Paul Verhoeven: You Can't Crowdsource a Screenplay

“Everyone can write but there are few good writers. Just because everyone can [write] doesn’t mean that there’s talent,” Paul Verhoeven told an audience at the Tribeca Film Festival after a screening of Tricked, his crowdsourced film experiment.  “I wouldn’t think that [crowdsourcing] is the method to find [writers.]”


Verhoeven, a legendary director in Holland best-known to American audiences for Basic Instinct, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, which he calls “the world’s most expensive art film” for having the fascists be the good guys.  He was approached to do a crowdsourced film as an advertising campaign for a Dutch cable TV company, and he never expected the film to go beyond screening on television in his native country. Having seen the final product—a quirky family thriller—I can say that it’s charming, exciting, fresh, and definitely worth seeing; but that’s a testament to Verhoeven and his production team, not the loud avalanche of suggestions from thousands of people online.

“We tried to invite film schools all over [Holland] and they all said no, since they thought it was beneath them. So we only had the ideas of the public, which were all over the place,” he said.

Verhoeven shot the film’s first five minutes, written by screenwriter Kim van Kooten who gave the opening scenes plenty of intrigue, like a “Choose Your Own Adventure" book. She didn't know how the story would unfold. Based on those first five minutes, Verhoeven asked the Dutch public to write-in their suggestions for the next five minute installment, and repeated this process over the course of seven months until the film was wrapped.

“As actors, we didn’t know what the story line would be. [It gave us] a lot of freedom to be creative,” said Carolien Spoor, who plays the sardonic younger daughter.

Out of the 30,000 people offering suggestions and submitting five-page scripts, only 1,500 stayed engaged throughout the entire production. This core group also offered suggestions on production design, from what a protagonist's office should look like to the logo of his multi-million dollar construction company.

But the vast majority of the ideas created a haystack to shift through in the hopes of finding just one usable needle.

As Verhoeven told Entertainment Weekly:

It wasn’t like we went to the public and found a couple of people who are outstanding, like they do on these shows with the singing competitions. For the second episode there were 700 scripts for the next five minutes, so you have to go through all of them. So that’s 700 scripts multiplied by five pages: that’s 3,500 pages. Then you have to read it at least three times, so that’s 10,000 pages. So we whittled those 3,500 pages down to about 300-400 and used colored pencils to outline the parts that we really liked. So we then started putting those elements together and it was like a puzzle — well, a puzzle has a pattern. It was more like a mosaic. We have all these colored stones and just throw them in and try to make a picture with them.

How many of the suggestions were just totally out of left field? I tried to avoid using anything that couldn’t come naturally from the first five pages. People had the Russian mob or the Japanese mafia coming in and they would blow up the house, people would be killed, shot, stabbed, whatever — and there was no indication of that in the first five pages. So I tried to use the style of the writer, which was more of a modern comedy of [Ingmar] Bergman, I thought. To me, it was like a lighter Scenes of a Marriage, and I also thought of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. And without comparing it to Woody Allen, there’s some things that are reminiscent of his work too.

Verhoeven told the audience at Tribeca that he and his team largely wrote the screenplay themselves. So while the Internet remains a great place to fund films through crowdsourcing, it won’t write your screenplay for you.

Here's the trailer to Tricked

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