The Director's Chair Interviews

Big bugs! Big bucks! Director Paul Verhoeven rides "B-movie" Starship Troopers to a timely comeback.
by Joseph McBride

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Coming off a debacle that would have ended the career of a lesser director-- the stupefyingly moronic Showgirls (1995)--Paul Verhoeven had reason to be anxious as he awaited the release of his new film, Starship Troopers. Returning to the science-fiction genre he mined so profitably in Total Recall and RoboCop, Verhoeven has made what is, in effect, a $100 million Roger Corman movie. Based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel about a regimented futuristic society of young warriors battling giant bugs, Starship Troopers has the high-tech bravura one expects from the filmmaker, even if it does to the audience what his bugs do to their victims--suck their brains out.

But no Verhoeven movie could ever be immune from controversy. The Dutch-born director loves to push the envelope on whatever restrictions exist against the portrayal of sex and violence. His European films, such as Turkish Delight, Keetje Tippel, and Spetters, were groundbreaking in their sexual candor. His American period, which began in 1985, has been marked by an emphasis on the violence he finds a natural counterpoint to the sexual repression of American society. Basic Instinct sealed Verhoeven's reputation as a master of film noir and an agent provocateur. But the soft-core sex extravaganza Showgirls made even Verhoeven doubt his abilities to deal sensibly with the mores of his adopted country.

Running for cover back to the more stylized world of sci-fi, Verhoeven chose a story whose themes are sure to incite angry reactions in some quarters. As producer Jon Davison points out, the novel caused "a storm of political controversy," but the filmmakers "wanted to keep the book's politics. We thought the idea of a fascist utopia was new to recent film; it was both interesting and amusing."

For Verhoeven, born in Amsterdam in 1938, fascism is not a subject from a history book, but something he knows first-hand from childhood experiences during the Nazi occupation. It's clear from the running satire of war-mongering TV propaganda in Starship Troopers that Verhoeven does not intend the film as a simple endorsement of gung-ho militarism. But whether his target audience of young moviegoers will draw such distinctions while watching this kinetic display of ultra-violence is a troubling question.

You've said that when you first came to America you were interested in sci-fi partly because you weren't quite sure how to convey the American milieu. Now that you've been here a while, do you still feel that way?

Yeah, sometimes I feel that it's difficult to judge the American sensibility towards my projects. Showgirls is a good example: I really seem to have made another movie than I expected. It was even clearly pointed out by several critics at that time that I would never be able to understand American culture because I was a foreigner. Janet Maslin in the New York Times wrote that. If that's a harsh judgment, I don't know, but it's certainly something I'm always aware of, although I try to know as much of American society as possible. Certainly, I missed about forty-eight years.

[Note: Maslin's review of Showgirls argued that unlike in his previous films, Verhoeven "becomes a man without a country this time. He never gets past the vantage point of an outsider looking in."]

It's hard to go from one culture to another.

It is very difficult, and people underestimate how difficult that is. To be able to participate in American culture, or to make movies that seem acceptable to your audience and understandable, like RoboCop or Total Recall and Basic Instinct--I'm lucky that somehow I seem to be able to connect.

Do you ever feel like making another film in Europe?

Yeah, perhaps. Then again, I'm always so seduced by American society that it seems to be easier and more fascinating to do it here. There might be a project, one or two perhaps at the maximum, that I would still consider doing in Europe, but American society is so fascinating, and filmmaking is so depressed in Europe. So few really good movies are made, it's difficult to fit in again.

Basic Instinct was a terrific film noir and a vivid portrayal of contemporary American society. But you got flak for having a lesbian villain, the homicidal novelist played by Sharon Stone. Making science-fiction films solves the problem of the villain, doesn't it? Whoever you have as a villain today, some group will be upset, but if you have bugs--

We were very well aware of that. At least we had a politically correct enemy here. We could all say, "These guys are really evil, and killing them is good." We cannot say that about any human enemy anymore, because everybody is seeing the other side now, at least a bit more than they did forty years ago. But Starship Troopers is reflecting a little bit the situation in the second World War, when the Americans were fighting the Japanese and the Germans. Basically, the enemy was evil and had to be destroyed. Nobody had time or even could bring himself to [face] the fact that these were also human beings, motivated by other thoughts, but as human as ourselves. People had a strong tendency and inclination to deny that. The line in the movie, "The only good bug is a dead bug," was applied to the Japanese, wasn't it?

Originally it was applied to American Indians by General Philip H. Sheridan in 1869: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Well, that's basically the same kind of thinking, that the enemy is not human.

When the bugs attack the fort in Starship Troopers, it's just like a scene in a Western, such as the scene in John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk when the Indians are coming over the walls of the fort and the pioneers are trying to stop them.

It is a Western. It's a classical Western situation, absolutely. A lot of these cues were taken from Westerns and from movies like Gunga Din and The Charge of the Light Brigade. We studied these films. That is really American thinking, going back of course to the scriptwriter [of Starship Troopers, Ed Neumeier], who is American. I probably wouldn't have even thought about it that way. I know these movies, but it's a stronger part of his culture than mine.

Jon Davison, one of your producers, started his career with Roger Corman, and Starship Troopers plays like a gigantic Corman movie.

It is, yeah. We studied the giant ants and the giant crabs and all that stuff. It's an upgraded B-movie. It's saying, "Okay, this material is as important as The People vs. Larry Flynt."

So you've acquired quite a fondness for sci-fi.

