This issue features a microinterview with Paul Verhoeven, conducted by Jules Moore. Verhoeven is a Dutch filmmaker and author who is best known for directing a heap of Hollywood’s most sleazy and sensational blockbusters: RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls. In his anxiety-ridden twenties, Verhoeven found himself drawn to the world of the occult, eventually joining the Jesus Seminar, where he remains an active member. In 2008 he released his first book, Jesus of Nazareth, which questions the myth and reality of Jesus Christ. Verhoeven assumes a no-bullshit position on the historical Jesus as man and political radical, flawed and irrepressibly flatulent.
THE BELIEVER: You say: “Don’t forget that Jesus and his disciples led an itinerant existence, subsisting on whatever food came their way, so they probably had gastrointestinal problems. Jesus’ companions must have heard him snore, snuffle, and fart.” Do you think allowing him to be human and communicating him this way—you know, that he farted and these things—is too wild for most people, or can it be read naturally?
PAUL VERHOEVEN: In medieval times, people may have thought that he had such special intestines that he didn’t really have to eat, and that he didn’t have to go to the restroom.
BLVR: Do you think realizing Jesus is a farting man would improve his position in the minds of his modern disciples?
PV: In one way, it would bring him closer to us. We would be more aware that this was a person that could have stood next to us, walked alongside us, which he did with his disciples. But there has been this thing that has been established by the Church: although they pretended that he was fully human, they still made him much more divine than human. Even in the Catholic Church you don’t hear a lot about things of a normal human being; it’s all projected into the divine. But we are alone to solve our problems and we have to do it without divine intervention, without the hands of God to help us.
THE BELIEVER: There are all these words attached to you: controversial, shocking, provocative, and sleazy. It seems a bit ridiculous. Like we’re so precious that we can’t deal with naked breasts or poo.
PAUL VERHOEVEN: I would say it’s more like the United States. There are other countries that are a bit better and other countries that are ten times worse than here, of course. But [the United States is] a little difficult, of course, with sexuality. Sexuality is not a highly developed topic in the United States.…When I made Showgirls, I never realized how far beyond the norm I was directing. Coming from Europe, I was more inclined to take that as a part of life. Sexuality is the motor of life. Without sexuality there would not be any babies, and our species would stop, wouldn’t it? I think sexuality is probably more important than anything. More important than religion, of course.
BLVR: Would you say that at this point, America is more or less accepting of the kinds of shocking or risqué things you did in the ’90s with movies like Basic Instinct?
PV: I think it would be very difficult to make Basic Instinct now, in this current climate in Los Angeles. The studios prefer now to do mostly PG or PG-13. All these big movies are PG-13. I think that was different in the ’90s, when it was OK to make an R-rated movie. Showgirls was NC-17. It was beyond the norm as an X-rated movie. Basic Instinct got an R rating, finally, after a lot of editing to make it acceptable. But still, an R rating was a normal and acceptable thing for a studio. Nowadays, when you start to work on these movies, or discuss movies, the studios prefer NC-17. If you look at the folks who run the cinema complex, it’s rare to find an R-rated movie, it’s mostly a PG or PG-13.
THE BELIEVER: I was very surprised to hear your name attached to a book about Jesus Christ. Where does your sustained attraction to Jesus and the occult come from?
PAUL VERHOEVEN: As a movie director, when I came to the United States and started there with RoboCop and other movies, I started to consider the possibility of making a movie about Jesus, but a movie about what I call the historical Jesus and not the Jesus of believers. Not the Son of God, just a human being who was born and then died by being executed. The year I arrived in the United States, 1985, there had just been created in Santa Rosa a seminar called the Jesus Seminar, and, according to the article that I had read in the Los Angeles Times, they were studying the historical Jesus: exactly what I was trying to achieve in my script. They were trying to figure out which of the sayings, the words, the parables, according to the Gospels, could have been said by Jesus, and which were invented later by the Church. So they admitted me to the seminar as a film director who was going to make a movie about Jesus. Then, for twenty-five years, I attended the seminars most of the time and ultimately started writing papers for the seminars. It was all still with the idea of making a historical movie about Jesus, not the King of Kings, not the greatest story ever told, not even the Mel Gibson story or the Scorsese one, but what was really happening at that time: who was this man, what was he trying to achieve, and why was he killed? In the early 2000s, I thought, I’m not so sure I want to make this movie; everything I discovered is probably more interesting to do in a book, because I can be much more precise about what I feel is called the historical truth. I felt that in a book you can say “it seems to me,” “it’s probable that,” “it’s reasonable to assume,” “I think that”—in a movie, you cannot. In a movie everything is completely what it is. You cannot say “perhaps.” Perhaps is a word that doesn’t exist in the visual arts. But a lot of things are “perhaps.”
PAUL VERHOEVEN: One of the most difficult things about making a movie about Jesus is that, as I pointed out in the book, Jesus is an innovator of ethics: he invented new ethics for the next couple of thousand years. It is certainly the ethics of Jesus that make Jesus important, and these ethics are most precise and visible, in my opinion, in the parables. The question is, how exactly can you do that in a movie about Jesus? Because they are not about Jesus, the parables are about situations, things that happened on Earth—he put those in a narrative. Do you want to have Jesus sitting on the ground with his disciples telling one parable, and then another parable? That is not really film. So I have not really solved that problem. If I take that out because it’s not very visual and doesn’t fit a movie, then you take out what is the most important thing about Jesus, the ethics. I’ve sometimes called Jesus “the Mozart of ethics.” As Mozart was one of the most important and gifted composers of the world, I think Jesus was probably the most important person, in the field of faith, of ethics, in the last couple of thousands of years—an ethics that, in reality, we are not even close to achieving. I think in two thousand years we’ve made some progress and there’s a certain attempt to go in these directions, but the old saying “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is still more important than turning the other cheek.
PAUL VERHOEVEN: Jesus became very radical and revolutionary at the end of his life. When Jesus was arrested, his followers used swords. There was a sword fight where people got wounded. This thinking of Jesus went from “turn the other cheek” into a more radical stance, like you see so many times in utopian movements, movements where people think that there will be a new order in the world. When that is not fulfilled, groups become radical and militant, and I think that is what happened to Jesus, too. These elements are clear in the movies: that Jesus was crucified and it was all very physical, with spitting in the ears and the eyes, with groaning and screaming.
That’s all drama: it’s all really cinematic, dramatic storytelling, but then you lose the most important thing about Jesus. What is really still important is his ethics. If I cannot solve how to show that, I think it’s worthless to do a movie.