These are challenging times for any filmmaker who doesn’t want to be told what to do. Chasing a slice of the Hollywood studio pie almost always brings compromise, and many foreign-born directors return to their home countries and assemble independent film and television projects.
That was the path of Dutch-born Paul Verhoeven, whose career began in his own language with “Soldier of Orange” and the Oscar-nominated “Turkish Delight.” From there he forged an A-list career that included “Basic Instinct” (which played competition in Cannes) “RoboCop,” “Total Recall,” “Starship Troopers,” and, yes, “Showgirls.” His last Hollywood movie was “Hollow Man” with Kevin Bacon in 2000.
Sony Pictures Classics
When Verhoeven could no longer find material that suited him, he went back to Holland. His 2006 Dutch World War II drama “Black Book” (Sony Pictures Classics) starred Carice Van Houten, before she joined “Game of Thrones,” and was shortlisted for the foreign Oscar.
Now he has a shot at several award nominations for Cannes competition entry “Elle,” which he made in France with Isabelle Huppert, and which France submitted for the foreign Oscar. Verhoeven and his editor are Dutch, the screenwriter is American, and the composer is English, but the producers, cast, and crew are French. The last year France submitted a movie for the Oscar by a director who was not French was 1972, with Luis Bunuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” It won.
I sat down with Verhoeven just before Sony Pictures Classics opened “Elle” stateside. He shared some of his strong views about how to make entertaining and provocative movies without being boring. “Elle” qualifies.
1. Never do the same thing twice.
In Hollywood, “there’s nothing to choose from,” said Verhoeven. “I got a lot of scripts sent to me of books, but nothing I wanted to do. It was repetitive, or sci-fi I’d done before. I was looking for something different that I had not done. An adventure that I was not sure if I could do. It’s important as an artist to do things that you don’t know, to jump into the unknown. It’s true, you have to challenge yourself. I never did any sequels either, ‘Basic Instinct,’ ‘Robocop,’ I’ve never done that. I felt I knew already what I would do. That was so boring, to get up at 5 AM to do something I had already done. I am happy I never did it.”
When the director read Philippe Djian’s award-winning 2012 French novel “Oh…”, “It was the first time I read something where I said, ‘ I have no idea how to do this,’ because I had never done anything like this. ‘Let’s do it!'”
2. Look beyond Hollywood.
Verhoeven originally tried to set up “Elle” as an American movie. “We translated the book into English and David Birke wrote the script,” said Verhoeven. “After four miserable months, we found out it was neither financially or artistically possible to make this movie in this country. The financiers didn’t want to participate in this adventure, and the actresses didn’t want to do it. After two months without any A-list actress, for financial reasons my producer [Said Ben Said] said, ‘I think we should go back to France.'”
So they prepared the movie to be shot not in Seattle, Chicago, or Boston, but in Paris. “We translated the script into French,” said Verhoeven. “It was not a translation just of the language, but of the context and the cultural situation.”
In order to work with the Paris team, Verhoeven took a crash course to brush up his French. “I came to the office and told everybody, ‘From now, I will speak French,’ and I did. For months I had terrible headaches, saw several doctors. Ultimately, it was fear. Five months later, when I felt in control of the situation, that I could do it in the language, the headaches disappeared.”
3. Find the actor who wants this film as much as you do.
While American actresses rejected the role out of hand, the lauded French star (“The Piano Teacher”) had been chasing it down. She’d read the book about Michele, a videogame entrepreneur who reacts strangely to being raped, and “already contacted the novelist and the producer before I was involved,” said Verhoeven. “She wanted to do it.”
Huppert brought “authenticity,” said Verhoeven. “She is there. She is an extremely talented woman. Whatever strange road her character takes — you might not sympathize with her, might not follow her exactly, but you believe this person would be able and willing to go down that road. When she discovers who the rapist is, normally from an American point of view of filmmaking the third act would be revenge. She is not looking for revenge.
“She follows her own ideas. She doesn’t want to accept social codes or political correctness. She, this specific person — this is not to say every woman or every man should or would react in this way, Huppert has even called it a fairy tale — but this character, who is very defined in the first couple of minutes as she starts to clean up and blood comes out of her vagina, she takes it away and orders sushi. That’s the character, that’s a woman who refuses to be the victim, you realize step by step, it’s this specific woman with that background that does these things.”
In retrospect, Verhoeven said, “I have a hard time coming up with any other actress who could have done this. [The American version] would have been a different movie. But it would never have been made. If Isabelle would not exist on this earth, this movie should not have been made.”
4. Leave open questions for the audience to fill in.
While Verhoeven has worked out the psychological explanations for Michele’s attraction to a sado-masochistic relationship, “I have taken care to not explain these things,” he said. “I felt it was more interesting to give the audience information about what happened to her, and to see the road she takes mostly in the third act, and not say what one has to with the other. It’s up to the audience to make that connection, so it didn’t felt like a cliché, not banal. It’s more interesting when it’s not so ‘A follows B.'”
