Len Wiseman Goes Epic, Grounded, and Super-Serious with ‘Total Recall’

By  · Published on August 4th, 2012

Director Len Wiseman made the 21st Century remake of Total Recall we kind of expected. It’s big, flashy, and in modern remake/reboot fashion it’s also gritty & grounded. Sure Wiseman nicely packed three-breasted women into his PG-13 picture, but this isn’t a movie fit for Kuato, small prostitutes firing off machine guns, and Arnold Schwarzenegger making funny faces. There’s little room for comedy in the futuristic world Wiseman has built.

Compared to his previous films, it’s the biggest sort he’s created thus far. With a budget of $125 million ‐ which, as Wiseman points out, has been falsely reported as being $200 million ‐ the director has also made a blockbuster about as big as one can get. That scope isn’t what drew the Underworld filmmaker, but the identity crisis at the film’s core is. Wiseman set out to make a personal detective tale which happens to be set in a big, futuristic world.

Here’s what Total Recall director Len Wiseman had to say about not going big for the sake of big, the influence of The Fugitive, and how certain Roland Emmerich classics served as his film school:

The film just opened in theaters, but you sound pretty busy with your Director’s Cut. That must’ve been fun going from hustling on the theatrical cut to immediately working on the Blu-Ray.

It’s amazing how quick that process is. You work on a movie for two years and the minute you put your final touches on it, it all ramps up and it’s all over the place. I don’t think you can ever be completely ready for it.

Once the movie is done do you feel detached or is there still a lot of “I should’ve done this or that”?

Honestly, I think it takes a few years where you get detached enough, where you stop saying, “I should’ve done that, maybe I should’ve kept that scene longer, or that scene shorter.” It takes a while for the film to stop looking like a series of experiences and turns into an actual movie. I’ve heard a good amount of directors say it takes five years until they can watch their movie again, and I always saw that as silly, but now I understand it. When making it you analyze it and you sometimes work two weeks in a row on just a five minute scene. It’s not until you see it in a wider context until it fits into the puzzle piece.

I just showed Live Free or Died Hard to my daughter, and I hadn’t seen it in ages. I was finally able to watch it as a movie. The things I was stressing about ‐ certain scenes you just didn’t think worked well and cringe at ‐ I just went, “You know, I actually think it’s fun. I’m not bothered by it all.” You need separation. I’m not sure how anyone does it otherwise, since you’re so close to it.

There’s certain things I obsess about that I want to try different things with. Some things you show people, and sometimes they don’t understand what you’re talking about or see a difference in what you’ve changed. It can be the matter of a few frames that makes a world of difference to you, but they couldn’t tell the difference.

Over that two year process, when you’re making a movie of this scope, how do you make sure it doesn’t get away from you?

I like to keep it as grounded as possible. I think if you’re trying to focus on making it realistic and connected to our own reality, you can continue to make it larger in a way that’ll be accepted. There’s a fear you can blow it out, get extravagant, and have this epic scale that seems so indifferent and detached, that it runs a risk. The objective was to have a very fantastic, epic-scale fully immersive new world, like the character who’s promised a new world, and you count on that going into a movie like this. If you’re going 80 or 100 years in the future, a part of me wants to see what that future is like, which I want to deliver on. I want to keep it grounded, which is where I center myself in all of the design, trying to make it feel like a real future.

When you’re on this sets, like the Red Light district, is it ever hard not wanting to get close ups of the smallest details? Do you just try to block out the environment and focus on Quaid?

I don’t necessarily split it up in my head like that. The world Quaid lives in informs a bit of who he is, so it helped on many levels. The world has to properly support the character and the environment he lives in, which was very important, to show why he isn’t happy, unsettled, and wants more. I’m always happy to have them work hand-in-hand. You can tell things through just by the design of his home and work environment; it’s always coming from the character.

