Interview: Paul Verhoeven
The following interview with Paul Verhoeven was conducted in 2015 to conclude a career-spanning anthology of interviews with the director that will be published in 2016 by the University Press of Mississippi. Speaking from Holland as he prepared to edit the film, Verhoeven elaborated on the plot and the process of shooting Elle, which he referred to with promising hesitation as “a movie that is . . . not ordinary.”
After his 2012 experiment in crowd-sourced filmmaking, the made-for-Dutch-television Tricked, Elle represents an entirely new phase for Verhoeven. It is his first French-language production, his first collaboration with the inimitable Isabelle Huppert and his first feature in 10 years since Black Book (06). Little is known about Elle, other than the fact that it is an adaptation of the French novel Oh . . . ! by Philippe Djian, who also wrote the source novel for Betty Blue (86), and that it’s scripted by David Birke (who wrote the 2014 remake of 13 Sins). The project was first announced two years ago at Cannes by the head of Wild Bunch, Vincent Maraval, who sought financing for the film during the pre-production stage. At the time, Wild Bunch pitched the film as “a psychological game of cat-and-mouse between a businesswoman and a stalker who raped her, a crime for which she is seeking revenge” while Maraval described the script, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, as “pure Verhoeven, extremely erotic and perverted.” Verhoeven himself described Elle in subsequent interviews as both a “nuanced thriller” and possibly his “most subversive film,” and the following year at Cannes, it was announced that Saïd Ben Saïd’s SBS Productions (which backed recent productions by Brian De Palma, Philippe Garrel, and David Cronenberg, among others) would both produce and distribute the film. With Cannes 2016 a few months away, one can only hope for an imminent festival premiere.
Set photograph from Elle
When we last spoke about a year ago, you told me how you experimented with the Alexa camera and new filmmaking techniques on Tricked, and that you intended to use those techniques again on Elle. How did the shoot go?
The shoot went well and I shot it exactly as I did with Tricked. These days the amount of time a director is given to make a move has diminished by 40 to 50 percent. Working with two cameras solves part of that problem while giving you the opportunity to do things that you wouldn’t do before.
I received a lot of support from my producer Saïd Ben Saïd, who knew that I was trying to do something different and appreciated that. Even the cameraman, Stéphane Fontaine, had not worked in that style at all before. In fact, he told me that it was really unusual in France to use two cameras simultaneously, but we did it anyway and I am very happy with the results. Filming with the two cameras next to each other as close as possible gives you the same access point—that way you can do a long shot and a medium shot at the same time and you can cut anywhere because the movement of the actors, their expressions, etc., are the same, just recorded in two different ways. It’s really an old trick that was used already in Gone With the Wind and I do it all the time now. I started using this technique on Tricked, and hopefully I perfected it on Elle, where you have a long shot, medium shot, then a long shot and so on, in and out and you really don’t notice these cuts. Of course, the point is that if you look precisely, you will see it. The shoot was about 50 days long and half of that time was spent on location in the house of Isabelle Huppert’s character, Michelle. The rest was shot in Paris.
Was this a small-scale production?
Well, it wasn’t that small of a scale. Although it certainly wasn’t a special effects movie, either. I would call it a normal film with a lot of interiors. There aren’t any big action scenes but rather big scenes with actors sitting around a table. It’s not all that simple . . . We shot it in France, as you know, with French actors and a completely French crew.
Did you have to brush up on the language before going into production?
Well, when I was younger I spent a year in France. I had forgotten what I learned there but it wasn’t completely gone, you know? So I took a course at a language institute here in Holland to establish a certain kind of routine. When I was young, my French was much better than my English but now I think they’re about the same. [Laughs] It’s always a bit difficult to direct in another language, of course, but ultimately I think it worked out very well.
Are you planning to premier Elle at any festivals this year? There’s Cannes in the spring . . .
Yeah, sure, it could be Cannes. That’s possible—if it’s selected! I leave that completely to Saïd, who is a very capable producer and also very interested in what the director is doing. He makes a lot of critical remarks and in general makes very good points. I was impressed by him, he’s really a special man.
There’s a general excitement in the air—a rumor that Verhoeven has made another erotic thriller.
Those people who think that this is an erotic film will be disillusioned. They are in for a strange confrontation with a movie that is . . . not ordinary. I don’t think the story is erotic; it’s about rape. An erotic thriller would be a bit weird, right? I mean, it might be erotic for the person doing it, but I don’t think that rape in general is something you would call erotic.
The source novel, Oh . . . ! by Philippe Djian, has yet to be translated into English, but the plot description alone is very provocative. I got the impression that the novel is written in a way in which information is initially withheld, then doled out selectively in the form of a mystery.
It is partially written as a thriller, because the rapist wears a mask and the main character doesn’t learn his identity until later on in the story. Djian gives you the information piece by piece and for a long time you don’t even know exactly what happened, so yeah, it is written like a thriller in a certain sense. But on the other hand, it is also a story that has a lot to do with the main character’s social connections. She is caught in a web that includes her father, her mother, her son, her daughter-in-law, her lover, her ex-husband, etc. These relationships are all rotating around her, most of which have nothing to do with the rape and nothing to do with the thriller genre.
