TIFF 2016 Interview: Director Paul Verhoeven Talks “Elle” and Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Director Paul Verhoeven (left), Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

From Basic Instinct to Show Girls and Total Recall to Robocop. Paul Verhoeven is a filmmaker who has already secured and cemented his name in the World of Cinema. His influence, respect, vision and approach to work might terrify someone, but is admired by the others.

To cast a lead actress for his latest film, “Elle”, Paul Verhoeven sent out his screenplay to Charlize Theron, Sharon Stone, Marion Cotillard and Nicole Kidman. As per Mr. Verhoeven, none of them even tried to negotiate any part of screenplay to participate in his project. But Isabelle Huppert, the renowned French actress thought otherwise. Will she end up getting an Oscar Nomination for her role, only time will tell. But one thing is certain – Elle has already made some noise, and I am sure whoever enjoys intelligent piece of cinema will love it.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the great pleasure to sit down with Paul Verhoeven to discuss an enigmatic character and the film, Elle.

MOVIEMOVESME: Your delicious balance between Hollywood life and real life employs very much both of the techniques of the populist and the artist. I’m wondering whether this film is a reflection of everything you’ve done before.

Paul Verhoeven: I hope not! I would say here it goes and I’m done. So, I hope there might be other stuff that extend beyond what I’ve done today or this year. Of course, you realize at a certain moment I felt, after Hollow Man in fact, a little depressed because of what I could do in the US but in the last 10 years I concentrated more on Europe. Let’s say as a director you have much more power in Europe and you do exactly what you want especially in France and in Holland. You have more freedom and I could do things closer to me than doing the next sci-fi movie. It doesn’t mean I won’t make movies in the US anymore, in fact I’ve been trying for years.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you set the record straight on … that it was supposed to be a film in English and it was going to be done with American actors? Then it became a French film when Isabelle was cast? How the film was different when it was set for an American audience?

Paul Verhoeven: We talked in the beginning that it was a French novel. The producer and I talked that it would be an American movie although it was a French book. I went to an American scriptwriter David Berg, that I knew from another project. We wrote it as an American movie that was situated in Northern America. Then we found out that not only was it impossible to find American finance but more importantly the actresses we approached didn’t want to do it.

MOVIEMOVESME: Why do you think that happened?

Paul Verhoeven: It is the script of the movie. If it would’ve been a revenge movie it wouldn’t have been a problem. It’s not a revenge movie although it is described that way sometimes. It is a different kind of movie; it is about a woman who refuses to be a victim.

MOVIEMOVESME: Does it affect your directorial approach? 

Director Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Director Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Paul Verhoeven: I shot it that way. It was obviously not only a movie about a woman that gets raped and wants to find out who did it and take revenge, the book was not that way. The book was also about studying the character and expressing it. In the 7-8 relationships that she has in the movie, with her mother, father, son, daughter-in-law, best friend, secret lover, husband and the rapist. So, you’re talking about a movie that’s also about relationships. So, I think the construction of the entire thing was in a way that if you put it in the genre of a thriller it would diminish everything else. I wanted to not create a straight forward thriller but use all the other things around her to make those aspects as important as the thriller aspect. That was the idea really.

MOVIEMOVESME: When did you read the novel, and decided to make a movie of it?

Paul Verhoeven: The novel was sent to me by the producer. I knew some of the movies he had made. He sent to me the French novel and said, “Do you want to do this?” It was that simple. It happened really quickly and the biggest delay was trying to make it as an American movie.

MOVIEMOVESME: How do you think … was different from say, Sharon Stone from Basic Instinct?

Paul Verhoeven: If you look at Sharon Stone, she’s not a victim; that’s a big difference I would say. The positive aspects of Sharon Stone’s character are few. I admire Sharon Stone’s performance because it is so powerful but not positive. Isabella plays a character that is more difficult in some ways and is also not what you’d say a protagonist that takes you to the movie. That was what I felt in the book.

MOVIEMOVESME: Was she your first choice of French actress?

Paul Verhoeven: Of course, because basically I was her first choice. The reality was that basically she read the book, called up the writer and the producer and said she wanted to do the movie. When they were discussing it, she brought up my name. What happened then was somehow I was presented this as an American movie. When this American adventure fell apart, there was this doubt. Five minutes later when we called Isabelle there was no doubt she’d be the lead actress in the movie. So she chose me!

MOVIEMOVESME: One of the major changes in terms of the narrative is that she is a videogame developer instead of a literary agent. Did it come conveniently?

Paul Verhoeven: That was a pleasant surprise. In the novel, of course she makes scripts for radio and television, which we felt was not a very visual profession. At dinner with my family I put the problem on the table, and my youngest daughter who’s a painter said that we should make her a CEO of a video company. Back then I did not know much about the games at all!

MOVIEMOVESME: Are there any cuts that perhaps went too far or not far enough?

Paul Verhoeven: No, I wouldn’t make anything differently. It’s not that she accepts rape, but she is refusing to be a victim for the rest of her life. That’s the way she did it. You could argue that revenge comes anyhow in the end. You could call it divine intervention. In the middle, basically what she does after she finds out who the rapist is, gets the action done and ultimately calls the rapist. You could argue that is completely a new testament; love the enemy!


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