Finding God on the jagged edge

Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas knows all about strange plot twists and he is convinced that God often sends big messages in the final acts of people's lives. Once a scandalous Hollywood insider, the author of twisted thrillers such as "Basic Instinct" and "Jagged Edge" can quote chapter and verse about life and death in Tinseltown. Consider the ruthless movie mogul who died during a beach vacation when a metal bar fell from a construction crane and pieced his heart. Or how about the Casanova actor whose reputation made his testicular cancer a bit too ironic?

Eszterhas will name names, when confessing his own sins.

The screenwriter's egomaniacal tantrums were the stuff of legends, along with his appetite for alcohol, cocaine and first-person research for the lap-dancing scenes in "Showgirls." Then there was his foul, blasphemous mouth.

It was tempting to connect the dots when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001, said Eszterhas, during his blunt and mildly profane testimony at Biola University's annual conference on faith and the entertainment industry. The resulting surgery claimed 80 percent of his larynx.

"Was it possible," he mused, in his one-foot-in-the-grave voice, "that God had to cut my throat?" Then he heard the harsh commandments for his new life.

"I adored my wife and children, so I tried," Eszterhas told the audience at CBS Studio Center. "I stopped smoking. I stopped drinking. I was trying my best to stay alive. I was trying my best not to die, but I knew that I couldn't do it."

Thus begins the wild conversion story he has shared many times, reading from his book, "Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith." The turning point arrives with a weeping sinner on his knees, his heart skipping beats, his hands shaking, his voice moaning through his tracheotomy tube. Then Eszterhas hears his own voice mumbling strange words.

"I didn't know why I had said it. I had never said it before," he said. "Then I listened to myself say it again and again and again. 'Please God, help me.' 'Please God, help me.' 'Please God, help me' ... I thought to myself, 'Me, asking God, begging God? Me, praying?' "

Then his pain was gone and he was staring into a bright light. He decided that, with God's help, "I could defeat myself and win, if I fought very hard and if I prayed. ... God saved me from me."

Condensed into the punchy talking points that sell screenplays, Eszterhas said his life has gone from "Malibu to Ohio, from booze to diet Sprite, from Spago to McDonald's, from Sharon Stone to Jesus." Now he walks five miles and prays for an hour every day. With his second wife and their four sons, he worships at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where he volunteers to carry the cross in Sunday Mass.

"The twisted little man" who wrote his scripts still lives in his head, he said, but is no longer in charge. The big question was whether Eszterhas could write without the tobacco, alcohol and deadly darkness that fueled his 16 screenplays, which became movies that grossed more than $1 billion.

Eszterhas said he sat frozen at his old typewriter, feeling "like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining.' " He faced a complete mental block until he pounded out: "This is how I found God or how God found me." The memoir had to come first.

Since then, Eszterhas has written two scripts, including a "narco-terrorism" thriller he thinks would fit Nicholson. He also wants to write a small-budget movie about Our Lady of Guadalupe. In an age in which Hollywood keeps remaking old blockbusters, he wonders why no one has produced spectacular, digital versions of "The Silver Chalice," "The Robe" or "Quo Vadis."

While he wants to keep working, what Eszterhas can't imagine is writing the kinds of scripts that made him rich and famous.

"My head's not really in that place. I mean, the thing that I would like to do very much, in the time that I have left, in terms of my own screenwriting, is to … write some things that reflect my faith," he said. The goal would be to put "the same kind of energy, ... into doing faith-based films that I think can really be commercially viable, that I put into other films of a different sort that became commercially successful."

McPassion pinches a nerve

People are supposed to meditate in church, but the epiphany that rocked

filmmaker Rik Swartzwelder two years ago was different.

It started when he visited several churches in Charlotte, N.C., while

visiting family. In service after service he heard preachers telling

people it was their "Christian duty" to rush out and buy a ticket for "The

Passion of the Christ." There were brochures for Mel Gibson's bloody epic

in the bulletins, posters in sanctuary lobbies and preview clips for the


Swartzwelder began thinking about the biblical drama in which, as St. Mark

said, "Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold

and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers,

and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man

should carry any vessel through the temple."

So he pounded out a sarcastic -- some would say bitter or blasphemous --

script entitled "The McPassion," a feverish vision of what would happen if

Hollywood and the fast-food industry teamed up to sell Holy Week. The

script sat on a shelf until Swartzwelder decided that Tinseltown's love

affair with born-again marketing was growing instead of fading.

The results have been posted at, a 4-minute blast

that opens with chipper children scarfing down their McPassion meals,

complete with a crown of thorns and round fries that the announcer notes

are "shaped just like the Eucharist." Then there's the McLast Supper from

Burger King of Kings or the McLoaves and Fish Sticks dinner (all you can

eat, while supplies last). The meals come with toys, like the pretend

stigmata tattoos, a simulated leather cat of nine tails, Shroud of Turin

towelettes, a kid-sized crucifix and the "cool McPassion hammer."

The pitch ends with this call to commerce: "Buy one today! Make Jesus

happy! ... Alleluia, God's lovin' it!"

