Los Angeles Times, April 29, 1991
Gays Bashing ‘Basic Instinct’
Movies: Activists take to the streets of San Francisco to battle a film they call offensive. The writer and director are considering script revisions.
By David J. Fox and Donna Rosenthal
SAN FRANCISCO–Filming the sexual murder thriller “Basic Instinct” in this city is turning into your basic nightmare.
At every turn, Carolco Pictures seems to be running into difficulty with protesters, city officials and vandalism.
Even the film’s star Michael Douglas has had his bad moments. As columnist Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Douglas was dining at the city’s famous Washington Square Bar & Grill when he was asked for an autograph by a waiter who took Douglas to be his father Kirk, the star of “Spartacus.”
To which an amused Michael Douglas replied: “God, do I really look that old?”
“Basic Instinct” has members of the local gay and lesbian community concerned because of what they feel are offensive portrayals of women–and lesbians in particular. Some of the more vocal activists have attempted to disrupt the shooting, and vow to continue doing so, until this script is revised.
The activism has generated concern among San Francisco’s small, but durable, filmmaking community. Some believe the current publicity may discourage Hollywood from using locations here.
Said one filmmaker: “We’re mad as hell because once again it doesn’t seem that San Francisco is a city very conducive to making films. This liberal fascism has been going on for years.”
If so, you couldn’t prove that by screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who makes his home in nearby Marin County and whose earlier film, “Jagged Edge,” was set here. Eszterhas, who was paid a record $3 million for his “Basic Instinct” script, and director Paul Verhoeven met last week with representatives of the gay groups.
Eszterhas told them he understood their concerns and would make some revisions. He is to present the revisions today.
Last week’s meeting also produced some openly heated words between Eszterhas and Verhoeven, who only recently had announced they had patched up a public feud over Verhoeven’s interpretation of the screenplay.
Parties on both sides doubt that Eszterhas can make changes acceptable to the protesters and Verhoeven without destroying the structure of the movie, which has already been in production for three weeks.
“Not unless the script is completely rewritten and the premise changed, will we stop demonstrating,” said Jonathan Katz of the Queer Nation group that, along with the radical ACT UP organization, have led the protests.
Katz said demonstrators plan to use “sophisticated strategies” to disrupt shooting this week. “We have the shooting schedule of the film, and we’ll really go into action while they’re shooting on public streets.”
This message hasn’t been lost on Carolco. Last Wednesday, the company and producer Alan Marshall won a temporary restraining order against the protesters from a municipal court judge. The filmmakers said they feared disruptions and had evidence of threats. They asked that the demonstrators not be allowed closer than 200 yards from filming. The judge made it 100 feet.
Despite the order, the protesters Wednesday night confronted riot gear-attired San Francisco police as filming began outside the Moscone Center downtown. They chanted slogans such as “Hollywood, you stink” and yelled and blew whistles. The demonstrations continued each night through the weekend.
Carolco’s crews arrived at First and Clementina streets one night to find that the temporary sets that had been constructed were splattered with paint and were unusable. Filming had to be relocated while workers repaired the damage.
On Thursday night, the demonstrators returned to Moscone Center, this time waving American flags and signs advising unsuspecting motorists to honk their horns if they love the local 49ers football team, or if they support U.S. troops. The ploy worked, in as much as drivers sounded their horns, but the noise had little effect on filming of a car chase, since sound in such scenes is usually replaced in the studio.
Few seem happy with this latest battle by the bay. Mayor Art Agnos has issued a statement saying he agrees with the protesters about the negative images of “Basic Instinct.” But the mayor added that his city will not be “in the position of censoring a movie script. Nor should we be giving a Jesse Helms-like seal of approval to programs or scripts.”
Nor are the police pleased to be cast in the dreary role of standing outside from dark to dawn in chilly weather to protect what normally would be routine movie making.
In a city where there are about 300 demonstrations a year, about 100 police were dispatched on Wednesday night alone, leading to more than a few grumbles about civic priorities.
Meanwhile, there’s the nightmare of Ray Chalker, the owner of Rawhide II, a gay and lesbian country and Western bar in the South of Market Street district. Chalker, who also publishes a local gay newspaper, rented his facility to Carolco for filming two weeks ago. Since then, his bar has been picketed; his property has been vandalized, and sign have been posted around the gay-oriented Castro Street district announcing: “Kill Ray.”
“I never heard anything about the controversy before I rented the place,” said Chalker, in an interview the other day.
Chalker, who has often been at odds with some members of San Francisco’s activist gay community, said: “They talk about violence against gay people, and here they do violence against their own. I have two friends who are security guards who are watching my house.”
Chalker said he has had “threats on my voice mail, constant harassment, Super Glue put into the locks of my home and vandalism to my $80,000 Mercedes.”
Specific objections to “Basic Instinct” are based on its depiction of two lesbian characters and one bisexual character as villains. The movie, to be distributed next fall or winter by Tri-Star Pictures, has been described by writer Eszterhas as a twisted love story about homicidal impulse and thrill killing. Douglas plays a police detective who is trying to track down a bisexual killer and falls in love with her.
“It is yet another movie which pits lesbian and gay characters against heterosexuals and makes the lesbian characters into the villains,” said Hollie Conley of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watchdog group.
“Hollywood never seems to come up with a realistic depiction of lesbians and gays,” Conley charged after he had attended the Wednesday meeting about the script with Eszterhas, Verhoeven, representatives of Queer Nation, ACT UP, Community United Against Violence and Supervisor Harry Britt (who is frequently in the political vanguard on issues of concern to the city’s large gay community).
The groups are said to want the police detective’s character changed to a woman, and a scene, which they describe as a “date rape,” eliminated.
“We don’t want the woman thanking him for his abusive sexuality,” said Katz.
“We’re also asking there be a disclaimer that this film does not represent this community,” added Katz.
But he said that it is significant that both the director and writer are coming back with responses to the groups’ demands.
Britt’s legislative aide Rick Ruvolo said the protesting groups “appreciate the money the filmmakers spend in the community, but we don’t want it when it’s at the expense of minorities.”
Ruvolo, along with others who attended the meeting, described Eszterhas as “sincere and understanding” while he said Verhoeven “was more interested in artistic freedom, even though it may result in pain and suffering of people on the street.”
Ruvolo said it was clear both the writer and director “have a lot of problems to work out.” Their conversation, Ruvolo said, “was heated, to say the least. I think they’re trying to work through relationship problems.”
Even before “Basic Instinct” began to shoot in San Francisco, the film was controversial. The script set a record sales price last summer. Later, Eszterhas and his producer-partner Irwin Winkler angrily left the project when they learned that director Verhoeven planned to make the film more sexually explicit than Eszterhas had written.
Earlier this month, Eszterhas and Verhoeven said they had reconciled their differences–Eszterhas noting that the changes Verhoeven had planned were minor.
Verhoeven, who is staying in a hotel here under an assumed name, said Sunday he would have no comment “until I see the proposed changes.”
Reached at his home, Eszterhas played down any talk of disagreement with Verhoeven. He said Wednesday’s meeting “was the first time I had literally seen him since the beginning of April. I wish he would have stayed in closer touch with me, so I could have spoken with him on these matters.”
Eszterhas said he had written Verhoeven a letter April 15 as complaints about the film’s depictions were emerging.
In that letter, he wrote: “I also want to strongly urge you to find the time to sit down with me in a meeting with representatives of the gay community. I realize you are busy, but I think it would only be fair if we listened to their concerns first hand. We are, ultimately, all of us, in the communications business. And when people feel they are being hurt, I think we have a responsibility as human beings and as filmmakers to listen to them.”