Sharon Stone crosses her legs. A murdered policeman is resurrected as a robot. A Vegas showgirl gives of her flesh. Arnold Schwarzenegger repopulates Mars. This is the cinema of director Paul Verhoeven, and, well, it's not very Christian. Biblical? Definitely. Those lush visions have stuck in the minds of moviegoers like a New Testament of modern America, a sci-fi porno about identity crisis and corporate greed. Now the 71-year-old Dutchman has published Jesus of Nazareth, his agnostic reading of gospel history. In it, he recalls choosing his film career over evangelicalism and his wife's unwanted pregnancy. I asked the director of Basic Instinct, Total Recall and Showgirls, who will read at Powell's next week, just who the devil does he think he is, anyway?
WW: Many books have been written about Jesus, at least one of which is still in print. So why this book, and why now?
Paul Verhoeven: You could argue that nearly all books that are written about Jesus where people have done thorough research, are written by Christians. And here is somebody [me] who looks at it from a completely secular point of view. So I think that would be interesting for people who also have their doubts about divinity, but are still perhaps interested in the figure of Jesus, as a historical person who changed the whole world by his teachings. That's what it is all about and not, not in my opinion, that Jesus was elevated to divine status. That, I think, was a mistake.
You're trying to restore what you see as his ecumenical ethics to the man himself.
Yeah, clear. In my opinion Jesus was wrong about certain things, but even as he was really wrong in thinking that the Kingdom of God was going to be there shortly, and that the exorcisms were approved, at the same time—I call it a paradox nearly—he invented these parables, and the parables are expression of an innovative ethics.
Does that make this book a work of existentialist faith?
[Laughs] Well, I have certainly not looked at it that way. It's more an attempt to bring back historical reality, as far as you can do that. I would call it human behavior. What is Jesus preaching as preferred human behavior, and how much are these ethics that he's pointing out applying to us in any way? Do we need them, or do we prefer not to listen to them, and keep Jesus as a god that has already intervened for us, and we don't have to do much anymore? My faith is probably science.
You write: "I have no idea why, but I have been fascinated by Jesus since I was a little boy." Is this book an autobiography?
No, because it's only telling a part of my life. I followed some theological discourses when I was at university, but I was studying mathematics. It was only in the United States, when I joined this seminar, the Jesus Seminar—but only based on the fact that I wanted to make a movie—that it started to be a part of my life. I think I've spent much more time on movies than on Jesus of Nazareth. For me it's really curiosity that drives me in general.
The book is a beginner's guide to the Gospels. It also has your personal theory of Jesus as a cross between Che Guevara and Bertolt Brecht.
I would say the parallel is slightly there with Che Guevara, but of course Che Guevara's ethics are different than Jesus'. And if I compare him with Brecht, that is only in the way Brecht has tried in his work to keep distance, to avoid the identification that happens in American movies, where for the pleasure of the audience you can identify with the hero or the heroine. And I think the parables Jesus invented and spoke follow a little bit more Brecht than, say, Hitchcock.
In your book you describe scenes from your proposed movie about Jesus. In one scene, Jesus does carpentry work, and pauses to look down on actors rehearsing in an amphitheater. Is this Jesus as movie director?
Clearly, yeah…. Every time I think [of a] film scene to make things clearer for the audience or to give them a feeling of how a movie about Jesus might be, I have announced it as a film scene. I think I'm cautious not to confuse what I would do for a movie and what I think is something that historically makes sense.
When you're directing a movie shoot, do you feel like a religious leader yourself?
No. Perhaps more like a dictator. I think that's probably what you need on the set, because everybody comes to you with their questions. But perhaps instead of saying you are a dictator, you could say in a somewhat nicer way that you're the captain of the ship. You have to lead, you have to tell them what they should do, and it's your vision that makes the movie. Unless the studio prefers something different, of course. But then you might be, let's say, enslaved by studio views.
It's been a decade since you last made a film in the U.S. How come?
After 2001 or 2002, I could not find anything I really liked. Looking for scripts like Basic Instinct or Starship Troopers, I could not find anything, and if I found them, nobody wanted to make them, because they were not pleasant enough.
You couldn't find a good script in Hollywood so you went to the Gospels.
Yeah, sure. And this is my Gospel.
Paul Verhoeven reads from
at Powell's City of Books, 1005 West Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, April 6. Free.