LOS ANGELES -- Paul Verhoeven thinks America is wonderful. He thinks it breathes, it lunges, it roars around in this wild, appalling way; what artist could arrive in such a place and not be smacked in the head by it?
He loved the Iran-contra hearings. He loved the Gary Hart affair. He loved the Jim and Tammy Bakker scandal so much that he thinks he should make a motion picture about it.
"Everything seems to be more -- flattened in Europe," Verhoeven says. He tamps both hands down, suggesting oppressive weight. "I think Shakespeare would have done a much better job if he would have lived in the United States."
"Robocop," which has roared toward the top of the summer box office charts and is stocked front to back with good guys and bad guys of the most ham-fisted American varieties imaginable, was directed by a 48-year-old Dutch filmmaker whose entire repertoire until two years ago had consisted of symbol-laden pictures in Dutch. "Turkish Delight," "The Fourth Man," the very well-received "Soldier of Orange" -- Paul Verhoeven's sometimes dark and complicated work has played here in moviehouses that like continental pacing and English subtitles.
And then, complete with toy marketing tie-in and nearly instant plans for a sequel, there was "Robocop." For anyone who has so far managed to elude the audiences now shrieking and cheering their way through "Robocop" in theaters across the land, this picture is set in a collapsing Detroit of the future, where cheery news broadcasts give you 10 seconds on neutron bombs in Pretoria and speeches from Lee Iacocca Elementary School. The principal dramatic elements include a heroic robot built around the face and brain of a slain cop, a soulless robot built around a lot of metal parts and corporate greed, and many close-ups of lingering, graphic, blood-spurting-from-the-wound sort of violence.
"There's a line in a picture called 'Patton,' " Paul Verhoeven says in his faint Dutch accent, "where all the tanks are burning, and there's a battlefield of burning tanks, and dying people, and dead people. And Patton is standing at the side and looking at it. And he says, 'God forgive me, but I love this.' "
Verhoeven smiles, a little uneasily. "Although it's a fascist statement, I think it's a human statement," he says. "I think in a lot of people this enjoyment of destruction is a basic element of the human soul ... and that's the stuff that drama is made of. You can't make drama with beauty and happiness. You can make perhaps music with that, to a certain degree -- but even with music you need opposition, and counterpoint."
Verhoeven has spent nearly 15 years as the best known of the modern Dutch directors, and, in his own country, his pictures have been both controversial and enormously popular. "Robocop" is his second American picture and his first American hit -- three years ago he directed "Flesh and Blood," which was about a 16th-century mercenary soldier and sank rapidly from sight -- and he says his new movie's violence and energy and comic-book drive, all of which have inspired critics to praise it and trash it with considerable vigor, are part of what drew him to this country's cinema in the first place.
Particularly nice, he says, that "Robocop" should be drawing the audiences in; as a child in The Hague he slept under a poster of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster. "I always have liked American pictures," he says. "The Americans' way of expressing themselves ... they were not talking continuously, but they were walking, or getting in a house, or in a car, and they were taking a gun, and they were not always arguing."
Laughter now; his English is rapid and intense. "In a dramatic way, it's a very precise and fast point if you have a gun, because it goes much faster, and the dialogue is shortcut. I'm not saying in real life you should shortcut your arguments with a gun -- on the contrary, I think, what you see on the freeways in the last couple of weeks certainly is a strange example -- but that's what's happening here. So from a dramatic point of view, and I think for a filmmaker, that's certainly what you're working with. Here everything seems to be much more -- how do you say that?"
Verhoeven's hands are working again, describing a steep pyramid in the air as he gropes for the adjective. "It's certainly more impressive, but there's more -- contrast," he says.
His legs are crossed, one gray Reebok angling straight out, in the living room armchair of his publicist's West Hollywood office. The dress is California summer inconspicuous, white pants and a short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned halfway down the chest, and his graying hair is a little shaggy and unkempt. He wears big tortoise-shell glasses and talks with great vigor, so the whole effect is of a somewhat rumpled brunch guest in the midst of energetic and interesting argument.
He has made, as he understands, a terrifically violent picture. There is a lot of violence in Verhoeven's other pictures, but much of it is hallucinatory or overlaid with religious imagery or set against the background of World War II, which was the setting for "Soldier of Orange," the Verhoeven film that was so widely applauded when it was released here in 1979. "Soldier of Orange" is a saga, following as it does the stories of a group of young Dutch university men who are variously drawn into the ranks of the Resistance or the Nazis, and as a war drama its complexities are compelling, but its violence is unremarkable.
