The LRM Interview with Elle Director Paul Verhoeven

– by Edward Douglas

If you were alive in the ‘80s or ‘90s, it was impossible to avoid the ever-presence of Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, whether it was science fiction hits Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers or his erotic thriller Basic Instinct. His 1995 film Showgirls has alternately been cited as a campy classic and one of the worst films ever made.

After 2000’s Hollow Man, Verhoeven turned his back on Hollywood, in a sense, by returning to Holland to make the World War II film Black Book with Carice Van Houten (Game of Thrones), but now Verhoeven is back with Elle, a French revenge thriller starring French femme fatale Isabelle Huppert as a woman raped in her home who decides to get revenge in a rather unconventional way.  

LRM sat down with the veteran filmmaker to talk about his new film—and there’s a mild SPOILER WARNING here, since he does allude slightly to what happens in the film’s the third act—but we also got into Verhoeven’s views on Hollywood and how filmmaking as art has been forgotten.

LRM: Let’s start with this book by Philippe Djian. You producer brought it to you, so did you read the book without even thinking about the movie?

Paul Verhoeven: The French producer sent the book to me out of nowhere. I was living in Los Angeles. I didn’t know Saïd Ben Saïd, but I knew his name, of course, because he had been working with Polanski and with Cronenberg and Brian De Palma, and he just now worked with Walter Hill. I knew more or less who he was, but we had never met. I think he, for whatever reason, sent me the book, thinking that I might direct it a little bit in the direction of Luis Buñuel. That was probably his point of view. He must have read that I’m a fan of Luis Buñuel’s work, both French and what he did in Mexico or even in Spain. If there’s any movie that’s a little bit in this direction it’s the movie that Buñuel did, Belle de Jour with Catherine Deneuve, which is a wealthy woman, nicely married with beautiful clothes and house, who suddenly decides to become a part-time prostitute, because she’s bored, or whatever. You don’t even know. It’s very Buñuelish not to know, and there’s a lot in this movie that you don’t know. You don’t know why she does these things. I mean, you can fill it in, and that’s really what we tried, to give the information why she probably might do these things without ever saying that was the truth. I tried to give information to the audience, mostly about her father, of course, and what happened when she was 10-years-old without ever connecting that to the sadomasochistic relationship that she starts in the third act.

LRM: So when you’re reading this book, is it automatically unveiling to you what it should be as a movie?

Well, if someone sends you a book and says, “Do you want to make a movie of this?” you read it in a different way, so I read it immediately like, “Is this a movie or not?” Then I got into contact with Saïd and said, “Yeah, I like the book, let’s make it,” and it was understood at that moment that we would make it as an American movie, quite clear. Because of the directors that he had already been working with, basically, in English, like Polanski and Cronenberg. Maps of the Stars he did, Carnage he did, Passion he did with Brian De Palma. It was understood, so what we did was we translated the original novel by Philippe Djian, into English, and then I gave that to a scriptwriter that I had met on another project, David Birke.  It was a project that’s still not made, but I liked him and I felt that what he was doing with that project was really good, so I asked him, “Do you think you can make a movie out of this translated book?” He said, “Yes, I think we can,” then we had many discussions and then he started to write it. It was that simple.

Then, of course, what was not foreseen was that we could not get any American actress to take this part, and we tried. I know about five and perhaps more, but the producer didn’t tell me any more, but to find an American A[-level] actress that wanted to do that movie, after two or three months, we felt that would not be possible.

LRM: Isabelle had previously worked with Michael Haneke, and he put her through a lot, so she’s an actress that you’d think would be a first choice considering what’s necessary of her in this.

