On Dangerous Ground: Paul Verhoeven Interviewed
By Michael Wilmington
The Dutch director's take on violence, sex, Jesus, and working with Arnold
Paul Verhoeven is waiting for me in the Cary Grant Theater at Columbia’s Culver City studio, and I wonder if the irony delights him. Ten years ago, he was a director of internationally successful Dutch art films (Soldier of Orange, Spetters) who hit a blind alley inside his own industry. Now he’s finishing the mix on one of the most expensive movies in the history of Hollywood, with one of the biggest stars in the world (Arnold Schwarzenegger), on the studio lot that once helped midwife the movie he has several times called an all-time favorite: William Wyler’s 1959 version of Ben-Hur. Is all this real?
Outside the lot, the sunlight is real. It’s also cruel. It makes everything blank and hot, hits the dull white buildings and palmy parking lot, the blots of smog and the dark guard station, just as it did several years ago, when this was still MGM—and, no doubt, as it did back in the Thalberg-Mayer heyday when Gable, Garbo, Harlow, and the Barrymores prowled the lot, Andy Hardy battled puberty, and Judy Garland stared off longingly toward the rainbow’s tail. There’s not a hint, not a whiff of that heritage anywhere here. (MGM itself is across the street in a huge triangular wedge of a building with an atrium inside and a stylized MGM lion logo outside; it’s called Filmland and, occasionally, they hold screening there of movies like Kill Me Again or Miss Firecracker.)
Do I feel emptiness trotting toward the Grant, clicking along on the asphalt? Not necessarily. Louis B. Mayer I remember as the boss who threw away four-fifths of Greed and tried to bribe RKO’s George Schaefer into destroying Citizen Kane. But waste, lost opportunities: that’s something I can feel–all that money, all those downed blockbusters. And it’s hard not to get a twinge remembering that Total Recall has somehow consumed over $50 million, through a legendary number of false starts and aborts (including preproduction twice with David Cronenberg and Bruce Beresford) since Ron Shusett and Dan O’Bannon wrote it over a decade ago, right after Alien.
Total Recall is seemingly a strange project for Verhoeven—Arnold Schwarzenegger battling a corrupt corporate oligarchy on Mars. What links it to his gestalt is the Rabelaisian bawdiness and fierce violence in the story, the interplay of reality and psychosis: the idea that there’s something down there, under the surface, that contradicts what we think and see, what we’ve been told.
There’s a famous “third act” problem that has dogged this script for ten years, and hasn’t really been solved—but the first two-thirds fits right into Verhoeven’s personal jigsaw puzzle. It’s based on a story by that master of paranoia, Philip K. Dick, the 1966 I Can Remember It for you Wholesale: a wheels-within-wheels, truth-or-illusion puzzle about an ordinary man trying to make himself extraordinary by getting his brain implanted with false memories in which, as superhero, he saves both Earth and Mars–only to discover that his whole life is another false implant and he is a superhero . . . maybe. Dick loved to play with several layers of reality, and so does Verhoeven. The movie this plot most recalls is not RoboCop but The Fourth Man, with Jeroen Krabbé as a bisexual, religiously obsessed writer slipping in and out of dream crannies, involved in a whole conspiracy of double meanings and sinister undercurrents, nightmares that keep smashing the windshield of his fragile reality.
No one, however, could look any healthier, or less psychotic, than Verhoeven emerging from the mixing stage. Past 50, he exudes rationality, physicality, good humor. Bouncing out, he steers me toward the commissary—we’ll only have an hour, but how can I ask for more, with hundreds of thousands of dollars rising on every extra minute? After we order exactly the same meal (chicken and rice), he begins talking into the little black Sony wedged between the hard rolls and the water goblets. He’s a fast, nimble talker, and he picks up energy as he goes along.
