Director Paul Verhoeven’s formula for making a successful movie
Ten minutes before
I stand drinking a cup of tea at a cute local coffee house because I’m early. When I see mister Verhoeven come out of the forest behind me having just finished a morning walk. He comes home just in time to receive two big boxes from a delivery service.
When I arrive at his property he meets me in his driveway. As he guides me into his home I hear the noise of people talking, coming from a room at one end of the house. It is clear that Verhoeven is a man who is always busy doing something. He finds us a quiet spot at the other end of the house. In a small room at a large table, where a piano stands, and a portrait of Monique van de Ven keeps an eye on me.
A young Monique van de Ven
My tape recorder softly hums as it records me asking my first question:
“Before directing you had earned Ph.D.’s in Mathematics and Physics. What would your formula be for making a successful movie?”
He is taken aback a bit by this weird question. He ponders, then states: “There isn’t any”. “Directors have asked me how I did things before but answering this is very difficult. There are so many coincidences during what happens. And most of the time they are actually more important than what I did. When you look at those coincidences later you start to see a line, that makes it seem like it was destined.”
We continue. I ask him how it all started, intent on discovering and extrapolating the hidden magic components from his answers. With the hope of having a complete formula at the end of the interview.
A young Paul Verhoeven
How it all began
During his school time, Verhoeven made four short films. The last one called Party won a prize. When he was drafted it was his math that brought him to the airforce. They were going to send him to Germany to calculate the trajectories for the missiles bound for Moskou. When a friend of his father got word to the head of the Marines about the university-educated filmmaker.
Before he got to calculate any trajectory he was transferred to the marines where he became a lieutenant assigned to the Marine Film Service. About this moment he says: “You can be brought forward but then it is up to you to grasp the opportunity.” He filmed the army’s efforts during the marriage of Princess Beatrix. And was put in charge of making a movie in honor of the marine’s three-hundred-year existence. Inspired by James Bond he made the fast-paced action documentary called “The Marine Corps”. It made him realize he would not continue doing math.
This exciting documentary grabbed the attention of Dutch television. While he made the documentary (Portrait of Anton Adriaan Mussert) for them, he and his friend Kees Holierhoek worked on something he was really excited about. It was Verhoeven’s ambition was to make a movie inspired by the popular Anton Wachtercyclus books by author Simon Vestdijk. Four of the eight books were about the author’s student days and he wanted to turn those into a movie. While Paul and Kees were in the middle of writing the screenplay he got offered to make the TV series Floris.
A young Rutger Hauer
The middle ages were popular on screens all around Europe and Floris was to be the Dutch Ivanhoe. Paul wasn’t really keen to film some people on horses but he decided to do it anyway. Because he thought: “Well, then you’ve got something, haven’t you?” “Sometimes you just have to let go of your ambitions or preferences because if it doesn’t go like this (he draws a straight line in the air) it will go like this (he draws a curved line in the air, ending at the same point).
Honing his craft
Floris is where he meets his lifelong friends’ actor Rutger Hauer and scriptwriter Gerard Soeteman. He still works with Gerard to this day. Working on Floris made him learn how to film. He recalls the very first time they started shooting when he first yelled: “Camera, Action!” and cameraman Ton Buné yelled back: “Hey hey! You are forgetting the sound!” Up to that point, Paul was used to having the sound being added later. He adjusted and yelled again, now adding sound.
On the set of Floris
Throughout the shooting of the series, Paul, the sound engineer Ad Roest and the rest of the team worked on improving the quality of the sound. At the beginning of the series, people had to be told to speak loud in order to be heard and recorded properly. Through the trial and error of trying different types of microphones and distances of recording, they could record the actors by the end.
On the set of Floris
The movie of the century
After the success of Floris, he makes the comedy movie Business is Business. Then the massive Dutch box-office love story hit Turkish Delight. It gets nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film and receives a Golden Calf award for being the best film of the century in Holland.
The Tuschinski Theatre in Amsterdam
Half a dozen more movies followed. First Keetje Tippel then Soldier of Orange, Spetters, All Things Pass, The Fourth Man and Flesh and Blood. But even though Verhoeven made the movie of the century the Dutch Film Fund organization’s rules were making it very hard for him to make new movies.
