Len Wiseman interview: Total Recall, sci-fi, sets, Philip K Dick, and Bruce Willis’ hair

To mark the UK release of Total Recall, we met director Len Wiseman to talk sci-fi, set design, and Bruce Willis’ hair in Die Hard 4…

In 1990, Arnold Schwarzenegger suffered an identity crisis on Mars. Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall was a brutal action fantasy that often spilled over into gore-soaked comedy, full of mutants, passive-aggressive robot taxi drivers and tracking devices jammed up noses.

Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, by contrast, is a simmering, less excessive sort of a movie. Although the premise is essentially the same, this time with Colin Farrell in the lead role as Quaid – an apparently ordinary guy whose trip to a memory implantation clinic reveals his true past – the tone of the remake is closer to Minority Report than the trigger-happy frenzy of Verhoeven’s movie.

What impressed us the most about this year’s Total Recall, though, was its detailed production design. It depicts a future world where pockets of humanity live in cities that are at literal opposites, its clash of floating shanty towns on one hemisphere, and polished cities and magnetic cars on the other.

Ahead of the movie’s release, we were excited to talk to Len Wiseman about his and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos’ approach to bringing their version of the future to the screen. The conversation touches on subjects ranging from cunning set design, practical versus digital effects, the sci-fi writing of Philip K Dick, and unexpectedly, the fan backlash over Wiseman’s decision not to put a wig on Bruce Willis’ head in Die Hard 4…

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This is your first ‘hard SF’ film as director; is that what attracted you to it?

I love science fiction. I always have, and actually, it’s more of a love of mine than even, say, a straightforward action film. I’ve been waiting to do science fiction since I was about 12, so a lot of the ideas that are in here, such as the gadgets – things that I’ve been thinking about and fantasising about bringing to life – some of the things in Total Recall I came up with these ideas as far back as college. Just little sci-fi ideas.

So which bits did you bring to the film?

More of the superficial, fun stuff. Like, the shrapnel camera, that shoots [lots of little filming devices] – that’s something I tried to work into a script almost eight years ago. I thought it would be a really fun, clever idea; I’d never seen anything like that before.

The palm phone is another thing I stole from myself. It worked well in the plot in this film – I even remember doing a sketch of it, years and years ago, thinking, “how cool would it be if you had this little cell phone [under your skin] that lit up?”

So a lot of things like that, I’ve been waiting for the right world to embody them. It’s just having fun, thinking and creating things. They’re nothing to do with story – it’s more about the kid that loves science fiction having fun.

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The Fall – the huge elevator through the Earth – that was already in the script when you came aboard, wasn’t it? 

It was. It was already a concept. But it wasn’t described in any fashion. Patrick Tatopoulos, my production designer and I, we went to great lengths to bring that design to life, and the mechanics of it. It’s such a crazy, hard thing to imagine in reality. And so designing that was a big challenge, because I wanted the world to feel as realistic as possible.

A future world is supposed to be fantastic in its presentation, but I wanted it to feel connected to our reality. So the closer and closer you look at it, the more it just looks like our own. It’s not until you go wider and wider that you realise this is such a bizarre future world. It’s not that different from today in many aspects. 

And I wanted The Fall to feel functional and real, to get our heads around how you would travel through [the Earth’s crust], and how you would, at some point, shift upside down as you get to the other side. That was a challenge. 

Everything looks like it functions, which isn’t something you don’t always see in sci-fi, even now.

Even now. Like the hover cars – I wanted them to feel like that’s how they’d operate if they existed. We spoke to a lot of engineers about certain things would be developed, and would hover or be magnetised for transportation. 

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Or even the bus. I don’t know if a lot of people caught this, because it only appeared in a few sequences, but there’s a bus that travels over the traffic, that’s almost on stilts. They’re developing those in China, to really use all the space possible, it’s a bus that doesn’t take up a lane. Because there are two lanes of traffic that drive right underneath, and when the bus stops at a terminal, the traffic just keeps on going. It doesn’t have to stop. 

