‘Total Recall’ turns 30 this year. I recently bought it on blu ray for $9, and among a big roster of special features is a commentary from star Arnold Schwarzenegger, and director Paul Verhoeven.
I mean, who could resist that? Here are 12 things I learned from listening.
1. The Original Script Came from the Writers of ‘Alien’
‘Total Recall’ is based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick called ‘We Can Remember it for You Wholesale’. The film rights were acquired by screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who bought them directly from the author, towards the end of his life. At the time, the pair hadn’t written much, they just liked the story and hoped they could get finance for an independent production.
But the complexity of the plot, and the likely cost of the imaginative sci-fi setting, meant backers were reluctant to invest. The script sat on the shelf. O’Bannon and Shushett than collaborated on a new screenplay called ‘Alien’, which would became a smash hit, one of the defining films in modern sci-fi.
2. David Cronenberg Also Worked on the Script
In the 1980s, B picture mini mogul Dino De Laurentis came on board as producer, and the production sputtered back to life. David Cronenberg was offered the directing job, and did some work on the script; the Martian mutants and Quatto, their leader who has grown symbiotically on another character’s chest, were his ideas.
After delivering what he estimates as 12 different drafts of the screenplay, Cronenberg left the project. De Laurentis wanted a more straightforward action film, and the original screenwriters agreed; ‘Indiana Jones on Mars’ was what they were after.
3. Richard Dreyfus Was Originally Cast as Quaid
In both the short story, and the original screenplay, our hero is more of a buttoned down, bored suburban drone. He’s an accountant, and tired of his dull life, which draws him to the fantasy memory service offered by ‘ReKall’.
Richard Dreyfus was attached to play Quaid, only dropping out due to the long period the film spent in development limbo. He was replaced by Jeff Bridges, with the script more or less intact.
Once Schwarzenegger came onboard, the character was changed significantly.
4. Big Arnie Hired Paul Verhoeven
In the late 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger, riding high on a run of successful action movies and looking for his next project, read the script. He was immediately interested, but imagined a much grander movie than what De Laurentis would have the budget for.
Flexing his star power, Arnie convinced production company Carolco to buy the film off De Laurentis. He showed his influence in other ways as well, taking control of aspects of pre-production. A fan of ‘Robocop’, it was his idea to hire Paul Verhoeven, who then did his own work on the script, bolstering the violence.
5. The Opening Scene Was Shot on a Tiny Sound Stage
While Schwarzenegger’s name brought greater resources to the project, the film was ambitious, required a lot of visual effects, and the budget remained tight.
The opening scene, a dream sequence where Arnie and a mystery woman have an accident and suffocate on Mars, was actually the last scene to be shot.
‘We had no money left!’ Verhoeven jokes. While the digital effects for this shot, the Martian backgrounds, were already complete, some close ups of Arnie and co-star Rachel Ticotin were required. So they found the cheapest sound stage they could; a set ‘the size of a basketball court’ in Mexico City.
‘There was no air conditioning,’ Verhoeven says gleefully. ‘It was very hot.’
6. The Film Utilises Mexico City’s ‘Brutalist’ Architecture
The film’s exteriors were shot in Mexico City. This was also to save costs, but it came with an added bonus; the city contains a number of buildings designed in the ‘Brutalist’ style.
Brutalism is a school of architecture, popular in the 1950s and 60s. Its bold designs feature large geometric shapes, constructed from brushed concrete. Brutalist buildings are angular and imposing; they were designed to look futuristic, and clearly still do. ‘Total Recall’ utilises several to create the world of Earth in the year 2084, most notably the Mexican Military Academy (pictured). This is where the Rekall offices are located, and where all of the subway scenes were shot.
7. Schwarzenegger Injured Himself Several Times
The shoot was tough and physical, even for a fitness fanatic like Schwarzenegger. In the scene above, where he has to smash the window of a subway carriage to escape his pursuers, he cut his hand badly, requiring several stitches. The glass was rigged to shatter right before he hit it, but the timing was off and he did actually punch his hand straight through.
