Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, the controversial French entry for Best Foreign Language Film starring Isabelle Huppert, was largely rebuffed by American actresses, the director said at Deadline’s Contenders event today.
Based on the novel Oh by Philippe Djian and starring Huppert as a successful businesswoman who gets caught in a cat and mouse game with her rapist, Elle was lauded by critics when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palmes D’or.
Verhoeven, appearing on the Contenders’ Sony Pictures Classics panel moderated by Deadline’s Pete Hammond, discussed the multiple iterations of the script before the finished product was produced. “It was really stepping into an adventure, because it’s really not like Showgirls, no,” the director said.
The controversial project was originally set in America, with a script from American screenwriter David Birke. While the nuanced script made total sense to Verhoeven, American actresses weren’t as enthusiastic. “Talent didn’t like it—American talent. American actresses that we approached all said no,” he confessed.
“They never explained why. It’s probably not so much the situation of a rape, although that is extremely important at the moment, in newspapers or whatever,” he continued. “It’s really the development in the third act of the movie, when she finds out who this man is. In American cinematic grammar, you’d expect it to be a revenge movie, and it doesn’t do that.”
Re-contextualized within French culture, Verhoeven found a perfect creative partner in Huppert. “In retrospect, I don’t think this film should have been made if Isabelle Huppert didn’t exist,” he said. “You believe her.”
Also representing a Sony Pictures Classics project, Don Cheadle addressed the process of making his Miles Davis “anti-biopic,” which took over 10 years to develop. “I wanted it to feel like something that [Davis] would do if he were to be working in this medium,” Cheadle said. “My marching orders were always in his own words.”
Cheadle shared his personal connection to the material, having grown up with Davis’ music, and his process in learning to play the trumpet for the film. “It’s a motherf*cker—excuse me,” he told the laughing crowd. “Really, it was me just taking the trumpet everywhere and being with it all the time. It was great to have anther discipline to focus on, and gave me another understanding from a very visceral place of who this man was.”
The biggest challenge of the piece, though, was securing the funds, although the many years of development ended up an asset for the film. “That forced us, in a good way, to really sharpen the piece,” Cheadle said. “It just got leaner and meaner, and more to the root.”