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The Americanization of Paul Verhoeven : The Dutch director is now totally immersed in Hollywood with the big-budget action movie ‘Total Recall,’ starring Arnold You-Know-Who

When Paul Verhoeven is making a movie, he’s definitely a hands-on guy.

Just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stars in “Total Recall,” the Dutch director’s futuristic thriller that hits the theaters Friday. Holed up in Mexico last summer, filming on a huge set of sound stages, Verhoeven left nothing to chance.

One day Hollywood’s reigning super-hero was preparing for a scene where he guns down a nasty 21st-Century villain, blasting his face to smithereens. “When I shot him in the forehead, we had the explosions rigged up,” Schwarzenegger recalled the other day. “But Paul wanted to make sure it really looked real. He said, ‘Let me try it. I want to see how it works.’

“So he had our crew strap a load of explosives onto him and blast them off on his forehead. It was a real blast. Boom! It really knocked him around.

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“I looked at Paul, a little bit amazed. But he looked very happy. He said, ‘Oh, I really like it. This is going to be great!’ ”

Nearly a year later, Verhoeven is just as obsessively involved with his film, on the phone in an empty theater on the Columbia Pictures lot, anxiously trying to juggle his hectic schedule. With Tri-Star Pictures moving “Total Recall” up two weeks to get a jump on its brawny action-adventure rivals (and avoid a June 15 showdown with “Dick Tracy”), Verhoeven has been racing around, mixing his film in the morning and watching special effects in the afternoon.

Perched behind a 20-foot-long mixing board, the 51-year-old director peers at a blotchy black-and-white print, bereft of sound effects, music and visual trickery. In fact, all that’s visible on screen is a wild brawl between a pair of fiery femmes fatales . Outfitted in 2084-style pants suits, they throw right hooks and flying tackles, all orchestrated with noisy grunts and groans.

Verhoeven may get a kick out of testing explosives on his head, but he knows a little dynamite goes a long way. “It’s so noisy,” he says to his sound editors. “We’ve got to get rid of some of these grunts and groans.”

As they roll the scene again, he keeps up a steady, decisive patter: “The kick to the face is in. . . . The stomach punch is out. . . . The elbow in the back is out. . . . There! Where she gets hit in the stomach. That’s one ughh! too many.”

His team of editors punched computer keys, relaying his instructions, as Verhoeven tried to explain the crucial importance of sound mixing.

“You have to select exactly what you want the audience to hear, just as if you’re selecting what camera shot you want,” he said with a soft Dutch accent. “In this film we have futuristic cars, so we had to invent a new sound. It’s a difficult choice, because you can’t go too far away from what the audience is familiar with. So we created a car sound that is a mixture of what people would recognize--and something that feels like the future.”

Verhoeven merrily nodded his head. “So it shouldn’t sound exactly like a Lamborghini. But like a Lamborghini with something extra!”

It’s easy to understand why Verhoeven is excited about having so many effects at his disposal. In 1985, after 15 years as Holland’s most celebrated--and controversial--filmmaker, he abandoned a comfortable art-house career for a shot at the Hollywood Big Time.

The differences in scale are astounding. Shot in Mexico with four camera units often going simultaneously, “Total Recall” reportedly cost a whopping $65 million. That’s more than all of Verhoeven’s previous films combined, even if you include the $15-million price tag for “RoboCop,” his breakthrough 1987 American hit.

A candid, disarmingly modest man with a sly sense of humor, Verhoeven knows budgets are skyrocketing all over town. “Our movie was expensive,” he said with a grin. “But from what I hear about some of the other movies coming out this summer, it’s not the only one, yes?”

“Total Recall” won’t be just another summer special-effects clunker. For years, critics have raved--and sometimes fulminated--about the incandescent images that populate Verhoeven’s movies.

