One of the most enjoyable half hours we spent during the Rome Film Festival was in conversation with director Paul Verhoeven. The filmmaker behind a large number of everyone's favorite popcorn movies from the late '80s/early '90s ("RoboCop," "Total Recall," Basic Instinct," "Starship Troopers") is experiencing something of a resurgence of late, with various films of his getting the subpar-remake treatment, which often has the unintended consequence of making us realize all over again just how much we loved the originals.
Like so many of his films, the Verhoeven we met has himself been remade — "rejuvenated" he claims, by the experience of making "Tricked" the 50-minute-long, partially crowdsourced film he presented at the festival. A soapy, silly and very fun melodrama, the film is the end product of a long experimental process of audience participation and interaction, but what struck us most is how very Verhoevian it feels. And so that's where we started:
How did you manage to balance the crowdsourcing aspect of the project with the need to assert a singular point of view, for the good of the finished film?
Hopefully that has been done in as fair a way as possible. It was difficult — you are fully right — what comes in, you can’t use [in the form it’s in.] And so you have to intervene, you have to really do things and you have to balance that against the ideas of the people, so that you don’t start to make your own movie.
In the beginning I was overwhelmed, not only by the amount of scripts — 700 — but also by the fact there was never anything in these 700 script that I thought, “Ok, this is a good [chunk].” No, there were many good ideas, lots of different pieces that I put together, so there was, let’s say, enormous hidden influence by me and my Dutch scriptwriter.
We would look at all the scripts and we would use several colors — red was “really interesting” green was, “Hmm, could be,” and blue was like for little details, a line of dialogue or this or that. And often these scripts were completely blank, there was no red, no green and no blue at all.
But if you then looked at the stack of scripts and all the colors, you would see there were a lot of those things that were ultimately used, but they were never used as [the contributor] meant it, or if they were used as they meant it, then the next part of the dialogue, the next part of the scene would come from another script.
I think you can work with the public, I think it is possible, I feel that we proved more or less that it is possible, but you should not think that they do it. They do part of it, but you have to do yourself also a lot of work. You have to accept the idea that you don’t get it as a present, it’s more like here is something, there is something…
So you’re almost like a curator?
Absolutely. And because they are now talking about selling the format to other countries, people are asking “How did you do it?” and I have to warn them that it is not something you get as a present, you really have to work at it. My small writing crew — just me, my scriptwriter and my assistant who can also write — during these six months we were constantly working, reworking, rereading, and when we were working on episode 6, we’d have to go back to episode 2, because maybe there was something there we could use.
Did the format of the project influence your directorial style as well as the scripting?
Directing it, you know, I looked at their movies — there were about 20 groups in Holland that made the same movie I did, with half professionals or no professionals, and I looked through all these movies. And sometimes there were ideas that I thought, just a camera angle or something and I’d make a note, and then when I was shooting it would come to mind and I would use it.
Some [of the other] versions were, you know, with puppets, or one version transformed everybody to being homosexual, everybody was lesbian or gay. [In fact] I thought that Kim van Kooten, the [primary] writer had [in the original first scene] suggested that there might be a homosexual couple, and then I decided that we would not do that because it’s so fashionable. I’ve seen that now in so many movies that it looks nearly like political correctness to do it. And I thought this movie should not be about political correctness.
In your films you often play with what the audience knows vs what the characters know for maximum effect. Here, in the stabbing scene, we already know the pregnancy is a fake — did you ever want to play it the other way?
Yes. Because it was presented to me [like that] in one of the earlier versions, in one of the early episodes somebody wrote that scene and at that time you didn’t know, so it seemed like really she was stabbing, killing an [unborn] child. And I felt that it was too early, but it might be an interesting idea. And it came up later. And you understand that pretty well — we were really discussing it, my scriptwriters and I — “should we do this when we know that it’s not true or should we do it unexpectedly?" And I thought it was more in style of the movie, which has a certain lightness, not to go in the direction that it would be unknown.
And it’s interesting, because then I thought, perhaps it’s a bit boring then, if we know the [pregnancy is not real]. And we have shown it is a fake, and he has said ”she is not really pregnant” but then when it happens, the visual power of the scene overrules thinking. You jump when she is stab, stab, stab and then it occurs to you “oh she is not pregnant” and then you have a haha! [moment]. Yesterday [at the screening] that was visible, and I think that’s as perfect as possible because that’s so much the style…I think we made the right decision to tell the audience that it’s not true, and then use it anyhow.