5. Brush Up Your Hitchcock and Renoir.
Verhoeven has been “a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock since I was 14-16 and saw for the first time ‘Vertigo,'” he said. “I thought it was really fantastic. I’ve studied all his movies. I still look at his movies. He’s a master in expressing things in a visual way.”
Also informing “Elle” was Jean Renoir’s provocative 1938 “Rules of the Game,” because “it has tragedy and comedy and even some absurd comedy,” said Verhoeven. “These three elements are constantly changing in the movie. What we did with ‘Elle’ was in that direction. I had ‘Rules in the Game’ in my head when making this movie. It was the only example I could find, maybe also the [Catherine Deneuve] character in Luis Bunuel’s ‘Belle du Jour.’ This is a woman with a wealthy nice husband who is a doctor who for no reason out of nowhere decides to be a part-time prostitute, a move you don’t expect at all.”
6. Let music enhance your story.
Rather than tell the composer what he wants, Verhoeven lays in tracks of classical composers who reach the emotions he’s looking for, whether Leos Janacek, Richard Strauss, or Igor Stravinsky. “That’s not to say it should be that kind of music,” said Verhoeven. “The emotions you feel here should be in the movie. If the music is really good, the level of the movie goes up 30 % — you can’t separate the music and a film like ‘Vertigo,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ or ‘North by Northwest.'”
British composer Anne Dudley (“Black Book”) gives “Elle” a Hitchcockian, Bernard Herrmann flavor. “If you get that kind of music with a composer, you feel the movie go to another level,” he said. “Everything becomes more pointed. The audience gets more information, the music steers a little bit the emotion in a certain direction. If you don’t use music, it becomes more ambiguous.”
7. Why so serious?
Even when his films are dark and violent Verhoeven likes a light touch, and “Elle” is no exception. “Some funny or witty elements in the movie are clearly in the script already,” he said, “but it felt to me when we were shooting that the presence of Isabelle Huppert, and the way she looked, channeled the other actors that they became aware that there was a level of lightness to the movie. That happened partially in script, but it was added by the actors on the set. So it happened, I didn’t ask for it. It has to do with the cool, distant way Isabelle often behaves in the movie.”
He cites that power in a particular scene: “At the very last moment in the movie, when the rapist pulls off his mask, and they look at each other the last time. You can discern in her eyes a little bit of a smile, twice. It’s cool and straight. It’s in her head, happening. It’s Isabelle thinking this, and you see it in the eyes, twice, very short, six or eight frames, a quarter of a second. That is something absolutely fantastic what Isabelle can do. For me, I’ve never met an actor or actress on that level.”
8. Change up your shooting style.
For the first time, Verhoeven shot the entire film with two handheld Red cameras. “You do it with somebody you can trust who can do the second camera,” said Verhoeven, who worked with cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (who also shot “Jackie”). “It’s not like you are the main camera and the other is B. There are two A cameras. It was shot that way. It speeds it up, which is good for budget, but more importantly you get more information.
“You need two DPs who are familiar with each other, so there’s no ego,” he said. “It was also new for Fontaine; he had never worked that way. In France they work with one camera, except for action scenes. We were using two cameras for every normal scene, all hand-held, no tripod, put on the shoulder with two bars for more mobility than a Steadicam.”
Sony Pictures Classics
9. Explore sexual behavior.
Verhoeven has often dared to challenge movie taboos about sex, from Sharon Stone’s uncrossed legs in “Basic Instinct” to the pole-hugging “Showgirls.”
“Without sexuality, no one would be here,” he said. “Sex is fundamental. Sex is an element in the life of every species, certainly the human species. The difference with a movie like this and, say, ‘RoboCop’ is this is more character-oriented. You have to balance — even the sexual violence is ultra short, it’s just a couple minutes in the whole movie, I felt insisting on that would be the wrong thing. On the other hand, if this is partially about a rape, twice — the others are consensual — it has be extremely violent because that’s what it is. It’s a total intrusion.
“I felt you have to be very sharp and in the editing extremely precise and choreographed, while in the other stuff around it, with the family and the friends, you’d have a much different style. The rape stuff in the movie is intruding into a normal narrative about people. The beauty of the novel and the script, I felt, was this two-sided thing. This movie stays outside the discourse in the U.S. about rape. This is more about social environments that are disturbed by sexual violence. As an artist, you should sometimes be nuanced, depending on the purpose. This had to be done in a different way than other movies I’ve made.”
10. Go to the dark side.
Verhoeven is willing to look at the dark forces in the world. “The universe is a strange place. There’s destruction and creation, not only here on Earth,” he said. “Look at photos of the Hubbell telescope and see these galaxies that eat each other, imagine the scale of destruction! I have an open eye to the destructive side of the universe; sexuality, friendship, and love is the other side. I am trying to use them both at the same time. Both are all around us.”