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Paul Verhoeven on “Black Book”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: Thom Hoffman and Carice van Houten in “Black Book,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]

“Robocop.” “Basic Instinct.” “Showgirls.” After 20 years of directing violent, sexually explicit and genuinely iconic movies in Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven decided the only way he’d be able to make more personal projects would be to return to his native Holland. Inspired by actual events in the waning years of WWII, “Black Book” stars Carice van Houten as a popular Jewish singer whose personal losses lead her on an action hero’s journey to becoming a revenge-seeking member of the Dutch Resistance. In true Verhoeven fashion, historical accuracy gets an adrenaline shot of sensationalism, leading to van Houten’s complicated affair with the head of the Dutch SD (Sebastian Koch, “The Lives of Others”) and an already-notorious pubic hair bleaching scene. As bold as the films he makes, Verhoeven speaks fast and tangentially, which only allowed me to ask a few of the many questions I had readied for this truly idiosyncratic artist.

Were there other reasons for returning to the Netherlands besides not being able to get your dream projects made in America?

No, that was the reason. I mean, there were several reasons altogether that pushed me to make the decision. First of all, after “Hollow Man,” I felt a little bit disappointed, not even by the financial situation, [but] because I had succeeded [in making] a movie that I didn’t feel was extremely personal. There were many attempts to push me to do “Basic Instinct 2,” which I ultimately refused. They continued to send me scripts about science fiction and action. After doing four science fiction movies of the six that I made in the United States, it was time to go back to reality. I felt that I had been drifting and dwelling long enough in science-fiction-action-fantasy land.

I tried to set up one or two projects, notably a project about a woman I think is very interesting. She lived in the 19th century, mostly in New York, and her name was Victoria Woodhull. She was a proto-feminist and a friend of this very famous Brooklyn preacher, Henry Beecher, whose sister wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In that area, [Woodhull] was working on the business market, she was basically running for President, but she had a prostitute background. She was also a healer and a clairvoyant. If you analyze the whole case, you’ll see a lot about the United States as it still is now, but basically filtered by a full century in between. I tried, and I didn’t get it off the ground. I think people thought it was too audacious or provocative, or God knows what.

At that same time, I asked my Dutch screenwriter [Gerard Soeteman] — who had written all my European movies before I emigrated to the U.S. in 1985 — to work more diligently on this old project that we had, which is now called “Black Book.” It was based on a lot of research we had done already in the 70s and 80s that we had never resolved. We were always blocked; we never found how the second part of the movie should be and whatever. The situation in the United States at this point didn’t lead to anything that was close to my heart, that would remind me of the time when I decided why I wanted to become a film director. You might know, I’m trained as a mathematician. I wanted to get that feeling back when I was 27, when [I made the] switch over from mathematics to filmmaking, and I got that opportunity with “Black Book.” So, the moment that the script was finished, and a lot of European countries — Holland, Germany, England and Belgium — liked the script and were willing to participate, I jumped on the occasion. I thought, “Okay, let me take a sabbatical from American filmmaking, and let me do this movie so at least I know why I’m living.”

How much different is working on a Dutch or European production now than how you remember it from before you emigrated?

There were a lot of Dutch movies made in the last 10 to 15 years. I’ve found that if people make a lot of movies, they start to get better crews. I had an excellent crew, very well prepared to do this quite complex and expensive movie. I didn’t feel any difference between shooting a movie in the United States or in Holland and Germany. It’s more that if you want to make a digital movie like “Lord of the Rings” or even “Starship Troopers,” you shouldn’t do it in Holland. I think we used nearly no digital imagery. I wanted real planes, boats, trains, everything real, and that’s what I got, so if you exclude the digital fields — which, of course, are much more developed in the United States or even in Australia — I think the situation is the same.

Financially, it’s pretty much a disaster because this so-called European Union is not so union, you know. All these countries have their own laws, and they’re getting more and more nationalistic instead of being more European. I have the feeling that everybody is retreating in his own country again. To get all this money together to the degree that we needed it — which was 21 million dollars from four different countries, 20 or 30 different sources, plus many distribution deals — was a nightmare. It was a financial mosaic that, while I was shooting, I often had the feeling could be collapsing at any moment. Sometimes there was really no money to pay the crew, and I think they all felt they were working on an interesting movie, so they stayed. These things are very difficult in Europe. That’s a disadvantage, clearly, in comparison to the United States.

What is an advantage is that access to top acting talent is so easy. There is no filtering through agents and managers and agencies. I could ask any actor, be it one of the top actors in Germany, like Sebastian Koch, or in Holland, like Carice van Houten, “Can you play a scene for me? Act it out so I can see how you would do it, and I can see if you are the right person or not.” That was all possible.

On the field of artistic freedom, it was quite sensational because there was nobody interfering with the way I wrote and filmed the script. There was nobody telling me “Too much nudity. Too much violence. This is politically incorrect. We should be careful. The audience won’t like this. Tone it down.” In Los Angeles, people are so afraid to offend the audience that everything that is, in any way, a little bit dangerous is basically taken out of the script when you work for the studios. That didn’t happen here. When I started the first 10 years in the United States, working for these smaller companies like Orion and Carolco — where I did “Flesh + Blood,” “Robocop,” “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct,” even “Showgirls” — that interference didn’t exist either. But slowly, as these companies all bankrupted and disappeared, I became more and more a part of the studio system. Then, of course, there was much more scrutiny from the top to not be too outrageous, and I’ve always been pretty outrageous. [laughs.]

Yes, you have. Is there anything that actually shocks you anymore?

In general? American politics shock me a lot sometimes. I mean, it’s more the reality of the situation where this government has misled the people of the United States and not given them insight. Slowly, of course, these things became clear, but I think that’s extremely disturbing. Movies or anything like that are never shocking to me. But to mislead a country and people willing to sacrifice themselves, or their sons and daughters, and only to find out that the motivations for this war were concocted… I think that is terrible. I think we’re living in dangerous times.

Speaking of ugly truths, I want to ask you about shooting that Abu Ghraib-esque prison sequence. How many times did you have to pour a cauldron of shit on poor Carice?

Three or four times. Yeah, of course, we had four or five cameras there, and we all hoped that the first take would be enough, but it turned out to be more difficult. The floor was wrong, the camera was too late, or too this or too that, so I had to ask her to do it several times. She hated it, nearly had to throw up after every take, and was rushing back and forth to the shower between takes to feel clean for a moment. It was not real shit, of course, but the smell was still absolutely disgusting. I knew that it would be difficult, so my wife and I sent her flowers at the beginning of the day and said, “Good luck today!” [laughs.] She knew it would be hard, but she’s a tough girl, and when she’s acting, she becomes the character. She’ll go anywhere you want her to go.

Early last year, a group of film bloggers from around the world each re-evaluated “Showgirls” on the exact same day. Have you heard of the “Showgirls Blog Orgy?”

Yes, I read an article on the internet about this, and I heard there were many different opinions. Where do I find this? I’ll write it down.

“Black Book” opens in New York and LA on April 4th (official site).



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.