At the height of his camp powers, Paul Verhoeven embarked on his most risque American arthouse project yet: the NC-17 studio film Showgirls, about an exotic dancer (Saved by the Bell‘s Elizabeth Berkeley) trying to make it in the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. It was critically reviled when it was released, earning numerous Razzies and ending Berkeley’s career before it could begin. But over the years it’s been reclaimed as a camp, queer, “so bad it’s good” masterpiece. Now You Don’t Nomi is here to examine its second coming.
In the documentary, filmmaker Jeffrey McHale explores how notorious box office bomb Showgirls found a new life as a cult classic. The Spool staff writer Theo Estes (who also reviewed it) sat down with Jeffrey to talk about what inspired him, and his general thoughts on Showgirls. You Don’t Nomi is available on VOD platforms now.
THE SPOOL: It’s been about 25 years since Showgirls came out. What inspired you to make this documentary now? Do you feel it’s more of a personal passion, or is there a resurgence in interest [in Showgirls] as things have gone on?
JEFFREY MCHALE: It definitely started out as a personal project because I wasn’t quite sure what it was I was going to be making. I was at the [Showgirls] screening that featured at the end of [You Don’t Nomi] where Elizabeth Berkeley came out and introduced the film, and that was an amazing, amazing moment. It felt like you were witnessing cult cinema history right in front of you. After that, I just kind of wanted to dive a little bit deeper and find out why this thing has endured, and why we’re still drawn to it. Why I was drawn to it.
And I was just fascinated by all the writing that had been done about it. The books, the poems, the musical, and these really, really interesting, diverse takes on this really complicated film. And so, from there I started reaching out, and then after I had these conversations with people who shaped the afterlife, I knew that’s where the story was. Talking about how this film has lived. Not necessarily how it was made, but how it has lived.
How did you get exposed to Showgirls originally? In the documentary you talk about people like Peaches Christ, who does midnight movie screenings with drag queens acting. Is that how you got exposed to [Showgirls] as a cultural phenomenon, or was it more mundane?
I wish! It wasn’t nearly as exciting as that. It was still exciting because your first Showgirls screening is always exciting. I was with a friend late one night in his apartment when I was living in Chicago, and something about Showgirls came up, and he was just offended that I hadn’t seen it yet. So, he walked over to his DVD shelf and popped it in, and we watched it right there. And my mind was just kind of blown. I’d never seen anything like it, and I didn’t want it to end.
Speaking of weird Chicago things, when my brother moved to Chicago, we watched that on his first night in Chicago too. Funny that’s where you said you saw it.
Were you always a Verhoeven fan, or did you discover these motifs that tied his movies together as you were making this film?
I definitely wasn’t aware of all those motifs before this project. Like any American here, you’re only familiar with his blockbusters. You know, sci-fi. Starship Troopers was the first one I saw. And then I went back to watch Robocop and Total Recall. That was my frame of reference. I always kind of enjoyed him as a filmmaker, but never really explored his early work until I started this project.
And when I went back, I picked a title, and when it came in the mail I popped it in. I didn’t expect to find all the connections I did, but when it happened it was so exciting. Because it was specifically these strange little motifs and moments and movements and things that happened in Showgirls that you really can’t explain.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why they’re there. And once you look at his work as a whole, you see all the threads connecting back to Showgirls. Connecting back to those moments. It’s so weird. It was definitely connecting the dots for the project, and I wanted to find a way visually to make a new subplot where Verhoeven’s films and characters were interacting with the contributors in the documentary. Their experience with the film interacts with Showgirls.
I really appreciated that because I had never seen his early films too. I had only seen the American stuff. That was interesting to see, and now I want to watch them.
Yeah, you can’t look at Showgirls without looking at his work as a whole. I thought that was really important to tie everything together.
And to bring that back, one thing that was mentioned early on in the documentary—and that’s something I personally think watching it—[is that Showgirls was meant to be a satire], even though Kyle MacLachlan said it was always supposed to be some huge drama. I guess in the end it doesn’t really matter, because we have what we have. But do you think the intent was [Showgirls] was always supposed to be more satirical, or do you think that’s just Verhoeven backtracking? Because his other films are very satirical, and that satire, especially for Starship Troopers, goes over a lot of people’s heads.
I’m still surprised when I hear people talk about the satire they didn’t see in Starship Troopers because it seems so obvious. I think it would be hard for a filmmaker like that to put that satire hat up for rest for one movie, and then take it back down for the next. He’s a provocateur, and I know that’s a thread throughout all of his career, and he uses satire to do that. I don’t think he skipped that for Showgirls. Just reading people’s interviews of the cast and crew, one of the interesting things was the evolution of the way people talked about it.
I wanted to look at the text and see the way it was described [at the time], because the way he described the movie in his book of essays was very serious. He was holding a mirror up to American society—at least that’s what he said. It’s hard to really analyze what his true intent was; people change their story once they see how it goes. But I wanted to analyze every aspect of it.
The documentary gives two competing views of Showgirls as something that’s so bad it’s good or something that’s a misunderstood masterpiece. I think from the film I have an idea of what your opinion might be, but I’m curious to ask you outright. Do you think it’s “so bad it’s good,” or do you think it has a deeper message underneath the campy acting?
I think both of those can be true. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think it’s a unique film that succeeds because of those failures in a unique way that is truly special with Showgirls.