An immigrant from a poor family, the “Basic Instinct” screenwriter became a budding reporter on the front lines of the civil rights movement. Later, he moved to Hollywood where he became the highest paid screenwriter of all time.
Add to that a battle with cancer, a move to Christian faith and a family he can’t stop raving about, and Eszterhas is someone you want to hear.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with the man recently. Make sure to check out his new website called joeunchained.com. The site features Eszterhas’ latest thoughts on everything from writing to politics.
In the ’90s, you obviously were famous for selling a lot of spec scripts, a lot of original ideas, and not all of them made it to the silver screen. I was wondering, are there any that weren’t made that still gnaw at you today, that you’d still like to see turned into movies? Say someone digs it up, calls you, and says, ‘I want to make this.’
There’s one that’s an absolutely legendary Hollywood script. I had a three picture deal with MGM, UA (United Artists), and Irwin Winkler, and the first one was “Betrayed,” and the second was “Music Box.” And the third one was supposed to be a political piece based on Rupert Murdoch. I got into this, and I was just bored with the whole Murdoch persona and this s***, so I wrote a piece. It was essentially a spec piece, but it was within this three picture deal, called “Sacred Cows.”
Oh, I was hoping you’d say that.
(Laughs) So, I write this thing and Irwin says, ‘well, what happened to media mogul?’ which was the Murdoch piece, and I said, ‘well, I just wasn’t inspired to do it.’ And he starts to laugh and he says, ‘this is probably the funniest piece I’ve read, but no one’s going to make this. Trust me. No one’s going to make this.’ And you know the backdrop, right? I don’t have to tell you what it’s about?
Yup. – For Readers: “Sacred Cows” is the story of a presidential election rocked by a scandalous photo with one of the candidates in a compromising position with a farm animal – I’ll let you guess which one.
Okay, so Irwin, my agent Guy McElwaine, who was like my rabbi and older brother, I gave it to Guy, and Guy reads it and he calls me and says, ‘I can’t stop laughing,’ he said. ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to make this thing. I think you pushed the envelope too far. But, I’ll tell you what,’ he used to represent Steven Spielberg, so he sends it to Steven. I said, ‘you’re going to send it to Steven, of all people?’ And he said, ‘Ya, let me send it to him.’
So, he sends it to him. And Steven responds and says, ‘I love this. I want to direct it.’ And he already has ideas about music being from the Marine Corps Band and all this stuff, so I’m thrilled, you know?
And a little time goes by and Steven calls me and he says, ‘well, you know, I’ve sent this to some people and they’re horrified and I thought I’m going to get Stanley Kubrick to produce it with Irwin.’ I thought, alright, he has a kind of umbrella, and I said OK. So, Stanley Kubrick writes a note to Steven that Steven sends on to me. The note says, ‘I’ve laughed more with this piece than with any script I’ve read, but I’m not going to get within a thousand miles of it. Thank you very much, but no thank you.’
OK, so it’s a long story, but I’ll try to shorten it. Steven finally passes, says, ‘I just can’t do this.’ And then a bunch of people get involved. Milos Forman’s going to direct it. I do a draft for Milos where we actually go to India for a part of it. His best friend was Vaclav Havel, the president of Czechoslovakia and the playwright. Vaclav was in this country on some kind of a tour.
So, I do the draft, and Milos loves the draft. He gives to Vaclav and Vaclav said to him, ‘Milos, you must not do this. You must not do this because your career will end.’ Now, at the same time that they’re talking, Vaclav says, ‘this guy’s Hungarian, right?’ And Milos says, ‘yes.’ And Havel goes, ‘let me tell you a story about Hungarians. If you see a Hungarian on the street, go up to him and slap him. He will know why.’…
So, Milos passes. He says, ‘I’m very sorry. I can’t do this.’ A whole bunch of other directors come into it. Blake Edwards, Edward James Olmos, Michael Lehman and more. And, ultimately, what happens is that the movie is never made, and I think I wrote this thing in ‘89, so a lot of years have gone by.
Recently, in the last couple years, I’m having dinner with Mel Gibson and we somehow start talking about ‘Sacred Cows.’ And Gibson jumps up from the table and goes, ‘my fucking God! They wanted me to play that part! You wrote that thing?’ I said, ‘yes, I did.’ But, he nearly circumnavigated the table….so, there it is.