To do or not to do
A script of Robocop had reached him but after a glance, he put it aside. It was his wife Martine, who had also read it, who urged him to read it. He did and found he liked it. It dawned on him that if he was going to make this movie it meant moving to America and working in a foreign culture. He realized that if he messed this movie up, it would be the end of having a career in America. Luckily he knocked it out of the park. He fondly remembers making a note in the script because one of the characters said “brother” to Robocop, which confused him a bit because the character wasn’t Robocop’s brother at all. He laughs.
“When you went to America, you met a gentleman at the airport who gave you the advice to go with the flow. Was he right?”
“Yes. I have never done differently. Everything that I have wanted to do myself has never come to anything.”
After Robocop, Verhoeven went on to make Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Show Girls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man. After directing four special effects movies he came to realize that he did not want to make another. He explains why: “With special effects movies, you have to record everything in advance and it is more about the action than the characters. The last two movies I made in America each cost around a hundred million dollars to make, and half of the budget went to the special effects. To compare, we only needed about seven million to make Elle.”
No more SFX
He went back to Holland and made Black Book with scriptwriter Gerard Soeteman. They had been working on the script since nineteen eighty. It took them until two thousand six to shoot the movie. They couldn’t get the story to work until they realized that they had the wrong main character.
He explains: “It was supposed to be about a man whose Jewish wife would die. He’d be left to figure out what happened, to investigate. But how was the man supposed to infiltrate the Gestapo in such a way? It was impossible without making him an SS man.”
They kept shelving it until Gerard talked with producer Rob Houwer’s female Jewish assistant Ineke van Wesel. “Another coincidence”, I say. He agrees. “Gerard suddenly knew they needed to make the main character a Jewish woman and that the man had to die. Within a half year, the script was ready to be filmed.”
Sebastian Koch, Carice van Houten and Verhoeven
“So could coincidences be one of the formula’s ingredients?”
“Yes of course, but it is also about perseverance. About never giving up. Because we kept thinking and talking about the Black Book story we finally solved it in the end.”
Stick to your guns
It was the same with Elle, which he and producer Saïd Ben Saïd had thought to make in the US. But all the actresses they approached turned down the part because they thought it was too risky. Verhoeven understood it completely saying: “Well it is a very strange story, isn’t it? It could only have been made there if I would have changed the story dramatically and I did not want to do that.” So it was made in France with Isabelle Huppert in the lead. He brushed up on his French and directed the crew in their own language. (He thought it would be weird to expect the whole crew to adapt to him)
Isabelle Huppert and Paul Verhoeven
It is not just you
“Next to perseverance you also need to have high esteem for the input of others. The cameraman, the composer, the decor builders everyone. Everyone puts something in. If you keep thinking, it has to go as I want it to go, then you lose all the input that people can give you. Crew, actors, and actresses are much more motivated if they can think along. And you will come across better things if you stay open to input. Someone like Isabelle Huppert should not be told what to do. She brings so much more to a set. Things you have not even thought of.”
“She would carry on with a scene in such a way that I, watching her on the monitor, would forget to yell cut. You have to let things like that happen. It’s like what Hitchcock’s said about directing Cary Grant in North by North West. You don’t direct Cary Grant. He does what he wants and you have to trust him. You picked him because he is Cary Grant and then you can’t make him be a Marlon Brando.”
Don’t be a hawk
“Another important thing is the montage. I will never sit in on it. I will say: “This is what I have shot. I have highlighted the things I liked the most, but you just look at it and do with it what you want.” “Only when the montage of a scene is done I will look at it and possibly say something about it. But I will never sit next to them while they do their job. I will only speak up if there is something I don’t agree with. I highly value the capacities of skilled people and I let them lead me. I let everyone do what they like. Then everyone does their thing within the outlines and you just have to keep an eye out.”
