'Basic Instinct' to "Hollywood Prison": Paul Verhoeven on Sex, His Religious Awakening and New Rape Film 'Elle'

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In late 2014, Paul Verhoeven began to experience pain - deep, searing migraines that struck him at all times of the day and night. He consulted doctor after doctor, underwent test after test at home in Los Angeles and at his pied-a-terre in The Hague, Netherlands, and yet no cause was found, no explanation given. Then the headaches vanished as mysteriously as they had arrived.

Was it a coincidence that the problems began after Verhoeven, 78, agreed to direct his first feature film in a decade - Sony Pictures Classics' Elle, a provocative drama starring Isabelle Huppert, 63, which opened Nov. 16 in Los Angeles - and after he learned the movie would be shot in French, a language he had not spoken with any frequency for 60 years?

"It was fear," he acknowledges, sitting in the airy living room of his Pacific Palisades home one October afternoon, projecting very little fear at all. "Ultimately, when I started to realize I could do it, [the headaches] disappeared. It was undoubtedly stress."

He bends toward a large, timid golden doodle that has just loped into the room. "It took him a while to feel safe around men - even me," says the director.

It's hard to reconcile this smiling, energetic man with the polarizing figure whose films have pushed the boundaries of sex and violence, who has offended as many people as he has entertained and who has been accused of everything from misogyny to sexual obsession. This is the man producer Irwin Winkler once tossed out of his house, repelled by Verhoeven's erotic plans for 1992's Basic Instinct; the man who was lambasted by The Washington Post for 1997's Starship Troopers, featuring iconography it deemed "Nazi to the core"; and the man who drew protests in his native Holland for a gay rape scene in his early film Spetters.

A filmmaker of relentless intellectual curiosity (his home is filled with thousands of books), who speaks enthusiastically about almost any topic you raise, he's also a man of hidden extremes, whose complexities are kept "secret" even from those who know him well, says his Elle producer Said Ben Said.

"He's someone who doesn't easily open up, though he's very likable and joyful in life, very human," says Ben Said. "But as an artist, his work speaks for him."

Verhoeven is an atheist who spent years investigating the life of Christ, and even wrote a book about him, 2007's Jesus of Nazareth; a political liberal who borrowed from Leni Riefenstahl in Troopers; and a vibrant presence who acknowledges a more fragile side, an inner fissure that once led to a near crackup.

Photographed by Joe Pugliese

A similar fissure may be present in the heroine of Elle, a successful businesswoman who is raped by a masked intruder and perversely welcomes his return. The $9 million movie played at Cannes, where it was inaccurately described as a "rape comedy"; in fact, it's far more dramatic and nuanced.

When Ben Said bought the rights to Philippe Djian's novel Oh… and asked Verhoeven to direct, his intent was to make a Hollywood film. Then one major star after another turned it down. "The result was pretty bad," says Verhoeven, who won't name names (they reportedly included Nicole Kidman). "There was a resolute and very fast response: no."

After two months of rejection, Ben Said proposed making the film in France. "I said yes," says Verhoeven, "and in the [following] weeks started to realize what that meant."

Huppert, a two-time best actress winner at Cannes (Violette Noziere, The Piano Teacher), immediately agreed to star and then met with Verhoeven to discuss the project.

Courtesy of Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions/Sony Pictures Classiscs

"We didn't talk about her character because it wasn't necessary," says Verhoeven. "There was an intuitive connection we felt, and during the shoot, we discussed many other things - staging, costume - but never the character." As to the nudity and violence in the picture, "She didn't care. If she believes in the character, she will do whatever is necessary."

Huppert found her director to be kind and understanding - rather different from what she might have expected. "There's a misunderstanding about him," she says. "His support was immense."

A start date was set for January 2015, and Verhoeven immersed himself in French. He had lived in France as a student; now he took a crash course in the language, speaking 10 hours a day. When he moved to France, "I said, 'OK, I won't speak English anymore.' "

A 52-day shoot got underway in Paris. Despite the challenges of the material, filming went smoothly. The $9 million picture debuted at Cannes in May of this year, earning the director some of his best reviews. THR's reviewer Jordan Mintzer said it "will finally bring Verhoeven back into the spotlight after a decade-long absence."

Still, the rape sequences make the movie's reception by the Academy a wild card at a time when memories are fresh of a president-elect who was caught on tape discussing sexual assault. And Verhoeven has at times not only pinpointed the zeitgeist but tripped over it.

Verhoeven's first powerful memory is of bombs falling on The Hague during the war, and the sky turning red from all the fires. He was 6 years old and mesmerized.

"I grew up among bombing and deaths and hunger and starving and dead people and blood," recalls the only child of a school principal and a homemaker. "The Hague was bombed because of the rocket launchers there. The whole region was bombed all the time."

Courtesy of Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions/Sony Pictures Classiscs

Once, he was compelled to walk past a row of cadavers the Nazis had lined up, after executing the victims as payback for the killing of a German officer. "They took 10 political prisoners out of prison, put them against the wall and shot them," he says. "It felt like, 'This is what happens if you are against us.' "

He shrugs off the long-ago experience, but acknowledges its weight. "If you believe in the Freudian explanation for things, you would say that, growing up in a world that's continually in flames, you [develop] the feeling that that's the way the world is," he says.

After studying mathematics at Leiden University, Verhoeven did his military service in the navy, where he developed his interest in film and made an award-winning documentary. That led to work in TV.

