Interview with director Paul Verhoeven (promoting Golden Globe winning film “ELLE”)

elle.jpgAs of this writing, “ELLE” was the winner of 2 Golden Globe Awards (Best Actress, Best Foreign Film), and the lead actress Isabelle Huppert was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. A must see film from a legendary director.

Paul Verhoeven is a director from my childhood. My friends and I used to love watching “Robocop” during out monthly slumber parties. Then “Total Recall” entered our world right at the time we all started getting interested in the supernatural and girls simultaneously. By the time “Basic Instinct” came along, I was a young teenager and let’s just say the movie made a deep impression on me. As I grew from a boy to a young adult, Verhoeven’s film grew with me.

So I have to say that I was a bit nervous meeting him in the staged interview hotel room at TIFF 2016. I had 15 minutes and when Paul walked in you could tell I was going to be around his 50th interview in the last few days and the hotel room backdrop is a very familiar site to him.

For my first question, I wanted to ask him something that was interesting and/or intriguing to him and perhaps a question he was never asked before, or at least not asked while he was promoting “ELLE”.

Matthew Toffolo: What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

Paul sat there motionless for more than a few seconds with his head looking at the ground. I thought I blew it right from the beginning. Then.

Paul Verhoeven: I’m thinking. I’m thinking.

Lawrence of Arabia. North by Northwest. Belle de Jour. Vertigo. Those are the films I keep going back to.

He smiled at me. I smiled at him. Then it was time to do the interview and let him move to the next one.

MT: You seem to balance your films between your European life and your Hollywood life. ELLE seems to strike a nice mixture of both. Was that your initial intention?

PV: Well in Europe, you have more power as a director. In Hollywood, you have more excess and money. Of course you like to have both, but that’s not the case. So yes, we were attempting to make a Hollywood type of film with ELLE using the European format.

MT: I heard your initial intention was to make this an English language film?

PV: Well it’s a French novel. The producer of ELLE, Saïd Ben Saïd, thought it could be an American movie. We went to an American screenwriter and wrote it as an USA movie, based in America. Then we found out that we couldn’t get the right funding. But the real problem was that we couldn’t find an American actress. None of them wanted to do it. From the A list down. They all turned the project down.

MT: Why do you think so many actresses turned down the film?

PV: It’s a different kind of movie. If this was a straight up “revenge” film, then I’m sure many would want the role. But this isn’t a revenge movie. It’s someone more. This is a film about a woman who refuses to be a victim. In fact, even after she discovers who the rapist is, she moves over that.

MT: Was Isabelle Huppert your first choice to play the lead when you decided to……?

PV: No. She was my first choice. She read the book and wanted to do the role. After the “American adventure” was over and I told the producer that we should make this movie in France, he immediately picked up the phone and called Isabelle and she accepted right away. So it was really her to chose me.

MT: There is no straight up genre in this film?

PV: No, there isn’t. This is a film about the discovery of this woman. Who she is. The book is a study of character and that’s the movie we wanted to make. All of her relationships in this movie, from her lover, best friend, her father, her rapist – the construction is about her and what’s around her. If I made this a straight up thriller, then it would deny what this story is all about.

MT: When did you novel read the novel?

PV: It was sent to me by the producer who asked if I wanted to make this into a film. I read it right away and told him “yes”.

MT: How long was it from the time you read the novel to the completed product?

PV: I read it at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015 and we started shooting a year later. The only obstacle was our initial intention to turn this into an English film. That was the only delay. Until I decided it was supposed to be made in French, we got the production rolling in a matter of months.

MT: In the novel she’s a literary agent. In the film, she’s a video game developer. Why the change?

PV: I was trying to find a profession that was more visual. My daughter came up with that. I was talking to my family at the dinner table talking about the film and my youngest daughter, who is a painter, suggested this which of course lead to the themes of the film.

The publicist entered the room and said it was time to go. I really could have chatted with Paul for another hour – but what can you do.

“ELLE” is an exceptional film. One of the best of 2016. I hope you go see it!


Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 2 times a month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.


By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival


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