What Really Happened While Filming ‘Basic Instinct’ 30 Years Ago

Paul Verhoeven's 1992 erotic drama turned Sharon Stone into an icon, but the psychological thriller had an even darker real-life story behind it.
Basic Instinct
"Basic Instinct"
TriStar/courtesy Everett Collection

Basic Instinct” was a landmark for erotic thrillers, and few of its kind have bested it since.

Paul Verhoeven’s twisted murder mystery debuted March 20, 1992, and grossed over $352 million worldwide as audiences fell for the psychological game between an overworked and under-loved cop (Michael Douglas) and a novelist (Sharon Stone) who might be an ice pick-wielding murderer. Jeanne Tripplehorn marked her film debut as Dr. Beth Garner.

Yet the true mystery remains just how intense the behind-the-scenes production for “Basic” really was. The San Francisco-set psychological whodunnit led to backlash, nightmares, and intense set confrontations.

Even after Stone previously starred in Verhoeven’s “Total Recall,” she had to fight her way into the audition room for “Basic Instinct.” And that famed leg-crossing interrogation scene? Well, it lacked consent about the NSFW camera angle.

While Verhoeven later teamed up with “Basic Instinct” screenwriter Joe Eszterhas for 1995’s “Showgirls,” “Basic Instinct” spawned a 2006 sequel, also starring Stone.

In honor of the film’s 30th anniversary, we uncovered all the elements that went into the film’s lasting legacy.

“Basic Instinct” Is Based on Real People

BASIC INSTINCT, from left: Jean Tripplehorn, Michael Douglas, 1992. ©TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
“Basic Instinct”TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Screenwriter and former Rolling Stone investigative reporter Joe Eszterhas wrote “Basic Instinct” in just 13 days, per Esquire. Eszterhas had previously found success with “Flashdance” in 1983, and had penned family films (“Big Shots), comedies (“Checking Out”), and romances (“Hearts on Fire”), as well as psychological thrillers like “Jagged Edge” and “Betrayed” before writing “Basic Instinct,” which sold for a then jaw-dropping $3 million.

So, how did Eszterhas find the inspiration to create modern femme fatale Catherine Tramell and detective-with-demons Nick Curran? Well, enter Eszterhas’ previous career as a police reporter for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer. Nick is based on a real-life cop who “just liked the action too much,” Eszterhas told Nerve via Mental Floss.

Catherine, meanwhile, is based on a go-go dancer in Dayton, Ohio, that Eszterhas invited back to his hotel room — only to then be held at gunpoint. “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.”

Paul Verhoeven Viewed the Script as a Modern Hitchcockian Thriller

BASIC INSTINCT, Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, 1992, dancing
“Basic Instinct”©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Director Paul Verhoeven told The New York Times that he was drawn to how the script subverted audience expectations for thrillers. “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 said. “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.”

Similarly, Michael Douglas viewed “Basic Instinct” like a “detective novel” that had a “Gothic” moral question: “Is anybody really worthy of redemption?”

Michael Douglas Refused to Screen Test With Sharon Stone

BASIC INSTINCT, from top, Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, 1992. ©TriStar/courtesy Everett Collection
“Basic Instinct”©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

While Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone’s onscreen chemistry is palpable, the “Fatal Attraction” star allegedly didn’t want to even consider Stone for the role. In her memoir “The Beauty of Living Twice,” as reported by Vanity Fair, Stone recounts how her manager had to “break into the casting director’s office with his credit card and steal the script” since “no one would give it to us.” Stone’s manager allegedly called Verhoeven every day for seven months to land a screen test.

“I had already done ‘Total Recall’ with Paul, but Michael Douglas didn’t want to test with me,” Stone said. “Hey, I was a nobody compared to him, and this was such a risky movie. So Paul tested with me, and kept playing my test after those of everyone else who had tested.”

Sharon Stone aka “Karen” Was the 13th Choice to Play Femme Fatale Catherine Tramell

A dozen other actresses turned down the role before Douglas agreed to test with Stone. Kim Basinger, Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Geena Davis, and Ellen Barkin were among the top studio picks to play Catherine, as Esquire reported. Finally, Stone secured the co-star spot after reading with Douglas.

However, despite their previous working relationship, the director called Stone “Karen” throughout production and post-production.

BASIC INSTINCT, from left, Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, 1992. ©TriStar/courtesy Everett Collection
“Basic Instinct”©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Stone recalled Verhoeven reminding her, “You were not our first choice, Karen. No, you were not even the second or the third. You were the thirteenth choice for this film.”

And after Stone’s rocky start with Douglas, she says the former co-stars are still friends to this day.

“He taught me so much. He has been such a profoundly important human rights activist, and I admire him so much. He isn’t afraid to play the villain; he’ll say, ‘It’s the best part—you can do whatever you want,'” Stone said.

Stone later told InStyle that she made $500,000 for the film, while Douglas took home $14 million.

Sharon Stone Was “Horrified, Naked, and Stained With Fake Blood” After an Accident on Set

Stone admitted that she almost passed out while filming the opening (and iconic) ice pick stabbing sequence after her onscreen victim became unconscious. “I began to panic; I thought that the retractable fake ice pick had failed to retract and that I had in fact killed him,” Stone wrote in her memoir. “The fury of the sequence coupled with the director screaming, ‘Hit him, harder, harder!’ and, ‘More blood, more blood!’ as the guy under the bed pumped more fake blood through the prosthetic chest, had already made me weak.”

