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6 Filmmaking Tips from Paul Verhoeven

Because you need more than basic directorial instinct. Here is a list of filmmaking lessons we can learn from Paul Verhoeven.
Total Recall
By  · Published on November 9th, 2016

Filmmaking Tips is a column that explores the wisdom of our favorite filmmakers through their previous interviews and quotes, providing you a dose of free film school.

Having directed one of the most acclaimed films of the year with Elle, Paul Verhoeven is as relevant as ever. That’s good, considering two of his most notable works, RoboCop and Total Recall, were recently remade, and another, Starship Troopers, will be soon. Not that his versions could ever be replaced. Since breaking out in the 1970s with the Dutch features Turkish Delight and Soldiers of Orange, he’s been one of the most interesting names in cinema, later giving us smart sci-fi blockbusters and dumb erotic dramas during his stint in America and now delivering great European movies again. As any 78-year-old veteran of both foreign and Hollywood film industries should, he has some wisdom to impart. We’ve picked six tips worth sharing:

Be Physically Fit

Verhoeven’s most consistent piece of advice is good for filmmakers of all ages. One of the places to find his focus on physical fitness is in a 1997 conversation for The Hollywood Interview, replying to a question about tips for first-timers:

I would be in good physical condition. Avoid drinking and abusing yourself in any way because shooting a film is so physically exhausting. It’s twenty hours a day … in the beginning it’s always like “What now?” So get as much sleep as you can, at least five or six hours a night if you can.

And in the following interview from 2008, Verhoeven gives a few common tips, suggesting a short film or working as an assistant director as ways to break in, but then he mainly discusses the physical health matter:

Go With the Flow

In the mid-1980s, Verhoeven went out to Hollywood, apparently at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg. He was able to maintain a level of authorship in his works, yet he still had to compromise a lot while working for the studios. In a 2012 Filmmaker magazine interview, he addresses his time in America versus his return to making films in Europe:

In the States it’s more like you come in, they tell you what they want and you deliver. The only way to get your own vision through is to also be the producer of your films, like Spielberg, for instance … no there is very little space for your own creativity, at least for me. If I want to do something then I do that in Europe. (FI)

One year later, he participated in a talk at the Berlin International Film Festival called “Filmmaking According to Paul Verhoeven,” and among the many interesting bits of the hour-plus panel (watch it below) is the following quote regarding his migration to Hollywood and lack of freedom there:

It’s something you have to let happen. You’re not trying too much to do it your way. “Go with the flow” is the most important advice anybody ever gave me about the United States. Don’t try your own stuff when you get there. Try to be American, with the Americans, and follow them. Forget your European education. I think there’s still a lot of European kind of thinking in the film but it’s all filtered through an American lens.

Going back to when he was still working in Hollywood, here’s a quote from a 2000 interview for The Digital Bits on how to collaborate with a studio:

I think that what is very important, when you start these projects that are so expensive and time consuming, is that you have a very good understanding with the studio of what everybody wants out of the project. And that, basically, you are really aware, when you do a movie of that size and of that budget, that it is a common project and it has economic relevance. And you can’t fool around. You have to be sure, when you discuss the project with the studio, that there is no misunderstanding about what the costs are and exactly what the essence of the movie will be ‐ what kind of audience is being targeted. So I think it’s how you and the producers and the studio work together. Everyone must agree upon the path you’re going to be taking for the next year or two on the project. I think it’s highly important that there are no misunderstandings and there must be no false hopes.

Verhoeven doesn’t just see this as being a tip for working in Hollywood. Here’s a quote from a recent No Film School interview where he acknowledges the importance of knowing the flow of wherever you go:

This was my first French movie ‐ in terms of both actors, language and location. And it made a big difference in tone. You have to come to a country. Otherwise you will never feel what the soul of the country is. With Robocop, I surrounded myself with Americans. With Elle, I dove into French culture.

