Black Book aka Zwartboek (2006) – Q&A with director Paul Verhoeven

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Paul Verhoeven is the director of Black Book, also known as Zwartboek.


Can BLACK BOOK be called a return to your roots?

Yes it is, to the roots of my childhood, in fact. I was seven when the Second World War ended and I have very strong memories about the war. So going from Los Angeles back to Holland was quite an adventure – like going to the United States when I was 48. That was also a difficult adventure. This was tough at the beginning because I didn’t know much any more about Dutch crews or Dutch actors, so I had to dig myself in as soon as possible. But ultimately the result of the whole thing was that I am very happy with what happened because I got all the talent that I needed. If you talk about my roots, I would add to that after doing HOLLOW MAN it was a promise that I made to myself that I would only take on a movie that I cared about. Because I just did HOLLOW MAN because I could do it, not because I thought it should be done. So I felt that I should not do that any more. I felt it was a step too far. So I had to come back and do something that I believed in again. I had become a film director because I thought I could express something in an artful way. But that became more difficult in the last few years in the USA. I had worked on this script for a long time and I had to do it.

Is it because you have these childhood memories during the war that this film is so powerful?

I think that plays a part. I would say it plays an atmospheric, emotional part. But plot wise, no. Plot wise it is all archival research. Some of the scenes I discovered in 1966 when I was doing a documentary about a Nazi leader. The scenes you see at the end of the movie that shows how the Dutch treated collaborators were well known to me. I had always felt that it would be part of a movie; I did not know which one. Finally I could do that scene in this film. One of the reasons to do this movie was that scene. I was seven when the war ended so the characters are certainly not my neighbours that I am talking about. Emotionally of course these years under occupation as a child were very important. It gave me the possibility somehow to let myself drop into that period. That was much easier than to drop myself into Vietnam because I have no connection. I would probably hesitate to do a movie about the war in Vietnam because I would ask what my connection was with that. I was living in Europe; I saw it from a distance. I could not do the same emotional, atmospheric thing that I did with this movie.

What were your childhood memories of surviving this living nightmare?

There are two sides to that. There is the side basically that there was no food. In September 1944 the Allies were halted and something started that the Dutch called ‘The Hunger Winter’. I remember that my father had to go out in the early morning on an old bike to the south of Holland to friends or farmhouses to get a little bit of bread. So all that is all true and it basically was a horrible time. I was an only child and my parents were always afraid for me. So I know the anxiety of that time. On the other hand, I think we should never forget that which has been so well expressed by John Boorman in his movie HOPE AND GLORY. That was true too. I remember seeing German soldiers throwing grenades in the water and all the fish coming up to the surface. The fascination with the war as a child was also a very strong aspect. The launching pads of the V2s and the V1s were about one mile from house, so I could see these enormous rockets going over my head, which I called the most spectacular special effects ever. There was an enormous amount of fascination possible as a child; combined with a certain fear. But I was so well protected. I didn’t get sick and I survived. So strangely enough I have a very positive feeling about that period. Even my parents – who are dead now – said it was possibly the most beautiful period of our lives because we were surrounded by people who were loyal, we were all trying to survive and everybody was giving food to other people, inviting them to their table. Very Christian I would say. When peace came everybody became individuals again and that feeling disappeared. If you say it was a time of horror, yes. Clearly if you were Jewish, there was nothing positive to report. But if you were living in The Hague at that time there were a lot of fascinating things for a child. Going back to that time is for me a pleasure.

Has the film opened old wounds in Holland?

You would expect that because these things [the treatment of collaborators] have not been discussed too much. But strangely enough there are no negative remarks about the film. Nobody has got angry. The Dutch have embraced the movie. They must think that there is a certain kind of reality and perhaps there is the feeling that these people [in the film] are not them. They seem to accept the movie for what it is and these dark tones are not disturbing them. It might be that the presence of Carice Van Houten – who has a very strong, charismatic radiation – leads them through the movie without any problem. They can be with her and feel ok about everything. You would expect that the things that are revealed on the big screen would be hurting for a Dutch audience, but to my amazement, nothing like that happened. They embraced it.

Tell us about casting Carice?

