How Dare I: Director Len Wiseman on Total Recall

The pressures of remaking a sci-fi classic, his new additions to the familiar story and how close the movie came to being called 'Total Rekall.'

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


This right here is the second interview in as many weeks where the director wound up interviewing me about his own film. It makes sense with Total Recall, however. Len Wiseman, the director of Underworld who now has the unenviable task of bringing Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, and by extension Paul Verhoeven's classic 1990 movie Total Recall, back to the big screen. The story, which finds everyman Colin Farrell buying the memories of a dream vacation and then discovering that he's already received memory implants – or is quite possibly the victim of a psychotic episode – is up for discussion, and he's not allowing himself to say for certain whether the whole movie is a dream.

Luckily, he is allowed to talk about the pressures of remaking a classic film, the development of the movie's new concepts (like a transport system through the center of the Earth and an army of killer robots), his thoughts on the original movie and the details of the villain's plan before we start talking about whether or not I personally thought he'd made the movie "real" or not.

Some SPOILERS lie ahead, so you have been warned. Enjoy.


CraveOnline: I guess the question you probably get asked the most is, “How dare you?”

Len Wiseman: How dare I, for sure. I get that all the time, even when it doesn’t relate to this film. [Laughs] There’s always a reaction with anything to do with anything that is a different version of something. I completely understand it. I question things as well, but I don’t personally have as much of a problem as some people [who] get seriously violent about it.


I imagine you don’t, since you made the film.

Right? I’m used to it. I was into comic books as a kid. I’m used to comic books being reimagined, different takes on some of our beloved superheroes. It’s something that is not met with as much… But that is too, there are some who are very against that.


I grew up with the original [Total Recall]. I love the original. And one thing I was thinking while watching this film was, there is someone out there – young person, probably – and this will be their first Total Recall.

Of course. Yes.


And then they’re going to go back and watch the other Total Recall, hopefully. Did that occur to you while you were making this? There are a lot of references to the original, kind of casually. How do you think that’s going to affect people seeing Paul Verhoeven’s film for the first time after seeing yours?

I don’t know. I don’t know how many people will. I don’t know how many people will see this movie and then feel that they have to go [back]. People that have not seen the original, how much they’ll go back after seeing this one, and watch the other one? I can’t think of a time when I’ve done that, growing up. You can say the same thing about the reverse, I guess.


I’m thinking about this film and it’s very difficult to divorce it from the original. What are the differences, what are the benefits, what are the losses in each version.

I guess it’s also just […] the original will always be there. It will always be there and always be… I don’t know how you are, but there’s movies [where] I really like the original and I really like the different take on it.


I dislike the philosophy that remakes suck as some sort of altruism. Because there are so many wonderful remakes.

For sure.


The Maltese Falcon is a remake. The Thing is a great remake. Phillip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Great remakes, all of them.

There’s so many remakes that people think are the original.


Yeah, actually. That weirds me out.

Scarface. There’s movies where people, I don’t think people even realize sometimes. But like I said, whether it’s all the way to Shakespeare. There are retellings all the time of stories we love, whether it’s comic books… I think there are some people that they do like seeing of a different era, how we evolve as a culture, how those stories will be told. Look at the difference between what kind of Batman we have versus what Batman we had when I was growing up. Very different kind of Batman. I’m glad that we kept redoing that. That’s a perfect example. I loved the Tim Burton Batman. I did, I’m a huge fan of it.


I like Batman Returns even better.

Batman Returns?



I’m there with you. Are you an Empire Strikes Back guy?


I am. I’m also a Temple of Doom guy.

Are you a Terminator 2 guy?


A little bit less so. That one, they’re more on an even keel. In many respects they’re the same exact movie with a character reversed.

Alien and Aliens is a very hot subject.


That is a hot subject. On a purely aesthetic level, I would say I enjoy watching Aliens more, but Alien is probably the better film.

Yeah. It’s also… How old are you?


I am 30.

It’s also when you saw it, what time.