Being able to create all this stuff is an immense amount of fun for me. Like I said, they’re both very important, so I hope they support each other. You know, I hadn’t founded a script or a character I was really engaged with for a long time, where I wanted to follow his story and spend two years building his world. It takes so much time and investment to make a movie. At the end of the day, it’s all bells and whistles and fun, which is fantastic, but it’s a waste of time if you’re not really engaged with the character. I just love that he’s a paranoid detective, in a sense. He’s detecting his own case, which isn’t a story you come at often. The mystery of the movie is himself.

There’s a nice hint at that detective angle when you see Quaid reading an Ian Fleming novel.

Oh, yeah, I hope people catch onto those little details. Like, The Spy Who Loved Me was a fun thing to put in there, since his wife ultimately turns out to be a spy. There’s a lot of intricate details and meanings in there like with that aspect of his own life and what even intrigues him to read a spy novel.

Did you actually look at Bond films or anything else as an influence?

I didn’t look at any Bond films, although I am a fan of them. It was just something that came into play. One of the movies that was on my mind, in terms of conversations with the studio and actors, was The Fugitive: a man on the run, trying to prove his own innocence. This is a man on the run trying to prove he’s a good guy, but trying to prove that to himself. He feels like he’s not that bad guy everyone says he is.

Did you look at the original Total Recall when you started the film or did you try to detach yourself from it?

I made a point of not watching it before I made my decision on anything. After I read the script, I wrote down a list of things I remembered from the original, just to see what actually stayed with me after 22 years. I was 15 or so when I saw it, and obviously what stays with a 15 year old’s memory are different than if I watched it today. All the things were superficial things, since I didn’t really watch it as a Philip K. Dick movie or looking at the sci-fi themes at play. I watched it as the next Arnold movie. I remembered all the action stuff ‐ the fun stuff I wanted to bring to this one.

Once I was into the process of it, I did go back and refresh my memory. It’s amazing what you remember and just have a nostalgia for when you’re a teenager versus when you’re an adult. You see things differently. For one, when I watched it, I completely expected the movie to end with him waking up in the Rekall chair. I don’t know why, but I did. I immediately started to think, “Where is that scene? Is it in a Director’s Cut?” I just imagined that.

Two major deviations from Verhoeven’s film are having Lori take Richter’s place and having Cohagen more involved in the action. What was the intent behind those changes?

That’s another thing I wondered about. That was also something decided on before I got involved, before they knew who was directing. Again, I was waiting for Richter to show up. Kurt Wimmer had gotten rid of that character and he told me he felt this was a day and age where you don’t need a right hand man, so why not have the right hand man be a woman? I liked his take on it. You have a female agent put in a place to do her job and, if something were to happen, she’d have to get her shit together rather than having to call the right man hand. I was curious why he took out Richter, but I liked his approach.

For Cohagen, I wanted him to be someone that wasn’t just pure evil. He is someone who has an investment in getting his friend back. There’s a bit of a subtext of a father-son relationship, where he feels his son went the wrong way and made a misstep. He’s going to give him a second chance, to make him the man he used to be. That man may be a bad man in our view, but to him it’s someone he wants back as a friend. I like that approach more than just the pure evil, maniacal laughter villain.

Bryan Cranston said you shot different versions of Cohagen. How did the film change over time?

Every film that I’m involved with changes over time. I’m definitely an advocate and believer in making your movie three times: the script stage, shooting, and editing. It definitely evolved. During the production stage, when you’re gathering all these materials, I love the freedom to experiment. I ask all my actors to do different takes. I don’t like to be so strict, because I feel like I’m gathering material from all the creative people involved, whether the crew or the actors. We have these amazingly talented actors, so when I got them there, why not say, “What else do we got? Let’s try it?”

Early on with Underworld I was treating the script and the scenes like storyboards, where everything was so strict. I was a little freaked out I was directing a movie, so it was almost like I was pretending to be a director at the time. This really sharp cast is drawn to the material because of the themes, and Colin [Farrell] and Bill [Nighy] are sci-fi enthusiasts, so we’d go on at great length about what if this was all real ,and discussed a lot of “What if we worked this in?” I used to be a little afraid of veering off the page for ideas, but now I embrace it. It all gets determined in the edit, anyway.

