Total Recall is an action thriller about reality and memory, inspired anew by the famous short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories. For a factory worker named Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), even though he’s got a beautiful wife (Kate Beckinsale) whom he loves, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs. But when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man. Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) – there is no one Quaid can trust, except possibly a rebel fighter (Jessica Biel) working for the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy). The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate. The film is directed by Len Wiseman. The screenplay is by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback and the screen story is by Ronald Shusett & Dan O’Bannon and Jon Povill and Kurt Wimmer. The producers are Neal H. Moritz and Toby Jaffe.
Total Recall’s re-imagined journey to the silver screen began in 2008 when producer Toby Jaffe was perusing a bookstore, looking through the sci-fi shelf. “I was looking at all the books I read as a young guy, and I picked up a Philip K. Dick anthology and read the short story ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,’” he recalls. “I remembered it was a great sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy.”
Of course, Dick’s story had been adapted for the screen once before, in 1990, under the title Total Recall. Jaffe began thinking that the time might be right to revisit Dick’s story for the screen and brought his idea to Moritz, who read the short story and re-watched the 1990 film.
“We just felt like we could make a fresh version of the original story,” Moritz says. “By reimagining the story, we thought that there was so much more to the characters and story that we could investigate. That felt fresh to us.”
The reason is that Dick’s story feels as cutting edge as when it was first published in the 1960s. “The genius of the story is this idea that you can implant a memory into somebody’s head and when they wake up, they will feel they’ve lived it,” says Jaffe. The set-up opens up a treasure trove of questions: what is memory? How do we know what really happened in the past?
“That concept of Rekall, as Philip K. Dick created it in his story, is what made me want to direct this movie,” says Len Wiseman, who is best known for directing the first two Underworld films and Live Free and Die Hard. Wiseman also has an art department background, having worked on such big budget sci-fi hits as Independence Day and Stargate. Wiseman’s take on the film was to delve deeper into the main character by creating a hybrid of a psychological thriller and an action film that just happens to be set in the future.
“We were lucky enough that he wanted to do it, and we were kind of off to the races really quickly with him,” says Moritz.
Instead of events occurring on Mars, Wiseman keeps the action on a far-in-the-future earth dominated by two nation-states – United Federation of Britain and The Colony. Like Dick’s story, Wiseman’s says, “There’s a whole other kind of experience on Earth with which to take this character.”
“When we reminded ourselves that Philip K. Dick didn’t send his characters to Mars, that really opened up the possibilities,” says Jaffe. “Once we were freed to keep the character here on Earth, like Dick does, we weren’t constrained by the setting, the era, or the hows and whys of getting him off the planet.”
To play the central character of Quaid, Wiseman cast Colin Farrell. “It was very important that Quaid is just an ordinary guy,” Jaffe says. “Colin just brings a real genius to him as an actor. There’s a likeability onscreen that you just feel he’s a real guy who could be a real factory worker.”
“It’s a common story, a man who feels that he isn’t living the life he should be living – a man experiencing some discontent with his lot in life,” says Farrell. “But he gets a rude awakening, which is that he really isn’t living the life he should be living. Quaid has no idea who he is, beyond a deeply cellular or emotional level. The whole movie is him trying to figure out who is the real Quaid.”
“I really wanted to get more involved in Quaid’s experience,” Wiseman explains. “I mean, imagine: you wake up, you go about your life and you inherently feel like a good guy… All of a sudden, everybody around you starts telling you that you’re a bad guy. What do you do?”
With that in mind, Farrell approached the role as a battle between emotional and intellectual and tried to maintain that balance. “It brings up issues of identity, ego, and super-ego – it’s fun to wade into that psychological pond a bit,” he says.
As part of his development of the character, Farrell did some unusual things – including sleeping overnight in the Quaid Apartment set. “I just wanted to see what it was like to have an evening and then wake up in the morning in that space,” he says. “It was lovely, actually.”
“Colin really dedicated himself to this character,” says Moritz. “He’s in just about every scene. There were many days that he was standing in the rain all day long, wet as can be, and still, every day after filming he’d either go to yoga or lift weights.”
The filmmakers were next faced with the challenge of casting two strong female roles: Lori and Melina.
To portray Quaid’s wife, Lori, the seemingly loving wife who turns ruthless killer, the filmmakers brought on Kate Beckinsale, Wiseman’s real-life wife of seven years. The two previously worked together on the Underworld films.
