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||Paul Verhoeven started out directing movies for the Dutch navy.
He's obsessed with greed and corruption.
After getting a Ph.d. in
mathematics, he made Arnold Schwarzenegger
(Verhoeven spoke to fellow director Bruce LaBruce from his office in Hollywood.)
BRUCE: Your film career began in Holland, a country people generally associate with tolerant attitudes about sex. But you couldn't get funding for your work there after you made Spetters in 1980.
PAUL: Yes. All Dutch movies were fifty to sixty percent subsidized by the government. I was denied government funding because my movies were considered to be decadent, perverted, and antigovernment. That's when I had to leave. The problem was the leftists they are so fucking dogmatic. At that time in Holland, they were often more fascistic than the right.
BRUCE: Spetters, of course, is about three amateur dirt-bike racers who try to emulate their pro motorcycle hero, played by Rutger Hauer. In the DVD commentary you confess to participating off-camera in the scene in which the dirt-bikers pull out their dicks to see whose is the longest.
PAUL: Oh, yeah. And my director of photography, Jost Vacano, was also part of the contest. In fact, he won. Spetters prompted the formation of a Dutch group called NASA, or the National Anti-Spetters Association, which targeted my work.
BRUCE: You've talked about having a nervous breakdown early in your career that made you question your identity as a filmmaker.
PAUL: Well, my sanity too. When I was twenty-six or twenty-seven, I almost went mad. It was as if my subconscious had broken through. Neitzsche had the same experience and he just didn't recover.
BRUCE: What was it like?
PAUL: I had continuous dreams in which I was in a pit filled with water. The walls were at the point of breaking and there were all sorts of things behind them. I think I kept my sanity because of my wife.
BRUCE: Because of your art, as well?
PAUL: After that experience in my twenties, I forced myself to resist the irrational, and rely on reality as much as possible. My Dutch work was often based on true stories. The American films I made later are mostly fantasies, but I never completely lost the tendency to look at the dark side of reality.
BRUCE: After the Spetters witch-hunt in Holland, how did you like working in Hollywood?
PAUL: For a long time I just worked with small studios, so I was protected from the real Hollywood. For Flesh and Blood and Robocop, I worked with Orion, which has since gone bankrupt and disappeared. Then I segued over to Carolco.
BRUCE: Which is gone now, too, right?
PAUL: Yes, but I did Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls with Carolco. After that, I worked with a really big studio, Sony/Columbia. With Starship Troopers, the
studio regime was changing every four or five months so nobody cared what we were doing. We just moved through the maze of the corporate net. But with Hollow Man there was no escape anymore it was a corporate movie.
BRUCE: Didn't you have problems with the way that Starship Troopers was marketed?
PAUL: The studio promoted it like an edgier Star Wars. And it's clearly a different type
of movie. It's got more depth.
BRUCE: Definitely. It's about a fascistic, hyper-militarized society whose enemy is a race of giant insects from another galaxy. The insects are viewed as a worthless life form that must be exterminated. It's more like a Leni Riefenstahl movie than Star Wars.
PAUL: Yes, there are a lot of quotes from Leni Riefenstahl in the film, but she actually believed in the propaganda and I don't. I felt that the soldier characters were all idiots. They were willing to die for their country because of the propaganda they had been fed.
BRUCE: Watching your movies always turns me into a total film geek. There's something extremely cohesive and obsessive about your themes and narratives you're like an auteurist's wet dream.
PAUL: That's the nicest description I've ever heard.
BRUCE: I also have to tell you, video store clerks are your biggest fans. The audio commentaries on your DVDs have a cult following of their own.
PAUL: [laughs] Yeah, I've noticed that. I spend a lot of time on them. People who listen to these commentaries are often interested in making films themselves. I want to let them
know that the things they struggle with are quite normal, and that they can learn from
BRUCE: I loved when you said that a director should humiliate himself in front of the cast and crew because it relaxes everyone. When I was younger, I directed some art/porno films in which I also performed sexually in front of the camera. One of my rules was never to make anyone do anything on film that I wouldn't do myself.
PAUL: With sex scenes, I feel that the actors have to be fully prepared no surprises. They have to know exactly what the director has in mind. No one should be sitting on a set naked and suddenly hear from the director that he is supposed to do something he didn't know about.