Yeah, but we were not making a French movie. We were making an American movie. So we had to go through this American adventure, which gave me David Birke, because I don’t think a European screenwriter would have written the script this way. I think it’s really a French movie, but it’s also seen through an American filter. My filter, his filter, to make the pot a little more structural than you might expect in a European or French movie. Anyhow, after this loop into the United States, we came back to France and Said said, “I don’t think we can make this movie in the United States, because people don’t want to participate.” Financially, there was no interest at all from a producer, co-production, so it was all over the place like, “This is not possible that it’s too controversial for the United States.” There are things that are possible here. For instance, in the science fiction field, you can do everything here. Of course, crews and cast are very good. The talent is up for grabs. There are so many talented people here, but from a moral point of view, there is a big “no” to things, specifically things like rape and then having a rape victim, a woman who doesn’t want to be a victim in the first place starting a sadomasochistic affair with her rapist was really what prevented anyone (from getting involved). It was the third act. It wasn’t the first two acts, that would have been fine here. Even if there would have been rape, if the third act would have been “Revenge!” She finds out who it is and third act “Revenge!” then it would have been fine, I think. Then they would have accepted rape, but of course, it went the other way. 

LRM: Just hearing reactions from my friends and colleagues here, not a lot of them watch European or French films, but they went to see it. The people I thought who would really be behind Michel in this movie aren’t, and vice versa. I really haven’t been able to read people on this movie.

It’s interesting that female journalists in general are much more positive here than male, huh?

LRM: In some ways, but I’ve heard from women who I thought would be more positive because it’s more truthful aren’t in it.

But in general, the reactions are more positive than I thought. 

LRM: Which is good, because you’ve dealt with so much controversy on previous movies.

Well, yeah, I thought it could be Showgirls… and it’s not. There’s much more respect, even from the people are against it. But there are not that many that are violently against this movie. Nowhere have I read that. There are restrictions sometimes in their praise, but ultimately, now that it is made, I feel that all the actresses that didn’t want to do it, seeing the movie, they might really have second thoughts, because on the other hand, Isabelle Huppert is, of course, so extraordinary, and on such a unique level, that you could also argue—like I’ve said several times now—that if Isabelle Huppert would not have lived in this world, this movie should not have been made. 

LRM: I spoke to Isabelle and she praised you highly for making a French film that was so French, and the fact you learned enough French to make it, and setting it into that world, which she felt was accurate.

That’s what I did, sure, and on top of that, we had a very intuitive relationship, Isabelle and I. We didn’t have to discuss anything, really. Everything went organically so. She did it, and it was always okay. If we had discussions, then it was about whether she should wear the red dress today or the blue dress. “What about my fingernails?” All technical stuff. On the set, I’d either say, “Get up here or go to the left or right.” Choreography, that was discussed. Freudian, or any other depths, or any other psychology, not. Never was it discussed why she did these things in the third act. She decided this character worked for her. She stepped into it, and basically she lived with that… what I call a “demon”… for the 58 days that we shot, and then after all the last take and last shot, she danced around like exorcising the demon. It was like she had lived with a person and now, finally got rid of it again. It must not have always been pleasant, as an actress, to be that person, because she can be so harsh.. to her mother, to her son, to everybody in fact. It takes something out of an actress to be that character for a couple months, and I felt after this last take and this last shot, basically, she danced and fell on the ground. I really had the feeling I was seeing somebody exorcising the demon that had haunted her for two or three months.

LRM: It is the sign of a great actor or actress to be able to find empathy for a character, take them on and become them, understand them, but then to be able to cast them off and move on, that’s the hard part. That’s what separates an actor from someone just pretending.

There was an interview in Los Angeles with Isabelle Huppert and the interviewer asked her, “How does this kind of strange and controversial character, how was it when you came home?”  Then she answered, “No, that stays there but it doesn’t bother me. I take it with me. It’s impossible to do that, but basically but that person lives there, even if I go to dinner with my family, it’s there, but it’s not haunting me in a way that I cannot be myself, but that person is always there during that shoot even if I sit with friends, that character is still there.” At a certain moment, she throws it out.

LRM: That’s what we do all the time in our everyday lives. Whatever is going on with me in the outside world is gone when I sit down to talk to you. I was curious about moving to France and delving into the French talent pool. They’ve been making movies there for over a hundred years, but how did you go about finding the rest of the cast around her to play her family and co-workers? Did Saïd Ben Saîd have more connections there?

