I met Verhoeven during his visit to Amsterdam’s Fantastic Film Festival, where he was to receive the event’s Lifetime Achievement award that evening. Though known as Hollywood’s favourite ‘Mad Dutchman’ (www.mad-dutchman.com is worth a look), Verhoeven seems eminently sensible in person: engagingly energetic and eager to talk, a hep professor in matching beige cardigan, shirt, pants and trendy slip-on trainers. Though at 64 his hair is rather more salt than pepper, his teeth are strikingly Hollywoodish in their size and gleaming brightness – it seems appropriate that ‘shark’ is a word English stole from Dutch, though Verhoeven bares his fangs mainly to smile, at least away from the set.
Rob Van Scheers’ entertaining authorised biography (published in English by Faber as Paul Verhoeven) paints a picture of the director as something of a stern figure when dealing with actors, on movies ranging from Dutch productions like Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, Spetters and The Fourth Man, to his rollercoaster Hollywood career of Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers.
Though Hollow Man seemed to disappoint nearly everybody, my main aim was to cut through the fog of speculation and find out exactly what his follow-up project was going to be – depending on who you listen to, he’s been linked with sequels to Robocop and Basic Instinct; biopics of Rasputin, Hitler, Christ and the American 19th-century spiritualist Victoria Woodhull; the long-gestating Crusade, a former ‘hot’ Arnold Schwarzenegger epic; films based on short stories by French writers Guy de Maupassant and M F Aureole; and, most concrete of all, Official Assassins, dramatising how the Americans and the Russians fought over top Nazi scientists after the end of World War II. One internet commentator waggishly suggested Verhoeven might as well combine some of these ideas, and have Rasputin and Robocop duking it out for Werner Von Braun in the rubble of Berlin.
[Neil Young] – So, what is your next project? Is it a European-based idea?
[Paul Verhoeven] – I hope so. I’m working on this project that I really want to do which is the first of the series of books by Boris Akounine. He’s a Russian detective writer at the moment, he’s very famous in Russia. It’s set in 1876.
– Like a Russian Sherlock Holmes?
Yes, with maybe a little bit of an Indiana Jones touch. It’s against a background of Russian terrorism. The first book is called Azazel, which is ‘scapegoat’ in Hebrew. Fandorin is the name of the detective.
– What about all these possible projects we keep hearing about – scripts about Von Braun, Rasputin, Woodhull?
Rasputin is out. The Woodhull project is written, but I have not been able to find financing for that.
– Is Nicole Kidman still interested?
I’m waiting to hear from Nicole, I just sent it over to her. Official Assassins has been frozen, because it’s very critical of the US government in 1945.
– Did you have to stop because of September 11th?
No, the script was written. I had to stop casting because nobody wanted to do it. I was in Moscow, looking at the tanks, when September 11th happened.
– Is this where you heard about the Fandorin books?
I found this through my daughter Claudia, who lived in Russia at that time, studying there. She called me about it and said it was wonderful, but of course it was in Russian. Two months later when I was in Paris I saw that it had just been translated into French. Random House USA just bought the English-language rights to the first of the nine novels. They’re not all set in Russia – the first one is set in St Petersburg and London.
– What about the project involving the ship during the 1600s, the Golden Age of Holland?
That’s another project, which was a book written by Mike Dash that just came out. It’s called Batavia’s Graveyard. Film Four bought that book for me. The story is that there’s a shipwreck on a coral reef, and a couple of hundred are saved on these islands. But one group goes to the main island, and that becomes a fascist state, and the horror starts.
– Would you emphasise the horror aspects or the more political angle?
It would be political, because it’s about the creation of a fascist state. But there is a hero – he’s a common soldier, who basically became the head of the resistance, and he’s there, he’s part of the history, it’s not some invention of ours. It’s a fantastic story, because it gives an ultra-villain – let’s say, a proto-Hitler.
– Like a Kurtz figure from Heart of Darkness?
Something like that.
– It sounds like Lord of the Flies.
It’s an adult Lord of the Flies, exactly.
– So which do you plan to do first?
Azazel first, because the script is written. I wrote it in Dutch and I’m now translating it into English. The other one still has to be written – we just bought the book, and made the deal with a writer.
