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Tribeca 2013: In ‘Tricked,’ Paul Verhoeven turns fans into writers

Tribeca 2013: In ‘Tricked,’ Paul Verhoeven turns fans into writers
A scene from Paul Verhoeven’s somewhat crowd-sourced “Tricked.”
(Tribeca Film Festival)

NEW YORK -- As Zach Braff and the people behind “Veronica Mars” could tell you, crowd sourcing isn’t a half-bad way to raise some money for a film. But can it enable new forms of creativity too?

That’s what the longtime Hollywood director Paul Verhoeven set out to learn. A while back, the pulp auteur behind movies such as “Basic Instinct” and “Total Recall” decided to throw open the doors —not to the bank, but to the screenwriting process.  The Dutch-born filmmaker wanted fans in his native Holland to contribute chapters to a script for a short feature. Then he would fashion a movie out of the results. It was fan fiction that could be transformed, with a little help from the experts, into pro fiction.

It didn’t exactly work out as he expected.

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Verhoeven and a professional writer  named Kim Van Kooten crafted the first chapter of the feaurette -- about a birthday party with eight interconnected characters -- then asked fans to continue the story with a new episode.  The pair expected rough but workable branches, from which they would select one, polish it, then ask fans to continue with a third chapter, a fourth and so on.

Instead, what they received was a hodgepodge. New stories veered sharply from what came before. The tone was off. Genres landed further afield than a Mark Sanchez pass. Verhoeven quickly realized he had little to play with.

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“Instead of it being an easy job, it was a lot more work than I ever thought,” the always-candid director told The Times in an interview at the Tribeca Film Festival Wednesday. “There was no real sense of narrative or structure.”

But Verhoeven and his writing partner didn’t give up, cribbing and synthesizing as they went. When they finished working out a chapter, they shot it, put the finished script online and asked fans to submit the episode that followed. Then they waited. When the suggestions poured in and they again found themselves with a mess (one writer might drop in aliens, another would dial in characters more at home in “50 Shades of Gray”), Verhoeven kept fiddling, working on the episode for several weeks, shooting it and repeating the process. Finally, after nearly a year, he had a film that was about 70 minutes long.

The amazing thing? That the finished movie, the Dutch-language “Tricked,” is not only coherent but great, gleeful fun. A soapy conspiracy tale of sorts, it tells of a lecherous man who is blackmailed by a business partner as well as a mistress, is played by his daughter’s friend (who, oh yes, he’s also sleeping with) and is generally part of a web of campy double-crosses. There are ample shots of women’s anatomy (and shots of women’s ample anatomy) and the kind of kooky plot turns that makes audiences get loud. In other words, for all its crowd-source roots, “Tricked” is vintage Verhoeven.

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“I wanted it to have a good story but also a lightness to it. It’s not ‘Bridesmaids,’ but I didn’t want something totally serious either,” he said.

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Nearly 30,000 people -- or, like, half the population of the city of Amsterdam -- were part of the community submitting or commenting on prospective “Tricked” elements. The credits had more text than a Tolstoy novel. (Verhoeven ended up actually using small pieces from several hundred users.)

Nor was the process cheap -- production on the film only cost about $800,000, Verhoeven said, but the expenses incurred running things such as the online-submission platform approached $4 million. (The filmmaker has been at Tribeca the last few days showing what he and they created, also screening a short documentary about the process and its challenges.)

But if the development didn’t go as smoothly as Verhoeven would have liked, the result -- which could make its way to English-language web platforms and other venues -- still raises all sorts of interesting questions. This is an era when millions of ordinary people are creating and curating digital images on sites such as Facebook every day. “Tricked” raises questions about authorship on those sites. Verhoeven, who often refers to himself in this case as the “redactor,” used a number of shots suggested by fans (including a particularly effective one that offers a call-out to “Psycho”). Yet the film also feels unmistakably like a Verhoeven picture. So whose is it really?

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“Tricked"also slyly comments on the Hollywood development system, since directors on studio lots often deal with contributions from unwanted types, albeit in more expensive suits. (By the time “Total Recall” got to him, Verhoeven noted at a post-screening Q&A; on Tuesday, it had been through 42 drafts and countless executive notes.)

At 74, Verhoeven is only sporadically active as a filmmaker; his last film was the tour de force wartime-spy drama “Black Book” in 2006, and he hasn’t made a studio picture since “Hollow Man” in 2000. He has, however, watched as Hollywood has taken one pop classic of his after another and put it through its remake filter. (Of the “Total Recall” remake: “They took what was interesting and just turned it into action, action, action. It was a bit depressing.”)

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But Verhoeven said he still has some big-budget ambitions. He has hopes to make a film-noir called “Rogue” with former Fox executive Bill Mechanic as well as film his controversial book about Jesus. And he wouldn’t rule out a new crowd-sourcing project, though this time he said he would like to use mainly film schools and accomplished amateurs.

For several decades, Verhoeven has been taking genres we know -- science fiction, thrillers, whatever “Showgirls” qualifies as -- and made them more interesting by drawing creative inspiration from some unexpected places. Now he can count the movie-gong public among them.

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