Well, he’s a wonderful producer, point one, and not only from a financial, budgetary and logistic organization point of view, but also from a taste point of view. What he did, because I didn’t know anybody. Yeah, I knew Isabelle Huppert and I had seen once in a movie Charles Berling and Anne Consigny. I had seen them. I didn’t know much about them really, so he found me a top casting director and then for all the heads of departments, he came with three proposals. Because there was not enough time to study films so much. We had lost a couple months on this American adventure, and we had to go into production, so there was only three months preparation time left. So I came in… didn’t know the crew, didn’t know the cast, didn’t know the locations, didn’t know anything, and that was filled in by Saïd giving me all the good advice and being there all the time when we were discussing actors and actresses. In fact, I work completely on intuition. All these people that are very different in France than in United States, all these actors… even Laurent Lafitte, who was from Comedie-Francaise. Knowing that it was Isabelle Huppert, everybody wanted to get in. They say, “Okay, this level is there. I can join that.” When I would ask them if they could play a scene, everybody would say “Yes.” There was no agent saying, “Look at their movies, how do you dare to ask that?” They say, “Yeah, of course.” All of them! Nobody ever said, “No, I don’t do that. You can look at my movies then you know,” which would be very American. Agents would say that to you immediately, but in this case, no. I sat there andthey played the scene. I taped it, and then basically, sometimes after five minutes I made the decision already. Sometimes, even before they were out the door, I could tell them, “Yeah, you got the part,” because I had no time. I went completely on intuition basically.

There was an interesting statement I read years ago by Ingmar Bergmann, the Swedish director, when they asked, “How do you make your choices or how do you use the actors?” and he said, “That’s intuition. Total intuition. My intuition is right for 80%, for 20% its wrong, so I count on the 80%.” So I decided I’d go for it, even if one-fifth of the intuition fails, but there is 80%that works. That stayed with me, and as I was sitting there, nobody would say, “Who is this person?” But seeing them do it, otherwise I wouldn’t have known, so they were there for five minutes doing a part or somebody else came in who was a friend of someone who came in by coincidence, but one of my assistants said, “But she’s also an actress,” but she was the girlfriend of one of our crew members. And I said, “What about for that part?” There was one part we hadn’t filled, so we walked up to her and said, “Are you free for the next couple months?’ She said, “Yeah, yeah, I have to work but what do you want?” and asked “Can you play this?” and she said, “Okay.” She did it, and basically, before she was out, she got the part.

LRM: You’ve been making movies for so long, you must have that intuition. Even in the movies you made in the ‘80s when you first came to Hollywood, you discovered all these actors who had never worked before and put them in these movies that made them famous.

But I made mistakes also. For example, I had worked with Rutger Hauer, of course, on a television series in ’68 called Floris. I worked with him for a year on it, and then we did Turkish Delight and even Soldier of Orange. In both cases, I said to my producer Rob Houwer, “Not Rutger” and he said, ‘Why not?” I said, that the guy he plays in Floris is not the guy we want. My producer said, “But you can at least do an audition. It’s 10 or 15 minutes—give him the chance.” Basically, my producer was right. Sometimes your intuition is not so good, but if you’re open-minded as a director to your environment, to the people around you that you basically respect because they’re good as producer or script-writer. Often, your mistakes will be corrected.

LRM: I like the fact that Saïd works with De Palma, Cronenberg and Polanski, all of whom were your peers in some ways, making movies in Hollywood and some of them have gone to Europe to make films. I’m curious about your own decision to return to Holland after “Hollow Man” and taking that long break after that.

Well, I felt that Hollow Man was one step too far into studio direction. That was the first movie where I felt--in retrospect a few years later looking back at what you did—that was really a studio movie. In fact, I could not—also because there were certain restrictions with the script of author rights on The Invisible Man. There were a lot of things that turned out not to be possible and couldn’t really get him outside, but also there was no nose. It’s a movie that I have a hard time seeing my signature. I think a lot of people could have done it that way. I felt that was wrong, that I should not go that direction anymore, so that took me some time. It takes you two years to realize it doesn’t work or that you really don’t want to go into this very lucrative kind of direction, because you get a lot of money for that stuff. Finally, I decided that I had to do something personal again, to find myself, which was Black Book, in fact. I went back to my Dutch screenplay writer. It was an old project we had not solved, but then we started to work on it, and two years later, we had it and we shot it, which was really what I wanted. It was a movie that we developed it in the ‘90s but we couldn’t solve it, but we solved it in 2002 and shot it in 2004and 5. That was really because I wanted to make that movie, and I think also in the case of Elle, that was really something I wanted. Of course, Saîd wanted it, too, really, but I wanted to do it, and there was no ulterior studio this or that. I could say “no”, but I said “yes,” because I felt this was interesting, innovative, challenging, dangerous perhaps even, unpredictable because of all the controversial elements but I thought, “This was a movie that is me.”

