Hollywood: A survival guide

In Hollywood, only the ruthless and shameless can survive. So how do you learn the rules of the game? Take a lesson from an old pro, of course. Over to Joe Eszterhas, the world's highest paid screenwriter...
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You, too, can be a star

My biggest year was 1994. I wrote five scripts in one year. I made almost $10m. I had houses in Tiburon and Malibu, California, and in Kapalua, Maui.

I made half a million dollars for writing a 30-second television commercial for Chanel No 5 perfume. I fell in love. I got divorced. I married my second wife. Our first child was born.

I had the best tables at Spago and The Ivy and at Granita, Postrio, and Roy's. I had limos in northern California, in Malibu, and on Maui.

I ate more, I drank more, I made love more, and I spent more time in the sun than I ever had. The world was my oyster.

Even the swamis write screenplays

Writer Anthony Haden-Guest: "It was a crisp fall morning in 1971. Two swamis were down by the desk of the Chateau Marmont. They wore long swami hair and filthy swami robes, but the swami with blond hair was fiddling with his amber worry beads in an un-guru-like fashion. 'Get this, Al,' he said apologetically. 'I can let you have a script by Thursday.'

"The other swami dropped his key on the desk with a metallic clatter. His occult pendant jangled. 'I don't want a script,' he declared coldly. 'I want the script.'"

You can even turn priests on

Through the years, a great many people have told how much they loved Flashdance. Hundreds of women have viewed me more kindly the moment they found out I wrote (actually co-wrote) the movie; some of these women even took me to bed to demonstrate to me their enthusiastic and wholehearted endorsement of the movie.

My wife Naomi's obstetrician told me how much he loved Flashdance as Naomi was in her 22nd hour of labour - sweating and nearly purple with our first-born. He asked me: "Is Jennifer Beals as hot as she looked?" even as Naomi groaned in pain in the background. And my parish priest, Father Bob Stec, told me how much he had loved the movie - for other reasons. Father Bob loved the line "When you give up your dream, you die!" He'd lived his life by that line since he'd seen the movie as a teenager.

Whatever happened to FDR's movie idea?

Yes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as a young man, pitched a story about John Paul Jones, the American naval hero, to Paramount. Later, when he was President of the United States, FDR asked a lieutenant in naval intelligence to the Oval Office. The lieutenant was a former Paramount executive. " You know why I asked you up here, don't you?" the President asked.

The lieutenant said: "Of course. It's about John Paul Jones."

"Whatever happened to my treatment [his idea]?" the President of the United States asked.

"It's on the shelf," the lieutenant replied. "Paramount hasn't rejected it, but they haven't decided anything on it yet." Then the treatment went into storage.

It now lies in a sealed locker inside a mountain in Missouri, where the studios jointly own a vast storage area of old treatments and scripts.

These are the words hollywood lives by

"Keep your friends close to you, but keep your enemies closer." These words of advice were first said to me by a female producer who still occasionally slept with her ex-husband, also a producer, even though she had remarried and was "absolutely in love" with her new husband.

Her ex-husband had beaten her, sold naked photos of her to a website, told the court she was a "whore and a druggie" in a custody fight, put a .45 Magnum into her mouth and pulled the trigger, and tried to blackball her in the industry. She loathed and feared him but slept with him whenever he wanted to "keep him close" and neutralise him.

You'll need to be a really good liar

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo: "The art of lying is the art of the practical. It ought never be indulged in for the pure pleasure of the thing, since overusage dulls the instrument, corrodes the character, and despoils the spirit... Curb, therefore, your imagination. Let the lie be delivered full-face, eye to eye, and without scratching of the scalp. Let it be blunt and forthright and so simple that you can repeat it in detail and under oath 10 years hence. But let it, for all of its simplicity, contain one fantastical element of creative ingenuity - one and no more - designed to capture the attention of the listener and to convince him that, since no one would dare to invent the improbability you have inserted, its mere existence places the stamp of truth upon everything you have said."

This isn't the kind of place to raise your kids

I noticed our six-year-old, Joey, staring out the window of our Malibu house one sunny morning. Curious, I looked at what he was looking at. On the patio of the house next door, a gorgeous naked young woman was with another gorgeous naked young woman. Joey said: "What are they doing, Dada?"

