Verhoeven Makes Good With Violence
“I always try to be the naughty boy,” Paul Verhoeven gleefully confides during an interview at Laird Studios. “If someone tells me I can’t do something, I simply have to do it!”
The Dutch director best known for the 1979 film “Soldier of Orange,” Verhoeven is the wickedly intelligent mind behind “RoboCop,” one of the more artfully made films destined to leave a bloodstain on the American psyche this year. Set in Detroit in the not-too-distant future, the film stars Peter Weller as Murphy, a cop who is hideously mutilated and murdered by a gang of thugs. Set up by a team of corporate criminals in need of a guinea pig for an evil experiment, Murphy--or the human scrap metal that’s left of him--is patched into a computerized android, thus giving birth to the final word in law enforcement: RoboCop.
Written by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner and shot in Dallas on a budget of $13.1 million, “RoboCop” was originally conceived as a zap! kapow! cinematic comic book, but its wings were severely clipped by the ratings board; the geysers of blood that were laughably over the top in the original version of the film have been toned down to a point of horrifying realism. Assaultively violent though it is, this sleek entertainment has been garnering rave reviews and may well shape up as the hit action pic of the summer. The film raises provocative questions about the evolution--some might say degeneration--of the heroic archetype, and violence in film.
“There are still clear indications at the beginning of the picture that it’s a black comedy,” observes producer Jon Davison, “but it was clearer that the violence was not to be taken seriously when it was so excessive that it became comic. Now the violence is much more real--and that’s a result of the MPAA” (Motion Picture Assn. of America’s ratings board).
The engagingly rebellious Verhoeven is a bit more candid in his defense of “RoboCop’s” grisly imagery.
“People love seeing violence and horrible things,” insists the 48-year-old director. “The human being is bad and he can’t stand more than five minutes of happiness. Put him in a dark theater and ask him to look at two hours of happiness and he’d walk out or fall asleep. It’s boring and you can’t construct art with it. Dramatic art requires difficulties that must be overcome.
“The most violent scene in the picture--and the one the ratings board really objected to--is the scene when Murphy is murdered, but I felt it was necessary to show that the guy was losing a lot of his limbs and part of his brain in order to advance the plot. “As to the morality of creating images like this, it’s difficult for me to think of an image I feel should not be on the screen. The way pictures are normally set up is the hero is tortured, thus programming the audience to feel the hero is justified in doing whatever he wants for the rest of the picture. On principle, I suppose it’s immoral to set up an audience that way, but it’s very dangerous for people to go around saying, ‘This should not be.’ That’s fascism. And the things I object to most strongly are the things I examine with the greatest care--and those are the things I take my children to see. In fact, my two kids (ages 12 and 14) saw ‘RoboCop’ when it was XXX-rated and thought it was hilarious.”
Born in Amsterdam in 1939, Verhoeven recalls a childhood dominated by World War II and the countless American films he eagerly sat through. After earning a doctorate in mathematics at Holland’s University of Leiden, he made the first of seven films, “Business Is Business” in 1971. Among Verhoeven’s better-known films are “Spetters,” a squalid coming-of-age tale examining Dutch teen-agers; “Soldier of Orange,” a story of the Dutch resistance that won a Golden Globe in 1979, and “The Fourth Man,” an erotic thriller released in 1984. Though Verhoeven is Holland’s most respected and commercially successful film maker, when the offer came to direct “RoboCop” he gladly packed up his wife and two children and moved to Los Angeles.
“I was in a claustrophobic situation in Holland and it was time for a change,” he recalls.
Verhoeven’s involvement attracted Paul Weller, who co-stars with Nancy Allen. “What appeals to me about Paul’s work is that he tells very personal stories--usually dealing with self-discovery, change or spiritual catharsis--but he tells them on a grand scale in a great operatic manner,” says Weller, a 40-year-old New Yorker best known for his performance in the 1984 film “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.” “The visual style and texture of his films is huge, but the story in the foreground is endearing, small and personal.”
Though the stylistic elements Weller describes are present in “RoboCop,” this science-fiction technofest still seems a bit out of character for Verhoeven.