Speed is also the hallmark of his films. With RoboCop he bounded way past the new breed of American high-tech action directors: the techno-pop brutalists like Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapons), John McTiernan (Die Hard), James Cameron (The Terminator), Tony Scott (Beverly Hills Cop II), Walter Hill (48 HRS.)—all working out the urban-terror dirty-cop car-chase genres of The French Connection and Dirty Harry two decades ago, but magnifying them, fitting them with a pounding, high-chrome surface, while shrinking and contracting the dramatic and intellectual interior. Verhoeven, like Cameron, mastered the genre without especially liking it. RoboCop is a critique of the other super-cop movies—a chuckling but morally serious indictment of their fascist tendencies. People shocked by the violence of RoboCop forget how gentle it is in sections: the vulnerability of Peter Weller’s face as the cyborg cop in his metal shell, the pain of his memories; even that bizarre moment when the monolithic killing machine, Ed-2000, tries to chase Murphy (Weller) downstairs, probes the stairway tippy-toe, and, after falling, thrashes like a hurt baby.
Verhoeven’s world is full of contrasts. This rationalist, the mocking skeptic who tore apart action clichés in RoboCop and medieval saga chestnuts in Flesh + Blood—the man who seems to delight in puckish displays of sexuality, explosions of raw violence—is also an ex-Pentecostalist (the fundamentalist sect, whose American members include Jimmy Swaggart) and a longtime student of the occult. He’s a realist who tries to portray life as it is, yet almost all his movies suggest something feverish, delusional. His world is also soaked in movie genre conventions, rife with religious allusions, often constructed like near-psychotic nightmares: obviously in The Fourth Man, less obviously in Spetters, which unfolds like an ultimate paranoid reversal of the youth-movie success story. There’s something jittery and peculiar about Verhoeven’s surfaces: these swoops and curves and jags, this dissociative frenzy, are all part of his work’s strange pull. His movies—usually cut on movement, like Nicholas Ray’s—are among the most nervous in the world: constantly darting forward, racing awkwardly along with the characters. It’s rare when he allows them a moment of release or rest.
Except perhaps when he slows down to indulge in his strong feeling for human connections and human vitality—exemplified by his little Dutch stock company: sweet adventurer Rutger Hauer, urbane hedonist Jeroen Krabbé, mankiller Renee Soutendijk, sexy opportunist Monique van de Ven. Sexuality is something he always treats with great explicitness and ribaldry, if sometimes with the slightly forced (sinful?) openness of that minister’s son, Ingmar Bergman, whose work he admires. Other, even greater favorites: Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Fellini, David Lean, and—obvious from this interview—Sam Peckinpah.
I’ve talked with Verhoeven before; I know his mind is always ticking away, racing. He studied math in college, got a doctorate, and has lived in four countries. English is his second language—his third? his fourth?—yet he speaks it with casual, slangy speed. Verhoeven’s talk is like his movies: on the surface blunt and brutal, quick, brisk, authoritative, and mocking; racing agilely from topic to topic, cutting corners and springing up new associations with casual speed . . . then suddenly diving down into tenderness or fantasy. Remember, as you read, that he speaks without much pause for reflection, that he laughs frequently and picks up speed as he goes along. The last half of this interview was crammed into 15 minutes—and this only partially because both of us had emptied our plates. When we were done, he vanished back into the Cary Grant, and invited me to attend a later mix—when it was “less boring.” (Unhappily, I never did). Perhaps that’s the quality that links Verhoeven most firmly to the whole world of genre American filmmaking he’s crashed. He honestly doesn’t want you to be bored. Not for a second.
HEAVEN AND HELL
What attracted you to Total Recall?
If I say that, for me, RoboCop is about Lost Paradise, that’s kind of exaggerated—but it’s something that, to some degree, is in the heart of the movie. And if I say that Total Recall, for me, had to do with fear of psychosis, that’s the same over-and-understated situation, yeah? It has to do with the fear—a basic fear of myself—that psychosis is a way my brains could go.
Like The Fourth Man.
Yeah, little bit. More like Repulsion. When people who behave nice suddenly turn out to be monsters and criminals and kill you; when danger is around every corner, while normally it’s okay; when reality changes to that degree, suddenly—that’s the case for people who are psychotic. Now, certainly Total Recall has that element.
For the audience, every moment in the movie seems to be real. But when you get to the next scene, you can doubt the scene before, yeah? I’m exaggerating, because it would be really terrible to do that to an audience; everybody would be driven crazy, probably. But every once in a while you realize that what you saw before should have been seen in a different way. It was not reality, or it was a misinterpreted reality.
In The Fourth Man the distortions of reality are presented in such a hard, brisk way . . .
