Tag Archives: Showgirls

LSF #5: From Showgirls to mad Mel, Joe Eszterhas’s glorious disasters

1 Nov
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Cult: Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls

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.”

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Cu*t: Mel Gibson in two police mug shots: after anti-Semitic remarks and drunk-driving in 2006, and booked for alleged battery of his former girlfriend in 2011

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.”

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Did you know Mel Gibson went on to make a film called The Beaver? Why Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2 reminds me of that, I don’t know

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.]

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Debra Winger and Tom Berenger, Betrayed by the margins

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

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LSF #2: Joe Eszterhas, the $4m man, on screenwriting

29 Oct
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Joe Eszterhas (left) with the winner of his icepick award, Eran Creevy (maker of Shifty and Welcome to the Punch), and London Screenwriters’ Festival founder Chris Jones

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