Opening the Berlinale Talents panel discussion series on Sunday, festival jury president Paul Verhoeven and jury member Maggie Gyllenhaal took part in a candid and humorous conversation with film historian Peter Cowie spanning politics, religion, music, astronomy, art and, unsurprisingly, sex and violence.
Asked about the role of politics in film, Verhoeven, director of the Golden Globes-winning “Elle” as well as earlier hits like “Basic Instinct” and “Total Recall,” rejected the notion that politics need to be part of film while noting that time and distance offer better opportunities to tackle political subject matter.
“It’s very difficult for an artist to react immediately to what’s happening. You need distance to transcend. Reacting now to the crisis we face with this Mr. Trump from a film point of view would be extremely difficult because there is so much happening. The politics of the moment will ultimately be important in the next 10 or 15 years.”
The Dutch director stressed, however, that he had already “commented on the United States as a fascist utopia in ‘Starship Troopers.’”
Gyllenhaal added that politics, particularly the intense situation currently transpiring in the U.S., would likely take various forms in art. “I think films work in your unconscious – something beyond analysis, beyond intellect is at play. Political emergencies, like the one in my country, are part of all our unconscious, particularly now, when it’s so intensely on all of our minds. My children are dreaming about Trump. In my country its everywhere and I think it will come through in our unconscious.”
Asked about the main constants that run through his films, Verhoeven said, “that’s easy, sex and violence.” The director said he fled to the U.S. after making the controversial 1980 motocross film “Spetters,” which included a violent male rape scene that so upset Dutch film subsidy officials that he was unable to secure financing for future films. “It was bashed by everybody – television, radios, dailies, magazines, but it was successful. Nevertheless, in Europe you are dependent on government committees. For them I was decadent and perverse and they didn’t want to give me money anymore. It was an important movie for me, though, because it was the reason I had to leave Holland. It pushed me to go to the United States, for good or bad. My life changed a lot.”
Between 1987 and 1992, Verhoeven made “RoboCop,” “Total Recall” and “Basic Instinct.”
Delighting in Sharon Stone’s notorious interrogation scene, which screened during the panel, Gyllenhaal drew laughs recalling that she was pretty sure she went to see “Basic Instinct” in the cinema with her parents.
On her experience on the sadomasochism-themed 2002 comedy-drama “Secretary,” starring James Spader, Gyllenhaal said, “I thought I was making a political movie, but I didn’t know anything about anything. It made me see everything differently. They offered it to like 10 other actresses and then gave it to me.”
Working on big-budget films like “The Dark Knight” was another new experience. “It’s much, much more difficult trying to be good in a movie like ‘The Dark Knight’ because of there are so many elements that are important – the massive scale, the special effects, the massive set pieces – you have to make space for the acting. In your own little way you have to demand of yourself that you make space for the work. It’s why what Heath Ledger did in that movie was so incredible. He made a huge amount of space for himself in the film.”
Gyllenhaal spoke at length about her special artistic connection to Jeff Bridges, with whom she worked on “Crazy Heart.” “I thought I could do anything with Jeff. Jeff and I are meant to work together. We were all in love in that movie. I love [director] Scott Cooper, I love Jeff Bridges.”
On her BBC series “The Honourable Woman,” Gyllenhaal said working on the eight-hour political thriller offered her a much greater freedom that she never had working on film, where performances can be limited by cinema’s inherent emotional rhythm. “If you’re shooting something that is eight hours long, there’s no way to keep track of that rhythm, so you get much more wild, more human, much more strange.”
It’s something she also enjoyed in the upcoming series “The Deuce.”
Discussing his departure from Hollywood, Verhoeven said he ultimately returned to the Netherlands due to the legendary flop of “Showgirls,” which, similar to the reasons he went to the States in the first place, led to difficulties in securing financial backing for his films.
“I still like the movie, but many did not. I wouldn’t say I was black listed, but they only trusted me with science fiction after that. I did ‘Starshoop Troopers.’ I couldn’t really work on anything normal. I wanted to do more reality, so I had to go back to the Netherlands to continue my career.”
The move ultimately paid off. Verhoeven has seen unprecedented acclaim with Oscar-nominated “Elle,” the success of which he attributes to French star Isabelle Huppert.
“The level reached by that movie was only possible because of Isabelle; she gave the movie something that hight that neither I nor the producer had imagined and perhaps not even Isabelle. She would often come to the set and say, ‘I don’t understand this character at all, I can’t play it!’ It’s true.”
“We never thought it would be that successful. We knew we had made a very strange movie. It wasn’t until it premiered in Cannes and it got this enormous ovation that that we realized.”