I found her after seven hours of auditions. I auditioned for months for the whole cast. I was a bit out of the loop because I had been too long in the USA. There were many young actors that I had never heard about. Carice I had heard of from a movie in which she played a cat, which did not help me very much for this character. I brought in my old casting director and Carice came in very early on the first day of casting. At 3 pm she came in to prove what she could do. Within 20 minutes it was clear it was her – there was no discussion. Now I think the movie makes her completely special. But it was thrown in my lap really. In fact her girlfriend who came in with her got the part of the other girl. So I had them – these two important female parts – cast on the first casting day in one hour.

Was Carice told from the beginning how demanding the role was going to be?

Yes I gave her the script. She knew exactly and we discussed everything. Especially when it is about nudity I discuss everything. I would story board it and show her things. I told her what happens at the end of the movie. She was frightened to be in a coffin, more so than being submerged in shit. That was her real fear but we worked on that. I lay in the coffin and she lay in the coffin. We did all the psychological things to give her confidence. She knew everything; she knew exactly what I was going to do. I have always been very honest about everything like nudity that is unpleasant for actors. I tell them exactly what I want.

The scene when Carice is covered in human waste must have been very distressing?

First we tested it out on a stunt girl; to be sure that what was pouring down would not hit her too hard. We found out that you had to do it slowly, otherwise it hits you like a bomb or a stone on your head. So point one it was all taken care of so that there would not be any danger. Secondly she hoped, as I did, that we would get it in one take. But that was not the case. This is a difficult shot. We have to follow the human waste in a camera move as it goes from top to bottom. So we had to do that several times. That was highly annoying for her because we had all hoped that it would be one shot for 10 minutes and then she could get under the shower. But of course it went on for hours. But she is a good sport, she didn’t protest. I know that she was suffering and eventually she told me to roll in the shit after the shot was done. I said fine I will do that with her. Carice is an actress who when she is in character she will do everything. She does not think about it. She will not be frightened or annoyed, she will really be the character. She has that ability. She had to jump off a balcony and she was very much afraid. Of course there was something to catch her, but you never know. But when I said ‘action’ she jumped, her character pushed her through. And at the end after doing this scene she said let us go into the human waste. So I grabbed her and she said no, I just cleaned up. And ultimately we got a little bit in it but it was not necessary. But I would have done it [rolled in the human waste] for her. I think you have to be with your actor, on the ground, in the mud, in the shit, whatever is necessary. With nudity too. If necessary I would take my clothes off. A good example makes people follow so you have to be willing to do what the actor has to do. Often with stunts I try to do them myself to see if I would ask the actor to do it or the stunt person. If I don’t dare to do it then I would never ask the actor to do it.

How difficult was it to recreate World War II?

Much more so than when we did the other World War II movie in 1977. There is so much modernity now. There are perhaps 10 houses that are good and the streets are full of signs. To change that is very expensive. So it was a long search to find elements in the Dutch landscape or streets that would be simple enough to camouflage it. Ultimately we found these locations, mostly in The Hague. It took three or four times more time than in 1977.

You must be proud to have made the film and created a companion piece for SOLDIER OF ORANGE?

That is what it is. It is looking over the hill and seeing the other side. Coming back from the USA I had a strong inclination to be realistic and historically correct. I don’t know why – it might have been that I had done too many sci-fi and fantasy films – but coming from a realistic background I felt I wanted the different languages and the authentic locations. I wanted to stay as close to reality as possible.

How important do you regard the advent of DVD?

Very much so. Much more than you think. Especially when you make a thriller because you know you have to be consistent otherwise the second time they see it they will recognise that you are cheating. Much more than in the past you have to make a film that they will see for more than one screening. For me DVD is extremely important. I think about second viewing all the time. Also for a lot of people it is fun if as director you participate in these DVDs to give background information. I have done that on nearly all my movies. I know people like it. I prepare very well and spend a couple of days writing down notes. It is interesting for students, for people who really like movies and want to know a bit more. I am a big fan of DVD. It is a pleasure to be able to give your vision through DVD. For history it is important that you lay down your image. The audience can disagree and say he doesn’t know what he is talking about or that he was influenced from completely different things from what he is saying – but at least this is what I think on the DVD.

Now you could watch SOLDIER OF ORANGE on DVD and then BLACK BOOK and compare the two sides of the story?

That would be interesting to do that experiment. I did not look at SOLDIER OF ORANGE again because I did not want to be influenced. Neither did I look at any war movies but I did see documentaries. There is the great TV series THE WORLD AT WAR which I have at home and which I looked at often, just to get the feeling of that time again. I looked at a lot of photographs and research papers from that time.

Question & Answer Copyright Tartan Films