The legendary Dutch director on his new film Elle, surviving scandals and why he will never do a sequel…
Paul Verhoeven will be 80 next summer but you’ve never think it, not only for his youthful silver fox demeanour but for the fact that, once again in a career defined by controversy, he is still ruffling feathers. Verhoeven likes to say that he was driven out of is native Holland after shocking the authorities with his earlier films, gritty confections such as Turkish Delight (1973) and Spetters (1980) which depicted frank sex and disturbing violence – in the latter, at the same time. Nevertheless, Verhoeven was more than a shallow provocateur, and his 1977 WW2 drama Soldier Of Orange caught Hollywood’s eye, even (briefly) putting him in the frame to direct the second Star Wars sequel, Return Of The Jedi.
Common sense prevailed, and Verhoeven instead made his English-language debut with the European-made medieval action thriller Flesh + Blood (1985), and soon he was off to Los Angeles, causing a splash with the bloody and sadistically satirical RoboCop in 1987. It was the start of an extraordinary run that lasted 13 years and six films before the game was up. It’s arguable that no other director since the Hays Code of 1930 got away with as much as Paul Verhoeven, whose steamy 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct killed off the old American X-rating and gave birth to the NC-17. Five years later came the extraordinary 1997 blockbuster Starship Troopers, a studio-backed sci-fi that parodied its source novel’s fascist leanings with such a straight face that the Washington Post actually believed it to be the work of neo-Nazis.
With scenes of savage dark comedy – at one point its heroine is literally showered in shit – it showed that Verhoeven hadn’t mellowed with age
The wheels nearly came off in 1995 with Showgirls, a deliriously camp tale of a Hollywood ingénue that swept the board at that year’s Razzie awards. But, surprisingly, it was 2000’s invisible man story The Hollow Man that brought Verhoeven’s spree to an end, an anaemic studio pic that, but for a few mischievous touches, could have been the work of any moderately talented hack. Verhoeven returned to Holland to reconsider, returning in 2006 with another WW2 story, Black Book, in which a member of the Dutch resistance infiltrates the Gestapo. With scenes of savage dark comedy – at one point its heroine is literally showered in shit – it showed that Verhoeven hadn’t mellowed with age.
Which made it all the more surprising that, almost immediately, he disappeared for nearly a decade, after publishing a biography of Jesus Christ in 2007. And then in May 2016 Verhoeven broke cover, attending the Cannes film festival with his new film Elle, the story of a divorced businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert) who is attacked and raped by a masked intruder. For another director, this might have been the basis for an intense revenge drama, but instead Verhoeven crafted something entirely and unapologetically unique. Huppert excels in a role that was turned down by every A-list star in Hollywood, but it is the director’s shadow that looms largest over a film that blends sexuality, violence and dark, dark comedy – in a way that only Verhoeven knows how.
Elle is based on a novel – Philippe Djian’s Oh… – that only came out four years ago. When did you decide that you wanted to turn it into a movie?
As soon as the producer sent me the book and asked me if I wanted to make that into a movie, which was about two years ago.
What jumped out to you about that book?
Mostly that it was quite original and that it was something that I had never done before. There’s a lot of interesting social relationships between the different characters and with a very interesting, powerful woman in the middle. I’ve always admired movies by Woody Allen or Barry Levinson that have these big dinner scenes where people area sitting together, talking.
Had you met Isabelle Huppert before?
Yes, I had, but I didn’t know her well. I had met her before. Seven years ago, I think, something like that. There was a retrospective of some of my movies in the Cinémathèque Française in Paris and Isabelle introduced one of my movies, a Dutch movie that I made in ’73. Turkish Delight. She introduced it and said it this was one of the three movies when she was young that had convinced her that she wanted to be a film actress, so it was a very respectful introduction.
You said somewhere that you thought Elle might be your most subversive movie to date – which is a big statement!
Did I say that?
You said it might be.
Oh, it might be. [Laughs] Apparently to a degree, it is. Although, I must say, based in the reactions in Europe, including England, the controversy that basically that we assumed might happen, because of developments of the third act, has not occurred so far. I haven’t seen that. The controversy is much more in the United States, clearly. Although there, not from the point of view of the reviews or the critics. But it’s certainly there. If people are angry, they’re very angry. Yeah, sure. But not in Europe. I haven’t heard anything, really. In Europe there was really no talk about rape at all and not of the consequence of the rape and not even about the character’s approach to the rapist.
It’s a brilliant balancing act.
It is, but we had a really good support system in the novel.
It hits on a very timely subject, which is misogyny, especially in American politics with the treatment of Hillary Clinton last year. Was that kind of sexism something you wanted to explore, or did that surprise you?