Beckinsale said she was particularly attracted to this project because of the role’s duality. “I’ve never played a bad guy before. I’ve always been on the side of truth and justice,” she says. “But the thing is, my character thinks she is on the side of truth and justice. That’s the great thing about this movie – you never know who’s on the right side. Also, there’s a slightly maniacal side of her – she’s slightly out of control, and that’s always fun for an actor to play.”
The script originally called for a blond character, but Wiseman thought it made more sense to cast someone who resembled Melina, Quaid’s true love. “My idea was to set him up with a fake wife that has some real similarities to his real love,” he explains. “If that surface memory is coming back, it makes sense for her to have a vague, familiar vibe about her.”
To portray Melina, the filmmakers needed an actress that could take on the difficult physicality of the role. Melina first appears in Quaid’s nightmares, but later, in the flesh, helps him rediscover his previous life. “She’s his GPS system – she shows him the way home,” says Farrell.
Wiseman brought on Jessica Biel to play the role. Biel was attracted to the part by the themes of the story. “We’re completely tapping into one element of what Philip K. Dick’s story is really about: identity issues, relationships,” Biel says. “He doesn’t remember her…He doesn’t remember that they love each other, that they are passionately connected. That’s what interested me.”
Farrell recalls several occasions of late-night discussions between himself, Biel and Wiseman. “There were just oceans of questions to be asked about our characters,” he recalls. “Jessica was great to have chats with in between takes, and often, she, Len and I got together after work. One night, we went off to Len’s hotel, the three of us, and just sat around bantering back and forth about lines and ideas,” says Farrell.
Biel particularly enjoyed the onscreen chemistry with Farrell. “Colin has been one of the reasons that this experience has been so enjoyable,” she says. “He’s inspiring to watch. I find his performances just continually layered and complicated and complex.”
“The female roles required women who not only were likable and attractive but could actually be physical,” says Moritz. “And Jessica Biel can fight like the devil and Kate Beckinsale can probably beat the devil. So the two of them, you know, in these sequences of having to be physical throughout the whole movie, were incredible.”
To portray the ruthless Cohaagen, chancellor of United Federation of Britain, the filmmakers brought in Bryan Cranston, who has won three straight Emmy Awards and been nominated for three Golden Globes for his leading performance on the television series “Breaking Bad.”
“Bryan has an intensity and an eloquence and an edge to his personality that comes across on screen,” says Jaffe. “It’s why he’s in such demand as an actor.”
Cranston explains that he never saw his character as a “mustache-twirling villain. The character of Cohaagen to me was interesting to play because I wanted to present a guy who does have this need, this absolute desire and thirst to be in control,” he says. “At the same time, he has a tremendous fondness for Colin Farrell’s character, and I wanted to play him like a father figure, to treat him as if he were a rebellious teenager who just needs some tough love.”
Award-winning actor Bill Nighy joins the cast as Matthias, the leader of the UFB resistance. Nighy, who has worked with Wiseman on the four Underworld films, said it was the director that initially attracted him to Recall.
“I like him enormously,” Nighy says. “He’s always made great movies, and I loved his Die Hard movie. But then I read the script and it’s rip-roaring. I read a lot of sci-fi, and I liked the ideas involved in this project.”
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Wiseman’s approach to Total Recall was to build practical sets wherever possible. “Of course, there’s a lot of CG in this movie, because there’s certain things you just simply can’t do,” he notes. “But if you can make it real, then I try to do it. I love to build it and draw it, create it and shoot it.”
“He wanted to make it as real as possible, because he feels it looks better,” says producer Toby Jaffe. “He feels the actors perform better when they’re hanging off of a car as opposed to hanging off a block on the stage. So it was part of our agenda from the beginning to build practical versions of our futuristic cars and shoot on real locations.”
Wiseman approached friend and colleague Patrick Tatopoulos, who directed Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, to design the production. Tatopoulos knew it was a project he couldn’t pass up. “First of all, Len was directing it,” Tatopoulos notes. “Secondly, the script was very exciting. For example, I liked the concept of this gigantic elevator going through the Earth – for me, that’s even better than going to Mars.”
Tatopoulos and Wiseman have worked together so often that the production designer felt he was on familiar and comfortable ground. They’ve developed an almost psychic connection, he jokes: “We’ve worked together on multiple movies and have known each other for many years, so we’ve always seen things in a similar way,” he says. “I’ll turn around to talk with a crew member to say, ‘I think it should be more like this,’ and Len appears two seconds later to do the exact same thing. We are very connected in that way.”
