Paul Verhoeven gets real

The Dutch director talks about his "Black Book" comeback, why he still loves "Showgirls," and why filming actual planes and cars is better than digital effects (interview and podcast).

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 6, 2007 11:30AM (EDT)

To listen to a podcast of the interview, click here.

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Paul Verhoeven has had two distinct but interlocking careers. In the first one, he was a director of low-budget, realistic European films, often rebellious in spirit and loaded with erotic charge, that straddled the line between art movie and genre movie. After coming to the United States in the late '80s, he became one of Hollywood's most controversial figures as the craftsman behind such big-budget spectacles as "RoboCop," "Basic Instinct," "Showgirls" and "Starship Troopers." It's been seven years since Verhoeven's last film, the $100 million special-effects bomb "Hollow Man" -- which, as he says in this interview, was a movie that never engaged his full attention -- and much longer than that since he's had a big hit. At 68, he's no longer anywhere near the top of the Hollywood food chain. Maybe that was exactly what he needed. After struggling to get an American project launched, he went back to Europe and made "Black Book," a splashy, colorful film set during the last years of World War II in Nazi-occupied Holland. "Black Book" has all the sex, violence, betrayal, deception and moral ambiguity you'd expect from a Paul Verhoeven film, but at about one-fifth the budget of "Hollow Man" or "Starship Troopers."

Verhoeven seems reenergized by what he calls his return to reality, which is also a literal homecoming to the place and time of his own childhood. He was born in Holland in 1938, and lived through the war and the Nazi occupation as a small child. He has often discussed how much that experience shaped him as a man and a filmmaker. While he insists that the complicated tale of intrigue and treachery in "Black Book" is drawn from historical research -- there really was a Dutch lawyer working with the resistance, for instance, who kept a little black book documenting his Jewish clients' property and their attempts to escape -- the atmosphere of fear, brutality and tension comes straight from Verhoeven's childhood memories.

I met Verhoeven at his New York hotel to talk about his "Black Book" comeback, his career on two continents, what lies ahead for him and, inevitably, the lingering "Showgirls" controversy. (He has always remained loyal to the movie.) He's a hearty, vigorous man with a mane of white hair, now cut shorter than during his years as a Hollywood celebrity. He's friendly but reserved in the northern European manner, clearly resisting too much personal inquiry. He becomes most animated when talking about the German V-2 rockets that he, as a small boy, saw being fired toward England from the Hague. He leaps from his chair and walks around the room excitedly, demonstrating for me how big they were. This was a boy who grew up to play with rockets of his own.

It's been a long time since we've heard from you. What's been going on?

Well, there were a couple of projects I couldn't get off the ground in the United States. I was supposed to work on a movie called "Paperboy," based on a book by Pete Dexter. At first it was going to be directed by Pedro Almodóvar, but he decided not to do it. And at the same time, I had already asked my Dutch screenwriter, Gerard Soeteman [Verhoeven's collaborator on several previous films], to set up some European projects. Especially after what happened with "Hollow Man," which was not really a personal movie.

I'm glad you said that, because I would have said it otherwise.

Yeah, sure. It was clear. I was interested in the special effects, but that's not a reason to do a movie. It was one step too far for me, one step in the direction of losing interest in a movie. I did it on technical premises, but there was nothing in the movie for me. So I decided that I should not do that anymore; I decided to stay away from special effects and science fiction and fantasy. And return to reality, which is where I came from. Isn't it? My Dutch movies are completely realistic, based on biography or autobiography.

I also tried to do a project about Victoria Wood-Hull, I don't know if you know who she was. She was a proto-feminist and a prostitute. Also a healer. She ran for president in 1872. I couldn't get that one off the ground either. By then it was 2002 or 2003 and my scriptwriter had solved a problem with "Black Book," which was an old, old project we had been discussing for 20 years and never could solve. Suddenly, when he changed something -- when he made the main character a woman instead of a man -- the script was ready, together with another one I'm going to shoot now. It's based on a Russian novel by Boris Akunin called "The Winter Queen," but the movie is called "Azazel"; it's the name of a Jewish scapegoat or demon, in fact.

Making "Black Book" was a literal homecoming for you. It's the first film you've made in Holland in more than 20 years. Is it a companion piece to "Soldier of Orange," your earlier film about World War II and the Dutch resistance?

