Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh & Blood.
Most filmmakers would kill to make even a single movie that somehow finds its way into the pop culture lexicon. Paul Verhoeven, of course, is not most filmmakers. The Dutch director has been making feature films since the early 70s, and his career has so far seen him deliver no fewer than four movies that have gone on to become cultural landmarks. Robocop (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), and Starship Troopers (1997) all continue to be quoted, talked about, and celebrated for numerous reasons decades after their release.
Verhoeven tends to infuse his films with some combination of satire and sexuality, with his latest, 2021’s Benedetta, succeeding on both counts, but they don’t always click with viewers or critics. Flesh & Blood is a prime example of a rarity for the director in that it missed the mark with audiences in 1985 and continues to be fairly scorned by most who look back on it with fresh eyes. It’s easy to see why, but I’ve always found its dirty, ugly elements to be part of its antisocial charm.
Flesh & Blood was Verhoeven’s first English-language film and was somewhat butchered for its US release with multiple trims to scenes involving sex and violence, but a director’s cut was released restoring the footage to his preferred intent. He also recorded a commentary track for it, so of course, I gave it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh & Blood commentary.
Flesh & Blood (1985)
Commentator: Paul Verhoeven (director, co-writer)
1. The MPAA demanded trims for a US release amounting to less than two minutes of footage. This version has been restored to Verhoeven’s vision and is “as explicit as I originally intended it to be.”
2. Flesh & Blood was his first American production, “if you want to use that word, although it was mostly shot in Europe.”
3. This was his fifth — and final — film with Rutger Hauer. He doesn’t mention why the pair split professionally, but it’s been mentioned elsewhere that Hauer grew increasingly frustrated with the director and was pushed to his limit.
4. The film was budgeted at $6.5 million — Orion paid the bulk of it, with Dutch and Spanish production companies covering the final million.
5. Our introduction to Martin (Hauer) sees him scooping Eucharist wafers out of a cup and scarfing them down, “indicating his autonomy and the fact that yes he goes through the moves, but it’s all just he thinks he’s the center of the movie.” Verhoeven acknowledges the character is “extremely unsympathetic” but has “some nice sides.”
6. He mentions the “aristocratic thinking” that results in the wealthy and powerful avoiding the costs of war and reaping the profits, and adds that times haven’t changed.
7. We see the failed attempt to breach the castle gates, but the next scene shows the soldiers entering the open entryway. “I don’t know exactly why they open because we never found a solution to that and had no time to ram them,” he says, adding only “I’m sorry, but it’s as it is.”
8. The original script for Flesh & Blood changed quite a bit as it was originally about the friendship between Martin and Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) and how it disintegrated over time. The Ladd Company, the production outfit representing the film, preferred instead that a love triangle be prioritized between Martin, Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and Steven (Tom Burlinson). “We agreed to do that,” he says. “I’m not so sure that was really the right decision.” He does acknowledge, though, that relationship wound up less romantic and more cynical than the studio wanted.
9. This was his first encounter with the MPAA, but it was far from his last. “Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers were originally given an X/NC-17 and had to be cut by me to an R.”
10. “This was my first adventure in American movie-making,” he says, adding that it was impossible for a European director to make American movies from afar without experiencing US audiences and executives. “It was only when I started to do Robocop that I started to realize that American movies and European movies often are very different and for a different audience.”
11. “My kind of directing is sometimes difficult I think for actors, especially American actors,” he says, adding that cinematographer Jan de Bont was “nearly embarrassed and tried to warn me.” The issue was that Verhoeven would instruct actors through demonstration — through acting — instead of using his words to direct.
12. Verhoeven first saw Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) which he “thought was a really nice movie.” He was concerned if she’d be up for the “staggering” amount of nudity and sexual violence this role required, but she made it clear it wasn’t an issue.
13. The “love” scene between Agnes and Steven beneath the hanging corpses is an homage to Erich von Stroheim‘s Greed. which features some frolicking atop a garbage heap.
14. De Bont had previously worked with Verhoeven on some of his Dutch films but had already emigrated to the US by the time the director began to move forward with Flesh & Blood. He asked the cinematographer to return to Europe and shoot the film, though, as he always “because I thought his way of doing the camera was always pretty sensational.” They couldn’t reunite for Robocop because it was a non-union production (!) and de Bont had recently joined the guild. They eventually reunited on Basic Instinct for the last time.
15. The sexual assault scene that occurs after Agnes is discovered in the wagon at 44:00 was filmed without the usual benefit of a closed set as it was a night shoot requiring more crew than usual and featured numerous cast members and extras by design. Verhoeven suggests it must have but “extremely excruciating for her, but she [Leigh] accepted that without a word of complaint and participated in that scene in the most intense way.” It was heavily trimmed for the US release.
16. Some people accused Verhoeven of making a scene in which a girl seems to enjoy being raped, “of course nothing like that is the case.” He points out that Agnes is acting that way to diminish her rapist’s power and to give him the illusion of a bond between them. It’s an act of survival, and it works as it leads to Martin preventing her from being raped by others as they initially intended.
