Part 2: Arnold to the Rescue : In ‘Total Recall,’ Mr. Universe saves Mars; but first he had to save the movie
It is dark and the air is stifling inside Stage 2 at Churubusco Studios, where the science-fiction film “Total Recall” is being made. Director Paul Verhoeven and his production crew, many of whom worked with him on “RoboCop,” are backed into a corner of fabricated red rock catacombs, breathing the thick vanilla-scented prop smoke that is used to soften the image for the camera.
The only light on the massive stage is coming from the flashlights of the two stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rachel Ticotin, who are in the midst of a seemingly passionate kiss, their characters unaware of the mummified corpse just inches behind them.
Slowly, the corpse begins to rise, its jaws locked in an agonized cry, and a rifle barrel suddenly juts out beneath it.
“Freeze!,” someone yells from the other side.
“Cut!,” yells Verhoeven.
“That was good, but Rachel, I think you are still just a little too far back, yeah?,” the director says.
There is a burst of laughter and Verhoeven turns around to see Schwarzenegger leaning over the corpse’s head nibbling at an imaginary ear lobe. Verhoeven laughs, too, then says, “All right, places everyone, let’s do one more.”
Thirteen times Schwarzenegger and Ticotin will say their lines and embrace in this dusty alcove before Verhoeven is satisfied and the crew can begin setting up the next shot.
“I cannot accept a mediocre scene,” says Verhoeven, explaining why it had taken most of a day to get that and a couple of other shots in the Martian tunnel. “That is the biggest problem Carolco has with me.”
Andy Vajna, one of the principals of the producing Carolco Pictures, down from Los Angeles for the day, smiles when asked if it’s agony to watch the slow process of a day’s production. “Total Recall” is a film that sources say is costing between $50 million and $60 million. By the time it’s finished it will have used eight sound stages for six months, 45 separate sets, 100 complicated computerized blue screen shots, robot-driven cars, holographic chases and enough fist and gunfights to fill a Hollywood summer. There are neon-lit netherworlds beneath the domes and canyons of Mars where miners mingle in a world of hi-tech gone to seed. It is a look that is costing $150,000 a day, sources say.
Yet, Vajna smiles.
“Paul is a perfectionist,” the Hungarian-born producer says, rolling his cigar between his fingers. “Often you look at the thing and when he finally gets the shot he wants, it is worthwhile.”
“Total Recall” has been in production in Mexico City since March. But the clock and the meter have been running on this project for nearly 10 years, ever since screenwriters Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, hot off their sci-fi horror hit “Alien,” first optioned it to the pre-Michael Eisner regime at Walt Disney.
Even in 1981, this double-identity story about a man who travels to Mars to find a life that has been erased from his memory, figured to cost more than $20 million to make. In the next few years, it ran up bills of close to $7 million in false starts, script fees and contract salary settlements and seemed destined for glory only as a case-in-point--as it has, in fact, been--in an American Film Institute course called “The 10 Greatest Unproduced Films in Hollywood.”
Twice, producer Dino DeLaurentiis went into pre-production on “Total Recall,” once in 1984 in Italy with a script that would have had David Cronenberg (“The Fly”) directing Richard Dreyfuss, and once in Australia, where Bruce Baresford (“Crimes of the Heart”) was set to direct “Dirty Dancing” star Patrick Swayze. The Baresford project was one month from start-up when DeLaurentiis’ DEG studio went into bankruptcy and Baresford got the word.
“Bruce called me at Christmas two years ago and said it was over,” says Shusett, who is co-producing “Total Recall.” “I was stunned, my wife was crying. We figured that was it, it was finally over. There was so much (money) against it, I didn’t think there was a chance of anyone buying it from Dino.”
Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former world champion bodybuilder who is now the world champion action movie star. Schwarzenegger’s behind-the-scenes role on “Total Recall” could make up an AFI course in “Modern Star Power.” Because Schwarzenegger wanted to do it, and because Carolco knew it could cover the budget in pre-sold markets because he wanted to do it, “Total Recall” is being made.
“Arnold rescued it single-handedly,” says the very appreciative Shusett.
Schwarzenegger says he had wanted to do “Total Recall” four years ago, but decided against it when DeLaurentiis intended to use an inexperienced director. When he heard that DEG was in bankruptcy, the actor says he called Carolco executives, for whom he was then doing “Red Heat,” and told them to buy “Total Recall” for him. But not at full price.
“I told them, ‘Don’t give (DeLaurentiis) $7 million,” he says, perhaps recalling the battles he’d had with the flamboyant Italian producer while under contract to him in the early ‘80s. "(Bleep) him. He’s lucky if he gets half of it.”
