Twenty-five years ago—on March 20, 1992—Sharon Stone introduced moviegoers to Catherine Tramell, a novelist and suspected serial killer who stabs her victims with an ice pick while engaged in acrobatic sex acts. Michael Douglas—who starred in another erotic thriller, Fatal Attraction—played her love interest, a San Francisco detective named Nick Curran. Directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas (who would team up again for 1995’s Showgirls), Basic Instinct grossed $352,927,224 worldwide against a $49 million budget, making it the ninth highest-grossing domestic film of 1992. (The much-delayed 2006 sequel, on the other hand, bombed at the box office.)
The controversial movie angered the LGBTQ community (particularly in San Francisco, where filming was protested) because of the psychopathic nature of Stone’s bisexual character, though Stone saw her more as a “party girl,” and Eszterhas thought of her as being omnisexual. Here are 15 not-so-basic facts about the revolutionary thriller.
1. THE SCRIPT SOLD FOR A RECORD $3 MILLION.
Back in the day, spec scripts could sell for millions of dollars. Joe Eszterhas joined that club when he sold Basic Instinct—a script that took him just 13 days to write—for $3 million in 1990. Eszterhas told The A.V. Club that the media liked to focus on a writer’s failures, which occurred when Eszterhas’ Showgirls tanked at the box office. “CBS Evening News came with a helicopter crew and found me on a beach in Florida and interviewed me about the money I got for Basic Instinct,” Eszterhas said. “The other thing that I don’t think was quite fair was that after that whole period, where scripts—mine and Shane Black's and half a dozen other writers’ scripts—went for a lot of money, the media zeroed in on the box office for some of those scripts, and they always zeroed in on the failures … When Basic Instinct went on to earn $400 million worldwide, there were no stories that said, ‘[Executive producer] Mario Kassar paid three million bucks for this.’”
2. CATHERINE AND NICK WERE BASED ON REAL PEOPLE.
Before he became a multimillionaire screenwriter, Eszterhas was a police reporter for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer. “I met a cop who just liked the action too much,” Eszterhas told Nerve. “He was always in the middle of shootings. He was a great cop on one level, but on another, you suspected he liked it too much. That’s what Nick Curran does in Basic Instinct. As Catherine says in the movie, he got too close to the flame. He loved the flame.”
Tramell also comes from a person Eszterhas knew in Ohio, this time a go-go dancer in Dayton. One night he picked the stranger up and they went back to his hotel room to have some fun. “She reached into her purse, and she pulled out a .22 and pointed it at me,” he told Nerve. “She said, ‘Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull this trigger.’ I said, ‘I didn’t do anything to hurt you. You wanted to come here, and as far as I know, you enjoyed what we just did.’ And she said, ‘But this is all guys have ever wanted to do with me, and I’m tired of it.’ We had a lengthy discussion before she put that gun down. Those two random characters are where those parts of Basic Instinct come from.”
3. MICHAEL DOUGLAS AND PAUL VERHOEVEN APPROACHED THE MOVIE AS IF IT WERE A DETECTIVE NOVEL.
Verhoeven wanted to make a modern version of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller—except with a lot more sex. “In traditional films, the killer lurks in a house and the victim walks into the kitchen, turns on the radio, makes coffee, opens a book, gets comfortable—and then the killer strikes,” he told The New York Times. “In this film, the killer hides—but on the bed. The situation is the same, but the two people are facing each other in bed, not the kitchen.”
Douglas agreed with the film noir aspect of the movie. “Fatal Attraction was a picture close to home for a lot of people because you could identify with those characters,” he also told the Times. “It was a reality tale, while Basic Instinct is like a detective novel that people like to read in the privacy of their homes. It’s almost Gothic. It’s certainly more dramatic. And the real question here is: Is anybody really worthy of redemption?”
4. THE ICE PICK SCENE GAVE SHARON STONE NIGHTMARES.
In a 1992 interview with Playboy, Stone revealed that she didn’t mind the sex scenes but did mind the violence. “I made my best friend lie by the bed while I did the scene—just lie there by the camera telling me jokes,” she said. “God! They had a paramedic with an oxygen mask there because I’d start to feel like I was going to pass out.”
By the time she had to loop some of her sequences in post-production, Stone “had seen the film and recognized that Catherine was like a carnivorous cat on the kill,” she said. “That’s how I understood the energy of it. Once I got that—once I understood the roar of the kill—I told them I didn’t want to loop it one bit at a time like they usually do. I wanted to do it all at once. I wanted all the lights in the room turned off. I wanted to just do it. When they turned the lights back on, you could have knocked Paul off his chair with a feather.”
5. VERHOEVEN GOT AWAY WITH LONG SEX SCENES BECAUSE IT WAS A THRILLER.
Basic Instinct was slapped with an NC-17 rating, and Verhoeven, whose contract required a R-rating, had to go back to the MPAA eight times before they’d lower the rating to a R. “Because it was a thriller, the idea that Sharon Stone could kill him during sex was always an element of protection,” the director told Rolling Stone. “So we could show sex and nudity much longer than normal, because there was another element there—the element of threat.”
