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Paul Verhoeven is finally feeling like an artist with a purpose and point of view again. It took a dozen years, two films and tens of thousands of citizen screenwriters, but here he is in New York City, smiling while discussing his work.
The Dutch director, now 73 years old, is best known for his violent, semi-campy sci-fi classics Robocop and Total Recall, movies made in the late 1980’s when it was OK for genre films to have a certain sense of self-awareness. He’s now behind a new kind of experiment in cognizant storytelling, the crowdsourced movie Tricked, which is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Made in his homeland of Holland, where he is still revered as the nation’s most prized filmmaker, the movie was an experiment in audience participation that served as half vision of the future, half marketing stunt for local cable conglomerate Ziggo.
After filming the first five minutes of a professionally written script, Verhoeven and associates appealed to the nation’s citizens to write the next five minute chapter of a film, submitting their scripts and waiting for Verhoeven and his team to try to assemble the various dialogue, plot twists and inanities into a coherent installment. Thousands of people teamed up to submit 600-700 entries per chapter, and when asked whether he got any brilliant suggestions, Verhoeven doesn’t mince words.
“No,” he says with a smile. “But there were enough elements that were OK and interesting and a lot of things that I wouldn’t have really not invented, you know, because I don’t think that way.”
At least he had control over this movie, and was able to put his stamp on what he had been given. Verhoeven has not made a movie in the United States since 2000’s woefully received sci-fi crime film Hollow Man, which had sent him into a soul-searching sojourn.
“I decided after Hollow Man, this is a movie, the first movie that I made that I thought I should not have made,” he remembers. “It made money and this and that, but it really is not me anymore. I think many other people could have done that. I don’t think many people could have made Robocop that way, or either Starship Troopers. But Hollow Man, I thought there might have been 20 directors in Hollywood who could have done that. I felt depressed with myself after 2002.”
Having grown up revering French cinema and its reverence for auteurs, and achieving great fame in Holland before making his trip to the United States, Verhoeven still feels like an outsider in a way, looking in at a Hollywood that seems headed toward a creative reckoning.
“I think there must be an upcoming for independent movies, because young people that want to express themselves, why would they go to the studios?” he asks rhetorically. “Because they are immediately supposed to write Transformers 20 or something, Superman III, IV, V, VI, VII. But that’s boring. I think there might be a backlash against the let’s say, the uniformity of American cinema now, which, if I asked my friends in Holland, they say, ‘We don’t go to these anymore. We’ve seen them for 20 years.’ And until now, they’d watch these repeats. But I think with young people, it might not be what they want, because it’s very difficult to express yourself.”
His experience with reboot culture is now quite intimate; this summer will see a re-launch of Robocop, while last summer a gritty re-telling of the semi-campy Total Recall starring Colin Farrell was released to less-than-appreciative audiences. While Verhoeven’s original version of the conspiracy sci-fi actioner took in over $261 million worldwide — in 1990, no less — the 2012, Len Wiseman-directed reboot earned just $198 million. The domestic numbers provide an even more stark contrast; Verhoeven’s original version grossed $119 million in the United States, compared to $59 million for the new one.
The mention of that failure to launch clearly delights the Dutchman.
“That was fun,” he says with a smile. “Also because they had been arrogant in interviews. Both the producer and Colin Farrell both had been bashing the old one. Colin Farrell called it kitsch, and people sent it to me immediately of course.”
He has high hopes for the new Robocop, which is being directed by Jose Padhilla and stars Joel Kinnaman, based on what he’s read of the script.
“I have a feeling that making these kind of idiotic things, that is Total Recall, Robocop, Superman, Spider-Man, it’s all completely nonsense,” Verhoeven says, smile growing wider. “It’s not about anything that has any reality to it, unless you fill it in. And you have to put your own personality into it.
“But I feel if you take these things too seriously, then you have a problem, too,” he continues. “So I feel like you need to know that the story is crazy. Implanting memories is not completely crazy, but half crazy. So I think if you start to take that completely serious, like ‘this is the reality of life,’ then I feel that you are really in dangerous territory. And I think that certainly in Total Recall, that was clear, because it didn’t work anymore. And I’m hoping that Robocop will use a little ‘wink wink’ once in awhile.”
Verhoeven also helmed the erotic thriller Basic Instinct and the epically panned bomb Showgirls, for which he showed up in person to accept his Razzie in 1996, so it’s obvious that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Still, he was stung, and it took until 2006 to return to form.
The Hollow Man experience led to his retreat back home to Holland, where he collaborated with his old Dutch screenwriter on Black Book, a project they had initially started and then abandoned in the early 1980’s, before his move to America. A small film that was critically loved, it provided a fresh breath of confidence and revitalized his mission.
“It was basically getting back in form again. It was like, OK, I know what I’m talking about, I like what I’m talking about, it’s interesting, and I can do what I want. Nobody says ‘too much of this, or more of that.'”
Incidentally, moderating the story was a large part of his job on Tricked, thanks to the deluge of amateur submissions.
The film starts off at the 50th birthday party of a philandering businessman, presenting his wife and two children, along with several colleagues and a pregnant mistress. He’d film the five minute installment that he had slapped together from the thousands of pages he combed through, but after three chapters, Verhoeven says the submissions had largely ignored any sense of forward momentum or story structure.
“They saw, OK she wrote it, now we go and we bring in the mafia and suddenly an alien invasion on the house and this and that,” he laughs. “But that was clearly not what she had written. She had written this about the eight people, and of course there were all kinds of unclarities there on purpose. So I had to protect the original writer, so that the next episode would be really following that line instead of going dashing into another dimension.”
Many aspiring filmmakers made their own versions of each chapter and posted them online as well, further affirming Verhoeven’s belief that it takes a certain talent and artistry to make a legitimate and watchable movie.
“Filmmaking might be something like writing, you know. Everyone can write, more or less,” he explains. “Now of course there are only a few good writers, that can write in a way that you’d want to read … Here you need 15-20 people around you that also must be talented enough to make the movie look OK.”
“So the challenge that there will be thousands of good cinematographers coming out of nowhere, I don’t believe that for a second,” Verhoeven continues. “I think the technique now of making movies are more and less the same, I think, as writing. Film is not easy as easy now as writing.”
For all the frustrations — and there were plenty — Verhoeven is happy with the way the film turned out, though he asked the producers not to present it as his next legitimate movie (he’s got a filmography to protect, after all). And he was delighted by the young, talented actors with whom he worked.
Verhoeven has always been interested in pushing the limits, whether via special effects or storytelling devices, but doesn’t think this model, of thousands of people contributing to each five minute chapter of a film, is viable. On the other hand, he says it could be an option for a smaller pool of more established or even trained aspirants who want to pool creative resources.
With crowdsourcing the latest buzzword thanks in particular to the work done to help (or, hurt) the search for the Boston Marathon Bombers, Tricked has a chance of capturing the imagination of internet denizens aching to break through the closed world of show businesses. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has pioneered the art of collaboration with his HitRecord label, which allows users to combine forces on songs, short films and stories, while the advent of digital cameras and self-distribution is making the means of production cheaper than ever.
Tricked might not be the future, but it’s blazing a trail toward what could be a major advance in filmmaking and creativity.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin
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