You don’t think about these things when you make a movie. In retrospect, now that it’s done, and looking at the developments of the last year, politically, in the United States, of course, yeah. It’s quite possible that one has to do with the other. Yeah, sure, but it’s not something that you have in mind when you shoot a movie. Perhaps one feeds the other. It’s all possible. But these are all theories. There’s no way to prove that these things have anything to do with each other. Although it seems clear to me that the novel written by Philippe Djian just a few years ago would have been impossible to write 20 years ago.
It does seem that your films reflect their times…
Yeah. Sometimes a little bit ahead of time, apparently. In my Dutch movies and my American movies there have been movies that were scandals, of course. Be it Spetters in Holland or Showgirls in the United States, or even Starship Troopers. In retrospect, people see them in a different way later. If you look at the case of, for example, Starship Troopers, of course we did not foresee 9/11, but we certainly foresaw the possibilities, I would say, of a fascist utopia in the United States. I’m not saying that we are in that position – yet – but there are a lot of elements that are similar, I would say. In retrospect, now people see the movie and think, “Oh, yeah. OK.” Now they see, I think, what we tried to do at that time. We failed, apparently. At that time, people didn’t see it. I mean, some people saw it but many did not.
Irony is very difficult to portray.
It is. I’ve said so and other people have said that irony is nearly a lost art.
You mentioned Starship Troopers, what was your last big movie, really. Did that film’s reception affect your confidence?
Well, Showgirls didn’t help and then Starship Troopers on top of that made it even more difficult. That doesn’t mean that I could not do movies in the United States, but I could not do any movie any more that I really liked – as is clear a little bit from Hollow Man. After Hollow Man, I thought, “OK, now I’m in a position where basically the studio is more important than anything that I personally want to make,” and so I decided to go back to material that had been there for some time in Holland, with my Dutch scriptwriter Gerard Soeteman. I decided to make something that I wanted to make, and not the studio. Black Book  was born from that disillusion about myself after Hollow Man. I thought basically that I had a signature. Even if it’s big spectacle, even if it’s a $100 million dollar movie, like Starship Troopers, I still had a signature, and with Hollow Man I had a feeling that basically anybody could have done that movie. I felt that I had to stop that and go back to making more personal movies where my interest would be the most important thing – more important than the company that made them. I always felt that film in some way was art, you know?
Is it a coincidence that your heroine in Black Book suffers so much? Was it cathartic for you after your Hollywood experience?
[Laughs] No. I’m not so sure if that’s true. I mean, who knows? I’m not contradicting it. It’s not that I thought about it that way until you said it, but, of course. I mean, yes, she suffers but she’s also heroic, isn’t she? She survives. You know, the character of Rachel in that film was based on three Dutch women that really existed. They were all killed, in fact. We changed that. We made it to one character and we made her survive. There was a lot of negativity, evil, and darkness there, but I think we didn’t want to do that completely because we felt that she should survive. There’s suffering based on the reality of these three characters, but we changed it. You couldn’t say it’s a happy ending, of course. It’s not. But at least she survived, even if she feels at the end, like she says, that the trauma never ends.
Something that unifies all your films is a very dark sense of humour. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, sure. Yeah, to survive. Yeah, because there’s a lot of evil and darkness in the world, isn’t there? Basically, if you open your eyes to that and try to deal with that in your work, then I think you need to sometimes take a little distance and use humour – or dark humour, in this case – to make it acceptable to yourself. To express yourself about the world. To express yourself about the violence of the world. [Laughs] The scale of destruction in this universe is absolutely staggering, you know? I see that and that’s very dark. But I think, as an artist, you try anyhow to make something out of that. You still try to survive by putting it in a context that you can live with.
Elle didn’t make the cut for the best foreign language Oscar. Were you disappointed by that?
You’re always disappointed. There was so much praise for the movie that you would really think that people would see that in Hollywood. On the other hand, of course, after all the things that happened with my movies in Hollywood, I’m not amazed about anything anymore. And after Trump becoming President of the United States, I have given up all hope. Then this little… what would you call it? It’s just a minor thing, not being mentioned in this shortlist. I mean, yes, it is great to have an Oscar, perhaps. Perhaps, you know? I’ve never got one. But, on the other hand, I think the movie is more important than the awards in general.
What do you mean by that?
