Want to be a Screenwriter? Get out of LA

Joe Eszterhas, author of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, on why he left Hollywood for Ohio and why he loves Zsa Zsa Gabor



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.

You've actually written that L.A. is a separate country from the rest of America.

It's almost impossible to have a normal life here because everyone wants to suck on the sugar tit of the movie industry. Once, when I lived in Malibu, I went all the way up to Ventura to buy a car. The manager immediately recognized me as a screenwriter, and I wound up having to talk for two hours about this business. His uncle was a costume designer and his aunt was a casting director.

So is it true that everyone in Los Angeles has a script they want to get produced?

They all want to be screenwriters. Before I moved to L.A., I used to travel here for meetings, and I stopped telling people what I did because they came back to my hotel with scripts. They pitched me ideas. It got to the point that when a cab driver would ask what I did for a living, I would just answer, "Oh, this, that, and the other." One driver looked back at me and asked, "What does that mean, a criminal enterprise?" I should have just told him, "Yes—I'm a screenwriter."

How different is flyover country?

If I went to the movies here, I'd be standing in line and people would start asking me how they could get an agent. Back home in Ohio, people say to me, "You never should have gone out there in the first place." Even better, when I was recovering from cancer, they would tell me, "I said a prayer for you," which really meant a lot.

You frequently write about Zsa Zsa Gabor. In fact, you say, "My lifelong scholarly interest has been Zsa Zsa Gabor." Explain your fascination.

When I was a boy, she was the great, grand figure in the Hungarian community. It didn't hurt my attraction to her that she was also a terrific sexpot and had wonderful curves. To a 12-year-old boy, that meant a lot in all kinds of psychosexual ways that I won't even go into. Basically, she was this grand, larger-than-life figure—so I made her a Yoda figure, a guru, in my book. She has some of the best advice for curing depression that I've ever read: "Take a bath and wash your hair." Putting her in my book is a Valentine to her.

Did you get to know her personally?

I met her once, at a social function in Beverly Hills. A couple of weeks later, I called and invited her to dinner. There was this long pause and she finally replied, "Oh, Mr. Eszterhas, you're far too dangerous a man to go to dinner with." [laughs]

You say that the most important recommendation you can give screenwriters is to "learn about real life—hopes, loves, aspirations, and the dreams of human beings around you."

That's right. Don't get caught up in other movies. That's why so many films seem alike. Most scriptwriters focus on seeing other films. Instead, learn about real people. This is a big country, and people really do exist in places outside of California, New York, and Massachusetts.

Will that help generate better characters?

Well, the dialogue in many movies really doesn't reflect the way people speak in Ohio, Minnesota, Texas, and Kentucky. Writers need to learn about our country. Find out what concerns Americans. Learn how they talk. I don't see a whole lot of that up on the screen.

You were once paid $4 million for writing just the outline for a movie idea. For people not in the movie business, explain how one gets such a job.

I had just come off writing Basic Instinct, which was the hit movie of 1992. It ultimately grossed about $600 million around the world. When you have that kind of success with a movie, Hollywood literally hurls money at you. Executives think you've somehow grabbed magic—and they hope some of it will go into your next film.

Did the picture ever get produced?

Yes—but it wasn't the outline or script that I ultimately wrote. A director called Mike Figgis re-wrote the script to the point where I only had one scene left. There was an entirely new plot about a man who had AIDS and his friendships. I said to the studio, New Line Pictures, "That's not my script. Take my name off of it because it's not mine." The people there said, "Oh, for God's sake, don't do that. That will cause a real stink in town. We don't want you to criticize the movie before it gets out. Plus, we paid you four million bucks." I said, "Yes, you paid me four million, but you took what I'd written and turned it inside out. I won't criticize the movie, but I'm not giving any of that money back, thank you very much."

So what was the movie?

It was called One Night Stand and starred Wesley Snipes, Robert Downey, Jr., and Nastassja Kinski. It's an interesting case. Writers are re-written all the time, but scripts that sell for $4 million aren't usually completely re-written by a director who comes in and says, "I'm going to do a polish." Interestingly, the movie died a disaster.

If you had been a screenwriter in the studio system era, do you think your career would have flourished?

No. The old studio writers were really slaves in a factory system. They clocked in. They had secretaries who were spies for the executives. And they had to work on five projects at the same time.

You're really the first screenwriter who had success with a script written entirely on speculation.

Actually, Bill Goldman sold Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as a spec script, and that was in 1969.

What was your first spec success?

My friend Jim Morgan and I got an idea for a piece about a fellow who works in the service department of a car dealership and goes into politics because nobody in the city government will fix the streetlight in front of his house. We sent it to my agent, Guy McElwaine, and he said, "Don't write anything until you get paid for it! You don't do specs. Amateurs do specs."

And you changed all that.

Well, I told Guy, "That's crazy. Why go through the pitching process? Why do we have to convince people that we're going to write something good? Why try to describe what we're going to write instead of sitting down and doing it?" He said he didn't want us to ever do this again, that the script would be difficult to sell, and the whole venture would hurt our reputations. But Guy took the script out, and he sold it to Warner Brothers for $500,000, which Jim and I split.