LRM: In some ways, you discovered Carice Van Houten, as well. Not sure how much she worked before “Black Book” but she’s been doing some great stuff here since then. She’s another actress you worked with early who went onto bigger things, like Sharon Stone.

Right, yeah, but even with Carice and Sharon, but Carice is a bit caught in her Game of Thrones, that fills a lot of her time. It’s been difficult for her to make movies in between. If she had kept herself on the market as a film actress, I would have preferred that.

LRM: At this point, do you think you’ll return to Hollywood and making an American film? (Note: SPOILER for Verhoeven’s next project.)

I still live in Los Angeles, you know, and I’m working on a film with the same writer, David Birke, and Bill Mechanic, the producer. It’s called Rogue at the moment, which is just a title with kind of a background of the cartels, which is pretty hard and violent but very film noir. It’s really old-fashioned noir. There’s new-fashioned noir, but the protagonist dies, and that’s been extremely difficult to sell. What was normal in the ‘30s and ‘40s…  Sunset Boulevard, he dies. Double Indemnity, he dies, and many other movies where he dies. That’s really not what studios want at the moment. 

LRM: I feel like Hollywood has changed a lot since 2000. I don’t know if it’s better or worse.

It’s moved unhappily towards PG and PG-13, and has been trying every time to get rid of the R. If you see the results, basically, you eliminate a lot. You can’t have nudity, controversy, upsetting people—that’s all eliminated. That’s PG-13 and everyone can see it, but even the movies I made myself like Robocop and Total Recall and Starship Troopers were all R-rated, and basically when they redid them, they were all PG-13, of course. You take off all the sharpness, all the edge, because basically, everybody should be happy in the theater, and that’s never been my ideal, you know? They don’t have to be happy. They can be shocked and they should be upset and perhaps disturbed and that’s fine, because that’s what life is about. I think it’s diminishing the possibilities of film as art to really lean—in a capitalist world, of course—lean so much on the bottom line, so much on the investment vs. the input and output, eliminating the other aspect of film… that it is art. Eliminating that as much as possible, really, so for me, it feels as if where capitalism goes into an extreme form, neglecting something that is also worthwhile, that art is also something. Yes, of course a movie costs a lot of money, so you make clear as a director that the money comes back, but it doesn’t have to be that the money comes back a hundred fold. Also, with my Dutch movies, they were seen as art movies here, but in Holland, they were very successful, but the money always came back. I feel that obligation as a director—at least in Holland where there’s also a lot of private money involved that you cause a bankruptcy. You don’t want that, but I think if you start losing the second component film—the two components being art and economy. If you really think that economy is the main factor and the art can be neglected, then the art starts to dissipate.

LRM: If you look at last year with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” that’s a great example ofan Australian former indie filmmaker going back to his roots, made it R-rated and making it the way he wanted to. Yeah, it didn’t make $500 million, but everyone loved it and it won many awards. People were still talking about it at year’s end.

Yes, but it didn’t have the beauty of the first ones. It’s much more (makes lots of exploding, crashing noises) and it becomes more and more hitting the audience with pleasure.

LRM: But sometimes, we need that, too.

I don’t deny that, but it should not be the only thing. There should be another factor in film that at least contains the possibility to also see film as an artform, and not as an economic phenomenon. That’s how I feel. I’m old-fashioned.

Elle is now playing in select cities. Look for our interview with Verhoeven’s star, Isabelle Huppert, very soon. 

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