But after marrying young (he remains with his wife of almost 50 years, Martine Tours, a psychologist) and returning to civilian life, he felt lost. When a passer-by handed him a religious leaflet, he was drawn to the Pentecostal movement; it was after his initial visits to the church that he had his quasi-breakdown.

"There was an episode when I was in my 20s, that I got myself in what you would probably call a religious psychosis," he says. "That's a big word for starting to see reality in a different way. I was aware that if I [wasn't] careful, it would take over. As they say in Total Recall, the walls of reality would fall apart."

When pushed to explain, he compares his experience to that of Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher who had a mental breakdown, after which he spent his life in an asylum. Does Verhoeven mean something that extreme?

"It was really a feeling of threat, that your subconscious would take over the rest of your brain," he says. "I mean, a feeling that you would lose [it]. You feel a force in your brain that will take over. And I think my interest in double realities - in Total Recall and other movies - is [based on] my knowledge that the brain can be brought [to this point]."

Could that mental imbalance strike him again? "Sure," he says. "Sometimes I feel if I let myself go in that direction, it would happen. But when it presents itself, I just block it out."

Verhoeven quickly made his name as a director with such movies as Soldier of Orange (1977), Spetters (1980) and The Fourth Man (1983), all commercial hits in Europe and widely admired in America. But controversy dogged him. Spetters, in particular, stoked outrage in the LGBT community, with a gay gang-rape scene that proved inflammatory.

The controversy didn't rattle Verhoeven, but he acknowledges that "it became more difficult for me, especially with the things I had been doing, which had been criticized left, right and center as being perverted and decadent. Spetters was attacked as being anti-women, anti-gay, anti-people that were paralyzed. It became so difficult to get money [for films]. I felt I had to beg or be on my knees, and I thought that was absurd."

He decided to relocate to Hollywood, even though "I felt very comfortable in Holland, and I feared to go to the U.S. It's different - the language, the culture. It's not your home. But at a certain point, Martine said, 'This flirting with the U.S. should stop. We should just go.' "

In 1985, the couple and their two daughters started their lives anew in Los Angeles (one daughter is now a professor of revolutionary terrorism at Cornell, the other a painter), where the director switched styles, becoming an A-list helmer known for elevating genre movies such as 1987's RoboCop and 1990's Total Recall with a unique visual flair and electric wit. From the late '80s to the mid-'90s, he was among the most successful artists in Hollywood. Then came 1995's Showgirls.

The drama about women trying to make it in Las Vegas was a financial flop and critical bomb ("A film of thunderous oafishness that gives adult subject matter the kind of bad name it does not need or deserve," said Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times). The $45 million movie made less than half of that domestically. "It was difficult for people to accept this movie in any way," says Verhoeven. After that, "I was in Hollywood prison."

He laughs it off, then reaches down for the coffee and cookies his wife has just brought us, and runs his hand through his iron-gray mane of hair. If the Showgirls fallout still bothers him, he doesn't reveal it.

Verhoeven followed that with Starship Troopers, a film about humans fighting killer bugs. "We were using the original story [in Robert Heinlein's novel] and commenting on it, which was subversive," he says. He adds that he has no interest in the remake. "They want to go closer to the novel. We had a discomfort with it. We didn't want to say this military-fascist utopia was good."

Even as Starship was being condemned, Verhoeven's intellectual pursuits were tugging him away from the Hollywood mainstream.

Since the mid-1980s, he had been a member of the Jesus Seminar, a somewhat controversial collection of theologians who wish to place Jesus in his context as a man - a great one, but not the son of God. "They had started to study the historicity of Jesus' actions and words," he explains. "I thought, 'OK, I should join them,' because I wanted to make a movie on what really happened, and not even what the Gospels tell me."

He has yet to make his Life of Jesus, which would portray Christ, warts and all. "[Christ] was drinking a lot and liked to eat," the director notes. "That should be seen. And he was an exorcist, a real one."

Verhoeven spent years researching that subject and continued to do so during the fallow period after his last American film, 2000's The Hollow Man, an Invisible Man update starring Kevin Bacon that Verhoeven clearly abhors. "I've never done a movie that in retrospect I cannot defend," he says. "I can defend Showgirls, but not Hollow Man."

Photographed by Joe Pugliese

His last movie before Elle was 2006's The Black Book, about a Jewish woman who joins the Resistance in Holland and falls in love with an SS officer. It is as troubling as it is entertaining, pushing on the side of its charismatic Nazi, even as we know he has been part of the genocide machine.

Verhoeven seems strangely blinkered to the ethical dilemma his hero poses. "People are good and bad," he says. "You cannot say all Nazis were horrible and all the Resistance good. This was based on a real character who was called 'the Soft One,' because he was a very decent man."

It's late afternoon as we talk about the film, and I ponder what he has just said. Some part of me understands, another part wonders - a good Nazi?

I try to make sense of this brilliant but confounding man, as his dog wanders back, eyes me warily and sniffs my recorder. It strikes me what a gulf there is between the man I'm sitting with and the more turbulent artist inside. Huppert speaks of his "real delicateness. He's the complete opposite of his films."

The comfort of his home seems poles apart from the uncomfortableness of his films - as if the duality we find in his movies has its best embodiment in Verhoeven himself. He has created an outer life that's almost at odds with his inner one. It's a theme he plans to explore further in other pictures, now that he's back behind the camera. And he has no plans to let Hollywood derail him again. "They applaud comebacks here," he says happily. "You can fall as deep as you want. But if you come back, you're OK."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.