Just as Christmas should center on Christ, so Thanksgiving should emphasize the recipient of thanks. God gives us amber waves of not only grain but grace, as He continues to transform the lives of those who formerly scorned His teaching.
Joe Eszterhas, born in Hungary, grew up too fast in 1940s refugee camps. He became a police reporter, Rolling Stone editor, and then Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter. He wrote scripts filled with sex, violence, and hatred, and those scripts turned into films with evocative titles such as Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge, Betrayed, Sliver, and Showgirls.
Eszterhas in Hollywood saw and heard weirdness by the bucketful, everything from Marlon Brando asking every visitor to provide a stool sample for his private collection to John Candy downing 21 rum cokes and smoking two cigarettes at a time during a script meeting. Marriage 14 years ago had some effect on him-he and Naomi soon had four children-but not until he was recovering from a throat cancer operation did the major change occur.
Eszterhas celebrated his 64th birthday last month, but in another sense he's 7 years old: He had an experience in 2001 that most of his former colleagues find incomprehensible. He discusses the big change in his new book Crossbearer (St. Martin's Press) and stopped by my New York office with his wife Naomi to talk about it.
Q: What happened to you after the refugee camps?
My mother became a schizophrenic. She stopped talking to me and my dad. She started saying the most horrible things, and she went around putting cement in the window frames and the locks saying that the aliens were coming. Life in the little one-bedroom apartment that we lived in became hellish, because you never knew what she was going to do or say. I grew up in a really tough neighborhood, and when I was 13 years old I hit a kid in the back of the head with a baseball bat and he almost died. I finally had the brains after that to stay off the streets, but before that, we had guns and knives that we rubber-banded to our arms, breaking and entering places, and all that.
Finally I started to read. I became a street reporter, worked the police beat, and would often get to the scene of the crime before the cops did. I saw too many things, and I saw many things that I really regret seeing now. Right alongside that, I developed a real fascination with serial killing and mass murders. I started interviewing people who had killed several people, I interviewed Manson. I remembered a lot of things from the refugee camps as well-all of that really pushed my writing in a darker direction.
Q: Tell us about what happened in 2001.
I was drinking about a fifth of gin a day, plus lighter stuff-beer, wine, and stuff like that, and I was smoking four packs of Salems a day. A radical surgery took out about 80 percent of my larynx. The surgeon said, "The only chance you have of surviving is if you stop smoking and drinking immediately." I had four little boys who were significantly smaller then, and there was Naomi, and so I really wanted to do this. I really try, but I'm completely obsessed with having a cigarette and having a drink.
About a month goes by. I have not had a cigarette or a drink. I'm in complete withdrawal-I'm shaking all the time, and I have no patience with my wife or my children, I'm sweating all the time, I've begun walking twice a day because I discovered that if I tire myself my cravings would be lessened and I can sleep more. So I'm walking on this particular day, it's 90-some degrees, I have a trache, and I can't speak at all with a trache. I have this child's blackboard to write on. The irony there is that not only can I not speak, but I have the worst handwriting, so no one can read it, either.
I go out, and the bugs start going after my trache, and I'm really sweating and I'm having difficulty breathing, and I start shaking. In a little street behind our house, I sit down on the curb, put my head down, and start to cry. I'm crying so hard that I see the tears hit the cement. I've never cried much as a man, since I was a boy, and I didn't cry much as a boy either. I don't remember a situation where I'm actually seeing my tears hit the cement. And as all of that is happening, as I'm crying, I put my head down and I hear a voice that says, "please God help me." I realize that it's my own voice in my head, and of course I can't speak so I'm not saying it. But I hear this voice that says "please God help me," and I realize that I'm praying.
Q: Had you prayed before?