– And you’ll do these in Europe, or as a Hollywood production?
Well, I don’t think any of these things should be done without an American distribution deal, because otherwise you’re sitting with a piece of material. You have to be sure also, through the cast, that an American studio is saying OK, we’ll release it in the United States, if you have these and these actors, which is always a problem.
– Do you have an actor in mind for Fandorin?
No, not yet. I didn’t think too much about that, but it could be somebody like Elijah Wood, or Heath Ledger, or Colin Farrell.
– Jared Leto is also very good, he’s in Panic Room.
Yes, I’ve seen him. Fandorin starts off in his early 20s, all wide-eyed, and at the end he’s [mimes firing guns].but there are great roles for people like Meryl Streep, or Catherine Zeta-Jones – there are great parts. The characters are very clearly written.
– And is this a definite ‘go’ project?
This would be my wish – to change gears. As we all know, there are many dreams and many plans with movies, and you can work as hard as you want, as we did with The Crusades with Arnold, and the project still might fail, and disappear forever.
– Is Hollywood not now desperate to do Crusades because it ties in the current situation?
The story of the Crusades is the murderous attack of the Christians on the Arabs and the Jews. Do you think that’s a politically interesting situation?
– With the right handling, it could be the ultimate time to do this movie.
Yes, if I could do it my way and be historically correct – the reality that the Pope instigates this complete slaughterhouse, which is the reality, that started with pogroms against Jews, and which ultimately had only one goal: to destroy as many Arabs as possible. In the movie the Arabs are the good people and the Christians are the bad ones. Now what does that say to you now?
– It could be the ultimate worldwide co-production.
I think the financing should come from Saudi Arabia! I doubt if it will come from the United States – at least not from the Catholic church.
– If you get the controversy, then you get the protests, then you get the box office.
Like with Basic Instinct.
– You’re receiving the Lifetime Achievement award here, and they’re showing some of your films, including Starship Troopers. It’s amazing to see how that movie is being received now, compared with some of the reviews it got when it first came out.
Yes! After being accused of being Fascist, or Nazi I would say, a correction has taken place I think, to a certain degree. And fortunately so, because it was very disappointing when the film came out that I was attacked. Less in England, I must say, but in Europe very much so, and also in the United States based on an article in the Washington Post, where in an editorial the film was discussed as being done by a Nazi.
– And now?
People have understood that it was about American politics.
– This re-evaluation has even extended to Showgirls : Jacques Rivette picked it when asked to choose the most underrated recent movie. Did you take that as a great compliment?
Absolutely. I read that! One of the few good reactions I ever got about Showgirls.
– Do you watch Rivette’s movies?
Of course! He’s the best!
– Did you expect such a compliment?
No! I’d given up hope! I should write it on the ceiling like the guy in Hollow Man.
– Do such re-evaluations that make you feel good, or are you sad that it takes a while?
Sad only from a commercial point of view. It doesn’t help, that Starship Troopers article in the Washington Post was basically used by all the European newspapers, even before they could see the movie. It was put on the front pages, so when I came to Holland and to Europe to promote the movie, the decision was already made, to a large degree. European newspapers followed the American newspapers’ spin – all American papers, including the New York Times, are heavily ‘spun’.
– Even now, though, some people still describe Starship Troopers as a silly bit of science fiction about giant bugs?
That’s true – there has always been a pleasure of me to work in the B-genre and elevate that, or use that as a vehicle for other thoughts. It’s like the paintings of Karel Appel, our Dutch guy, who was copying all these children’s paintings. That was a heavy influence – or you could even look at Dada. It’s a normal thing in art, to use the ‘mediocre’ and the ‘banal’ to make a statement. That kind of sophistication in art is rare in film-making.
If you look at painting or even in music – especially at the beginning of the 20th century. Even the titles of some of these pieces: ‘Musique en forme de poire’ by Satie. Using the banal – something that is everyday, which is used in a different way. This is normal in a lot of the arts, only in film-making it isn’t, because of the high entertainment value, where everything has to be immediately understood. It’s rare, and if you use that, this method of hyperbole and irony and alienation, it’s very difficult for the audiences and even for the film critics to see through that. Often they are not even basically educated in the other arts, so they can only look at movies in the same way they’ve been looking at movies for the last fifty years or so.