His audacious 1984 film, “The Fourth Man,” is as wildly erotic and garishly goofy as anything Pedro Almodovar ever attempted (if only for the scene where we see a lovelorn man praying in church, beset by visions of his lover--in red bikini underwear--as the crucified Christ). A scathing indictment of Dutch bourgeois life, “Spetters” offers the exploits--with plenty of graphic sex and violence--of a trio of rebellious, motorcycle-mad kids.

From his youthful documentaries to “RoboCop,” Verhoeven has shown an abiding fascination with man’s precarious grip on life. And no wonder. Verhoeven spent his childhood in wartime Holland, which was occupied by Nazi Germany and subjected to daily Allied bombing raids.

His home, in The Hague, was just a mile away from the launching pads of Germany’s deadly V-1 rockets. As a tot, Verhoeven watched the missiles blast off each night, zooming over the roof of his house, followed later in the evening by waves of American planes, swooping in to bomb German military targets.

“I remember sitting with my parents at the dinner table when the bombs completely destroyed a building 20 yards from our house,” said Verhoeven, whose mop of unkempt gray hair, faded work shirt and piercing gaze give him the air of a history professor on holiday. “It blew out all our windows and sent the glass shattering across the dinner table. It was just fate that nothing ever happened to me or my family.”

In a wartime childhood, fate offers strange twists. One day Verhoeven and his school chums were playing, scrambling on top of a neighborhood wall. Suddenly a vehicle full of German troops screeched to a halt. The soldiers leaped out, rifles drawn.

“They came over and made us line up against the wall, as if we were prisoners,” Verhoeven said softly. “They looked very serious. They cocked their guns and pretended to shoot us, like a firing squad. Then they just laughed and got into the jeep and drove away.”

Verhoeven views these events as more absurd than traumatic. “I saw horrible things,” he said over lunch at the Columbia commissary. “You would walk out in the morning and see dead people on the street. I’m sure if I had lost a brother or had been Jewish, I would have had a different experience.

“But if you’re just a child, war is fascinating. When I saw John Boorman’s film, ‘Hope and Glory,’ I was amazed, because I remembered the same things. When the bombs hit, we’d say, ‘Great! School’s out!’ It was like that seeing the V-1. If you didn’t know about the death they caused, they were the most exciting things you’d ever seen. It was like living in an amazing movie. That was my childhood--surrounded by these incredible visual effects!”

Verhoeven’s barbed Dutch films won critical plaudits here, but in Holland he often found himself in disfavor. “The critics called me a decadent, perverted person who was not representative of Dutch culture,” he said with a frown. “I got a really negative response on ‘Spetters.’ I tried to make a serious study of behavior, but people were outraged. They even created an anti-'Spetters’ committee, which said the film was anti-feminist, anti-invalid and anti-homosexual.”

Finding it increasingly difficult to raise money for his films, Verhoeven moved to America. His first English-language film, “Flesh and Blood,” was a flop. Soon afterwards, Verhoeven was offered “RoboCop"--and turned it down. His wife finally persuaded him to reconsider.

“She’s the brains of the family,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I thought ‘RoboCop’ was horrible when I first read it. I missed all the different levels in the script. But my wife remembered how much I liked ‘Frankenstein’ and she immediately saw that concept in the script--the robot man seeking his own life--so I changed my mind.”

The film revived old boyhood memories. “It’s true--I had a poster of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster over my bed as a child,” he recalled. “I also loved Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read all his Mars stories. I even got a telescope so I could look for Mars at night. And when I decided I wanted to be a comic-book illustrator, the first thing I did--when I was still very little--was write a book about Mars and space travel.”

“Total Recall” gives Verhoeven a chance to elaborate on these childhood reveries. Set a century into the future, it stars Schwarzenegger as a rugged construction worker haunted by dreams of a former life on Mars.

Having grown up in a nightmarish, war-torn world, Verhoeven identifies with “Total Recall’s” disorienting odyssey of self-discovery. “It’s not Dostoevsky,” he said. “It’s a thriller that’s based on our childhood dreams and pleasures.”