I'm astounded that I'm praying, because I haven't prayed since I was a little kid. My mom was religious and I prayed with her, but I had marginalized and turned down God in my mind. So I hear myself praying and I'm mind-boggled that I'm praying, but the prayer continues. I think I must have continued praying in this fashion for five minutes, maybe 10 minutes. I bring my head up and open my eyes, and there's this really shimmering kind of brightness that I see. It's a bright day, it's a sunny day and all that, but this is a great brightness, and I sit there rubbing my eyes until it gradually returns to what I would say is a kind of normal brightness.
I stand up and I realize that I'm not shaking, my knees aren't weak, I feel very strong, and for the first time in my heart, I think, "I can do this." But the attachment is there: What I really feel is that I can do this with God's help, and that God is helping me and that God will help me. I walk back home, bugs are gone, I stop sweating, and it's the first time that I feel strong. And from that moment on, I began praying, consciously praying. It's tough to explain this to people who don't have God in their hearts, but I know that you do. I felt strong and at peace, and I feel a great sense of solace. I feel differently than I ever have before.
This was seven years ago, and I began trying to figure out how to pray in a direct way. What I really was trying to do, I think, was figure out my language and my own grammar vis-à-vis God. That process took some time, and in some ways it's still a work in progress, but I began praying for serious amounts each day. My walks became a time of prayer, and I began walking five miles a day in the summer and the winter. This is a man who had never physically exercised in his life and suddenly I began walking five miles a day, and loved it. My doctor said the infusion of cold would actually be good for my lungs if I didn't catch pneumonia. So I did that, and prayer became a central part of my life.
Q: You note that once you started praying again you visited an evangelical megachurch and heard a good sermon, but you wanted communion at each service and missed the Catholic liturgy of your youth. You headed back to what you call in your new book, Crossbearer, "a church full of pedophiles and riddled with hypocrisy, deceit, and corruption."
I ran into two priests who were really good priests. They are fierce in their belief, but they are also fierce in their belief that a lot of things have to be changed. And I'm trying to read the Bible more because in the Catholic tradition you really don't grow up reading the Bible. At a certain point we started going to church and I watched people carrying the cross. I thought, "one day I'd like to do that," so I asked, and they said, "terrific." I've been doing it for six years. Carrying the cross is a great honor, and often it's almost like a high.
Q: Naomi, did you see a change in Joe?
Someone said having God in your heart changes your heart, it doesn't change your personality. I was always very devout, and he would say, "Say a prayer for me." Now, he prays more often than I do and he has a very deep faith, but the person I fell in love with is still there. He has a wonderful sense of humor, sometimes he's very irreverent, but he's kinder and gentler, and he loves people more. That wasn't the man before-he kept people at arm's length, he was suspicious and cynical. He still carries some of that with him in how he views the world, but I think there was some hard layer of his heart that got peeled away in that process.
Q: Joe, when you talk about your experience, do Hollywood people think you're nuts, do they think you're scamming?
They think I'm nuts. I read Tony Blair's thing where he said that when he was prime minister, he didn't like to talk about his faith because he would be viewed as a "nutter." That's sort of what I feel. Many people have known that I've found God and I'm living my life very differently. And it's Hollywood, so they don't really confront me on it: I just notice that I don't hear from them anymore. I went back and buried my old agent, Guy McEwan, and he was a day away from dying, and there was a group of his Hollywood friends in the room. I went up to him and I said a prayer, and I hugged him and kissed him. When I turned away I saw the group of people, and they were in shock.
Q: If you had a vague sense of God, would that be OK in Hollywood, as opposed to believing specifically in Christ? Is the cross the major offense?
Both are violations, but the fact that Christ is so deeply in my life, and Christ is a figure I live with as a brother and as someone who inhabits my heart-in terms of Hollywood thinking, that's a special offense.
Q: The reason your story makes sense to me, beyond a general sense of this is what happens to Christians, is that I did a lot of messing up of my own and then also had through God's grace an experience of light. That seems to happen.
