He shocked the Netherlands in the ’70s and ’80s and scandalized Hollywood in the ’90s. Now Paul Verhoeven is bringing his lesbian nun saga to Cannes. What could go wrong?
From the moment he gave up academia for filmmaking, director Paul Verhoeven has been a maverick disruptor, mixing sex and violent imagery in his provocative early Dutch films (1973’s Turkish Delight, 1980’s Spetters), then taking the formula to the U.S. with a run of shocking and subversive ’90s Hollywood blockbusters that included RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers. Now, he’s adding the historical repression of religion to the mix with Benedetta, a French-language film he’ll premiere in Competition at Cannes. Starring Virginie Efira, it’s the true story of a Sister Benedetta Carlini, a 17th Century abbess whose claims of mystical visions and miracles were investigated by the Catholic church in a trial that lasted from 1619-23 and resulted in her imprisonment.
DEADLINE: Benedetta is based on the 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. There’s a lot to unpack in that title. What was it about this that sparked you?
PAUL VERHOEVEN: I would probably not be shocked by anything like that, I just read it and thought it would be an interesting movie, because so much has happened between 1623 and now. At that time, the idea of a woman being attracted to another woman was something people couldn’t understand would be possible. There was a lot of writing about it, saying, “A woman would always be attracted to a man, because the man is the superior and she is the inferior.” That kind of thinking was dominant in that century, and of course it was also being promoted by the Roman Catholic Church.
There are notes in the archives of Florence that describe the trial of the older nun, and there is really nothing else available in archives anywhere in the world. Judith C. Brown, who wrote the book, found them by coincidence when she was in Florence looking for other stuff for her courses. She’s a professor. I thought that recreating those times—where lesbianism didn’t even exist as a word, and where a woman would be burned if she had a sexual relation with another woman—would be interesting. That was something that [Holy Roman Emperor] Charles V said at the beginning of the 16th Century: if a woman is with a woman, they should be sentenced to death by burning. I guess we’ve made some progress, I’d say.
So that was so interesting to me, that this happened, and that the notes of the scribe also pointed out exactly what these two nuns were doing with each other, in really intimate detail. It felt like it should be made into a movie. For me everything came together: there’s the church politics, there’s the religious layer, and then there’s the sexual layer in the movie, which are all also in the book. All that together was fascinating enough to try to make a movie about it. It was not that easy—it took us some time.
DEADLINE: In 2007 you wrote the book Jesus of Nazareth, which stripped the miracles from his story, along with the idea that Christ expected to realize his kingdom on earth before he was betrayed and crucified. You were going to make a movie out of that. What happened? Did your curiosity about religion and the Catholic Church lend itself to Benedetta instead?
VERHOEVEN: Well, first of all, I tried. I worked with Jean-Claude Carrière, a scriptwriter for Luis Buñuel. Amy Pascal, who at that time was the head of Columbia, was interested, but our efforts, even to write a basic outline, failed. I think it was because Jean-Claude Carrière was a Buddhist, and with me being… call it agnostic or atheist, whatever, I’m not a Christian. But we couldn’t find a common vision on how that movie should be done, so, ultimately, we gave up and Jean-Claude Carrière, who had gotten $50,000 from Sony for writing the outline, sent his fee back. That, I think, was class.
I think that somebody said we were just too different from each other. In [Carrière’s] outline, Jesus was never even seen talking, he was just there, a person that didn’t open his mouth. For me, what Jesus has to say in his parables was very important to the rest of civilization. But, out of friendship, we decided not to do it. Then, many attempts later, I really felt that I honestly didn’t know exactly how to do it as a movie, and that that’s probably why I wrote a book [instead].
DEADLINE: Benedetta was one of the films going to Cannes last year before it was canceled by the pandemic. Why wait a whole year to bring it out?
VERHOEVEN: First, I had a hip operation that went a bit wrong, and that caused a delay. The film was supposed to be in Cannes last year. But it was because of this hip operation that I couldn’t come over to France to finish the movie in time for the festival, and then, during the next [possible window], France was locked down. So, it was the hip operation and then the coronavirus lockdown [that caused the delay].
DEADLINE: We are in a moment of heightened sensitivity in America with #MeToo and what some would call ‘cancel culture’. The Benedetta trailer indicates some very provocative, sensual stuff. What do you imagine the appetite is for such films in this moment?
VERHOEVEN: Well, I can’t foresee that. Really, I have no idea. We’ll have to see how the film will be received in France, or Holland, or in the United States, but there is a big difference. In France, the fact that we portray two nuns in sexual scenes will have an impact. People will like it or not, but they will not make more out of it. Now, in the United States, when you have those kinds of scenes, there would have to be what they call an intimacy coordinator. Did you know that? In France, nobody would think about that.
We didn’t have to write in the contracts, like has been happening more and more in the United States, how much nudity there would be with the two actresses, Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia. I mean, there was really no talking about the nudity. It was like, “Yeah, OK. Of course, we go to bed, we take the clothes off.” An intimacy coordinator would be very strange there, and in Holland they would perhaps be even more liberal with these things. I don’t think that anybody would be offended by nudity there. So, what I want to try to express is that how the film will be received—in the United States, or in France, or, say, western Europe—might be different.
