Paul Verhoeven is ready to tackle the NC-17 taboo with “Showgirls,” but the director’s having trouble finding his next project because the candidates invoke the dirtiest word in Hollywood: megabudget.

“Studios are scared of the thought, but I have a feeling that going over $100 million will become the norm for big movies,” said Verhoeven, who counts himself among those rooting for Universal’s $180 million actioner “Waterworld” to clean up at the box office.

Verhoeven had planned to follow “Showgirls” this fall with the costly sci-fi thriller “Starship Troopers,” but he says TriStar’s waffling over budget.

With “Starship” on launch delay, Verhoeven has become interested in adapting Caleb Cart’s “The Alienist” for Scott Rudin at Paramount. “I started reading the book and was intrigued, then I put it down when I read another director was doing it,” he said. “When that came undone, I picked it up again. I have expressed interest to Scott Rudin, and he’s interested in my interest. Nothing’s happened yet, but it’s first come, first served, as far as I’m concerned.” Verhoeven is also waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger to set up the 11th-century actioner “Crusade.” Budget’s also the big concern on “Crusade,” scripted by Walon Green (“The Wild Bunch”). It was exactly a year ago that Carolco pulled the plug at Cannes as the budget soared to $120 million, but ultimately the production company gave Schwarzenegger ownership instead of paying his $15 million pay-or-play fee.

“Arnold has been trying to see if some studio other than Carolco would be courageous enough to spend so much money, and there has been interest, but after the disaster of the first attempt, everybody realized you can’t make it cheap.” Although Schwarzenegger says it can be done for $85 million, the director’s not so sure. “The more I know of the logistical difficulties, the high price of shooting in Europe, I don’t see how I can do it for less than planned. My vision in developing the script was to make it an epic, and I’ve said to Walon Green that if you make it smaller, it’s not the ‘Crusade,’ it’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ in the 11th century.”

‘Waterworld’ factor

“Arnold is working hard to see if another studio’s interested, but everybody is hesitant because of ‘Waterworld.’ If that would be a success, or one of these historical films like ‘Braveheart,’ it might help. To spend $120 million while movies like ‘Waterworld’ get knocked is hard. Our film won’t be any less difficult.

“In fact, the fear is well founded. You can say $120 million, but you don’t really know. I’m talking about scenes where you take 10,000 people, move them through the mountains, then have battle scenes with that many people, and 1,500 horses. And doing it 120 times a day if you need to.

“A solid domestic gross on a movie would be $70 million, but that would never be enough,” said Verhoeven. “A movie like ‘Crusade’ would have to do $150 million in the U.S. and $500 million worldwide. Anything less would not be OK. Of course, it’s not impossible to do that, as ‘T2′ and ‘Jurassic Park’ proved. But if you have to count on doing between $150 million and $200 million here, that’s a gamble. But it’s a great, powerful script.”

Verhoeven said Green will soon start the second draft of the Marquis de Sade biopic for Verhoeven to direct. Though Carolco was originally involved in the $1 million book purchase, its partner, Chargeurs, is now in control of de Sade, as well as “Showgirls.”

Verhoeven was encouraged by exhibitor reaction to an eight-minute “Showgirls” teaser trailer. This columnist had heard reports that Verhoeven managed to pack more nudity into eight minutes than one would find in a Phil Gramm-financed pic. Verhoeven acknowledged, “I certainly tried to pull out all the stops. I think they were intrigued, and unless they’re forbidden by law, exhibitors will try to play the film. I don’t want to put myself in a bad position with the MPAA, but I think it will be difficult to give this an R. Maybe impossible, I think, but you ever know.”

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