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Tales From Development Hell - Total Recall

Published on 22 March, 2012

Authored by Titan Books

Whatever happened to Batman versus Superman? Why have there been so many scripts written over the years for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s still in development Indiana Jones 4? Why was Lara Croft’s journey to the big screen so tortuous, and what prevented Paul Verhoeven from filming what he calls “one of the greatest scripts ever written”? Why did Ridley Scott’s Crisis in the Hot Zone collapse days away from filming, and were the Beatles really set to star in Lord of the Rings? All these lost projects, and more, are covered in Tales From Development Hell, which features many exclusive new interviews with the writers and directors involved.

This exclusive excerpt explores David Cronenberg's involvement with Total Recall.


In 1990, Austrian action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dutch director Paul Verhoeven teamed up for what would become one of the biggest science fiction films of all time, Total Recall. Schwarzenegger, the star of such films as Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Commando, Predator and The Running Man, played Douglas Quaid, a man whose dreams of Mars come to life when he takes a virtual holiday, only to be embroiled in a desperate race to save the red planet — a scenario which may or may not be a product of his imagination.

Despite its restrictive rating, the film grossed $250 million worldwide, enough to make it the highest grossing film of the year. Yet Total Recall had an inauspicious beginning. The film was loosely based on a 1966 short story entitled ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, written by American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? had previously inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which despite being a critical and commercial failure, had revived interest in Dick’s writing, and led to a number of his other stories being optioned for the cinema. ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, however, had been snapped up almost a decade earlier by future Alien co-writer and executive producer Ronald D. Shusett, who, at the time, had only a low-budget suspense film W (aka I Want Her Dead) to his credit. “I think it was probably 1974 that I optioned this story,” Shusett later recalled. “Phil Dick was then not a known author at all. He was still a struggling pulp writer, [as he was for] most of his career until Blade Runner got made.”

Shusett first encountered the twenty-three-page short story in the pages of the April 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In the story, downtrodden clerk Douglas Quail visits a company named Rekall, Inc., which offers ‘false memory vacations’ which, as far as the brain is concerned, are as memorable as the real thing. As Quail is implanted with the fake memory of a secret agent’s trip to Mars, the process uncovers his true identity — not only a secret agent recently returned from Mars, but someone whose death will lead to the invasion of Earth, thanks to a deal he struck with aliens as a child. Said Shusett, “This was the first story which knocked me right out, which I knew would make an incredible movie, [albeit] an incredibly expensive one.”

Shusett paid $1,000 for the rights to the story, and invited a screenwriter friend, Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star), to help him turn it into a script. “Ronny Shusett walked into my apartment sporting a filthy old Xerox copy of Dick’s [story],” O’Bannon told Cinefantastique. “He said, ‘Dan, I was wondering if you’d take a look at this story and tell me if you think this would make a good movie.’ I said, ‘I know that story and I think it would make a terrific movie.’” Thirty pages into the script, now retitled Total Recall at Shusett’s suggestion, O’Bannon realised he had exhausted the story. “Dick’s story is short,” he said. “It ends very abruptly. You cannot take that particular story and simply inflate it up to a full-length piece.” O’Bannon realised that the story was effectively a first act, and that the second and third acts would have to be invented from scratch. “Shusett liked what I did and asked, ‘Where does it go from here?’ And I said, ‘We take him to Mars.’”

The resulting script opens with the protagonist, Quail (the name was eventually altered to Quaid to avoid references to the then-Vice President, Dan Quayle), dreaming of a Martian pyramid of which he has no conscious memory. “Quaid, Earth’s top secret agent, went to Mars and entered this [alien] compound. The machine killed him and created a synthetic duplicate. He is that synthetic duplicate,” O’Bannon explained, “[and] he cannot be killed because he can anticipate danger before it happens.” The fact that this duplicate is invulnerable leads the government of Earth to a radical solution: “Earth wants to kill him but cannot. That’s why they go to all this trouble to erase his brain to make him think he’s nobody. It’s the only way they can control him.” At the climax of the script, Quaid puts his hand on the Martian machine, at which point he achieves ‘total recall’, discovering his true identity: a Martian machine. “He is, in effect, the resurrection of the Martian race in a synthetic body. He turns and says to all the other characters, ‘It’s going to be fun to play God.’” O’Bannon’s co-writer, however, wanted a more dramatic and externalized climax. “Shusett and I never saw eye to eye on the end of the movie,” O’Bannon admitted, adding: “The end that they filmed, in my estimation, is lame.”

