringe to the death of his father:
On his warts-and-all books: “It’s all in the spirit of light-heartedness. I like to go for the humour. Julia Phillips’ book [You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again] is very bitter; the Joe Eszterhas character in all these books is a very human character. I don’t spare myself. The only way it works is if you’re as blunt and open about your own failings as those you are writing about.”
On his next project: “I’m writing a book, a big novel [his first non-fiction book] about the immigrants and refugees and becoming American. I was an immigrant, six when I came out from Hungary. English is my second language. Some critics say I butcher it. When I was a kid, I stole cars, I carried a knife, I almost killed another kid with a baseball bat. I was a D student, but I did win almost every writing competition.”
On disowning his father after discovering, late in life, that he had collaborated with the Nazis: “It’s the biggest mistake I ever made. I thought that some things are unforgivable, but where I was wrong was not to see him when he was dying. I couldn’t have done the things I did in life without my dad’s support; my mother was schizophrenic, and it got worse and worse. I was right to indicate to him how reprehensible what he had done was, but not to see him when he was dying in the nursing home, crying out my name in Hungarian [he is tearing up here], I will regret until my dying day.”
On leaving his then wife for Naomi, and moving back to his home town of Cleveland. “I really lost my balance in LA. The seduction and glamour of what ultimately I viewed as evil [he is a born-again Christian, though not a “lobotomised” one] is overwhelming, and I only recovered when I met Naomi. We married in 1994; I met her in 1993 when my father died.
“Naomi is Italian/Polish, she grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, 60 miles from Cleveland where I grew up. We were both journalism majors. Our backgrounds were so similar. When I walked into her dad’s house, it was just like my dad’s: the La-Z-Boy armchair, the paintings, the crucifix on the wall.”
On why his fingernails are bitten beyond the quick, like mine. “I had chain-smoked since I was 12. The doctors told me I had to stop smoking and drinking at the same time. My then wife told me to bite my fingernails instead. I stopped for nine years, then the doctors told me that, for cardiac purposes, I could have a glass or two of wine, but never a cigarette.”
On his unusual first meeting with a bare-chested Hunter S Thompson, who recommended Eszterhas to Rolling Stone magazine. “When I was a journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer I covered a shooting in a bar by biker gangs. I wrote these articles, and Hunter read one, and sent me a note which said: ‘I read your article and it really pissed me off. Now there are two of us who can write about biker gangs.’
“I was fired from my newspaper when I wrote a critical article about my Editor over the selling of the Mai Lai photos [from the now notorious Vietnam war massacre, which Eszterhas got hold of first]. Hunter shared some of my writing with Jan Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, and he said come write an article about narcotics. My first day there, Rolling Stone has a big party – understand that I’m just a kid from the Mid-West with a fake leather jacket; I don’t know these fancy New York parties. There’s a lot of shit there, dope, and over there I see this guy surrounded by people on the floor. It’s Hunter.
“He’s bare-chested, sticking a gigantic hypodermic needle into his navel. He turns around, sees me, and says, ‘Hey, want some of this?’ I say, ‘What the hell is it?’ ‘Ebogaine,’ he says. I hadn’t even heard of it, some crazy shit Hunter found.”
On whether he’s still “got it” in Hollywood: his last produced feature film (apart from one in Hungary) was in 1997. “The truth is, it’s very tough to be a screenwriter or director in that town when you’re pushing 70. The last piece I wrote was called Desire, and there’s another piece I’m doing now, but I’m smart enough to know that I’ll write something and sometimes it will get made, and sometimes it won’t.”
On whether it’s got even harder for scriptwriters since his day. “It’s gone backwards in several ways. There are groups of writers now under the aegis of the director, and now it’s ‘A Film By’ the director. In the ‘90s, if you got one person who liked it, they would make it. Now it’s a committee. That’s why we’re being fed all this candy-cane shit.”
And that’s all from Battlin’ Joe Eszterhas. I have four more wildly entertaining blog posts about him, starting here. After a Sunday break, I will post some more daily blogs of London Screenwriters’ Festival highlights… come back on Monday!