There used to be a sequence where Quaid jumps onto one of these glide trains, as we call them, and you really get a sense of them as he travels through, and below him there’s moving traffic underneath, and he jumps out. That’s a scene we had before he jumps on a car.

Those are the things I love, where technology makes a lot of sense.

You seem to share the same sort of ethos as Ridley Scott, particularly on Prometheus, where he said that computers can’t really replace traditional, practical sets.

Oh, we built a lot, definitely. Part of that’s just my own personal interest. You know, I started as an illustrator, then I designed props and built them – I worked as a prop guy for seven or eight years. So I’m used to building things, that’s what my thing was. I prefer it, and I really wanted to create a realistic portrayal of the future. 

I mean, there’s only so much you can do in camera, particularly when you go wide, but it would drive me crazy to be working with a green screen [where nothing exists]. I think, for the audience as well as the actors, it’s so much more helpful to have a real environment. So it’s what’s going on outside that window that would be something [computer-generated], but not in your immediate space.

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It was a massive build. Our stages were enormous. Part of the reason we landed in Toronto was because they had the most stage space available – really great stages. They were some of the biggest sets – certainly that I’ve ever shot as a director, but also as a crew member. 

I suspect every production has to save money where they can, with sets, because you could just go crazy building and building stuff.

It’s very expensive. But CG not’s cheap either, so you try to weigh it up. My argument’s always been that, on the page, a set is more expensive to build, because everything’s always underestimated. And when you do your first budget for visual effects, you think, “Well, with visual effects we could do it for this amount, whereas your construction budget is this.” 

I say, “Yes, but: that’s now. I guarantee you that, five months from now, when you get the real visual effects bill in, it’s going to be way over this.” And it always is. So that’s something I try to argue.

Patrick Tatopoulos, my production designer and I, we always try to map everything out, so we always get the most out of your set. So you design it in such a way that you can shoot it from various different angles and always make it look like three or four different sets.

So yeah, it may cost a million dollars to build a set, but if you can use it for three or four different scenes, so you can tell that you’ve gone back to the same bit of set…

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Ah, see this is what I was going to ask. I know in Alien, the set designers put mirrors at the ends of corridors to make them look longer…

Oh, absolutely. There are a lot of old-school techniques that – I’ve no idea why we stopped using them. We did the same things, and it’s amazing how much you can cheat the eye. It’s part of what I love about filmmaking anyways. 

It’s funny, one of the things we enjoy the most is making something fake look real. Even if it’s something like a car scene, and the car’s not moving, and you get enough dust outside, and we do a matte process behind that, one of the things you always hear on set is, as you’re looking through the monitor with the rest of the crew, you always get, “Ooh, it looks real, it looks real!”

And you feel very happy that you’ve made something fake look real. It’s the joy and the fun of manipulating what you have in front of your camera. And it’s all about designing things in such a way that you can swap certain things out, change the camera – flop the shot, often, too – it just becomes a different set.

When I met with the studio to talk about how much I was going to do in terms of practical versus visual effects… visual effects, if you need another shot, you have to pay for it. So if you have a set that’s 3D, and you need another angle on it, it’s easily going to be another $65,000 shot just to change an angle. 

Whereas, if you design a set in a certain way, you’re already there. If you’ve done the prep ahead of time, yes it’s very expensive to build it, but it’s not expensive to pop around and make it look like something else. Whereas in visual effects you’re paying for every single shot.

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I was intrigued to note, as well, that Colin Farrell’s Quaid is much more of an everyman – definitely more of a Philip K Dick everyman, actually, than Arnold was. The character in Dick’s short story was quite a meek, bookish sort – was that why you had the books in Quaid’s apartment set?

Yes, definitely. All the details, including the books. I came to Total Recall in a backwards fashion. I watched the original movie when I was 14, and I was going to see it as the next Arnold movie. I wasn’t aware of Philip K Dick or its sci-fi themes, I was just going to see an Arnold action movie. 

