Want to be a Screenwriter? Get out of LA


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TriStar Pictures

Joe Eszterhas hasn't been nominated for an Academy Award, but he still knows about making entertaining and successful pictures. He's the legendary and infamous screenwriter whose movies have generated more than a $1 billion in ticket sales.

At the time of his films Basic Instinct, Sliver, and Showgirls, it wasn't unusual to hear Eszterhas attacked as "the devil" and even "the most reviled man in America." He and his movies were audacious and unapologetic.

But that was then, and this is now.

A life-threatening battle with throat cancer led the one-time notorious reveler to renounce his excesses and rediscover the faith of his childhood, Catholicism, a journey he chronicled in two acclaimed memoirs, Hollywood Animal (2003) and Crossbearer (2008). His 2006 book, The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God!, is regarded as an essential (and principled) guide for navigating the movie business.

Spend a few minutes with Eszterhas, and the man whose script made Sharon Stone an erotic superstar seems a distant memory. Among other projects, he is at work on a picture that will bring the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Catholic icon, to the silver screen.

Eszterhas's vantage point is also heartland America: nine years ago, he packed up his wife and their four sons and moved from Point Dume in Malibu to suburban Cleveland, Ohio, seeking a sanity he says is unavailable in the movie capital.

Now 65, Eszterhas was interviewed on a visit to Los Angeles, in his suite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. After a short time, and on the eve of the Oscars, it becomes clear that Joe Eszterhas does not need Hollywood. But Hollywood just might need Joe Eszterhas.

The Devil's Guide to Hollywood is dedicated to your wife, Naomi—and also a man called Jeno Mate. Who is he?

Jeno Mate brought me to America. At the beginning of my film career, I thought that if I ever won an Oscar, I would make a little speech about Jeno Mate. That Oscar speech looks unlikely, so I dedicated the book to him instead.

What was your relationship with him?

My family and I left Hungary in 1945, and we lived in refugee camps in Austria until 1950. But we needed a sponsor to come to the U.S. We finally got one, and it was a man called Jeno Mate. He sponsored hundreds of Hungarians to come to America. When we arrived, we went to see him. This huge, wild-haired, barrel-chested man came to the door, very Gypsy-looking, and yelled, "What do you want?! Do you want money?! I don't have any money!" My father said, "No, I just want to thank you, sir." He shook our hands and slipped my dad a $20 bill.

You have a bumper sticker on your Suburban, "What This Country Needs is More Men Like John Wayne." Why do you think the Duke would be good for America?

Well, movie critics don't like John Wayne's politics, but I think he was a terrific actor. He was a natural. I love cowboy movies, and he's certainly my favorite cowboy. But John Wayne was much more than that. He's the personification of the rugged, all-American man. That's out-of-style these days.

One of the major themes in your last three books is your great affection for America. Do you think other screenwriters are as passionate as you are about this country?

Look, I'm an immigrant, and the way an immigrant can love this country is unique. I came to America when I was six years old. My family was dirt poor. I didn't have any contact with anybody—so I couldn't network. But my father kept saying to me, "Just do the work, and if you do it well, this is a big wide-open country—trust that you can get somewhere." I followed his advice, and that's exactly what happened.

What was your big break?

Well, I went to Ohio University. I was a terrible student, but in 1966 I won the National Writing Competition sponsored by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. I was selected as the outstanding college journalist in the country. I went to the White House and was awarded a gold medal.

That must have been quite a moment, especially given your humble beginnings.

President Johnson was busy at the ranch, so in his absence, Vice President Hubert Humphrey did the honors. Hubert—God bless him—treated me as though I'd just come off the boat. He took me around the White House and showed me the portraits. Look, Joe, that's Dolly Madison. As you may know, she was the wife of President James Madison. Vice President Humphrey was a very warm man. Because of that success, I became a reporter.

How did journalism lead to Hollywood?

Editors at Random House read some of my stories and suggested I write a book. I wrote Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse, about a kid in Missouri who shot up the town and killed himself. It was nominated for a National Book Award, and a studio executive read it and contacted me. He said, "I think this book is very cinematic. Do you have any interest in writing scripts?" So I wrote one called F.I.S.T., which was about the labor movement, and I just kept writing scripts. Some failed, some didn't. I was very fortunate to have hit movies, and I even got to the point where I could auction scripts to studios. But the truth is, none of this could have happened anywhere else except in America.

What made you move to Ohio?

My wife and I looked at each other and said, "We've had this great fun creating four little boys, and now they're growing up. How are we going to raise them here in Los Angeles?" Once, when Naomi was at the playground in Malibu, she overheard ten-year-olds talking about gangbangs. There were drug needles in the park. A heroin problem among 13-year-olds.

In your memoir, Hollywood Animal, you have a scene where Sean Penn cautioned you about raising a family here.

He came out to our house in Malibu because he wanted me to adapt Charles Bukowski's book, The Knockout Artist. Our oldest son, Joey, was about four, a gorgeous child with tussled blonde hair. Sean asked, "Does he surf?" I couldn't understand why he was asking this about a child, but Sean explained that he grew up right there in our very neighborhood with Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, and Ralph Macchio.

Is there something wrong with surfing?

I used to jokingly say that I didn't want my kids to grow up to be surfers, and there's a certain amount of truth in that statement. I really wanted them to have a normal American, familial, old-value upbringing. "You may not be interested in where the Viper Room is," Sean Penn said, "but I guarantee that when Joey gets to be a teenager, he's going to be interested in it." When he left that day, Naomi and I were frightened. We said to each other, "We have to do something about this."

So what's the impact of Ohio?

They get a real sense of what this country's about. They live completely differently than they did here in L.A. In Ohio, on the Fourth of July, we counted 300 flags within two miles of our house. There's a real sense of patriotism. My wife and I wanted to give the boys a solid upbringing as opposed to having them become surfers on Westward Beach.

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Presented by

John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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