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

To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “Wisdom Wednesday: Joe Eszterhas’ 10 Golden Rules of Screenwriting
by Joe Eszterhas

  1. www.BruceEdwin.com

    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

    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

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

    • David

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

  4. K. Rowe

    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.

Latest Stories

Happy Bastille Day! Directed by the colorful, hyper-kinetic, and very French Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Mood Indigo tells the story of two lovers against the backdrop of Gondry’s typically fantastical Paris. Visual effects supervisor Romain Strabol explains how the team crafted two key elements of Mood Indigo‘s surreal mise-en-scène: a mouse-house […]

Copy of Road to Paloma 2

Towering over six feet four inches tall, Hawaiian born actor-director Jason Momoa’s powerful presence on screen is unmistakable. In the HBO series Game of Thrones, he is Khal Drogo, the fearsome Dothraki warlord who weds exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen. In Stargate Atlantis, he transforms into dreadlocked military specialist Ronon Dex. He goes mano y mano, […]

New Filmmakers LA is back with even more moviemaking wisdom, featuring interviews with directors Edward Shieh, Sam Barnett, Evan Matthews, Marko Grujic and Michelle Yu. NewFilmmakers LA (NFMLA) is a non-profit organization designed to showcase the innovative works by emerging filmmakers from around the world, providing the Los Angeles community of entertainment professionals and film goers with a constant surge […]

New Filmmakers LA is back with loads of moviemaking wisdom, featuring interviews with directors J.D. Ramage, Adam Rosenbaum and writer Matt Godfrey, Ross Kolton and lead actor Ryan Mazzei, Bettina Bilger and Chris Valenziano. NewFilmmakers LA (NFMLA) is a non-profit organization designed to showcase the innovative works by emerging filmmakers from around the world, providing the Los Angeles community of entertainment […]


This week, on the heels of Independence Day, director Hal Hartley (No Such Thing) discusses his latest feature film, My America, which knits together the emotions and people that define the United States. Commissioned by Center Stage, the state theater of Maryland, the film consists of a series of spirited monologues written and performed by […]


Richard Linklater is no stranger to the workings of time—both as thematic device in his films, and as necessary ingredient to the moviemaking process. After all, his two previous features had unusually long gestation periods: 2011’s Bernie had been cooking in the director’s head since 1997, while 2013’s Before Midnight comes 18 years after Before […]


Filmmaker and editor Dean Pollack’s work has appeared everywhere from Bravo and Hulu to Adult Swim. He just completed his second directorial effort, the feature film Audrey, which traces a single hour in a woman’s day. He discusses the advantages and disadvantages encountered shooting a film set in real time on a single location. Not […]

Still from James Broughton film The Bed. Courtesy of Frisky Divinity Productions.

Stephen Silha is the co-director of Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton, a lyrical documentary about the beloved director of The Bed, The Pleasure Garden, This is It and other counter-culture classics. Here, Silha recounts his friendship with the late Broughton, the subject he brings to luminous life along with fellow filmmakers Eric Slade […]

New Picture (12)

“The food in that movie looked so good.” There’s nothing quite as aggravating as delicious onscreen food. Think of the plump, glistening, jeweled globs of sashimied perfection served to the camera in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and weep with frustrated desire. Let’s face it: That film, and others like it, have honed the fine art […]