***END OF SPOILERS***
You mention that the process has left you rejuvenated?
Yes, not only the development, it was also about working with very young people, there are four people in the cast who are very young [between 19 and 23]… it was so much fun to work with the young people and within their own vocabulary. You cannot notice it, because you lose it in translation, but they have this kind of youth vocabulary that was already indicated by Kim, who knows very well how these people talk…And we tried to put that in the movie, and a lot of it came from the actors themselves. They were very creative — I gave them freedom enough to be creative.
So that was one thing, but also it was good to work again in this lighter form, this is not “Basic Instinct” which is sometimes funny too but in a different way. All my movies have a certain humour to them, but this… I thought mainly about two movies from the past when I was making this film, Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and Jean Renoir’s “La Regle du Jeu." It was a little bit even lighter of course, but I felt the amoral attitude in “La Regle du Jeu” was [similar to here.]
And then working with very young cameramen who did everything handheld with this new Arriflex camera, the Alexa… They knew so well how to work with these two cameras, how to move, shooting continuously, one over here, one over there, and they would come up with these ideas “if he does this, I can do that” and it was so energetic and so eye-opening, after all these science fiction films I’ve done where everything is so rigid.
So is "Hidden Force," your film about the Dutch colonial period, the next thing you'll be bringing your "rejuvenation" to bear on?
I hope they will get the money together. I just finished another version of the script, I’m nearly done, but now the process of financing… it’s only about 30% there right now. Now they have to make an English version, and go to Germany and other countries and see if you can get money, because in Holland you would not be able to shoot it. Like "Black Book" was four countries — a lot of money from Germany, money from Belgium, England and from Holland. And that was a budget of 17 million euro; this might be a little bit less like 14 or 15.
And how about upcoming American films?
Yes, I’m working on this film I want to make with Bill Mechanic, who was head of Fox and is now independent. It’s a movie called “Rogue,” the script is done, it’s pretty tough — a real film noir. Where you know that the guy is going to die, like "Double Indemnity" or "Sunset Boulevard." That’s what I liked about it, and it is set against the background, but not the foreground, of the Mexican cartels.
You could call “Basic Instinct” a film noir, but that for me was more inspired by the paintings of David Hockney. So this would be a real film noir, but hopefully in that loose style with the two cameras. I would prefer to make every future movie with these two cameras so it has a certain looseness.
And how about "The Last Express," wasn't that due to have noir elements too?
That’s still there, not so much film noir, again it's lighter in tone. It’s like “The Lady Vanishes” combined with ‘Orient Express.’ In fact ‘Orient Express’ is closer, most of the scenes are on the train, it goes from Paris all the way to Istanbul. And they stop sometimes and get out, but in fact it’s all on the train, and it has a kind of romantic, slightly over the top, adventurous style. Till now it has not been possible to finance it. The script is done and I think it’s a really nice idea, I’m a big fan of train scenes, like in "North by Northwest"… I even took inspiration from Buster Keaton’s “The General”
What is the status on your controversial "Jesus of Nazareth" film?
Well, we started with a scriptwriter and that went wrong.
Wasn't that Roger Avary?
Yeah, but I don’t mention the name because I don’t want to hurt him…I thought he was very enthusiastic and he understood what I wanted, and of course I wrote a book about it, so he had that for background. But somehow it didn’t work and about a month ago we had to decide to separate ways. And so I have to find a new writer. It’s still there, but it’s a bit of a dangerous project.
Dangerous indeed, how would you go about it?
I would shoot here [in Europe] certainly, it might be something you would have to be careful about [doing elsewhere] and there are a lot of guns in the United States… Perhaps I think if I make that movie then I shall probably also prepare to move back to Europe.
Of course, you can't foresee anything, I mean think of Theo van Gogh the film director who got killed. Of course he made terrible statements in his newspaper columns about Muslims, but he thought that you could do that, he didn’t realize that you cannot do that, that is not the time we live in.
Speaking of which you also have a movie about Islam in Turkey in the cards?
Yes, I'm working on a movie in progress about Turkey in 1923. I’m going back to the time of Ataturk, and secularization of Turkey, the abolishment of Islam where they kind of pushed it out of the window. He used it only when he needed it, and now it’s coming back of course. All these things are kind of … [makes a serious, frowny face]
That’s why I want to make a comedy. My first film was a comedy but after that I went always into more heavier stuff. On "Tricked" it was such a delight to play with these people, when I finished this movie I thought, I would like to make a comedy.