It is, in a certain way. We never saw it that way, but in retrospect you could argue that it is. It's interesting: So much of the research and the narrative material for "Black Book" was found when we were doing "Soldier of Orange." The whole story about the lawyer and his little black book. Müntze, the German officer played by Sebastian Koch [who falls in love with the Jewish resistance fighter played by Carice van Houten], is based on a real character. So are several others. That material was already there in 1978 and we thought it was great, but it showed more the shadows than the light. We could not solve the script immediately. [Laughter.] It took us 20 years to solve it! "Soldier of Orange" brought us this material, and we couldn't use it. That film is more, shall I say, heroic. And it mostly takes place in the early years of the war.

This movie takes place in that last shadowy year of the war, when the Allied armies had been stopped at the rivers. The southern part of Holland had been liberated, and the northern part was still occupied. You know, the battle of Arnhem, "A Bridge Too Far."

We put the material aside and thought about it for 20 years. And then we changed protagonists. The original protagonist of the movie was the young boy in the sailboat. [A character who helps Rachel, the heroine, early in the film.] It's a very small part now, but it was the main part. We could never figure out how he would be able to infiltrate the German headquarters. Whatever we came up with, it seemed contrived. When Gerard changed it around [to focus on the woman], well, she uses her sexuality to get inside.

Yeah, and when you've got a female protagonist, one who deceives people, who leads a double life, and uses her sexuality to get what she wants -- then it's a Paul Verhoeven film, isn't it?

[Laughter.] Clearly there's a lot of ambiguity there, yeah. But I think in general she's positive, isn't she? Although she falls in love with a German, she's not collaborating with the Germans. There were several women in Holland, even in the resistance, who fell for German officers and sometimes started to collaborate, to switch sides. I feel she's quite a positive character, for my films. She's not diabolical, like Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct." She's not opportunistic, like the girl in "Spetters" or the girl in "Showgirls." When she starts the affair with the German officer it's at the request of the resistance, because the resistance leader wants to get his son out of prison. She does it for altruistic reasons. In that respect she's one of my positive female characters. Sometimes I use them in other ways.

You were born shortly before the war and were a child during the Nazi occupation. But you were only 6 or 7 in 1945, when the war ended. How much do you actually remember?

A lot. Basically atmosphere. There are hundreds of images and scenes in my head, things I saw, things that happened to me. Gerard Soeteman, who's a little bit older than me, remembers even more. He was in the city of Rotterdam, I was in the Hague. We could have made a movie like John Boorman's "Hope and Glory" [about a child's experience of wartime in London]. You remember that movie? It wasn't an occupied country, but it was not that dissimilar. When I saw that, I said, "Well, that's done." I used my memories -- I have an enormous amount of memories, because it was so sensational for a child to see those big V-2 rockets! [Pacing around the room.] They were enormous, from here to there! Really big! They were made by Wernher von Braun, who was later smuggled into this country, as you may know.

Yes, the hero of American rocket science.

I think it was October 1945 when they brought him to the United States with all his collaborators, who were all SS officers. It was forbidden to have an SS officer enter the country, but they did it anyway. And he built the Saturn rockets and then, when he was 86 years old, he was expelled and sent back to Germany. That's true! I'm not inventing this. He was found to be a war criminal, after he had been working here for 40 years.

Wasn't that convenient?

Anyhow, these big rockets were launched a block from our house, from trucks, so you could see them going overhead. Our street was not bombed, but the next street and the quarter behind it was bombed. I remember that because there was an enormous fire. I remember seeing dead people. I remember, when I was with my father, being forced to walk past a group of Dutch people who had been executed by the Germans in a reprisal.

So I remember all these little things that happened to me, but I couldn't really use that for the movie. I use the atmosphere that's in my head; I can very easily sink into that period. It's the easiest period for me, of course. It's authentic. I know how the streets looked and how people behaved and how many cars there were and what people were wearing. I think that helps to give an atmosphere of authenticity, but the narrative is completely based on historical research.

It's very difficult to summarize the plot of this film in a conversation, especially since we don't want to give it away. But the picture you paint is very complicated. People in the resistance were double-dealing with the Germans, the Germans were double-dealing with the resistance, there were traitors and collaborators on all sides. You think that's an accurate portrayal of the history?

