Before it opened in the States to a flood of indifference, Showgirls was touted as the most shocking, sexually explicit film ever made by a major studio. (In fact, there is more potent eroticism in a single Bogart- Bacall exchange from The Big Sleep than in Showgirls' acres of perky nipples.) Thereafter, it became clear that, as was widely observed about Basic Instinct, the only shocking thing about the film was that Eszterhas can obtain such gorgeous sums of money for writing what amount to minor variations on the same script. If you wanted to be respectful of Eszterhas, you could say that his recurrent theme is betrayal: a compromised protagonist (in Showgirls, a young dancing girl) discovers that something or someone (in Showgirls, various Las Vegas sleaze balls) in which they have placed their trust is not as it seems. If you want to be less respectful, you summarise.
Hence Jagged Edge, in which a lawyer (Glenn Close) becomes too closely involved with a man (Jeff Bridges) who may or may not have murdered his wife; Basic Instinct, in which a cop (Michael Douglas) becomes too closely involved with a bisexual novelist (Sharon Stone) who may or may not be an ice-pick murderer; Betrayed, in which an FBI agent (Debra Winger) becomes too closely involved with a farmer (Tom Berenger) who may or may not be a right-wing terrorist; Music Box, in which a lawyer (Jessica Lange) is already dangerously involved with her father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who may or may not be a Nazi war criminal; Jade, in which... well, you get the picture. The cardinal rule: TANATS (Things Are Not As They Seem). Surely it's harder, though, to write an Eszterhas story than such brusque summary implies? Perhaps so; but for anyone who is interested in following the Eszterhas path to screenwriting millions, here is a breakdown of his formula's key elements, which I have tried to illustrate with my own plot.
CHOOSE A TITLE:
Before getting cracking on the story outline proper, it would be a good idea to have an appropriately lurid title. Sometimes Eszterhas goes for the obscure/ poetic angle (Music Box, Jade), sometimes for the prosaic, if enticing (Betrayed, Showgirls). But he has never come up with anything quite so good as the slobbering phrase Basic Instinct, which leered at you insolently from the poster like Sharon Stone's feral eyes. No matter that it didn't have much literal connection with the plot (what was the instinct in question? To kill during acts of bondage? To adopt the identity of one's classmate? To wear V-necked sweaters to a discotheque?): it was a means of titillating the audience's lowest impulses. The ideal Eszterhasian title would combine sex and death with some kind of multiple meaning; but we won't reveal it until after our first sequence, which is as follows.
Such as Bloody Murder, Preferably with an Eccentric Implement, during Sex. (In Basic Instinct it was an ice-pick, in Jade an antique hatchet.) So: our film begins in a bedroom, with a naked man - he will prove to be a diplomat from an Islamic state on the brink of attaining nuclear status thrashing his way towards climax. The face of his partner is hidden behind long hair. As his excitement mounts, a whirring noise begins. This is not a sex aid, but a common power drill. The man's ecstatic features convulse into agony as the mysterious, still unseen partner bores a fatal hole in his head. Fade to title: Deadly Boring.
INTRODUCE DUAL LEADS:
The compromised protagonist with a past, the femme (or homme) fatale (or fatal) with an improbably fancy job. So let's say the hero is a former cop turned crime reporter, drummed out of the force after an Internal Affairs bribery investigation, and engaged in a long-term vendetta with his brutish former sergeant. The femme fatale (hereafter FF) is a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist with contacts in the Islamic world who also moonlights, Belle du Jour style, as a high-class whore. (This may not be quite ridiculous enough for a true Eszterhasian female lead, but it will have to do.)
FLESH OUT SORDID WORLD:
Our cast of minor characters will include the vicious, racist but ultimately lovable police chief who sides with our hero against his enemy the sergeant; other cops; a variety of possibly sinister Arab businessmen; the dodgy local politicians and businessmen who may or may not be in cahoots with them; the hero's trusty sidekick (TS); the femme fatale's menacing transvestite associate (TV) who may also be complicit in the drill murder. Apart from setting up the plot elements - police suspect FF of murder, case against her looks bad but hero, fatally attracted, is desperate to prove her innocence - we will also plant a few notes to suggest that... Things Are Not As They Seem.
