This is the full version of an interview that originally appeared on the Berlinale Talent Press website. Paul Verhoeven (director of Robocop, Starship Troopers, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Black Book, Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange) appeared at the Berlinale Talent Campus speaking on the theme of Some Like It Hot: Filmmakers as Entertainers. In my interview following the talk, we discussed the importance of the theme in more detail, and looked at some of the interesting but lesser known moments of Verhoeven’s filmmaking career:
What exemplifies filmmaking as entertainment?
Well I think filmmaking in general… if it’s not entertainment, then basically there will be no film industry anymore. People won’t go there [to the cinema], money won’t come in and they won’t make the movies any more.
I think film is the form of art that is mostly, more than any of the other arts, connected to money. A film is not the only piece of art where this can be (and often is not of course), but it is also an economic product. You cannot make movies that don’t work: you can do this once, perhaps twice, and then basically people won’t finance you anymore because they lose their money.
The investment, if its half a million, if it’s a hundred million, or three hundred million, of course people would like to get their money back… understandably. The people that spend money, even if its banks or whatever, they expect something back and in principle they would like to have their money back and more.
So if you make movies that don’t work and that is meaning movies that are not entertaining enough, then your career is very short. But of course you can make movies, although they are rarely made nowadays, that are entertainment in some way, but are extremely important and artistic: I think for example Lawrence of Arabia is in my opinion and there are many others. But, I don’t think people will make movies like Lawrence of Arabia any more, it’s too personal a story, there’s not enough BANG BANG.
What did you make of The Master?
Yeah, I saw half an hour. I couldn’t stand it! I didn’t care. It didn’t interest me at all.
Is creating entertainment your most important job as a filmmaker?
No. No, I consider making movies a form of art, but I’m very much aware that if you make too much art, they won’t come any more to the theatre and your career is finished. So you have to compromise, you have to play a little bit in the middle. I’m a mathematician, but after my studies I moved to painting, then I did both painting and film and then at a certain moment film won (and I forgot the mathematics totally.) Its different you know, if you paint you don’t need money really, if you write you don’t even need money. You only need money to eat, but you don’t need money to do your work. You have to pay for canvases, you need a computer, or whatever, but that’s limited you know and you don’t have to borrow that and gather that money.
With movies investment is so much pressure and there is so much talk about if the budget is this or if its five percent more or five percent less; that becomes a thing that is inherent in filmmaking. If you look at a movie for example like La Dolce Vita, which was in fact a big success, but the next movie was Eight ½ (Fellini’s movie), and it didn’t work, although it was a very interesting movie and probably one of the few movies of the last century that was a piece of art. So it made his career much more difficult.
Was he working under bigger budgetary constraints on La Dolce Vita?
No, I think he had the money he needed. It was shot in Italy and it was not Matt Damon you know. Marcello Mastroianni was not well known at that moment, he was not expensive and I think they made it for a price but he got everything he wanted for a price. The movie is big you know, he got what he wanted for sure. I have the feeling he got exactly what he wanted, so it was more expensive than La Strada or something, but still he got the money.
I’m interested in what you learned working in the military making propaganda films? What can any filmmakers learn from propaganda films about making entertaining films?
At a certain moment where you start to do movies of long kind of minutes then you have to start thinking about structure. For the marines they were documentaries between ten, fifteen or twenty minutes, then the time structure is not so important, people will sit it out you know. In a movie, if you don’t have something in the middle at forty, fifty minutes that interests you, then you’re lost.
So I think I didn’t learn anything and the most important movie I made when working with the marines was a long documentary, well not long, twenty minute documentary. I made that very much like an action movie. Yeah, I looked at James Bond and I copied basically the way of shooting of the first two James Bond movies: Dr No & From Russia With Love.
How did they feel about that approach?
They thought it was great! Because it made the Marines look really good and of course that’s the propaganda! That’s the hidden propaganda because you make them look like they can do everything and they do it all well. Oh course that’s propaganda, not the truth. But it learned me, basically to do action stuff you know, it was landings, smaller versions of Normandy landings and there was frogmen and helicopters and this and that. I got everything, if I wanted a ship or whatever I got it you know. So I could do whatever I wanted in twenty minutes.
