Chances are, you've seen some of Paul Verhoeven's work. As the
director of such films as Basic Instinct,
Total Recall, Robocop,
Troopers and now Hollow Man,
Verhoeven has definitely made an impact on today's popular culture.
Whether you love his work or not, you'll definitely have a reaction
to it. And that's exactly what Verhoeven intends.
Though he directed several successful films in Europe, it was upon
arriving in America in the mid-80s that controversy began to swirl
around his work, and that's no coincidence. Throughout his career,
Verhoeven has made a point of exploring the limits of what might be
considered acceptible on screen, whether it's violence or sex. And
few cultures are as morally repressed as America, so there was bound
to be a reaction. Verhoeven has often said that he believes violence
in society stems from sexual repression - from puritanism. Whether
you agree with him or not, his is a fascinating argument, and it's
one that pervades his work. He makes his point by portraying life on
film as out of control, filled with violence that's over the top.
Life as a character in a Verhoeven film is a raw, visceral and often
gut-wrenching ordeal, and death is usually extreme and brutal. As a
matter of course, his movies are not seen easily or lightly.
I should confess that I harbor a personal fondness for Starship
Troopers. So when I was offered a chance to interview the
man who directed it, how could I refuse? I found Paul Verhoeven to
be a complex character - well-spoken and absolutely fascinating. My
only regret about this interview is that it wasn't nearly long
enough to really to get to the good stuff. But I think you'll enjoy
this transcript of our conversation anyway. So... do you want to
know more? ;-)
Hunt (The Digital Bits): I wanted to ask you, how did you
come to be involved in filmmaking, because I understand you studied
math and physics in college?
Paul Verhoeven: Yes, I did. I
went to university from 1956 to '63, doing mathematics and physics.
But I did film as a hobby with friends, making student films. That
had nothing to do with my profession, of course. And then, by some
coincidence and luck - and a little help - I got myself into it when
I was drafted in the military in Holland, which was three years that
you had to do at that time. I got myself into the film department of
the Marines. And that became the beginnings of a career, because
that was much more professional that what I had been doing with my
friends. This was military people making real films - documentaries.
So I started there. And when I became an officer, I was going all
over the world and to England, France, whatever - to shoot the Dutch
Marines. And the Navy. And when I came out, I realized that I
preferred filmmaking to mathematics. I started out and tried to get
a job in television, which ultimately I was lucky to get. And I
worked a couple of three or four years at that. And because of a
television series which I did with Rutger Hauer, which became very
successful, I had the chance to make my first feature, which was in
1971. So it was a hobby that became a profession.
Bill Hunt: I recently saw a
documentary about Kurosawa, for which you had been interviewed,
where you talked about Seven Samurai
as a film which had a big influence on you. What are some of your
other influences as a filmmaker?
Paul Verhoeven: Well, I would
say that there's a couple of directors that I studied very well.
Kurosawa is one of them, especially his movies Seven
Samurai and Rashomon.
Yojimbo is another one. There
are three or four of his films that were done in the 50s, that were
done in black and white mostly, that really influenced me. The
styles, the editing, the music - I studied all of it. Then, I would
say it has been Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, the French director
Jean Renoir, the Russian director Eisenstein... a lot of what you
would call classical influences. I'd also say one of my major
examples - masters if you want to use that word - is David Lean.
(laughs) But I'll never do anything like that - what he did. I
looked at his work and I know it very well, but it's not so much
that I would be able to do something like that. Or would even have
the desire to do that. I think I was much more stylistically
influenced by Alfred Hitchcock - as you can see in Basic
Instinct and also Hollow Man,
I think - than by anything else.
Bill Hunt: Thinking of your
own style, all of your films seem to push the boundaries, in terms
of violence and sex for example, by depicting those issues with a
sort of "hyper-realism". Is that something you look for
script or a story idea, or is it a thematic element you bring to a
project as a director?
Paul Verhoeven: Only when I
can find it in a script. And even then, it's not always clear. For
example, in the case of Robocop,
I got that script while I was still in Europe, and I threw it away
because I though it was so child-like and infantile. And it was only
when my wife started to read it and said, "You should read it
again, because there's a lot of extra layers there that you
neglected - it might not be what you think." And so I read it
again... and again. And I started to realize what really had been
written, or could be seen, in the script. It was vaguely phrased,
but not accentuated. And I think, what I do in a case like that, is
to push those elements I see in a script - that is hyper-realism -
to push that even beyond the intentions of the scriptwriter. I mean,
I can't do a script if I don't see anything personal there, and it's
really my sense of reality - or creating, let's say, a certain
reality that I feel is as consistent as possible - that is one of
the ambitions or energies that keep me going as a filmmaker.
