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February 28, 2007

From Holland to Hollywood (and Back)

Verhoeven retraces road to Black Book at closing night of Film Comment Selects

Paul Verhoeven at the Lincoln Center preview of Black Book Tuesday night (Photo: WireImage)

Paul Verhoeven’s World War II spy thriller/love story Black Book was shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, but it didn’t end up with a nomination. It should be an honor to have been close enough, but the director probably doesn’t care. He already earned one over 30 years ago, for Turkish Delight, and he now seems to be hopeful for a different type of recognition; he spoke with Film Comment editor Gavin Smith Tuesday night at the Walter Reade Theater, explaining his current attitudes, goals and plans in the wake of his return to his Dutch cinema roots.

“I think it perhaps restores the trust of the studios in my capabilities as a responsible director,” he said following a preview of Black Book, which hits theaters in April and which closed this year's Film Comment Selects series. “That’s possible. That’s a side effect, a bonus perhaps. I don’t know that yet. The disastrous aftermath of Showgirls did not make me a beloved person in the studio system. After that they only trusted me with science fiction. And then I didn’t trust myself anymore with science fiction. And then I decided it was time to look at myself and where I want to go with my life.”

Verhoeven, of course, made two science fiction films after Showgirls. The first, Starship Troopers was a success on many levels, but the second, Hollow Man was not. He said that the freedom of working with independent companies like Orion and Carolco, which produced his sci-fi hits RoboCop and Total Recall, respectively, ruined him for the studio system he came into contact with late in his American career.

“When we were doing Hollow Man, I had the feeling that the studio was constantly looking over my shoulder," Verhoeven said. "But I also have to blame myself for not having a stronger view on what I should do or should not do. I should have said if I can’t do it this way then I should not do the movie. For the wrong reasons I did the movie, so I can only blame myself for the fact I’m not satisfied with the result. I remember that my friend Jan De Bont said, ‘Paul, I don’t know if you fit into the studio system.’ I think I do, but I had to learn a lesson. I’ll see where it goes.”

Making good with Hollywood again wasn’t necessarily Verhoeven’s intention with Black Book, though, and the departure from the studios wasn’t permanent. “You could call this a sabbatical -- making a movie in Holland,” he said. “There were many financial problems so it is not something to be repeated immediately. My visit to Europe was motivated by my desire to do something personal [rather] than to do a sequel to Basic Instinct or Hollow Man, which was offered to me, or a combination of The Matrix and Total Recall. I couldn’t get my hands on a script that I really personally liked. I felt that Hollow Man was already not very personal; I really thought that I had to move away from science fiction for a moment to find something where I could express myself. At the moment I don’t even see any new elements in science fiction that inspire me. There’s still a lot of Philip Dick-ian thinking, and I don’t know when that’s going to change.”

The filmmaker has a few projects in the pipeline to keep him busy while he waits for the current Dick phase to pass. He told Smith and the audience at the Walter Reade about his next films, including The Paperboy, which had previously been linked to Pedro Almodovar and which Jan De Bont will produce, and the period drama Azazel, starring Milla Jovovich. He also let loose a whopper of an idea he’d like to do, if given the chance.

“I’m writing a book about Jesus,” he said, “and I want to make a movie about Jesus, but my scriptwriter in Holland told me that it would be very dangerous for me to make that kind of movie about Jesus. It would look at the political context: Jesus was executed by the Romans as a terrorist. That is the way I look at it.”



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