Paul Verhoeven is trying to remember what he did with Sharon Stone’s underpants. He didn’t donate them to the Smithsonian. Did he sell them on eBay? Certainly not. All he knows is that Stone gave them to him as a token of her affection on the set of Basic Instinct, just moments after slipping them off to perform the infamous interrogation scene. ”They were washed” is all the 68-year-old director recalls. ”I think my kids got them.”
Verhoeven is hardwired to play the provocateur. The early part of his career, in his native Holland, culminated with protests over a gay rape scene in his 1980 coming-of-age drama Spetters — and led him to seek creative asylum in Hollywood, of all places. His tendency to shock and awe has translated into a profitable grab bag of movies that have become iconic genre flicks (RoboCop, Total Recall), camp classics (Showgirls, Starship Troopers), or both (Basic Instinct). Through it all he threw as much sex and violence at the screen as the MPAA would allow, battling back X and NC-17 ratings on nearly all of his films.
But after the release of his least incendiary movie, 2000’s Hollow Man, Verhoeven felt like a studio sellout. ”I was disappointed in myself and I wanted to do something more realistic,” says Verhoeven. So he put his Hollywood career on hold to make Black Book, his first Dutch production in more than two decades. The director has already received the best reviews of his career for this thriller about a Jewish woman (Carice van Houten) who infiltrates the enemy by seducing a Nazi intelligence commander (The Lives of Others‘ Sebastian Koch). It’s deeply personal material, inspired by the horrors he witnessed growing up under the Nazi occupation. Black Book, shot on a pared-down budget of $21 million and due April 4, deals with a brutal moment in history but still bears Verhoeven’s unmistakable imprint: Who knew a WWII movie could be so sexy? Herewith, Verhoeven reflects on a career that has never failed to provoke, titillate, and — even if sometimes inadvertently — entertain.
After making his Hollywood debut with 1985’s Flesh + Blood, Verhoeven turned to this sci-fi fable about a critically wounded policeman (Peter Weller) who returns as a cyborg designed to protect and serve the besieged people of Detroit. The movie would ultimately be a $55 million hit. But during production, Verhoeven struggled to keep the peace with Weller, whose ”robocostume” was a torture chamber.
”The costume limited Peter’s movements to such a degree that he couldn’t walk. It led to enormous tension on the set that was only solved when the head of the studio, Mike Medavoy of Orion, decided we needed to stop production. Peter had to invent new movements he could make without looking stupid.”
Total Recall 1990
Verhoeven saw more than just an action-hero showcase in this Philip K. Dick tale about an average Joe (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who discovers that his memories are a lie — and that he can’t trust his wife, a secret agent played by Sharon Stone. A $119 million box office smash, the movie catapulted Verhoeven onto the action-director A list.
”I always felt that Arnold had no ego. I could say ‘You look like an idiot’ and I didn’t have to be afraid to offend him. He’d just do it again — sometimes for 30 or 40 takes. It would have been hard on somebody who was insecure. I remember rehearsing a scene where Sharon sits on top of him and it’s slightly sexual. Sharon said, ‘How should I do that?’ So I said, ‘Let me show you,’ and straddled Arnold. I think I even gave him a kiss. He didn’t care at all.”
Verhoeven lobbied to cast the still relatively unknown Stone as Catherine Tramell, the bisexual, ice-pick-wielding prime suspect in Michael Douglas’ murder investigation. The erotic whodunit grossed $118 million, and stirred controversy from gay rights activists, as well as Stone herself, who claimed that Verhoeven didn’t consult with her before revealing the gasp-inducing shot on film. Verhoeven insists he was on the level.
”The scene was explained to Sharon before — and she saw the video playback and didn’t have a problem. Sharon added a lot of [negative attention] by saying she didn’t know about it in advance. The scene is really based on a woman I knew at University of Leyden. She would go to parties and take her trousers off. My best friend walked up to her and said, ‘Do you know that everyone can see your vagina?’ And she said, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course!’ I told Sharon that story and her eyes glistened because she realized the power of that shot.”
Although Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas had clashed on Basic Instinct, they reteamed for this tawdry take on All About Eve set in Vegas. With its savage rape scene and gratuitous showgirl-on-showgirl action, the movie was burned at the stake by critics and ridiculed by audiences. Verhoeven was the first director ever to show up in person to accept his Razzie awards.
”Nobody knew I was coming, and to their complete amazement, I stepped forward and accepted the Worst Director award. It was making the negative into something positive — not by saying it’s a masterpiece but by confronting an extremely negative crowd and turning them upside down. It was a redeeming experience. And in retrospect, from a political point of view, it was a very good move.”
Starship Troopers 1997
After persuading TriStar to pony up $100 million for this film about a militaristic society battling alien insects, Verhoeven added plotlines based on the first Bush administration’s saber-rattling in the Middle East. Troopers took in just $55 million, but thanks to its kitschy, prescient take on Iraq (and a vivid torture sequence in which the chief bug’s brain is pulverized by a massive dental drill) it found an afterlife on DVD.
”The movie’s talking about the United States’ foreign policies, like invading other countries. I thought we could use it as a subversive tale of ‘Let’s all go to fight — and oh, great, let’s go to die, too.’ There’s a lot of parallels with what’s going on today. Like, at the end of the movie, there was the torturing of the bug, which is very American now. The Washington Post called it a neo-Nazi movie by a Nazi director and a Nazi writer. They missed it completely.”
Black Book 2006
Verhoeven’s latest movie may invite a politically charged debate of its own: It’s a morally complex take on the Nazi occupation, and features some deplorable Resistance fighters and a surprisingly sympathetic German commander. The idea had been percolating for decades before Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman finally cracked the script, changing the protagonist to a female. The character then had a credible means to cross enemy lines: her feminine wiles. And Verhoeven had an excuse to include scenes of illicit sex and hair-bleaching at its most intimate. Released in the Hague last September, Black Book has already become the highest-grossing Dutch-made movie in the country’s history.
”Black Book was me saying ‘Bye-bye, big salaries. Bye-bye, big budgets,’ so nobody would say ‘Too much nudity.’ Or ‘How can you have a Jewish girl sleep with a German officer?’ A lot of my motivation for doing the movie was to show that good is not good and bad is not bad: A Nazi can still be a human being. There’s enormous inhumanity in seeing everybody who’s against you as the devil — that’s all over American politics. As for the sexuality, it comes from my belief in sex, my pleasure in sex, and my strong conviction that it’s a wonderful communication system. It’s talking without words.”