Well . . . in The Fourth Man the main character, Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbé) is a writer who is obsessed with the Catholic religion. You could see The Fourth Man as a psychosis of Reve, who has a delusion that the evil woman, the Devil (Renee Soutendijk)—the spider woman, in fact—is trying to kill him, and that the woman in blue, the Holy Virgin, God’s mother, is saving him from judgment . . . Yeah, that’s a psychotic situation.
Is there a religious level in Total Recall?
No—although Philip K. Dick was a very religious, obsessed person. But Total Recall is based on ideas, just as Blade Runner, also from a Dick story, was . . . Of course, religion and psychosis might not be that far away in the first place.
Did you make pretty much the movie you wanted to make?
Yeah. I think there were no compromises storytelling-wise. But I think that a strong vision should allow for unforeseen things, things that you could not foresee. Otherwise, if the vision is completely closed—carefully prepared like a Hitchcock movie—it’s not that much of a pleasure anymore. There’s no discovery, no adventure.
Did you discover anything interesting while making Total Recall?
No, not really. I mean . . . I discovered how much I could suffer—and still get through it. [Laughs grimly]
It was a more painful experience than Robocop?
Yeah, because the situation in Mexico was so tough. You got sick all the time. And of course it was a much more difficult movie. There were shots, on lots of technical levels, that I hadn’t done at all. Rear-projection, blue-screen stuff. Special effects things . . . which tend to kill spontaneity because they have to be very precise. The whole environment had to be created, too—because the movie plays on Mars and, of course . . . we cannot shoot there!
How did you combat all the sickness on Total Recall?
Some people just by going home and lying in bed. As a director, of course, that’s very difficult; it shuts down the show. I would go back to Mexico, though. In fact, Ed Pressman proposed me to do a movie about Cortez, which I’m considering. Very expensive—$60 million . . . Perhaps the next step after science fiction might be back in history.
What was it like working with Schwarzenegger?
Arnold is great. Switching from Rutger Hauer to Arnold is not that big a step. It’s strange to say that, because he’s this crazy Austrian, with an accent—but, for me, Arnold is the American Rutger. I think if I did a few movies with Arnold, I could do as much with him as I did with Rutger. Now, this movie was the wrong thing . . . But I think you can do much more with Arnold, explore more possibilities, than was necessary for this movie.
He’s always been saddled with rather stiff, one-note characters.
That was the challenge, to try to change that.
Do you think you did?
Yes, I think so. He’s the hero and also the normal, insecure, vulnerable, guy who doesn’t know exactly what’s happening or why . . . and who is kind of lost in the universe, lost in the cosmos. That quality was used a little bit in Twins . . . but you see it very precisely in Stay Hungry.
You like to get down and dirty with the actors . . .
That was easy with Arnold. Arnold liked that. He had no problem getting covered with oil and blood and all kinds of other stuff.
THE NEW WORLD
What are your perceptions of America these days? Disoriented by the high-tech society?
No. I don’t think there’s that much difference living in Holland and the United States, really. But as I’ve said several times, I think life in the United States is much more fascinating than in Europe. Everything is much more antagonistic, full of tension. Things are brought to the extreme more easily—especially in cases of politics or religion. Like the whole fuss over subsidies to galleries showing the Mapplethorpe photos! Or Raphael Soriano: how can someone who believes in Jesus be offended by these images? Not dismiss it as complete nonsense, just two symbols put together? Would Jesus be offended by that? He wouldn’t care, of course.
On the other hand, I love it, because it provides a lot of tension, which is wonderful to observe and be a part of. You’re much more easily inclined to take sides. Here, when I see fights about abortion, I feel myself inclined to say something. In Holland, I wouldn’t—because everyone would agree with me. There’s a stronger democratic sense over there. But it’s boring when people don’t attack and take sides . . . especially in Holland, where everything is so leveled and between the half and three-quarter gray.
In America, people often grow up perceiving themselves as being part of different teams, having to score constantly. Is that part of the appeal of America for Europeans?
It hasn’t ever been attractive to me. It was more frightening probably, than attractive. I have a long time resisted coming here—although I had invitations since Turkish Delight, in ’73 or ’74. I didn’t even dare to come here till ’81, for whatever reason. I felt nice and comfortable in my own country. It took years for me to decide to come here, and it’s only because the situation in Holland got so bad for me, politically—film politically—that I felt existentially threatened.
