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Article by Peter Bradshaw on screenwriting legend and all around wild man, Joe Eszterhas.




At 62 years old, having earned an estimated 30 million dollars from writing screenplays such as the erotic thriller Basic Instinct, and with a brandname-recognition value that most other screenwriters can only dream about, Joe Eszterhas sure does have the bragging rights. Or does he? Eszterhas hasn’t actually had a picture made for a while and maybe his great period is behind him: the glory days when this legendary bear of a man would terrify executives by taking out a gigantic hunting knife and stabbing it into the conference table before telling them why he was right and they were wrong, when he would bellow with rage at any Armani-wearing asshole who presumed to give him “notes” on a draft and when, as he cheerfully recalls in this book, Eszterhas gave Robert Harmon, the director of one of his scripts, a heart attack with a single, vituperative memo. The author growls: “Harmon recovered and went on to botch the movie, just as I knew he would.”

Later, Eszterhas describes how he addressed a possible agent for his book-writing (his autobiography, Hollywood Animal, came out in 2004). “‘I want you,’ I said, ‘to kill for me!’ The agent, Ed Victor, urbane, sophisticated and very literary, blanched, and looked like he was having cardiac arrhythmia.” At least Victor stayed on his feet and out of hospital.

In a business where politeness and a horror of “inappropriate” behaviour is all, and where the writer has in any case always been a supplicant figure, Eszterhas has formidable self-belief: “A gaffer on the Betrayed set told me he had an idea about my script that he wanted to discuss with me. I grabbed him by his lapels, bounced him off the wall, and hit him in the liver with a beautiful left hook.”

These days, what distresses Eszterhas is the flourishing motivational-screenwriting seminar racket, and people such as Robert McKee, who, without ever having written anything resembling a hit movie, gives lectures on how to do it, in the process making real money and moreover having real crowds of attractive young women hanging on his every word. And it’s Eszterhas’s legendary paydays which created the market for this snake-oil. So his new book, a punchy, belligerent, sometimes banal but often hilarious collection of anecdotes and pointers, is an attempt to deride these parasites while at the same time muscling in on their territory with his own fantastically aggressive “advice”.

It is the literary equivalent of priapism mixed with anger non-management: his fierce bons mots are like a drinker’s opinions – not that Eszterhas needs to drink, particularly. That exclamation mark at the end of the title indicates precisely the sort of volume-increase that would get fainthearted studio-heads opening their chequebooks.

He is not interested in three-act story structures or narrative arcs; he doesn’t do obstacles overcome, life-lessons learned, or redemption. Or at any rate he’s not interested in telling you how to do it. But amid all the grumpy, reactionary stuff, the lumbering jokes at the expense of Michael Moore and the PC brigade, amid the mad and pointless war-stories about professional frenemies such as Michael Ovitz or Sylvester Stallone, Eszterhas does give some shrewd guidance. A writer needs Sitzfleisch, he says, sitting-flesh, the ability just to put your bum on the chair and write. He says you must write six pages a day, for 20 days, for a first draft, and there’s plenty more solid factual material like this. He has a fierce respect for work and productivity.

It’s his other gems that catch the attention more. “If you’re masturbating and writing a script,” he says sagely, “stop masturbating (but keep writing)”. Was it really that way round when he penned Showgirls, his anti-masterpiece of smut? He claims he writes with a talismanic object on his desk, and for Showgirls it was “a pair of his wife’s black lace panties”. Despite being legendary for being a writer who actually slept with the leading lady – Sharon Stone – uxorious Eszterhas specifies his wife’s underwear and, old-school guy that he is, unselfconsciously uses the word “panties”.

He’s at his funniest when hammering suckups among the writing fraternity who kowtow to directors and stars, letting them have “input”. With a straight face, he quotes Ron Bass, screenwriter on Rain Man: “I wasn’t smart enough to get it right away, but Steven Spielberg was extremely patient with me. He talked with me until I realised that this was not only something to get behind but really a much better way than I’d been going. Then we started to meet with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise [ …] I can’t tell you how much Dustin contributed and how much Steven contributed.” Addressing an imaginary class of would-be writers, Eszterhas remarks acidly, of Bass’s performance: “You don’t have to bend over this low, or stick it up in the air this high …”

A brutal metaphor, but clearly the one Eszterhas thinks is the most appropriate for the way Hollywood deals with its writers. Who is anyone to say that he’s not right? His whole career has been about getting the producers and studio-heads to bend over for a change. An unedifying spectacle, maybe, but an entertaining one.


Brian M Logan

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