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.