April 14, 2014

Partial Recall: An Interview with Paul Verhoeven

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This weekend, internationally famed director Paul Verhoeven, responsible for cult classics of the 80s and 90s such as Basic Instinct, RoboCop and Starship Troopers, visited Cornell Cinema to present his film Total Recall. Sun staff writers Mark DiStefano and Zachary Zahos sat down with Verhoeven for a conversation about his making the transition from his native Holland to mainstream Hollywood movies, his opinions on the perceptions of his film and the strong choices he’s made with his filmmaking style.

The Sun: So first off, what was the crossover like from working in Holland to working in Hollywood, and did you always aspire to make that transition?

Paul Verhoeven: No. Basically, there were other people in Holland that always wanted [that] when they were younger… My friend, film director Jan de Bont for example. And I never had that feeling really, it was more that the situation in Holland in the ’80s — these films in Holland cannot be made like in France or Germany. Most investments in European movies cannot be made without help from the government, and these subsidies are, especially in France very high but also in Holland they’d be 40 and 60 percent. So the producers only bring in 40, 50 percent… otherwise there wouldn’t be any film industry, it’s just not possible. The market is too small, especially in Holland; there’s 60 million people, it’s nothing of course.

So you needed money from the government to make your movies, but then they have these committees that read your treatment or script, and tell you if it’s good enough for them. And that was a time in Holland where we had a very left-wing government, and they accused me that my movies were too popular and were too commercial, and too many people flock to them, but [in] real art of course it would be impossible to have success. That was the general tone at that time.

It got nearly impossible; only by begging or humiliating yourself, [could you] get the 40, 50, 60 percent of government investment needed to finance your movies. And so, it got so difficult that, as there were continuously offers from the United States anyhow, mostly based on the movie that I made there which was called Soldier of Orange… Even Spielberg called me at a certain moment, I think not realizing that it was nine hours’ [time] difference… [laughs] and said, I saw your movie Soldier of Orange and you should come immediately over here because your country is too small and you should work for the American market.

Sun: You have a preoccupation in your movies with talking about the government, and it’s often a critique about militarism, or it’s about a police state…

P.V.: It’s mostly my American movies.

Sun: Yes. Why the American movies?

P.V.: Basically that was offered to me. Because all the Dutch movies I did were choices of me and my scriptwriter. And so we did things that we found. And here in the United States it was always given to me. All the things that you see had been given to me by producers when the script was already there, and in the case of Total Recall, Arnold was there already too.

Sun: Were you attracted to those scripts though, because they offered that sort of critique?

P.V.: Yeah, I thought that was interesting because it was what you would call more political, or social. It had to do with also, my feeling that if I would do something that would be really American culturally, I wouldn’t know anything about that. The fact that I did so much science fiction has something to do with the fact that science fiction is something that… you can’t control. My lack of cultural insight would have made it very difficult to make certain kinds of movies.

At the same time, it gave me the opportunity to look in a critical way at the United States. Mostly with my friend [screenwriter] Ed Neumeier… we had the same kind of critical look. Mostly, this criticism is never [saying], “Now we are going to criticize the United States.” It’s always done in a kind of relaxed atmosphere, it’s kind of playful, it’s not hammering it in.

Even in Starship Troopers, probably the most political [of my films], it was more my resistance to the original novel, which is kind of military, militaristic, or fascistic if you want… We were struggling with this fascist idiom and deciding at a certain moment that we should take it in an ironic way. We’d say, “Yes, these are the heroes, but by the way they might also be fascists.” [laughs] So that was of course also the criticism of the movie when it came out, that it was not ironic at all–it was fascist. It was by purpose that we basically copied images of Leni Riefenstahl. So it was nice to play with that idea, so that you would give the audience some clue that your heroes were perhaps not so heroic as you might think.

Sun: You mentioned in your films how the good guys might not be all good, and I’d like to talk about the bad guys, particularly in RoboCop. That’s a movie where, unusually, you’re rooting against the bad guys very vehemently, and part of the reason to keep watching is that you really want to see them get their comeuppance.

P.V.: Right, right.

Sun: Aside from heroes, do you also consider it important that your villains be very detestable, and how do you get the audience to respond in a very negative way towards them?

P.V.: To a large degree, that has to do with the fact that I found that American film culture [leaned] a little bit in that direction. There is not so much sympathy for people that are not that sympathetic. I mean, if you look at the Dutch movies, for example in Black Book… There is much more gray, nobody is really good. And the main mean guy in Black Book, plays piano very well and can whistle and sing… So I thought, this is the ultra Nazi and is mean and tortures, but at the same time he is very charming, and he’s funny, and he’s very musical… So I felt that I could do that there. Here, it’s much more difficult.

I think perhaps the closest I came to making the characters shadowy [in my American films], was probably Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Sharon Stone… is charming, and she is seductive… And somehow you don’t really seem to be able as an audience to [fully be repulsed by her].

… So I would say normally, if I would have total freedom, I would make these characters all a bit more gray. And not so that the bad guys are really bad and the good guys are really good, but the bad guys would have something good, and the good guys would have something, not so good.

Sun: I do like it though, because they take such pleasure in causing destruction and it’s actually kind of funny.

P.V.: Right, right. But the interesting thing in Total Recall is that he is a bad guy, in fact. If you listen to the story, he is Hauser, the second-in-command to Cohaagen, so he is basically guilty for working for … many years before moving to the resistance and making himself somebody else, Quayle, Quaid. Uh, what was the name of the vice president?

Sun: Dan Quayle was the vice president, yeah.

P.V.: That was his name in the script. We changed it to Quaid because we felt he should not be related … He is, of course, transformed into a good guy, and when he becomes a good guy, he does not want to be a bad guy anymore. … So when Cohaagen says we are going to transform you back into what you were, thanks for all the good work, etc., he doesn’t want to do it anymore, which is a moralistic turn.

Photo Courtesy of TriStar Pictures