On Wednesday, I had the privilege of interviewing Hollywood
screenwriting legend Joe Eszterhas whose memoir "Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith" offers a candid glimpse of how the writer of the scripts for "Basic Instinct" and Showgirls" had his life transformed by God.
KH: In the things that you’ve written in the past, had you learned as much about yourself as you did this time?
JE: No. For many, many years — my backrgound — I came to this country when I was six years old. My first six years were in refugee camps (in Hungary), and then I grew up on the west side in a very blue-collar, back-alley kind of way. I got into a lot of juvenile trouble. I got into very serious juvenile trouble and almost went to jail.
From there, I started reading at a certain point and thought I could be a writer. I went from there into journalism. Most of the things I wrote about as a journalist, I was a police reporter, I was exposed to lots of shootings, violence and bloodshed. . . .I was exposed to lots of shootings. . . .what I was exposed to on a day to day level was this starkest, kind of violent reality. I became interested in serial killers and the moment that sets off a violent spree.
It’s that same kind of darkness, I explored in most of my films — not all of them. I’ve written films like “Big Shots” and “Musicbox” and a little movie called, “Telling Lies in America.” The ones I’m best known for certainly all came out of a very dark place. That’s where the stories came from.
What happened from that day in 2001, when I sat down on the curb and sobbed and asked for God’s help, I literally did come out of that darkness into a light I’ve never been in.
That’s why I said it’s very difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t lived it what God’s presence in your heart means. It’s a completely transformative view of the world. Thats the overwhelming, biggest sensation.
K.H.: What kind of reaction do you expect from the folks in Hollywood when this comes out?
J.E.: There’s a part about Tony Blair that I write in the book. . . He didn’ t like to talk about this faith — he’s a man of deep faith —because he thought that he would be viewed as “a nutter.”
I read that and I thought, “That’s it. He’s my fellow nutter.”
Everybody’s going to think I lost my mind. I don’t care. I’m very blessed to have what happened happen to me. In terms of the world’s reaction, those people who have been touched by God somehow in their lives will understand exactly what it is that I’ve gone through and am going through. I’m still a baby Christian and want to learn more about my faith. Those who’ve been touched will understand that, and those who haven’t will say, “Okay, that man has had obviously some sort of nervous breakdown. It doesn’t matter if he says he’s happier than he’s ever been, or he’s more fulfilled, and his priorities have been rejuggled and he feels more alive than he’s ever been.”
K.H.: About your ‘Joe on the Curb’ moment that you had, what made it the Christian God that you turned to? Is it because of upbringing?
J.E.: I think it is. My mom was very religious. My father worked for a Hungarian Catholic newspaper in Cleveland. As a boy, I was an altar boy, the religion was all around me as I was growing. I think what happened — when we look back and it’s probably over simplified — I was very close to my mother when I was a boy. She became a schizophhrenic when I was 13, and from there on, she was mentally ill and I believe that I was terribly wounded by that relationship.
(Her schizophrenia) was never treated because she spoke Enlgish language with the greatest difficulty. She was a very shy, very inward woman. From one day to the other, she stopped talking to me. I was really wounded. I really prayed and asked God to help her, to first of all help her, because of some of the manifestations of her schizophrenia I was seeing, and I saw the pain she was in and also to help me in that relationship with her.
I think I was so heartbroken that the classic cliche manner, I turned against God, and as I got older, that turning against God, that hostility turned into feeling God as completely irrelevant to my life.
So, I think that.
Then the other factor I think that brought me to the Christian God — a fact that I don’t write about enough in the book — that opened me up to the possibility of this kind of experience is Naomi (his wife) is very religious and has a deep faith in God.
You know, while we always disagreed about it — when the boys were little in Malibu and she would take them to church, I would make bad jokes about staying and home and praying to St. Mattress of the Springs.
She was very strong in her belief. I scoffed at her like I scoffed at Christian belief in my writings and my attitudes, but nevertheless it was there.
I adore my wife, and she has a profound influence on me — she always had. She’s my partner in all ways. I gained a respect for her faith and for her values and the big reason when we moved back to Cleveland from California, from Malibu, was we wanted to raise the kids in a way where their values weren’t “Malibu Values.” I still didn’t have any kind of faith in my life. I certainly didn’t have any belief in God. Nevertheless, that decision, looking back on it in retrospect had to do with the kids’ values.
It opened me up to the possiblity up to that kind of God experience. I think it was Naomi’s presence in my life and how much I respect her.
K.H.: Now, you have to realize — I’m sure you realize — that as soon as this book comes out there’s going to be some Christians that are going to say “Joe is doing this because it’s just another way to make money.” What do you say to those people?
J.E.: Well, look, I’ll say a couple of things in answer to that. One, to go through throat cancer and the pain of throat cancer, not being able to speak, having a trache for almost a year in my life, that’s a pretty stiff price to pay if what you’re going to look at is how you can sell a book.
