Paul Verhoeven: Playing with Fire

Director Paul Verhoeven has a knack for producing blockbusters that thrill audiences even as censors cry foul over their sex and violence. After batting three out of the park-- Basic Instinct, Total Recall and Robocop--can the filmmaker go four for four with Showgirls?


For the second time, film director Paul Verhoeven is about to make movie history. When he left his native Holland a decade ago to emigrate to L.A., who'd have guessed he'd reign over Tinseltown as his fellow countryman. Peter Stuyvesant, once ruled over New Amsterdam? With three back-to-back monster hits-- Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct-- Verhoeven has become a force to be reckoned with.

In the latter film he made his way into cinema's history books by coaxing the film's star, Sharon Stone, to reveal more than we ever thought possible in a mainstream "Hollywood" flick. It's since become the most famous parting since Moses and the Red Sea. In the three years following Basic Instinct, Verhoeven did not make a film. But now, in his new movie, Showgirls, he seems determined to give us more than just a glimpse of private female body parts. In fact, there's said to be such copious punning to those equatorial regions that the film will be the first big-budget, major studio release to be saddled with an NC-17 rating, The film's distributor. MGM/UA, can do nothing about the rating, because Verhoeven has a final-cut contract. It's a given that there will be a roar of publicity, but in the prevailing political climate, all that din may soon be drowned out by an uproar from the Dole-ites.

"Are you getting any heat from the studio suits about the rating?" I ask.

"Not yet," says Verhoeven, who, on this June evening, is finishing up some looping at Skywalker Sound in Santa Monica. Although he was not fluent in English when he arrived in America in 1985, the 57-year-old filmmaker speaks it beautifully now,

"Doesn't an NC-17 rating mean that newspapers won't run advertisements for your movie?"

"I think that's exaggerated. There may be some newspapers in the middle of the country that won't advertise the film, but I have the feeling that it's more possible than anybody thought. I think we can convince the theater owners that this is a decent movie. It's not for 12-years-olds. But NC-17 is a responsible category. It gives filmmakers a chance to make a movie for adults." In the same breath, however, Verhoeven seems to be bracing for the outrage to come: "If there is a problem with Showgirls, it's really the reality of Las Vegas that's the problem. Why do people accept Vegas for what it is and yet have a problem with a movie that shows a slice of Vegas life? It's hypocritical. If people like [Bob] Dole say there's too much sex and violence in movies, why do the studios keep making sexy and violent movies? It's because the film industry and the sponsors on TV are attuned to the audience. And the audience wants sex and violence. They like it. Give the human mind 50 minutes of quiet in the dark and everyone would be put to sleep."

"So I gather you're not a big fan of Eastern philosophy and meditation?"

"No. I tried it when I was younger, and it didn't satisfy me," Verhoeven replies. "There's not much electricity on the path to truth. In Western society we need conflict and tension and violence [to wake us]."

Showgirls, written by Joe Eszterhas, is the story of a 19-year-old girl who works as a lap dancer in Las Vegas. For those of you unfamiliar with this form of entertainment, I'll let Verhoeven describe the job requirements: "Lap dancing is when a girl sits naked on a guy and rubs her ass against his crotch until he comes." Mmmm. Sorry I missed the auditions. The leading lap dancer-- played by Elizabeth Berkley, whose last major credit was "Saved by the Bell," a TV sitcom for the Clearasil crowd--aspires to escape this demeaning job and get into the more respectable hotel shows where she can at least wear a G-string and dance on a stage. If it all sounds a lot like Flashdance, that's no surprise--Eszterhas wrote that one too, and he's always been among our most ecological of writers.

Showgirls, like Flashdance, numbers among its cast a raft of newcomers and not-quite-household names. I ask Verhoeven whether, after directing Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall and Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, it's been a relief to work with a bunch of youngsters. Verhoeven nods and says, "Stars have a very strong position in town, and they influence the direction of the movie. If there's a conflict between the star and the director, it's hard to see how the director could win. After Total Recall and Basic Instinct, I began to look at moviemaking as overcoming obstacles. Every day there was a mountain to climb.

"Working on Showgirls was not that way at all," Verhoeven remarks. "I was working with people who aren't formed yet and who don't have an image. They aren't thinking about the consequences of doing this or doing that. I was able to mold them. It's more adventurous with young actors because you don't really know if the promise you saw in the screen test will be fulfilled. With Arnold and Michael and Sharon, you know what you're getting. With young actors, you're diving into deep water, and you don't know if you can survive. Once in a while it's good to leave everything behind and see what happens. It's inspiring, and, in a very deep, almost religious way, it's what life is about. Not knowing."

As the leading rote has sexy dances, plus love scenes with a man as well as a woman, I ask, "Did Elizabeth Berkley resist any of your choices?"

"No. She loved it. She's very free. She never had a problem with anything I proposed. Elizabeth likes to express herself sexually. She's much more open about nudity than you'd ever guess by watching 'Saved by the Bell.'" When I confess I never saw a single episode of the long-running, syndicated series, Verhoeven admits he never has either.

Kyle MacLachlan plays the male lead in Showgirls, and the early word from Verhoeven was that audiences would see ail of him. Hype historians may recall rumors prior to the shooting of Basic Instinct that indicated Michael Douglas would do frontal nudity. When I ask for an update on Kyle's willingness to bare all, Verhoeven says that, at the crucial moment of filming, MacLachlan turned out to be just as modest as Douglas, Which is to say, buns, yes--member, no.

"It's not a problem in Holland," he says, "but American actors aren't inclined to do that. There may be a couple actors who would, but I couldn't find them. So, I concentrated on the female nudity, since that's the theme of the movie."

"In making an NC-17 movie, do you feel any obligation to the studio?"

"I feel the obligation to do this movie as best as I can. If people don't like it, then the studio might have failed in judging that this was something that would bring its money back."

"What drew you to the material?"

"My interest was Vegas. And the musical numbers. And the nudity. I love nudity, especially female nudity. I love to look at naked girls. I love tits and ass, Mostly tits." I have to remind myself I'm talking to a man with a PhD in math and physics.

"Did you really have to make this an NC-17? Wouldn't the story still work if the actors wore a few more threads?"

"This is a movie about a girl who takes her clothes off. That's what attracted me. I don't do movies because I think they'll work. I do movies because the subject interests me. I could have done Robocop II and III, but the challenge is not to do that. I've never repeated myself."

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