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Great Conversations: Paul Verhoeven

06/12/2015 04:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

Director Paul Verhoeven.

This is the first of two conversations I've had with director Paul Verhoeven, the second being for his WW II drama "Black Book." When I met Verhoeven in the Sony Pictures commissary for lunch in October of 1997, I had been a fan of his work since seeing the classic "Soldier of Orange" in 1979. The manic energy that Verhoeven is renowned for was evident throughout our chat, and was infectious. By the time our all-too-brief lunch was over, I found myself waving my hands while I spoke in rapid clips, and using more bounce than usual in my stride, to the point where a few friends suggested I switch to decaf.

The other memory that remains vivid is the passion and high hopes that Verhoeven had for "Starship Troopers." Like the director himself, I thought this would be a groundbreaking movie event and that the world would embrace its blend of gleefully gory sci-fi action and deft satire, as they had with "Robocop" the decade before. Alas, it was not to be, but "Troopers" certainly became a classic in retrospect, claiming a spot on many highbrow critics' "overlooked" and "Best of the '90s" lists. It remains a personal favorite of mine, and one of Verhoeven's finest hours behind a camera.

PAUL VERHOEVEN
GOES BUGGY WITH STARSHIP TROOPERS

Paul Verhoeven was born in Amsterdam, Holland on July 18, 1938. During his early childhood Verhoeven lived in German-occupied Holland and was exposed to the horrors of war first-hand, including watching the neighboring city of Rotterdam get flattened by German bombs and having a group of Dutch Nazi sympathizers throw him up against a wall at gunpoint at age six, only to walk off laughing. These early impressions of the reality and immediacy of violence left their impression on the future filmmaker, impressions that, combined with his Dutch frankness regarding sexuality and its depiction, Verhoeven has made his cinematic real estate since day one.

Though he earned his Ph.D. in mathematics and physics, Verhoeven discovered filmmaking interested him more, and he turned to creating documentaries for the Dutch Royal Navy and Dutch television. After success with the TV series "Floris," about a medieval knight (played by his frequent future star Rutger Hauer), he made his feature debut with Business Is Business (1971), then gained wider recognition with the Oscar-nominated international box office hit Turkish Delight in 1973. The aggressively erotic satire about the unhappy marriage of a sculptor (Hauer) brought recognition not only to Verhoeven, but to the emerging Dutch film industry. He followed this with Katie Tippel (1975), about the rise of an ambitious young girl in 19th century Dutch society. His next hit film, Soldier of Orange (aka Survival Run, 1978), was a riveting true story about the lives of six wealthy Dutch university students whose lives are irreversibly changed by World War II. Many regard it as one of the greatest war films ever made. In subsequent films, Verhoeven returned to the themes of sexuality and obsession he had begun to develop in Turkish Delight. Spetters (1980) was a frank look at the lives of gay and straight teenagers enamored of motorcycle racing. The Fourth Man (1983) was a stylish, hallucinatory, darkly comic thriller about a gay novelist on the trail of a woman he suspects to be a husband killer. Frequently working with cinematographers Jan De Bont, and Jost Vacano and actors Hauer, Jeroen Krabbé, and Renée Soutendjik, Verhoeven established a characteristic visual style that was both haunting and kinetic.

Verhoeven's work caught the notice of Hollywood, resulting in Flesh + Blood (1985), a grim and bloody 16th century adventure starring Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It did poorly at the box office and narrowly avoided an X-rating. For his next films, however, Verhoeven managed to transfer the commercial adroitness he developed on the art house circuit to the larger scale of Hollywood blockbusters. Beginning with Robocop in 1987 and again with Total Recall in 1990, his U.S. films have been violent, action-oriented material that pack theaters even as they arouse public and critical controversy. Basic Instinct (1992), sparked nationwide protests from gay activists for its depiction of lesbians, family groups for its sex and violence and some critics for what they felt was a confusing tale of sex, betrayal and murder that made a great deal of money, just the same. With Showgirls in 1995, Verhoeven's story of an ambitious lap dancer in Las Vegas, the director took a critical beating that would have reduced lesser men to rubble. But guess what folks, Paul Verhoeven is back--with a vengeance.

Starship Troopers, based on Robert Heinlein's classic 1959 novel, is a science fiction/war epic that can only be described as All Quiet on the Western Front meets Attack of the Crab Monsters. Telling the tale of a 23 rd century lad named Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) who is forced to fight for the future of planet Earth as it is threatened by invasion from a planet of bloodthirsty insects(!). Although the plot might make some cynics a bit skeptical, Troopers boasts the most eye-popping CGI visual effects ever put on film (created by special effects master Phil Tippett), along with what will surely be Oscar-winning production design and star-making performances from newcomers Van Dien and particularly from Dina Myer, as a feisty, sexy, 23rd century femme warrior. It was an E ticket ride that left this passenger begging for more at the journey's end.