Wiseman agrees. “He’ll go and work on an idea, put something together, and I know that it’s going to be something I’m going to like,” he says. “There’s this running joke – and it’s been tested – that set dressing will come to him with 35 different options for something, and he’ll pick two. And they’ll bring the same 35 choices over to my office, and I’ll pick the same ones.”
For Total Recall, the idea was to get across the idea that the film is set far in the future – but not so far into the future that it is unrecognizable. Instead, it’s very much a world that could grow out of our own. “We tried not to push the envelope too far,” says property master Deryck Blake. “So if you look at a lot of our sets, a lot of our props, we try to start with what we have today and not try to go too far out there.”
Jessica Biel says that the ability to do a scene on an actual set made a world of difference in her performance. “If the set is beautifully done and is so realistic that you can’t see the seams, it becomes another character,” she notes. “It becomes your reality, and you step onto the set and it just transports you to wherever you need to be. Emotionally and physically, it’s hugely important.”
Tatopoulos says he is most proud of his work on the The Fall – the giant elevator going through the earth, connecting United Federation of Britain with The Colony – due to the fact that it is nothing like he’s ever seen onscreen before. “I’ve never seen a concept like that in a movie before – a gigantic elevator going through the earth,” he explains. “So that allowed me to do something really fresh and new. It’s actually designed around the concept of a 747 airplane, so it feels familiar or real to people watching the movie. When you’re watching the movie, I want it to feel relatable – not like you’re just watching a movie.”
Jaffe was blown away when he saw the completed product. “I remember reading the script and thinking, ‘Oh my God! There’s an elevator that goes through the core of the earth! How are we ever going to do this,’” says Jaffe. “Once Len and Patrick got involved, and we had seen the drawings, it became more tangible. But it really wasn’t until we got on the stage and saw the incredible sets that it all hit home. They’re just amazing.”
One of the most challenging sets to bring to life was The Colony, replete with a Waterfront District, which needed to be strategically designed.
“It’s as big as a real city,” says Tatopoulos. “So we had to design a set that allowed the director to shoot different angles and never feel like we’re going down the same street over and over.”
“We built a U-shaped set, and we cut it up like a pie and shot sections to make it look like different elements, different parts of town,” explains Wiseman.
Farrell says he was extremely impressed with the Colony sets. “It’s some of the most incredibly carpentered, finely detailed work that I’ve ever seen on a film set,” he expresses. “It’s just magnificent stuff. You can go as close as you want to any product that’s placed in the background of a shot, and it’ll look real. I think that completeness pays off – it has a feeling to it, an energy that’s pervasive. It just makes the film feel more real.”
Much of the work of the crew was in creating the sense of two separate and distinct worlds: the upper-crust and sterile UFB set against the grittier Colony.
For director of photography Paul Cameron, that meant creating lighting textures that define the two nations. “UFB has cooler light – the sun shines but it’s never just ripping sun. It’s softer,” he explains. “As opposed to The Colony, which has a prettier sepia or green tone to it. We also layered the world with digital fog later on.”
To further delineate the two regions, Wiseman called for a continuous rain to fall upon The Colony, an element which Tatopoulos feels brings credibility to the sets. After all, a set is just a set – a fiction, with materials painted to look like concrete or metal. To make the fiction play, sometimes you need to add something real – and in The Colony, rain was just the thing. “It brings reality into the world,” says Tatopoulos. “The water drops onto the floor and creates puddles, the actors walk through, and suddenly, you feel like you’re not on a set anymore.”
Even when visual effects would be employed – as with the hover cars – Wiseman used a mix of the practical and the virtual when he could. “We actually built the hover cars and fixed them on top of street racing cars. The actors sit up top and the drivers are down below,” Jaffe explains. “I like that better than the actors sitting in a shell on green screen. You see the vibration and you have the actors’ performances reflecting the reality of it at every turn.”
Farrell recalls the experience: “We had two cars slamming into each other, and I must say, I wasn’t at my butchest those days,” he jokes. “But I’m glad they did it this way. It was great fun, and there are some real reactions they got in there. There is definitely a texture of reality and sound and sky that they couldn’t have put in later.”