I always liked sci-fi, mostly movie sci-fi. I read a lot of science fiction when I was a kid, mostly stuff about Mars. Later, in my twenties, I started reading other stuff, like [Isaac] Asimov and [Frank] Herbert. But only for a couple of years; reading science fiction is not my biggest pleasure in life. I prefer more real stuff. But for moviemaking I think it's great. I really like to fantasize, and it comes easy to me. I can see these images beforehand; I can draw them and give them to other people to express my feelings. I always like to go into other worlds in my mind and express that as a contrast to my super-realistic and naturalistic approach in the movies I did in Europe. Starship Troopers is a combination of the sci-fi genre and perhaps a little bit the war genre.

You grew up during the war in Holland, during the Nazi occupation. I gather you saw a lot of violence when you were growing up.

Yeah, the normal portion that you would see in an occupied country where there was a resistance movement and people were killed. Often there were dead people on the streets. I remember we were sometimes forced to walk alongside them. If you wanted to go to your home, [the Germans] would say, "You have to walk alongside them." They were trying to frighten you so you wouldn't [resist]. I was living in The Hague, which is south of Amsterdam and at that time was the center of the puppet Dutch government and the German government. So The Hague was continuously attacked because of the government being there and because the launching pads of the V-1s and V-2s were there.

In Starship Troopers, you depict a fascist state. Obviously you are evoking Nazism with the gray and black shades of the uniforms.

Right, right.

It's rather chilling, isn't it, the militaristic nature of this society, the brutality? And the young characters remind you of Hitler Youth, don't they?

A little bit, yeah. Although the Mobile Infantry [to which most of the central characters belong] is more normal, I think. It's more in other categories--like in Carl's [Neil Patrick Harris's] category, military intelligence--where you feel that there is this fascist streak. The Mobile Infantry's costumes are more normal, they don't have that design at all. But certainly the film is saying, "Every militaristic society has the possibility to grow into a fascistic one, if they take over too much." Because the military is authoritarian, and an authoritarian attitude is measured highly on the fascist scale.

Normally with a Hollywood film the audience wants to root for the young heroes. Here it's disturbing because they're part of a fascist war machine and it creates a strange feeling in the audience. How much of that did you intend as satirical?

I tried to indicate that without making it into the essence of the movie. Because I think the essence of the movie is really young kids fighting giant bugs. And of course, [the fascist nature of the society] was indicated in Heinlein's book even more than we did it. On the other hand, I think a lot of elements in the film put question marks around that. That was my intention. Young kids starting at three already using guns--is that really what you want?

The fascist society you portray also has some good aspects--racial mixing and the equality of men and women--which seems odd because in a fascist state you'd think they would be discriminating against people of color or against women.

Yeah, that's the interesting, disturbing thing. It's also a little bit looking at the fascist possibility even of American society. Because it's saying, "Under the surface there is always this possibility that you would get to a much more and more puritan state. Yes, you might abolish crime and, yes, you might get rid of all these things, but then are you aware how that can be achieved?" It doesn't interfere with the story, because I think the story is more about people that are really caring about each other. I don't think any of the characters, with the exception of Carl, express themselves in any fascistic way. They only believe in the citizenship [status awarded to warriors]. But they are supportive to each other; they are warm to each other; they sacrifice themselves for others. Our focus group in the movie is much more what you would call human, and not really, in my opinion, fascistic. That's the interesting thing--these [aspects] are correlated. And basically that's what I think about big societies like the American society. Look at the McCarthy period; that's a kind of a fascistic statement that was put forward, isn't it?

Sure, and we're in another very conservative period now.

That's what I mean. Some people might applaud that somebody [in the film] is caught in the morning and judged in the afternoon and killed in the evening. But I think what Starship Troopers tries to do, perhaps a little too clearly in a couple of cases with the uniforms, it's saying, "Are you aware that this is also a little bit happening in your own society? And perhaps in a way that's not so obvious to you."

Even though the movie is R-rated, you know a lot of young kids are going to see it. Adolescents and teenagers will love this picture. Do you think they'll get the point about fascism?

No, not at all. I saw it in Sacramento with a very normal audience, and also in Granada Hills [California]. I feel that the most [young viewers] see is the kids with the guns. They all got the message; they all start laughing. They realize we're saying, "Everybody has a gun in this country." I think they all see the irony.

You don't think they will misinterpret it and think the young troopers are cool?

No, I didn't get that feeling at all. The exaggeration in the style goes so over the top, they realize we were, not spoofing, but looking at a hyperbole of reality. When I saw them getting excited in the movie, it was never about that. They got excited when Johnny [Casper Van Dien] was jumping on the Tanker Bug and blowing it to pieces. And when the bugs were attacking and the troops were holding the fortress. That's where I saw them really getting excited. That's where they participated. So I don't have the feeling that they would see it as a stimulation of fascistic feelings.

It's not going to get them revved up to go fight?

No, I think it got them revved up to go see it again.

One moment that made me feel queasy was when the troopers capture the bugs' leader, the Brain Bug, and they proclaim, "He's afraid!" All the young troopers in the film cheer, but I actually felt some sympathy for the Brain Bug.

Yeah, some people do, I know. [Laughs.]

It's often said that science-fiction films are more about today than about the future--science-fiction writers are commenting on today in a disguised form.

Right. There's a tendency, especially in American society, to go to a more healthy society. Healthy in any way--get rid of the drugs and get rid of sexual aberration. We have been hearing it for a lot of years. And it's due, in my opinion, to an overemphasis on a puritan culture.

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