'If I stay, there will be trouble'

He made Robocop, but he also made Showgirls. He loves America, but wants to leave. Director Paul Verhoeven tells Fiona Morrow why he thrives on crisis
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The Independent Culture

Paul Verhoeven bounds into the room, learns that we are to talk for 40 minutes and excuses himself to the bathroom exclaiming (apparently with pleasure): "Ah, an in-depth interview!" That 40 minutes should be thought of as time enough to get down to the nitty-gritty of someone's life and work says plenty about the current reticence of Hollywood to expose its members to anything like a probing question. Still, it is pleasing when Verhoeven positively springs back to the sofa, tosses his fringe away from his face and smiles expectantly.

Paul Verhoeven bounds into the room, learns that we are to talk for 40 minutes and excuses himself to the bathroom exclaiming (apparently with pleasure): "Ah, an in-depth interview!" That 40 minutes should be thought of as time enough to get down to the nitty-gritty of someone's life and work says plenty about the current reticence of Hollywood to expose its members to anything like a probing question. Still, it is pleasing when Verhoeven positively springs back to the sofa, tosses his fringe away from his face and smiles expectantly.

And he's an enthusiastic talker, happy to pick up and run with whatever ball is thrown. One imagines him as the perfect dinner-party guest: at ease with a myriad subjects, Verhoeven can do bright or banal, depending on what is required. It is, perhaps, this quixotic approach to life which has been at the root of both the triumphs and the travesties within his filmography.

He has been called many things - by no means all of them flattering - but mercurial is surely appropriate. A director who upset his home film- industry in the Netherlands so much that he had to up sticks to the States, this man's work can be wonderfully intelligent, provocative and exciting. Can be. It can also be hopelessly contrived, misogynistic and dull.

He is responsible for the futuristic satires of Robocop, Total Recall and the widely disliked (in the US) Starship Troopers, as well as the woefully underrated, slick, witty thriller Basic Instinct; but his name also heads up the misjudged medieval frolic Flesh And Blood, not to mention the mind-blowingly awful Showgirls.

By now well used to criticism, some of it vitriolic, Verhoeven doesn't waste time with expressions of dismay when I tell him that his latest movie, Hollow Man, was a bit of a disappointment. A riff on the invisible-man set up, Hollow Man stars Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Caine, a high-achieving, fast-living scientist who decides to take his experiments in incorporeality personally by injecting himself with the serum he has developed. Already depicted as an arrogant, voyeuristic little shit, Caine steps out of his skin and straight into the clutches of evil.

It's entertaining enough, if all you're after is a typical Ten Little Indians plot, with a swathe of special effects driving the action, but, I say, I expected more.

Verhoeven shrugs, matter of factly: "I got this script after it was developed by Sony for eight or nine years, and it was written the way they wanted it to be shot. They didn't say, 'Okay, you're the director, this is what we had in mind, but you go and do it your way'. I had to decide whether I was prepared to do it within the parameters set. And apparently I was, otherwise I wouldn't have taken it on."

He makes no great claims for the movie, preferring to steer the conversation back to the original premise lifted from Plato, which questions whether personal conscience is innate or a construct of society: would we, if rendered invisible and therefore beyond accountability for our actions, turn to evil? And, though bound by the studio's requirements, Verhoeven clearly gets a kick out of the fact that he managed to retain a degree of ambiguity.

"The main issue for the scriptwriter," he explains, "was whether Sebastian's progressive evil was a function of his character, the serum, or the falling away of the restraints of society. The studio would have preferred - and asked me to make it clear - that it was the serum. But if it's the chemicals, then nobody's guilty, and I felt the movie would have lost its edge."

Nevertheless, Verhoeven is aware of the limitations of the film: "The difficulty when you make someone invisible is that you also lose the eyes," he sighs. "If you lose the eyes then you also lose the soul; you don't have much possibility of looking at the inner thoughts or psychology of an invisible person." He laughs and shakes his head: "This is a genre movie - you can't take it very seriously on a philosophical level."

Yet Verhoeven's last film, Starship Troopers, worked on every level. A bright, parodic sci-fi flick in which humans were at war with bugs, the movie turned the tables on its audience: the people were the warmongering fascists, the bugs were the good guys. Conflating the war movie and the Western, Verhoeven made a studio-financed blockbuster so blatantly anti-American it's a wonder it was released at all.

Verhoeven lets out a whoop at "anti-American", unable to contain his glee. "It is," he snorts, before adding, rather unconvincingly, "Well, it's critical..."

He then proceeds to voice his criticisms of the lack of gun control and the death penalty, and talks bemusedly about the Gore/Bush campaigns. We stray into general American politics and, inevitably perhaps, wind up chatting about the Clinton/Lewinsky affair: "It is so interesting in terms of what America is all about," he enthuses. "I have apparently done the same as Joe Eszterhas - from the moment it happened, I clipped it out of the newspaper." Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows his work, Verhoeven is anything but moralistic about the President's behaviour: "I don't know how the man survived," he says with something like awe. "The fact that he had the strength to get through it without falling apart was, I think, sympathetic. But then," he glances up slyly, "my morals are a little bit looser than a lot of Americans'."

His next project has, he says, a certain symmetry with the Lewinsky affair - a biography (to star Nicole Kidman) of Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to stand for the presidency: "Woodhull was one of the main forces of the suffragette movement in 1870, which partially fell apart because she was so outrageous, preaching not only for the vote, but for free love - and she practised what she preached."

He raises his eyebrows mischievously. Verhoeven enjoys his status as foil to the moral majority, and knows there will be people aplenty queuing up to denounce his association with the project. But this notoriety is also what marks him apart from Hollywood, and what, through the subversion of Starship Troopers and, despite its failure, the excoriating depiction of America in Showgirls, has caused the studio to keep a close watch on him.

Is anyone offering him complete working freedom? "Some people are, but much less than in the first six or seven years. I'm the outsider, and that is what has provoked the negativism towards my work, and the personal attacks. Because somehow they look at me like they did at the Commies in the 50s - they see danger, and they want to know what I'm doing here."

So, does he think he'll stick it out? "I ask myself sometimes if I can stay here. And wonder whether I should if I am so critical of the society. But then, is that a decision I must make - that I should have to follow the logical consequence of my disaffection, and leave?" He turns quiet for the first time, before banging the table with his fist, and answering his own question: "I haven't reached that point, because I do not yet feel that I am expelled."

'Hollow Man' is released on 29 Sept

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