Total Recall: Shooting and Locations
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.”
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