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For upward of three decades, Paul Verhoeven has established a reputation as one of the world's most provocative, controversial directors, known for his unblinking portrayal of sex and violence as well as a keen satirical bent. Born in Amsterdam and raised in The Hague, where he and his family lived under German occupation during World War II, Verhoeven put Dutch filmmaking back on the map with a number of dark thrillers and dramas in the '70s and '80s, including Turkish Delight, Soldier Of Orange, Spetters, and The Fourth Man. In the mid-'80s, he made his American debut with the bloody fantasy film Flesh+Blood, but he staked his claim in Hollywood for good with the surprise hit RoboCop, which immediately established him as a go-to guy for hard-hitting science fiction. From there, Verhoeven specialized in controversial blockbusters that continue to attract passionate support and derision from many corners; they include Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls. Six years after his last movie, Hollow Man, Verhoeven has resurfaced in Holland for Black Book, a rousing World War II adventure about a Jewish woman (Carice van Houten) who joins the Resistance and uses her wiles to infiltrate the Nazi elite. Verhoeven recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his World War II experiences, his battles with the MPAA, and how Starship Troopers was made and misinterpreted.
The A.V. Club: You were only 7 when World War II ended, but the period obviously left a strong impression on you. What sort of memories do you have about living in the occupation and the years after the war?
Paul Verhoeven: Strangely enough, I used those memories in [Black Book] only as an emotional and environmental background. So the narrative of the movie had nothing to do with my youth, really, and the narrative was based on historical research that I did with my scriptwriter [Gerard Soeteman] for the last 20 years or even longer, before we got all the details and events that we needed to write the script. So whatever specific memories I have didn't make it into the movie—or at least not the events I witnessed. I used only, let's say, my memories of how the streets looked, how the Germans looked, how people walked, what kind of cars there were on the street, and that sort of thing. But having been in that situation made it easy for my scriptwriter and I, because we both grew up in Holland, more or less in the same location, although we didn't know each other then. It was very easy to jump into that time, I would say. It's easy to let myself go and think of the empty streets and occupied territory. My mind drifts back to that period all the time.
AVC: What stays with you?
PV: Well, very close to our house was a launching pad for the V-1's and later the V-2's, which were the big rockets that Wernher von Braun made. V-1 was a small one, maybe a little smaller than a jet fighter. But the big one, the V-2 that came at the end of the war, was a big thing. Ultimately, von Braun was secretly brought to the United States in October 1945 with all his colleagues to work on the rocket program. He later worked on the Saturn rockets that put Armstrong on the moon. That's the same guy who invented the rockets that were standing about one mile from my house and were fired toward London. These V-2 rockets were really gigantic, and they were going over our house, because the launch was close by. I remember the fire coming out of the end of the rocket, and this enormous sound. And sometimes when the rockets misfired, you saw them basically stopping, and then they would fall down and head—not close to our house, because they would already be on the other side of the city—but they would fall down on a quarter or some streets in the city I lived in, which was the government city, The Hague.
I also remember being in a car with my father when we were coming home one day from visiting family, I think. We were suddenly forced by the Germans to take another route to our house. They wouldn't allow us to take the normal way, and instead, we were forced to pass the bodies of Dutch citizens that were taken out of prison by reprisal, because some German officer had been killed on that street. The Germans would take something like 20 or 30 people out of prison—political prisoners, resistance fighters, sometimes just criminals—and they would put them on the road at the spot where the German soldier was killed, and they would execute them. And so that had happened in the street next to our house, and my father and I were forced to pass the dead bodies as an act of terror. Of course, the Germans were showing us that if we were, let's say, naughty or bad, that they would shoot you and kill you. So that, I remember. I remember, of course, the burning of a quarter of the city that happened, I think, in '44, when the Allies bombed the city by mistake. They were supposed to bomb the area where the Germans were launching their rockets. But somehow, the English reversed the map, or there was a problem with the coordinates, and so what they did is bomb an area that was filled with civilians. And those bombs fell the next street over from our house. The whole quarter of The Hague was ruined, it was all flames and ruins and dead bodies wherever you looked.
