‘Showgirls’: Paul Verhoeven on the Greatest Stripper Movie Ever Made

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After getting his start in his native Holland with wild, sexually explicit dramas like Spetters and Turkish Delight (a 1974 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film), director Paul Verhoeven came to Hollywood in the Eighties and rebranded himself as a can-do-anything sci-fi filmmaker with a slightly satircal bent. If you needed to make a film about a cyborg cop (Robocop) or send Arnold Schwarzenegger to Mars (Total Recall), he was your man. But after tooling around postapocalytic Detroit and outer space, Verhoeven took a step back to his eroticsploitation, semi-perverse roots to make 1992’s Basic Instinct.

Written by Joe Eszterhas, the film racked up more than $350 million at the box office faster than Sharon Stone could cross her legs, and pushed the boundaries of just how far a thriller could go in order to titillate its audience. So it’s hardly surprising that producers began lining up to try and make lightning strike twice by re-teaming Verhoeven and Eszterhas, and letting the filmmakers call the shots. Which is how, three years after Basic Instinct made its debut, Showgirls hit theaters on September 22nd, 1995.

Unless you’ve been living in a bunker without a television — or at least basic cable — for the past two decades, you’ve surely caught at least a few minutes of the dancer-with-a-dream-heads-to-Las-Vegas-to-make-it-big stripper flick. (There’s a good chance it’s on VH1 right now.) Planned as an NC-17 project from the get-go, Showgirls was almost universally panned upon its release, with reviewers citing its over-the-top acting, its kitschy spectacle and general lack of sexual heat as dealbreakers. What they weren’t getting is that these elements were all part of its creators’ master plan — which is why we’re still talking about the film today.

On the occasion of this insanely quotable camp classic-cum-cunning satire of the American Dream celebrating its 20th anniversary, Rolling Stone asked Verhoeven to talk about the making of his infamous movie and shares his thoughts on what he still considers a “perfect” film.

Joe Eszterhas and I first began talking about Showgirls around 1991 or 1992. We’d had some problems on Basic Instinct, with the script and all that, and had a falling out. But then, because of Basic Instinct’s success, he changed his mind. So after a year of animosity, we had a pleasant lunch at the Ivy in Los Angeles, and he presented me with a couple of ideas for another film to work on together — one of which was Showgirls. The idea was to make a film that was situated in the world of Vegas, where the protagonist would be a girl who basically just starts with lap-dancing and then comes into the big casino shows. That was the original idea.

Then Joe found a producer who wanted to pay for the script. [Eszterhas was paid a $2 million advance, with more to come once the screenplay was sold to a studio.] He started to write, and then there was a script, but I disagreed with it at that point  — mostly due to the fact that the story was not so original.

Anyhow, there was another project that came up suddenly: Crusade, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. So I started working on that, with the same company, Carolco Pictures. We were already building sets of Jerusalem in Spain, but then there was a problem with the financing. Carolco was spending a lot of money on another movie, Cutthroat Island, and that all went wrong. So Crusade was buried and we decided to pick up Showgirls again.

We had already done a lot of research. We spent weeks and weeks going to Vegas and talking to everybody in the sex industry, if you want to use that word — the choreographers of the big shows, the producers, the lap-dance girls, the dancers in the big shows. We interviewed about 30 or 40 people, and a lot of the things that you see in the movie came directly from these conversations. Even the storyline was partially taken from those interviews. We continued working on the script, with the idea of taking it in the direction of something like All About Eve. Probably the biggest change was the addition of the Molly Abrams character [played by Gina Rivera], the friend that Nomi makes in the beginning of the movie. The idea was to have a girl on the side who helps her.

I have said this in several interviews, but in retrospect I think it would have much better to have done something similar to Basic Instinct, more or less: a murder mystery in Vegas. And it would have been easier for audiences to go to a movie where there was abundant nudity — which was probably too difficult, in general, for the American public. In Basic Instinct, there are very, very long sex scenes, which aren’t there in Showgirls. Because it was a thriller, the idea that Sharon Stone could kill him during sex was always an element of protection. So we could show sex and nudity much longer than normal, because there was another element there — the element of threat.

But the sexual elements of Showgirls are extremely limited; it’s more about the nudity. If you make a story about a lap-dancer who becomes a showgirl, I think nudity is obligatory. It followed the storyline. But I wouldn’t call that sexual. I would say Showgirls is more anti-erotic than erotic.

“When I was in high school in Holland, my art teacher said: The breast of a woman is the most beautiful thing in the world. I never forgot that.”

With Basic Instinct, I had endless fights for months with the MPAA about what I could and couldn’t show in the film. Which is why the American version is different than the European version, which is much more explicit. We had to go back to the MPAA eight times with that movie before we could get an R rating, which is what my contract required. I had a long conversation with Mike Medavoy, who was then the head of TriStar, who told me, “If we make Basic Instinct as an NC-17, it could make $50 million or $250 million — I have no idea. But if we make it as an R, it will certainly make $150 million. So let’s do that.” [The film went on to earn more than $352 million worldwide, making it the ninth highest grossing film of 1992.]

