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Interview Source:
Interview by: Bill Hunt (The Digital Bits)

Chances are, you've seen some of Paul Verhoeven's work. As the director of such films as Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Robocop, Showgirls, Starship 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? ;-)

Bill 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 script.

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 theater.

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 decisions.

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 earlier.

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 point.

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 pleased with?

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 you?

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?