Films in Holland are always subsidized, yeah? You cannot make a film in Holland without having money from the government. The government is subsidizing about 50 percent . . . Now, in the Seventies, the committee that has to judge scripts were extremely open and liberal—and not artsy fartsy inclined. They accepted that films should be both, yeah? My movies—always aimed at a normal, big audience—were seen more and more negatively at the beginning of the Eighties, when new people came into these committees . . . all with a kind of social-liberal background.
They objected to the political content of your movies?
No, they objected to the fact that there was no political content, probably. They said it was too violent, perverted, decadent—that it was not giving a nice enough portrayal of the Dutch people . . . and especially when a movie didn’t have an explicit message . . . like, probably, Spetters doesn’t have . . .
But all your films are about social problems. They’re not empty of politics.
No. I didn’t feel that. But what I felt, clearly, is that I didn’t get the money anymore. The scripts I was sending in—and wanted to make—were rejected or heavily censored. They were trying to make me change scenes or take them out . . .
Violence and sex?
And so, you get to American and get into this MPAA ratings wrangle about RoboCop.
[Laughs] Yeah. Here, in the United States, it’s also difficult, of course, not so much with the violence—because it’s a much more violent society over here.
Did you ever resolve the problem with the Dutch committee?
No. They’re still in charge. If I went back I would have to deal with the same people.
What’s happened to Dutch film?
It’s down. It’s gone. It’s really destroyed. Everybody’s gone. They’re all in the States or Germany or England. All the people who were in my movies are working on international movies. They all left . . .
It sounds as if your critics—alleged progressives—are actually conservatives with intense middle-class value systems.
I think so, yeah. They are also very fascist, in their behavior, because they don’t allow anything else than what they like themselves. The people who were in charge in the Seventies—who were more rightist, I would say—didn’t care about [what you made]. They cared about two things: First of all, that the films would have an audience. And secondly, that there would be enough commercial films made so that there could also be artistic films—which I think is very liberal, yeah? They wanted a normal film industry—movies, that people would see—and they thought that then everything would be possible. Artistic, highbrow movies also. And that worked.
Then the Eighties it started to fall apart. There was a political change in the country, and although the country’s back to rightwing now, these film committee chairs are from the government before. It’s like the Supreme Court: Reagan puts these people in and they will be there forever.
Soldiers of Orange
I’ll take you back through your career now, because this is supposed to be part of an overall view . . .
For an American film magazine, right?
Yes. A highbrow film magazine.
I should have known! You’ll write about psychoses, probably.
No, not necessarily. American highbrow magazines write about artsy-fartsy films, political films—but also sleazo-bango ones.
That’s fine then.
I saw Keetje Tippel recently. You don’t often see a heroine like that: a ballsy, hedonistic climber.
Well, first of all, it was based on a real character: autobiographical short stories written by Neel Doff, in 1910, 1912, something like that. What you find in the story is somebody trying to survive, and get to some higher level.
Characters like that are usually softened.
Right. Right. But you know how I am. I don’t want to soften that up. I think that’s real. I like that. It’s fun to portray negative things of people. Because it’s true. I mean, people are selfish—much more selfish than is expressed, normally, in American cinema. As Europe has a tendency to make people a little more negative than necessary, I think American cinema has a tendency to make them a little more positive than real.
If you do portray your heroes negatively in the States, everyone at least expects that you redeem them in the last act. If you leave them alone, people say: “What is this? A bad guy and he gets all the money? He’s a prick and an asshole but he’s happy at the end? [Laughs]
That sounds like some of the reactions to Martin Landau’s fate in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
The movie says very precisely (I loved that movie; that was a great movie) that guilt and feeling bad about a thing has a lot to do with being in circumstances where you can be punished. I think that’s a very realistic statement. It’s counterpointed by other people in the movie, especially by the philosopher, but it’s true.
Let’s get back to your movies. Soldier of Orange?
Soldier of Orange has a lot to do with my own youth, because when I was a kid, I was 6, 7, 8, during the last couple years of the war. I was very impressed. I loved it. I thought war was great. It was a wonderful time: bombing and planes and shooting and people killed . . . really wonderful. It was the best memories.
