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It's been 14 years since Basic Instinct, and director Paul Verhoeven still loves talking about Sharon Stone. The obligatory questions about the film's most notorious scene finally arrived near the end of an interview with the influential Dutch filmmaker last week at Tel Aviv's Sheraton Moriah Hotel, where the director stayed on the final night of a 10-day trip to Israel to complete shooting on his latest project, a World War II thriller about a young Jewish woman in Holland who joins the Dutch resistance after her hiding place is bombed by a German plane.
Though the director is known for sex-and-action saturated movies like Basic Instinct and Total Recall, a drama set during the Holocaust is not an entirely surprising choice for Verhoeven, who expressed interest in a vast range of historical and religious topics while sipping espresso and gazing happily at the Tel Aviv beach last week.
But more on that later. What most film fans still want to know, of course, is what devilish mind came up with the idea that Stone, still a relatively unknown actress during the Basic Instinct shoot, should remove her panties before filming the thriller's best remembered scene, during which the actress' character, an accused murderer, crosses and uncrosses her legs while being interrogated by the San Francisco police. One of the iconic moments in movie history, the scene caused untold damage to videotapes and VCRs around the world: thanks to endless rewinding and pausing, the interrogation scene reportedly led to the return of more broken videocassettes to American movie rental chain Blockbuster than any other film on its shelves.
Stone has repeatedly insisted over the years that doing the scene sans underwear was Verhoeven's idea, and that the actress was shocked to see herself exposed onscreen when Basic Instinct premiered in the spring of 1992.
Verhoeven's eyes, clear and calm for most the interview, are suddenly twinkling as he responds to Stone's account of the shoot. "The scene was based on a woman in our social circles, based on a woman who would always come to parties without underwear," the director said. "That was the story I told Sharon. 'What if we do that and sit in that interrogation scene and they realize that you don't have underwear?' It was only later that she protested. She was very daring at that time and she felt she had nothing to lose. Later, I think, she was attacked for that in the press, [which said] that she had done such a 'filthy thing.' But that's a [expletive] lie and she knows she's lying. You can't make a shot like that without the actors knowing."
"She gave me the panties as a present," he concludes, raising his eyebrows and smiling.
Despite their conflicting memories, Verhoeven clearly bears Stone no ill will for spreading her story in the press, which happily revisited the issue before the long-delayed release of Basic Instinct 2 earlier this year. Verhoeven says he was offered three different versions of the film's script but rejected it each time. "I said that they could make the movie work," he recalled, "but you take an enormous gamble as a director when you do a sequel. You have to believe that you can be equal to what you did [in the first film]."
The decision not to participate in the second Basic Instinct turned out to be a good one. The film tanked at the box office despite a global publicity blitz centered on Stone, who visited Israel in March as a guest of the Peres Center for Peace and the Holon Women's Festival. In addition to the script, Verhoeven blames the sequel's casting for its failure, saying the film needed an actor like Michael Douglas, Stone's co-star in the first film, to create the chemistry that made the original Basic Instinct such a hit. "He was so central to the movie and so sensational. I think that [the producers of the sequel] don't understand what Michael did for her and for that movie. The movie is solidly built around that character, and Sharon could shine because of him," Verhoeven said.
He may have dodged a professional bullet in steering clear of Basic Instinct 2, but Verhoeven is no stranger to commercial and critical failure, having followed up blockbusters Robocop and Total Recall with high-profile flops like Hollow Man and Starship Troopers. One gets the sense, however, that although Verhoeven is concerned with budgets and box office totals, he's ultimately less focused on the bottom line than many of his counterparts in Hollywood. He stands by Starship Troopers, the widely panned 1997 sci-fi thriller about humans doing battle with giant space bugs, and says he wrote a script for a sequel to Showgirls, the 1995 strip club drama that was supposed to make adult movies mainstream, but instead became one of the decade's most notorious disasters. But he admits failure when he sees it and takes responsibility for mistakes, having become the first filmmaker or actor in Hollywood to show up and make an acceptance speech at the Razzies, a satirical pre-Oscars awards show "honoring" the worst of each year's movies. (Verhoeven took the "worst director" prize for Showgirls in early 1996.)
Verhoeven has high hopes for Blackbook, which marks his return to European filmmaking after 20 years in Hollywood, and which inspired his latest trip to Israel. The son of "normal mainstream Dutch Protestants," the director has now traveled to Israel four times, twice for professional reasons - he was also here for pre-production on Blackbook - and twice to explore early Christian history, a major personal interest despite Verhoeven's not being a believer himself. A crew of roughly 30 Israelis joined Verhoeven's Dutch staff of 15 for the filming of local scenes, which take place at the Dead Sea and a kibbutz not far from Lake Kinneret.
Starring a cast of Dutch and German actors, the film opens in Israel on the eve of the country's 1956 Sinai campaign, then flashes back to the ordeals of its heroine, Rachel Steinn, a Jewish "former revue star" who's family and boyfriend died in a Nazi massacre during the war. Budgeted at 16 million euros ( NIS 91.54 million), Blackbook is the most expensive Dutch film ever and one of the most expensive movies ever shot on Israeli soil.
The Steinn character, Verhoeven says, is a composite of three historical Dutch women who lived during the war, two Christian and one Jewish. He shot as much of the film as possible at the actual sites where the story takes place, and describes Blackbook as "fiction except that all the events are non-fiction." It's not the first time he's shot a film about World War II and Holland under Hitler - born in Amsterdam in 1938, Verhoeven helped make a name for himself at home with Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange), a 1977 drama about Dutch collaborators and resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation.
But while Blackbook tells the story of a Jewish refugee during the Holocaust, Verhoeven describes the film as "first of all a thriller," not necessarily "a Holocaust or World War II movie."
The result of two decades of research and screenwriting, the film - which will open in at least 20 countries starting in September - is not the first project Verhoeven has considered shooting in Israel. He wrote a script years ago for a Crusades epic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the star of Total Recall, and he once visited Jerusalem with an eye towards shooting a medieval battle scene here. ("Wishful thinking," he says.)
The project isn't going anywhere right now, but would Verhoeven consider returning to Israel to shoot the film in the future?
"Arnold owns the script," Verhoeven says, eyes suddenly twinkling again. "He's governor of California now, but if he ever gets voted out, who knows?"