Yes, it is an experience of light, and that light not only suffuses my heart but makes such a difference in the way I assess people and the world, and the things I would like to write from here on out.
Q: So what would you like to write from here on out? Your idea for a "Saviors" TV series was shot down?
We went through both network and cable, and I think they're wrong-it could have been a really interesting, cutting-edge series that would flex my faith. And I tried to get involved in a project about St. Paul, and that didn't go anywhere either. Speaking in terms of film, there is no doubt that there is a deep anti-Christian prejudice in Hollywood. I've worked there, I've written 16-some movies, I've been a screenwriter in town for 30 years, I've produced a lot of my movies, and I always thought and I said in my books that Hollywood runs on greed. If someone thought the phone book would make money, they would film it. Well, the truth is that The Passion of the Christ has made an incredible amount of money. Narnia has made an incredible amount of money.
If you put it in the crassest Hollywood terms, there is a market there. There are millions and millions of people who feel they're not getting faith-based entertainment. I'm not talking about hitting people over the head with a baseball bat and proselytizing and being a missionary-I'm talking about telling real, good stories about people. Not even gigantic budget stories, but looking at the kind of heroism that people show in everyday life. They are moving and poignant, they can even be funny and poignant. I think the only way to get them made is to go around the system and get independent financing, and I think that is possible to do.
Q: Is there a market for stories that show both light and darkness? Can you make stuff that's real and still suffused with light?
I am fairly confident that I don't do saccharine. I think I'm too based in edgy reality. To do the kind of commercially successful filmmaking that I'm talking about, it can't be saccharine, and it can't be proselytizing. They have to be stories that move people, not because you're beating them over the head but because the message inherently comes out in the story that you tell.
Look at a movie like Rocky: There are lots of stories like that, that are uplifting, moving stories set in a gritty reality, and you can do those stories with Christian values. Look at the Johnny Cash movie, Walk the Line. The most important element of Johnny Cash's life was his faith. He wrote a novel about St. Paul, he financed a movie about Jesus-it was at the core of the man. Walk the Line doesn't mention it. It's a story about a guy who does drugs and has bad behavior. In the process they belie the man, because that's a false picture of who Johnny Cash was. But you could tell that same story-assume that movie hadn't been made-if I wrote that movie and did it, that element would certainly be there, and I think it would have been a better movie.
Q: So, besides The Passion of the Christ and Narnia, is there any movie from the last few years that you like?
Really liked anything? I can't think of anything. We're trapped in a world of endless remakes of Batman or Iron Man or whoever the next man is.
Q: What have you read recently that you like?
Recently, I've read mostly what some would call devotional literature. I've read a lot of Thomas Merton-The Seven Story Mountain and the other stuff, the notebooks, the poetry-I find it very strong. Also Walter Wangerin, I'm a big fan. Henri Nouwen fascinates me in terms of broken people and broken ministries. I love Graham Greene-I've always loved Greene, but I've read him even more in the past six years. I think The Power and the Glory is very powerful, A Burnt-Out Case I love .
Q: Which social issues are important to you?
The 10,000-pound elephant in the room is abortion. I view myself as a baby Christian, but that's an overwhelming issue, and I don't think there's any way around it while still maintaining a love for Jesus. Abortion is murder, and we're killing people. Life begins at the moment of conception-I know that deep in my heart.
Q: Did you know that before you became a Christian?
No, I did not.
Q: How did you come to understand that?
Without being too specific, I finally understood it because someone who is very dear to me had an abortion, and I actually played a helping part in this abortion. I feel what I did was very wrong. It was about 10 years ago, and I felt at the time that what I was doing was wrong. Now I feel that it was really a sin, and I asked God to forgive me.
Q: I see what you're not doing now that you have come to Christ-what are you doing that you wouldn't have done otherwise?
I'm praying a lot. I'm trying to read the Bible more. But you know the greatest change? I feel a sense of peace, I feel differently than I ever have before. That's the only way I can describe it.