Mike Medavoy, the head of the movie’s distributor, TriStar, talked Verhoeven into the lesser rating. “If we make Basic Instinct as an NC-17, it could make $50 million or $250 million—I have no idea,” Medavoy told Verhoeven. “But if we make it as an R, it will certainly make $150 million. So let's do that.” “And it made sense, at least from a business point of view, so I had to adapt to that,” Verhoeven said. “But going back and forth between the studio or the editing room and the MPAA, having to go back and change more and more frames ... it was very unpleasant. Strangely enough, the shot of Sharon Stone spreading her legs was never a problem.”
Verhoeven ended up cutting about 40 seconds of material, which showed up in the European version. “Actually, I didn’t have to cut many things, but I replaced things from different angles, made it a little more elliptical, a bit less direct,” Verhoeven explained to The New York Times.
6. THE LEG-CROSSING SCENE WAS NOT IN THE SCRIPT.
Basic Instinct's most famous scene is undoubtedly the interrogation scene, where Stone notoriously crosses and uncrosses her legs. But Eszterhas didn't write it. The scene has been parodied many times throughout the past 20-plus years, including a 2015 bit with Douglas on James Corden. “Paul Verhoeven decided that scene would be more fun if Sharon didn’t wear any underwear that day,” Eszterhas wrote in his 2005 memoir, Hollywood Animal. “In other words, the most famous moment of any of my films was Paul Verhoeven’s. I am a militant and militantly insufferable screenwriter who insists that the screenwriter is as important as the director, who insists the director serves the screenwriter’s vision, and whose most famous and most memorable screen moment was created by the director, Paul Verhoeven.”
During a Story Expo Q&A, Eszterhas again talked about that famous scene. “I think it was brilliant for Paul to do it that way,” Eszterhas said. “I deny that’s the reason why the movie was a hit … In some ways I’m really sorry I didn’t write the damn scene.”
7. STONE PLAYED THE INTERROGATION SCENE AS IF SHE WERE PLAYING A GAME.
Instead of allowing the male law enforcement to intimidate her character, Stone played the role with confidence. “The ruse they use—‘We have the power, we’re going to show you’—didn’t cut the mustard with [Catherine],” Stone told Playboy. “Her attitude was, ‘You're so powerful. Aren’t you cute!’ And, of course, she had all the power. These men put her in a position where she was alone in a chair in the center of an empty room—surrounded. That would be a very intimidating position to be in unless she disarmed them, which she did. At the police station she could have been stricken and scared. But instead she thought, ‘This is going to be fun. Oh, so you want me to sit in the middle of the room here? Oh, charming. Why is that? You want to make sure you can look up my dress? OK, you can look up my dress.’ It was a game.”
8. ESZTERHAS REGRETS “GLAMORZING SMOKING” IN THE MOVIE.
In 2001, Eszterhas was diagnosed with throat cancer, and he lost a significant amount of his larynx. He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in 2002 about the hazards of smoking, especially in the movies. “Sharon Stone’s character smokes; Michael Douglas’s is trying to quit,” he wrote. “She seduces him with literal and figurative smoke that she blows into his face. In the movie’s most famous and controversial scene, she even has a cigarette in her hand.” He said Big Tobacco loved the movie so much that they launched a Basic brand of cigarettes. “I think smoking should be as illegal as heroin … So I say to my colleagues in Hollywood: What we are doing by showing larger-than-life movie stars smoking onscreen is glamorizing smoking. What we are doing by glamorizing smoking is unconscionable. A cigarette in the hands of a Hollywood star onscreen is a gun aimed at a 12- or 14-year-old.”
9. STONE DIDN’T FEEL COMFORTABLE AROUND DOUGLAS.
Stone told Playboy she didn’t think he felt at ease around her either, but it worked for the movie. “I think that kind of discomfort lends itself to this kind of movie,” she said. “Tension is good. I basically didn’t get to know Michael. There was something about the mystery of not knowing each other that lent itself to this situation. It’s odd, because now I have this very intimate bond with a stranger.” Despite that, Stone described working with him as “primal.” “It was all about watching him, observing his movements, provoking him. If one were to believe in karma, I would say there is some karmic circle yet unfulfilled between the two of us. Our energy together was strong. It still isn't comfortable for me, but I think it works very well for our work together.”
10. VERHOEVEN DIDN’T THINK THE MOVIE WAS JUST ABOUT SEX.
“I always thought the movie was about evil,” Verhoeven told The New York Times. “I always thought that with an economy falling down, with the dangers of life all around you—the danger of AIDS, the danger of crime—people are more aware of the fact that evil is an existing, everyday factor in your life. But this is my intuition. I don’t want to push it. As an artist, as a director, it’s sometimes better not to be too clear with yourself about what you’re doing. Otherwise you might be pushing too hard.”