Dressed in his trademark rumpled denim shirt and faded jeans, Paul Verhoeven, rushes into the Rita Hayworth dining room on the Sony lot. A bundle of kinetic energy, Verhoeven seems to vibrate as he sits, illustrating each sentence with his hands, like a conductor guiding an orchestra. Let's listen to the first movement...

Your wartime experiences in Holland seem to have colored your perception quite a bit. Tell us about what being a kid in the middle of World War II was like.

Paul Verhoeven: If you live in a country being occupied by another one, it's a weird experience, but because I was so young when war broke out, seeing fighting and bombing and ruins and grenades and dead bodies and planes going down in flames seemed like the norm. Then later after we were liberated by the allies, things changed obviously. Even today, those memories play a large part in my work. Sometimes I think my acceptance of violence is based on the fact that I saw so much of it early on. So you could say that I am still haunted by war, or if you like, inspired by it, although that's not a very politically correct statement. (laughs)

Did you come from an artistic family?

No. My father was a school teacher. I had an uncle who was a painter, but besides that the family wasn't artistic.

Verhoeven (R) in the Dutch Marines, late 1950s.

Initially you didn't pursue the arts, either.

Right. At university I studied mathematics and physics, and while I think that both subjects are very important, they didn't really touch me on an emotional level. So during my military service in the Navy, I got assigned to a documentary film unit and did documentaries on the Dutch Marines. I felt like filmmaking was more my cup of tea than mathematics. I never felt creative about (science). I was in it because I was good at it and because I could take my exams well. But I knew that I couldn't really bring anything new to it. Film was more versatile to me. So after the military, I decided to abandon mathematics completely and become a filmmaker. This led me first to television for a couple years until 1971 when I did my first feature.

How did you fall in love with film initially?

Two reasons, I think. One is that when I was seven or eight, suddenly the movies came to Holland. During occupation there were only German propaganda movies anyhow, which my parents weren't too keen on taking me to. So immediately after the war all these American movies came to Holland and it was like after all these years of being cut off from the rest of the world, there were all of the sudden all these different realities: westerns, musicals, science fiction. I went to the movies three or four times a week for fifteen years. The other reason was that my father was always showing films at school at the end of the day on this little 16mm projector. And at the end of the day when all the kids had gone I'd watch these films myself, looking at them again and again. I was fascinated by the possibilities of the medium...feeding the film into the projector, the way it threaded through...it fascinated me. It still took me a long time, until I was 26, to realize that film was what I really wanted to do.

Verhoeven and Der Governator clown on the Total Recall set.

Was there one film in that period that really sparked your imagination?

Sure, War of the Worlds. Also Tarzan's New York Adventure and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Also pirate movies like Captain Blood, Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. All these sort of action-oriented movies with a lot of movement and a lot of splendor.

You have always presented sexuality and violence in a very matter-of-fact way in your films which is one reason, I think, why most people find them shocking. Do you think this comes from the fact that Holland is so much more relaxed as a country about sex and sexuality?

Yes, I think so concerning the sex. Sex is more accepted in Holland than in America. Violence is not. Violence is accepted by me. And other people of my generation who grew up with it.

Soldier of Orange is one of my favorite films of all time. Tell us how the project came about.

Well the book was an autobiography by Eric Hazelhoff, who was a war hero of the Dutch underground during WW II. We had been trying to get it made for a long time, but it was a lot more expensive than any other Dutch movie ever made. After five or six years, we finally got it set up with the assistance of the Dutch Royal family and the Dutch military...For me the movie was about friendship that goes above political antagonism. I thought it was an interesting theme.

You seem to explore the themes of friendship and betrayal with most of your films.

It seems to me to be a very general theme that goes on throughout your life. People that you think are your friends that then turn around and stab you in the back. And that attitude is certainly nothing new here in Hollywood. In war or in peace it's rare that you stick to your friends or that your friends stick to you throughout your life.

Jeroen Krabbe, Susan Penhaligon and Rutger Hauer in Solider of Orange.

I heard that Steven Spielberg initially contacted you about working in the U.S. after seeing Soldier of Orange.

Yeah, he called me in Holland and said "Why are you staying in Holland? You can do much more interesting things here." So he took me to a few different studios. After Soldier of Orange there was a lot of interest from the American film community...but it wasn't until the political climate in the Dutch film community changed to the point of it being difficult for me to work there that my wife and I decided to move to the U.S.

Trailer for the English-dubbed version of Soldier of Orange, poorly re-titled as Survival Run.

How was making a movie in America different than making one in Holland?

Not that much. Jan De Bont, who came here in 1975, told me that there was nothing to be afraid of. It was the same equipment, the same technique. If anything, in Holland you almost had to know more because there we had no "specialists" as there were here. In Holland, your lead actor might have to be your boom operator when he's not on camera, you see? Here in America everything is specialized and the director usually doesn't have to learn about those other skills.

