Paul Verhoeven is due for a comeback in the United States. He mentioned at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier in the week that Showgirls sort of ruined him in Hollywood, and that Starship Troopers didn’t help matters either since the fascist utopianism of the story didn’t go over so well. Then again, if he gets his druthers and finally makes his Jesus movie — in which Jesus is a political figure like Che Guevara — he may not be back stateside for a long, long while.
Back in his native Netherlands, Verhoeven engaged in an interesting filmmaking experiment. The first four minutes of a script were written, and he invited his countrymen to write the next few minutes of the screenplay, which he’d then shoot. And then after that next few minutes was completed, he’d ask for crowdsourced material again.
The result is Tricked, the first half of which is a making-of documentary, and the second half is the actual crowdsourced film.
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Director: Paul Vehoeven
Country: The Netherlands
Release Date: TBD
This sort of storytelling technically isn’t new. The surrealists and dadaists used to do exquisite corpses, in which one person would start a story and another person add onto what was previously written, and again and again, until some poor bastard had to finish it up and tie all the loose ends. I remember reading a novel written in this fashion called Naked Came the Manatee, in which each chapter was written by a different Miami-area writer. (It included bits by Dave Barry, Elmore Leonard, and Carl Hiaasen.)
Verhoeven was more selective in his process, and also a bit more limited. As he explained in a discussion after the screening of the film, he was stuck with amateur writers in the country since none of the film schools in The Netherlands wanted to participate. He received lots of wonky material that didn’t quite work — stuff with the mafia, aliens, wily-nilly deaths — and other bits that just didn’t consider narrative structure. Rather than just pick one script for the next few minutes, Verhoeven and his team read all the scripts, picked lines and elements they liked, and revised as needed to fit everything together. There’s precedent for this in Verhoeven’s own career: there was supposedly 41 or 42 drafts of the Total Recall script, and elements he liked from each of the various drafts made their way into the final film.
As Verhoeven says again and again in the documentary portion of Tricked, not knowing what was coming next would force him to adapt and be creative, which is an ideal instinct for any artist to unlock. Too many times a director or writer or visual artist can develop certain habits or routines. Anything that can help break these habits results in forced creativity, as if new skills are being invented or old skills are being reconsidered and reevaluated. That’s the nature of constraint in creativity: limitation can lead to new avenues of exploration.
While it is genuinely fascinating to consider this, the making-of segment of Tricked goes on a bit too long, but it’s mostly because the same ideas about unpredictability and creativity get continually restated. Once the storytelling machinery is described and we see Verhoeven labor over the notekeeping and organizational duties of synthesizing thousands of pages, I felt anxious to see the actual movie. As the anticipation kept mounting, the first half felt flabbier and flabbier.
Once the short film portion of Tricked kicks in, the project catapults in odd fashion, which probably has a lot to do with the bounding, farcical score. The set-up from the original four minutes written by Kim van Kooten: Remco (Peter Blok) is celebrating his 50th birthday when Nadja (Sallie Harmsen), a woman from his past, shows up unexpected, uninvited, and eight months pregnant. Subplots are built around it, including sexual tension between Remco’s pervy son Tobias (Robert de Hoog) and his sister’s friend Merel (Gaite Jansen).
From this starting point, the story in Tricked takes plenty of sexy and sleazy twists, which would be the sorts of things found in sexy and sleazy soap operas. Tricked is full of double-crosses and some signature Verhoeven reversals/reveals, though it’s very light in tone rather than dark or thrilling. I assume some of this was Verhoeven trying to feel his way through the tone of what he was given, and maybe the stuff that stuck with him was the light stuff. Parts of Tricked feel genuinely unpredictable since Verhoeven and his cast were unable to anticipate and telegraph things, while other parts feel more old hat.
Maybe Tricked could have been spiced up even more had Verhoeven resisted his impulse for a cohesive narrative that fit with van Kooten’s original pages. I wondered what would happen if Verhoeven had decided to add a mafia element or aliens and then had to deal with that complication that didn’t fit the initial scenario. He mentioned in the Q & A after the film that one frequent contributor to the project was a guy who wrote scuzzy sex scene after scuzzy sex scene, creating an entire BDSM scenario that Verhoeven never considered putting in the film. But what if? That would have made the movie a full-on exquisite corpse and totally unpredictable, which would make the final attempt to tie things up a remarkable feat that would push Verhoeven into really bizarre territory.
Instead, Verhoeven’s end result is an interesting assemblage based on what appealed to him and his sensibilities. A full sense of unpredictability is replaced by a kind of controlled play and narrative safety. Elements can be picked and used as needed or discarded if they don’t work or if Verhoeven isn’t interested. In that way, Tricked is more like playing with Legos rather than entire toy box that’s been dumped out on the floor of the living room. Verhoeven also mentioned that there were 12 amateur versions of Tricked that were made by others since all script pages were public online. Verhoeven watched and borrowed shots from these alternate-Trickeds — homage as flattery and theft as flattery, I guess.
Verhoeven fans will probably find Tricked more amusing than people just watching it out of curiosity, and even then, the movie itself doesn’t have the compelling bite of Verhoeven’s best work in his past. I still admire the experiment and ballsiness of it, but it would have been more interesting if Verhoeven had jumped into the unknown without a parachute. Maybe another adventurous soul could give this process a go with a group of writers and make something strange and satisfying out of it. If someone reading this is willing to try, just remember to keep the mafia, the sex, and the aliens in there — the total unpredictability is half the fun.