Does the movie survive? That’s more important. Can you still talk about RoboCop? Is RoboCop still something that you can see or not? I think that is more important. Is The Gold Rush still a great movie? Or, let’s say, Lawrence Of Arabia? Are they still the great movies they were then, and are they still full of artistic depth and beauty now? I always have felt that you hope that your movies are not really so close to the moment that they are made but they can also survive 10, 20, 30, or 40 years. I think that’s the ultimate test of a movie – if it survives. Of all art, you know? I mean, on the radio and in concert halls, Mozart is still there. Bach, or whatever. They survived hundreds of hundreds of years, which is absolutely fantastic, you know? A lot of art is forgotten but some things are not forgotten and are still relevant. I think, if a movie can survive more than three or four years, that’s fantastic. [Laughs] That’s really more my fear than not being nominated for an Oscar.
What are you working on now? Are you making another film or are you going to take some time off?
I’m working on a couple of movies with Saïd Ben Saïd, who is the producer of Elle, one being about the book I wrote about Jesus. And then there’s two projects in Holland and there’s one project in the United States. But, nowadays, you just don’t know anymore. You work on six movies or ten and then you might be happy if one of them gets made. That is so different than when I grew up and started to work in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, even,. Then you would say, “OK, we’re going to make this movie” – and then you would make it.” [Laughs] You would not talk about the five others that were also interesting. I didn’t have five others – I always had only the next movie. I made the movie, then I would look around, perhaps for a year or something, then I would find something, and then we would say, “OK, that’s great.” The producer would say, “OK,” then we would shake hands and say, “Let’s do it!” That doesn’t happen anymore.
How long did that period last for you?
It happened in Los Angeles for a long time with people like [producers] Mario Kassar and Mike Medavoy, who basically would say, “OK, we’re going to make this movie – let’s shake hands.” I remember a dinner party with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna. We had come together to talk about a script that I had read three hours before I came to the meeting. We sit down, we talk to each other, we say, “Do we like the script?” “Yes.” “Do you want to work with Arnold Schwarzenegger?” “Yes.” “Shake hands. You start tomorrow.” [Laughs] It was absolutely amazing. I mean, it was paradise. It was always that way in Holland, but in the United States that went on till about late ’90s, you know? It’s only very lately that I discovered that with Mike Medavoy’s company, Orion, and later on TriStar with Mario Kassar, that I had been living in a paradise. Because then it became clear with the studios that the situation was really different, and it has been worse ever since then.
Do you still have the same energy? Do you still have the same passion for filmmaking?
Yeah. I think it’s great. It’s scary and, at the same time, it’s really exciting. What I have always tried to do is not to repeat myself, because I feel if you do a sequel then you know already what you’re doing and the adventure is gone. The fear is gone. You go on automatic, more or less. I feel that a movie should be something where you don’t know exactly if you can handle it, if you can survive it, if you can make it well, if you can really make it successful, at least from an artistic point of view. Yeah, I never did sequels. I felt that it was, let’s say, second class. I mean, not that some people have not made good sequels. There are directors who have done that. Not many. One or two, in my opinion. [Laughs] But in general, of course, it’s repetitive, you know? Why do you do it? I don’t know. For me, there would not be much reason to do a sequel.
You’ve had some of your films remade. How do you feel about that?
Yeah. I saw them – Total Recall and RoboCop. I felt that the elimination of any lightness basically made them void. I felt that taking away political layers or ambiguity and especially irony or satire – whatever I used there – and making everything really so-called science-fiction ‘realistic’ without any self-awareness was pointless – because of course everything in these movies is nonsense in the first place. If a remake is completely straight, then I feel that it doesn’t survive well. I thought that the science fiction element was taken too seriously.
You mentioned the word scandal earlier. A lot of your films have caused scandals – even The Fourth Man, when it came out in the UK. Do you mind that word being applied to your films?
No, I don’t. But The Fourth Man wasn’t that much of a scandal. The movie before that – Spetters, about young people – that was a scandal in Holland. Enormous scandal. Showgirls in the United States was similar. But I don’t mind it. It’s not something that you are aiming for, a scandal. In fact, it takes you by surprise. I was completely surprised by the scandal of Spetters and Showgirls, and Showgirls was more understandable than Spetters, because, in Spetters, I thought we made a very interesting movie about blue-collar people. Of course it was not seen that way, no. There was a complete rejection for years and years of that movie. Yeah, probably the biggest scandal in the Dutch cinema history. But I can live with it. As Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”
Is there anything you’ve wanted to do but haven’t done yet?
I would love to do a comedy. My first movie in Holland in the early ‘70s [Diary Of A Hooker] was a comedy, and that’s the last time that I could really do comedy. There’s comedy in Spetters and even in Turkish Delight. There’s comedy in Elle, of course but it’s not a comedy, clearly. Really a comedy, in perhaps in a Woody Allen kind of direction. Yes, I’m looking forward to that. But nobody sends me these scripts – and I myself would not be able to write them.