Bill Hunt: I noticed in Hollow
Man, in particular, there are elements of it. Starting
out that film with the scene of the rat being eaten really sets the
tone for the whole thing...
Paul Verhoeven: But be aware,
that was written that way in the script. So I think it's one thing
what I add, but it's also more the choices that I make that are the
key to understanding the work. That's the key to the hyper-realism,
or whatever people want to call it. When I see a script that has
these elements, I get seduced to do the project. Sometimes it's the
original story, like Starship Troopers,
where it was developed Ed Neumeier and me for a long time, or in the
case of Hollow Man, where the
script was more or less in its final form when I got it. And I
recognized what I could do with it. It's more the choice, I think -
the choice of the script is very important. I can only do movies
when I see something like that hidden, or sort of glistening, in the
Bill Hunt: Let's talk about
Starship Troopers and Hollow
Man. What are some of the challenges, as a director, when
you're putting together a big-budget special effects film? Because,
obviously it's a much more complex endeavor than a normal film...
Paul Verhoeven: Yes... in
fact, Hollow Man was much more
complex than Starship Troopers,
although I never dreamed that it would be that way when I read the
script. But it was more complex, because the techniques that we had
to use were more difficult than I realized at first. And so it took
some time to see that. But I think that what is very important, when
you start these projects that are so expensive and time consuming,
is that you have a very good understanding with the studio of what
everybody wants out of the project. And that, basically, you are
really aware, when you do a movie of that size and of that budget,
that it is a common project and it has economic relevance. And you
can't fool around. You have to be sure, when you discuss the project
with the studio, that there is no misunderstanding about what the
costs are and exactly what the essence of the movie will be - what
kind of audience is being targeted. So I think it's how you and the
producers and the studio work together. Everyone must agree upon the
path you're going to be taking for the next year or two on the
project. I think it's highly important that there are no
misunderstandings and there must be no false hopes. Of course,
nothing ever really turns out exactly like you predict when you
script it, or when you visualize it. Even if you storyboard every
shot, when you get on the set, it's not always the same. There are
still a lot of things that can happen that nobody can guess, and
which sometimes surprise a studio. Sometimes, that's a positive
surprise and sometimes it can be negative. So you must agree
completely on things when you start out.
Bill Hunt: Absolutely, because
having the script in your hand and actually trying to get it on film
out on the set are completely different animals.
Paul Verhoeven: Yeah. (laughs)
And I think, for something like that, you have to be in very good
physical shape, you know? It's a very exhausting way to do movies.
There's much more pleasure, much more relaxation, in doing a project
like Basic Instinct than there
is in Hollow Man. Hollow
Man is ten times more energy consuming than something
like Basic Instinct, where you
can rely, to a large degree, on the inspiration of the actors to
give you the essence - the essential part - of your movie. In the
case of Hollow Man, there are
a lot of technicians who are going to decide the fate of your movie.
Bill Hunt: I want to take a
moment and ask you about your feelings about the DVD format. As a
filmmaker, is DVD something that you value in terms of knowing that
when an audience sees one of your films on DVD, they're going to get
a better understanding of it?
Paul Verhoeven: Yes,
definitely. I think that what I try to do on the DVD is to give them
everything that they couldn't see in the film. I mean, in a way that
they can see why I did certain things, how I did certain things,
what the tricks behind it all are. I try to give the audience things
that are not in the movie anymore, because of how the editing went
or perhaps the studio politics - maybe it was too harsh or even too
tame or too boring. I try to give the DVD audience the scenes as
they were in the first cut. What was the very first, initial idea?
How was the movie composed in the beginning, when we started the
editing process, and how did it become ultimately what was seen in
the theater? In the case of Hollow Man,
there are scenes with a different score. Because of the editing,
scenes were changed which didn't fit the original score, and so
Jerry had to rework the score accordingly. All that goes on the DVD
- you get a lot of extra information, so you can really look into
the kitchen and see how things were done. And they could even
disagree with some things, you know? Especially in the case of Hollow
Man, I was not sure that all the decisions that were made
- by request of the studio at times - were exactly in the interest
of the movie. So maybe the audience looks at the old version and
says, "That's better - why did they change it?" It's
interesting for the audience, so this gives them something new.
