The Showgirls and Basic Instinct director talks about the movie’s origins, its troubles getting made in America, and his own vindication after all these years.
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is no foreigner to controversy. Since his first movies four decades ago, Diary of a Hooker and Turkish Delights, to his Hollywood blockbusters, RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct , the 78-year-old filmmaker has shaken convention in every genre. The director returns after a 10-year absence with the controversial French thriller Elle, which follows Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a successful businesswoman who is strangely detached about being raped in her own home. The film earned rave reviews and earned him “comeback” status in Cannes earlier this year despite the controversy over its darkly comedic, and unapologetic, tone.
We talked with Verhoeven hours after Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. He had a very strong opinion about Trump’s victory, as well as why Hollywood is failing at remaking his movies.
Fandango: How did you wake up this morning?
Paul Verhoeven: I woke up a bit in the same depressed way as I went to bed yesterday. I waited until Hillary basically called Trump, and Trump made the speech. After that, I went to bed. What I felt was depression… My daughter lives on the East Coast and she was basically crying. For me, it came close.
Fandango: Elle feels like a labyrinth that takes you around in a very subtle way. You never know what’s coming.
Verhoeven: The original French novel had this approach, and that’s what intrigued me from the beginning, because I hadn’t had something like that in my hands for the last few years. It was a gift to do it this way. It was handed over to me by the writer of the book, Philippe Djian, so I didn’t invent it. I felt I was very lucky to get this book in my hands and being able to make it into a movie.
The director and Huppert, talking through the rape scene
Fandango: So when you had the book in your hands, what made you think: This is going to make a true Paul Verhoeven movie?
Verhoeven: Of course you don’t think that way: “I’m going to make a Paul Verhoeven movie!” [Laughs]. You think: Is this something that I can do and that is attractive to me? I read the book, and I immediately called the producer, Saïd Ben Saïd, and I said, yes, I want to do this. I didn’t know what the difficulties would be. It wasn’t like RoboCop or Basic Instinct, that are more plot-oriented movies… The book gave me all these social elements, relationships and character descriptions that weren’t in Basic Instinct, for instance, where you didn’t know anything about the characters’ past and families. I felt I have never done that in this way, and that’s why I did it.
“Of course you don’t think that way: ‘I’m going to make a Paul Verhoeven movie!'”
Fandango: You talk about relationships. The movie delves into the idea of a broken family.
Verhoeven: It’s breaking up; it’s coming together. There’s animosity, but that’s not the last word. In the book, the family is, to a certain degree, dysfunctional, but also, adult. At the end there’s certain hope the family will survive.
A psychopath? But oui!
Fandango: Tell us about the controversy behind making this movie. The original idea was to make an American movie with an American actress…
Verhoeven: That’s true! When I started to work on this project, we thought about making this movie in English. Immediately we thought about setting it in a North American city, like Chicago. The script was written by an American screenwriter [David Birke], with the idea of having an American crew, and American actors and actresses. That was the intention. We started to send the screenplay out to American actresses, and after a couple of months we found out that nobody wanted to do it. Probably it had to do with the development of the third act, perhaps not so much about the rape itself, but what happens after she discovers who the rapist is, and the way she takes it, which is completely different from what you’d expect.
The film avoids being a revenge movie from that moment on. In American cinema you’d expect the third act to be a revenge movie. That third act made it impossible for American actresses to trust this movie and accept the controversy that might be consequential to making it. We tried very hard to make it an American movie and we failed. Saïd was the one that told me: “Paul, we are on the wrong road. We cannot make this movie in the United States, from an actress and financial points of view.” He asked me if I was willing to make it in Paris, in French, and as a French movie, and forget about the American adventure, and I said yes. We tried to make in the United States, but there was no desire from anybody to participate.
Fandango: Like most women in your movies, Michele is a powerful woman. But she’s not a feminist in a traditional way.
Verhoeven: No, that’s not the point. The character is not thinking about that. That’s not her thing. She has become an autonomous person that makes her own decisions. She doesn’t behave as a feminist; she really behaves as a person that is accepting herself, and knows how to handle herself, even in trauma, even in a horrible situation like a rape. She doesn’t think she’s a feminist: she just thinks she’s a human, and by coincidence, a woman, who can build on herself, trust herself through her life, in a way that’s basically acceptable.
“I guess I was raped,” she announces at a restaurant.
Fandango: They just announced a Starship Troopers remake. Studios keep remaking your movies [Total Recall, RoboCop] trying to make them better, when they can’t…
Verhoeven: [Laughs] They try to make them different enough, but they basically take out any lightness, making everything pretty heavy and straightforward. From the beginning the studio says, “OK. We are not going to make them satirical, ironic or whatever elements were in Paul’s movie. Let’s eliminate them!” First thing they said about Starship Troopers: “We are not going to do what Paul did, looking ironically at his own narrative. We are going to go back to the novel!” Well, the novel, in all honesty, is militaristic and fascistic [Laughs.] I wish them good luck!
Fandango: After more than 20 years, do you feel vindicated by the success and cult following of Basic Instinct and Showgirls?
Verhoeven: It’s fantastic! [Laughs]. It’s very satisfying after all the bashing that happened, especially with Showgirls, of course, and up to a certain degree, also with Starship Troopers. It’s interesting how people started to see these movies in a different way. There are a lot of people that now come to me and say: “I like Showgirls!” [Laughs]. It’s not revenge, because that’s not necessary, but it’s very pleasant the movie is not damned anymore, that’s appreciated for what it is. It’s amazing.
And I hope it’s also very gratifying for the main actress, Elizabeth Berkley, who was bashed even more than me, to a degree that they disrupted her career. For her, the fact things now are seen from a different perspective must be very satisfying. I’m really happy this happened not only to me, but also to her.
Elle opens November 11 in New York, November 16 in Los Angeles, and expands around the country on December 23.