Those are just a few of my memories. They're all pretty violent, clearly, because that's what you would remember. I also remember all the hunger in Holland, because all the supply lines were cut off. The northern part of Holland, where I lived, was occupied, and the southern part was still liberated. And so food didn't come anymore to the northern part. And if there was food, it was sent to the German soldiers on the eastern front, basically. It was called the Hunger Winter in Holland, and many people died because of it. I remember that we were eating tulips and sugar beets and all that stuff. Some of those memories pop up a little in the movie, but rarely in the foreground.
AVC: One section of the film deals with the retribution against collaborators after the war. Do you remember what the atmosphere was like then? Was there a lot of suspicion among neighbors?
PV: I don't have vivid memories. I didn't understand what was going on at that time with respect to the collaborators; I remember more the parties. I mean, people dancing in the streets continuously for days and weeks and weeks. There were parties, big parties in the streets. It was also a very nice summer, so basically everyone was outside. But the treatment of the Dutch, how they treated the collaborators, the women that had slept with German officers or people that had profited from the war, had collaborated with the Germans, had the Nazi ideology or whatever All that stuff happened, and that's what the movie concerns itself with. [The heroine's] abuse in prison reminds us of Abu Ghraib, clearly. In about '66, I was doing research at the Institute For War Documentation in Amsterdam for a television movie I was making about a Dutch Nazi leader named [Anton] Mussert, and I was looking at things that happened during the war, of course, but also after the war. Then I found in the archives all these papers about how the Dutch had treated their prisoners. So all that abuse in the movie comes directly from archival research.
AVC: What has it been like for Holland to revisit that part of its past?
PV: Well, the Dutch have embraced the movie. It was the most successful R-rated movie since 1981, in fact. There might have been some reviews that were negative, I've been getting very mixed and negative reviews in Holland my whole life, even before I moved to the United States. In fact, that was probably one of the reasons that I moved to the United States. But I would say the Dutch had no problems with the movie in general. I think the Dutch were more or less prepared for it. They had never perhaps seen it that way, but they were not shocked. It was more like the film confirms what they were probably already thinking had happened anyhow. And so there were no protests on the streets. And I have seen my share of protests, when I released Spetters in Holland, or when I did Basic Instinct or Showgirls or whatever. So I could have been prepared for the worst. And, of course, I was not sure exactly how they would react, but fortunately, they reacted in a very positive way. The film was released in September, and is still in theatres. So basically, it's an enormous success. And they would not have embraced it if they hadn't been aware of these things that I showed them.
AVC: After making movies in Hollywood for so long, did it take any adjustment for you to shoot movies in Europe again?
PV: Not too much. The crews I used in Europe were all very professional, because all kinds of tax incentives have been introduced in Holland in the last 10 or 13 years. A lot of movies have been made, and the crews have become very professional. So that was not the big difference. The big difference was the financial situation, and how we got this money together for a movie that was about $21 million, which is an enormous amount of money for a Dutch movie. A lot of the money came from Germany, England, and Belgium, so it was four countries that contributed money to the movie.
To get that money together and to keep the cash flow going, however, turned out to be extremely difficult, because a lot of these committees that give you the money only want to give it on certain terms, and the terms are not exactly coinciding with the way you shoot a movie. Because when you start shooting, the expenses jump up a couple hundred percent. And so it was very difficult financially for the producers, not so much for me, of course. But you do start to notice when people in the crew have not been paid for weeks. Then you feel awkward when these people stay on the project because they feel passionate about it, or they want to work with me, but they have not been paid. So I think that was kind of a nuisance. And sometimes really nightmarish to the degree that you would think, "Am I going to shoot next week? Are people going to walk away?" It never happened, but it was sometimes really on the edge. It's certainly something that never happened to me all these 20 years in the United States, because the money was always there.
On the other hand, of course, the artistic freedom that they gave me, the fact that I could write the script the way I wanted together with my scriptwriter, and that I could write down whatever I would like and that I could shoot it the way I liked it, and that nobody was hanging over my shoulder telling me that it was politically incorrect or that it should be more conservative or not so violent, or that was too sexual, or too this or too that I didn't have to deal with that at all, or the MPAA [ratings board], which doesn't exist there. From an artist's point of view, I have the pleasure of doing the film precisely the way I wanted it, without interference from producers or anybody. So that, I think, is a big plus. That's a lot of fun. You can invent it and shoot it as you want, and nobody is criticizing that it might be morally or ethically wrong. I mean, a Jewish girl having an affair with a German officer, a Nazi officer, would not have been an easy thing to sell in the United States.