None of this is terribly subtle.

"I want people to wince," said Swartzwelder. "I wince when the girl says

that dipping the body of Christ in ketchup is fun. I wince when the boy

hits the girl's palm with the toy hammer and you hear that clink, clink


The goal was to inspire heated discussions and Swartzwelder and director

Benjamin Hershleder were more than willing to infuriate many Christian

viewers in order to get their point across. The result was an online

firestorm that has been both painful and gratifying.

"I keep reminding people that I am a Christian and that, if they really

want to know, I am a big fan of what I thought was a courageous movie by

Mel Gibson," said Swartzwelder, a freelance filmmaker in Burbank, Calif.

He is best known as the creator of "The Least of These," a short film

released in 2002 that won 27 awards and played at mainstream and religious

film festivals around the world.

The Emmy Award-winner stressed that he is glad that "The Passion" rang up

$370 million at the U.S. box office, opening doors for more artists to

make more films -- From "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" to "The End of the

Spear" -- that can tap into a faith-friendly marketplace out in Middle

America. As an admirer of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, he is glad that

the "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is

rising toward $290 million in U.S. ticket sales.

Swartzwelder is even pleased that many evangelicals, after decades of

merely throwing stones at Hollywood, are now seeking positive ways to

engage the world of entertainment.

The problem, he said, is that some religious leaders have allowed movie

publicity campaigns to bleed out of the marketplace and into the church

sanctuaries that are supposed to be safe havens for vulnerable souls.

"At some point we have to ask: What is the purpose of worship? What is the

purpose of the pulpit?", asked Swartzwelder, who also has led filmmaking

workshops at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"Even with the best of intentions, using the pulpit to push movies -- even

good ones -- is dangerous. And what happens when we start seeing more

people making more movies for this audience? How do we decide which movies

to plug? There could be, no there will be, abuses and that's going to lead

us into murky waters."

A Hail Mary for Hollywood

In the Hollywood culture wars, Barbara Nicolosi is an army of one, a former nun turned screenwriter who constantly urges angry believers to love the artists who so frequently mock them.

"How many of you have complained -- or been enraged even -- in the last month by something you have seen on television or in a movie theater?", she asked a recent audience in Los Angeles.

Hundreds of hands went up.

Nicolosi gently pounced: "Now, how many of you, when you saw that something on the screen that offended you, paused and said a prayer for the filmmakers or producers behind that production?"

Two or three hands were raised -- slowly.

This is part of the problem, she said. The entertainment industry needs diversity. It needs new talent, viewpoints, passion and stories. But a creative sea change will not occur until churches grasp Hollywood's importance in American and global culture and -- yes -- even begin praying about it.

Most of the time, Nicolosi speaks to flocks of Evangelicals on behalf of a national educational project she leads called Act One: Writing for Hollywood. But on this day she was facing members of Legatus, a network of Catholic CEOs and philanthropists.

This allowed Nicolosi to do something she said she had long wanted to do, but lacked the right forum. Bowing her head, she asked the Catholics gathered before her to focus on the Hollywood community and then join her as she said: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. ..."

Nicolosi plays a unique role, but she is not alone. She is part of a growing nondenominational effort to convince schools and ministries to get serious about creating real entertainment for real audiences, instead of cranking out Christian products that preach to the choir. Her passion for this cause began while working at Paulist Productions with the late Father Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, who was best known for making the movie "Romero" and years of "Insight" television programs.

Someone had to read the large stacks of scripts offered by Christians convinced that God had inspired their work. That sad person was Nicolosi. All but a few of these efforts, she said, dryly, were "badly written, banal, on the nose, pedantic schlock."

For some reason, most of Hollywood's critics think that because movies are easy to watch, they must be easy to make. Thus, tiny squads of true believers -- with no experience and little training -- keep attempting Mission Impossible.

"We think we're going to raise $5 million and make a movie about St. John Chrysostom and suddenly people are going to fall down on their knees all over the world and Jesus will float down from heaven on a cloud," said Nicolosi.

This isn't how Hollywood works. It is a town that is fiercely committed to excellence and its high-stakes projects require teamwork and compromise by almost everyone involved, she said. It is a town fueled by unbelievable amounts of pressure, power, paranoia and agonizing moral choices.

The way to prepare to enter this arena is to learn from professionals who already thrive there. This is why Act One's seminars are taught by a team of 75 Christians with credits in shows ranging from "MASH" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," from "Braveheart" to the "X-Men." The screenwriting program ( is based at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, but will soon become independent and take on new topics, such as directing and producing.

Hollywood's critics need to get serious or they will continue to look foolish, said Nicolosi.

"There is a sense of outrage in many Christians that the industry should instinctively know how to make the movies that we want to see, and should make them," she said. "That is ridiculous. They are making the movies that THEY want to see, which is their right. ...Just suppose that the situation were reversed and we were the ones who had all of the cultural power in our hands. Would we feel obligated to make a few disgusting films for those groups of perverted folks out there to enjoy, just to be fair?

"Of course not. We have to stop begging and whining."