The guy who wrote the autobiographical novel studied in the same city where I studied; he lived two streets from my house when I was at the University of Leyden. I felt very close to that man. That story was the most personal thing I found in twenty years of making movies.
I thought it was fun to do something extravagant, probably, and really show that you can have a lot of fun with sex. That it doesn’t have to always be love. I was trying to express the playfulness of sex. I was trying to be free . . . myself, probably, but at least the audience, from any guilt about having fun in bed. With whomever. And I thought it was a really nice story. I liked that, after she leaves him, he comes back and helps her through death. I felt that was a nice idea.
The Fourth Man?
Oh, that has to do with my intense interest in religion and the occult. Since 16, I have been studying occult stuff. At the university level, courses of parapsychology and psychology. Everything that is in the so-called occult field.
Any opinions on it?
I have my ideas, sure, based on what I think is real and what’s not real. There’s not that much real, I think. But there’s probably things that are not completely clear to us, at this point. Occult is just another category of laws that we don’t know—probably linked, to a certain degree, to our . . . I don’t know, our DNA chain or something like that.
Spetters was a very angry film, I think. That was already when this whole thing started with the board; it took forever to get the money. And I think I was so angry about everybody and everything—and getting so mad, after all these successful movies I had made in Holland—that Spetters turned out a very angry, negative, cynic film.
But I liked it. It was an expression of what people do to each other. It was about young people—a counterpoint to Soldier of Orange, with these very rich, aristocratic guys. Spetters was also about a group, but blue-collar guys, who had much less advantages or possibilities, but were trying to get somewhere via their motorbikes.
So I loved it. I was working with these young people, with this very free, loose atmosphere. There are some dramatic problems; not everything was well done. But it was a very personal movie.
That was a chance to work in the American film industry. I didn’t like it in the first place; it took my wife to convince me to reread it, that it had possibilities.
FLESH AND BLOOD
Flesh + Blood
I’ve read that you don’t like Flesh + Blood, but I do. It’s a very unique treatment of that subject.
Right. And I think that’s the good thing about it. On the other hand, I feel that the continuous interference and compromising of ourselves to the wishes of the American studios . . . I was living in Europe, and coming here I was so impressed. Everything that everybody said sounded so wonderful and interesting and much more intelligent . . .
Now like the original story (and you can see how far away we got), which was written in ’71 by my writer [Gerard Soeteman], was an outline of 40 pages and was about two guys. It was based on the Wild Bunch element. Jack Thompson was the lieutenant and Rutger was the sergeant. And after the conquering of this city, they were divided. The one that was thrown out becomes a robber; the other one has to fight him. It was these two people that were friends—and they have to fight and kill each other, more or less.
That was basically the issue: two people that like each other—love each other, whatever you want – and have to fight each other, for different reasons. And they cannot escape their destiny. The girl [Jennifer Jason Leigh] was just a minor element. Now we come to the film, where the girl is in the middle—Tom Burlinson on one side and Rutger on the other—and Jack Thompson is a completely minor character. So instead of this interesting Wild Bunch theme, we ended up with a triangle where this girl is manipulating two guys.
Did you and Rutger Hauer have differences on the film?
Oh yeah! At the end of the movie, we hated each other. [Laughs] We couldn’t stand each other anymore!
Have you ever been reconciled?
[A gentle, solemn tone] No. It’s reconciled in that I don’t feel that anymore. And I doubt if he still feels it . . . It’s not that we hate each other, or that we avoid each other. We don’t see each other anymore. We won’t call each other. It’s not spoken out—and it has never come to a nice conclusion where we . . . repair things. No, no . . .
What was the argument about?
We had . . . I had a different interpretation than Rutger, of the character.
Was he moving toward the studio’s wishes?
That would be my interpretation. I would say he was an asshole, because he had changed so much, because of the film industry, and he was not the same guy anymore. And Rutger probably would say, “Paul was so insecure, because it was his first American movie, that he couldn’t direct me anymore.” Yeah? So we have two very good reasons, two ways of looking at things. And it would be not realistic to say that my version is the best one. [Laughs] I believe my version, of course—but I’m sure he believes his.
And we always got in arguments. I wanted him to play it lighter. My version of the movie was more like Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. Chk-chk! Much more buoyant. And it never got to that; it was always heavy and straight.