The thing that really caused me, when I sat on that curb, it was the first time in my life where I felt like I couldn’t do something by myself. That I needed help.
I’ve always been a control freak most of my life. My parents were immigrants and didn’ t know this country. I was put into a position as a child of sort of translating America to them and helping them make decisions about living in this country. I was pretty much controlling, I took pride in that. I was a big kid.
I got into lots of fights in Hollywood with people who sort of tried to mess with my writing or with an agent who tried to put me out of business.
I took great pride in being able to settle my own issues, one way or another.
What happened on that curb is I realized I needed help. I couldn’t do this. What I couldn’t do is overcome my addictons. They told me if I didn’t overcome my addictons I’ll die — if I didn’t stop smoking and drinking immediately.
I knew I couldn’t do that by myself. I’d done it so long. These were my crutches I’d always turned to.
I was the classic case of the functioning alcoholic. I knew I couldn’t do this by myself. Utterly desperate I surprised myself by hearing myself asking for God’s help.
The other thing I would say in response to that is I’m not sure Hollywood views anything in greater disdain than someone who is avowedly Christian, let alone someone who says, I’ve written 16 movies and I’ve been in this 30 years, and I don’t care what you guys think, but I’ve had an experience with God in my heart and I want to tell the world about it. There are risks, and I knew and I allude to the fact in the book that it doesn’t matter if I destroy my filmwriting career because I’m telling the world about what happened to me that day on that curb and the importance that God has taken in my day-to-day life.
I will risk that because I made a promise to God, and I intend to make good on that promise.
K.H.: Do you still find your addictions a day-to-day battle?
J.E.: Um, no. I find smoking a much more — if I walk down the street and I smell somebody smoking —it doesn’t turn me off.
I actually like it.(laughs)
I was in Hungary researching a film with Naomi in about 2004 or early 2005. It seems like everybody in Hungary smokes. The entire area smells, and Naomi is saying, “That’s really awful,” and I say, “Yeah that’s really awful,” and meanwhile I’m trying to breathe some of it in, you know, because it smelled so good. (laughs again)
I thank God, and I think it’s only because of God’s presence in my heart that I’ve had the strength to resist it. I think the only reason I have been is because God is helping me do it.
K.H.: What’s next for you?
J.E.: I’d like to write a film or a TV thing that’s faith-based. I’ve tried two things. I tried to get involved in a script about St. Paul, and they didn’t want to hear it. I wrote a lengthy outline for a TV series called “Saviors,” which would have been about a sort of gritty and urban — but holy — priest that gets involved totally in the lives of this community. He has some serious issues with the diocese in terms of his views on what the church should do. I thought it was sort of different, devout, but edgy kind of TV series with really interesting characters.
My agents and eveybody took it out on an auction to all the networks — Lifetime, ABC, NBC. Everybody turned it down.
I’d like to find something that’s faith-based that could be made as a film. One of the conclusions I’ve come to in terms of the faith-based material I’ve tried to sell, in my experience in the business, is there really is an anti-Christian bias in Hollywood. Even after the successes of the “Passion of the Christ” and “Narnia,” both movies are overwhelming, huge successes, they don’t want to make faith-based entertainment.Even in the remakes, everything is being remade these days, but those big successful movies of the 50s and 60s . . .those aren’t remade.
Imagine what the parting of the Red Sea would look like with digital effects. I would be willing to bet anything that if the “10 Commandments” was remade and recast as a big epic with digital technology that would be a worldwide, gigantic hit movie. But they’re not going to do that.
I think it’s going to be difficult, you know, to get anything made. Before it’s all over, I’m 64, I’d like to write a couple films that are faith-based that don’t have the dark prism that most of my other films have had.
The other script I’ve been working on for two years, I’m working on a thriller about the drug enforcement administration. I’m doing it with their blessing. What they do is really heroic because they keep the huge, overwhelming drug traffic that comes into this country down as much as they can and really in a day-to-day war.
With their blessing and cooperation, I’ve done a lot of research in the past year and a half and looked at files and videotapes and all of that.
Jack Nicholson is potentially interested in playing the lead. I’m still working on it. I’m hoping that sooner, rather than later, we get it into the production pipeline and get it made.
The other thing I want to do that is very important is I would raise my four boys and focus on what’s going on in their lives. They are from 14 down to 8. One of the reorientation of my priorities, is I’m much more focused on family and making sure the weekends, I turn into a roadie. All I do is transport kids to basketball games. Much of the rest of the week I’m going to McDonalds . . .picking up lunches.
That’s the way life’s supposed to be and I think those are the values we came back here for. Those are the values, thanks to God’s grace, I have rediscovered.
"Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith" by Joe Eszterhas will be released by St. Martin's Press on Tuesday, Sept. 2. Pre-order from Amazon.com today!