It appears that I hated Basic Instinct when it came out in 1992 (this review appeared in the Chicago Reader on April 3), before I became something of a diehard Paul Verhoeven fan, and now I like the movie a lot. Or maybe I was a fan back then, at least in a back-handed sort of way, and wouldn’t or couldn’t admit this to myself. I offer the following as evidence of my former position, whatever it might have been.– J.R.
No stars (Worthless)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Joe Eszterhas
With Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt, Leilani Sarelle, and Dorothy Malone.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
What’s really news about Basic Instinct isn’t that it’s number one at the box office; after all, that happens to some movie every week. Nor is it that you get to see Sharon Stone’s (quite ordinary looking) twat for a few seconds when she uncrosses her legs. Even the bisexual and lesbian psycho serial killers, which gay groups are protesting, aren’t news.
No, the real news about Basic Instinct is that Joe Eszterhas got $3 million for the script. This is clearly a script that’s going to be studied and emulated for some time to come. And to help speed this process along—if only to get us past the inevitable imitations—I’ve put together a rudimentary guide suggesting how you too can follow the same basic instincts and write a $3 million script. For the sake of convenience, I’ve broken this process down into simple categories.
A few basics:
1. The public profile you’re after. Our era has witnessed such a rise in the worship of the profit motive that it’s almost come to be regarded as a higher form of philanthropy (what’s good for Basic Instinct is good for the USA). We’ve also seen the elevation of pulp and trash into high art. These two developments are clearly related: part of what used to make porn and slasher movies disreputable–the fact that they’re ground out in order to make money–now helps to make them reputable, at least if they come in expensive packages. To put it bluntly, achieving first place in the weekly box-office grosses is everything. So don’t waste any time worrying about what critics might say.
2. Your relation to oppressed minorities. For your villains, pick an oppressed group that “ordinary” viewers know very little about, and portray them in a way that confirms their worst fears; this isn’t hard because previous serial-killer thrillers have already established firm guidelines for such stereotyping. Lesbians are a safe bet because they’re even less empowered than gay men to fight back, and most straight viewers will know even less about them–yet lesbian stereotypes will still tap into unconscious fears about “dangerous sex” associated with AIDS, herpes, and so on. Of course, if gay groups do fight back, this can be considered free publicity; it’ll pique the interest of straight viewers and encourage homophobes to buy tickets. (You might even want to hire some people to picket your movie, as I’m told the publicity people on Cruising did.)
3. The right ambience: art, glitz, and combinations of the two. When you’re upgrading trash to art, something even more transcendental than profit is involved: art-movie ambience. Jonathan Demme made The Silence of the Lambs Oscar-ready and exemplary to many New York feminists by elevating pulp notions of evil, innocence, violence, fear, and courage to such a plane that they elicited awe, piety, and reverence. It hardly matters whether Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter or Foster’s Clarice Starling functions as the key role model, because on the movie’s terms either is inoperative without the other; the sacrament is what passes between them, and the patriarchal FBI is their church. Technically, of course, Lecter is a maximum-security prisoner who eats people and Starling is a trainee out to catch a transsexual woman skinner, but emotionally speaking he’s a priest bestowing grace and she’s a devotee.
Taking the place of religion in Basic Instinct is the hushed reverence evoked by money, especially in the form of high-priced art and decor. Look at the opening credits–a tasteful backdrop of triangular shapes and flickering lights and shadows suggests the cubist and semifuturist paintings of Lyonel Feininger. The subliminal message is that this movie will be reflective, subtle, and artistic—expensive, too.
What follows certainly suggests “art film” in both of that term’s clichéd senses—moody tone poem and whorehouse stag reel. The camera pans up to a ceiling mirror reflecting a nude couple going at it on a queen-size bed, then down to the actual couple: a blond woman now sitting astride the man. Reaching under a pillow for a white silk scarf (like the mirror and bed, it probably cost a fortune), she slowly ties his wrists to a bedpost while he sucks one of her nipples and she continues to rock against him, bringing him slowly to orgasm. Just before he arrives, she reaches for something else—an ice pick—and proceeds to stab him repeatedly in the neck, blood splattering against her body while he screams.
The police turn up in the morning; among them are detectives Nick (Michael Douglas) and Gus (George Dzundza), the staple lean and fat buddies. We learn that the victim is a wealthy former rock star with high connections in San Francisco politics; there are semen stains on the sheets and traces of cocaine on the floor and on his penis. These facts are not relevant clues (viewers who want to keep their innocence about such matters should check out here), but they work wonders for the overall glitzy atmosphere.
