An affluent businessman holds his 50th birthday party at his home in Amsterdam. As well as his wife and grown up children, his former mistress turns up, uninvited – and she’s eight months pregnant. Where will the story go? You, the public, can decide.
This was the scenario presented to the people of the Netherlands, which has resulted in the ground-breaking film, Tricked. It is the first movie ever to be written collectively by its audience and has premiered at two prestigious festivals – Tribeca in New York, and Aruba, a former Dutch colony in the Caribbean – and now the director is hoping for a global cinema release. But can a group of amateurs actually produce a good movie?
When posed this question, its executive director, 74-year-old Paul Verhoeven, who made Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, grimaces. “In the end, I think it was good," he says. "But it was difficult. I like a challenge, but I never expected it to be so hard.”
Verhoeven is the Netherlands' most prolific filmmaker, a man who delighted Hollywood in the 1980s with his lavish, violent and sexually explicit action thrillers. Yet he claims that he had been looking for another project ever since 2006’s acclaimed Dutch wartime drama Black Book. In comparison to his American thrillers, Tricked has roughly a hundredth of the budget – it was made for 1m euros.
He was, he explains, “searching for rejuvenation for myself, and at my age, that is hard to find. A professional scriptwriter, Kim Van Kooten, would write the first three minutes of the film, introduce the characters, and it would be put online. Then the public could submit scripts for what happened next, and I would choose the best ideas, pull the script together, and go and film it. Then we would put that on the internet, and again the public would write the next section.
“It appealed to me because I needed something new. There is no way I could do another science fiction film. It’s very rigid and storyboarded because of all the special effects. This idea took me back to my youth in the early 1970s, when I first made films that were free-flowing. Somewhere we have forgotten how to make those kinds of movies, and it was exciting to walk into a room and not know quite exactly what was going to happen. There was always going to be plenty of room for improvisation, even from the actors.”
Less rejuvenating, he admits, was sifting through the submitted plot ideas. When the first, professionally-written three minutes was put online in September 2011, within a week Verhoeven had seen 750 scripts from the public. He spent hours with a co-writer, Robert Thijm, searching for the best material, “and drinking a lot of coffee.”
Were there any great writers out there that he discovered? Tellingly, he pauses. “You know,” he says, “there may well be some talent out there waiting to be found. But frankly – I doubt it."
"We actually found the whole process a headache. Because no, the public can’t write – not professionally, anyway. There were some great ideas, but their main failing was that they had no idea of narrative structure. They didn’t know how to build to a crescendo, for everything to come to a head, so we could actually have an ending.
“Before we started this, I just imagined that I would get two or three scripts that would be outstanding, and myself and Robert would say, ‘okay, these are the best ideas and we’ll take this from script number two, and this from script number three’ – and half a day later we’ll be putting the finished material up online. Absolutely no way. Not a chance. It took at least ten days each time to look at the material. It was a nightmare."
Six months later, Verhoeven went to the executive producers to intervene. “The public would have gone on and on with the story, and we needed to finish. I drew the script together myself to end it and even then it was difficult. Sometimes,” he adds with a laugh, “I felt totally desperate about it.”
One of a kind?
However, he maintains that the ideas, and the script, “does belong to the public and it’s very much their movie. It’s in a young, modern Dutch that I don’t speak as I have lived for 25 years in America. I often found it difficult to keep up with their nuances and I learned a lot doing it.”
While the filmmaker has never had a problem admitting failure – he was the first ever director to turn up to Hollywood’s Golden Raspberry Awards when he won Worst Director for 1995’s Showgirls – the reviews for Tricked have been positive, with Empire Magazine calling it “ingenious"” According to its director, audiences have reacted differently according to their geographical location.
“Being a Dutch movie, it’s quite amoral, and I wanted it to be that way,"he says with a small smile. “But it’s been fascinating to see how the public has reacted. In Aruba, it’s quite different to New York. Our main character, the father, is a promiscuous man and Arubans are crying out for some punishment for him. They cared less in New York. We hope it will play at the Toronto Film Festival too, and it will be interesting to see how the Canadians react.”
Perhaps the memory of this "nightmare" has now faded, because Verhoeven talks wistfully of wishing it had been a longer project. For another 500,000 euros, he says, he could have stretched to a full, feature-length 100 minute film.
Will there be another one like it? The public have proved their power through Kickstarter that they can fund movies, but Verhoeven is dubious about whether Tricked heralds a breakthrough for amateur directors and writers. “I think that the public are more in control when it comes to directing news,” Verhoeven replies. “Look at what happened with the Boston bombers. That was a great example of them as filmmakers. But actually in movies that get seen in cinemas?
“What it’s taught me is that you can’t have a lot of scriptwriters. You need someone in charge, someone who really knows what they are doing in terms of telling a story. It’s like these talent shows where everyone seems to think that because they can sing a bit, they deserve success. Movies are still for the professionals.”