That became the signature Joe Eszterhas style.

I thought, I don't care what you're supposed to do. This is fun. I can do it myself. I don't have to chitchat with anyone. I can just launch a script like some kind of missile and see where it goes. So I started doing it all the time. Guy finally said, "All right."

"The Blind Side" has made $250 million, but its success took Hollywood by surprise. Will the top people here ever get the message that there's a market for movies about faith?

There's never been any respect in modern Hollywood for faith and belief in God. In the older Hollywood, there were movies such as The Song of Bernadette and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Those executives either knew there was a market out there—or they didn't piss on it.

It's been six years since The Passion of the Christ was independently released. What kind of impact did it have?

That movie was brilliant and powerful—and it wasn't anti-Semitic. I've written two pictures about anti-Semitism, so I have more than a casual interest in it. I've dedicated a good part of my life to fighting it. But I think it's a horrendous tragedy what Mel Gibson said in that drunken driving incident because, in a sense, he assassinated his own movie.

Can talking about faith hurt one's Hollywood career?

Well, it's a great act of courage to come out publicly. I met actor Stephen Baldwin, who went through a religious transformation. He's devoting his life to God in a kind of secular ministry. This is gutsy. Many executives view religion as a kind of psychosis.

It's not the path for career advancement.

George Clooney and Johnny Depp didn't hurt their careers by trashing America when they were abroad. That especially angers me because they were playing to the choir. Those comments made them more popular in the industry, and got them more jobs. But Stephen Baldwin saying something about his faith might really hurt him.

In your books, you've written about Robert Evans, the former Paramount executive who produced your script, Sliver, in 1993. Given your relationship with him, and your interest in politics, did you ever talk to Evans about the story that he purportedly advised Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in his confirmation hearings?

I've never heard it.

In 1998, Evans told the New Yorker that he assisted Thomas when Thomas was before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. "I helped write his speech about [the hearings] all being Kafkaesque, which, frankly, got him in," said Evans.

Well, I would have heard that story because I was around Bob so much, and Bob loves talking. He used to walk around with a White House hat because he and President George H.W. Bush's Press Secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, were at least acquaintances, if not friends. But if Bob Evans had such a profound role in history, he wouldn't have needed any urging to tell the story. [laughs] Incidentally, if Clarence Thomas went to Bob for that kind of advice, he would have been a dimwit fool.

In your 2000 book American Rhapsody, you were very critical of President Clinton, whose election you once viewed as the triumph of your generation. Have your views of him changed?

My problem with Clinton is that he lied to the American people. He looked us in the eye and lied. That's the ballgame. I don't care what they try to say he did, and how [good] the economy was. What he did violates the ultimate basic faith we have in the President of the United States. There's no getting around that.

Your last picture, in 2006, was Children of Glory, about the 1956 Melbourne Olympics water polo match where the Hungarians defeated the Soviets in the semi-finals. How did that script come about?

Andy Vajna, who produced the Terminator movies, came to me and asked, "Do you have an interest in writing about the Hungarian Revolution?" I told him that I was a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland when Hungarians rose up against the Russian tanks with sticks, stones, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. They actually drove the Russians out of the country.

And for a brief time, Hungary was free.

Yes. I was with my family, listening to Radio Free Europe. We were hugging each other and my parents were saying, "The country's free, we're going home!" I had some issues with going back because I was thinking, What about Elvis, the Cleveland Indians, and all the stuff that I love here? Well, as it turned out, we didn't go because there was a bloodbath. The Russians came back in, and totally blew Budapest to smithereens.

And then the Hungarians beat them in the Olympics.

Yes. It was a big upset. Sports Illustrated said there was more blood in that pool than water at the end of the game. This tiny little victory served as a kind of puny revenge for the horror that had taken place at Budapest two weeks earlier.

What was your process for writing that script?

I hadn't written anything in quite awhile because of my illness. I had stopped drinking and smoking and was going through my own inner turmoil. But this subject was close to my heart and I wanted to do it. I went to Hungary, interviewed the people who were involved in the Revolution and were on the water polo team, and then came back and wrote it. Andy liked the script, and filmed it with a young director named Krisztina Goda. It stars Hungary's best actress, Kata Dobo. It's a sprawling historical piece that really works. I think it's the definitive cinematic account of what happened in the Hungarian Revolution.

You've been raising your children in Ohio for several years now. Has the change from L.A. really affected your children?

Yes. The school bus comes right up to the driveway here. When the kids have show-and-tell at school, they take an owl's nest. In L.A., when Joey's kindergarten had show-and-tell, Jim Cameron's son brought in his dad's Oscar statuette. Joey came home and said, "Dad, where's your Oscar?" That really pissed me off. [laughs] Maybe that's the real reason I left California.

John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.
Sean Coons is a writer in Los Angeles.