August 19, 2007

Black Book interview

By Martin Tsai

Naked babes and special effects are such staples in Paul Verhoeven’s work, that it’d be out-and-out strange to see him do a film without some combination of androids, giant bugs, invisible men or hot blondes in all their buxom glory. He doesn’t always win over the MPAA, but there seems to be no shortage of actresses willing to strip on his cue.

Whether Verhoeven is a chauvinist or a feminist has been a longstanding debate. Most were up in arms about Showgirls and Basic Instinct for portrayals of women using sex for social climbing or thrill seeking, but some feminists like Camille Paglia also came to his defense. His latest discovery, Carice van Houten, has this to say: “He’s a little boy who looks up to women. He is also an intellectual. This combination makes him interesting.”

In Verhoeven’s WWII thriller Black Book, van Houten plays a Jewish woman named Rachel who bleaches her pubes, infiltrates the Sicherheitsdienst headquarters and seduces a German officer. The actress was unfazed by the nudity and the sex scene. She did not, however, enjoy having a gigantic, three-foot-tall bucket of prop poop dumped on her in a torture scene.

“I didn’t realize what was going on until I came on the set and I came into this little trailer. There was a little plant with a note from Paul and his wife, and it said ‘Good luck for the coming days.’ So I thought oh God, if Paul said that, it’s going to be horrible,” van Houten recalls. “Even if you mix cookies with potato powder, peanut butter and a combination that you’d never make a soup out of, it smells. It’s not a shit smell, but at the end of the day it still smells. Real shit I’d know how it smells. This is something different. They made it warm, of course, then they made it cold for me. Ugh, it was horrible.”

The Dutch bad boy himself insists that his films are not gratuitously exploitative, and all naughty bits are all integral to the plotline – yes, even when Sharon Stone uncrossed her panty-less legs in Basic Instinct. The director based Black Book on historical facts found during 40 years of research, and van Houten’s character is a composite character of Esmée van Eeghen, Kitty ten Have and Dora Paulsen. Even though there was no historical documentation for the pubic hair bleaching, Verhoeven thought it was a no-brainer for the Jewish woman who is trying bed the German officer. The real-life tortures were far more degrading and humiliating than what he showed on the screen, he contends.

He thinks that actresses are willing to go the distance for him because he is always upfront with them. “I tell them exactly what I want, and basically there’s no improvisation on the set for anything that would be unpleasant like sexuality, nudity or whatever,” Verhoeven says. “I would never introduce new ideas on the set with these kinds of scenes. I tell them exactly what I want, so that there’s no confusion. Often they really like it, certainly that’s the case with Sharon. I give them all the storyboards. They can look at those. They can look at the video after we shoot it, and if they have a problem we’ll reshoot it. So I think it’s a question of being straight about it, not suddenly telling them on the set ‘Now you have to suck her nipple’ or something like that. I tell them in advance just exactly what I think the lips should do in a scene, and what parts of the body would be exposed to the camera, how much nudity, and whatever it is.”

In one scene, Rachel walks into the officer’s bedroom and he greets her with a little tent slowly rising beneath the bed sheets. These kinds of Verhoevenisms may seem juvenile to us, but the actors take them pretty seriously. Ask Sebastian Koch, who played Sicherheitsdienst head Müntze as well as the lead in the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others.

“When I read the script I was wondering how to play this. This can be so ridiculous, this weapon going up. In the beginning Paul just wanted me to be this Nazi officer who just loves her body and wants to fuck her, but no, he has to fall in love with her immediately. So we changed that, and Paul made it a little different. It’s only when this guy is in love that you can make the scene believable, because he is so despondent, so injured by that,” Koch said. “[Paul] always searched for new paths. There were no erotic thrillers before Basic Instinct. Starship Troopers had all these special effects. It’s similar to what I’ve done. I search for new paths, because the new paths include a risk. I think an artist shouldn’t work without risk. Paul is very similar to that. He is always trying to develop new tracks, even this Nazi thriller with an S.S. officer who falls in love with a Jewish girl.”

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.