I’d love to get it made at some point because I think in some ways it was way, way ahead of its time, and I think you could get away with doing a Capra-esque comedy like that today.
Definitely. I would love to see that come out today.
(Laughs) There’s a French documentarian that wrote a letter that Franz (Eszterhas’ website’s producer) checked out and said, ‘this guy’s very well known in France.’ and he wants to do a documentary about “Sacred Cows” never having been made.
I’d like to see that too.
That’d be fun. That’d be fun.
So, “Sacred Cows” is a perfect example that you wrote a lot of original scripts, spec scripts in the ’90s, and it seems like, if you look back at the ’90s, studios were a little more keen to spend money developing original ideas with writers like you. Today it’s kind of swung to everything needs to have a modestly well known IP name to be made.
Obviously, you have the website and you’ve had a lot of success with autobiographies, so are there still goals you have left with fiction? Are there still Joe Eszterhas screenplays or novels you want to put out there?
I do. I don’t feel quite the…I’m 72, so I don’t feel quite that animalistic drive. I’m caught up with my children and with Naomi [Eszterhas’ wife] and my faith. But, yes, of course I would. But, you know, when you have four boys in the process of growing and I have a couple other grown kids, then the priorities shift, especially when you’ve been through the kind of Christian conversion that I’ve been through. And the cancer and the no smoking and the no drinking, priorities change. My family’s had a huge effect on me.
I love this. Somebody came up to me at a grocery store and said, ‘I’ve seen you. I know you. Who are you?’ And I’m just smiling. And she goes, ‘I know who you are. You’re the crossbearer at Holy Angel’s Church and you go to all the little league games.’ (laughs) I said, ‘you’re right. That’s who I am.’
I read “Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith” and you talk a lot about your faith and about your family. Have you found that now when you sit down to write, does that make your writing different? Does it influence you in a different way?
There seem to be two very different personalities, and Naomi has a lot of fun with this because she says, ‘one is a bad boy’ and she says, ‘I’m happy to see you’re still a bad boy at your age.’ I say, ‘thank you.’ And then she says there’s the person that writes the more emotional stuff. You know, I’ve written scripts of ‘Crossbearer’ and a piece I like a lot about Our Lady of Guadalupe which Mark Burnett and Roma Downey bought.
There’s a great song it always reminds me of. It’s a Townes Van Zandt song and the title of it is, ‘Two Girls,’ and he says, ‘one’s from heaven and one’s from down below. One I love with all my heart, but one I do not know.’ (laughs) And it says a lot to me.
Are there any other recent movies or are there any screenwriters that get you excited, that drag you out to the movies?
Well, it’s very tough with screenwriters because most don’t have a body of work. They have one or two movies and you can’t really judge the body of work. I like the guy who wrote “Hell or High Water.” He also wrote the drug movie that was really good.
“Sicaro,” yup. And I think his name is Sheridan [Taylor Sheridan]. I think he’s very interesting and I like his work. In terms of movies, I mean, there are really few and they’re rare. Something that I really love, I loved “Hell or High or High Water.” I loved, and few people did, “Hands of Stone.”
And I very much liked “Sully.” I just saw it over the weekend, and I thought it was beautiful, but it’s tough to name them and remember them because most blend into this…and I’ve seen this because my kids…this sort of bland tentpole, lowest common denominator kind of thing. In my opinion.
I’m making my way through “Hollywood Animal” right now and loving it. It’s probably one of the better memoirs about Hollywood. At one point, you go over some headlines that were put out about you in the ’90s. I mean, some people went as far as to, I guess, comically suggest you were the devil.
So, I wanted to ask you, you had movies like “Basic Instinct” that were so successful and to this day they’re successful, but then at the same time, you’re kind of this divisive figure. You have some critics lashing out and some people lashing out. And I was wondering, as an artist and as a writer, there’s already a lot of self doubt in artistry and how do you conjure up the confidence to have the faith in your work to know that, to not listen to those voices? The give and take. Does that make any sense?
Ya, it does, and I think it’s a really good question, especially from a young writer. I grew up in a very different way. I was an immigrant. I came here when I was six years old. We were dirt poor. We lived in a part of Cleveland that was very tough, and I got a lot of s*** when I was a kid.