BRUCE: With the famous scene in your sex thriller Basic Instinct, in which Sharon Stone uncrosses and crosses her legs, there have been rumors that she wasn't really aware of the camera angle.
PAUL: I've been trying to set the record straight about that for years! [laughs] At different times, Sharon has said a lot of contradictory things, but my recollection of the scene has always been very consistent. The shot had been thoroughly discussed with her, of course. I was there with perhaps four people, including a boom man and Jost, the DP. She had told me that she wanted to work with a very small crew.
BRUCE: That's standard for a scene of this nature, I would think.
PAUL: Yes. So we shot it at around seven p.m. And she saw all the angles, because we taped it. Since Jost and I are both Dutch, she was in the presence of two liberal people who would not be shocked by a shot like that. At the time, she had no problem with it.
BRUCE: People have debated the scene endlessly one side says it's exploitative, while the other calls it the ultimate moment of pussy power. Essentially it made Stone a superstar.
PAUL: During the filming, the atmosphere was very relaxed. When Sharon saw it in a theater for the first time, it was completely different. She brought in about twenty people all kinds of managers, agents, and friends. I think they were afraid that the explicit shot would cancel out the strength of her star-making performance. So Sharon came up to me and said she wanted it out.
BRUCE: She had a history of doing nudity in her early films, didn't she?
PAUL: I think she had done nudity before. She later said she was going to sue me, but of course she never did because she knew that she had agreed to it. In all honesty, she initially loved the idea because of how it symbolized female dominance.
BRUCE: I love all the sexual sight gags in your movies. There's a scene in your second feature film, Turkish Delight, in which Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven are having sex in a car. Just before he comes, he accidentally turns the windshield wipers on with his foot and the cleaning fluid spurts out. It's as if the car is having a sympathetic orgasm.
PAUL: Right. I'm not so sure how subtle that is.
BRUCE: It's just a perfect moment. Or that scene in The Fourth Man in which Jeroen Krabbe uses his hands to flatten Renée Soutendijk's breasts so she looks like a boy.
It works so well in the context of the movie which is about a writer, played by Krabbé, who begins an affair with Soutendijk's character, a mysterious female hairdresser,
but ends up more interested in her sexy young boyfriend.
PAUL: That's all based on personal experience.
BRUCE: Throughout your oeuvre, the theme of homosexuality is extremely strong. Some
people think you're a rabid homophobe. I'm curious what draws you, as a heterosexual,
to this subject.
PAUL: I strongly believe that everybody is born with the possibility to go either way. I remember when I was thirteen or so, there was a water-polo player who had the most beautiful body I had ever seen. It was like a Greek statue of Hermes I couldn't keep my eyes off that man. You could call that Platonic homosexual love. I think the possibility was there for me, as it is for everybody, but circumstances made me move to the other side. I'm not homophobic. Just look at my movies, like Flesh and Blood. The only people in that film who sincerely care about themselves or each other are homosexual. Everyone else is driven only by opportunism or by money.
BRUCE: In Spetters you explained homophobia so clearly. The character that beats up homosexuals is repressing his own homosexuality.
PAUL: Spetters was based on a series of articles published in Holland about the violent behavior of homosexual gangs in Rotterdam.
BRUCE: Even in your early Dutch films, there seems to be a certain Hollywood influence. For example, your film language seems very influenced by Hitchcock.
PAUL: Perhaps all of my movies are unconsciously influenced by Hitchcock because I studied him so thoroughly in my twenties. I probably watched Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Rear Window fifteen or twenty times each.
BRUCE: Basic Instinct clearly references Vertigo.
PAUL: I saw Basic Instinct as a Hitchcock film for the '90s. I'm sure that if Hitchcock had been alive, he would have immediately bought that script and made the movie.
BRUCE: What about Total Recall?
PAUL: I would compare it to North by Northwest. There's a lot of moving around, there's a dangerous woman who might be a prostitute. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on an adventure that's not his own, and he's mistaken for the wrong guy. At the end of Total Recall, when Ronny Cox and Arnold are standing opposite each other in the alien oxygen provider, they kind of rotate around each other. That's identical to the scene in North by Northwest where Cary Grant enters James Mason's villa. Mason and Grant rotate around this imaginary axis the figures are always circling left or right.