You’ve filmed several rape scenes over the course of your career and quite a few of them were controversial, raising troubling questions of the characters’ consent. The scene with Michael Douglas and Jeanne Trippelhorn in Basic Instinct, for example, or the scene with Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Flesh+Blood . . . .
Well, in Flesh+Blood the consent is clearly fake: Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character pretends to enjoy it so that Rutger Hauer’s character will protect her from being gang raped afterwards. By pretending to enjoy it she took initiative and committed what I consider an act of survival. But it wasn’t something that she actually enjoyed—not in any way.
Did you storyboard the film?
Yes, I storyboarded this one myself. I showed the storyboards to the assistant director and to the DP, so they had a complete idea of what I was doing with these scenes from the first shot to the last. Every morning I would give them my drawings, so that basically every scene in the film was choreographed.
Did you choreograph the rape scene in Elle?
It had to be choreographed because it was so violent. You really have to figure out beforehand what can be done by the actors and what has to be done by stunt performers. You cannot have the actor—or the actress, in this case—thrown to the ground. She might break something! Then you won’t be able to finish the movie.
Did you collaborate well with the actors? Were you particular in your direction of the lead actors, or did you allow them room to improvise?
No, I would never be so demanding with Isabelle Huppert—she knows what to do! She’s one of the most brilliant actors I’ve ever met in my life. She’s so extremely special and is able to avoid any cliché in any situation, always finding a different way of doing things. She comes up with all kinds of extra details that you wouldn’t even dream of, that I would never come up with on my own. She’s not only a great actress but she is also especially imaginative and creative in her approach to the character. I didn’t have to tell her anything about Michelle because it was clear from the first shot that she knew exactly what her character would do and how she would behave in whatever circumstance. She is extremely audacious and she really had no problem with anything that was in the script, so I have an enormous respect for her.
Reading through all of these interviews with you dating back to 1968, you’ve always claimed to incorporate what you call realism into your films.
Sure, because in order to feel comfortable I want to give my films a certain amount of realism, or a sense of reality—within the framework of science fiction or action or whatever—but I still believe in researching for details, finding out what’s more or less possible in the story and how things would go if the film were to go in a certain direction. I’ve said this before but it really comes from my Dutch background that includes the realist school of painting in Holland. If you compare the Dutch painters of the 17th century with the Italians or even the English, you can see that the Dutch had a better sense of representing reality than other Europeans. I think that if you come from a country where you are aware of that and you can feel that difference—I think that’s something that I took with me to the United States. I certainly utilized it in Elle, which I shot in a completely realistic way—you don’t even get the feeling that the film is lit. Of course I used lamps here and there but you can see that the cinematographer used as much natural light, or suggested natural light, as possible throughout the shoot. The dark in the film is really dark.
You’ve always blended this type of realism with stylization, though, especially when it comes to the camerawork in your films.
Well, everything is blocked of course. It’s too distracting to move the camera all of the time while the characters are talking to each other, isn’t it? When we shot Elle, both cameras were handheld throughout. The camera would be on the DP’s shoulder so that it could be a free instrument, never on a dolly, or set on a pole, or whatever. It was basically just in the hands of the operator, never completely steady, which creates a sense of observation. If you’re holding the camera on your shoulder and you’re breathing or whatever there’s always a slight movement of the camera that gives you a feeling of incertitude—perhaps a bit voyeuristic—which I also did in Tricked. That film was also shot without dollies or poles or anything like that, all handheld.
Elle is more of what you might call a “European” movie because it’s not completely plot-driven like, say, Basic Instinct, where you’re always trying to figure out the identity of the killer. Was it Sharon Stone, or perhaps Jeanne Tripplehorn? Everything in the whole film is dedicated to that mystery. In Basic Instinct you don’t meet any of the characters’ families. You have no idea, for example, about George Dzundza’s character—is he married? Does he have any children? There’s really none of that, and as such, Basic Instinct is more in the tradition of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett mysteries, where you never learn about the social environment of any of the characters because that’s not really the point; it’s about the detective solving the case. In Elle, Isabelle’s character wants to find out who did this to her but that’s only part of the story. The other part has to do with her place in the middle of this social network—what is she doing there, and how do all of these people around her relate to each other?
I expect the dialogue must be very important in this film.
Much more important than in Basic Instinct. And certainly more than in any of the science-fiction movies that I’ve made [chuckles], where the dialogue is mostly, “Let’s go!” and the like, always very rudimentary.
You first left Europe to work on larger projects in the United States. The creative limitations here proved to be too strict, and now you’re back in Europe . . .
I don’t think that a movie like Elle would ever be proposed in the U.S.! They stay far away from such projects there. As I get older I’ve grown more interested in doing things that are beyond the norm. I’ve already made too many science fiction films, action-oriented movies or whatever in the United States and I think that to a certain degree this return to Europe has to do with being able to make the kind of movies that I want to make. I’m looking for things that I haven’t done before, which is certainly the case with Elle.