Dutch treat

Verhoeven loyal to sci-fi genre in Hollow Man

Once upon a time, about the only thing connecting director Paul Verhoeven's films was that they were all in Dutch with English subtitles. Otherwise, the Amsterdam native built an international reputation on the strength of four wildly divergent movies: the Oscar-nominated (and X-rated) star-crossed love story Turkish Delight (1973); the stirring World War II saga Soldier of Orange (1977); the gritty coming-of-age drama Spetters (1980); and the erotic psychological thriller The Fourth Man (1983). That was then, but this is now: Since making his auspicious Hollywood debut with the nifty sci-fi action flick RoboCop (1987), Verhoeven has become synonymous with futuristic special-effects spectacles like Total Recall (1990), Starship Troopers (1997) and now Hollow Man (opening Aug. 4), in which mad scientist Kevin Bacon wreaks invisible and deadly havoc on the unsuspecting guinea pigs that are his co-workers (including Elisabeth Shue and Josh Brolin).

Verhoeven, 62, talks about some of the transitions of his career during a recent interview

CL: None of your earlier Dutch films relied so heavily on the special effects that fuel most of your American films. Do you ever long to get back to telling more character-driven stories?

PH: Very much so. Somehow, my career in the U.S. has been pulled in this other direction, I suppose because of the success I had here with my first couple of movies, RoboCop and Total Recall. Although I tried to get away from that with Basic Instinct and Showgirls, ultimately I'm back to it. It's not unpleasant. In fact, it's challenging and interesting to work in a genre that's as familiar as sci-fi, and yet to explore ways of taking it a step further. The worst thing about it is effects movies take twice as long to make, so you're only doing half the number of movies you want to.

Have you always been a sci-fi fan?

No. When I was younger, I read a lot of it and saw a lot of American sci-fi movies, but as I got older I became much more a fan of realism. I studied French and Italian cinema, and much of my work in Holland is ultra-real. I always thought these futuristic things were silly. It was only when I came here that I started to think they were less so. I mean, the first time I read the script for RoboCop, I thought, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?" Actually, my wife liked it better than I did. It took me some time to appreciate all the layers to that script. Yes, there was a comic-book tone to it, but there were also elements of satire and social criticism to be explored. My wife convinced me to take it, to go with the flow, to get out of Holland with all the problems we were having there by then, and basically to start a whole new life for ourselves in America, like so many other people have done. So that's what we did.

What sort of problems were you having?

The situation in Holland was complex because, unlike here, making movies was more of a hobby than an industry. To push culture in Europe, the government participates financially in the process. If you can raise half of the money you need to make a film, they'll match the other 50 percent of the budget. Of course, that meant you had to show them your script, and there was a committee to judge it and to determine whether you were worthy of their money. There were gigantic controversies around some of my films, notably Spetters and The Fourth Man because of the explicit sexuality, so it became very difficult for me to finance my projects because this committee thought I was some kind of a pervert. I wasn't really promoting Dutch culture in the best way, you know? Although I made Soldier of Orange, the most successful Dutch film ever, I felt rejected. If they thought I was a degenerate, then my feeling was, "Fuck this. I'll go to Hollywood and do RoboCop, if that's the way you want to be about it."

But could a movie like Spetters or The Fourth Man be made today, even in Hollywood?

No, certainly not with the amount of explicit sex that's portrayed. On the other hand, though, there are so many other possibilities here. The longer I live here, the more inclined I am to see life in an American way. I mean, aside from their futuristic settings, a lot of my Hollywood films are action-oriented suspense thrillers, basically, a genre that's uniquely American. There's no real criminality to speak of in Holland, certainly not on the scale that it exists in the U.S., so those kinds of movies play like pure fiction over there. They aren't realistic in the sense that murder and crime is something that's basically abnormal. Here, violence is more believable, even acceptable, because it relates to what happens in real life. The genre is supported by society, anchored by it, and even to a certain degree representing it.

How does that apply in the context of a sci-fi story about an invisible man, though?

The philosophical underpinnings in Hollow Man date all the way back to Plato, really. It's the story of a man who feels so much power and freedom when he becomes invisible that he feels he can get away with anything and he starts to behave in an evil way. Well, in The Republic, Plato writes that if a man were to become invisible, he'd essentially behave like a god among men because all the restraints of society would fall away. That's the idea of this movie. The element of invisibility was merely a way to express that theme. How would any of us behave if we knew we could get away with anything?

The Kevin Bacon character behaves very badly, indeed. Is it true you backed away from including an original scene where he sneaks into his sexy neighbor's apartment and rapes her?

A: I've read that on the Internet, but it was always something we only wanted to suggest, not show. Strangely enough, a woman being raped by an invisible man would look silly and that's the last thing we'd want to do. Even with all the greatest special effects in the world, people would think it was funny. It wouldn't express in any way the severity of the violence happening at that moment. We couldn't go there, but I wouldn't say I was backing away from it, either. There were horrible rapes in Spetters and Showgirls both.

Was there any instance in which you did hold back?

The scene where Kevin's character kills the little dog was originally much worse. It's already bad enough. The audience still feels I shouldn't have done that, but it seemed the easiest way to show what an evil person he has become. The studio would've preferred me to show that in some other way. It's strange. People seem to be more concerned with that one than the six people he kills after that.