BRUCE: So Hitchcock is a stylistic reference.
PAUL: Not exactly. I used that technique because it's a really good tool for creating a sense of unease. The scene in Total Recall when Dr. Edgemar tells Arnold that he's still living in a dream is another Hitchcock reference. First the camera is at eye level, and then, when the doctor makes this statement that's so difficult to swallow, the camera descends. Hitchcock used sudden low camera angles in several movies to emphasize a moment of alienation or weirdness.
BRUCE: One of your writers called your movies fascism for liberals. That's an interesting oxymoron.
PAUL: Yes, it is. In his novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein envisioned a kind
of military fascist utopia. Although we liked a lot of things in the book, I needed to
present the extremity to which that kind of utopia would lead. It's not very far away
from the Bush government, in fact.
BRUCE: Why does your irony elude people so easily? In Robocop and Starship Troopers, where the irony seems so obvious, some people miss it.
PAUL: Irony is a lost art. Sarcasm is known in America, but American audiences are not very well versed in irony. I've used it all my life.
BRUCE: You use irony as a critical tool. Both Robocop and Starship Troopers are very critical of American culture. Robocop is all about corporate malfeasance and the privatization and militarization of the police force. These themes are even more relevant today than they were when you made the film.
PAUL: Robocop was an ironic treatment of Texas's ultraconservative justice system, in which it can seem like criminals get condemned in a minute and are executed just a couple of hours later.
BRUCE: One thing I love about Robocop is that it's not antitechnology. The Terminator and Matrix series are somewhat paranoid about technology, portraying it as a menacing, horrible thing that oppresses everybody. But Robocop is about people coping with technology and incorporating it into their lives.
PAUL: There has been a tendency in liberal existentialist thinking, coming from Heidegger, to say that technology is basically bad. I disagree. I think science is the only religion you can really trust. Technology that comes from science should not be vilified. We can certainly question the ways in which technology is misused or overused, but technology is not the problem. It's the people who use the technology.
BRUCE: It's how it's wielded.
PAUL: Clearly. Our life spans are now considerably longer than they were in medieval times. The earth is a wonderful place, and if technology can help you to enjoy it longer and disappear into the darkness later, so much the better. Of course, I come from a science background. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics.
BRUCE: But there is a kind of mystical transcendentalism in your movies that would seem to refute strict rationalism. I love the way mysterious, unexplainable things insert themselves into your films, like in Spetters, when a halo appeared above the boy in the wheelchair in a Christian revival hall. That was a nice way of debunking the rational.
PAUL: That halo was created by sheer coincidence. It was a gift of god. There was a little break in the camera lens, and at a certain angle it created that effect. The question of the existence of the divine and looking for the divine will always be part of my thinking. On the other hand, Showgirls is an exercise in looking into the pit. For me, the kingdom of the devil is described there.
BRUCE: Showgirls is a vision of hell. You've been threatening to make a movie about Christ the man. Mel Gibson is also doing his Christ movie...
PAUL: Yeah, but it's probably going to be a very Catholic, verbatim interpretation of the gospels. My Jesus story would deconstruct the gospels and the church's lies, examining exactly what happened.
BRUCE: So it would be more scientific...
PAUL: It would be very political. The context was the Roman occupation of Israel. Jesus was condemned by the Romans, not by the Jews. The title on the cross says "the king of the Jews." It was a political charge that Jesus pretended to the crown of Israel. He was crucified as a guerrilla. It was not so different from Che Guevera.
BRUCE: I also think you should make the Harvey Milk story.
PAUL: Should I? I never thought about it. Ed Neumeier and I are working on a contemporary piece about the LAPD. It's a real-life version of Robocop.
BRUCE: Is it about police corruption?
PAUL: Everybody's corrupt in the movie the council people, all the politicians. There are some good people, but a lot more bad people.
BRUCE: Is that what you're working on right now?
PAUL: No. I'm currently working on a movie for New Line called Solace. I don't want to say too much because it's not clear yet whether or not they're going forward with it.
BRUCE: Can you just tell me the theme in a few broad strokes?
PAUL: It has to do with clairvoyance and serial killings. It's a good combination of dark and light.