It sounds like the biggest twenty minute film I’ve ever heard of…
Well it was a lot happening in twenty minutes yeah. And the whole navy was at my disposal and this was because the general of the marines wanted this for the 300thanniversary of the Marines. They were basically created in 1665 and so 300 years later I was drafted and by coincidence it was the same year that they wanted to have a movie about celebrating this, so they had the money to… they wanted this really!
They wanted it to be spectacular! But of course it is as much propaganda of Triumph of the Will, in some way. I mean less of course because its not an ideology that I’m presenting…
It’s more of a showcase.
It’s more of a showcase, a very good commercial of a car you know, but the marines are like that you know. But they weren’t really tough anyhow I thought. I thought I couldn’t do it but I did.
It’s interesting that you moved from there into what would generally be considered art films…
Yes, but not in Holland you see, because they were all commercial. Very much so.
In Britain I would have put them as art films…
Well they were seen as art films outside the country, but in Holland they were not. They were very mainstream, and one of them (Turkish Delight) had the largest amount of spectators ever in a Dutch movie. Even now it’s not been repeated, so they were extremely… it was based on a very well-known novel, love novel where the girl dies and it worked very well. For the Dutch audience it was seen as total entertainment, it was not entertainment because she dies… it was not that entertaining in some ways.
It was tragedy yeah. But it’s interesting because in the United States, when I went to festivals there and they showed the movie and it was nominated for Best Foreign Film and whatever, everyone saw it as art stuff and I think its artsy enough you know. I mean, if you ever see these movies they’re not clearly commercial and they are audacious and there is a lot of things that people were shocked by.
How much should any filmmaker, including you, be concerned with what the audience wants? What did you learn from making Tricked? What should you think your audience wants or should you just not care?
No I don’t think about what the audience wants, I think about what I want. I said here at the meeting, you have to live in the hope that your taste is not so different from the audience. I make the movie for myself and then I hope that I’m different, or not too different from the audience.
But of course I think about structure, I think about tension, I think about… But that’s technique, isn’t it? Its like what a composer or a painter would do, you basically balance, balance, balance, but that’s because it’s a thing in time you know… its not like a painting you see in a split second, so you need to follow the rules of drama and basically if there’s nothing to care about or theres nothing that intrigues you or that then basically the movie, people won’t go there. So that’s why it is easier to do a thriller, or something like that, like everyone is doing now because of whats happened in Denmark and Sweden of course. These are all written by, be they Henning Mankell (Wallander) or Stieg Larsson (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) or the others… All these countries in the north they write good thrillers. I don’t think it will hold, because they are not so hard boiled as the American detectives, Chandler and McDonald, all that stuff. I read all that stuff and I love thrillers you know, but they have a structure and that helps you to tell other things.
So if you have La Dolce Vita for example there is no thriller, and there is no plot, its this and that… that is really difficult for the audience there because its dark.. you only have this. There is no tea, no coffee, and you sit there and if its not interesting its horrible because you cannot walk out to the kitchen or whatever or have a coffee or a cigarette or whatever, you are locked in this chair in the middle of a theatre and you don’t like it… you’re bored, you’re bored, you’re bored! You think yes, great, wonderful, but it doesn’t interest me really, so you have to be “is that audience or is that myself?” I think if its boring, or if I’m working on something that’s boring, or that bores me already because there is no question mark or there’s nothing that I’m interested in that is going to happen… if the character is interesting that can all be done you know.
But in an automatic way you are entertaining anyhow because you have to keep the audience by the rules of drama, you have to keep the audience at a lesson and say keep looking! As a painting you don’t have that you know, you can look at this painting BOOM in one second! But even people like Beethoven or Stravinski basically were well aware that it is an event in time and that’s why there is a fast part, then a slow part and a half fast part and an adagio and allegretto or whatever. That is all fighting time so people don’t get bored. How many changes in the melody can you allow? So all these things in time need some let’s say dramatic structure, to keep the audience there.
But you can also say what you want, in terms of themes…
…yeah its art, but it’s also fighting time and fighting time is entertaining! You are well aware that if you’re not entertaining, if its boring… there is nothing to care about. So you are automatically doing entertainment in your head already, because you are locked into that time thing. That’s why in retrospect I would have preferred to be a painter! My daughter is that now!
Did you give her that advice maybe?
No I did not, but she came to that conclusion herself.