One thing I noticed about your American films was that your scope really changed to that of making epic films. Do you ever see yourself going back to make a smaller, more personal film like the ones you did in Holland?

Yeah, but I would still try to make it for a big audience. It could be a bit more personal and more intimate than I've been doing the last few years. Ultimately it really has to do with the project itself and if it would be worth doing. Although in the United States I'm not known for doing projects like that. There's one project that I might do on the life of Houdini that Sony wants me to do. This story deals more with Houdini and his relationship to the occult than Houdini, the magician.

Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas, Basic Instinct.

Let's talk about Basic Instinct. When you direct an explicit love scene, how do you approach it with the actors, especially American actors, who might not be as open sexually as European actors?

I am very open with them because otherwise you cannot do it. I call everything by name and I tell them exactly what I want. In fact, with Basic, I storyboarded most of the (love) scenes very specifically and gave them to Michael (Douglas) and Sharon (Stone). The scenes were very choreographed. It was very precisely "You do this, then you do that. Then she does this, and she does that." Every move, every touch was all planned, all done like an action scene.

Did the uproar over Basic Instinct surprise you?

Yes, I thought it was silly. If the people who protested it had taken time to look at my work, particularly The Fourth Man, they would know that I would never make an anti-gay movie at all. I thought all the gay action groups were really full of shit and that it was all about politics because it was such a high-visibility project.

The ironic thing is that the protests probably helped the film business wise.

Yes. Because it was on the news every day. I didn't really see it that way at the time, but later I realized that it had worked that way.

Verhoeven on the Starship Troopers set.

Let's move on to Starship Troopers. Tell us the genesis.

This was about four years ago, at the end of Basic Instinct, (screenwriter) Ed Neumeier came to me with this idea of young adults, coming from high school that have to fight giant bugs in outer space! I got intrigued because it made me remember all the movies I liked so much in the 40's and 50's. It was something I always wanted to do, but never had a chance to do. Although it was what appeared to be sort of 'B' material, I wanted to bring it up to an 'A' in a way, although clearly it was never going to be Lawrence of Arabia (laughs). It still approaches that reality in a very serious way, and I think it succeeds, and seems to be able to portray the world of another species that is extremely dangerous and realistic. You see these movies of the 40's and 50's like Them! about giant ants, and so on, and they all seem today very (unrealistic). But if you look at Ray Harryhausen's work, like Jason and the Argonauts, it was much more sophisticated and poetic almost. And I've studied his work a lot. So I thought there was something there you could do. And I knew today with the digital technique that could give us this and that Phil Tippett would be in charge of it that maybe we could come up with something new and exciting.

Casper Van Dien: "The only good bug is a dead bug!"

I've never seen visual effects like these. Most of the CGI effects I've seen previous to this look like cartoons superimposed onto film. These looked real.

Yes, they're very well integrated. And I only did the movie because Phil was there. That was my context for doing it.

It also had the feel of a WW II propaganda film, which was really kitschy and wonderful.

That was basically there after the first draft, and the stuff with the Internet-style devices and titles came partially during the shooting and a lot in post production. It was an attempt to upgrade the old style Fox Movietone newsreels...and Third Reich propaganda films and even my old Marines documentaries that I did, because a lot of that was promotion and propaganda as well...That's why the relationship to the second world war is so important to me because it was probably the last war, and one of the few wars in history, where you can make the argument that it was good. Although all war has to be viewed as something that should be avoided, this was a case of two, or maybe three, evil empires that had to be stopped. Otherwise you have to argue that Europe really should have been left alone and see what would have happened. And then, well...I wouldn't be here! I'd be speaking German and working for UFA (the German film company). (laughs)

Neil Patrick Harris doing his best Joseph Goebbels.

Do you have any advice for first time directors?

I would be in good physical condition. Avoid drinking and abusing yourself in any way because shooting a film is so physically exhausting. It's twenty hours a day. And also try and prepare as much as possible. Make as many sketches or write down for yourself specific notes before you come to the set, at least for the first week or so. That way if you get stuck or feel uninspired you can just turn to the storyboard and do what it says. Perhaps it's not the best it could be, but at least it's okay, and that way you don't have to sit there and say to yourself 'Okay, now I have to be inventive.' Because then you get scared and lose your confidence. Then after the first ten days or so you loosen up. But in the beginning it's always like "What now?" So get as much sleep as you can, at least five or six hours a night if you can, and have a plan of some sort for the first couple weeks. Also be nice and have a good relationship with your actors and crew members. Listen to suggestions and be willing to admit when you're wrong about something. Even apologize in front of the whole cast and crew if necessary. I still do that today. I make terrible mistakes and get upset sometimes. Never be afraid to be seen as someone who makes a mistake and can own up to it. Like my parents used to tell me "If you ever have a fight, try to solve it before the sun goes down." That's very good advice for filmmaking, I think.