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Verhoeven, Eszterhas Make Amends : Film: After a highly publicized feud over the script for 'Basic Instinct,' the writer returns to the project as executive producer.

April 01, 1991|NINA J. EASTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The name-calling and angry accusations are behind them: Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas have made amends over "Basic Instinct," the film project that Eszterhas publicly stormed off with his producer-partner Irwin Winkler last fall.

"I'm going back on as executive producer," Eszterhas said in an interview Friday. "Whatever I can do to help, I'll do."

The project, which will star Michael Douglas, came into the public spotlight last summer when Carolco, a film company with a reputation for big spending, bought Eszterhas' script at auction for a record $3 million. Shortly after, Eszterhas and Winkler left the project, claiming they were offended by Verhoeven's plans to make the psychological thriller even more sexually explicit.

Carolco stood by Verhoeven and Douglas, turning down a request by Eszterhas and Winkler that it sell the script back to them. However, the company let the pair leave the project without losing Eszterhas' $3-million writing fee or Winkler's $1-million producing fee.

The reconciliation between Verhoeven and Eszterhas started about three weeks ago when Carolco sent Eszterhas a copy of the revised script. "I was flabbergasted," the screenwriter recalled. "There were maybe half a dozen, a dozen line changes--no plot point, no character (changes)--there were just some visual changes that Paul had brought to it."

It's rare in Hollywood to see a reconciliation just months after such a nasty public feud. And it's even more unusual for one of the town's major filmmakers to publicly admit a mistake. But on Friday, that's exactly what Verhoeven did as he sat in a Los Angeles hotel room with Eszterhas.

"My initial approach to the script was based on nothing," the director of such films as "Robocop" and "Total Recall" said. The second draft that he and screenwriter Gary Goldman wrote, Verhoeven said, was the furthest away from Eszterhas' 107-page screenplay. By the fifth draft, Verhoeven realized he was moving back to Eszterhas' original words.

At the outset, said Verhoeven, "I did not see the basement of the building. Later, I discovered this basement, the heart of the script. It would be foolish to build the wrong building on top of that."

Verhoeven insisted that public comments by Eszterhas and Winkler attacking his approach to the script had nothing to do with his move back to the original screenplay. If anything, he added, his normal reaction to such attacks would have been to harden his position.

As recently as last month, Winkler told The Times that he left "Basic Instinct" because Verhoeven wanted to show body parts "in various stages of excitement." And the March issue of a San Francisco magazine quoted Eszterhas as saying that Verhoeven "seemed solely interested in emphasizing and sensationalizing the erotic aspects of my script."

But Verhoeven said that the dispute over depicting sexual scenes had been blown out of proportion. When the issue came up at his sole meeting with Winkler and Eszterhas last fall, Verhoeven said, he had already suggested other dramatic changes. The issue of sexual explicitness merely "added fuel to the fire."

However, Verhoeven acknowledged that he dropped the idea of a lesbian sex scene to which Eszterhas had objected. Both men now feel that such a scene would tip the balance of the already sex-filled script toward sensationalism.

"Basic Instinct" also stars Sharon Stone of "Total Recall" fame, as well as newcomer Jeanne Triplehorn, Leilani Sarelle ("Days of Thunder," "Shag") and George Dzundza ("Impulse," "No Mercy"). Verhoeven plans to start filming about April 8 and said that the movie will land in theaters either next fall or early next year.

But controversy continues to dog the project. Because the film features bisexual and lesbian murderers, gay and lesbian groups have launched a letter-writing campaign to Carolco insisting that the film constitutes gay-bashing.

"I'm a bit hurt by all this," said Eszterhas, who noted that the script contains straight, as well as gay, villains. "I've written three movies specifically about intolerance and injustice done to a minority group. I don't want to be a part of anything that lends itself to gay-bashing."

However, he added, "minority groups of any kind have to accept the possibility that among them is a sociopath. It is wise that the only villains we ever see on screen be white male WASPs?"

Verhoeven, whose film "The Fourth Man" was praised by gays for its portrayal of a homosexual, responded to his critics this way: "What you don't want is to say is yes or no (to) homosexuality in the story. It's just a part of life. I think it's wrong that anytime gay or bisexual characters are introduced, (their sexuality) has to be an issue."

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