Always Be Prepared

There’s some sense of Verhoeven’s attention to pre-planning above in his quote about studio filmmaking. He’s been a fan of storyboarding and preparation in general before starting production. Here’s another quote from The Hollywood Interview:

Try and prepare as much as possible. Make as many sketches or write down for yourself specific notes before you come to the set, at least for the first week or so. That way if you get stuck or feel uninspired you can just turn to the storyboard and do what it says. Perhaps it’s not the best it could be, but at least it’s okay, and that way you don’t have to sit there and say to yourself ‘Okay, now I have to be inventive.’ Because then you get scared and lose your confidence. … have a plan of some sort for the first couple weeks.

As he says, you don’t always have to follow the plans. It’s just good to have them if you need them. In this quote from the Digital Bits interview, he recognizes the unpredictability of film shoots but continues to stress why that means you need to plan certain things ahead of time with the studio:

Of course, nothing ever really turns out exactly like you predict when you script it, or when you visualize it. Even if you storyboard every shot, when you get on the set, it’s not always the same. There are still a lot of things that can happen that nobody can guess, and which sometimes surprise a studio. Sometimes, that’s a positive surprise and sometimes it can be negative. So you must agree completely on things when you start out.

Embrace and Fear Your Films

In the recent No Film School interview, Verhoeven seems to contradict his tip on being prepared. Really, though, they’re related. Again, he believes it important to plan but also believes it important to be open to changes along the way. That uncertainty of whether surprises will be positive or negative is part of the thrill of filmmaking, and why he says below it’s okay to be confident and scared at the same time.

In the mystery of creating art, you start somewhere but don’t know where you’ll end. Your intuition and artistry lead you to do certain things, and it’s important that you don’t know exactly what to do going in. Artists need to have some adventure, something to discover. Without adventure, creation is perverted, which is why I never did any sequels. If you’ve already done something once, the adventure is gone, so what’s the challenge? A film has to be something you embrace and fear at the same time.

Work Well With Others

In addition to coming to an understanding with your studio and producers before starting a film, Verhoeven says you need to collaborate well once you’re shooting as well as during post-production. From The Hollywood Interview:

Be nice and have a good relationship with your actors and crew members. Listen to suggestions and be willing to admit when you’re wrong about something. Even apologize in front of the whole cast and crew if necessary. I still do that today. I make terrible mistakes and get upset sometimes. Never be afraid to be seen as someone who makes a mistake and can own up to it. Like my parents used to tell me “If you ever have a fight, try to solve it before the sun goes down.” That’s very good advice for filmmaking, I think.

And here’s a quote on collaboration from a 2007 Cinema Scope interview:

I really believe in the editor. How can it be creative if I tell them exactly what to do? It’s more important to let them go. I’ll whittle it back if I think a scene is going the wrong way, but that practically never happens if you choose the right editor. I never want to push myself in the face of the editor, or the DP or the composer. They can only be creative when they have absolute freedom. And I give them that.

Laugh Off Your Mistakes

Finally, for Verhoeven, going with the flow includes having a good sense of humor about criticism and negative “awards.” In the No Film School interview he discusses his Razzie for Showgirls, which he accepted in person, and the cult appreciation of the film in years since:

I still have [the Razzie]. It was a very liberating experience, to go there. Like the Jesus saying, ‘If they slap you on the right cheek, turn to the left. ‘ I can assure you that Jesus was completely right … Maybe this kind of ritualistic cult popularity isn’t what I intended, but it was like a resurrection after the crucifixion.

See some of his speech at the Razzies in 1996 here:

What We Learned

Verhoeven has been successful in and out of Hollywood for more than 40 years because of certain strengths, both physical and spiritual nature. His advice isn’t so much ever about talent or craft so much as health of body and mind. Summed up, you need to be fit for the physical strains of production and for the mental strains of dealing with, at first, the higher ups and, later on, the audience in front of you.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.