I thought about it and said: "Saying 'Hi', I guess."

Joey said: "Like doggies."

I smiled and said: "Yup."

You'll meet some mighty odd folks in LA

Agent Swifty Lazar: "Now, as everyone knows, I have a legendary fear of germs. The problem isn't really germs, it's the proximity of dirt that annoys me, especially someone else's dirt.

"Howard Hughes, on the other hand, did have a germ phobia. So that night, as I always do when leaving a public toilet, I reached for a paper towel to use on the door handle so I wouldn't have to touch it. Alas, there were none left. A few seconds later, Howard made the same discovery.

"So there we were, two germ freaks, both walking toward the door with dripping hands. I lingered, hoping to force Howard to deal with the door. But Howard saw that gambit and stepped aside, leaving me right in front of the door. Was I going to grab that germ-ridden handle? Not on your life. So we were at a standstill. Luckily, another man entered, giving us a chance to duck out before the door swung shut again."

Beware of LA doctors

I was a little hoarse. I went to see a couple of highly respected ear, nose and throat guys in Los Angeles. They examined me and said I had a benign polyp that was wrapped around my vocal cord. They scheduled outpatient surgery at a hospital, to take place six weeks later. My hoarseness got worse. I went to the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. They told me I had throat cancer. I had surgery and lost 80 per cent of my larynx.

When the head of the ENT practice read that I had throat cancer, he didn't call me, he called my agent at William Morris, Jim Wiatt. He told Jim Wiatt to wish me good luck. Jim passed it on to me.

Wear sunglasses at night

I was wearing the hottest thing in town. [Steven] Spielberg had one... and [David] Geffen... and I got mine before [film producer] Jeff Katzenberg did. They cost $400 a pair, but they were in such short supply that some people were offering $1,000 for them.

They were the best pair of sunglasses Chrome Hearts on Robertson had ever made - but that's not why everyone (me, too) wanted them. They wanted them because - if you rubbed the glass - ingrained in the glass very delicately, facing out, so you could see it if you really looked, were these words: Fuck you.

If you have to live in LA, you have to have a pool

"California has, like, half the swimming pools in the whole USA," said actress Drew Barrymore. "After you're successful, you can't not have a pool. Here, a house without a pool is like a neck with no diamond necklace."

My accountants almost killed me

The day after I had my first meeting with accountants, I had a full-blown anxiety attack that was initially misdiagnosed as a heart attack.

Your accountant may fire you

This is especially true if you are late paying your taxes. The good accountants in LA all have excellent relationships with the IRS. The IRS knows that if you are being represented by an accounting firm it has done business with, the odds are very good that you won't be cheating on your taxes - which makes an audit of your returns a waste of time.

But if you can't pay your taxes, your accounting firm will worry that your problems will affect its relationship with the IRS, and its other clients, so it will quickly rid itself of you.

Sometimes the accounting firms get rid of a client too quickly and regret it. Sharon Stone's accounting firm got rid of her the year before she starred in Basic Instinct. Big, big mistake.

The panic list

Allegedly kept by the studios, it is a list of those who badly need money and will work cheap. The only time I heard direct mention of it was in a studio meeting with a Paramount executive, who suggested hiring a well-known director for one of my scripts and said: "He's on the panic list. He just bought a house in Martha's Vineyard and needs to go to work."

You're dealing with horribly spoiled people

I sent Sharon Stone 100 red roses once. She sent me a card thanking me. I sent her a gold bracelet. She called and asked me to dinner.

F-Bomb the world!

Tom Tapp, editor of VLife magazine: "Among moguls, crude language is part of routine business. In turn, the executives who work under them don't exactly censor themselves. One network honcho is so well-known for his foul mouth that it's become a calling card. Such language is not necessarily derogatory. It's a colourful patois that can often be complimentary. Everyone understands this."

Even Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ director and a devout Christian, described the man in charge of distributing the movie as "a very smart fucking guy."

If you want to sound like a pro...

Always refer to MGM as "Metro" and Twentieth Century Fox not as "Fox" but as "Twentieth."

Don't let 'em fart at your ideas

Producer Bert Schneider could fart whenever he wanted and farted often during story meetings with screenwriters at ideas he didn't like.