O’Bannon and Shusett enjoyed a more fruitful collaboration on Alien (1979), the success of which gave Shusett a development deal at Disney, where he set to work on Total Recall once again. When Disney eventually passed on the project, Dino De Laurentiis’ company DEG stepped in, with plans for Richard Rush, director of The Stunt Man, or Lewis Teague (Cujo) to direct. Yet the difficulties with the script’s third act remained; problems that De Laurentiis hoped his next choice would solve: Canadian horror director David Cronenberg, fresh from the mainstream success of The Dead Zone (1983). “At that time I was not a Philip Dick fan,” Cronenberg admitted to Serge Grünberg. “I knew about him but I had stopped reading sci-fi when I was a kid; probably sometime in the 1950s. That was when I started reading guys like Burroughs and Nabokov. So I missed the beginning of Philip K. Dick’s reign as one of the supremos of sci-fi. It was the script of Total Recall which Dino gave to me which got me interested. It had this very wonderful beginning which was pure Philip K. Dick — and then they didn’t know what to do with it. So I was intrigued because it felt very close, it felt good.”

Cronenberg recalls spending a year writing and rewriting his own version of the script on a Xerox 860 word processor. “It’s a good thing I had a computer because I did about twelve drafts in about twelve months,” he says. “I was constantly fighting with Ron Shusett, and meeting with him, and then at a certain point I was sitting in a room full of people, and Ron said, ‘You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version,’ like I had done something terrible. And I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ And he said, ‘No, no, we want Raiders of the Lost Ark Goes to Mars.’ So I said, ‘Well, Jeez, I wish we’d all had this discussion twelve months ago — it wouldn’t have wasted all our time!’” Says Shusett, “I didn’t want to do it as serious as Blade Runner. I thought it needed to have a Raiders tone; not quite so humorous, but certainly closer to that than Cronenberg’s approach.” Cronenberg confirms that De Laurentiis shared Shusett’s view. “I said, ‘Dino, I think we have to stop because we’re obviously talking about two different movies, and we might as well acknowledge it now. I don’t want to make your movie. It seems that you don’t want to make my movie. We should stop.’ He was rational but he was telling me he was going to sue me. I was surprised he even cared, but it was like he had done a deal with me and… so I basically said that I would make another movie with him. I mean I obviously wanted to work with him, but that project was clearly not the right one.”

“Cronenberg quit for a number of reasons,” Shusett explained, adding that the problems began around the time Richard Dreyfuss became interested in the role of Quaid. The actor was already an Oscar winner and star of two Steven Spielberg blockbusters, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and wanted the writers to mould the character of Quaid to his ‘everyman’ persona, rather than the action hero described in the O’Bannon-Shusett version. “First of all, he and I were having a number of creative disagreements, which started about the time of Richard Dreyfuss’ involvement. [Then] Cronenberg started to feel that the movie should take on a whole new approach, different than either of the previous ones. I disagreed with him. I wanted to go either with our earlier approach… [or] the one Dreyfuss, Cronenberg and I had evolved. But suddenly David was against his own ideas.”

So how would Cronenberg’s Total Recall have looked? “First of all, I really wanted to cast William Hurt,” he says, “and the difference between Bill Hurt and Arnold Schwarzenegger probably tells you everything. I was doing something that I thought was faithful to Phil Dick and also to my own sense of the complex understanding of what memory is and what identity is. Obviously it would have been sci-fi and you would have gone to Mars, but it would have been like Spider Goes to Mars,” he adds, referring to his 2002 film starring Ralph Fiennes as a man struggling to piece his memories together, “as opposed to Raiders of the Lost Ark Goes to Mars. In a way, Spider really is an examination of memory and how it is a created thing, not sort of a video documentary of your past but something that you’re constantly upgrading, altering, changing, shifting and editing, to the extent that your memories are your identity and you’re also messing around with your identity, which certainly was something that I’d really gone into in great depth in Total Recall.”