17. The interior of the chimney at 56:00 was filmed on a stage set. It’s one of only two such sequences in the film. The interior of the well that Martin is dropped into is the other one.
18. The castle that the rogues invade was also used in El Cid (1961). Charlton Heston found it extremely cold back in the early 60s, and Verhoeven’s cast found it the same — and apparently they complained leading to “a lot of irritation and anger.”
19. Dailies from the castle feast scene led some Orion executives to think they were getting a “fun” film like Tom Jones (1963). They were not.
20. The “hot tub” scene between Agnes and Martin was also trimmed for the MPAA including the bit where he pulls her towards him by her nipples. “Shocking.”
21. He admits that the bit where Hawkwood infects himself by rubbing his own face after accidentally popping a boil is executed “a bit over the top.”
22. The actors atop the castle wall at 1:14:30 were attached by hidden lines to prevent falls, and there were also nets built beneath the bottom of the frame in case they did anyway. They still didn’t feel all that safe up there.
23. The film’s editor, Ine Schenkkan, was a ballet dancer who broke her toes and switched careers. She also edited Verhoeven’s Spetters (1980) and The 4th Man (1983).
24. The scene where Hawkwood cuts his own boils is the rare example of Verhoeven censoring himself as he decided not to show the gory details.
25. The ladder contraption that Steven has built to breach the castle was weaker than Verhoeven had hoped. He had wanted to show several soldiers climbing it and falling, but they were limited for safety reasons to just a handful.
26. The shot at 1:28:01 is what convinces the cardinal (Ronald Lacey) that he’s following a God-chosen character in Martin rather than merely a man. It’s one of many “signs” throughout the film that the religious man uses to justify his antics and those of the other rogues. He learns the error of his ways later when the plague arrives to fuck up his day.
27. He compares the scene where Steven is tortured by rowdy rogues to the one in Robocop where Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) is toyed with and murdered by the gang.
28. The slap at 1:45:55 was meant to be staged, but it was a real slap. Verhoeven suggests it was either an accident or one fueled by the actor’s own irritations from the shoot.
29. Verhoeven points out that the only loyalty shown in the film is the relationship between the two gay characters (played by Simón Andreu and Bruno Kirby).
30. He admits the film loses a sense of reality when Steven wraps the chain around a tree in the hopes that a lightning strike will melt the metal and free him.
31. Flesh & Blood came at a difficult time for Verhoeven as he had been flirting with Hollywood and was receiving studio offers, but he wasn’t yet sure about leaving Dutch cinema. This film was the compromise, and it was a pain throughout thanks to limitations, conflicting actor accents, MPAA struggles, and more.
32. “I had to confront the American public, American culture, American language,” he says if he wanted to achieve an international career. He did so “mostly because my wife insisted I do so” and adds that left to his own cowardice it never would have happened. “The enormous amount of talent and expertise [in the US] is staggering of course if you compare that to the lack of it in European filmmaking.” De Bont drew a finer point for him saying that filmmaking is the same all over the world, but there’s just more people doing it in the US which affords a director more variety, skills, and so on.
33. “She seems to die too,” he says as Agnes is being strangled, “but of course that would be too dark I think for the movie.” He adds that they did discuss the possibility during production but decided it wouldn’t be commercial.
34. Studio executive Mike Medavoy was a big supporter of Verhoeven’s US efforts, and at the time of this recording — post 2000’s Hollow Man — he mentions being in talks with Medavoy for a couple other studio projects. Those plans, unfortunately, never came to fruition, and Verhoeven has only made four films in the past two decades, all back home in Europe.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“They felt the violence that I display in this movie was too much for a normal audience.”
“It’s not what we expect from an American movie nowadays, where everything has to be wonderful and positive, and where the darkest sides of humankind are projected to strangers and certainly not visible in the characters of our American heroes. We can just show people, be they Americans or be they Australians be them Dutch or Spanish, see them for what they are — bad.”
“Okay, so the baby’s dead, and it’s going to be buried in a little barrel, and the barrel is going to be in the ground.”
“Agnes is really a girl that knows what she wants.”
“This is Nancy Cartwright, very well-known from the Simpsons voice.”
“This is the ultimate love scene.”
“It’s amazing what Jennifer is willing to do there.”
“Christianity has always been an enemy of sexuality. Sexuality points to the horizontal, Christianity points to the vertical.”
“It was the worst shoot of my life.”
“Spain has the most beautiful castles ever built.”
“I have always felt a pleasure in portraying these women in many movies as very strong and having strong convictions, wanting to achieve something, but willing to go anywhere to achieve their goals.”
Flesh & Blood sees Verhoeven’s love for and knowledge of history come bubbling to the surface. Sure, the film itself only minorly so, but his commentary sees Verhoeven discussing real people and events from the Middle Ages along with thoughts on the Catholic Church, Communism, and more. The track was recorded in the early years of post-9/11, and Verhoeven makes more than a few casual asides to the mistreatment of Muslims and Middle Easterners as a side effect of the war on terror. The bulk of his talk, though, is focused on the film, and he rarely pauses to take a breath. As someone who listens to a lot of commentaries, it’s a refreshing change from filmmakers who pause again and again throughout.
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