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Some 17 years after their memorable first conversation, exactly two years before he moved to Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven tells Nick Roddick how Hollow Man is his first attempt at ‘more normal’ movies – that is, about people.

It was a warm afternoon in September 1983. London was hesitating between late summer and early autumn and the tea room of the Cumberland Hotel was crowded, mainly with well-dressed ladies of a certain age. This was a world in which cakes came on stands and sugar was served with tongs. In retrospect, it may not have been the best place to meet Paul Verhoeven, who had tired of talking about films and decided to share some details of his sex life.

Typically, this was being done, not in a confidential whisper, but at full volume. Then, as now, Paul Verhoeven didn’t do quiet.

"Years ago," he bellowed, "this girl said to me: ‘Why are you closing your eyes? I want to see your eyes. Men always close their eyes when they f*** me!’"

The tea room went very quiet. Either Verhoeven was oblivious to the reaction, or else he was revelling in it. I suspect the latter. "I’m always amazed that people f***ing each other in films is so boring," he thundered on. "If you close your eyes, you’re in yourself. But if you open your eyes when you come, you have to expose yourself completely."

Verhoeven is not a film-maker who has hesitated to expose himself (and quite a few of his actors) on film. He enjoys provoking audiences and seems quite happy to accept the consequences.

Hollow Man, Verhoeven’s take on the Invisible Man story, is ready for release and, in his office on the Sony lot in Culver City, he is in philosophical mood, calling on Plato, Nietzsche and Stephen Hawking to explain its theme.

So are we looking at the beginnings of a new, gentler, less epic Paul Verhoeven?

"I feel like I make Hollywood movies"

"Let’s put it this way," he says, still maintaining the same stentorian voice-level. "I feel like I make, to a large degree, Hollywood movies. And I will continue do so. But Hollow Man is really an ensemble piece for a group of seven, and I’ve been wanting to, let’s say, slowly segue into more human drama. This is just a first attempt, because it still leans heavily on special effects and science fiction. But ultimately, the goal would be, in the next four or five years, to do at least one or two movies that would be more normal. I mean, about people.

"If there were special effects, they would just be there like Titanic, you know? You need them, otherwise the Titanic would not go down. You use them as a tool. But I would love to try a little bit to get back to my European movies - not in a European way because that wouldn’t work here. But to do, let’s say, more American drama instead of American action-oriented science fiction."

Since settling in Los Angeles, Verhoeven has made some very ‘American’ films, filtered (not always obviously) through a very European sensibility. But his first English-language movie, a medieval epic called Flesh + Blood starring Rutger Hauer, Jack Thompson and a very young Jennifer Jason-Leigh was not a success. Flesh + Blood, he says, was neither one nor the other. It was "too much of a compromise between what we thought of as being an American movie and a European one. It really fell in the middle.

"If you want to work for the American market," he continues, "you can’t do that in Europe. A lot of people have tried, but I don’t think it works. You have to live the life, you know? You have to be here to know basically what the essence of the film industry is and how you can use it to your full advantage. Just coming here, picking up a couple of actors and going back to Europe doesn’t do the job."

"You have to live here. Smell it and shoot it!"

It took a while before Verhoeven finally made the move to LA, spurred on by Martine, his wife of 33 years (the word ‘long-suffering’ springs to mind, but who am I to say?), and with the words of Irwin Yablans ringing in his ears. Yablans was then based at Orion, which had just picked up his most recent film. "You know, I like Flesh + Blood," he told Verhoeven, "but it will only work on a very limited scale. If you want to make American movies, there’s really only one way to do it: you have to live here. Smell it and shoot it!"

So, in September 1985, Verhoeven arrived in Los Angeles, nose wide open and ready to shoot. And here he has stayed, arguably the most consistently successful émigré since the days when the California Limited would regularly deposit European directors at the Pasadena railroad station en route to a long-term studio contract.

Those days are gone, but Verhoeven’s production-company relationships have remained remarkably stable: four films for defunct mini-majors (one for Orion, three for Carolco) and the last two for Sony. He is by now, to all intents and purposes, a mainstream studio director.

But it took him a while to settle in - maybe half a decade - and, like many newcomers, he cut his Hollywood teeth on science fiction. "European directors come into the US feeling, like me, that the culture is not completely clear to them," he says, "and that you cannot make too many mistakes in the beginning because, if you do, you’re out again. So a lot of us probably use science-fiction to camouflage our lack of knowledge."

