Paul Verhoeven is responsible for some of the most memorable, most bonkers Hollywood blockbuster moments in recent memory: The three-breasted alien in Total Recall, a revealing leg-uncrossing in Basic Instinct, pretty much everything in Showgirls. But the Dutch director hasn’t made a American project since 2000’s Hollow Man and hasn’t made any kind of film since 2006’s well-received Black Book.
With Tricked, which screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Verhoeven returns to the directing chair, but not without a little help from his fans. The film is a bit of an experiment: Using only a five-minute script from a professional screenwriter, Verhoeven then turned to the public to finish the film in additional five-minute increments. It’s essentially one big game of Exquisite Corpse that ended in a genial and twist-filled comedy of sexual manners. We caught up with the director at the festival to discuss his latest project, as well as why Hollywood is a completely different beast since his blockbuster heyday.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with Tricked?
PAUL VERHOEVEN: The producers had contact with a big cable company in Holland and they wanted to do something that would get the attention of users, and they came with this idea to do this to me, to make a film together with the public. So they came to me to be the supervising director and the person to be used for the publicity. I thought that was fine, so I embarked on that adventure, which turned out to be a bit more complicated than I thought it was. To get to the script was a difficult road. After writing it with the public, then I had to shoot it, but it went five minutes by five minutes. So we started somewhere in November and ended in May, so that’s a long, long road for what’s essentially 17 shooting days.
I imagine many, many hours went into each minute.
Especially in writing the script. The first episode was written by a professional writer, and she wrote five minutes and we put it on the internet. Then the idea was that the public would fill in the rest. So she introduced the characters and the mysteries, like who has an affair with whom and who is the father of this pregnancy, and she didn’t know herself exactly what it meant or where it would go. She purposely opened as many holes as possible so people could jump in and write their own continuations. So all the rest of it was written by the public and that turned out to be complex.
It wasn’t like we went to the public and found a couple of people who are outstanding, like they do on these shows with the singing competitions. For the second episode there were 700 scripts for the next five minutes, so you have to go through all of them. So that’s 700 scripts multiplied by five pages: that’s 3,500 pages. Then you have to read it at least three times, so that’s 10,000 pages. So we whittled those 3,500 pages down to about 300-400 and used colored pencils to outline the parts that we really liked. So we then started putting those elements together and it was like a puzzle — well, a puzzle has a pattern. It was more like a mosaic. We have all these colored stones and just throw them in and try to make a picture with them.
How many of the suggestions were just totally out of left field?
I tried to avoid using anything that couldn’t come naturally from the first five pages. People had the Russian mob or the Japanese mafia coming in and they would blow up the house, people would be killed, shot, stabbed, whatever — and there was no indication of that in the first five pages. So I tried to use the style of the writer, which was more of a modern comedy of [Ingmar] Bergman, I thought. To me, it was like a lighter Scenes of a Marriage, and I also thought of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. And without comparing it to Woody Allen, there’s some things that are reminiscent of his work too.
In your time, you’ve made some very big, very pricey movies — Total Recall was reported to be the most expensive film of all time when it was made. Would you be interested going forward making smaller, lighter films like this?
I would. It might be that you get older and think that other things are more important or of interest to you. And I am trying to do that: I asked a scriptwriter if we could do a real movie this way, this kind of more character-driven story, not action or thriller. In a light way. A lot of the movies I’m working on right now are still pretty heavy, though.
I’m working on two French movies, and one American movie with Bill Mechanic. It’s called, at the moment a working title, Rogue. It’s a kind of film noir, but really noir. The main person dies.
Like a Sunset Boulevard?
Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity… but set in modern-day. That’s all nice, but the problem is the financiers don’t like it so much. They don’t like when main characters die.
Do you feel like Hollywood has changed since you were working there?
Of course! It’s completely different situation than when I came in 1985. I was working with this company Carolco — bankrupt. Orion — bankrupt. Tri-star — doesn’t exist anymore. When I was working on Total Recall, Basic Instinct, even Starship Troopers, the director was the leading man. Yes, they’d come with Basic Instinct and say, “We chose Michael Douglas, so do it with Michael.” But that was the only thing they said and for the rest it was, “You do it.” When it was done, they would screen it, mostly without try-outs. It was so simple: deals were made like this. I remember when I was doing Total Recall, they sent me the script in the afternoon and said, “If you like it come to dinner with Arnold.” And I liked it and went to dinner, and then we were all shaking hands and the next morning we started. It’s amazing!
And then of course it was over, but I only started to realize it was over with Hollow Man. They came and said, “This should be this, and that should be that.” After Hollow Man, I realized Hollywood had changed and I thought, “Well, I could go with the flow or try to do what I want.” But I’m a European, so of course I want to do it my way. That’s why I did Black Book in Europe, because that was something I wanted. Since then, it’s been much more difficult to do in the United States what I really like. I felt really guilty about Hollow Man because I couldn’t do it my way anymore. With this project with Bill Mechanic, I said yes because it’s something that I really like, but mostly when I get a script it’s something I’ve already seen or done.
Or a remake of Total Recall.
For God’s sake! I guess I’m a bit spoiled. These days the budgets are so high, and I can understand the studios. With $200-$300 million, you want to make sure the audience will like it. The studios aren’t interested anymore in films in the $20-$30 million range. As a director now, you’re more someone who is executing for the studios. I want to express myself, and I think I expressed myself much better in this movie than in Hollow Man. But I’m going to try to stick to my guns and just try to make movies that I like. I think making a movie that you don’t like, or don’t like enough, is just not good.