I got pigeonholed

I had a meeting with Cuba Gooding Jr. about his playing soul singer Otis Redding in my script Blaze of Glory. I wrote it after Showgirls and Jade and was happy that since the critics had clobbered me for excessive sexuality, there was no sex in this script. "I want to talk to you about that," Cuba said. "You're the guy who wrote Showgirls and Jade. That's what you do - I mean, can't we put some sex in this script?"

Writing during a Writers' Guild strike can be lucrative

The guild strike had been going on for several weeks when the producer flew up to see me at my home in northern California. If I rewrote the script that would soon go into production, he said, he would pay me $200,000. He would put the money into a bank account in Dubrovnik. No one would ever know, he said. Not the IRS and certainly not the Writers' Guild, which forbids doing any writing during a strike.

Did I do it?

Ha! What are you - nuts?

They'll pay you for writing nothing

I made a deal with ABC Films in the early Eighties to write a script about the wheat harvesters who travel from state to state in the summer. I was to be paid $350,000. I went off to Nebraska and Iowa for two weeks to interview the harvesters. When I got back, ABC informed me that their marketing people had concluded while I was doing research that a film about wheat harvesters wouldn't be commercially successful.

So ABC wanted me to write a film instead about Ross Perot.

My agent said "Not a chance" - the deal we had made called for me to write a script about wheat harvesters. ABC Films paid me the full fee - $350,000 - for two weeks' research.

Do anything to sell your script

Actress Sigourney Weaver was in the middle of her gynaecological exam when the doctor said: "I have written a screenplay. Could you possibly read it?"

Call yourself on the phone

If you want people to think that you're important, have yourself paged by friends at the Polo Lounge or at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The producer Robert Evans once took a phone call from director Roman Polanski while being interviewed for ABC's 20/20. An ABC staffer picked an extension up and found Evans speaking to dead air. Bob had faked the call from Roman.

Find yourself a smart mate

I take my wife, Naomi, into most studio meetings with me. Before he was the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, relied on his wife, Maria [Shriver], the same way. Says studio head Mike Medavoy about trying to get Arnold to star in The Sixth Day: "Maria Shriver made notes on all the drafts of the script. She saw her role as her husband's adviser and protector. In one meeting, she was the only one who had problems with the material, so I began addressing my questions to her, as if she were the one who had to be fully sold on the material. In a way, she was."

Does anyone realise that Maria Shriver is running the state of California?

Make 'em feel smart and you'll get your way

I learned this trick from screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy). He'd finish his script and then tear six or seven pages out of it and turn the script in to the studio. The studio execs would sometimes - not always - notice that something seemed to be missing from a sequence and suggest that he fill it in with some scenes. Seemingly acting on their suggestions, he would then put the pages that he had torn out back into the script. The studio executives would then praise him for listening to, and acting upon, their suggestions.

You never know how they'll film the scene that you wrote

I wrote an extravagant dance sequence for Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. Some studio wizard suggested cutting the sequence in half and rewriting it, but I convinced them that a big dance movie had to have a lot of dance in it. Since Jenny couldn't dance very well and certainly couldn't do a big dance sequence, the director hired a "dance double" for Jenny named Marine Jahan. But it still wasn't enough to convince the audience that Jenny Beals could dance, because Marine Jihan couldn't do the floor-spins.

So the producers brought in someone who could do the floor-spins perfectly - a guy, who had to wear a wig and shave his legs... but who refused to shave off his moustache.

If you slow the film down and look very closely, you can see Jenny Beals spinning around, wearing leotards and a mustache.

Don't let 'em bleed on you

Stanley Jaffe, producer and former head of Paramount, would yell at people with such force that blood would flow from his nostrils.

Don't ever quit a job

If you've been hired to work on a script and you loathe the director and the producer and you feel that what you wrote is being truncated... don't decide to quit. Keep telling them that you are "ready, willing, and able to perform" - legalese right out of the contract that you signed. If you are pleasantly intransigent, they will fire you. You'll be paid in full and reports will quote "creative differences".

You don't want to do your work at a urinal

The screenwriter Ben Hecht walked into a restaurant restroom and found Sam Goldwyn standing at a urinal. Ben stood at the next urinal and pitched Sam a story. Goldwyn had prostate problems, so Ben had a long time to pitch. When Sam finally shook off, he told Ben he'd buy it for $125,000.

