24 Things We Learned from Paul Verhoeven's ‘Total Recall’ Commentary

Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger might not have the chemistry of a Carpenter/Russell, but this is still a very good commentary.

Total Recall

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Kate Erbland buys a one-way ticket to Mars but discovers too late she has to share a seat with Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Luckily she gets to listen to their commentary on Total Recall along the way.

It’s taken 33 Commentary Commentaries, 33 different movies we’ve heard all kinds of people from directors to actors to whatever was going on with Cannibal: The Musical, but we’ve finally gotten to AH-NOLD. That’s right. This week we’re looking into Total Recall, that mind-melting actioner from 1990 wherein Arnold Schwarzenegger uses a completely innocent bystander as a human shield, loses his memory, and saves just about every mutant living on Mars. He doesn’t save the girl with three breasts, though. That probably deserves a spoiler alert.

But it’s time to hear what Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven have to say about the whole experience. With the remake headed our way this Summer, we felt it was time to find out everything we could about this modern classic. Maybe this time next year we’ll have a Total Recall 2012 commentary from Colin Farrell and Len Wiseman. Wiseman has already offered a commentary for his film’s trailer, but there’s no way in the world it’s going to be as entertaining as listening to Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger. No way.

Let’s get our asses to Mars, shall we?

Total Recall (1990)

Commentators: Paul Verhoeven (director), Arnold Schwarzenegger (thespian, Governator, once killed a Predator)

  • Verhoeven would go on to make two more films for Carolco after Total Recall: Basic Instinct and Showgirls. The director makes sure to see “to a certain extent” when talking about Showgirls. Schwarzenegger had already done a film for Carolco: Red Heat. If you haven’t seen that action gem, you truly must. On with the commentary.
  • Schwarzenegger mentions he would like to work with Carolco again. The company has been defunct now for six years. Schwarzenegger hasn’t starred in a film in nine.
  • Schwarzenegger went to Verhoeven to direct Total Recall. He wanted to work with the director after he had seen Robocop. Schwarzenegger walked up to Verhoeven while the director was having lunch and told him he had to work on Total Recall. Verhoeven agreed and brought most of his Robocop crew along with him, cinematographer Jost Vacano and editor Frank Urioste included.
  • When Verhoeven came on board, he notes there were 33 drafts of the screenplay up to that point. The director brought Gary Goldman (Big Trouble in Little China) in to work on the final draft.
  • Verhoeven says the Arnold puppet effect of Quaid falling on Mars would be done with digital effects today. We know it’s true, but we still wish it weren’t. The puppet, by the way, was created by Rob Bottin, makeups effect artist from The Thing.
  • The director jokes about Sharon Stone being timid on the Total Recall set, particularly the first bedroom scene where the actress and Schwarzenegger have a tryst but don’t show any nudity. “I took revenge in Basic Instinct,” jokes my new idol the director. It was also Stone’s ability to turn charming or devilish at an instant that made Verhoeven cast her in that later film.
  • Let’s step in just to say that listening to Arnold Schwarzenegger doing play-by-play over his own movies is truly something to behold. The way he points out his nuances in acting – “You can see here with the eye. No matter what I do, the kissing the hugging with her, I’m more interested in what’s going on on Mars.” – is just something that can’t even begin to be described. It has to be experienced. These moments won’t be pointed out. Well, maybe a few.
  • Verhoeven is sharp to point out the duality of the film. Obviously we have Quaid and Hauser, but the director notes that this could all still be part of Quaid’s original fantasy, that he’s simply in a dreamworld, experiencing it all. He points out that the actors in Quaid’s world at the beginning of the film could be genuine people, not agents who are spying on him. Much of the commentary is devoted to Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger explaining how the two sides work. In all honesty, they end up making the film more confusing.
  • The visual effect of people walking behind the weapon detectors was attempted using motion capture, but this failed. Because they had captured Schwarzenegger’s movements, the visual effects artists were able to copy it exactly for the effect seen.
  • In an early draft, Quaid was written as an accountant. According to Schwarzenegger, Jeff Bridges was intended for the role at that time. He had replaced Richard Dreyfuss. This is gold, people. We’re 10 minutes into the movie.
  • “Here’s what the movie’s really about, Paul,” says Schwarzenegger early in the film, who then proceeds to explain to Verhoeven what’s happening in the scene where Quaid goes to Rekall. A debate and discussion on the duality of Total Recall begins. It’s basically the two explaining to us the two sides to the film, but hearing Verhoeven say, “…and, of course, the tubes that you see at the end of the movie when the nuclear reactor starts” followed by Schwarzenegger’s, “Right” is magical.
  • Michael Ironside was one of the first choices to play the titular Robocop, but issues with the script kept that from happening. Verhoeven was sure to hire him for Total Recall.
  • “Yeah, I like that,” says Schwarzenegger the moment his character, Quaid, uses an innocent bystander as a human shield against two men with machine guns. “What else are you gonna do under the circumstances?” Verhoeven notes the MPAA had a serious issue with this scene in an earlier form. Evidently, it was even more brutal. Several cuts had to be made throughout the entire film before the MPAA would release it with an R-rating.
  • “We have no idea what was in that cab that it exploded, but it exploded, anyway,” says Schwarzenegger, questioning the very values of action movies from the ’80s and ‘90s.
  • They originally intended to shoot a scene with Quaid traveling to Mars, but lack of remaining budget forced them to cut it out entirely. Verhoeven points out that it was realizing this that led to Hauser’s repeated message of “Get your ass to Mars.”
  • The shot of Quaid traveling by train on Mars and sweeping move over a Martian mountain was going to be cut from production. Like the scene with Quaid traveling to Mars, it was being cut due to budgetary concerns. According to Verhoeven, Schwarzenegger stepped in and convinced the studio to give the production enough money to complete this one shot. When Arnold speaks, studios listen.
  • “Such sick looking people,” Schwarzenegger says when Quaid first encounters mutants. He adds that Verhoeven designed the look of all the mutants, including the three-breasted woman, which Schwarzenegger is sure to point out. He laughs, so he could be joking about that part. “She’s a cutie,” he finishes when the little girl reads Quaid’s fortune.
  • Plans for Total Recall 2 were underway shortly after Total Recall was released in the Summer of 1990. According to Verhoeven, it was to follow the team of mutants Quaid comes into contact with and was to be based on another work from Philip K. Dick, “The Minority Report.”
  • “She has three breasts, huh?” says Schwarzenegger, almost out of breath at that point. That might have been his idea from the start, come to think of it. He also laughs his ass off when the mutant woman gets shot in the back later.
  • Verhoeven based the look and actions of Edgemar, played by Roy Brocksmith, on the professor in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. The director wanted to cast the role as someone “naive and strange and a bit weird.” He also took some of Alfred Hitchcock’s shot compositions and camera placement low to the ground for the scene between Edgemar and Quaid.
  • The chase sequence in taxi cabs on Mars was shot in one stretch of tunnel that was 30 yards long. Schwarzenegger recalls filming the sequence and the fine dust that got into his lungs. “Very dangerous for the lungs,” he says. “Is it?” asks Verhoeven. “Oh, yeah,” Schwarzenegger replies. Don’t worry, Mr. Verhoeven. The statute of limitations on anyone getting sick has to be up.
  • Kuato, as with all of the practical effects and makeup in Total Recall, was created by Rob Bottin. 15 puppeteers worked the character, but the makeup was essentially a chest plate worn by actor Marshall Bell. According to Verhoeven, the makeup took six hours to build on Bell. Schwarzenegger mentions he can relate after playing Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin.
  • Verhoeven notes the film had an extremely high body count for the time. He and Schwarzenegger agree that it was the highest of its time. The body count on Total Recall is 77, which is pretty tame when compared to something like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. That movie had a body count of 175, and that was in 1978.
  • “Here everyone realizes for the first time that there is now oxygen on Mars, and that you can, in fact, exist. Now everyone has a right to breathe the oxygen, and there’s no more dictatorship and all that.” Schwarzenegger’s closing words could bring a tear to any mutant’s eye.

