Paul Verhoeven interview: Elle, creative risks and RoboCop

Legendary director Paul Verhoeven talks to us about his unmissable new drama-thriller, Elle, and the relevance of his 80s classic, RoboCop.

For well over 40 years now, director Paul Verhoeven has thrilled and horrified audiences with his bold, confrontational films. Whether they’re war dramas (Soldier Of Orange, Black Book), sci-fi action movies (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) or thrillers (The Fourth Man, Basic Instinct), Verhoeven’s movies are smart, sometimes violent and frequently threaded with a sense of mischief.

In Michele, the central character played by Isabelle Huppert in Elle, Verhoeven might have found his fictional muse. A Parisian businesswoman who plays by her own rules, Michele’s fearless, often bewildering approach to life is fascinating to watch. Nominally, Elle’s a thriller, but like Philippe Djian’s source novel, Oh…, it’s far more than that. No sooner has the film dangled the mystery of Michele’s attacker in front of us – she’s violently assaulted in her own home in the first act – than the movie spirals off into entirely unpredictable, wryly amusing and disturbing territory.

Elle features a spectacular leading performance from Huppert, which was rightly singled out for an Oscar nomination earlier this year. But Verhoeven’s direction is also wonderfully assured: calmly detached and observant, the director skilfully navigates a difficult and often horrifying subject. Indeed, watching Elle, it’s hard to shake the frustrating realisation that it’s been a decade since Verhoeven’s last film, Black Book. We can only hope that the outright brilliance of Elle will entice would-be investors to back Verhoeven’s next project.

As Elle finally opens in UK cinemas – nearly a year after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival – Mr Verhoeven talks to us about collaborating with Isabelle Huppert to bring such a memorable character to the screen, how his anxiety about making a film in French led to a burst of creativity, and how RoboCop remains a relevant film 30 years on.

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I loved the way that you found so much tension and humour in unexpected places. I wondered whether this was what attracted you to adapt the book in the first place.

Yeah, I think so. There is a certain distance which works – not in a comedy way, but in a light way – in the novel already. There’s a balance between the horrible thing that happens, but also, you could say, the weird relationships she [Michele] has with all the people around her. The mother, the son – everything has a certain tension. 

Because of all these relationships getting a lot of attention from the original writer, Philippe Dijon, that basically, yes there’s the plot – Michele gets raped by a masked man. Who is this guy? She finds out. But then, what’s she going to do? That’s the plot, isn’t it? But that was already in the book, and it’s only really 30 or 35 percent of it – the rest is about her. This woman, her relationships with her family, her ex-husband, her daughter-in-law, etcetera, etcetera. About 60 or 65 percent of the novel was about that.

I felt that although it has what you could call an American plot, the presence of all these other people were liberating and light compared to what happens to [Michele]. So I thought the combination, that you rarely see in American movies – though you see it in Swedish thrillers and stuff like that of course – but this is rigorously saying, “Yes, there is a plot, but the rest is more important.”

I thought that was a nice way of getting rid of American thinking, which is mostly plot-driven of course, and do something different.

Yes. And Michele’s an absolutely fascinating. As I was watching it I was trying to figure out why I liked her so much, even when she does dislikeable things. I think it’s because she has so much courage when most of the other characters in the story are quite cowardly.

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They are, yes – especially the men. All the women are kind of tough. The daughter-in-law isn’t an easy one! [Chuckles] And even her mother is kind of difficult. You cannot forget the talent of Isabelle Huppert, you know? With Isabelle, even if you don’t like her in her actions, even if you don’t understand her completely, even if you feel I’d never do that, certainly not in the third act, still, with Isabelle Huppert, you believe in her anyway. It’s her talent and her mystery that is always in her eyes – you can’t read her completely. There are always hidden things there. It’s that element that Isabelle brought to the movie, and it’s important to making the movie work.

It’s an incredible performance.

It’s difficult to describe, this superior talent, as I would call it. That elevated the movie from the material I had in my hands when I read the novel. As I was proceeding with the film, I started to realise more and more, working with Isabelle, what was added to the movie wasn’t in my head when I started. I mean, the shooting of the movie is still a creative process, and that’s different from writing the script. If you’re lucky, shooting the movie brings things that were not very clear to you before you started. Perhaps you felt them, but you hadn’t made them conscious. Because of what I saw and what Isabelle brought, you start to realise things that you weren’t aware of. It’s difficult to describe, really, what happens in a case like that. What we do on the set is an enormous addition to what was on paper. 

There’s a themre in here about shame – the nature of shame, and how women are often expected to be ashamed of their sexuality. Or even when they’re attacked, you’ll see in the media that women are blamed for the clothes they wore or how much they had to drink. In this film, Michele has no shame at all.

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Yeah, she steps over that, I think! This character has her own rules. She relies on herself and nobody else, in fact. I’m sure it has a lot to do with her past and whatever, but of course, she’s extremely courageous, and she lives her own life. Even if she’s raped, she refuses compassion, isn’t it? When she tells the people at the table at the restaurant, “I believe that I was raped,” they show compassion and say, “Oh my god” and this and that – “How horrible”. But she cuts it off, right? She doesn’t want to hear it, even. She says, “Let’s order [dinner].” She doesn’t want to be seen – and doesn’t see herself – as a victim.

She sees it as something that happened to her, and has to be overcome. Not in the next day or the next hour – it’s clear right at the beginning of the movie. She cleans up, makes a bath and order sushi.  That’s her character. Because of the violence, there’s a bruise on her face, but she tells her son, “I fell off my bike.” So she refuses to feel like a victim. She refuses that. It’s an interesting character, I think – one that might not exist in reality, you know? [Laughs]

But in the movie, it’s convincing. You believe her. That she is that way. But there aren’t many people who can achieve that in life. Who can step over things that are horrible, and approach the next day with open eyes and basically do your job and not be upset by what happened. This is me all talking in retrospect! A lot of the things I’m saying now were not clear when I said yes to the project, I would say. That became clear slowly through the creative process, I think. As I said, the presence of Isabelle Huppert brought the movie to the level that it is now. I mean, all the actors were good – and the DP, and the music and everything. Everybody who contributed to the movie was talented, but I think the talent of Isabelle holds it all together. 