– Do you still have faith in cinema?
Sure, yeah yeah yeah yeah. But I have to continuously run old movies to keep my faith. When I feel very depressed I look at Ivan the Terrible or The Rules of the Game or Metropolis or even Blade Runner, say, or The Terminator or something like that, or every Hitchcock movie – or maybe 50% per cent of them. I need them – sometimes I come home completely depressed and I have to put them on. It’s so difficult in an industry where the parameters have become so much those of pure entertainment, to still keep your belief that cinema is an art.
It doesn’t have to be “art Art” all the time, but there is a possibility to express yourself beyond just basically entertaining and the might be values that you want to touch upon. It’s very depressing I often feel, when you go through days and weeks, when everything in the conversation about your new movies, has to do with the fact that the story should be changed because it’s too “edgy”. We have to change that because “people won’t like that. that’s not what the audience wants – the audience really wants this“. That kind of statement all the time.
It’s highly depressing and I need classics to convince myself that I started my career for a reason. Often I think, Why do I do this? Why am I exactly now where I am? How come that I got to this point where I start to disbelieve my own work? Or where I start to disbelieve that I can do movies that still have a meaning to myself, as well as having a commercial meaning to others.
– Are there other movies being made now that you would watch?
I just saw a movie which I really liked, a Mexican movie – Y Tu Mama Tambien! Another movie I very much liked was Sexy Beast – which is English, so now I’ve mentioned a Mexican one and an English one. I thought that was an extremely interesting movie, it took me by surprise – I was like ‘wow!’ Of course, these movies are made. But are they made often in the United States? No, rarely.
– Any American movies recently that have been interesting in that way?
Not in that way, no. There’s enough American movies that I respect for different reasons, but it’s rarely the case that I see something that I didn’t expect. Even the best American movies, or the most successful ones – whatever you want to call them – are not very surprising to me. It’s more like ‘OK, that’s very well made, but.’ The Terminator surprised me, for example – I was taken aback by that. It was like ‘wow – that’s somebody really who really thought about something! And really did it, with cheap means, relatively, and made something very original. If anything influenced me when I came to the United States, it was that movie, because Robocop is not derived from Terminator, but I studied it very very well before I embarked on Robocop, because Robocop was of course still very outside my Dutch genre. I didn’t know much about that kind of film-making.
– It was a script that you received?
Yes, I changed it just a little bit and shot it. But it was something that I had no expertise in and not much knowledge about. So I think The Terminator was a very good education for me – from a philosophical point of view it’s an interesting, audacious statement. Yes, it’s science-fiction, but not completely. Of course, Jim has done a lot of work that is highly innovative – Terminator 2, it’s a little bit the same story as the first one, so story-wise it isn’t so innovative, but from a digital point of view what he did there was all applied to a much greater degree in Starship Troopers. He again built on all that stuff with Titanic – he’s one of the directors who I find very interesting in a technological way.
– With Starship Troopers and Robocop, you’re dealing in media satire. Now we’re perhaps seeing the satire become reality, post September 11th. Do you watch CNN and think ‘I made that 15 years ago?’
Other people say that. It’s more Starship Troopers than Robocop. With Robocop the ironies are about urban situations, Starship Troopers is more to do with foreign politics. It’s about propaganda, and the function of propaganda versus reality, and how it spins reality, and et cetera. Robocop is mostly about the idiocy of American television. These kind of people that flip-flop between extreme sadness, and fun, and a commercial. I always thought that Robocop was my reaction to being thrown into American society, and looking around with wide eyes, thinking ‘this is completely crazy’.
That’s all in Robocop. A lot of what we could call the ‘sociology’ was already in the script – this was something that the American writers have brought in. Starship Troopers was more more me reflecting on American politics – to a certain degree, domestic American politics. There’s a lot of parallels with what happened after September 11, of course – not just in the obvious way of shooting rockets in tunnels at the Taliban, or the ‘arachnids’ in the movie – but also in the function of propaganda and spinning. In some ways it’s a pleasure that it all became true, but on the other hand there’s not much pleasure that it came true.
