Eszterhas vs. Verhoeven : Movies: The screenwriter has left the ‘Basic Instinct’ project in a dispute with the director over sex scenes. Eszterhas gets to keep his $3-million fee.


Producer Irwin Winkler and writer Joe Eszterhas have quit the movie “Basic Instinct,” and--in a move rare for Hollywood writers--Eszterhas on Wednesday publicly criticized director Paul Verhoeven for his plans to make the steamy thriller even more sexually explicit.

“Basic Instinct” became one of Hollywood’s most talked-about projects in June, when Carolco Pictures bought Eszterhas’ script for a record $3 million. Under an agreement reached with Carolco last week, Eszterhas (“Jagged Edge,” “Music Box”) will keep his full fee, without any obligation to rewrite the script or to perform any duties in his role as executive producer. Gary Goldman--who wrote “Big Trouble in Little China,” as well as the final draft of “Total Recall”--will do a minor rewrite of the script, sources said.

Winkler, who has produced such films as “Rocky” and “Raging Bull,” also is entitled to keep his $1-million fee, sources say. “Basic Instinct” star Michael Douglas--who is being paid $10.5 million upfront, with guarantees that bring his total fee to as much as $15 million--is a possible replacement as producer, sources say.


The pair’s disagreements with Verhoeven (“Total Recall,” “RoboCop”) came to a head during an Aug. 8 meeting at which “it became clear to me that Verhoeven’s intention is to make ‘Basic Instinct’ as a sexually explicit thriller,” Eszterhas wrote in a statement that he said he issued to clear up misunderstandings about the incident. Douglas, who also attended that meeting, sided with Verhoeven, sources said. The actor was out of the country Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

After that meeting, Winkler and Eszterhas asked Carolco to return the project to them. The company refused, but reached an agreement with the pair that the Eszterhas statement described as “honorable and fair.” Eszterhas is currently at work rewriting the Carolco film “Gale Force.”

Verhoeven was out of the country and could not be reached for comment. Thomas Levine, Carolco’s vice president of corporate development, would say only this: “Joe Eszterhas wrote a fabulous script. We’re all very happy with it. ‘Basic Instinct’ is going to be a terrific movie.”

Screenwriters commonly complain about the way directors and studios treat their work. But it is unusual for Hollywood writers--concerned about where the next job will come from--to air their creative differences publicly.

Those who do make their differences known are generally big-name writers with little to lose. Robert Towne (“Chinatown,” “The Two Jakes”) used his sheep dog’s name, P.H. Vazak, as a pseudonym on “Greystoke” because of his frustration over the final product. (In 1985, the dog was nominated for an Academy Award.) Novelist Paddy Chayefsky also used a pseudonym on “Altered States” in 1980 after charging that Ken Russell’s directorial flourishes had ruined his screenplay. Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay for Bob Guccione’s sexually explicit “Caligula” and then demanded that his name be dropped from the credits.

As written by Eszterhas, “Basic Instinct”--the story of a detective’s obsession with a suspected female killer who is adept at psychological warfare--is already quite racy. It calls for half a dozen extensive and detailed love-making scenes, including one in public.


But Eszterhas argued in his statement: “My intention when I wrote the script was that it be a psychological mystery with the love scenes done subtly. Every love scene in my script begins with the words: ‘It is dark; we can’t see clearly.’ ” Eszterhas declined to comment beyond his statement.

Verhoeven reportedly wanted to make the scenes even more explicit, arguing in favor of frontal nudity and the addition of a lesbian sex scene, according to sources close to the project. While the Dutch director is well-known for the violent action in his big Hollywood projects “RoboCop” and “Total Recall,” as a director in Europe he also made such carnal fare as “The Fourth Man” and “Turkish Delight.”

“Paul is very interested in sex (on screen), and I don’t say that pejoratively,” says Polly Platt, who is writing a screenplay called “Women” for Verhoeven. “He’s willing to be very graphic. He’s willing to show a man naked.”

“Women,” based on a Charles Bukowski novel, is about an unattractive, lonely man who enjoys a measure of success after publishing some poetry and begins seeing a different side of life through his sexual experiences with women.

Verhoeven recently described to Premiere magazine his interest in showing male nudity in sex scenes; in the past, he has told associates that he wants to make sex on screen as explicit as the violence in his movies. Although he made his Premiere comments in connection with “Women,” they were enough to make Eszterhas even more wary of his intentions on “Basic Instinct,” according to the writer’s statement.

In his statement, Eszterhas also accused Verhoeven of not being collaborative: “If the writer can be convinced that his approach is not the best possible one, he should rewrite. I have done so in the past. The key is that the writer be convinced by lucidity of argument, not by fiat.”

Ironically, Eszterhas has argued in the past that writing scripts on speculation, rather under development deals, offers greater creative controls for the author. “What writing a script on spec and then selling it in an auction does, simply, is give the writer power to protect his work,” he recently wrote.