Best in Commentary

“Philip Dick is trying to tell you the situation of life. That’s the question of all human beings, yeah? Where do I come from? Where am I going?” – Paul Verhoeven

“No regard for human life. Or death.” Arnold Schwarzenegger

“Marshall Bell I used again as the cowardly general in Starship Troopers, in fact. He was killed by a bug falling on top of him.” – Paul Verhoeven, who then proceeded to drop the mic.

Final Thoughts

Keeping up with the Total Recall commentary takes some getting used to. The amount of knowledge stored in Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger’s heads and the velocity with which they spew it forth is overwhelming. There are moments early on where the volume of the film kicks back in, the commentators subside for a moment, and you’re allowed to take a breath. Then Quaid goes to Mars, and the commentary becomes mostly the two explaining everything we’re seeing or Verhoeven explaining how the film works if you look at it all being inside Quaid’s head. That monopolizes the time, and while it doesn’t give us a whole lot to work with, it’s still fascinating just to hear these men speak.

The way Verhoeven says “innit?” in place of “right?” is adorable beyond compare. But it’s Schwarzenegger who throws out gem after gem, some of which don’t work unless you really hear him. Statements like “I run around like an Indian” or “My frustration about this taxi cab does not understand where I want to go” or “There’s one of my famous one-liners of mine.” hit one right after the other. To hear them done with that perfect, Arnold inflection makes it all worthwhile. Get your ass to the Total Recall commentary.

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