Paul Verhoeven on trusting actors and crew to nail Elle’s tricky tone

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Paul Verhoeven on trusting actors and crew to nail Elle’s tricky tone

Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert on the set of Elle. (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert on the set of Elle. (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

Equally celebrated as a sly subversive and a master craftsman, the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has left an indelible mark on film with movies that combined over-the-top entertainment with dark wit, including Soldier Of Orange, RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. Elle, a French-language adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh…”, qualifies as one of his most corrosive works: a feminist black comedy that kicks off with a wealthy woman (Isabelle Huppert) being raped by an intruder, and then takes a series of unpredictable turns, in the process skewering everything from bourgeois mores to sexual kinks.

Verhoeven spoke briefly with The A.V. Club about the film—his first in nearly a decade—by phone.

The A.V. Club: You first wanted to make this movie in America.

Paul Verhoeven: Yes, I did. I met with the producer, Saïd Ben Saïd. I had read the book, and we decided that it could be an American movie, even though it was a French novel. Saïd had worked with Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg, and Brian De Palma in English, so for him this was a natural decision. That’s why I went to an American screenwriter, David Birke, to write the script. We translated the novel for him into English and David basically wrote the script for America. He changed the culture, changed the setting from Paris to a city in North America. We talked about Chicago or something like that. Then, of course, we found out that nobody was interested. [Laughs.] The A-list actresses we were talking to all ultimately refused. After a couple months we decided that we were on the wrong road and we had to go back to France.

So we translated everything back to French again. Of course, we knew that Isabelle [Huppert] had wanted to do it in the first place. That was clear even before I came to the movie. She had wanted to do this [novel] as a movie. I’m glad it developed that way, because Isabelle gives the movie an authenticity that we might not have been able to reach in the United States.

AVC: How would it have been different, if you’d still made it in the U.S.?

PV: I think, in retrospect, now that the film is made and I can look at it, the presence of Isabelle Huppert is much more important than the question of whether it’s French or American. I think Isabelle gives something to the movie that is absolutely unique—a soul that is completely convincing, which has to do with the fact that she wanted to do the movie from the beginning, of course. The fact that American actresses didn’t want to do it tells me something about it being too far away from the point of view of American culture or insight.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

AVC: Just in terms of camera style, this is a departure for you. This isn’t a film with Steadicam shots.

PV: The whole movie is handheld.

AVC: Did that come out of Tricked?

PV: Yes, because that we also shot handheld on the Alexa camera. In this case, we used the Red Dragon camera, which is a bit similar. In both cases, using the [handheld camera] feels a little bit more voyeuristic and gives everything a little bit of chaos that’s apparent in the shots. It’s not so frozen. In general, I would do any movie now this way. It’s a little more coincidental. And I used two cameras, with two [directors of photography], not an operator and a DP. The other person was also a DP, though Stéphane Fontaine took care of most of the lights.

I put basically the whole visual look of the movie in the hands of Stéphane Fontaine. It was the style of the movie. I chose him based on the movies I’d seen that he shot. I do that all the time. Yes, I decide where the camera is situated, but I’m not going to argue with the DP about where the lights are. I’ve always left that up to them. Here, the idea was to use a little less light than the eye sees. Not to embellish it, but to really go against Hollywood lighting. If we look at Black Book, it has much more precise movement and these Hollywood qualities.

AVC: The movie progresses unconventionally. Did you shoot it in sequence?

PV: No, that would have been much more expensive. We shot half of the movie in the house. We found a location in Paris, an empty house, and decorated it, added this and that, and shot five weeks—all the scenes that have to do with the house. Then we went to all the other locations. So some of the last scenes of the film were shot somewhere basically in the fifth week.

AVC: Do you think that had an impact? Because you’re shooting all the most traumatic scenes of the film—the scenes with the rapist—in one block.

PV: It didn’t bother me. It’s work. And you have oversight of the movie. You know where you are in the movie. Isabelle and I didn’t talk. Of course, we talked about the color of her dress and the color of her hair and stuff like that. We talked about how she would walk and the staging of the actors. But we never discussed the anatomy of the script, the psychology, or the character. We never talked about the implications of the rape or how it was important for the movie or whatever. I really had the feeling that she knew from the very beginning much better than I could, and that I could really let her go and find how to do things the right way.