In fact, you could stick the sci-fi label on four of the six films Verhoeven has made since he arrived in LA. But even in his first, Robocop - a minor masterpiece made from what at first struck him as unpromising material - there are some pretty acute snapshots of American culture, not least the leering guy in the TV commercials who regularly pops up chirping "I’d buy that for a dollar!" Indeed, ‘Everything for sale’ is a recurrent theme in Verhoeven’s US films, up to and including Hollow Man.

Verhoeven reckons he’s pretty much acclimatised by now, but admits there are still gaps in his understanding of the culture. "Basically, it’s only in the last two or three years that I have been starting to even think about developing American scripts," he says. "For the first 10 or 12 years, I really didn’t know where to start or what I could dig out of this society. So I have always followed the flow by taking scripts that were already there."

The flow led from Robocop to Hollow Man via Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers. "Robocop is a good example of a very American movie," he says. "What I added to the different layers that were there in the script already was my being alien to this country and looking, sometimes with some surprise, at certain things that Americans take for granted. If you put them in the context of a movie and put them in an ironic way, they say ‘Oh, that’s new to us’. But what it really is is me looking at them instead of trying to be me."

"making American dialogue work"

"If you’re English and you come here, you think you can speak American," says uprooted Londoner Alan Marshall, who has produced all of Verhoeven’s films since Basic Instinct. "Paul has never been that way because English is his second language. To a certain extent, it’s always been a learning process: he gets a joy out of making American dialogue work."

It’s not a new idea - that of the outsider being able to see American culture from a slightly different angle and thus bring interesting new insights. But it is one that Verhoeven has made decisively his own - more so, certainly, than the other two European immigrants who dominated this summer’s early US box office: Wolfgang Petersen with The Perfect Storm and Roland Emmerich with The Patriot.

Making it in Hollywood, reckons Verhoeven, is a question, not so much of checking in your cultural baggage, but of keeping it to yourself, like a favourite book that you keep on your bedside table and don’t tell other people about - not directly, anyway. He doesn’t want to be one of those directors, he says, "who felt that they would bring to the US their cultural luggage and were not willing or were not planning to say ‘OK, this is a new world’. Instead of saying ‘This is me’, it’s more like my saying ‘How do I react to that? What is my position inside this world?’

But that doesn’t mean he arrived as a blank slate, asking America to write on him: Verhoeven brought with him a breadth of education you rarely get from, say, USC. Asked to explain what Hollow Man was about to the assembled exhibitors at Showest recently, Verhoeven typically quoted Plato - probably the first film-maker ever to do so at Showest, and certainly the first to do so having read The Republic at school in the original Greek.

Nor did Verhoeven leave his voracious appetite for films of all kinds behind him in Holland: he recently bought Bergman’s entire oeuvre on video and has been going through it for hints on how to do things differently, do things better. His other idols are Fellini and Hitchcock, and both Basic Instinct and Hollow Man are replete with references to the latter.

"In Hollow Man, for example, when Sebastian [the title character, played by Kevin Bacon] looks at his female neighbour - the girl that he later sexually attacks - in the apartment opposite," he points out, "my production designer and I looked at Rear Window to see exactly what we thought would be the best distance for the two apartments to be separated: far enough so that you could not see every detail, but close enough so that you could see that, if she took her bra off, she was naked.

"I still look at Hitchcock"

"We needed to know how close you had to be, with the lens that we had, to create a similar feeling. I still look at Hitchcock because there’s always something where you say, ‘Oh god, I never saw that. That’s why that little sequence of three shots works so well...’

"It’s not that I really try to copy him," he adds, "but I feel strongly that Basic Instinct is a Hitchcock for the nineties, because it’s the kind of thing that Hitchcock would perhaps have done if he had been 30 years younger. There are scripts published that Hitchcock did not shoot at the end of his life, and if you see the sexual outrageousness of some of the scenes that he wanted to do and dismissed because he would not have got them through the ratings... a girl sitting in the foreground with her lover while her husband is coming up in a boat behind her, and she is masturbating for the guy in the foreground. That was a scene that he wanted to do which would basically be perfect for Basic Instinct 2."

Verhoeven, however, will not be doing Basic Instinct 2, although Carolco’s Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna recently signed Sharon Stone for $15 million (three times her usual price) to star in it. He has various projects in development: a period adaptation of a Maupassant novel; a film about a group of early American suffragettes; a biography of Hitler; a film about Rasputin, another about Houdini; a story about the end of World War II as seen from the viewpoint of the defeated German army (because "it’s more interesting, in my opinion, to talk about the people that were not the victors")...