Schwarzenegger says Carolco, which is in the process of buying DEG’s North Carolina studios and its lean film library, eventually bought the rights to “Total Recall” for about $3 million. Vajna won’t say how much Carolco paid and DeLaurentiis declined to be interviewed. In any event, Carolco’s risks seem minimal.
“They raised $50 million foreign already,” says Schwarzenegger.
According to sources involved in the production, the star is being paid between $8 million and $10 million for his role, plus a percentage of profits. His contract also gives him approval of the script, the director, the cast, and most of the marketing that will precede its summer 1990 release by Tri-Star Pictures.
Schwarzenegger says he had Verhoeven in mind for the director even before his deal was signed. He says he liked Verhoeven’s Dutch movies, “Soldier of Orange” and “Spetters,” but was most impressed--as were many critics--by the balance of humor and action in “RoboCop.” One evening, Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven ended up at different tables at Orlando Orsini’s, an Italian restaurant on Pico Boulevard near 20th Century Fox, and were introduced by a mutual friend.
“I said, ‘I must do a movie with you,’ ” Schwarzenegger recalls, “and he said, ‘Yes, I would like to work with you.’ Later, we got together and one thing led to another.”
Carolco had made its deals with DeLaurentiis, Schwarzenegger, Verhoeven and several of Verhoeven’s key production team before Shusett, who had been nesting the concept for 13 years, knew his movie was back on the boards.
“I was still calling everyone in town trying to save it,” Shusett says. “I called Ridley Scott, who did ‘Alien,’ thinking maybe he’d be interested. He said, ‘I heard Paul Verhoeven was doing that for Carolco.’ ”
Ron Shusett’s first produced screenplay, “W,” was a disaster. He wrote it for Ann-Margret and was to co-produce it with her husband Roger Smith. But before it went into production, she took that celebrated tumble from a stage in Lake Tahoe and the story was rewritten for British model Twiggy.
Shusett had his name taken off the film and, in looking for further inspiration, ran into the Philip Dick short story titled “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” It was a futuristic story about a man who was having a Martian vacation implanted in his brain when his travel surgeons tapped into a previous memory bank, leaking to him the information that he was actually a secret agent on Mars. About that time, Shusett saw “Dark Star,” a cheap but inventive science-fiction film directed by John Carpenter from a script he had co-written with Dan O’Bannon.
“Someone told me Dan had designed the sets, so I looked him up and said, ‘I’d like to do something with you.’ I gave him the Phil Dick story, he gave me the first 30 pages of what became ‘Alien.’ ”
With O’Bannon sleeping on Shusett’s couch, and Shusett’s actress wife Linda working at a hospital to support both of them, the writers ground out “Alien,” got it optioned at Fox and took on key roles in its production--O’Bannon as special effects consultant, Shusett as executive producer. The film was shot in London for the then astronomical sum of $15 million and midway through production Shusett knew he had hit it big. (“When I saw the scene being shot where the alien comes out of John Hurt’s chest, I said, ‘My God, this is it. It’s going to make my life,’ ” he says.)
The writing team had meanwhile completed a draft of “Total Recall,” which, with “Alien” a box office hit, figured to be an easy sale. As they had written it, it was a Walter Mitty story about an average guy with a job, a wife and a home who becomes driven by the skills and cunning of another life inside him. In following these vague mental clues, he discovers that all of his memories have been implanted and that the life he can’t remember is caught up in a conspiracy to control the colonial mining interests on Mars. He doesn’t even know if the real him is good or bad.
It was a Hitchcockian brain-twister that had it all--action, romance, suspense, science-fiction and a trip to outer space. Disney, which was just then wading into broader audience themes, optioned the script and, according to Shusett, had planned to go ahead with it on a budget of $22 million--if they could all agree on a new third act. When they couldn’t, Shusett says, he bought his way out of the contract and took the script to DeLaurentiis.
O’Bannon went on to other things and so, eventually, did Shusett. He wrote the sequel to “King Kong” for DeLaurentiis and the action film “Above the Law,” but “Total Recall” was always there, always being rewritten, always being dangled before directors’ eyes as Hollywood’s next “Alien.”
What “Total Recall” lacked was what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin, the plot point that propelled the action. Phil Dick’s story had the set-up, a man with a forgotten life, but it didn’t even get to Mars, let alone explain what happened up there. And despite years of trying, Shusett and his writing partners couldn’t quite make the Mars end make sense, either.
