Director Len Wiseman has big shoes to fill. This weekend, his re-imagining of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall makes its theatrical debut. Both his and Verhoeven’s versions use material from a short story by Philip K. Dick called, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” But Wiseman tries to stay closer to the author’s original vision. Over the weekend, we spoke to him about what you will and won’t see in his Total Recall, and the never ending discussion about its exclusion of Mars.
In the closing credits of Total Recall, it says “Inspired by” but not “Based on” Philip K. Dick’s story. Is it fair to say this isn’t a literal translation?
Len Wiseman: No, but you have to say inspired by because the Philip K. Dick story is a short story. You have to elaborate for three full acts of a movie. Even in the original movie, the source material is almost more of a fully fleshed out first act. The adventure, actually, is where you flush it out to the film.
Did you adapt anything from the story that isn’t in the 1990 Total Recall?
Len Wiseman: It really is a hybrid of many things. Does it have elements of the original film? Absolutely. Does it have elements from Philip K. Dick’s story? Absolutely. And then a lot of its own material. If it didn’t have that I would not want to make it. If it didn’t have original stuff to its own. There are many things in the short story. Have you read the short story?
Yes. I have it on my computer right now.
Len Wiseman: OK, so if you’ve read it recently, the short story actually never travels to Mars. The threat is actually an invasion to Earth… Quaid or Quail is put in position to hopefully stop this invasion from happening to Earth. But Dan O’Bannon, who I think was the first writer on that one, took creative license to go in the other way of creating the alien aspect of it.
That’s interesting because more people have probably seen the movie than read the story. Therefore, they automatically go for the Mars connection.
Len Wiseman: When people go, ‘Well if this doesn’t go to Mars then it’s not really inspired by Philip K. Dick.’ I go, ‘Wow, you guys. It didn’t even go to Mars.’ It’s like [Paul] Verhoeven took that off, or whoever wrote the screenplay. There’s [a] mention of Mars. I drew from a lot of themes and ideas from the short story. In terms of the philosophy of Rekall, in if you know it’s an illusion that you’re paying for how much will it feel real? And that argument and discussion. Then some technical things down to the world itself. In the short story it’s a world of hover cars, which was not brought into the Verhoeven film but hover cars was the transportation that was in Philip K. Dick’s story.
I’m happy you mentioned that because when I saw them I got The Fifth Element.
Len Wiseman: You know why? I think it’s because you associate things with things that you’ve seen before. There’s been really no other hover cars that you can think of. I can’t think of any other than The Fifth Element. But Fifth Element are flying cars. These [in Total Recall] are like magnetic. You can’t fly in the sky. You have to actually be connected to the ground. He disengages that, where in The Fifth Element, they’re flying. It’s a bit more like Star Wars.
What about the look of your mechanical soldiers, Synthetics?
Len Wiseman: I’d heard that the Synthetics that I developed looked like some video game. And was I inspired by that? I’m not a video game guy. I just suck at those. So I wasn’t inspired by that per se… but possibly they were inspired by the same thing I was inspired by back in the day. The Synthetics, I chose white for them because the black-clad future soldier has been done to death. Every sci-fi [film] you see it’s like some kind of new form, high-tech black. But then you do white and it’s too much like Storm Troopers. But if it were red, it would all be too much like Iron Man.
Bryan Cranston recently described his character Cohaagen and Quaid/Hauser’s [Colin Farrell] relationship as that of an estranged father and son. I definitely got a patriarchal vibe from him.
Len Wiseman: That’s good. I’m glad that you did. Because he really wanted to play it as the reason he’s giving this guy a second chance is because he wants his son back. He believes that he can set him back before he turns. His friend, in our view, is a bad guy. But to him — not many bad guys consider themselves bad guys. He’s hoping he made a mistake, and he went to the wrong side.
It felt like that unwavering love for Hauser fed Lori’s [Kate Beckinsale] hatred.
Len Wiseman: In the original film, I didn’t understand why Lori was trying to kill Quaid. I think it was a little bit of a gray area. I wanted to make sure that people realized that they’re both agents — Hauser and Lori. And to an agent, to one of the other co-workers in that agency, she has strict morals and things about her job. This guy’s a traitor. He deserves to die. The fact that he was the favored one and he’s going to get a second chance, she just can’t accept.
In recent years, there’s been an unhealthy trend of jumbled, incoherent sequences in action movies. How do you as a director stage action so that it makes sense? Do you use an editing eye when you’re shooting?
Len Wiseman: For sure, because that’s a big deal to me what you’re talking about. I like to be able to choreograph an action sequence so that you can see what’s going on. I definitely move my camera around a lot but I don’t like to do incredibly fast cuts. There is a bit of a rhythm that I try to hit, which is there will be a section of fast cuts as long as it’s broken up… I think it gives you time to grasp where you are. I’m a big proponent of geography. Geography with action creates the stakes. If you can’t tell where you are, then you kind of lose the threat of what’s happening in an action sequence. An action sequence is something that in itself is like a three-part story… It has its first act, second act, escalation and then its conclusion.
What about the actors involvement?
Len Wiseman: I really try to make a point to get the actors to do as much as possible, so you feel like it really is them. I think you’re more engaged in the action if — even subconsciously — you feel wow that was an amazing stunt. But that amazing stunt holds on that camera to where you see, ‘Wow, that is Colin Farrell. Oh my God.’ You feel a little bit more tense, so I try to keep that going.
Total Recall opens in theaters everywhere August 3.