And I believe there was quite a bit cut out during editing.

Yes, there’s an extended Director’s Cut I’m working on. I don’t think it’s a surprise to people that movies are rarely longer than the Director’s Cut [Laughs]. I’ve never come across, “The Director’s Cut is now 17 minutes shorter than the theatrical cut!” I am very happy with the theatrical release. You make choices and I understand why things need to move at a certain pace. But you do take the time, put your passion into things, and I do miss the scenes that aren’t in there. In my experience and other director & producer friends, usually scenes are cut out for two reasons: pacing and clarity.

We experimented on a few bonus ideas, which the studio let me do. I did a little bit of that on Die Hard. When there were certain things the studio wanted to do and I wanted a different version, rather than battling it out ‐ which takes so long ‐ I thought, “If I can do both of them, let me shoot both of them!” With that, the arguments go away and you get to shoot both of them, if you have the time.

The last time we spoke you actually mentioned the biggest learning curve pre-Total Recall was how to manage a shooting schedule. Post-Total Recall, what would you say is the greatest lesson you got from this film?

That’s a tough one to answer with all the two years involved. This still sounds like a scheduling thing, but one thing you learn from planning and putting it all together is that, you get more freedom to try the things and have more room. In a sense, it’s kind of what I already talked about, but it’s a different experience. I had been so locked into the exactness of storyboards and I learned just to act on things that come up when the crew is set up and ready. If you come at an amazing and fun idea, just try to split your crew off and try it.

A movie of this level is made with hundreds of top people and a budget at this level…it’s actually 125 [million], which I’ve seen reported as 200 million dollars. When I saw that I said, “Holy shit, if I had 200 million dollars, I would’ve been so thrilled!” [Laughs] The thing is, someone said, “Wow, you put all that 200 million on screen!” I was, like, wow, you have to be kidding me. I was told by my producers we were able to get 138 million dollars worth on screen, with the effects rebate, since we did them in the UK. When I hear about it all being on screen? Great, I’ll take that compliment.

You worked on some major blockbusters in the 90s, with Godzilla, Men in Black, Independence Day, and even Stargate. What was that experience like, at such a young age, being in those environments? Did you learn anything that applies to every movie you make now?

Oh, yeah, it was my film school. I was in film school when I had the opportunity to work on Stargate. I already worked on one low-budget film when I snuck on a set. I was told if a movie was shooting in town just grab a clip board, an extension cord, some shorts, and, if you look like a crew member, you can get on any set. I actually did that and walked right past security, and that’s how I got my first job. I lingered around set and made a point not to have my drawings too far away from my car, since I was an illustrator and had some stuff to show. Anyway, I got my first job doing that and went back to film school. Some of the connections I made doing that went off to work on Stargate, so I got brought along to work on that. From that point on, Stargate, Men in Black, The Fallen, and Independence Day were my film school.

On set I would watch for all the problems. Either James Cameron or Ridley Scott said, “Anyone can make a movie, it’s just a matter of who can make a movie under circumstances, since there are always circumstances.” It’s about how to make a movie under circumstances, since every day you’re told what’s not working or what you can’t have; it’s tough to make all your wishes come true. It is about being creative when so many circumstances stand against you making that vision you want. That sounds a little negative, but that’s just the reality of how hard it is for these things to come together. When I worked as a prop guy, when a problem was going on, I would try to solve the problem, thinking, “If this was me right now, how would I solve the problem?” If they said, “We got this amount of problems and X many scenes to shoot, what do you wanna do?” I would take that on as my own problem, taking it on as a game. When I found out their solution I compared it to mine, seeing how close it was to my idea. It was a sick game I played with myself.

Total Recall is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.