That was the reasoning. And it made sense, at least from a business point of view, so I had to adapt to that. But going back and forth between the studio or the editing room and the MPAA, having to go back and change more and more frames…it was very unpleasant. Strangely enough, the shot of Sharon Stone spreading her legs was never a problem.

So I foresaw exactly the same problems — or worse — with doing Showgirls. So I told Joe and the others, “If you don’t do this as an NC-17, I’m not going to do it.” Because I didn’t want to fight with the MPAA about one breast here, or another breast there, and another breast over there. So from the beginning, I was very clear that I only wanted to make the movie with that rating. 

It was a big move for a studio to agree to that. In the United States, it made around $20 million which, at that time, was basically a loss for the studio. Of course, in retrospect, they certainly can’t regret it because the DVD made an enormous amount of money for them. It’s now one of their bestselling movies ever.  [The film, which was shot on a budget of about $40 million, earned more than $100 million in home video sales. And, theatrically, it remains the highest-grossing NC-17 movie ever released.]

In terms of casting the movie, one of the main concerns, next to acting, was the dancing and nudity — both of those elements being extreme. The actress would have to be able to dance. And she also had to be willing to show full-frontal throughout the film. These elements, especially the nudity, are extremely difficult for American actresses to accept. And Elizabeth Berkley was the only actress that combined all three.

I had never seen Saved by the Bell, so that didn’t count too much for me. I chose her because she was the right choice. There was no competition. It was clear that, after months of looking for somebody, we had found Nomi Malone. It’s probably true that casting her in a part so different from how American audiences knew her affected the box office. But I didn’t know that series, and I had no idea what kind of character she played int. It was really the auditions that ultimately made us decide to go that way. Perhaps it was not so handy from a publicity point of view, but you could also say that it was a brilliant idea to cast an “innocent.”

People have, of course, criticized her for being over-the-top in her performance. Most of that comes from me. I pushed it in that direction. Good or not good, I was the one who asked her to exaggerate everything — every move — because that was the element of style that I thought would work for the movie.

I asked David Stewart of the Eurythmics, who was our composer for the film, to write the music for the big Vegas shows in a kind of banal way, because I was thinking an American audience seeing a show called “a musical” was probably expecting these numbers to be written by Leonard Bernstein and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. So I didn’t do that. I wanted to push the fact that it was all not-so-good stuff. I won’t say “shit,” but that’s what it would be. It was basically over-the-top Vegas. And I’m responsible for a lot of those things.

I always felt that it was what you might call a hyperbolic approach to filmmaking. Yes, it was over the top. And that was on purpose. The environments were very flashy. There were too many lights, too many idiotic things, and too much Vegas — not only in the surroundings, but “Vegas” in the way the people behaved, in the dialogue, in the acting. As for the finished product: I thought it was perfect. Otherwise I would have changed it. I had time to change it. I could change whatever was there.

Even now, when I see the movie, I think it’s shot in an extremely elegant way. There are beautiful movements of the camera, and beautiful choreography of how the camera worked with the actors and how the actors moved. I think it’s Felliniesque, certainly, in its over-the-top stuff. And I think that the whole thing, somehow, was completely rejected.

One of the most interesting, or the most terrible, and the most fascinating things to happen with Showgirls was the reaction to it. I had not at all expected that I would be brutalized by the critics. Critics would say, “I had to leave the theater” because they had to throw up, it was so dirty, decadent — whatever description they gave it. That was astonishing to me. The feeling of total amazement that the film was received with an absolute full spectrum of animosity will never disappear. When my movie Spetters was released in Holland in 1980, there was a similar reaction. But the big difference was that that movie had a very big audience. Here, all the reviews were terrible, but people didn’t want to see it either.

The backlash, and the consequences for me in the Hollywood industry, are certainly not something I will forget. After Showgirls, nobody trusted me anymore, other than with the movies that had been working very well, which was the science-fiction stuff. I started with RoboCop and Total Recall, but I tried to get away from science fiction. Then all the doors that were opened for me were all closed by Showgirls. It made life more one-dimensional as to what I was able to do. That’s why I decided to go back to myself again with something like [WWII movie] Black Book in 2006.

“What stands out for me is the elegance. That sounds strange to people when I say this is a very elegant movie, but I think it is. It’s probably the most elegant movie I’ve ever done.”

I don’t think that it’s a movie that could ever be made anymore. Ever. Because nudity is more taboo than ever in the United States. You see these movies and the sex scenes are reduced to a couple of dissolves where you see a hand on a back, but there are really no sex scenes in American movies anymore. There are exceptions, of course. But not many.

Yet 20 years later we’re still talking about the movie. You never see anything like it anymore, something so outrageous but very well filmed: the lighting, the sound effects, everything. There’s a lot of nudity; but it’s not exploitative. It’s not a porno movie. I think the nudity in Showgirls is not done in what you would call a “dirty” way. For me, the female body is extremely inspiring and beautiful. When I was in high school in Holland, my art teacher said: The breast of a woman is the most beautiful thing in the world. I never forgot that, and I’ve always felt that way.

When I think of the movie, I see all these brilliant colors and of these beautiful movements — of the body and of the camera — and what stands out for me is the elegance. That sounds strange to people when I say this is a very elegant movie, but I think it is. It’s probably the most elegant movie I’ve ever done.