More than a few opinions were changed about the upcoming Total Recall when that trailer hit last month. The big summer sci-fi blockbuster’s preview sold an epic scope, the chance to explore a new world, and a fresh take on Philip K. Dick‘s story. Gone was Mars, the mutants, and a body builder acting like a killing machine. What director Len Wiseman is bringing to the table is more in line with the tone of Dick’s short story: serious, heady sci-fi.
Wiseman has unquestionably made a film that will contain its fair share of explosions and one-liners, but the mystery of Douglas Quaid is what piqued the Live Free or Die Hard filmmaker’s interest the most. “Who am I?” is a quintessential life question, so imagine the stakes of having to answer that while being chased down and shot at.
Speaking with Wiseman, the busy director discussed his reliance on practical effects, building an entire world without too many talking heads, and the identity crisis Douglas Quaid faces.
Do you pay attention to the online world? A lot of skeptics were won over by that trailer.
Yeah, which has been good. I think a lot of directors who say they don’t pay attention to it are lying, personally. Also, before I started directing, I was on the geek sites and all that stuff. It’s exciting to see the reactions, and it’s like anything: some people are going to love it and some are very skeptical, but it’s all fun and good. You know, I love the ones that say, “I had written this off, I was going to boycott this film, and this trailer now makes me want to check it out.” That’s always good. I had quite a bit of that going on with Die Hard as well.
Based on that audio commentary trailer, you seem to get the story’s core idea of “Who am I?”
Yeah, it’s what honestly draws me to the movie. That question, if I see that in any kind of movie, just grips me. I’m a sucker for a “Who am I?” movie, whether it’s Salt or all the way to Darkman. I remember the Darkman poster when I was kid, saying, “Who is Darkman?” I was trying to figure it out.
[Laughs] Early on, producer Neal Moritz mentioned how this version was going back to the book, which is a pretty short read.
It’s a short book. I think that was early on in the process. Those comments were out there before I got involved, so I don’t want to mislead people. It’s not closer to the book, as much as it’s more of the tone of the book. The book is just over 20 pages, and there’s not a lot there. The original film is obviously its own adaptation of that, and I took it into the direction Paul Verhoeven went into. I don’t want to lead people that we’re sticking to the book, because the book is a short story. It’s a great hybrid, really. It’s a remake that goes in a completely different direction, and the direction it goes in does feel more in tone with what I experienced when I was reading the story in college. I saw the movie first when I was a teenager, but didn’t read the short story until later on. Reading that short story, at the time, it felt more grittier and more serious. When I read the script, I felt it was different.
Right, the book is much more grounded.
Yeah, the book doesn’t ever go to Mars. The threat and the mission of Quaid is to stop an invasion of Earth. The film twisted it a bit, but Mars was the one who was being invaded by Earth, in the sense that Mars was in peril. In the short story, it was more that Quaid had to save Earth from an invasion.
Is that a part of your film?
It’s more towards that direction, in terms of staying on Earth and the threat that takes place on Earth. We don’t go to Mars, and that’s very different.
And you do have hover cars, which are briefly mentioned in the story.
Yeah, exactly. That’s very specifically done. The way that the world sounded to me when I read it and what I pictured… I just remembered reading it and thinking about hover cars, and I knew I had to pull that off. I pictured them traveling about.
Any chance of a Johnny Cab hover car?
I thought about it. There’s definitely a few things I wanted to pay homage to and do a nice twist on, and it’s just fun to do that in our new tone. Some of them are a little more tucked away. There are some that are obvious tributes, while a few things in there are so different and have a new spin on it, which I think only hardcore geeks will pick up on.
It gets risky when you do stuff like that, where you feel like you’re constantly being nudged or winked at.
Yeah, it’s just doing a little twist on it. You’re always of two minds about it: you don’t want to pull away from your own movie and want to exist as a film “film,” but a part of the reason why some people are going to go see it is because of their love of the first one. I’m no different, so I think those things can be fun.
It’s always tricky, trying to please those fans as well. If you stick too close to the original, you’ll get called redundant. If you stray too far away, people will say, “Why call it Total Recall?” Where was the middle-ground for you?
Your words are my words. I feel exactly the same. [Laughs] At the end of the day, if you’re not willing to shoulder that a little bit, then maybe don’t do that movie. I get it. It’s annoying, because you want it to stand as your own film. You’re absolutely right. It’s, like, how do we reinvent this and make it right, but make it similar at the same time? Even though Die Hard wasn’t a reboot or a remake, so much of the press around it was a comparison to the original movie and the original John McClane. The fact that I kept Bruce bald some people flipped out about; it was a huge deal to them. I mean, it’s 20 years later and he still has the same comb over, Homer Simpson thing? Forget it.
[Laughs] That must be infuriating.
You do get to the point where you just can’t please everybody. I just feel it’s a part of the game. When the film is not out there yet, it’s the easy go-to conversation and comparison. As a director, you sign up for it and know it’s a part of it. Until a remake comes out and it’s its own film, you’re going to have a little bit of that. Once the movie comes out it becomes its own movie. When Die Hard came out it became the Die Hard movie, where you talk about the movie itself, rather than if John McClane has a wife beater.
Did a part of “making the film your own” come from the tone?
Definitely the tone, the world, the mystery of the adventure, and it’s just such a different approach. When people ask me about how much of a different take it is, the best way for me to describe it is that it’s a remake of the premise and the concept of Rekall. Like the original film and the short story, it’s about what Rekall offers: the ability to manipulate your mind and the adventure you go on. I didn’t want to do the same adventure of the original film.
You talked about the “manipulating your mind” aspect in that trailer commentary, and when you think about it, Rekall being a sketchy place makes sense.
