“I survived ‘Showgirls,'” Paul Verhoeven told the crowd at the awards ceremony for the Key West Film Festival last weekend. He wasn’t entirely joking: Twenty years ago, the Dutch filmmaker’s sultry Vegas-set tale of an aspiring dancer (Elizabeth Berkley) who gets drawn into the seedier side of show business was reviled far and wide. Verhoeven himself never made peace with the project, but still had a few more years of Hollywood material left in him.
A visionary filmmaker who leveraged his success in Holland into making subversive blockbusters ranging from “Robocop” to “Total Recall,” Verhoeven finished up his time in the studio system with “Starship Troopers” and “Hollow Man,” then fled to Europe. There, he produced one of his most acclaimed films, 2006’s WWII thriller “Black Book.” At 77, Verhoeven shows no signs of slowing down, having recently wrapped the drama “Elle” in Paris with Isabelle Huppert.
Verhoeven isn’t making American movies these days, but that doesn’t mean he’s ashamed of his time there. In Key West, Verhoeven accepted a special award and appeared at a screening of “Showgirls” alongside critic Adam Nayman, whose book “It Doesn’t Suck” celebrates the maligned project. Earlier in the day, he sat down with Indiewire on Duval Street to discuss his evolving relationship to that project, why he left Hollywood and the future of storytelling.
Have you come around a bit on “Showgirls”?
Yes, perhaps a bit, sure. But it’s a long time ago; all these wounds of yesterday are basically healed now. But it’s nice that there’s some late acknowledgement of it. People see the movie a bit differently from the time when it came out.
Why did you go to the Razzies to accept all those prizes for the film?
I thought it was a funny idea to go there because it was completely unexpected. It was a kind of reversal of fortune, because in the beginning, they didn’t know I was there. Then there was this reversal. They knew I was there and I had to walk up to the podium seven or eight times to accept the prize; they had only one, so I had to give it back to them several times. It was a little clay thing that they’d painted, but they had only one. So when I got a prize for worst director, then the worst movie, I had to keep giving it back to them. People got more and more enthusiastic about it. They were all applauding. It was ultimately a really interesting atmosphere.
At that time, did you think the film was better than you were given credit for?
Oh, yeah, but it’s not that I can’t see the problems with the movie.
I think it’s the script, basically. I should’ve insisted to rewrite it completely. It was a difficult situation, because were supposed to do a movie called “The Crusades” with Arnold Schwarzenegger and at the last moment, the financing of the company Carolco went bankrupt. They couldn’t afford to do that movie or Renny Harlin’s “Cutthroat Island.” They were both $100 million movies. So they suddenly canceled “Crusades” and everyone was in disarray, so we decided to this other script that was Mario Kassar — the head of Carolco — had laying there, which he had paid for. So we said, OK, we’ll do that. There wasn’t much time to reflect on it; we just did it. In retrospect, I thought we should have made it into a murder mystery.
So, closer to “Basic Instinct”?
No, just in terms of the atmosphere — the Vegas atmosphere with a certain exaggerated noir atmosphere. “Basic Instinct” plays it straight. It could be Raymond Chandler or Hitchcock, even. But it would have the same things: Jealousy, causing accidents, everything that’s there in the atmosphere of a thriller that has to be solved. I think that would have been more acceptable to an American audience.
In any case, the film is still around…
Oh, yes, it’s going extremely well for MGM, isn’t it? The film was only appreciated in France. They saw it as perhaps more artistic than it is. Or more philosophical than it is. Or more political than it is. It’s all of that a little, you know, but perhaps the French can go very far with these things. They did consider me an auteur at that time. They put it in the context of “Robocop,” stuff like that. Of course, there’s a kind of exaggerated element to “Showgirls” that you could call ironic or satirical. During interviews in the aftermath of this disaster, I said that people would see it differently in 50 years. I said that. I think it’s a very well-made, elegant movie from an artistic, visual point of view.
Next: Verhoeven on that “Robocop” remake.
A lot of your studio films improve with age. “Starship Troopers” is the chief example, given the way it anticipated the war in Iraq.
Oh yeah, sure. “Robocop” is different — it was appreciated from the very beginning. But “Starship Troopers” was not. It was trashed by the media as a fascist movie. They didn’t realize the movie’s essence: That your heroes are fascists. Certainly Robert A. Heinlein had militaristic attitudes in his book. We wanted to attack that, in fact. So we transformed the book by doing it and criticizing what we were doing at the same time. You can feel it in the hyperbolic quality of all the media and that whole message: “Let’s go and attack.”
How might that approach apply to today’s climate, with the various wars and incursions going on?
It would warrant a different approach. It’s a real thing, isn’t it? The relevance of “Starship Troopers” was only appreciated after 9/11. It starts with these settlements being completely destroyed. People had to understand that movie in a different way. It wasn’t a prophesy, but a possibility of American life.