"Robocop," on the other hand, is about a police officer shot to death and then brought tantalizingly close to resurrection when his face and memory fragments are implanted into an invincible metal robot. It is funny and vengeful and extraordinarily gory from beginning to viscera-spattered end, and Verhoeven, who has made his new home in a city where strangers are now responding to rude freeway drivers by shooting them, is getting rather a lot of attention over this.
"My sincere belief is that portraying what reality is is not inducing reality," he says. "I don't believe that argument that because I portray it, that I make it worse. I believe, on the contrary, that by portraying it lightly -- just stepping over it, and especially by portraying it elliptically -- "
Verhoeven is thinking of one scene now, the crucial one, in which his protagonist good cop Murphy is slowly massacred on camera by criminals who laugh as they shoot. "I believe that one guy who was killed in an awful way, like Murphy, is much less dangerous than having a lot of pictures where you see people working with laser beams, and every second there's a guy on the ground, or there are 40, 50, 60 people killed," he says.
People disturbed about social violence ought not to be looking to the nation's movie directors, Verhoeven says. "It has much more to do with the fact that there's no law prohibiting people from getting a gun," he says. "I think if you would do that, you would find a much better result than going for an R or an X rating."
When "Robocop" was filmed, in fact, its scenes of violence were much more explicit than they are now, Verhoeven says. The script had read to him like a comic book, so much so that the first time he skimmed it he tossed it away as silly and beneath his attention; it was only when his wife read it and insisted Verhoeven look more closely at "Robocop," he says, that he became interested enough to take the project on.
This time, he says, he was drawn both to the vigor of the script and the black humor that carries it along -- the wild touches like the bad guy who falls into a vat of toxic waste and then melts by degrees on camera, or the television advertisement for Nukem, a family game of atomic warfare. "I realized the writers of the script were not shallow, but used shallowness as a style element, to portray something -- to describe the shallowness of the society," he says.
When Verhoeven directed "Robocop," he deliberately directed it as comic book, he says. The violence was meant to be so wild as to approach Monty Python routines; Murphy's death was initially filmed with long shots of his gunshot-severed arms flying into the air, and in the scene in which the corporate-greed robot glitches and accidentally machine-guns down an unfortunate functionary in the board room, Verhoeven says the early versions showed such outrageous slow-motion gore that screening audiences fell apart with laughter when they saw it.
"Because they thought it was really a comic book move," he says. "And it was so much over the top that it's not cruel any more."
But much of that feeling was gutted, Verhoeven argues, when the Motion Picture Association of America insisted the violence be toned down. The peculiar effect, he says, was to work realism -- and more disturbing violence -- back in.
And that is not supposed to be the spirit of the picture at all, Verhoeven says. The spirit of the picture intrigues him, when he thinks about American and European film; he was fascinated by its notions of near-resurrection, and it seemed to him at first that if he had been making the picture in Europe, its principal quest would have been the part-man, part-robot's search for his own memories.
"You would have pushed the connection with the past, and the influence of the past on the present," Verhoeven says, "and emphasized -- how do you call it -- the no-reversibility of time."
Indeed, as a European, he asked the script writers to prepare a scene in which the Robocop seeks out and finds the wife and child left behind after his own murder. But when Verhoeven read the scene, he saw that it was quite wrong, he says -- that this was an American picture and that it was about revenge, not protracted inquiry into the past.
"It felt out of balance," he says. "It got very melodramatic ... I won't say it was suddenly too European, but for me, in retrospect, it might have been that."
He is delighted, he says, with the picture's success -- he and his wife and two children are living in an apartment in Brentwood, a district tony in the extreme, and agents and writers are deluging him with scripts. "It's high like this now," Verhoeven says, grinning as he holds a hand five feet off the floor to indicate the sheer bulk of the pile. "And everybody's nice. In Holland there was a lot more jealousy."
Verhoeven would very much like to stay in the United States, although he has already bowed out of the "Robocop" sequel, which he says the writers have already begun. "I wouldn't be inspired any more," he says. It is not clear to him exactly what the next picture should be, but he says he is gamely working his way through the pile -- "mostly about people that have strong powers, or are going through other dimensions."
His smile is a little rueful now; he has been here long enough to know this is an industry that chews a single idea like a frenzied dog. "I think science fiction is really interesting," Verhoeven says. "I'm not against it. It's really difficult. I can express myself there in a very mythological way -- but not a very human way."