I wanted to pull it away from being an advertised, accepted thing. We’re talking about screwing with your brain chemistry, and that cannot be a widely-accepted thing. You know, that trailer thing was weird. I had never done a commentary on a trailer in my life. Have you seen those before? It was the first I even heard of it.
I think they’re cool. They’ve been around for a year or two.
I got a call like, “You got to do a commentary for a trailer!” What was I talking about before that?
[Laughs] Your take on Rekall.
Yeah, it was kind of weird to me in the original film that…obviously, within the groups around him, it was considered very sketchy, and yet it was put together much more as a travel agency thing. In our film, it’s more of a drug culture thing, more of a mind trip than the other film. I wanted it to be a bit dangerous. If you’re going to go do this, there’s going to be a risk involved.
When you see Quaid on his balcony, the world looks to have a very Chinese-like influence, and same goes for the opium den take on Rekall. Is the idea that China has taken over?
It’s funny; it’s a mix of everything. When you find out what’s happening with the plot, all these different cultures have had to come together. The architecture, the clothing, and the city shots, everything is a melting pot of cultures. 70% of the world, in our story, is uninhabitable. Humans have had to gather together in certain protected zones around the world. In the trailer, there happens to be a few of those worlds you see, and we did a lot of practical builds. With the colony world, it’s a mix of Asian, Russian, and Brazilian architecture. In fact, what you don’t see is where he’s living is more of a Brazilian habitat structure that has more of an Asian influence. The Rekall thing, I just wanted a place that felt very zen/opium den, a relaxing and dangerous atmosphere.
How was the process of setting up that whole world? Is there more showing than telling, like that shot of Quaid?
I’m very into doing visual exposition, and I try to explain the world all through action. For instance, the car chase has to show you how the future transportation system works. Rather than being a boring history lesson or being introduced to how it works, you get to see it while you’re gripping your seat through the action, thinking, “This is how the world was built due to the population problem.” Let’s see all that through action, rather than being told through news reports. Obviously you have a lot, so it’s a balance. You have to have talking heads and news reports when you’re 100 odd years in the future. It’s great to be able to experience that through a character as he’s going through the world, and it’s fun.
You seem to be going for an actual vulnerable version of Quaid. When you watch the original, you never actually think Arnold is going to die.
No, it’s a weird thing. I absolutely hands down loved it as a teenager. Honestly, I watched it as an Arnold movie, not as a Philip K. Dick story or a science-fiction film. It was much more of an Arnold action film, and it works so well on that level. There is a superhero quality to him already, of course there is. I wanted a Quaid that, again, felt a little more like the tone of the book: an average man. A part of the story I love is the wish-fulfillment: wanting to be something more than I am, and being able to fantasize about that. When you’re starting out with someone who already feels so much like a super spy, it’s a little bit of a different position. He’s basically going on this mystery, and the detective work is about him finding out about who he is.
And you start off that investigation with that 360 shot.
Funnily enough, that was a character’s way into such a complicated technical shot. [Laughs] People ask me, “Wow, does that show up a lot?” Really, it was specifically for that moment, to be in that character’s head. I wanted the audience to get the same kind of feeling he would. I think I talked about this in that trailer commentary, but it was about creating something where you don’t take a breath until he would. I knew that could only come across if the camera doesn’t stop, so how do I not have the camera stop if he has to kill twelve people?
Plus, you actually know what’s going on because the camera isn’t shaking all over the place.
I like to see what’s going on. I understand the handheld, but I always get bugged if I’m not able to see what’s happening within the action. Also, I try to get the actors to do as much of the action themselves, and they go through great lengths and pain to do the action. If they’re going to do it, I want to see how.
Is that shot of Quaid jumping off a balcony practical?
Oh, yeah. God, we wired him up on everything. I don’t think we have any CG actors, but there is one that I think you can tell. Well, I can tell it’s a CG performer. I really do get in there and try to do as much practical as possible. I don’t like showing up on set with just green screen. For a movie like this, where you’re trying to build a whole world, we built a lot of it. For instance, the car chase. The first production meetings I had with my visual effects team and production company, they just assumed it was going to be CG. When you read “hover car” chase now, you think you got a lot of CG work. There is a lot of CG in the world, but I wanted to shoot the cars like a car chase. We built these cars, and then shot this thing like a car chase. The effects are a slave to our practical car chase, rather than the other way around.
I imagine it’s a pain when it comes to shooting a lengthy set piece like that.
It was a massive undertaking, and it really was the most challenging part of the entire shoot. The way you shoot and cover it is different because you don’t have any wheels. I’ll tell you, it was challenging, but it was also super fun to shoot. We’d take these things down the road at 65 miles per hour, built six of these hover cars, and put the actors in them.
To wrap up, with this being your fourth film, what would you say you learned from your previous films that you applied to Total Recall?
This is going to sound very boring, but I’d say scheduling out to do everything you want to do and having a better graph of that. With Underworld, a line producer and AD were putting together a schedule for me and I said, “Sure, man.” You have no idea about schedule and how long you’re going to need to do certain things, and how to really get what you want there. There’s that side of it, which is a technical thing you learn as you go. It becomes immensely valuable to be able to plan as creatively as possible. I’ve learned that, at four o’clock in the morning, where I’m there with my storyboards and planning it all out, that costs me nothing. When I’m on set trying to figure something out, it costs so much money just to think. You have to be really creative with how you’re going to get your shots, and I like to shoot as much of a film as I can.
The other side, on a creative side, I’ve learned to really build this creative bubble with your actors, which can get you through the stress. If you bring them through your process a bit more, it helps. The actors are the only ones on set who aren’t worried about going over budget, if you’re making your day, and all those other things that come into a director’s stratosphere of stress. They’re only concerned about one thing: the creativity of the movie, the performance, and the story.
Total Recall opens in theaters on August 3rd.