Wisdom Wednesday: Joe Eszterhas’ 10 Golden Rules of Screenwriting
by Joe Eszterhas

Joe Eszterhas

Legend has it (okay, well, actually it was the Los Angeles Times) that Joe Eszterhas once sold a script written on the back of a cocktail napkin for 4.7 million dollars.

And it makes sense when one learns that once upon a time good ol’ Joe was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Eszterhas made the not-unheard-of transition from reporting to screenwriting after serving as the senior editor for Rolling Stone from 1971-1975. Three short years later, Eszterhas’ first script, F.I.S.T, starring Sylvester Stallone, was made into a feature film. A series of iconic Razzie-award-winning films followed over his three-decade career: Flashdance, Basic Instinct, Nowhere to Run, Showgirls, and Jade. On top of all this, Eszterhas has written six books, including his most recent enticing read, Heaven and Mel, an account of his time working with Mel Gibson on a script about the Maccabees.

Eszterhas’ golden rules may just be our most colorful yet—aside from troublemaker Seth MacFarlane’s. His foul-mouthed suggestions for screenwriters young and old are blunt yet informative, making for an amusing and illuminating read.

Joe Eszterhas

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.

Don’t forget to visit us next week for more movie knowledge! Previous Wisdom Wednesdays have shared the expertise of Seth MacFarlane, Marc Forster,  Billy Bob ThorntonErrol MorrisBrian De PalmaJulie TaymorKevin SmithChris WeitzDanny BoyleSteve BuscemiJim JarmuschZack Snyder, Gus Van SantNeil JordanJohn WatersEli RothNeal McDonoughRandall Emmett and Wim Wenders.

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5 Comments

  1. www.BruceEdwin.com

    October 5, 2013 at 3:27 am

    Well said Scott (above). And no, it is NOT O.K. to lie, not wise to treat others as stupid or an enemy, and there are some great films being made out there.

  2. donna - Marie Dowe

    October 4, 2013 at 6:18 am

    Great article, although I doubt that a new writer will be able to be as bold in attitude in the way they deal with producers and directors. I take the point about sticking to your guns though.

  3. Scott

    October 3, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    AKA “Ten Reasons You Have Not Seen a Joe Eszterhas Movie in Awhile.”

    • David

      October 6, 2013 at 1:43 am

      Agreed, this is bitter ranting from someone long outside of the business.

  4. K. Rowe

    October 3, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Great article! Loved the directness and the humor. And it’s rough when you’re a nobody trying to become somebody. Many of us would love the opportunity to have a script sold. Your words ring true- as a novelist, we hate to see our darlings killed by a producer or director.