Yes, that's all true. We shouldn't name the bad guy, should we? This is a detective story. But there's an evil person, and you'll find out who that is at the end of the movie, and he's based on a real person. The "good German" and the "bad German" [two competing officers] are based on real people. The lawyer is real and the little black book is true. An enormous amount of this is authentic. The heroine is two Dutch women combined, and a little bit of a third one. And these elements of betrayal and collaboration are all true. That's based on research that has come out more and more in the last 20 years. There were people inside the resistance who had made secret deals with the Germans; that's all true. Mostly it happened after they had been arrested: We're going to kill you and your family, unless you go back to your resistance group and give them all up.

Well, it's a theme that suits you. I've always felt that moral ambiguity is the central ingredient in your films. It seems as if viewers come out of the film unsure, for instance, whether Smaal, the lawyer who keeps the little black book, is really helping the resistance or the Nazis. His situation remains ambiguous.

Right. Well, our intention was not to make him so ambiguous, but there have been false interpretations of what happens, I would say. If you see it a second time you will see where he's standing. If you shut off the microphone I'll tell you exactly what the truth is. [He never does.] It's an important element of the plot.

You've always had a foot in two worlds, in European film and American film, and "Black Book" seems so much like a fusion of the two. You've tried to do an action film on an American scale in the world of European film. That's a difficult thing to pull off.

Yes, it is. There's a lot of production value on the screen, I would say. The movie cost $21 million, which is tame in comparison to "Starship Troopers" or "Hollow Man," which were around $90 million or $100 million. You can do more in your own country. I got a lot of help from the city of the Hague, from the Dutch army. All the historical cars and vehicles came from the army, and we got them all for nothing. This movie would have cost triple if I'd made it in the United States, I would say.

I also realized that I really wanted to get out of digital effects. I really wanted to do real. The special-effects budget of "Hollow Man" was $50 million -- half the price of the movie. The special-effects budget in this movie was $70,000. There's one scene we did digitally, and we wiped out some modern things in the background. But $70,000 is nothing. You'd get about four seconds of "Hollow Man" for $70,000.

It was enormous fun to work with real things. I wanted real ships, real boats, real planes. The train is real, it really arrives at the station. You can feel it in the landscape. There is a big difference between reality and the virtual world, and as I was trying to rotate completely back to reality I thought it was important to stay away from digital effects.

Do you think you're finished with Hollywood?

No, not at all. There are still possibilities here. I'm still hoping to do "Paperboy" and I'd love to do the Victoria Wood-Hull project. And then, if something comes my way that I'd really like. But I would only make it if I can see light in the tunnel. I would not do anything just because I can do it. I'll only do it if the studio and I both love it.

There has to be a personal investment.

Yes, I think so. A personal vision, where I can say, "It's my movie." It's the studio's movie, fine. But it has to be my movie. Like I felt I could do with "Starship Troopers" or "RoboCop," or "Basic Instinct," in a different way. I only felt this discrepancy between myself and the movie with "Hollow Man," really. In the other movies -- and most notably, I would say, with "Showgirls," that one is very personal! -- I felt like I could embrace them and make them mine. With "Hollow Man" that was not possible. Anybody could have done "Hollow Man." I don't think anybody could have done "RoboCop."

Will "Black Book" change the way you are seen in Europe?

The reviews in Europe have been very positive in general. Well, except in Holland. Many reviews in Holland were negative. It's been the biggest R-rated hit there in 25 years, the audience has embraced it. The last one that was that successful was my own movie, "Spetters." But the critics have been very tough. Some of them feel I have been Americanized, and I think it's true that I have used my American experience to create a more driving narrative. Which is often absent in European films, even the greatest ones. In "La Dolce Vita," a classic of European filmmaking, the story is nearly zero. There is no compelling narrative. Working in the American film industry has made me want to make movies with compelling, driving narratives. But Holland has always been -- well, like it says in the New Testament, no prophet is honored in his own country. The Dutch critics loved me when I was in the United States!

You've mentioned "Showgirls" a couple of times already, so I know you're not running away from it. It was seen as this ludicrous flop when it was released, and now it's got a devoted cult following. How do you see that movie now?

I've been in Hollywood jail, a little bit, because of "Showgirls." "Black Book" might help me with that. It's been received very positively and I used a low budget, at least in Hollywood's eyes. I love "Showgirls." I've always liked it. In the beginning, people looked at me like I was a complete idiot when I said it was beautifully and elegantly shot. People think it can't be elegant if there are so many breasts around.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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