Did you ever see “Showgirls 2”?
I saw it on the internet. It was made very cheaply. We had money to make this kind of extravagancy; that was the idea, of course, that it should be extravagant like Vegas. Everything should be exaggerated: The dialogue, the characters, the music, the lights, the colors. It was continuous, hyperbolic style. But that was not so well understood, either, of course.
What did you make of that “Robocop” remake?
Oh, that was not good, of course. It has to do with style, and a feeling for style. That’s quite normal for a European director, that style is an element that you try to use. If you don’t understand the style, you can’t make a good movie.
The sequels did not understand the style — they didn’t understand that it only worked because of this kind of lightheartedness, funny interludes and the strangeness of what happens. There’s also a hyperbolic quality to it. They never got that; they tried to copy it, but it didn’t come from within. It came from, “He did that; let’s do something similar.” You can’t do that. You have to feel it from within that you want to express yourself that way. That’s me, or the screenwriter, Ed Neumeier. When two people worked together that’s what can happen. A certain kind of style is developed. When other people try to do it, they’re copying it. It’s really not personal. It’s a copy of the combination of Ed Neumeier and me.
It’s similar to the way I worked with my Dutch screenwriter who did all my Dutch movies, including “Black Book.” Something else happens there. It’s like a chess game. If you change one of the players, it changes everything — the mood, the sound, everything. What I did with Ed is something when these two people get together.
You’re essentially talking about creative freedom…
That’s very difficult now, isn’t it? After I did “Hollow Man,” I felt like I was doing the bidding of the studio. I couldn’t even put a personal touch to it. I fell into that trap. There were no big problems with it, like there were with “Starship Troopers” or “Showgirls.” It worked OK. But I felt that I had done something that lacked a personal touch, a signature. It takes one or two years to make this kind of decision, but I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore. If there is a good science fiction story, I’ll do it, if it’s original. But in this case, I felt that I did “Hollow Man” without making it personal. The studio wanted it this way. The freedom was gone.
When I was working before with Orion and Carolco, which was mostly Mike Medavoy and Mario Kassar, they left me alone. Mario would say, “I want Michael Douglas for ‘Basic Instinct,'” or “I want Arnold Schwarzenegger,” and that was the only thing that was on the table: Here is the script, and Arnold. Here is the script, and Michael. Take it or leave it. For the rest, you’re free. Nobody was looking over your shoulder, checking your dailies. You made the movie and they put it in the cinema. They didn’t even it discuss it. You had complete artistic freedom, which was very original in the beginning at Orion, which went bankrupt, like Carolco.
Do you miss making big blockbusters?
Well, yeah, I miss it. That’s why I decided without leaving the United States as a domicile to start making movies in Europe. When I did “Black Book” and “Elle,” which I just finished shooting in France, I was free again. I could do whatever I want.
But it’s harder, right?
Of course, it’s difficult money-wise. At a studio, the money’s there; here, it has to be brought together every time. Sources here, sources there. You take it from all kinds of places to get to a reasonable amount of money. That takes a year or two. In the meantime, I wrote three books — one about Jesus and two about old movies that weren’t translated.
You were going to adapt your book “Jesus of Nazareth” into a feature scripted by Roger Avary. What happened to that project?
I tried. It didn’t work. It was always meant to be a movie from the very beginning. I went to this seminar in Santa Rosa, a study group, because I wanted to make a movie about Jesus. I wanted to know what really happened. Then I nearly abandoned the idea to do a movie because I thought it was too complex, so I wrote the book. A couple of years later, around 2010 or so, I started to reconsider. Then I tried for some time to develop a script with Avary. It didn’t pan out. I don’t think he was really into it. It stayed on the surface.
I wanted it to be inspired by the book, but it didn’t have to be exactly the book. That’s so boring. It needed somebody looking at that book and saying, okay, now I’ll do a script. I’ll use the book to do my thing. It has to be something different. That was not the case. He wrote every scene from the book.
How do you feel about “Elle” now that you’ve wrapped production?
In retrospect, it was very pleasant and easy because the money was there. Said Ben Said, the producer, got the money. I don’t even know where he got it. But it’s not that expensive, anyhow. It was good enough just to make a movie that’s not about chases, action, bang-bang. This has action in a different way. Of course, I had to brush up my French and stuff. Isabelle Huppert, as the protagonist, is fantastic.
How would you describe the film?
It’s partially a psychological thriller. This woman gets raped and she goes about discovering who did it. It was a book. The producer sent it to me. But since it’s in French, not everyone will know what happens. But it’s certainly different from what you might expect.
There’s a whole generation of viewers who grew up on films like “Robocop.” But now there’s a whole generation of younger audiences. And then there’s a select few who know the films you made in Holland at the start of your career. How important is it to you that audiences know your work?
Normal people wouldn’t necessarily go to the archives to find a print of “Turkish Delight,” my first film. They wouldn’t even know. I don’t know if anyone still remembers “Robocop.”