Nevertheless, the project was intriguing enough to elicit interest from a parade of directors: Richard Rush (“The Stunt Man”), Fred Schepisi (“Iceman”), Russell Mulcahey (“The Highlander”), Lewis Teague (“Jewel of the Nile”), Cronenberg and Baresford. It was going to be distributed at various times by MGM, Universal and Avco Embassy. Over and over, Shusett says, DeLaurentiis offered to go immediately into production if the writer would simply agree to cut Mars.
“He said, ‘We can set it in Hungary or Poland, we don’t have to go to Mars,’ ” Shusett says. “As far as I was concerned, Mars was not negotiable.”
The credit arbitration committee of the Writers Guild is poring over nearly 50 drafts of “Total Recall” in its attempt to determine screen credits for the film. Shusett believes the movie will carry his name and three others--O’Bannon, Steven Pressfield and Gary Goldman. Shusett brought in Pressfield to help him solve the third-act problem in the mid-'80s; Goldman was brought in by Verhoeven.
There was a lot of unease among the final principals in “Total Recall.” Shusett’s contract with DeLaurentiis protected certain elements of the project--among them, the Mars setting and Shusett’s participation in the production. Yet, Carolco made the deal with DeLaurentiis without talking to Shusett, and Verhoeven hired Goldman without consulting him. Although Carolco assured him his contract would be honored, Shusett felt he was being cut out and again, he says, Schwarzenegger came to the rescue.
“Arnold just told them he wanted me involved,” Shusett says. “I never really got to know Paul (Verhoeven) until we got down here. I knew he and Gary (Goldman) would be wary of me, the original writer looking over their shoulders. But it has worked out perfectly.”
Paul Verhoeven became one of Europe’s hot young directors with a series of hard-edged social and psychological theme films--"Turkish Delight,” “Spetters,” “The Fourth Man"--and moved to Los Angeles after his first English-language attempt, the 1985 “Flesh + Blood,” was a critical and box-office failure.
“I made the step to the United States because I realized (‘Flesh + Blood’) didn’t work,” says Verhoeven, acknowledging that he had always wanted to do big American movies. “I could not stay with my body in Europe and think that I was American.”
Verhoeven figures he was about the 10th choice to direct “RoboCop,” a summer 1987 hit for which he’d maximized a modest $13-million budget. But the success of the film elevated him immediately to the top rank of action directors and the offers started coming in. He was attracted to “Total Recall,” he says, because it has both action and psychological elements.
“I think the story is very ‘Vertigo’ like,” Verhoeven says. “It’s about schizophrenia. What’s real, what’s not real. That’s what interests me. If it was only action, I would be bored.”
The director agreed with Shusett that the third act was a problem and wanted to work with his own writer on it.
“I felt that after seeing 20 or 30 drafts of ‘Total Recall’ on my table, all of them unresolved over seven years, that it would be foolish to think I could solve it with Ron (Shusett),” Verhoeven says. “I admired Gary’s intelligence and thought he would be a good choice to try to solve it, and he did, I think.”
There were two main tasks facing Goldman: Solving the third act, and retailoring the entire script for Schwarzenegger, who is hardly a Walter Mitty type. “It would be a little arch for Arnold to be non-violent,” says Goldman, who has become Shusett’s partner on the daily script chores that arise during production. “Paul wanted the level of the action pulled up to the level of the mystery.”
“When you’ve got Arnold, you don’t have a normal person,” says Verhoeven. “You have to make it work for him. It could have worked just as a psychological story and been very artistic, like ‘Blade Runner,’ yeah? But this is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. You have to satisfy the general audience who comes to see Arnold do this.”
Verhoeven brought in most of the key production people from “RoboCop,” including the Dutch cinematographer Jost Vacano (an Oscar nominee for his work on “Das Boot”) and production designer William Sandell.
“After ‘RoboCop,’ I said I’d never do another picture like this again,” said Sandell, after a tour of Venusville, the gritty high-tech urban center he created for “Total Recall’s” Martian mining community. “Here we are doing something three times bigger.”
Venusville, where Schwarzenegger’s character, Quaid, finds the roots of his other life and the core of a miners’ revolution, is a metallic grey village of neon-lit bars, brothels, porno shops and psychic parlors. It’s the future with some hard miles already on it. Posters and signs suggest the survival of some 20th-Century commercial icons--Pepsi, Kodak, Levis, Tony Lama boots. Next to the Mutant Hotel is the surgical version of a fast-food outlet (“Plastic Surgery While You Wait”), and on the corner is a familiar coin-operated news box where, to show that journalistic kitsch survives too, you can buy Mars Today (“No. 1 in the Galaxy”).
“We went for the frontier look,” Sandell says, smiling.
Actually, they went for the NASA look. Verhoeven and Sandell got the federal agency to share its plans for space colonies and, working with the assumption that on Mars earthlings would settle in dome-covered canyons and caves away from the unfiltered rays of the sun, duplicated them at Churubusco.
