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