And all told from that distinctive viewpoint of someone who is a product of postwar Holland, reached adulthood somewhere between the Dutch Reformed conformism of the fifties and the Provo revolutions of the sixties, then moved to a place in which they would never make a movie about either.

"American culture"

"I bring myself," he explains, of the way he approaches Hollywood, "but I express myself through American culture. I say, ‘What you see is you, but it’s seen by me’. That’s basically the difference. Yes, I bring something to it: probably the perspective of an outsider, or somebody that is critical and doesn’t feel national pride or anything like that. But there is always that distance. And that is in some cases a hindrance as much as it is an advantage. My guessing completely wrongly about the acceptance of Showgirls, for example, proves pretty well that my taste and my sensibilities are quite different from an American’s."

Showgirls is Verhoeven’s worst-performing film to date, even if it ended up taking $60 million worldwide - at least 10 times more than any Dutch film ever made. Still, he is aware that he struck out with his "morality tale" about Vegas lap-dancers, and keeps coming back to the reasons for this. Whatever baggage he may have left behind in Holland, the European penchant for chewing over the past - as opposed to the American tendency to move on - was not among it.

"It’s probably the fact that [Joe] Eszterhas and I set it up together," he reflects. "It was more like ‘How can we be more outrageous than Basic Instinct?’, which was probably not the best motive to do a movie! Our glee in saying that now we were going to be so offensive that nobody could believe what we’re going to do - that was probably me pushing. And Eszterhas probably, because of the guy he is, was pushing me at the same time to do something which would be beyond boundaries, which he does a lot."

Back in 1983, Verhoeven told me that, as a kid, "when the other kids were playing with a ball, all I wanted to do was take the ball and throw it in the water. That was my game. I thought it was fun to disrupt the game, to change it."

It is an approach that he has carried over into his films, and it got him into trouble long before Showgirls. Spetters was vilified in Holland for its violence, its casual sexuality and its unremitting bleakness. Through his decade-and-a-half of Dutch features, he was labelled variously as a fascist, a sexist and a misogynist. Certainly, his background is bourgeois (his father was a headmaster) and his first short films were made under the aegis of the hyperconservative Minerva Association at Leiden University. Equally, during the sixties, Verhoeven embraced the long hair and the sexual freedom, but not the radical politics: at best, he can be described as an anti-authoritarian - an educated rebel (he has a doctorate in mathematics) with a series of causes the most prominent of which is: never trust anyone with power.

But, at 62, does he still need to be provocative? Well, maybe. "That’s always a motive," he says, "or it can be a motive. You need every motivation that you can get as a director to get through a movie, because it’s so difficult. If being offensive or provocative is a motivation to get up in the morning and do the movie, that’s fine. If you fall in love with the script girl, that would do, too. I mean, anything that works, because it’s a horrible job, shooting a movie..."

"it’s a horrible job, shooting a movie"

If Verhoeven finds film-making horrible, says Marshall, you’d never know it. "I know directors who come on the set and it takes them three hours before they know where to put the camera," says the producer. "That’s not Paul. He tends to know exactly what he wants, and that’s very important on a set, certainly for the size of movies that we’ve done together. You have a big crew and there’s nothing worse than a director who doesn’t know where the next shot is. His day is mapped out; he’s gone over it with his assistant director; he’s allotted his time over the day and he generally tends to stick to it. I don’t think we went into any overtime of any consequence on Hollow Man for the 120 odd days that we shot it."

"I’m not easy to work with," says the man himself. "I’m very demanding... but apparently not terrible enough for crew members not to come back when I ask them." Since 1970, for instance, he has used only three cinematographers, working almost entirely with fellow Dutchmen Jan de Bont - now a director in his own right - on six films and Jost Vacano on seven. Ellen Mirojnick has done the costumes for his last four films, and either Basil Pouledoris or Jerry Goldsmith have scored all but one of his English-language films (Dave Stewart did Showgirls).

"So, he concludes, "I must be OK - although sometimes a bit harsh, I think. I’m over-critical and not easily satisfied. But I apologise a lot. I have to, because I make psychological mistakes on the set in being pissed off or angry or grumpy about things that are basically nonsense."

(August 24, 2000) This is an edited version of Nick Roddick's interview in Moving Pictures, September 2000.

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