That's good, especially if they've already seen the film once in the
Also, in the case of Hollow Man,
this is the first time I've actually mixed a movie for DVD. After
doing foreign versions and mixing for 8 channels and 6 channels and
2 channels, then we made this special mix for DVD. Normally, that's
something that's done by someone else, after the fact - after you
are long done with a film. Now, we think of making the DVD as good
as possible right from the beginning, so we don't have to come back
to it later. You can make a 5.1 mix that uses the sound in the best
DVD way, and the director and original sound mixer get to make those
Bill Hunt: When do you start
thinking about the DVD in the filmmaking process? Some directors say
they start thinking about DVD even as early as preproduction, or
when they're on the set...
Paul Verhoeven: No, I don't
think about DVD until the production is done. I'm only thinking
about the theatrical. It's in postproduction where I start thinking
about that - it's part of the postproduction process to me. That's
when you start saving things - keeping all the scenes available, and
alternate versions of things. You think then, "What can I do
for the DVD? Shall I give them my storyboards or photographs or
sketches? What's relevant?" I start to gather those things
together with the producer. In this case, we had a lot of things
that describe, step-by-step, the process of doing the disappearing -
technical things which show the phases of the process. You have
shots in different levels of completion, so you can really see how
we created the "muscular man" for example, or the man
expressed in water or steam. But all this is after the film is
largely done. Ultimately, the shooting is too consuming to start
Bill Hunt: I know that
audiences love being able to see the inner workings of the
filmmaking process with these kinds of extras on DVD. But I know
there are a few filmmakers out there who feel that DVD sort of
strips away some of the magic of film...
Paul Verhoeven: Well, I think
if you were to see these materials before you watched the movie,
maybe that's true. But ultimately, all these things will anyhow be
known, you know? I mean, perhaps you could hide the mystery for a
year or two, but these days, everybody's talking about how this was
done or how that was done. So I don't think there really is much
mystery - you can't hide things from an audience anymore. But I
don't think it really matters, because if the result is convincing -
if the film is convincing - even if you know how it's done, so what?
Is the film good? Does it suspend belief, you know? That's the key.
Bill Hunt: That's a very good
Paul Verhoeven: You can study
Monet or Rembrandt and you can go to the paintings and look at them
very close up. You can look at the brush strokes and say, "Oh,
that's the effect he got because he used a little bit of gray or a
little bit of yellow..." But it doesn't mean that when you go
back after studying it, the painting is lost or it's somehow not as
good. You maybe even appreciate it more. It's only when the movie is
bad that basically having more information can hurt a film. But for
me - always - the more you know, the more interesting it gets.
Bill Hunt: Looking back at
your body of work, which of your films are you, as an artist, most
Paul Verhoeven: From the
American work, forgetting Hollow Man
because it's so difficult to think about it yet...
Bill Hunt: It's too fresh in
your mind, I imagine...
Paul Verhoeven: Yes, too soon.
I really like, I think for different reasons, I like Robocop
and Basic Instinct. I think
I'm really also a fan of Starship
Troopers, but again, it's very recent for me. It's easier
to look back when more time has past. The things I've done in the
last two or three years are still so personal, I'm not really sure
what I think about them. But I would certainly think that Robocop
and Basic Instinct are my
favorites, for different reasons.
Bill Hunt: And what's next for
Paul Verhoeven: I don't know.
(laughs) In all honesty, there are 10 possibilities and it might
even be something I don't learn about until the beginning of
January. I have no idea. I'm still sort of wrapping up Hollow
Man. This is the last thing, isn't it? Wrapping up with
the DVD? Then it's all over and you can leave it behind you. In the
meantime, I'm reading a lot of scripts and working on all kinds of
development projects. But what exactly will happen in the next 6
months, also depending on the strike and everything... I have not
been able to lock myself into a project yet.
Bill Hunt: Well... Paul, I've
really enjoyed talking with you. I know our readers will enjoy it,
so thanks for speaking with us. And have a good New Year!
Paul Verhoeven: Okay! (laughs)
This was good. All the best, yeah?