In 1991, Cinefantastique writer Bill Florence summarised one of Cronenberg’s drafts, noting that his version diverged most significantly following Quaid’s arrival on Mars. “Quaid takes a cab driven by Benny… to the cab depot, where he finds Melina, the chief cabbie. She gives him a job as a cab driver, and he quickly avails himself of his own transportation to visit Quato [Kuato in the final film], a memory manipulator [who] has a malformed head growing out of his body… called ‘The Oracle’.” (Given Cronenberg’s fondness for physical mutation in his films, it is perhaps unnecessary to say that the idea of mutants on Mars, and of Kuato’s malformed congenital twin, were originally Cronenberg’s inventions.) When The Oracle dies while attempting to bring Quaid’s secret past to light, Quaid visits Pintaldi, a face changer, whose manipulations of Quaid’s facial structure reveal him to be Chairman Mandrell, dictator of Earth. After a failed assassination attempt, Quaid/Mandrell confronts Mars Administrator Cohaagen, who convinces him to infiltrate Mars Fed, who suppressed his true identity, and gives him a signal generator to track his location. “When the generator explodes — meant to kill Mandrell, but killing Benny the cab driver instead — Mandrell returns to the cab depot,” Florence continued, “where an EIA doctor tries to convince him he’s dreaming, a scene almost exactly like the final film’s Dr Edgemar sequence… In the climax of Cronenberg’s script, Mandrel and Cohaagen find themselves alone on a robot-controlled tour bus, moving over the Martian desert. Cohaagen reveals that Mandrell never really existed, that Quaid is just a minor government functionary selected to fill the role of chairman. Cohaagen planned to take over, using Quaid’s Mandrell image.” A fight ensues, Quaid/Mandrell defeats Cohaagen, and assumes his place as Chairman Mandrell, with Melina at his side.

According to Ron Miller (Dune), engaged as production illustrator by DEG during the period of Cronenberg’s involvement, it was more than just the story that might have been different: Miller recalls Martian creatures called ‘Ganzibulls’, originally created by Shusett, but retained in Cronenberg’s drafts. “They were creatures that lived in the sewers of the Mars city, called Venusville,” he told Cinefantastique. “In Cronenberg’s version, they were mutant camels. In Ron’s original script, the Martian colonists used camels as pack animals, and the camels wore oxygen masks… Cronenberg elaborated on the camels idea by having the monsters in the sewers be mutant camels.” Miller also remembers working with art director Pier Luigi Basile (Conan the Destroyer) at DEG’s studios in Rome, where “nothing much happened. We just drew all day for weeks on end. Cronenberg finally was hired, and he gave us more direction, more purpose. Bob Ringwood was going to do the costume design for the Cronenberg version, so he was there, on and off, for a couple of weeks and did a few sketches.”

Cronenberg recalls that, several years down the line, De Laurentiis offered him the project again, his way. He declined. “It’s dead for me now,” he told the producer. “I can’t get back into that now. I just can’t go back to working with Ron and fighting the same old battles and doing all that stuff.” Cronenberg was mostly unimpressed by the finished film. “I thought it was a bad movie,” he told Serge Grünberg, “although there were one or two moments that were true Philip Dick moments in it — they were good. But they weren’t good because it was Schwarzenegger still: first of all as an actor for that kind of role, and secondly as that character. The whole point of that character was that he was a unique, shy, mild character. They tried to compensate by making him a construction worker, but they gave him this beautiful Sharon Stone wife.” This, of course, was a deliberate move on the part of director Paul Verhoeven (who would soon make Stone a star in Basic Instinct), who understood that Quaid’s low-grade employment was as far as possible from secret agent, while his beautiful wife was designed to keep him satisfied with his otherwise average lifestyle. As Verhoeven explains, “With Arnold Schwarzenegger in the main part, [an audience] would not want him to dream. So to a large degree by choosing Arnold, there was a preference in reality.” Nevertheless, Cronenberg had other reservations: “I thought it was very visually tacky and messy,” he said. “Verhoeven didn’t do a good job with all the effects and the mutants and all of that stuff… They went for the action stuff purely and that was it: it was an action gimmick. So I didn’t really like the movie and I didn’t think much of it. But by the time I saw it, I didn’t care. I was over it.”