“I couldn’t do an empty action picture,” says Verhoeven, who’s always looking for a new challenge--and swears any “RoboCop” sequel won’t be done by him. “Making a sequel would be like carrying the same baby twice.
“But I wanted to do ‘RoboCop’ because it spoke to my own fear of death, which is something that’s haunted me for a long time. One of the things I tried to say in the film is that it’s not better or worse to be a RoboCop, it’s simply different--and I suppose that’s intended as a metaphor for death. I also see Christlike elements in the picture. It’s like a reborn situation; a man is dying, is dead, then sees a light coming in. Murphy’s death is for me a crucifixion scene, and there’s a scene at the end of the film when he appears to be walking on water.
“I was also intrigued by the corporate analysis that goes on in the story. At the top of the corporate pyramid is a man who is good but doesn’t know what’s going on--easy to find a parallel in the real world, isn’t it?” He laughs. “He closes his eyes to what’s going on, but is depicted as being benevolent. Personally I think the top guy is probably the worst, but in the film we gave him redeeming qualities in order to give the picture a bit of hope.”
Though originally conceived as a comic book, the “RoboCop” that’s made it to the screen is considerably darker. It is, nonetheless, still being marketed to attract a younger audience and Orion Pictures promises merchandising tie-ins that include a “RoboCop” comic book, novel, toys and much more.
“The movie is violent,” concedes Nancy Allen, who plays police officer Anne Lewis, Murphy’s partner--and the only person (except for the villains) aware of RoboCop’s true identity.
“In a way it is being marketed for a younger audience, but it’s up to the individual how he wants to deal with it. No one forces us at gunpoint to see a movie and if a child responds to violence there must be a reason for it. But I will say this: I saw ‘Psycho’ when I was 10 years old and it affected me for the rest of my life to this day. But I think kids today are less sensitive to that sort of thing--perhaps because television exposes them to violence on a daily basis.”
Adds Weller, “Part of the reason the violence seems so shocking is the fact that there’s tenderness in the movie and that makes the shift in mood seem very severe. But the violence is never there just to get you off. Murphy’s death is graphic and prolonged but it’s that way for a reason; when RoboCop begins to regain himself and discovers his identity, the audience can then endow this machine with the humanity it lost when Murphy died. If Murphy’d simply walked in and been shot, it wouldn’t have been enough.”
In reflecting on the violence in the film, Verhoeven makes a telling comment on the difference between European and American films: “In the second act of the film, RoboCop has a nightmare, then starts having flashbacks and begins looking for himself. He finds out who he is and that he’s dead. If this film had been made in Europe it would’ve focused on RoboCop’s spiritual and psychological problems when he discovers that he has a soul; because it’s an American film, it focuses on the revenge theme.”
Though RoboCop is downright gentle compared with the breed of exterminating angel in films like “The Terminator” or “Cobra,” he’s a fairly weird mutation of the spic ‘n’ span hero of the ‘40s. Whereas audiences once cheered upright do-rights who killed reluctantly out of a sense of duty and justice, they now root for crazed assassins on raging rampages of revenge.
“Audiences used to cheer for heroes like Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart because they could identify with them,” comments Weller, “These days we root for heroes who are larger-than-life abstractions of ourselves. ‘RoboCop’ is unusual in that it sets you up to root for both those things in the same character; RoboCop is a regular guy and a superhero.”
Verhoeven’s thoughts on the question of heroes run a bit deeper.
“After what went on in the Second World War and we saw what people were capable of doing to one another, audiences simply wouldn’t buy the idea of perfect heroes anymore. People all over the world were forced to realize they were no better than the Germans and were capable of committing similar acts. Subsequently, heroes began being depicted as having dark sides which they wrestled with and struggled to transcend . . . Human beings have a lot of aggression, but I believe in free will and think it’s possible to control oneself.
“But we must acknowledge these dark things because the sooner we admit our capacity for evil the less apt we are to destroy each other. Our acceptance of the shadowy side is increasing, but unfortunately the human race is still a long way from reconciling itself to the fact that we are not a species of angels.”