Berlinale Day 4: Courage Against All Odds

To round off my Berlinale visit, I opted for an alternative to movies: a panel talk between jury president, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, jury member, American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and moderated by the film historian and author, GB-born Peter Cowie.


The discussion gravitated around some of the more popular movies the two guests had been involved in, with the tentative theme of courage somehow wiggled into it. But it was courage in its wider interpretation, with both protagonists venturing into the unknown at different times in their careers.

For Verhoeven, who has established himself as a rather kooky, commercially successful director, it was the transition from the Dutch film world into that of Hollywood. After his first foray, Flesh + Blood (1985), failed to impress, he was ready to go back home, when the script of Robocop (1987) was sent to him. While on holiday, Verhoeven read a bit of it and duly proceeded to throw it in the bin, before going for a long swim. Upon his return, he found his wife, Martine, holding the script, suggesting he take a closer look at it. And, indeed, Verhoeven did, realizing the potential for such a movie, which ended up winning an Academy Award (Special Achievement), spawning two sequels and two TV series, and resting to the present day as a classic of the action-packed 80s. Its influence still lasts, with a fairly recent remake trying (poorly) to re-envision the original.

Equally cult movies followed, with Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992) becoming staples of the 90s. Verhoeven’s challenge in getting Sharon Stone to be chosen for the part in Basic Instinct was considerable, as the actress had more of a B-movie status and didn’t really fit the bill alongside Michael Douglas. It had been one particular scene in Total Recall that convinced the director that Sharon Stone was the best choice for the part – a scene culminating in one of Schwarzenegger’s famous lines: Consider this a divorce.

But then Showgirls (1995) turned out to be a miserable failure, and as is common in Hollywood, Verhoeven’s stock plummeted. Labeled as a Sci-Fi auteur, he got another couple of opportunities in Starship Troopers (1997) and the remake of The Invisible Man, entitled Hollow Man (2000). Fun fact, the latter was probably the movie that really triggered my passion for film, as a bunch of classmates and I got together to watch it after school one Friday afternoon. We missed the first few minutes and were excited by the prospect of it being rated above our age group, so we ate it all up, even though I probably wouldn’t rate it any more now. But, alas, it will always matter to me and it took me years to overcome the frustration that Gladiator had beaten it to the Best Visual Effects Academy Award. C’mon, that was just people with silly swords, Hollow Man turned a guy invisible for chrissake!

Unsurprisingly, the combination of factors sent Verhoeven back to the Netherlands, where, several years later, he directed the critically acclaimed WW2 movie about the Dutch Resistence, Zwartboek (2006) – Black Book. An interesting factor in some of his work is the influence of Stravinsky, whose rhythm Verhoeven has found to translate well into film. The best of which was yet to come, as last year’s Elle (2016) first took Cannes by storm, before becoming a critics’s darling, praise falling especially onto Isabelle Huppert with the heft of a waterfall. Interestingly, the movie failed to be nominated for Best Foreign Picture, but Huppert is the front-runner in the Best Actress category. After having worked in Dutch and English, a major challenge was moving into French for Elle, which Verhoeven did by refreshing his language knowledge in a two-week boot camp. Yet, his communication with Huppert mostly came about through ‘the language of film’.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s career started, for me, at Donne Darko (2001), another one of the defining movies of my youth. As matter of fact, a particular point of discussion for both talkers was that the films we see between the ages of 12 and 16 end up defining our taste in cinema, with Verhoeven focusing on the influence of Bunuel, while Gyllenhaal mentioned Tarantino. I’m afraid my choices don’t quite stand up.

Whereas her most memorable scene in Darko was the family dinner, climaxing with the this little line, her next project, Secretary (2002), proved to be a big step for Gyllenhaal. Starring alongside James Spader, the unusual movie about dominance and sadomasochism wasn’t quite what a self declared feminist expected to be a part of, yet there are important nuances to how it all comes together in Steven Shainberg’s production. To underscore this, we got to watch one of the Secretary’s highlights, the infamous reading of the letter.

After several other (minor) roles in good movies of the 00s, the leap to AAA movies came with The Dark Knight (2008). The differences in production mechanics were considerable for Gyllenhaal, who remarked that whereas a smaller movie might be constrained to resort to second or third choice talent in certain crew positions, a blockbuster like Christopher Nolan’s Batman works similarly to a ‘well oiled machine’, at the cutting edge. The challenge in TDK was to carve out a space for her character, something which Heath Ledger did exceptionally well in his take on the Joker. After working with one to-be Academy Award winner, Gyllenhaal made another inspired choice in Crazy Heart (2009), which brought Jeff Bridges the prize and Gyllenhaal herself a nomination. The difference in this experience was that Bridges and Gyllenhaal had to support first time director Scott Cooper, which they did in an effort that empowered everyone involved.

For a change of pace, the actress then moved to a different format, electing to lead the TV Mini-series The Honourable Woman (2014). Acting in an eight hour show, filmed in the chronological order that the production plan required (i.e. possibly a scene from episode one shot after a scene from episode eight) brought with itself a different rhythm to that of movies, a feeling ‘unusual and strange’ to Gyllenhaal. Her performance was rewarded with a Golden Globe in 2015 and her upcoming role is particularly exciting, in a new TV series entitled The Deuce (2017), helmed by The Wire creators David Simon and George Pelecanos.

The conversation drew to a close after ninety minutes, with one question from the public arousing my attention: are movies inherently political? Gyllenhaal mused about it, saying that good movies have an element of the unconscious to them and that our politics are inevitably etched into that. Verhoeven, on the other hand, focused on the fact that one should not force a particular political vision on a movie or a director, in the sense that there is no need for explicit (or implicit) politics. This is particularly relevant now, with so much political opining flying around, that trying to do an explicitly political film, say, about a certain US president, could easily be undermined by day-to-day developments. If politics, then with perspective.

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