“A big part of the success of a film also comes down to trusting about ten people completely. These are the ones who are very defining for the movie. Three or four of which are the main actors. In the early days, I used to have the urge to demonstrate something to an actor. Now, if I do it, I make sure to warn the actor that I am not telling them how to do it but that I am trying to convey something.” He remembers fondly how a leading lady Ida Bons from Floris would say: “Paul I don’t understand it. Can you do it again?” Actress Carice van Houten would imitate him if he did it. Which had them laughing right after.
Paul Verhoeven and Carice van Houten
During the shooting of the crowd-sourced film Tricked, Paul had to switch cameramen. So, they taught him how to use two cameras to make things easier. He hasn’t stopped using two cameras since. “A little late.”, he says, “But I use it all the time now. When I made Elle and Benedetta I even used three. It is easier to cut something out or create more tension. You can go ‘tak-tak’ back and forth or forward in steps like when that lady comes home in Hitchcock’s The Birds and walks through the house to find the man with his eyes pecked out.”
“Do you follow your intuition?”
“Yes, always. It is not always right, but about ninety percent of the time it is.”
Tonny Huurdeman, Paul Verhoeven, Monique van de Ven, Jan de Bont, Jan Wolkers and Rob Houwer
Because I am a screenwriter I can’t help but ask him what he thinks of the three-act structure.
“I have paid more attention to it since I started making movies in America. But when you look at Turkish Delight you’ll see that there was nothing one-two-three about it.”
“What kept the audiences so engrossed as they watched Turkish Delight?”
Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven
“The tempo and the unusual scenes. From the moment that the main character Olga gets sick, the dramaturgy is strong. But before that, it was very loose. It did not grab you by the throat. The editor Jan Bosdriesz said: ‘This dramaturgy is well, hmm. We’ll have to make it fast then the people will keep watching.’ That was his starting point when he began editing. He was right. You have to keep amazing people when the dramaturgy isn’t very strong.”
“How did you deal with all the criticism you’ve received over the years?”
“Well, I just assume they’re all wrong.”
A cheeky smile appears on his face.
Fun fact: Did you know that Paul Verhoeven was the first to collect a Razzie in person at the Golden Raspberry Award ceremony? They only had one award which posed a dilemma, since he had ‘won’ in seven categories. He had to give the Razzie back after every category to be able to collect it again for the next one. The crowd adored him for it and ended up having had a lovely evening. It was cathartic for him.
Fun fact: Despite it being a box office dud, Showgirls was a hit on the home video market, generating more than $100 million from video rentals, allowing the film to turn a profit and becoming one of MGM’s top-20 all-time bestsellers. It has since become a cult classic.
“What advice would you give to filmmakers, living outside the USA, who are aiming for the States?”
“Just try to make something good, wherever you are right now, and America will come to you. That is what happened to me.”
“What are you working on now?”
“I am working on finding the right ending for a thriller that has been on the shelf for a year.”
Paul and his wife Martine
Time for the credits
We had been talking for two hours now and I felt it was time for me to leave. But before doing so I couldn’t resist asking him to sign a Robocop VHS tape. He signed the front with his wife Martine and me watching. When she said: “That is not a good one, there’s no “en” at the end of your name.” He replied: “Okay, I will just do another one on the back.” He turned the tape over and did another one for good measure.
It was now time to take some pictures of him but my camera jammed. (Maybe it had a case of stage fright?) He immediately said I could come back for the pictures whenever it was working again. I was once again amazed at his kindness. This big shot director allowed me into his home for a two-hour interview and let me come back again for the pictures. Now I am by no means a photographer so they aren’t magazine-worthy but they are mine and very special to me. I was a tad nervous about interviewing him. But what I found as I looked past the big shot’ness (o yes I did ) was a very smart, skilled, kind man with both feet firmly on the ground.
Oh, before I stop
Let’s not forget about his formula now. This is what it came to be:
Luck + perseverance + being open to the input of others and having high esteem for it + going with the flow + daring to grasp an opportunity when it shows up + realizing that a bend in your path can still get you to your destination + trusting your ten key movie peeps completely + adapting and learning new stuff + follow your intuition = A successful movie
I wrote this for my fellow creatives in the entertainment industry. But I have realized that a lot of Paul’s formula can apply to any career or dream one may have. I hope it inspires and helps you in some way.