AVC: Have you been in situations in Hollywood where you've embarked on making a movie one way, then had it compromised during the process?
PV: No, not during production, but afterward. For example, I made Basic Instinct, and it was given an NC-17. But contractually, I had to deliver an R. So I had to go back to the MPAA nine or 10 times to change my movie so that they would accept it. The same story happened, nearly in the same way, with Robocop, and to a smaller degree, with Total Recall and Starship Troopers. Every time, you have to submit the movie, and people tell you "This has to be taken out, this has to be changed." That's what the MPAA does, isn't it? [Laughs.]
AVC: With all your experience facing off against the MPAA, did you ever figure out tricks to get in what you wanted?
PV: I've never done that. I don't believe too much in these tricks. Perhaps they exist. I don't know exactly what they would be. Sometimes people say you have to make everything originally very strong and much more violent than you want, and then they tone it down, and it's exactly what you wanted in the first place. I've never done that. I don't know if that works. I mean, I've always delivered the movie to the MPAA as I wanted it to be. And I found myself confronted by people who felt that certain elements in my movie were too strong. So you end up with the European version of Basic Instinct, which is the director's cut, and was the one that was released all over Europe and many other countries, and then there is the American version, which is really different from the original version, and has been released in Australia, the United States, and Korea. So these are three countries that didn't accept my original cut. So basically, you put them together, then you see what the difference is. Stanley Kubrick, when he was doing Eyes Wide Shut, called me and asked me exactly what problems the MPAA would have with his movie. And I explained to him what happened with Basic Instinct, and I sent him both versions, so he could see in what directions I had been forced to change.
AVC: Then he still had to put those digital figures to block out the sex.
PV: I think he assumed that because he was seen as one of the best film directors in the world, perhaps he could get away with more, but ultimately, he had to put the [figures] in the shot. I don't know if he did that because it was NC-17, or if he had done that already in the beginning to present them with an R-rated movie. That, I don't know.
AVC: With regard to the MPAA, Quentin Tarantino once said that basically, you end up getting punished for doing violence and sex well.
PV: I fully agree with that. It's not a great system. When it was given to the different states, it was even worse, of course, because everybody could make their own rules. I think this compromise is not pleasant, but it might be, in a big country like the United States, the only way to do it. Of course, for people who are not as extreme as I normally shoot, it is not a big problem. For me, it has always been a problem. The only movie that has been accepted by the MPAA ever that I did in English was Hollow Man. But all the others, from Flesh+Blood, my first English-speaking movie, to Total Recall and Basic Instinct, I've run into trouble with the MPAA.
Showgirls was not a problem, because that was from the beginning an NC-17, so we brought that out without any interference. But normally, a studio wouldn't do that. Studios would be really afraid to bring out a movie that was an NC-17 at this moment in time, especially with this kind of government and this kind of puritan thinking. It would be something they would totally try to avoid, and they would put in your contract that you have to deliver an R. They would certainly do that with me, knowing my history of controversy with the MPAA. I've always felt that we shouldn't be afraid of sex and we shouldn't be afraid of violence, because they are part of the world. Why can I not shoot what is the reality of every human couple—heterosexual, bisexual, or whatever? Why am I supposed to be cryptic when it's about sex? That you could argue, but I don't think that would fly at the moment, in any way.
There's a very puritan streak about this government, and it has to do with their being highly influenced by Christian thinking. Christians, of course, have never been happy with sex. If you read the apostle Paul, the letters of Paul, you see that he is on the side of the President. "Better not do it. If necessary, do it, but it's better if you don't."
AVC: So it's no coincidence that you haven't made a film in Hollywood since the Bush administration took office?