Nick and Gus proceed to the plush home of the victim’s wealthy girlfriend, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), and the first thing Gus says is, “They got his and her Picassos.” When Nick expresses wonder that his friend can identify a Picasso, Gus explains by pointing to the signature: “It says so right here.” He adds, “Hers is bigger.” (Of course Gus is a simpleton who has to have certain things explained to him; he stands in for the groundlings in the audience–or those who missed something when they went out for popcorn.) This kind of scene alerts the audience to the fact that high art and money and drugs and powerful women and dangerous perversions are coextensive and mutually enhancing—definitely associated, in ways that fear can only imagine (“Hers is bigger”). Clearly fear of feminism also plays a role in all this, and a close look at the handling of similar elements in Fatal Attraction would be helpful.
One final strategy for giving your movie that classy and classic feel: allude to Hitchcock from time to time. Lush northern California settings accompanied by neoclassical scores vaguely suggesting Bernard Herrmann are a good start. Don’t stage a bloody murder inside an elevator (as Basic Instinct does), because that will only summon up Brian De Palma in Dressed to Kill summoning up Psycho; it’s more original to steal from the Master directly.
4. Action is character. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote these three words in capital letters at the end of his notes for The Last Tycoon. But it’s important to bear in mind that Fitzgerald belongs to another era—when action was thought to be what happens to and/or is engendered by characters. You have to get this notion out of your head, as Eszterhas did, if you want to write a $3 million script.
In our era, action is what the screenwriter and director do to the audience, with the help of the actors and crew. Character is whatever sets up action: that is, whatever justifies it, however briefly—whatever aims the gun. You don’t have to worry about justifying any action more than momentarily, because viewers can comprehend the coherence of the narrative only in TV units: the amount of time that passes between commercial breaks.
Thus simple clay figures work best as characters, and the beauty of these is that they can be remolded from one TV unit to the next without seriously disturbing the audience. The first lesbian character in Basic Instinct starts off with brown hair (Leilani Sarelle’s Roxy), but later she becomes a blond, when the filmmakers want the audience to think she’s another character (Catherine). The personalities of these figurines can be changed too, whenever it suits the action. It’s as easy to turn straight women into bisexual women as it is to change their hair color, and you can change their motives for going back and forth. No one but critics or lesbians will care, and these are such a small percentage of your audience that it won’t seriously affect the grosses.
More on characters:
1. Your motives—not the characters’—are the only ones that count. Why does Catherine write and publish grisly murder novels that predict real-life murders? Why does she write novels at all? Why is she so interested in abnormal psychology? And why does Nick become involved with her, even after she makes him fall off the wagon, taunts him with cigarettes until he resumes smoking, and even cracks an ugly joke about his wife’s suicide? The answer to all these questions is simple: the movie wants them to. And the movie wants them to in order to render a few scenes—scenes involving fucking and/or ice-picking—more effective.
2. Make your hero an asshole. Say your hero is a trigger-happy former cokehead and alcoholic cop who sometimes kills innocent bystanders, drove his wife to suicide, and is generally rough with women. Don’t worry that the audience won’t be sympathetic; think of it instead as a way of giving the character’s actions an additional sexual and dramatic tension. Most males will be so happy to identify with him, even as a dupe, that they’ll be bound to think the actor is giving a very strong performance. (Sample reflection: “The man’s a powder keg! He might go off at any minute!”) Masculine fear and hatred of (as well as fascination with) the dominant woman, who’s smarter and richer and more powerful, is all that’s really needed to make him a solid identification figure. But if you’re still worried, make sure that he’s adored, protected, and defended by another woman (like Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Beth in Basic Instinct, who also serves as Nick’s shrink), even though he treats her with contempt.
3. Tell the story from the asshole’s viewpoint. Bear in mind, however, that just as some women may identify with the hero, some men may sympathize with the wealthy, artistic villainess. So make both characters opaque, but center the audience’s curiosity around the woman, and make that curiosity hinge exclusively on the man’s fears and desires. (For example, never raise the issue of whether Catherine is a good or a terrible novelist, because Nick doesn’t care about that—it has nothing to do with the happiness or safety of his penis.) In Basic Instinct male orgasms matter because they might turn into screams of death, but female orgasms merely establish that the hero’s a crackerjack stud—or suggest momentarily the shriek of a castrating murderer during a death thrust. Above all remember that the hero is there to frame the movie’s sexual fantasies and the woman is there to illustrate them. Stray beyond these guidelines at your financial peril.