The “Total Recall” script had been bouncing around Hollywood for years, but when Schwarzenegger convinced Carolco Pictures to acquire the rights for him, the project finally kicked into gear. As soon as Schwarzenegger saw “RoboCop,” he knew he’d found his director.

“I immediately called up (Carolco chief and “Total Recall” executive producer) Mario Kassar and said, ‘This guy is really good,’ ” Schwarzenegger said. “I’d seen ‘Soldier of Orange’ and ‘Turkish Delight,’ but ‘RoboCop’ was the deciding factor.

“Paul has a very provocative directing style. His movies have a lot of style and humor. And he knows exactly where to give scenes a light flavor to loosen up the intensity of the violence. I just showed a rough cut of ‘Total Recall’ to my mother, who doesn’t even understand much English. But she loved it. She was laughing at all the right parts!”

Schwarzenegger also stuck up for Verhoeven during production, making sure his director could operate without interference from nervous producers (who often worried about the film’s abundance of violence). Verhoeven had nothing but kudos for his star.

“Arnold has no ego,” he said. “You can say anything to him. In fact, he sat me down at the very start and told me, ‘I won’t be offended if you talk to me in a direct way. Say what you feel.’ I didn’t have to be diplomatic and say, ‘Arnold, perhaps you could move over here and give me a different angle.’ I could just go, ‘Arnold, this is bad. You look stupid!’ ”

Verhoeven acknowledged he sometimes lost his cool trying to keep the mammoth film on schedule. “I would get so frustrated that I would get upset and angry and I’m find myself yelling and screaming at people. I didn’t feel I was losing control. But I was close to it. The movie was so complicated that I sometimes felt things were beyond my grasp.”

Verhoeven shrugged. “I got more input than the computer in my head could grasp.”

When Verhoeven would boil over, Schwarzenegger would step in. “I tried to remind him that problems happen on every picture--that you can’t get angry all the time. You have to laugh about it and move on.”

When crew members complained, Schwarzenegger played peacemaker. “I’d invite them into my trailer, give them a tumbler of schnapps and play them some Austrian music,” he said. “That always got them to relax.”

Like “RoboCop,” “Total Recall” is laced with gory, graphic and--yes--crowd-pleasing violence. “People always criticize violence, but as human beings we have genetically evolved from savage apes,” said Verhoeven, calmly nibbling at a plate of pasta. “So we’re in a quandary. Morally we realize it’s wrong. But biologically we’re still very close to it.

“You don’t promote violence by showing it. Human beings have done terrible cruel things to each other long before there were movies. The Germans didn’t see any movies promoting genocide in the 1930s. But I understand why people get excited--no one wants to accept that there are shadows inside all of us. People just prefer to say, ‘The violence is in you, not in me.’ ”

Verhoeven is one of the few movie directors who would see a theological link in this debate. “You have to remember that Christianity is a religion based on one of the most violent acts of murder--the crucifixion. In fact, without the crucifixion I’d say the religion wouldn’t have had so much impact.”

He nods his head. “In the end, drama is written for violence. It’s built on what goes wrong . Give the human mind 50 minutes of quiet in the dark and everybody would be put to sleep. We need conflict and tension and violence. Or we want to take a nap!”

It’s no wonder that Verhoeven shows little interest in returning to his native land. “I’m only nostalgic about Holland when I’m back there,” he said, hurrying across the studio lot, eager to return to work. “Everything was in shades of gray. There was never something that was out of order, nothing to be angry about.

“Here life seems more vital. There’s so much more antagonism and excitement, so many possibilities. It makes me feel more alive. I feel more a part of the world here.”

Verhoeven stopped at the door to his mixing theater. “There’s no better place for a filmmaker. Every day something happens here that makes you curious or outraged or fascinated. In Holland, I could only read the paper for five minutes before I’d be bored.”

Verhoeven spread his arms wide. “Here I can read the paper for hours!”


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