DEVISE OUTRE SEX SCENE:
To give the press something to wax about in the columns next to their picture spreads (the Basic Instinct look-mum-no-undies shot, the Showgirls lap dance). In Deadly Boring, the FF taunts and teases the hero by forcing him to watch from hiding as she turns a trick with an Arab businessman who can only achieve satisfaction by copulating in a bath-tub filled with cold custard. Close-up on the burning humiliation of the hero's face as a fleck of custard lands on his nose.
INTRODUCE RED HERRINGS:
Hero starts to realise that the local businessmen and their Arab visitors are united in some kind of baroque conspiracy involving nuclear power, oil (another connotation for our title, Deadly Boring) and weird sex (a third connotation). But someone is out to wreck their plans in the most direct way: dispatching them with items from the toolshed.
Three, four, five murders have happened by now, each one involving a drill, chisel, fretsaw or lathe. The police are sure that the FF is behind this, but they lack material evidence: a power drill the hero finds in her car, but can't bring himself to hand over since he is convinced it must belong to her TV (lipstick traces) or was planted by one of the local politics types. Then the TV is found dead in the hero's own apartment, where s/he has been bolted to the ceiling with a power hammer.
TIGHTEN THE NOOSE:
The forces of righteousness start to close in on the femme fatale and hero alike. Hero and FF finally engage in exceptionally intense and possibly life-threatening sex. He is now deep in carnal obsession and will do anything to exculpate her whether she is guilty or not, even at the risk of prison/ picturesque death/ having to appear in Deadly Boring 2.
BUILD TO CLIMAX:
This part pretty much writes itself. Hero sends FF off to hide at remote cottage, sending trusty sidekick (TS) along to protect her, then heads off to TS's apartment to make phone calls that will create a diversion. But before he can do so, he makes a chilling discovery - a secret wardrobe: this holds not only a lavish array of women's clothing and wigs, but a complete home carpentry outfit, including a fine set of power drills. Nightmare! It was the TS all along!
In the remote house, where all the lights are conveniently out and a storm is coming in from the ocean, sidekick and FF engage in deadly duel; this is intercut with hero's car racing towards the scene, pursued by hordes of police, lights flashing, sirens wailing. Hero bursts into house to find scene of devastation in lower floors. Makes his way up to the roof where FF and TS face each other in a Mexican stand-off, both armed with portable battery-operated power drills. Rain lashes the triangle, thunder explodes around them, police cars squeal to a halt around the house, armed cops pile out.
Desperate, hero breaks stand-off by forcing his way in between them, seizing drill arm of FF and yelling at TS that he will take the rap for the murder. TS looks astonished and lowers his own drill for a second, only to whip it up again as he sees FF break free of hero's grip and preparing to bore him to death. A hail of bullets from below: TS stands frozen in outline a moment and then falls to the earth. Cutaway to power drill in a pool of mud. It's all over. Hero and FF embrace.
Back at the FF's house. Hero and FF lie in blissful post-coital haze. But Things Are Not As They Seem... a slow dolly away from the reclining bodies and on to the top shelf of her bookcase, until we close in on the title of a book: Teach Yourself Fretwork... Cue sinister music, roll credits.
Simple, eh? Just flesh out the dialogue and incidents a bit, add a little local colour, nip and tuck the structure, send it to an A-list director and wait for the cheque for $4m. Any producer reading this who is seriously interested in developing Deadly Boring should contact my agent. Our terms are not unreasonable.
n 'Showgirls' opens on Friday
n 'Life on the Edge', a short season of Paul Verhoeven films, is running at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 3232) to 30 JanReuse content