The nightlife that Quaid finds in Venusville looks like a sailor’s hallucination. Pollution allowed by the mining company’s sinister management has contaminated the gene pool and made mutants of many of the workers and their families. People walk around with their brains growing on the outside of their skulls. A hooker at Barq’s Sleaze Bar proudly shows off her three perfectly shaped breasts. A taxi driver lifts an arm to reveal a bizarre wing-like appendage. All creations of make-up wiz Rob Bottin, the designer of RoboCop.
Verhoeven admits being very upset when the producers insisted on shooting the movie in Mexico City. He’d heard horror stories about daily electrical outages at Churubusco and he had envisioned using the shimmering glass and steel architecture of Houston for the film’s Earth scenes. But once in Mexico City, he discovered architecture even more futuristic than Houston’s.
“We found this military academy here, just cold stone concrete forms with very strong lines,” he says. “It inspired for us the whole production design for Earth. For Mars, we used cubicle forms of two or three buildings in Hong Kong and England.”
The production design was also inspired by the Hotel Nikko, the ultramodern Japanese hotel at which most of the film crew is staying in Mexico City.
As for the facilities at Churubusco, the producers paid to have their own generators brought in and electricity has not been a problem. “The biggest problem we’ve had down here,” said one crew member, clutching his stomach, “is The Revenge.”
Schwarzenegger, chewing on a cigar during a break on the set, speaks of his star power matter-of-factly. Yes, he made “Total Recall” happen. Yes, he got the director he wanted, and yes, he has stepped in to settle some disputes that have arisen between the writers and Verhoeven, and between Verhoeven and Carolco.
“There is no question Paul is the boss on this movie, but I’ve assisted him all along,” Schwarzenegger says. “Companies can potentially step all over you. I’ve kind of protected him from all that. It’s worked out great. If you have power, you shouldn’t abuse it. Use it to make good decisions and get things done that are important.”
Schwarzenegger still speaks angrily about the firing of director Andy Davis one week into filming of “The Running Man.” He says the producers blamed Davis for being behind schedule when the schedule itself was the culprit.
“Like on this movie, they make up a (production) schedule that is unreasonable and when the director cannot stick to the schedule, they say he’s two days late after the first week and want to get rid of him. It’s dumb.”
Schwarzenegger says Carolco jumped on Verhoeven shortly after “Total Recall” started, saying he was running late when in fact they had gone against expert advice and figured on getting more blue screen shots done per day than was feasible.
“I told Andy (Vajna), ‘Don’t you get it, your schedule is (bleep). It’s too tight.’ He said, ‘We have to do it to make the goal.’ I said, ‘If it’s unreasonable, it’s unreasonable.’ ”
Schwarzenegger has also mediated script disputes between Verhoeven, who likes his violence graphic, and the queasy Shusett, who fears turning off the audience.
“Paul is probably the best action director in the world now,” says Shusett, “but ‘RoboCop’ was really too violent for me. I want him to get what he wants, but I don’t want it to be so graphic you can’t look at it.”
Verhoeven, as passionate as he is about the images he’s collecting, has a unique attitude among directors. He says that when he and a writer disagree over a scene, he’ll shoot it both ways and let the writer make the final choice. If there’s only time to shoot it one way, he shoots it the way the writer wants it.
“I think I am wrong to change it,” he says. “If the writer disagrees, it’s his decision. He wrote it.”
When Verhoeven and Goldman submitted their first rewrite of “Total Recall,” it was missing a key third-act component. Shusett wanted it in there; Verhoeven and Goldman, who had come up with an element of their own, said it wasn’t necessary. Five days before production was to begin, Schwarzenegger sided with Shusett and the original ending was restored.
The scenes that were put back in involved some complicated special effects and sets that one source said would add at least $1 million to the budget. No one would say exactly what “Total Recall” is costing. Vajna said it’s less than $50 million, Schwarzenegger says it’s more. Several people close to the production say it’s a lot more.
“They haven’t chintzed on anything,” says Shusett. “They have not cut any major scenes from the movie. I have to give Carolco a lot of credit for that. It’s costing more than they thought it would.”
These days, Shusett is given to moods of gratitude. He’s happy about everything, he says. He likes Arnold, he likes Carolco, working with Verhoeven and Goldman “has been a pleasure.” He has seen his project brought back from the dead, not only to get produced, but to have the biggest action star in the world and one of the hottest directors.
“For 15 years, it was like writing on toilet paper,” he says. “All of a sudden, they turn the camera on and film it. I feel like I’m back in Dino’s office just imagining all this.”