The Production Saga of Total Recall: From Mars to Memory

01 January 2024
"Total Recall,"  stands as a testament to the intricate and often tumultuous journey from concept to screen in the world of filmmaking. The odyssey began in 1974 when screenwriter Ronald Shusett discovered a short story by the eminent science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, titled "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." This story, which delved into the complex themes of memory and identity, captivated Shusett, prompting him to acquire the rights.

Shusett, alongside his writing partner Dan O’Bannon, embarked on transforming this narrative into a screenplay. The initial drafts, however, were deemed "unfilmable" by studios, a verdict that led the duo to momentarily pivot to another of O’Bannon’s ideas, "Alien." The success of "Alien" in 1979 reignited interest in "Total Recall." In 1982, they sold their script to Dino De Laurentiis, who initially brought in David Cronenberg to direct.

Cronenberg's approach to the script significantly diverged from the original material. He crafted twelve drafts, reshaping it into an adventure film akin to "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Despite these efforts, creative differences led to Cronenberg's departure from the project.

total recall film poster 1990

The casting of "Total Recall" was a pivotal aspect of its development. Arnold Schwarzenegger, already well on his way to becoming a cinematic icon, was central to the film's narrative and production. His influence extended beyond the screen; for instance, when Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers), cast as the antagonist Richter, was injured, Schwarzenegger's proactive involvement in his co-star's welfare exemplified the collaborative spirit of the production. This incident also highlights the physical demands and unforeseen challenges that often accompany such ambitious film projects.

The choice of Rachel Ticotin as Melina, after considering other prominent actresses, underscored the film's commitment to finding the right blend of talent to bring its complex characters to life. Similarly, the casting of Sharon Stone as Lori, which later influenced her casting in "Basic Instinct," showcased the interconnections within the film industry and how one role can significantly impact an actor's career trajectory.

"Total Recall" was a groundbreaking film in terms of special effects and production design. Verhoeven's collaboration with Rob Bottin, who had previously worked on "RoboCop," was critical in creating the film's distinctive visual style. Bottin's work on the mutants, especially Kuato, demonstrated an innovative blend of practical effects and puppetry, a feat that required a team of 15 puppeteers and extensive makeup work for actor Marshall Bell.

The film's setting and visual aesthetics were further enhanced by the choice of filming locations and architectural styles. Verhoeven's decision to shoot the opening scenes in Mexico City, noted for its New Brutalism architectural style, imbued the film with a unique, gritty realism. This choice also underscores the challenges of international filming, as the crew faced issues like food poisoning, illustrating the often overlooked practical difficulties in movie production.

Alien composer Jerry Goldsmith's musical score for "Total Recall" deserves special mention. Drawing inspiration from iconic films like "Star Wars" and "Conan the Barbarian," Goldsmith crafted a soundtrack that he considered among his best work. This element of the film highlights the importance of music in enhancing the cinematic experience and complementing the narrative.

The post-production phase of "Total Recall" was marked by challenges as well. The film originally received an X-rating from the MPAA due to its graphic violence. To achieve a more commercially viable R-rating, several scenes had to be trimmed, a process that reflects the often delicate balance filmmakers must strike between artistic vision and market constraints.
"Total Recall," with its ballooned budget of $65 million, became the second-most expensive film of its time. However, its commercial success, grossing $261 million at the box office, and the Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards, vindicated the investment. The film's enduring popularity, alongside plans for a sequel (which evolved into "The Minority Report" under Steven Spielberg), cements its status as a seminal work in science fiction cinema.

"Total Recall" was not just a film; it was a pioneering venture in the realm of special effects and cinematic technology. Rob Bottin's contributions, particularly in creating the mutants, were groundbreaking. The character of Kuato, a seminal figure in the film, showcases this innovation. The design of Kuato, inspired by the Spanish word "cuate" meaning twin, required a blend of prosthetics, animatronics, and puppeteering, encapsulating the film's cutting-edge approach to special effects.

The use of such advanced practical effects laid the groundwork for future developments in the field. Bottin's work, requiring an extensive team and complex setups, prefigured the later shift towards CGI in filmmaking, marking "Total Recall" as a significant milestone in the evolution of visual effects.
Casting Dynamics and Actor Contributions

The casting process of "Total Recall" was a complex interplay of talent scouting and strategic decision-making. Arnold Schwarzenegger's involvement went beyond his role as Quaid; his influence shaped casting decisions and production dynamics. His interaction with co-stars, notably his support for Michael Ironside's sister, highlights the community aspect often present in film productions.

Moreover, the casting of Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin was not just about finding the right actors for the roles; it was about finding personalities that could bring depth and nuance to the characters. Stone's subsequent casting as the femme fatale in "Basic Instinct" is a testament to her breakout performance in "Total Recall," illustrating the film's impact on the careers of its cast.

Adapting a Philip K. Dick story is a formidable task (refer Bladerunner), given the complexity and depth of his works. "Total Recall," based on "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," exemplifies the challenge of translating Dick's intricate storytelling and rich themes to the screen. The screenplay went through numerous iterations, with each writer and director adding their interpretation and vision. This process underscores the adaptive nature of filmmaking, especially when dealing with source material that is inherently complex and layered.

The choice of Mexico City for filming, particularly for its New Brutalism architectural style, was a strategic decision that added a layer of authenticity and grit to the film. This architectural choice was not merely aesthetic; it was symbolic of the film's thematic focus on raw, unfiltered reality versus constructed memory. The practical challenges faced by the crew, including food poisoning, underscore the often harsh realities of on-location shooting, especially in international settings.

Jerry Goldsmith's score for "Total Recall" was more than just background music; it was an integral part of the storytelling process. Goldsmith's approach, taking cues from epic soundtracks of the time, added a layer of grandeur and intensity to the film. His belief that the score was among his best works speaks to the symbiotic relationship between visual storytelling and musical composition in cinema.

The financial aspect of "Total Recall" is a key element of its production history. With a budget that far exceeded initial estimates, the film was a high-stakes venture. Its commercial success and critical acclaim, however, justified the investment. This aspect of the film's history highlights the financial gambles inherent in the film industry, especially when producing groundbreaking, effects-heavy science fiction.

"Total Recall's" impact extends beyond its commercial success and critical acclaim; it influenced the trajectory of science fiction cinema. Its blend of innovative special effects, complex storytelling, and philosophical underpinnings set a new standard for the genre. 


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

At The Astromech, you can expect to find a variety of articles, reviews, and analysis related to science fiction, including books, movies, TV, and games.
From exploring the latest news and theories to discussing the classics, I aim to provide entertaining and informative content for all fans of the genre.

Whether you are a die-hard Star Trek fan or simply curious about the world of science fiction, The Astromech has something for everyone. So, sit back, relax, and join me on this journey through the stars!
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