According to some accounts, Joe Eszterhas was at one time (adjusting for inflation) the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He wrote big hit films like Basic Instinct (1992), Nowhere to Run (1993) and Flashdance (1983). He not only made a lot of money, but was pretty notorious as writer’s go.
There’ was a story in the L.A. Times, about how he made 4.7 million dollars from an idea written on the back of a cocktail napkin. There’s another story about how he wrote the critically panned, but hugely successful movie, “Showgirls.”
As the story goes, his wife would let him do another line of cocaine for every page he finished writing. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these stories, but people still talk about them.
Eszterhas was not shy about sharing his somewhat controversial (and occasionally foul-mouthed) views with aspiring screenwriters. Here are his top ten rules;
1.”Don’t see too many new movies. Most movies in theaters today are awful. They will depress you. You will think to yourself: How can they have made this abominable script instead of buying and making mine? Spare yourself the anguish. Read a good book instead.”
2. “Don’t mince words. If the idea a studio executive gives you is a shitty one, don’t say “Well, that’s interesting, but…” Say “That’s a really shitty idea.” The people you’re dealing with aren’t stupid—they’re just vain. Deep in their hearts they know it’s a shitty idea.”
3. “Don’t let ’em convince you to change what you’ve written. A director isn’t a writer. Neither is a producer or a studio exec. You write for a living. You’re the pro. They’re amateurs. Dilettantes at best. Treat them that way. Make them feel that’s what they are.”
4. “Don’t pitch stories, write spec scripts. Why try to convince a roomful of unread egomaniacs that you can write a good script about something. Just sit down and write the damn thing. It’s much more honest to do it well than to promise to do it well.”
5.” Write it from your heart. Life is short; shorter than you think. Don’t do hack work. If a studio wants to give you an assignment to write something, do it only if it rings spiritual, psychic or sexual bells inside you.”
6. “Always lie about your first draft. I told people I’d been working on the script of Basic Instinct for years when I sold it for a record price. When the movie became the biggest hit of 1992, I told the truth: It had taken me 13 days to write it.”
7. “Remember family secrets. If you’re stuck for something to write about, think of all those things your family just doesn’t talk about. Somewhere in there lurks at least one good script.”
8. “In the company of the director, don’t bend over. No matter how charming he is, the director is not your friend and collaborator. He is your enemy. He wants to impose his creative vision on yours. He wants to take what you’ve written and make it his and then take credit for it.”
9. “Blacken your heart a little bit. My old and beloved agent, Guy McElwaine, told me “There is no heart as black as the black heart of an agent.” Even though he’d been my agent for a long time—and even though I truly loved him—the day came when I fired him.”
10. “Don’t let the bastards get you down. If you can’t sell your script, or if you sell the script and they bring in another writer to butcher it, or if the director claims in interviews that he really wrote your script, or if the actors claim that they improvised all of your best lines, or if you’re left out of the press junket, simply sit down and write another script. And if the same thing happens to you on that one, write another and another and another and another, until you get one up there that’s your vision translated by the director to the big screen.”
If you’re struggling to come up with a great idea for a screenplay, or if you’ve started one and just can’t figure out how to finish it, call for a free phone consult from a veteran screenwriter.