-You’re now living in America at the time of Bush. Do you see any grounds for optimism?
– Do you see in the future that America will be a place where you will be able to live?
I think it’s much more difficult to live in the United States for me, than it was a couple of years ago. With all the craziness of the Clinton administration I could easily identify with Mr Clinton. Even with Lewinsky – that could be me. I could do that kind of stuff. I’m what you might call ‘weak’ or ‘interested’ or ‘curious’ or ‘a lover of the female’ – however you want to express it. I identify with that completely.
– Do you feel a real difference in the atmosphere after Clinton, under Bush?
Yes, yeah, sure, because it’s much more gung ho and it’s much more. dangerous.
– Do you think you could make a movie about this change of atmosphere, in America?
Well, if I didn’t already do that with Starship Troopers, then basically I don’t think so. Not at the moment – it would be impossible to get it off the ground. The American studios are already asked by the government to be as patriotic as possible, and to participate in this ‘fight against terrorism’. It would be very difficult to make a critical movie. If I would do it, it would be extremely critical of that.
– But you could do it, by making a movie that seemed patriotic but in fact is a critique.
If I found something, I would try to do that. But during the period I was making Starship Troopers there were six different regimes at Sony, and the film always ‘switched through’, so by the time people started to realise what the movie was about it was too late! Then the new people came in, and they would only stay for three or four months, one after the other: Mike Medavoy was there, then Mark Platt, then Mark Canton, then Bob Cooper, then Jon Calley. So there was five regimes, during one movie.
– The rumour was that Calley was such a fan he wanted to do a sequel, even though the box office wasn’t so great for the movie. Is that true?
I strongly doubt that. But at least he supported it. He’s always been a little bit of an outsider, in a way that he has done quote-unquote ‘dangerous projects’, also when he was with other studios. He was a good friend of Kubrick, of course. He is one of the few people in the industry who are more willing to take risks or do something a little outrageous. Unfortunately Sony has not been doing so well, and this has forced the whole regime into making movies that are not representative of the ideas that Jon Calley, or Amy Pascal, really have in the minds, and would have liked to do. They have been frustrated, because the movies that were, in the beginning, when they started in that direction, those movies didn’t work.
– Now they’re doing Stuart Little 2, and Spider-Man.
Spider-Man could be interesting – Raimi is an interesting director, so that could be something. I think it’s difficult with the American politics of this moment. Though not only this moment – my problems with American politics are to some degree coloured by the present Afghanistan situation. But my anger and my resistance to American politicians have much more to do with their support of Israel than anything else. That’s where I really feel that American politics are inconsistent and, basically, not honest. The pumping of enormous quantities of money, and technology, and military, into Israel every year – this has created a fascist state. Unfortunately – in my opinion, I think Israel has become a fascist state.
– Have you considered examining these subjects in a non-fiction movie? Could you make a documentary which would bring these arguments forward?
I think other people might be better at that, because that’s also a profession, that you have to learn. It’s not something that just ‘falls out of your hands’ like that. I made documentaries when I started my career, about the Dutch marine corps, and another one about the Dutch national-socialist Mussert, but since then I’ve been doing features. If you want to go back to documentaries it’s a completely different technique, and others are much better at that than I. On the other hand, I’m really struggling with my position in the United States – of course, I’m as guilty as everybody else, by participating and paying my tax there. I’m as much to blame, perhaps, by staying there, instead of raising my voice or whatever.
A lot of the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is on the table, of course, though it’s not discussed in the mainstream. The American vision of the history of this conflict seems to start with the last suicide bomber. It’s rare that any American newspapers described what happened after Oslo – how the settlements were basically criss-crossing through Palestinian territory, and making life and autonomy completely impossible. That’s what happened – if you see where these settlements are, you’ll see that the whole West Bank is criss-crossed with all kinds of enclaves which makes all the Palestinians almost separate ghettoes. And this is not even on the table! Even now, when Powell is there, it’s not on the table – it starts with the last suicide, or it starts a little earlier. But it never starts where it should start – it’s like history doesn’t exist.
18th April, 2002
(interview : Golden Tulip Hotel, Amsterdam, Saturday 13th April)
by Neil Young
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2002 Windy Echo, Inc.