Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Joe Eszterhas

Beating the Devil

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy The Devil's Guide to Hollywood.

Joe Eszterhas is the legendary, notorious screenwriter of films such as Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993) and Showgirls (1995). A former journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Rolling Stone magazine, he has published several non-fiction books, including Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse (1974), American Rhapsody (2000), and Hollywood Animal (2004). His latest book is The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter As God (St. Martin's Press).

Q: Why do you write?

A: Because I have to. I hear voices and I see images and I see stories unfolding inside my head. And when one desperately wants to come out, I have no choice.

Q: What are you reading right now and why?

A: I brought a James Ellroy that I'd read before called My Dark Places. I read an interview with him and I realized how much I like him as a writer. I've never claimed to be normal, but I suspect that Ellroy may be less so than I am.

Q: There's a scene in your autobiographical movie Telling Lies in America in which one character debunks the myth of George Washington. Is that what you're doing with this book?

A: Yeah I am. The first part of the title is a reference to The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. I laughed my head off when I read that. When I started thinking of the tone of this one I thought that was perfect. The second part of the title of course comes from the fact that screenwriters have been screwed over for so many years; I thought it would be funny to say that the screenwriter is God. You have to understand that the book is hyperbolic.

Q: What is your writing schedule like?

A: I'm very intense with it. I start working in the morning, I break for lunch; I go back to it in the afternoon. In the later afternoon, I walk five miles and I spend the rest of the day with the kids and [my wife] Naomi. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night if it gets too intense. It's like I'm hearing voices. I wrote Basic Instinct in 10 days. I heard these voices in my head and I was literally striving to keep up with the voices. Usually I write a rough draft with a pen and paper, or a manual typewriter. I have this collection of manual typewriters. I have about a dozen of them left; I pound the keys with two fingers. After a couple of scripts they fall to pieces.

Age: 62
Birthplace: Csakanydoroszlo, Hungary
Education: Ohio University
Favorite song/piece of music: "Sympathy for the Devil," by the Rolling Stones
Biggest literary inspiration, author: William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams
Biggest literary inspiration, book: The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner or East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
Most memorable book from my childhood: Michael Strogoff, by Jules Verne
Book re-read most often: All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
If I could only retain one book on a desert island, it would be: The Bible
Book I've read lately I'd recommend most: No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy
Most meaningful line from any book or poem: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." - Dylan Thomas

September 18, 2006

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