On Friday, August 24, 2012, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven dropped by the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood where American Cinematheque screened a 70mm print of his 1990 movie “Total Recall.” Joining Verhoeven for a Q&A after the movie was two of its screenwriters, Ronald Shusett and Gary Goldman. They discussed the rigors of making the movie, and of how the script eventually made its way out of development hell.
As we all know by now, “Total Recall” is loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Shusett said he and the late Dan O’Bannon, writer of “Dark Star” and “Alien,” bought the rights to the story back in 1974, and they completed their first draft in 1981. From there it was set to be made into a movie, but the project kept falling apart time and time again. Filmmakers like Bruce Beresford and David Cronenberg had worked on it for a long time but eventually pulled out due to creative differences or studios canceling the project because of its enormous budget.
“Everything kept falling through over and over again,” Shusett said. “Sets were built, but then the project kept getting canceled because it was too expensive. Back in 1990, this was considered to be the most expensive movie ever made. I wanted to keep all those sets that were built from being torn down, and I asked one studio executive how I could save them. He responded that I should change the movie’s name to ‘Partial Recall.’”
Verhoeven got involved in “Total Recall” because Arnold Schwarzenegger had picked him to direct after seeing “Robocop.” Schwarzenegger had actually been interested in doing the movie for a long time and had encouraged Carolco Pictures producer Mario Kassar to buy the rights to it from Dino De Laurentis whose film company had gone into bankruptcy. The movie had already gone through many drafts, and it took one specific scene to pique Verhoeven’s interest:
“I came to the scene where Dr. Edgemar (played by Roy Brocksmith) visits Arnold’s character on Mars and tells him that he’s not really here,” Verhoeven said. “In that moment you are not sure if what you’re seeing is real or a dream, and that got me really excited because none of the movies I had made in Europe ever had a scene like that. What Edgemar tells Arnold is that what he is experiencing is not true, so we had to prove it wasn’t true again.”
Working with Carolco Pictures on “Total Recall” was “paradise,” Verhoeven said, as they never forced anything on the filmmaker other than actors they hand-picked to star in their movies. He also said the beauty of Carolco is that they never subjected him or the movie to test screenings. Verhoeven went on to make “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” for Carolco, and then the gigantic flop that was “Cutthroat Island” ended up forcing the company into bankruptcy.
Schwarzenegger was set to be the star of “Total Recall” no matter who directed it, and Verhoeven said he was perfectly fine with that. Changes in the story had to be made though as his character was originally an accountant. Verhoeven and the screenwriters ended up changing his profession to that of a construction worker as they all agreed you could not go around Arnold.
Verhoeven also pointed out how having Schwarzenegger in “Total Recall” made the movie “very light” which was great because, as put it, “the straight way of telling the story would not have worked.” This has been further proved by Len Wiseman’s remake of the movie which even Verhoeven admitted “wasn’t good.”
The main problem with adapting any Philip K. Dick story to the silver screen is that they are basically told in two acts, and finding a third act proved to be very difficult.
“I got really scared because there had already been forty drafts written, and we could never seem to figure the third act out,” Verhoeven said. “It eventually came down to Hauser (Schwarzenegger’s secret agent character) always being the bad guy as it gave us somewhere to go.”
One audience member asked Verhoeven how Sharon Stone got cast in “Total Recall:”
“Sharon came in the first day of casting, and after a half hour I was convinced she would be perfect as Lori,” Verhoeven said. “Once we were filming the movie, however, I came to realize what she could do as an actress. After one fight scene where she almost kills Rachel Ticotin’s character and Arnold aims a gun right at her, she quickly changes moods in what seemed like a heartbeat. It was Sharon’s final scene before her character was shot that made me want to choose her for ‘Basic Instinct.’”
Goldman told the audience movies like “The Matrix” and “Inception” wouldn’t have happened without Verhoeven’s pushing the idea of the dream in “Total Recall.” The audience applauded this sentiment loudly, and the movie still holds up well more than twenty years after its release. It’s a shame the producers of the recent remake failed to realize what made the original so good as one of them described Verhoeven’s movie as being “kitsch.” That producer is now eating their own words in the wake of the remake’s critical and commercial disappointment.