Whenever possible, most of the actors performed their own stunts. “I mean, literally, every other day, we’re hanging upside down on a wire, getting pinched in all areas, floating upside down, getting yanked and firing a gun – that was all really cool,” Biel says.
Bryan Cranston also did a lot of his own stunt work, which proved to be an enlightening experience. “Stage fighting is like learning a dance routine,” he notes. “You have to know specifically what’s going to happen next to make it work. I think I only stepped on Colin’s toes twice.”
Farrell, in particular, worked closely with stunt coordinator Andy Gill (Fast Five, Minority Report) and fight coordinator Jeff Imada (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, Hanna). “You get schooled when you come to work with them,” he says. “You get practical lessons that you’d never need to learn, if you weren’t doing this job.”
One of the most challenging scenes to coordinate was the first fight sequence between Quaid and the police at the Rekall den, where Quaid first discovers that he may not be who he thinks he is and has abilities he never knew he had.
“From a character standpoint, I wanted the sequence to feel like he didn’t have a chance to catch his breath,” Wiseman expresses. “I wanted the audience to experience the same thing.”
But filming such fast-paced, non-stop action was going to be a challenge for all involved. The stunt team had to choreograph and train Farrell for the fight sequence that would involve multiple moving cameras. Wiseman would rely on the state-of-the-art Doggicam system (a hybrid super-slider track and high-speed camera, typically utilized in action-packed car chases) but would require three sequential Doggicam set-ups, all attached to computer winches, which was unprecedented.
“The computer winches allowed us to have conversion points of the three lenses at the exact point every time, so it looks like a continuous shot as we go around,” Gill explains.
The cameras travelled at 15 to 20 feet per second and were all synchronized, so the action moves very quickly.
“We have nine stunt people, with Colin in the middle, and everyone has to do their certain move at exactly the right moment or else the whole thing wouldn’t sync,” explains executive producer Ric Kidney. “Everyone rehearsed it for about a month.”
ABOUT THE VISUAL EFFECTS
The film’s visual effects were overseen by Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Chiang, along with Visual Effects Supervisors Adrian de Wet and Graham Jack. Visual Effects house Double Negative (a/k/a DNeg) handled the vast majority of the 1600-1700 VFX shots in the movie.
Wiseman’s approach was to build as many sets as was practical and shoot whatever he could in principal photography, but even with this approach, it was obvious from the beginning that the film was a futuristic thriller that would require heavy visual effects work – from set extensions that built the Total Recall world into many tiered layers to the extensive hover car chase at the center of the film to the “synths” that make up Chancellor Cohaagen’s security team.
De Wet says that he was not at all surprised that Wiseman shot most of the film practically, and was, in fact, encouraged by the decision. “It’s great to have something physical to start with,” he says. “No matter how good you are as a CG artist, actually having a basis in reality is important. The film has to be convincing.”
“Len’s vision was absolutely right,” says Chiang. “He wanted to have the actors interact with the world as much as possible, shoot as much as possible, so that he could get a feeling of what the end shot would be. It was a great benefit to us, too. We nerdily analyze all of the fine detail from the principal photography and base all of our decisions on that – decisions on how we’re going to light, how we’re going to set extend, all of the objects we’re going to put in. It really gave us a quiet, subconscious understanding of what Len liked, so we could use that to our benefit to make that blend more seamless.”
Jack also notes that when shooting practically, the result often winds up with “happy accidents.” “We try to design visual effects to give them an organic feel – for example, maybe the camera won’t catch the action straight away, and that keeps the effect from feeling too clinical. One example is during the car chase: there’s a shot of a car being crushed. We originally shot it as a practical effect, but we had to almost completely replace it digitally because we had to make the car look more futuristic. We were able to base the VFX on the practical effect that was shot, and we got things like the parcel shelf being flung across the back of the car. That’s something we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of if it had all been done in post.”
As with the other departments, the VFX supervisors’ primary goal was to create a sense of two different worlds. “It was key for us to give the audience coherence to the story – you have to believe that you’re in the UFB when you’re in the UFB and you’re in The Colony when you’re in The Colony,” says de Wet.
“We actually assigned separate teams to UFB and The Colony,” says Jack. “They brought their own methodologies to the process, which also helped give the environments a unique feel.”