PV: I'm not sure. The scripts that have come to my office have all been, let's say, pretty tame. The scripts that really interest me are a little bit edgy and have a little tension between the audience and the film itself. Those kinds of scripts have not been written much, or at least they didn't get to me. There has been, mostly because of 9/11, an enormous amount of escapism. I mean, if you see the big successes of the last five or six years, they are all highly into fantasyland. Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings, Spider-Man—they're all basically things that are not true and are not dealing with the reality of the world. They're not like the South American movies that we see now, that all seem to be based on reality, on what happens really. American movies in the last years have gone in the direction of non-confrontational, easy on the audience, pleasant to the audience, escapist, not confronting reality much, or not integrating reality to a strong and harsh degree, like life is. I think life is full of violence, and that has been avoided, I think, perhaps as a reaction to 9/11, because that was too much reality to swallow. People have, after that, been moving to the other side, to the fantasy side.
I had decided after Hollow Man to stay away from science fiction. I felt I had done so much science fiction. Four of the six movies I made in Hollywood are science-fiction oriented, and even Basic Instinct is kind of science fiction. I wanted to get out of that, so that coincided with an emphasis of the studios on fantasy. So that might have been a reason why I could not find anything that interested me. Ultimately, it was this script that had been in the works for a long time and that was finally finished in 2003. When that script was done, I felt it was a chance to go back to a certain reality that I had been looking for in the United States, but could not find. I felt I should take a sabbatical from the United States and work on this movie in Europe, so that's what happened. Then, of course, it took some time before I could start the movie in Europe. It took a long time to get the money together. Although the script was ready at the end of 2003, before everything financially was okay, it was nearly a year later.
AVC: In order to get a film like, say, Starship Troopers made, do you have to sell the studio on a giant bug movie, then sneak in the satirical commentary?
PV: Sneaking in [those elements] was never something that I intended to do. They were all in the script. In my opinion, the movie got made because there were so many regime changes at Sony at that time, one after the other. Mike Medavoy disappeared, then Marc Platt came in, then Bob Cooper came in, and so on. There were five or six changes, and I don't think anyone ever looked at the movie! All the satire was in the script from the beginning, but they might not have been really aware of it, or had read it precisely. By the time one of them might have understood what movie I was going to make, he was already gone. The next group came in. I think we slipped through this labyrinth of changing regimes until finally the movie was done. By then, it had become a stable regime, but then, of course, the movie was already made. It was not that I was lying to anybody. It was already in the script, all this ironic stuff, all this hyperbolic stuff, all this playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society, that was all in the script.
AVC: What do you think of the film now with regard to the way the current war was generated? It almost seems like they were following that same script.
PV: Well, yeah. If you were very nice to the movie, you would call it prophetic. But we never thought of Starship Troopers as a warning, or something like that. When we were working on the [Robert] Heinlein book, we felt like we had something that was pretty militaristic, pretty right-wing, and you could even say had a tendency to be fascist. We felt we should counter that with irony and other means to make it interesting to ourselves. And, of course, there was a built-in situation that we sensed at that time and that was visible. The new conservatives had already written many articles, and I think we used some of that thinking, and what we saw happening. Although this was all still during the Clinton years, of course, it was vaguely there. I think we picked it up, because we saw it and perhaps it annoyed us, but then, in a pretty playful way, we put it in the movie as a kind of second layer. And of course, the movie is about "Let's all go to war and let's all die." That was clear from the beginning. Not that I had in mind that this would become kind of a reality in the years that followed Clinton. That would have been really prophetic. [Screenwriter Ed Neumeier and I] were just tapping things that we saw at that time, and then extrapolated, unfortunately into a direction that life took.
AVC: That film is really subversive and has found a cult following, but it was so badly misinterpreted in some circles.
PV: It was terrible, and quite punishing. There was an article in the Washington Post—the editorial, not the review—that said the movie was fascist, and the writing and directing were neo-Nazi, or whatever they wrote, that was extremely punishing to us, because that article was picked up, before the film came out, by the whole European press. The movie was introduced to the Europeans as a fascist movie, as a neo-Nazi movie. Which it was not, of course, it was the contrary of that. When we came on our promotion tour to these countries that had been fascist, notably Germany and Italy, and France to a certain degree, it was a continuous fight with the journalists, explaining to them that the movie basically used fascist imagery, and was using images of Leni Riefenstahl to point out a fascist situation.