It wasn’t until college that I read the short story [We Can Remember It For You Wholesale]. And reading it, I realised it had a very different version of Quaid in it; it’s very different in tone, in general, right? It wasn’t full of one-liners or action at all, it was just a different feeling.

And when I read the script – the new Total Recall script – it reminded me of the tone of Quaid that I remember reading in the short story. And that’s what I really wanted to bring to life.

When it was first announced, it was all, “Who’s going to replace Arnold?” And I may have upset some people, because I really had no intention of replacing Arnold. It wasn’t a goal. For one thing, there’s only one Arnold out there, but also because I was looking to do a different version of the Quaid character. 

I read him as an everyman who turns into a superspy, rather than someone you already associate with being a superspy, who you’re just waiting to be activated, really. The Philip K Dick story’s such a wish fulfilment, where you take a guy who’s unhappy with his life, and he chooses a fantasy. Then he finds out that he may – possibly – be that fantasy in real life. That’s the ultimate wish fulfilment: maybe he really is that guy.

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And as I say, Philip K Dick’s protagonists are often very ordinary people.

The original script was inspired by that in many ways. And that’s why Quaid doesn’t go to Mars in this film. I’m not sure if some people are even aware – or rather, I’m finding that some people aren’t aware – but Mars isn’t in the short story. It all takes place on Earth, and there’s the threat of alien invasion.

Then we had a lot of feedback of, “What, he doesn’t go to Mars? No Mars, no ticket!” [Laughs] “So they’re not even sticking to the original?” And I say, “Well, actually, the original didn’t have Mars in it. The Verhoeven version used creative license when it took the story to Mars.”

There’s been a bit of a contradiction, hasn’t there? Some people seem to have said, “Total Recall shouldn’t be remade”, while others have said, “What’s the point of remaking it if there’s no Mars”, implying that it’s not similar enough.

It’s what you have to shoulder. I had a bit of it on Die Hard 4, where it was the same character – I had Bruce Willis. And yet there was such a preconceived notion of what should or should not be in the film. Just in little details.

John McClane, to me, is a character, not a hairstyle. So when I chose to keep Bruce Willis bald in Die Hard 4, I got so much shit for it. “What? This isn’t McClane!”

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Yet this is a guy who’s 20 years older. He’s not going to look the same, and he looks so much cooler with the look that he has today. So it’s amazing – there’s a lot of that. 

People who are going to this movie, who are wanting to see the original film, will honestly not enjoy it as much as people who want to see a different take on the concept, the Philip K Dick idea. I had no interest, as a filmmaker, to replicate what’s already out there, because I enjoyed that one already.

The whole premise of the original story and Verhoeven’s Total Recall was, of course, the nature of reality and where the fantasy begins and ends. Where do you think your Total Recall lies? Do you think it says, unequivocally, “No, this is reality?”

No, I don’t think it does. I really wanted to keep alive that questioning, that ambiguity. One of the things I love about Philip K Dick, in this story and most of his work, is that he constantly questions reality, but he leaves it to us to answer it.

I think that’s fascinating, and something that I wanted to keep alive. I love the conversation afterwards, and I wanted to make sure that the movie adds up on both levels, and not cheat it, to where you could play a case for either side. And a lot of people have said to me, during these interviews, “So it’s clear you’re saying it’s all definitely a dream.” And others have said I’m putting a stamp on it all being absolute fantasy.

So I say, “Why do you think that?”, and we go over the details, and I say, “Why couldn’t that also mean something else?” There are other people who think it’s all definitely reality.

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So through these interviews, I can only say that I think we’ve done a decent enough job.

There’s no real consensus.

No. It’s not entirely one way or the other, thank god. Because I do think it’s all part of the fun. But I definitely have a perspective. I think, as a director, there are too many decisions not to have a clear point of view, and I definitely have one. I’m not going to share it, but I do have one.

Len Wiseman, thank you very much.

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