“We began with Patrick Tatopoulos’s concept artwork for UFB and The Colony,” says Chiang. “When we started on UFB, we had very illustrative designs and certain selections on the structures of things, but we went through a whole design process into order to realize those into a three-dimensional world. We started looking at the buildings that Len and Patrick liked, and they selected through photographs of London certain neoclassical architecture and design. But there was a twist to that neoclassical design in that it needed to reflect the future, so Len added a lot of holograms and glass. So the UFB is a very grand world, with very big concrete plazas, a lot of glass, a lot of fountains, open walkways that then had these freeways threaded in-between that contained the magnetic cars.”
Once the architecture had been designed, the artists used a propriety computer model to help them build an entire city. “We could create any layout of buildings and draw from our fundamental building blocks – what we call assets – and mix them up to design UFB. Instead of having to map out every single building in a view, we would get the gross structure by pulling various 3D points around, and then assign a randomizer to it that would take the assets from the buildings that Len likes and populate the buildings that would almost wallpaper the layout to create the numerous buildings. Obviously it would be too labor-intensive to go in and sculpt each individual building separately. We drew upon 20 different assets that are close-up, 40 that are mid-distance, and then we got into matte paintings for far-off into infinity. We could then put in all the fine details, like stanchions, elevators, streetlamps, road signs, little barriers that would appear on the side of the road, the detail on the road, the types of tarmac. We were really building a city that Len and Patrick had outlayed, from the ground up.”
“On the other side of the world is The Colony,” says De Wet. “It’s very polluted, constantly overcast with noxious gases, always raining with a slightly acidic rain. It has a very underground, funky vibe, with a lot of neon lights.”
“Generally, the set would account for one level of The Colony,” says Jack. “We would extend up or down to see other levels. The bottom level of The Colony was generally water, and we’d create a large body of water with other waterfront environments around it. The amount of set extension varied considerably – some shots were pretty much contained within the set, while other were shot on green screen and completed by set extension. Most fell somewhere in-between.”
To complete the set extensions for The Colony, “Again, we drew upon the lovely sets that Patrick Tatopoulos had made,” says Chiang. “From that, we springboarded into imagining what four layers of this would be, or a whole landscape. We took the boats and assets that were built on set, extrapolated all of the details from that, and then started to create another whole world. We created 20 more boats, multiple buildings based on the same design idea, and again, created the whole world.
The scene that most challenged the VFX team was the hover car chase sequence. “When I saw the pre-viz footage, I was blown away. It was so ambitious. It’s done in the daytime, so nothing is hidden in the dark, which I like – I want to see everything, the gritty, grainy realism of an industrialized city. All of the environments were laid out; you could see beautiful aerial shots flying through the layout of the city. It was both amazing to look at and terrifying for me, because that’s what we would have to create,” says De Wet.
According to De Wet, Wiseman provided him with a great starting point by designing and building so many practical sets and props – including the hover cars. “We needed physical reality, particularly for things like people in cars, reacting to G-forces as they turn corners,” he says. “It’s actually a hard thing to fake, so it’s important to get the right reactions.”
Chiang says that Wiseman’s practical approach benefited the film. “When many directors create an all-CG shot, they tend to hang on the shot – the VFX is put in and it looks great. But when you’re shooting an action scene, like a car chase, a director usually tries to keep the flow of action going. Len made the whole sequence look real. He’d ask for a blur of background and blend in the action – you’d only see the whole world when the cars were coming toward the camera, and then he’d quickly pan off of it. The backgrounds became secondary to the action – we pulled back so the real-life cars could pop out.”
The VFX team was also responsible for The Fall – the giant elevator that connects UFB and The Colony. At the climax of the film, The Fall lives up to its name and is destroyed. Chiang says that knowing The Fall’s demise was coming was part of the key in putting it together – if it was going to break apart in the way that Wiseman hoped to see, with shafts and clamps breaking apart in a certain way, it would have to be constructed in a methodical and sophisticated manner in order to allow that to happen. “Breaking things apart and generally destroying them is something that we’ve done a fair bit of at DNeg,” says Jack. “We used some in-house tools that were written to procedurally break up the component pieces.”
The synths – the security force – was all shot live-action using suits created by Legacy Effects, but Chiang says that Wiseman always envisioned a VFX component for them. “He wanted to make negative space within the body – to create pistons and views of internal structures of the synths,” says Chiang. In the end, pulling it off often required creating all-digital synths. “A lot of them were digital, where it was too difficult to adjust the live-action that had been shot. In other cases, we could keep the live-action and replace an elbow joint, or a knee joint, or a waist joint.”