Perk of success: you, too, can get a free lexus

When I wrote An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, I wrote several Toyota Land Cruisers into the script. I got a call from a Lexus rep, who told me that if I changed them to Lexuses, I'd get a free Lexus.

In what was probably the most stupid move of my life, done for obviously perverse reasons, I chose to turn him down.

If you want to sell your script, don't kill off your lead character

John Wayne made over 200 movies; he died in only eight of them, including his last one, The Shootist.

Put your laptop away

I write my first drafts longhand. That's right - longhand, with a pencil. On my subsequent drafts I go to my manual Olivetti Lettera typewriter - but you can use your laptop while sipping a double latte at Starbucks. In my drinking days, I used to suck on a bottle of Jack Daniel's as I wrote - the only danger was that I sometimes couldn't read my own handwriting the next day.

Write six pages of script a day

Stick to this schedule no matter what. You'll have a finished first draft in roughly twenty days. Then go back and edit what you've written. Spend no more than five days on this edit.

Then rewrite your script from page one - with your edits. Spend no more than one week on this rewrite - that means putting out 20 pages a day.

Put the script away for a week; don't even look at it. Then edit it once again. Spend no more than four days on the edit this time. Then rewrite it again from scratch with your edits - taking another week. This will be your third draft. Now begin the process of trying to sell it - this, your official first draft.

If you write a script that's too long...

...extend and lengthen the margins on your page. Chances are that the person timing your script (a minute a page is the rule) won't notice what you've done.

Actors aren't geniuses

Montgomery Clift turned down the Marlon Brando role in On the Waterfront, the William Holden role in Sunset Boulevard, the Paul Newman role in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and the James Dean role in East of Eden.

Steal as much memorabilia from the set as you can

Everybody does it. I visited Steven Spielberg's house years ago and it was filled with what he called "toys" from his sets.

Try to find something positive to say about your film

Sharon Stone, after the release of Basic Instinct: "At least it proves I'm a natural blonde."

Don't don't set your film in the jungle

Actors will avoid your script.

Don't have a movie star for a friend

Remember that the word "star" spelled backward is "rats".

The Devil's Guide To Hollywood by Joe Eszterhas is published by Duckworth, £12.99

Reelspeak: A Hollywood glossary

"Getting to the tit".

An old Hollywood expression for making some big money.

The Whammo Chart

a.k.a. the Eleven-Minute Commandment

A formula invented by producer Larry Gordon for action films. The formula calls for an action sequence every 11 minutes. Time Joel Silver films like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Predator and you'll see how religiously Joel believes in Larry Gordon's 11-minute commandment.


Past Oscar winners.

"Audience- attuned"

If you write movies that make £100m each, you're audience-attuned. Otherwise, you're just another dumb schmuck writer.

To do an Eric Red...

To flip out and lose it suddenly. Red, the talented screenwriter of The Hitcher and other action-noir films, drove his car one day into a bar full of people in Westwood.

The War Zone

Beverly Hills, Bel Air, the Palisades, north to Malibu and Point Dume and Carbon Beach... where most of the industry's wealthiest and most powerful "players" live.


A line of BS that sounds terrific and is designed to take advantage of you, it was originated by Sam Spiegel, producer, but perfected by David Begelman, who spoke perfect Spiegelese and became a top-ranked agent and then a studio head and then (flat broke) a suicide. "How cheesy," wags said, "to commit suicide at the Century Plaza, of all places, not at the Bel Air, the Chateau Marmont, or a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel."


A studio exec's term for those screenwriters who are nervous doing a pitch.


A disease whose main symptom is that the victim is willing to do anything - anything - to win an Oscar.

A black shirt

A major character that you know will die.

Dirt Sandwich

Popularised by Sharon Stone's reference to a boyfriend as such, it's an old Hollywood term for someone who rips you off, someone who leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

High concept

The best high-concept definition of a film I've ever heard is producer Robert Evans' description of his film The Cotton Club: "Gangsters, music, pussy."


New Age studio exec-speak for "Will it make $100m?". It began to be used extensively after the success of Forrest Gump. Dreamworks chieftain Jeff Katzenberg begins each pitch meeting with a writer by saying: " Tell me how this movie you're about to pitch will be life-affirming."