When we see something as a child we don’t see the flaws. We see the stuff we are entertained by. Then, when we revisit it later, we’re more lenient on it. Ironically, I think Total Recall actually still works perfectly well.

You said something interesting about how different generations treat the material. When you were developing Total Recall, how did that affect what you wanted to put on screen?

I approached it, one, from the tone of it being different. One of the things I was most interested about was, I had no intention of replacing Arnold [Schwarzenegger]. I was out to do a different take on Quaid, not a different take on Arnold. It started from that place. I had read the short story when I was in college, after I had already seen the film, so I had a reverse way into it, and the story had a very different tone to me. So that kind of character that was a bit relatable, more of an everyman, somebody who is not happy with their life and goes on this wish-fulfillment quest and becomes a superspy. Rather than feeling like this character is already a superspy and you’re just waiting for him to start kicking ass. So that’s just something that, in terms of approaching something that I felt there was a different take on, was just the character himself.


You did something interesting things with the world. The original story isn’t set on Mars. They changed that. And I think David Cronenberg was the one who added all the mutants…

So he was the one who added the mutants?


I read that in a book recently, about the making of the first Total Recall.

I don’t think people are aware so much that the original story, the threat was actually an invasion [of] Earth. The whole thing is about invasion to Earth.


When you jumped on the project, were ideas like The Fall and the robot army already in place?

Yeah, that was in there. The large building blocks of that were already there. There wasn’t a Mars, there was already… Kurt [Wimmer] had developed the idea of traveling through the core of the Earth, and a synthetic police force. That was all when I came in.


When I saw the synthetic police force, I thought to myself, that’s a very interesting way to allow a hero to basically kill an entire army without being seen as some sort of historical monster.



That seemed to be the main reason for that to be in there.

Yes. And it’s also, I like that it put [Quaid] in an element, to where… I wanted to make sure, and I hope it comes across, that Cohaagen’s plan is a smart one. He replaces somebody’s memories, puts them in a fake life, knows that there is possibly the idea of surface memory coming back…


There are x-factors involved.

Yeah. If there’s going to be some surface memory, then one, put him with a fake wife that looks like his other one. Don’t do a blonde and a brunette. That seems like the silliest idea that you could probably do as a bad guy.


That’s an interesting idea.

Yeah, if you’re going to have some surface memory of some other woman in your life that you have a connection [or] feeling about, try to make it look as similar as possible so that… That was always my intention from the beginning. And I tell you, it was a little bit [difficult] to get there, because the studio was, “A blonde and a brunette! Because in the movie it was a blonde and a brunette!” And I always thought that was a bit questionable in the bad guy’s plan. As well as where Quaid works. He works with synthetics, with the synthetic police force. If anything came into play about anything to do with the government’s involvement with synthetics, or any kind of police force or law enforcement… “Well, you know what? Maybe I’m just dreaming about, if I’m fighting a synthetic, it’s like I’m fighting my boss.”


That’s not un-clever actually.

So it’s something that, like, “Okay, I get it. That dream that I’m having…” It’s a point, and it’s specifically put in there, that the first dream that he has, has Melina in it. As well as, they’re being chased by who? They’re being chased by a synthetic. When he wakes up, his wife looks quit a lot like the wife that he was dreaming about. And when he goes to work, oh, I see, he’s just fantasizing about things that are troubling him. And so we bring these things into our dream. I wanted to make that a part of the plan, that if there are elements [of memory], then he’s set up with things that would make sense.


I wanted to talk to you about the letter “K.”

The letter “K?”


In the movie, “Rekall” is spelled with a “K.” All the posters say “Rekall” with a “K.” Did you ever think about adjusting the actual title?

I did. I did.


Was that met with resistance?

Yeah, in terms of, that’s specifically… I get the argument. I went back and forth with myself even. “Rekall” is the facility, “total recall” is a phrase. So if the movie was just called Rekall, that would have made sense.


Name brand recognition could have been an issue also.

I actually don’t think it would. Yeah, if you had Total Rekall with a “K,” nobody would be going, “Oh, maybe that’s not that movie!”