Absolutely. I remember reading that you compared making Elle with RoboCop, in the sense that it was a leap into the unknown. 

Yes, absolutely. And it was a frightening one. When I went to the United States from Holland in 1985, 86, that was a step into the unknown to do a science fiction movie like RoboCop. I really wasn’t much of a fan of science fiction at all, and didn’t know much about it either. I’d certainly never done a science fiction movie in Holland. So that was certainly a leap into the unknown.

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I think, if you do these steps, that aren’t so pleasant, because you leave everything behind – the actors and actresses I knew in Holland? You leave them behind. The crews? You leave them behind. Locations: you don’t know them.

So you go to an unknown part of the world where you don’t know the people, and that’s frightening. But also, at the same time, if you do it, it turns out to be extremely inspiring. Because suddenly you’re activated – every cell in your body seems to be alive. It’s like a, let’s say, rejuvenation process to do it. I think that’s what I meant when I said doing RoboCop was similar to doing Elle.

With Black Book, at least I went back to Holland, and back to people that I knew. But in going to Paris, I went to people I didn’t know; locations I didn’t know; crews I didn’t know. And again, that step was frightening, because it was in another language – the third one. First working in Dutch, then in English, then working in French. I think that is anxiety-provoking, and for a long time I had headaches before shooting, because I was afraid. I didn’t know what it was – I went to the doctor’s to find out if it was something really bad in my head, but of course, they couldn’t find anything. When we finally start to shoot the movie, and I started talking in French all the time, the headaches disappeared. The headaches were caused by fear!

That really wasn’t very pleasant. But doing it made me, probably, much more creative, you know? You step into the unknown. I feel that’s always creative. It’s existential, isn’t it, to step into something you don’t know. You can’t judge the moment, you can’t tell where it’s going to lead you. You’re not going down the same street you go down every day. It’s an unknown direction, and that activates something. That’s what I felt in RoboCop and in Elle. 

That sense of perhaps being an outsider, and observing things from a detached viewpoint…

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That’s true, too, and it’s certainly even more so on RoboCop. Of course, I looked at American society with a kind of dazed way when I was doing RoboCop, when I was doing the news and everything. Because it was all so different from living in Holland. A lot of my, let’s say, amazement, at American society is in RoboCop; in the commercials, in the news reels and so forth, and even the certain distance to the characters. So yeah, in most cases, basically, you can’t say to people, “You should put yourself in an unpleasant situation to be creative” – nobody would do that! But it’s necessary to continue your profession, and when it happens, it’s a gift, in a way. Although it’s a gift that you have to learn how to appreciate!

Have you considered the prescience of RoboCop? How ahead of its time i was in many ways, and how relevant it still is now, 30 years later?

Sure, yeah. Even more so, perhaps, than Starship Troopers, you know. I have a feeling that both movies are pointing out elements of American society that were of course there, but not so on the surface. But lately, they have come to the surface – it’s this ultra right-wing direction, isn’t it? Especially Starship Troopers, that’s pointing out a fascist utopia, in fact. I’m not saying the United States is moving in that direction completely, but feels a bit that way, yeah.

The point is that, I don’t see it as me prophesising. I see it as me, or more so my screenwriter Ed Neumeier, being, let’s say, aware of certain elements in American society in the 80s and the 90s, that were, as I said, not so on the surface, but were used anyhow to create a fascist utopia. But I don’t think Ed Neumeier or I believed that we would be coming so close to that now! [Laughs] We thought, okay, we’ll point it out and make fun of it a little bit – it’s ironic, even. But I didn’t take it as a reality that would happen in the United States. It’s more that, yes, it’s a possibility.

There was a book that was written – I think he was English, or maybe he was American. Bertram Gross, who wrote a book in the 80s called Friendly Fascism. I don’t know if you’ve ever read that, but it’s really interesting because what he’s describing in the 80s is very similar to what’s happening now. You should read it – it’s an interesting book, Friendly Fascism. I mean, because it’s so weird – he says “Someday, it could be this way”. You recognise what’s happening in the United States at this very moment. 

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So do you know what you’re going to make next? Do you have a project lined up?

There are three or four projects that I’m working on – as you know nowadays, so many things depend on stars, on money and all that stuff. In the past, when I was living in Holland or even in the United States, you would basically talk to people and the next day you could start. But that’s all over now. So you have to work on a couple of projects and hope that one of them catches fire.

I still want to make my movie about Jesus – I wrote a book about Jesus about six or seven years ago. Then I was a bit bored with the whole thing, but now I feel it’s time… the energy in the United States is so important again, I thought it would be interesting to do that movie. But if I get the money together, if I get the script together, there’s another project – a medieval project in the neighbourhood of Florence, in a monastery. There are a couple of others – three, four projects that I feel could be happening in the next six months or something.

That’s fantastic. I just don’t want there to be another ten years before you make another movie!

Yeah, yeah, that was stupid! I think I should have made a movie just to make a movie, but I felt like I wanted to make something interesting. Oh, there was a movie with Bill Mechanic that is still there, called Rogue, which is set against the background of the cartels, but still, the script is there, the actors are there, but the money isn’t there! [Chuckles] That happens all the time now.

If I had the money, I’d give it to you myself! Paul Verhoeven, thank you very much.

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Elle is out in UK cinemas on the 10th March.