DEADLINE: Sharon Stone recently published a memoir in which she described being surprised when she was shown the famous interrogation scene from Basic Instinct…
VERHOEVEN: You know that’s nonsense, don’t you?
DEADLINE: Well, she wrote that she slapped you and left…
VERHOEVEN: She didn’t slap me at all.
DEADLINE: What is your recollection?
VERHOEVEN: We are on good terms, Sharon and I, at the moment, so I would put [that story] in the category of “My memory is this, and your memory is that.”
My memory is that [that scene] is all based on a woman that I met when I was a student in Leiden, at the university. She would do that: she would come up to us and she would open her legs. My friend and I saw her doing that, so went up to her and said something like, “We can see your vagina.” And then she said, “Of course—that’s why I’m doing it!” I told that story to Sharon when we were having dinner together during the shoot, and she thought it would be great idea to do that. So, that’s my memory. She heard the story, and you know, in Joe Eszterhas’s script, there was already a mention [of that] in dialogue that he wrote between Michael Douglas and Sharon. They’re in the car, after the interrogation. It’s raining, and Sharon says to Michael, “You know I don’t like to wear any underwear, don’t you, Nick?”
That line was in the script, and when you see the scene just before the interrogation, you see [she is getting dressed]. Michael is looking at that, and she puts her dress on, and she has no underwear. So that was already in the script, but, of course, the scene [where she would uncross her legs] was not in the script—that came into the movie when I discussed it with Sharon, when I told her the story. I know her story is a bit different, but that’s my story.
DEADLINE: Many actresses have reflected back on nude scenes they’ve done, and some now say they were left feeling exploited, or not protected, by their filmmaker. How do you make an actress feel like you are taking the ride together and a nude scene is not at her expense?
VERHOEVEN: Well, first of all, most actresses almost have no problem at all. That’s point one. The scene is written that way. In Benedetta, it was written that they accept the scene as it is, and if they had problems then that could be discussed. Of course, we might change it, whatever, but of course, you cannot do that without it being satisfying to the two actresses. And it was that way. There was no discussion about, “Do you see my nipple?” or this or that. No. it was just, “OK, we’re going to do the scene as written.”
So, on top of that, of course, to protect them and have another voice, on Benedetta the D.P. of the movie was a woman [Jeanne Lapoirie]. If you talk about the male gaze, well, the first person that saw the film was a female looking through the camera. A woman D.P., and if she would see a problem, she would tell me. But, of course, there was never one. Nobody ever cared. It sounds strange, but nobody cared about the nudity. There were no discussions. Yeah. We made the set closed a little bit, so that no people could walk in. It was a smaller group of people that I used. But for the rest, there was no discussion, I swear to you.
DEADLINE: So, it’s not that big of a deal because you’re transparent about it?
VERHOEVEN: Nobody is anxious. Nobody is suspicious. If that would be the case, you couldn’t do it. You have to be in a situation where the people involved—the two women, mostly —feel completely feel at ease and accept the situation as written. Or you should have a discussion if they’re not comfortable.
The situation in France and in Holland would not require an intimacy coordinator. So, yeah, I think it probably would be, at this moment, pretty difficult to make a movie like Elle or even Black Book, or a movie like Benedetta, in the United States.
DEADLINE: You transitioned to Hollywood and jumped right into these big, bold, sexy studio blockbusters. What was the biggest culture shock?
VERHOEVEN: There was none. In fact, what I felt there I wouldn’t even call it a shock. It was more me looking back to when I was very young and a fan of comic strips. Some were American, like Superman. When I was young, I loved that stuff. One of my favorite Dutch comic books was science fiction. So, I don’t think there was a shock. It was more, “I’ve never done this, so let’s do it.”
DEADLINE: When you made movies like RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, you introduced ideas decrying fascism and corporate greed. Starship Troopers was about soldiers battling giant deadly insects, but you re-created imagery from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films. How many audiences picked up on that?
VERHOEVEN: Not enough at the time, because me and the scriptwriter, Ed Neumeier—who wrote RoboCop with Michael Miner—were criticized as being neo-fascist or neo-Nazi, one of the two. What I was trying to express, I think in retrospect, I was not unsuccessful at. But if you look at what’s happening now, doesn’t it feel like democracy is in peril? The first line in the movie says it’s set after the failure of democracy. That’s [actor] Michael Ironside talking. After the failure, he starts to say what came after that, and what came after that is, to a certain degree, a fascist universe. It’s based on Robert Heinlein’s book, which you can say is realistically neo-fascist, and I felt that we should show the audience that these characters played by Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer and Denise Richards are heroes—but, by the way, they’re also fascists.
At the time we wrote it and shot it, it’s not that I was aware that there was a possibility that democracy in the United States could be in danger, but it came much closer in the last couple of years, more than I thought possible. I love living in the United States, but still recently I had the feeling that there was a possibility that one of the most wonderful democracies in the world could slide into something else. Now, if you look at television, everyone’s talking about what’s happening to democracy.
