Triumph of the Ill

Trash Talking With Mad Scientist Paul Verhoeven

When Stanley Kubrick was working on Eyes Wide Shut, in a presumable bid to circumvent the hang-ups and double standards of the ratings board, he consulted Hollywood's most unabashed sleaze specialist, Paul Verhoeven. The Dutch-born provocateur explains: "He called me and said, 'Well, you've had so many dealings with the MPAA. Tell me what you can and cannot show.' " Verhoeven says he sent Kubrick laser discs of both the director's cut and the U.S.-release version of his 1992 softcore slasher, Basic Instinct, along with some considered advice: "I told him that sexual activities combined with a lot of movement of the two bodies—what do you call that? humping?—was strictly forbidden."

Behind Verhoeven's long-standing enfant terrible notoriety lies a chrome-plated oeuvre of sleek, brash, sneering genre mutants, from the kinky melodramas he made in his native Holland in the '70s and early '80s (Turkish Delight, The Fourth Man) to the deluxe sci-fi mindfucks with which he established a foothold in Hollywood (RoboCop, Total Recall). Now 62, Verhoeven has only gotten more perverse with age. He is responsible for two of the most widely reviled (and, in smaller circles, passionately defended) movies of the '90s: the full-frontal Vegas exercise in goggle-eyed gyration and catfight camp Showgirls, and the supersquelchy, transcendently deranged Big Bug extravaganza Starship Troopers. No other filmmaker with massive budgets to blow is as reflexively sardonic, amusingly smut-minded, or pathologically tasteless, and the epithets have been far-ranging: mad scientist, evil genius, porn peddler, misogynist, homophobe, dirty old man, Nazi.

Verhoeven's new film, Hollow Man, raked in $26.4 million its opening weekend (a career best) in the face of typically dismissive, even hostile, reviews. ("He seems to be daring the American public to sink to the bottom with him," whined The New Yorker.) In response to its tag line—"What would you do if no one could see you?"—the movie blithely sends Kevin Bacon's invisible megalomaniac scientist, Sebastian, on a rampage consisting primarily of sexual assault. Defending the premise, Verhoeven cites a formative experience involving Plato's Republic. "There's something I remember from studying Greek in high school," he says. "Plato writes that if a man became invisible, he would rape the women, kill the men, and behave like a god. I remember our teacher, an older woman, refused to translate the word rape. We had to go to our dictionaries to find it."

Hollow Man is (take your pick) an invisible-man thriller with cool, pricey effects; an updated mad-scientist-with-god-complex cautionary tale; a nasty, horny, self-mocking peep show fueled by sexual anxiety and jealousy. But more to the point (and true to form), it's an expression of the director's fundamental cynicism. "A lot of people would try to get away with evil if they could," says Verhoeven. "I don't think Elisabeth Shue's character [Sebastian's colleague and ex] would go in that direction. Nor do I think my wife or children would." He adds with a laugh: "Though I might not be completely sure about myself." (Verhoeven seems keen to uphold his rascally reputation.)

Hollow Man aggressively sexualizes every scary-movie cliché it can lay its grubby hands on—partly because, the director insists, that whole fly-on-the-wall thing is overrated. "You get bored, and the only interesting possibilities left have sexual connotations, like how does that girl at work look when she goes to the bathroom." Early script drafts featured more elaborate scenarios—Sebastian spies on the president, is pursued by the military—which were excised because they seemed "more silly than anxiety-provoking."

The anxiety of his audience is a prime concern for Verhoeven. Hollow Man's gung ho antihero turned murderous rapist is a crude version of the identification dilemma posed by Starship Troopers, in which the nominal chisel-faced heroes embrace their bug-destroying mission with alarmingly fascistic zeal. Does Verhoeven get off on fucking with his viewers? He laughs again. "Well, you could not express it much better than that. But, to put it in more tender tones, I would say there are subversive qualities to my movies. Hollow Man leads you by the hand and takes you with Sebastian into teasing behavior, naughty behavior, and then really bad and ultimately evil behavior. At what point do you abandon him? I'm thinking when he rapes the woman would probably be the moment that people decide, 'This is not exactly my type of hero,' though I must say a lot of viewers follow him further than you would expect. I've had people say to me, 'He really should have gotten the girl.' I was amazed."

Verhoeven says the only invisible-man movie he looked at before shooting was not James Whale's famous 1934 adaptation of the H.G. Wells short story but an obscure 1990 teen T&A comedy called The Invisible Maniac. "It's a very strange movie about a high school teacher who can flip-flop back and forth into invisibility and uses that to get all the girls. I studied it so I could avoid the traps that would make the movie silly—I didn't want any coffee cups or pencils floating through the air." Verhoeven says he studied Hitchcock more than anything else. When constructing Sebastian's apartment, where he does little besides spy on a neighboring babe, "my production designer and I looked at Rear Window to measure the distances—what would be best optically."

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."

Verhoeven, who relocated to the States at 47 after a two-decade career in Holland (he started by making documentaries for the Royal Dutch Navy), says he remains an alienated populist. "I may have judged the American audience wrongly, over- or underestimated them, but never because I'm trying to make movies for an esoteric circle. Even in Holland, I was working for a general audience, and perhaps it was easier because it was my own culture. In the States, it's easier to grapple in the wrong direction—perhaps I'm a bit more different from the audience than is good for my movies."

The potential for misunderstanding could reach new heights if Verhoeven gets around to making his longtime pet project, a movie about the life of Jesus. "That's a dangerous project—beyond the critics, it's physically dangerous, as we know from the people who shoot abortion doctors." The film will attempt to place the life of Jesus "in the political context of Israel at that time being occupied by the Romans," which he intends to parallel with the political climate in Holland under German occupation. He sums it up: "An occupying power, a collaborating elite, the people suffering, and some man who at the moment says, 'Hey, there is a way out of this.' " Other possible undertakings sound almost as controversy-prone. He has optioned the rights to Barbara Goldsmith's book Other Powers, about the 19th-century feminist Victoria Woodhull ("She was a proponent of free love—a promiscuous, vital woman"), with Nicole Kidman attached to star. He is also developing a Cold War thriller titled Official Assassins, has long been toying with the idea of a Young Hitler biopic, and might consider directing the sequel to Basic Instinct.

As Verhoeven is well aware, the blanket critical animosity that greets his movies tends to pave the way for revisionist kudos. "I was at a press junket last week and when I left the room, some of the participants would pass by and whisper, 'I like Showgirls.' They wouldn't say it in public of course. People also seem to appreciate Starship Troopers more now." With a hint of knowing provocation, he offers a suitably outrageous analogy: "There's been a tiny resurrection after the crucifixion."

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