Triumph of the Ill

Trash Talking With Mad Scientist Paul Verhoeven

Hollow Man's state-of-the-art effects—the metamorphosis into invisibility and back; the invisible Bacon taking momentary form via skintight coatings of water, smoke, and blood—are no less than you'd expect from the reliably full-throttle Verhoeven. "In Starship Troopers, the effects were added in postproduction," he says. "In this movie, we decided that Kevin Bacon had to be on the set interacting with the other actors physically and psychologically. That made it more difficult because we had to paint him out later." The transformation sequences were accomplished with specially written software and computer 3-D models. "We scanned Kevin's body down to the thickness of his fingernails to get a precise image of all the parts, from the hair to the genitals to the toes." (Not surprisingly for a director once known at home for sneaking erections into his movies, said genitals make a couple of winking appearances—in a thermographic image and outlined in water. "That seemed more honest than cutting it off," Verhoeven explains.)

Hollow Man is more conventional blockbuster material than Starship Troopers—a conscious decision, Verhoeven admits. "It's a pretty expensive movie, and it would be a serious suicide attempt to make it as complex as Starship Troopers," his second commercial disappointment in a row. Verhoeven is curiously penitent about his last film. "In retrospect, it seems inappropriate to make such an expensive movie and to make it almost esoteric. I have always tried to be aware of filmmaking as a strange combination of art and economics." Verhoeven says he understands why people had trouble with Troopers. "The actors looked like they had come out of the most fantastic comic book. People had a hard time taking away the absurdity of fighting insects—big insects—and they didn't know on what side to stand. It was an attempt to make a Brechtian movie, but I don't think I should do it again—at least not for $100 million. I don't think any studio will ever do a $100 million movie that's as strange and cryptic."

Or, at any rate, a $100 million parody of crypto-fascism. The Washington Post took Starship Troopers at face value: "It's Nazi to the core. . . . It comes directly out of the Nazi imagination." The European press picked up on the article and turned Verhoeven's promotional trip into what he calls "one gigantic boxing fight." He says: "It was always about me trying to explain what we were trying to do and them saying, 'You're a fucking fascist!' The more fascistic the country had been, the more pissed off they were about the movie."

Verhoeven is no stranger to public floggings. One of his last Dutch films, Spetters—notable for a gay gang-bang set piece—provoked widespread outrage and the formation of the National Anti-Spetters Committee. Gay activists objected to Sharon Stone's ice-pick-wielding lesbionic woman in the Joe Eszterhas-scripted Basic Instinct. Reteaming with Eszterhas, Verhoeven suffered the most thorough drubbing of his career with Showgirls. Five years on, he can still muster an earnest defense. "I feel Nomi's ambition to promote herself from a sleazy club to a less sleazy club is honest on the level I observed it. There is a same kind of ambition at the top levels in Washington, but expressing it through these girls was more difficult for people to accept than if I'd expressed it through a reporter or a politician."

Verhoeven maintains he was going for authentic excess—which, he claims, is not mutually exclusive with the sky-high camp factor that has made the movie a rental perennial. "There was always supposed to be this delight in having lines that were so beyond acceptance, like when the guy at the strip club asks Nomi, 'How does it feel not to have anybody come on you anymore?' That's a line you would of course never use, but it's so gross that it's funny. I know a lot of people feel differently."

As shock tactics go, Verhoeven's lewd streak is surpassed only by his disconcertingly direct approach to violence. The one thing he seems to enjoy more than flashing his audience is bludgeoning them, and he has a ready psychoanalytic answer. "My images could be colored by what I saw in the war," says Verhoeven, who was born in Amsterdam in 1938. "My readiness to accept violence seems beyond that of other people. For some people, portraying violence in such a morbid way is blasphemous. But when I was six, seven, I saw a lot of dead bodies, bodies of English pilots that had crashed near our house. I think my instinct is that war is the natural state and peace is the exception. I would say it's an environmental situation. Otherwise, you could argue it's something in my DNA, just being genetically enhanced with pleasure in violence. That's what people say often, isn't it?"

There is both a satirical edge and an uncomfortably voluptuous quality to Verhoeven's splatter and gore. "I identify very much with a line in Patton when he's looking at all the destroyed, burning tanks and says, 'God forgive me, but I love this.' I look at newsreels of the Second World War and see the destruction and somehow it has a strange beauty to me. I cannot explain it—some people see a certain beauty in creation; some see it in destruction."

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