November 2006

Brian M. Dunn

nonfiction

The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God! by Joe Eszterhas

"Remember literature, Charlie? It involved getting drunk and getting laid." -- Don DeLillo, "Mao II"

In 1926, Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had recently arrived in Hollywood, sent the following telegram to Ben Hecht, who would go on to become arguably the most successful screenwriter in history: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."

Simply put, it got around.

The 1980s were a virtual gold rush for wannabe screenwriters. Box office numbers became the new gauge of a film's artistic quality. Spec scripts (original scripts, not rewrites or adaptations from novels or other media) were auctioned for over seven figures a pop. And lest we forget, most films then and now are crap. The logic became: They paid a million dollars for that crap? Anyone could have written that crap. Ergo, I can write that crap.

Dime store cinematic Socrates took note. Books were published breaking down the three-act story structure as if it were the protein sequence of DNA. Workshops sprang up, selling out college auditoriums at four hundred dollars a seat, and screenwriting gurus who had never scripted a produced film preached their concepts of storytelling to the masses. Like your stock broker and the weasels who sell tapes on how to buy foreclosed real estate, the only ones to consistently make a buck were the hucksters. For the one in nineteen scripts optioned or bought outright, screenplays are tinkered with, edited and pissed on by everyone from tone deaf mid-level studio executives to the Scientologist star's e-meter. No matter when the writer is nudged out the door, no matter how poorly the film was shot, acted or stitched together, bad film equals bad screenplay.

Joe Eszterhas, arguably the most successful screenwriter of the eighties, has decided if you want to hear about writing for the movies, he's the man for the job. Not just the how-to of the writing process (Eszterhas's tips on screenwriting make up only a small portion of the book), but how to fight the battles that ensue in a business where the no-talent powers-that-be will abuse you and your script, rip your heart out and snort your ashes. (No, not literally rip your heart out. Yes, literally snort your ashes.) This is no "hey, kids, let's put on a show" reminiscence of art and magic and cute fluffy Sandra Bullocks. We're talking an ugly book about a dirty business.

Sixteen of Eszterhas's scripts have been produced as films. (Wikipedia puts the total number of produced and unproduced screenplays he's written and sold at 40.) A solid storyteller with a populist bent, he spent the early eighties writing such hits as Flashdance, Music Box, Betrayed, and Jagged Edge. He fired Michael Ovitz, head agent of CAA and considered the most powerful man in Hollywood; when Ovitz threatened to destroy him -- who thought that shit really happened? -- Eszterhas flipped off Ovitz by resetting the high water mark for spec scripts with the $3,000,000 auction sale of Basic Instinct. The film itself made a half billion dollars and was the top money maker of 1993. For the first time a screenwriter was seen as the main creative force behind a film, and everyone in Hollywood wanted to shoot an Eszterhas script. Eszterhas was as close as a screenwriter had ever been to a household name -- or more importantly, in Hollywood terms, a bankable one.

And like any good noir, the moment of his greatest success began his long slide down.

Basic Instinct, the story of a detective (Michael Douglas) investigating a bisexual writer/psychologist/murderer (Sharon Stone), was vilified by feminists and became a lightning rod for gay and lesbian groups who were sick and tired of being portrayed as psychopaths on film. In retrospect, that's a bit unfair: femme fatales and illicit sex have always been noir staples. Making the chief suspect both smarter and male-fantasy-sexier than poor Michael Douglas's testosterone-addled brain can handle was just a new angle on an old theme. But if you want to convince the world that you're not writing screenplays with your dick, you might not want to make your next three films Sliver, Jade, and Showgirls. Simply put, he went from inventing the erotic thriller to inventing the direct-to-video erotic thriller. The Golden Raspberry Awards, given to the worst films and performances of the year, renamed their worst screenplay award "The Joe Eszterhas Dis-Honorarial Award." After a personal project that disappeared without a ripple and an inside joke-riddled take on Hollywood that only his enemies laughed at, he moved his family to Ohio, wrote a book on politics in Hollywood (American Rhapsody) and a memoir (Hollywood Animal) and suffered through a near-fatal battle with throat cancer, the result of years of heavy smoking and alcoholism.

(Eszterhas reminds me of Karl Wallenda, founder of The Flying Wallendas high wire act. I've always remembered the news footage of his death, on a high wire between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1978. Halfway through his walk, he wobbled a moment, then plummeted, never letting go of his stick. If that's not a metaphor for Eszterhas's film career, I don't know what is.)