DEADLINE: When you released the Dutch film Spetters in 1980, there was such controversy that it hatched the National Anti-Spetters Committee and hastened your move to Hollywood. After Showgirls (1995), you’ve said some doors closed for you because of the bad reviews and controversy. Which of those two experiences was worse for you?
VERHOEVEN: Worse? That’s difficult. Spetters or Showgirls? Spetters had the advantage that, although the criticism was horrible—worse than Showgirls—the movie worked. People went to the movie. It was very successful in Holland. And that is what did not happen with Showgirls. Financially, it was not good. With Spetters, I was still protected. As we all know, directors are very dependent on the movie that they made before. After Showgirls, I was a little bit in Hollywood jail. I think they still trusted me after Showgirls, but only with science fiction. They didn’t trust me with something that you would call normal. Showgirls was not normal, but it was still more normal than all the other movies that I made here. It’s more realistic than any of them. A lot of what happened in the film really happens [in life], but the sentiment was, people didn’t feel really desire to go there. If I’d have known what the reaction to Showgirls would be, I wouldn’t probably have done it.
DEADLINE: The movie made money on home video and has been reappraised as camp spectacle. You became the rare filmmaker to show up and accept the Razzie Awards won by the film. Why?
VERHOEVEN: Well, that was when my Jesus thinking came through. When somebody hits you on the right cheek, you turn the left one. I thought that, really. I’m an admirer of all these things that Jesus said, his parables and stuff, but it was really me thinking, He said that. OK, go. And the amazing thing is that it worked! I had to go forward because we’d got seven Razzies, for worst acting, the worst song, the worst film, worst director… Nobody else was there to get them. So, I had to walk forward to get each Razzie. They had only one award, so I had to give it back for the next time.
That I dared to be there, and was not making fun of myself… I gave a speech that was kind of funny. At the end, there was ovation. People were so enthusiastic, not about the movie but about the fact that I was there. They felt that it was so unique, and were so thankful that somebody would do that.
DEADLINE: So, an OK night but not a great night?
VERHOEVEN: Yeah. Sure. And Jesus was right.
DEADLINE: After your Hollywood detour, your most recent films have a decidedly European feel both Elle (2016) and Benedetta were made in French. Would a jump back into a big-budget Hollywood film appeal to you?
VERHOEVEN: [Long pause]. Sure. Yeah. Sure. I am, in fact, also working on that. It doesn’t have to be a $200 million film, more in the direction of Basic Instinct, so it’s a budget that will not be much, perhaps under $60 million. My producer, Jon Davison, who did RoboCop and Starship Troopers, said, “If you make one, it should be a thriller, and you should do it for $35 million. $10 million is too difficult, but $35 million is doable, and I advise you to do it that way.”
DEADLINE: You were a strong student who studied math, and your parents were less than thrilled when you told them you weren’t becoming an academic, because you wanted to make films instead. Did your father ever warm to the profession you chose?
VERHOEVEN: Yeah. I mean, he never wanted to see Turkish Delight because there is a line there in the beginning where, basically, Rutger Hauer says something blasphemous. Like, “I f*ck better than God” or something. He didn’t want to see that. My mother saw it secretly with my aunt, but he didn’t want to go there because he knew that line was there and he felt that he should not be looking at a movie where somebody says that. He went to Soldier of Orange. At one of my films, the royal family was there, and then he had the feeling maybe this wasn’t so bad.
DEADLINE: The pandemic saw the rise of streaming, to the detriment of the theatrical film experience. Does streaming appeal to you? And how does it impact the ability of a maverick filmmaker to take risks?
VERHOEVEN: I’m not so interested in that streaming stuff. It might ultimately go in that direction, but I feel that’s a pity. I still hope that people will find their way back to cinemas again, once everything is more normalized. I have the feeling that I would take risks anyhow. Elle was a risky project. If you look at the narrative, a woman gets raped and starts a sadomasochist relationship with her rapist. Of course, you can see it as a revenge movie, because ultimately, the bad guy gets killed, but it was also pretty risky thematic material.
Benedetta, for me, doesn’t feel that way, but I might be wrong. There is a coming together of sexuality—in this case, female and female—and the church’s belief that it is wrong. So, the sexuality and religion, you will see that in the movie. You will feel there is a strong layer of what I call “the sacred” in the movie. I believe that feeling makes it possible to do all the other stuff; the bad stuff, the dangerous stuff of criticizing religion or whatever you want to call it. I feel, and I have felt in my life, that people can be inspired by the sacred. I wanted that, and I believe that the characters in Benedetta, at that time, were in a world where the sacred was dominant. So, in the movie, I felt it needed to be there. You can tell me later if I was right or wrong. The idea that the church could decide that a woman should be killed because she was a lesbian—that’s quite horrible. Isn’t it? An inquisition. Remember, the Crusades were full of torture, and I think the church has done horrible things, so you’ll see that, too. But there’s also a layer that says that there’s something sacred there.