Ironically, when I saw RoboCop—not taking anything away from Peter Weller—I thought Murphy was a perfect Rutger Hauer role.
Yeah, I think the movie would have been just as good, or perhaps better, with Rutger.
Five years is a long time to be angry, I think. I’m not angry. I was looking at Soldier of Orange a couple of weeks ago—my kids were looking at it—and I was just looking at Rutger and I said, “Oh, fuck, he’s such a great guy! It’s so wonderful what he’s doing there. It’s so well done.” And I could express myself so wonderfully via Rutger. He was like an alter ego for me. And I lost that, of course . . .
It was like expressing something of myself which is not really me. Or which is part of me, but saying, “Okay, this part is another whole person.” That was Rutger. The nice part of myself was Rutger. That’s why it was so difficult, because that nice part turned against me.
What’s the bad part of yourself? Jeroen Krabbé?
[Laughs] Yeah . . . But the fact is that Jeroen Krabbé is a very nice guy!
But a great villain.
Oh yeah, he’s great. He’s an extremely good actor, one of the top stage actors of Holland: 15, 20 years of stage, all the big parts, all the big classic stuff. You can ask him to do Hamlet, he could do it. King Lear, Einstein, Jesus Christ. He’s really a very talented man. And a much better actor than Rutger. Of course, Rutger is great on camera. You cannot beat that—and it’s always been there.
What about Renee Soutendijk?
Renee is more like Rutger, I think. A natural. She has never done any stage work; went immediately into film. So she’s a real film actress.
What’s the difference?
Well…knowing that the camera loves you, probably. Rutger and Renee are somehow aware that every turn of their face, everything they do—it’s as if they feel that the camera is scanning them. Like Billy Wilder said about Marilyn Monroe: “She has film flesh.” It’s like Monroe’s legs felt scanned by the camera; her neck, her ankles. And other people would just act and forget about their ankles.
Are you worried about getting typed as a science-fiction director?
There’s a little more protection doing science fiction. It’s further away from reality—and I’m still not confident that my view on American reality is strong enough to convince the audience. So I escape a little bit into a genre.
When are you going to be ready to tackle real-life America?
It could be done now, if there is a script…I’d die to do a comedy. I would love to do a comedy.
Which comedy directors do you really like?
Mostly Billy Wilder. And Lubitsch. More recently, Woody Allen. And Mel Brooks. But Billy Wilder is more . . . what I would like to do. The best comedy I know is Some Like it Hot.
In American movies, people want morality to be embedded in action; they want every moral conflict to be acted out and resolved favorably . . .
I 100-percent agree. I love that about American movies: that people should not talk about it, but should do something. So even if you want to portray a character by talking—which is more European cinema—I much more believe in expressing things by movement, action.
Yet there’s this weird Puritanism, especially among critics and censors.
It’s amazing, of course, that in television and movies you cannot see people pissing in a urinal, yeah? I know, because in RoboCop, when two people were having a dialogue in the restroom and they were taking a leak—that was forbidden, yeah?
The silly thing is, everybody is going to the restroom and not everybody is killing each other. I think going and taking a leak is less offensive and less problematic than killing somebody!
When restrooms are shown in American movies, usually somebody is being beaten up or killed in them.
Right. You don’t take a leak. You can do everything else, even probably some sexual things—but just taking a leak [Laughs] . . . forget it!
Generally speaking—and I don’t know so many other countries; I’ve lived in France, Holland, and Germany, and now four, five years in the States—but from a point of view of a drama artist, the United States is full of such surprises, and full of drama . . . and it inspires you, in fact, to work. So my feeling on coming here has always been very positive. I have always felt inspired, by what I read in the papers, the way I reacted; I always felt that I had a position here, that I was part of things: against them or for them. There was something to talk about—and to be angry about or delighted about.
Of course, it’s a more violent society, which is, in fact . . . terrible. But it’s not terrible for a drama writer, because drama is only based on what goes wrong, isn’t it? Everything that is a problem is drama. It’s so simple, here, if you want to get rid of somebody, in your dramatic structure—it’s much easier to have them killed than in Holland, where nobody has a gun. It’s terrible to say that! [Laughs] But it’s true. You have to go to sociological issues, sicknesses, or . . . occult tricks to get things done, sometimes!