So the name "Joe Eszterhas" carries some baggage, and likely as not, you'll see your local paper assign their resident attack monkey-humorist reviewer to happily jump on and piss all over The Devil's Guide to Hollywood. To his credit, I don't think Eszterhas gives a rat's ass whether you love him or not. Certainly his book reads that way. After a preface wherein he kicks the hell out of noted screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee for his pomposity and lack of practical experience (plug his name in on the Internet Movie Database, find the entire McKee oeuvre consists of the cable film Abraham and a stint writing for the television series Mrs. Columbo, and you may want those thirty hours and 400 dollars back, Sparky), and a short note on how he considers screenwriting to be a noble calling, we're off to the races in what looks at first glance to be some deranged Bartlett-style book of Hollywood anecdotes.

The format, a declarative statement in bold followed by a Hollywood anecdote is a bit clunky and seems more appropriate for self-help books with titles like The Power of Healing and Life is a Wish Sandwich. A sample, flipped to at random:

Francis Ford Coppola caused the carpet bombing of Cambodia.
The night before American fighters carpet-bombed Cambodia, Richard Nixon watched Patton in the White House over and over again.

We're talking 371 pages like this. Obviously, fat chunks of those quotes and anecdotes are cribbed from other people's work. One can picture Mr. Eszterhas -- or, quite possibly, Mr. Eszterhas's assistant -- with a stack of biographies and Hollywood remembrances on one side of his desk and a pile of post-its and yellow highlighters on the other, hunting for bilious tales of Hollywood behavior at its worst. (No sources are sited.) Peppered throughout are definitions of "reelspeak," bugfuck Hollywood-centric terms like "Spiegelese," "a built-in sphincter," and "to Wirtschafter" and "All Hail!": stand-alone examples of screenwriters and their allies winning the occasional battle with the powers-that-be that cumulatively come off as little more than spitting in the wind. And did I mention all the anecdotes from Zsa Zsa Gabor? (Zsa Zsa Gabor?!)

Eszterhas occasionally comes off as a neanderthal trying to bludgeon the reader to death with tales of the seamy side of the film business, but even the crudest anecdotes have a rubbernecking quality that is hard to turn away from. He's a crass son of a bitch with a Buick-sized ego who, when life was good, happily went native in the world he now slags. (I think I became half as tired of hearing he banged Sharon Stone as she must be.) Seriously, why debate the auteur theory with Martin Scorsese when you can screw the man's wife on his kitchen floor? And if thirteen years after the slide from the salad days of Basic Instinct he takes more than a little joy from the excoriating reviews of Basic Instinct 2 -- which he wasn't associated with -- it's all business as usual in the land where dropping your pants to show off your box office is standard practice.  

Yet his focus always returns to protecting your script, to fighting the good fight to keep as much of your vision as you can intact. Where a novelist's words are sacrosanct, and every playwright is guaranteed final say on every word and action presented on stage, the screenwriter has no such protections. All a writer has is his work and his reputation, and both are worth fighting for. Eszterhas is determined that you take as much shit from directors, producers, actors, agents and studio hangers-on as he did: none. He berates the screenwriters' union for its lack of backbone in lieu of studio price fixing and sneers at writers like William Goldman (All the President's Men) who cow-tow to producers and directors while eyeing the next job. If the studio head hires her has-been husband to direct your script and he mangles it, as Eszterhas claims was the fate of Jade, it is your name on the "screenplay by" credits. Forever. And Turner Classic Movies never forgets.

Of course, while William Friedkin was fucking up Jade, Eszterhas was busy on the set of Showgirls, and William Goldman actually has a next job. That's not quite fair: if you're going to be a writer in any medium, you can't be afraid of sucking, and Eszterhas can never be accused of not taking chances. This is no guide to negotiating, but a rude, crude call to battle; an artless, guilty pleasure of a book. You might not want to go into your first script meeting club in hand, but after reading The Devil's Guide to Hollywood, at least you can't say Eszterhas didn't warn you.

(A note on the screenwriting advice: you'll have to swim through the padding to get to it, but Eszterhas's tips on screenwriting are relatively brief, discerning, and recommended. However, like any form of writing, the more you read of the source material, the more you learn, and there are a number of sites online that carry screenplays, the eminently readable Basic Instinct included.)

The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God! by Joe Eszterhas
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 031235987X
416 Pages