Total Recall: Reimagining the Cult Movies
The re-imagined journey of the new Total Recall to the 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.”
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.”
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