More serious was an injury he sustained in the fight after the ‘red pill’ scene. In the ensuing donnybrook, he broke one of his fingers, and had to film the rest of the movie with it in a cast. Verhoeven had to carefully frame subsequent shots, so the injury could not be seen.
8. But Sharon Stone Revelled in the Fight Scenes
This was Sharon Stone’s breakout performance; a small, but important, supporting role as Schwarzenegger’s wife. According to the director and star, she trained very hard to get in peak physical shape, and relished the fight scenes, where she got to kick some ass.
She was so into it, she requested additional takes at times. Watching the bedroom fight scene pictured above, where Stone beats him up, Schwarzenegger says, ‘That hurt!’ with a laugh.
Verheoven was so impressed with Stone’s attitude and performance, he decided during filming to cast her in his next film, ‘Basic Instinct’.
9. The Director Added Some Dark Touches
While Verhoeven did not contribute too much to the script, he did add some of his trademark black humour to the movie.
It was his idea to make Stone the girlfriend of Michael Ironside’s villain, rather than just another agent. Cuckolding him was ‘a cruel twist’ Schwarzenegger says, that adds to the Ironside character’s motivation; everyone makes fun of him for letting Arnie sleep with his lady.
In another small moment, after a big fight scene, Ironside uncaringly treads on the stomach of a dead body as he chases Arnie. ‘Just showing how awful people are,’ Verhoeven says, laughing.
10. Verhoeven Also Speculates Quaid and Cohagen Were Lovers
Cohagen, played by Ronnie Cox, is the head of the Martian Government, and it is he who sends Quaid on his mind bending undercover mission. The two are presented as friends, and once Quatto has been assassinated, Cohagen wants the old Quaid back.
When Quaid resists, Cohagen is disappointed. But is it just that he wants a friend, and trusted ally, back on his side?
Verhoeven says, ‘I am detecting a lover type relationship between them. Look at how sad he is’.
Arnie, for his part, refutes this, stating they are just, ‘best buddies’.
11. The Fade Out is a Lobotomy
Throughout the movie, and commentary, Verhoeven speaks of the pains the film makers went to, to ensure the film could be read both ways. Either it is actually happening, or it is Quaid’s ‘Rekall’ experience, gone haywire. And part of the fun of watching it, is that you can decide which option you prefer.
But during the final scene, Verhoeven declares his own view. The film ends on a famous shot, the blue sky on Mars, with Quaid and Melina looking hopefully towards the horizon, then it fades to white before the credits roll.
Verhoeven says, choosing to fade to white was his way of indicating that in the real world, Quaid had been lobotomised. The red pill had been Rekall’s attempt to get him back, which had failed. And now this was the only way they could stabilise him.
It was all a dream!
12. A Sequel Was in the Works for a Long Time
‘Total Recall’ was a huge box office success. It was Schwarzenegger’s most successful film to that time (and would only be beaten by T2), and is still Verhoeven’s most commercially successful project. A sequel seemed logical.
A script was commissioned, loosely based on another Phillip K. Dick story, ‘Minority Report’. The idea was that Quaid has gone into business with some of his mutant friends from Mars, and now uses their telepathic abilities to solve crimes, before they are committed. In the commentary, Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven both express enthusiasm for the sequel, which they worked on for years, but state that Carolco’s late 90s bankruptcy torpedoed its chances. The rights were sold off in a fire sale, as the company collapsed. Both moved on to other projects.
Wikipedia mentions that directors Ronny Yu and Jonathan Frakes were attached to the sequel at various times, and that the script that was written was later much changed, and then used for the Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg blockbuster ‘Minority Report’.
Final verdict: Not the most insightful commentary I have listened to, but a lot of fun. Arnie mostly limits himself to enthusing about various scenes and actors, and at times, even just describes what you are watching; ‘And here, I need to get away from this man, because he wants to kill me’. Pretty funny. But his enthusiasm for the movie seems real. Verhoeven brings better anecdotes and a playful sense of humour, and I also enjoyed the funny way he says the word ‘guerrillas’, which sounds like ‘Grrr-rill-jas’.