By Aaron Hillis
[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).