Does that matter to you?
No. I’m only interested in the next movie. It’s important that people want to see your movies at any moment in your life. If you make movies one after another and nobody want to see any of them, your career is over.
At one point it did seem as though you were experimenting with new ways of making movies, when you made “Tricked” last year, a film with a screenplay that was collectively written by an online audience. How did that go for you?
It was only 50 minutes. I was trying to figure out how I could do things in a different way. But it was also a different way of shooting. I wanted to be able to shoot continuously with two cameras that were not so much an A camera and a B camera. I wanted to do it in a way where both cameras were important. Most of my life I’ve been working with one camera. To do normal scenes that are not action-oriented with five or 10 people at the dinner table, where the camera is basically complimented by a second image. I had the opportunity, money-wise, to do it that way. In France, it’s very rare to use two cameras at the same time. It worked well — it was a comedy, so very light. But it was half a movie; it was never a real movie. It was a PR situation for this company. But there was enough money to experiment and I used it for this movie I just did.
What do you make of virtual reality headsets?
Storytelling will always be the same, I think. If you use these goggles to experimental with an alternative reality— you’ll be in the middle of a situation, but if you only experience landscapes, you’ll be bored after a while. You still have to tell a story that drives you emotionally into situations — with thrills, suspense — these dramaturgic constructions. It has to be something interesting. It will still not essentially change the experience of being trapped in a situation with a movie. Psychologically, you’re part of it, a fly on the wall. That element of surprise — what’s in the next 10 minutes, how will it go forward — it will always be similar because if nothing’s happening, you’ll fall asleep. I’m not sure how you do it, but it would be interesting to try and invent a story with it. I’ve been hearing a lot about it from people who have tried it. I think you could do something with it, but not without the element of curiosity.
What are you watching these days?
I watch the newest movies just to see what’s happening and stuff. I’m a little bit bored by all the superhero action stuff.
But you’re still going to see it?
Just to see the special effects — to see what can be done now, so that I know what’s possible. I’m usually not interested in the story. I have been looking a lot at old movies in the last four or five years for a column I wrote in Holland. A lot of Hitchcock and David Lean. But also James Cameron and Woody Allen. I try to watch movies I really like, that made an impression on me.
What do you read?
When I want to relax, I read thrillers. A lot of Scandinavian stuff. All the Stieg Larsson “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” novels. I read three pages of the new book he didn’t write and put it down. It was not on the level at all. I also read about politics, military campaigns, Iraq, whatever. It’s a mixture of historical things and political things. At the moment, I’m reading about defense forces in WWII for my French co-producer, Saiid. I buy all the books on the topic and then I try to see what I can do with it. But like I said, if I want to relax, I turn to thrillers. Today, I just started reading the new novel by Michael Connelly, “The Crossing.”
Are there any thriller novels you wish you had adapted as movies?
The only one is “Shutter Island.” I have a feeling that should’ve been done a different way. Scorsese is a really interesting and competent director, but I didn’t feel that it was as good as the novel, which was great. So I was disappointed that he did that — or, rather, that I didn’t do it.
What frustrates you about the movies that are made today?
I’m amazed how little people are interested in the real world. There’s so much about escapism and fantasy; it’s not about the world. If you read the newspapers, there’s so much going on.
Could you ever make a movie about, say, ISIS?
It would be very difficult, but it’s certainly coming to the forefront. It existed before, but it really became clear to us in the past two years. So it’s very difficult to react in a creative way to something that’s overwhelming. You need distance to look at that and see the possibilities of drama. If you do that too early, it won’t work. There will be no serious analysis of what happened because you’re still in it yourself. I would always prefer to go backwards and look at something with distance.
I left just a few days before the attacks on Paris, but I was there when the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened. The whole city was in an uproar, and now it’s even worse. The whole city is in a state of alarm. There’s a lot of fear. Isabelle Huppert described it to me as a nightmare. It’s nearly impossible to put yourself in the mind of one of these ISIS fighters. One of them who blew himself up was 20 years old.
You deal with that to some degree in “Black Book” with the sympathetic Nazi character played by Sebastien Koch.
Which was historical. There were nearly no scenes that weren’t based on historical reality. We worked on that project for nearly 20 years before we found a way to do it. You have all this information about things that happened in Holland, but the more information you get, the more difficult it is to put in a form. It took us a long time to gather all these elements. I don’t think I could do that with ISIS now. I don’t have the distance. Another thing could happen tomorrow and you’d have to incorporate it.
Of course, after Charlie Hebdo, I’d be sitting on the terrace thinking, “Anybody could do this.” Now we know it can happen again. To be in the middle of something and use it in an artistic way is very, very difficult. I had some distance from WWII for “Black Book.” Now this project I’m looking at about the French Resistance is about long ago. Of course, things don’t change that much.