And I always say that my best educational lesson for how to deal with Hollywood was getting from my house on 41st and Lorraine, two blocks away because I had to pass a place called Nick’s Diner. And in front of Nick’s Diner always stood about 10 or 12 punks with black leather jackets and all that s***. And I was this goofy looking, freckled face Howdy Doody looking kid with big ears, wearing Salvation Army clothes. Some days getting by them was always a challenge.
And there were some days that I went by them and had the s*** beat out of me. And there were other days I chickened out and ran across the street. That’s Hollywood, man. Sometimes they’re out to fight and sometimes you get the s*** beat out of you and sometimes you just run away.
But, truly, in terms of my soul, the way I grew up really has helped me in terms of the critics and what people say and all that kind of stuff. You just can’t. You mustn’t listen to what people say because it will cripple you.
At the same time, in terms of Hollywood, you can’t participate in stuff that screws up what you’ve written because you won’t have the self-confidence in yourself if you know that you’re butchering your own creation. That’s what really prepared me. The immigrant experience and how we lived and all of that stuff. And sometimes, you go crazy. I mean there was a kid when I was 13 years old that I hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat and he almost died.
You obviously had your success with original content, but with them exploring old content all the time in Hollywood…I mean, there was even a “Basic Instinct 2” in ‘06, I think-
And it was God awful. Just a f***ing horrible piece of s***. I had nothing to do with it.
I remember reading in “Crossbearer” that you had nothing to do with it, and I could just tell by the dialogue and the exchanges you had nothing to do with it.
Good. God awful. I don’t know how or why. Well, I think I do. The situation was screwed up. MGM/UA was making the remake. They had a woman executive named Lindsay Doran that they put in charge of the project. She wanted to do a “Basic Instinct” that was “friendly to women.”
And they brought in a woman writer, who was partnered with a guy and the deal making part of it was that they had to pay me a million five even if I never touched the damn thing. And if I did, if I would have done it, they would have had to pay me four. So, they happily paid the million five. But, when I saw the movie I was truly horrified by how bad it was.
I don’t think it ruins the memory of the original. And as a young man, that was one of my favorite movies. I think it was my first R-rated movie I ever saw.
(Laughs) I’ll tell you a great story. My boy Steve, who at the time, had come out when he was eighteen maybe. We saw the screening in Marin country together and he had not seen it, he had heard about it, but not seen it.
We come out of the theater. And there are photographers and camera men there wanting to know my opinion because I had a huge feud. So, we get away from them. So, Steve says, ‘dada, that interrogation scene where we see everything.’ (laughs) I said, ‘ya.’ He said, “how did you write something like that?” And I said, “I didn’t. It was Paul Verhoeven’s idea!” And he goes, “Oh my God. It wasn’t your idea?” I said, “no, it wasn’t my idea. I’m very sorry, but that one wasn’t.” But, there’s certain moments where your children, where you say, this is a cathartic moment and I can’t lie in this situation.
Right, so with obviously “Basic Instinct 2” existing and they keep mining these old properties and you obviously still have original scripts you’re churning out and I’m very excited to see those, do you have any motivation, whatsoever, to ever re-explore any stories you’ve already told or to continue them?
(Pauses) Nothing sticks in my mind like I really have to do a sequel to this or a continuation of this or something.
So no “Basic Instinct 3” from Joe Eszterhas?
Well, two sort of f***ed it up, so there’s this monstrosity in the middle. I guess one of the thoughts that I had is that, I liked “True Detective” for example, and some of the really lengthy forms are really novelistic, almost in a television kind of way.
And I thought about doing that kind of piece. There was that trial of that woman, really interesting trial, young woman who, God what’s her name, I can’t remember her name. It was one of these television celebrated trials. I thought, there’s probably something interesting that you could do over nine or twelve things. Almost, it’s a novel. Blend it into that kind of thing.
The stuff that lengthy gives you the freedom to do voice-overs and all of that. That part of it sort of appeals to me and Naomi is desperate for me to do a thing on, I’m blanking on these murderers today, this one was up in Northern California. He killed his wife and they almost got away with it, but the form itself I think might be challenging, but maybe I’ll do something like that.