Turns out that Stone had “hit the actor so many times in the chest” that he lay unconscious. “I was horrified, naked, and stained with fake blood. And now this,” Stone penned. “It seemed like there was no line I wouldn’t be asked to skate up to the very edge of to make this film.”

Sharon Stone Couldn’t Shake Her Serial Killer Alter Ego

Oscar winner Stone called her “Basic Instinct” role “by far the most stretching that I had ever done in terms of considering the dark side of myself.”

The “terrifying” character led to sleepwalking and “hideous nightmares” while filming. In a 1992 interview with Playboy (via Mental Floss), Stone revealed production had a paramedic with an oxygen mask ready to assist her if she felt like she needed to faint. Yet it wasn’t until Stone realized she had to tap into “the roar of the kill” that she felt like she as Catherine was in control.

BASIC INSTINCT, from left: Sharon Stone, David Wells, 1992, © TriStar/courtesy Everett Collection
“Basic Instinct”©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Stone had to “tap into that rage” to play a serial killer, saying in her memoir, “It was terrifying to look into the shadow self and to release it onto film for the world to see, to allow people to believe that I was ‘like that.’ Even more, to let myself know that I have or had darkness within.”

Yet being “ugly” onscreen was “the most freeing thing” Stone said she had ever done.

“Basic Instinct” Isn’t Just About Sex: It’s All About Evil

Director Verhoeven told The New York Times that the film, while erotic, was really about the “evil” living in the 1990s. “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,” Verhoeven said. “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.”

Paul Verhoeven Had to Plead with the MPAA to Not Get a NC-17 Rating

Verhoeven’s contract required a R-rating for the film, but the many sex scenes led to an initial NC-17 rating. Verhoeven reportedly had to go back to the MPAA eight times before landing an R.

“Because it was a thriller, the idea that Sharon Stone could kill him during sex was always an element of protection,” Verhoeven previously told Rolling Stone. “So we could show sex and nudity much longer than normal, because there was another element there — the element of threat.”

Verhoeven continued, “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.” To note, Verhoeven only cut 40 seconds of footage to land the R rating.

“Strangely enough,” Verhoeven added, “the shot of Sharon Stone spreading her legs was never a problem.”

About That Famous Legs Wide Open Scene…

Sharon Stone alleged in her memoir that she did not realize director Paul Verhoeven had captured her “parts” in the now-iconic leg crossing scene where Catherine is being interrogated by the police. The “brilliant” scene was not in the original script, as screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote in his 2005 memoir “Hollywood Animal,” but Verhoeven came up with the idea on set.

“I’d been told, ‘We can’t see anything — I just need you to remove your panties, as the white is reflecting the light, so we know you have panties on,'” Stone recalled.

It was only when Stone saw a cut of the film with a room full of agents, lawyers, producers, and Verhoeven, that she realized her genitals were on display. “That was how I saw my vagina-shot for the first time,” Stone said. “I had decisions to make. I went to the projection booth, slapped Paul across the face, left, went to my car, and called my lawyer, Marty Singer.”

Sharon Stone, "Basic Instinct"
“Basic Instinct”Everett Collection

Stone continued, “I knew what film I was doing. For heaven’s sake, I fought for that part, and all that time, only this director had stood up for me. I had to find some way to become objective. So I thought and thought and I chose to allow this scene in the film. Why? Because it was correct for the film and for the character; and because, after all, I did it.”

Verhoeven responded to Stone’s claims in Variety, saying that Stone’s “version is impossible.”

“She knew exactly what we were doing,” Verhoeven said. “I told her it was based on a story of a woman that I knew when I was a student who did the crossing of her legs without panties regularly at parties. When my friend told her we could see her vagina, she said, ‘Of course, that’s why I do it.’ Then Sharon and I decided to do a similar sequence.”

Stone maintained her account, concluding, “Yes, there have been many points of view on this topic, but since I’m the one with the vagina in question, let me say: The other points of view are bullshit.”

Sharon Stone Kept Her Iconic White Dress

Stone told InStyle that she worked with costume designer Ellen Mirojnick to find the perfect look for the interrogation room scene. According to Stone, she asked director Verhoeven what to wear; he told her, “I don’t care if you wear a turtleneck and your hair in a bun,” to which Stone replied, “Good, because that’s what I was thinking.”

Stone added, “We decided to go for all white because my character had a very Hitchcockian vibe. But Ellen designed the dress so that I could sit like a man if he was being interrogated. It gave me the ability to move my arms and legs, take up space, and exercise control over a room full of men.”

And, 30 years later, Stone delights in the fact that people dress up as Catherine for Halloween. “It really has taken on a life of its own,” Stone said.

LGBTQ+ Activists Protested the Film

Basic Instinct
“Basic Instinct”screenshot

While “Basic Instinct” was being filmed in San Fransisco, LGTBQ+ advocates protested against the portrayal of a bisexual serial killer. The Washington Post reported in 1991 that after the script was leaked, screenwriter Eszterhas agreed to make “nearly a dozen pages of script changes” following a meeting with gay representatives. Activists also called for Douglas’ role as Nick to be played by a woman. Director Verhoeven allegedly denied any of Eszterhas’ edits, saying in a press statement: “Censorship by street action will not be tolerated.”

Production was granted a restraining order to keep members of Queer Nation and other groups 100 feet from the sets, with riot police in place.

Once the film premiered in March 1992, activists protested at movie theaters.

Jehan Agrama, co-leader of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said to the Los Angeles Times, “This movie links up sex and violence in an irresponsible way. We are not asking people to boycott this movie. We are not calling for censorship. We just want to educate people.”

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