11. STONE MANIPULATED THE DIRECTOR TO GET THE PART.
Thirteen actresses besides Stone were considered for Catherine, but only Stone was willing to do it. Just as Catherine manipulates men, Stone manipulated the director to get the role. Back then Stone wasn’t a big name, and didn’t read for the part fearing she’d be disappointed. She finally read the script and knew she was right for the role but didn’t want to call Verhoeven—whom she had worked with on Total Recall—and ask if she could audition for him. “I wouldn’t ask, because I didn’t want him to test me just because he felt obligated,” she told Playboy. One day Verhoeven had her come in to dub lines for an airplane version of Total Recall, so she wore a tight Catherine-esque dress to demonstrate to Verhoeven that she could play the maneater part. “I was being cool. Very cool,” she said. “I didn’t want him to think I was insane, but I did want to give him a general idea that I could transform myself. Men are visually stimulated—and that’s usually enough, at least at first.” The dress worked, and Stone tested with Douglas and won the role.
12. ESZTERHAS QUIT THE PROJECT BUT CAME BACK LATER ON.
Eszterhas felt Verhoeven was compromising his script. “My intention when I wrote the script was that it be a psychological mystery with the love scenes done subtly,” Eszterhas told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “Every love scene in my script begins with the words: ‘It is dark; we can’t see clearly.’”
He then thought Verhoeven and Douglas ganged up on him. “Michael was leading the fight, feeling that Catherine was one-upping his character all the time, and that there was no redemption, and he wanted the movie to end with him shooting and killing her,” Eszterhas told the London Screenwriters’ Festival. “Paul backed him up. I said, ‘If you want to do this I won’t be involved in killing my own child. It would make it into a bad TV movie.’ In my mind, this was film noir, not a morality tale, and that’s what made it unique and daring. Paul stood up and said, ‘I am the director, you are the writer, you do what I tell you!’ I said, ‘Like f*ck you do!’”
A few months later, Verhoeven called Eszterhas and decided to return to his version of the script. “He said he hadn’t understood the ‘basement’ of my script, as he called it, that it was about good and evil,” Eszterhas said. “He not only went back to my draft, he actually held a press conference and said this. For a director to mumble these words is quite something; for him to hold a press conference is mind-boggling.”
13. IT WAS “BASIC HORROR” FOR STONE TO SEE HERSELF ON THE SCREEN.
Having abandoned herself so completely to the character, when Stone finally saw the film on the big screen she “couldn't believe that it was me. I couldn't remember doing all the things I had done,” she confessed to Playboy.
“Halfway through the movie, it was as if I were impaled. I was just sitting there, mouth open, staring at the screen, listening to my heartbeat and wondering how long it would be before it was over, wondering who I should call first to tell them never to see this movie. It was basic horror. It’s one thing when you take enormous risks and go way out on a limb in life. It’s another thing when someone plays it back for you.” After struggling on the sidelines for so many years, she knew Basic Instinct was the “opportunity of a lifetime.” “I’m either gonna play this part and it’s gonna rock things, or I’m gonna be hanging my head in shame at the supermarket. There was no gray area. It was an all-or-nothing roll of the dice.”
14. KATHLEEN TURNER WAS A MODEL FOR CATHERINE.
For her role as a femme fatale-type character, Stone referenced Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. “Kathleen Turner is a great, great actress whom I have always enjoyed watching,” Stone told Playboy. “You never know what she’s going to do. So, yes, I thought of her when I did my part. I thought, if Kathleen Turner did this, she wouldn't draw a line here, she’d go further. I also thought of Judy Davis. If she did this part, we’d be rocked right out of our seats. I saw Impromptu regularly while I was making the movie, thinking, she has great courage. I want to be like her.”
15. STONE AND ESZTERHAS HAD A ONE-NIGHT STAND.
In Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas recounted the time he slept with Stone after the movie came out. “I’m glad I nailed her, though. Not because nailing her felt all that good (it was okay). But because as a result of Sharon Stone’s presence in my life, I met and married Naomi, my one true love,” he wrote.
He’s referring to the filming of Sliver (Eszterhas wrote the script), when Stone had an affair with producer William McDonald, who left his wife of five months, Naomi Baka, for Stone. The couple got engaged but eventually Stone dumped him. On the plus side, Eszterhas swooped in and hooked up with Naomi; they are still married today.
Eszterhas said neither he nor Stone “attached too much significance to our one-night stand.” “I figured that since I had written the biggest hit of her life for her, she was just saying thank you. And I knew that Sharon thought she was flattering me that night by treating me as if I were the director [she wouldn’t sleep with Verhoeven] and not a screenwriter, but still. Basic Instinct had been the number one box office hit of the year … in the whole world! I felt I deserved her.”