I made the argument about The Karate Kid, the recent one. He doesn’t even do karate. He does kung fu. 

The Kung Fu Kid!


If you had called it The Kung Fu Kid we would have got it. No one would go, “I have no familiarity with that franchise. I have no interest whatsoever. I’m going to watch something else.”

I am completely on your page with that. I think that if it was The Kung Fu Kid, I’d completely get what that is. But no, it was nothing to do with that. It was simply that to do Total Rekall with a “K…” “Total Recall” is a phrase of what happens, whereas “Rekall” is, “Hey, welcome to Rekall. We’re Toys ‘R’ Us with the ‘R’ spelled backwards. So it’s a different thing.


My contributor Fred Topel asked you a little while ago, and you said that you knew, you had decided for yourself whether the events of this film were a dream.

Yes. He’s the one that one that approached me after the [press conference]. [Laughs]


And I think that’s a fair question. My question to you is, were the events in the original film a dream?

In the original one… That’s a very good question. Going back, if you were to ask me when I first saw it, I actually… This is what’s bizarre. Before I went back after twenty years to go watch it again, I actually remember him waking up in Rekall. In my own mind, I remember him waking up in Rekall! And I was waiting, as I went back and looking at it, thinking, “Whoa, he doesn’t. I swear I remember him waking up in that chair in Rekall.” But I’d say with the original one, it kind of slants in my mind a little bit more towards a dream…


My theory is this: when he’s in Rekall, and they haven’t put him in a chair yet, the headshot is when they say, “Blue skies on Mars! That’s a new one.” Because that isn’t memory, that isn’t anything he’s telling them or hinting at. That’s predicting the plot that they couldn’t possibly predict.

That happens before they actually put him [under]…?


Before that they talk about alien artifacts on the news, they talk about uprisings on Mars, you see Cohaagen on Mars, but you don’t see anything about what the ending might be.

There’s a lot of thing within this one that… I’m curious, when you were watching this one, were you feeling one way or the other?


I was paying attention, obviously, because it’s a fundamental thing. In this one I would say I lean a little more towards it being real.

Mm-hmm? Hmm…


Obviously I’ve only seen it once and it might require more viewing. One of the things was that the opening of the film was a sort of text narration that establishes the events as factual [as opposed to subjective]. While there were certain things that are fantasy oriented – he always wanted to play the piano, and gets to play the piano – they seemed a little keyed into some sort of fantasy that he had, that he’d achieve something wonderful. Even at the end, the world is still kind of f*cked up. He’s a hero, but he’s such a corrupted hero in so many ways that I didn’t see that as being some sort of psychotic break into a fantasy realm where everything is wonderful.

Or even, for example, Sharon Stone at the beginning of the film is trying to make him very complacent. She has no ambition whatsoever. In this film, Kate [Beckinsale] is just telling him that she loves him, basically. It feels like he doesn’t need to escape so much from that.

Which is good! That would lead you to believe what, then?


Which leads me to believe that…?

Is she doing a slightly better job than possibly…?


Sharon Stone? I think that’s a fair point. My interpretation was, as a result, the events that follow have a little less to do with his subconscious and a little more to do with, “This is the stuff that happened.” What do you think?

These are the kind of conversations that I would have with the actors, of how much to skew one way or the other, from the writing and also the performance level. We talked so much about, with Kate and Colin [Farrell], about how loving, how real is that? Because he’s not feeling comfortable and he wants something else, and yet he’s got somebody who really loves him, and if you had somebody that really appreciated you… If she’s doing her job correctly, she just is really selling how much she cares about him, how much she loves him. If he still feels like he should have done more with his life, and he should be more, that’s one aspect of his life. He’s still going to have this problem. But it’s funny, because I definitely have my view of it. You have to, I think. With all the little detail, and all the little things you have to decide.


You need it to be consistent.

Yes. I can’t just go, “Well, in the end it could be a dream, it could be reality,” you can’t. There are those little details that you have to put in there to, at the end of the day, some things throughout the whole process of the two-year involvement, you go, if I have to make a decision it’s going to fall right there.