4. Respect received notions of gender, class, and education. Make the male hero working-class and unrefined, the female villain ridiculously wealthy and well educated. Define her by her snazzy homes, wardrobe, and art collection, and him by his sordid walk-up apartment, drab clothes, and junk TV—all of which make him an easier figure for audience identification. Above all, associate her villainy with her brains; this flatters all the dimwits in the audience. (As Beth puts it to Nick at one point, “She’s evil! She’s brilliant!”) One useful way of thinking about this: he represents the movie spectator and she represents the movie star–dangerous, wealthy, smart, sexy, unknowable–or the movie itself.
5. Whenever possible keep the figurines anonymous and interchangeable. Let’s return to Basic Instinct‘s opening scene–as the movie itself does again and again. The way the anonymity of both characters is maintained in this first version, through multiple camera angles, is technically the most impressive thing going on–and functionally speaking, it’s also the most important. The audience never learns a thing about the sexy blond’s motives, nor should it be made to care about them. All the audience has to care about–momentarily–is who the blond is. And if she’s who they think she is, will she do the same thing again?
You don’t need to answer such questions–they can’t be said to matter in the long run anyway. Consider: there are only four female characters of any importance in this movie, and all four are eventually revealed to be blond lesbian or bisexual psychos who kill without any known motive. Basic Instinct is therefore an open text with limited options: viewers can select their own killer or killers, and because all four women prove to be interchangeable, it makes no difference whom they pick. Democracy in action, you might say.
1. Establish the TV drone as your base. That is, employ yards and yards of the dumbest TV cop-show dialogue you can dream up, bearing in mind that if you write it in a state of semiconsciousness, that’s the way audiences are most likely to respond to it. If a cop arrests a suspect, have her ask, “Are you arresting me?” and have him reply, “If that’s the way you want to play it.” If expert criminal psychologists and psychiatrists are meeting with cops, as they often do in this movie, have them describe the psycho killer in the most familiar-sounding and primitive psychobabble you can muster. To make sure everyone in the audience understands, bring on Gus to say something like, “For someone like me who don’t know shit from Shinola, how would you put that in layman’s terms?” Patiently explain it all over again: “You’re dealing with someone very dangerous and very ill.”
2. Insert the money words. The point of establishing a familiar TV hum is that you can then go back and insert the word “fuck” once or several times in every scene. You never hear this word on TV cop shows, so audiences will experience a sense of danger and transgression. By rough estimate, you should expect to get at least one nervous giggle or laugh for every three uses of the word, so don’t be sparing with it. (As a standard, try to use it at least as often as Eugene O’Neill used the word “pipe dream” in The Iceman Cometh.)
For the sake of variety, occasionally juice up some of the clichés with other forbidden words. (Examples: “That’s her pussy talkin’, not your brain,” and “She’s got that magna cum laude pussy that done fried up your brain.”) If you hit on an especially sharp phrase—e.g., “the fuck of the century,” or “we’ll fuck like minks, raise rug rats”—repeat it in several scenes, like a mantra. Audiences will be grateful for these little reminders of your cleverness, and reward you.
3. Choose and integrate male nicknames carefully. Nick calls Gus “Cowboy.” Gus calls Nick “Hoss.” Other cops call Nick “Shooter.” Catherine calls her novel about Nick Shooter. Nick and Gus have one scene in a country-western bar where they both wear cowboy hats. This works especially well with the swearing: it makes them seem like little boys who cuss to show how grown-up they are. This gives their friendship a certain tenderness, establishing Nick as an appropriate and likable identification figure and Gus as a lovable sidekick.
Since Basic Instinct amply demonstrates that depicting lesbian or bisexual women as psycho serial killers is vastly more profitable than depicting them as ordinary human beings, and since this is a society that clearly values profit–not the profit of consumers but the profit of investors–over accuracy, one might well wonder what’s so special or different about this movie. Stone’s twat; lesbian or bisexual psychos with killer ice picks; shots of Michael Douglas gritting his teeth very hard, smoking habitually after sex, and slamming people against walls: as John Waters might put it, what else is entertainment all about? Let’s wait for the sequel and spin-offs and find out.