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The labyrinthine path by how Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (first published in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy in April 1966) became the TriStar mega-blockbuster Total Recall (1990) is nearly worthy of the author’s patented brand of mind-bending science fiction. Highly regarded by his peers but a veritable unknown otherwise, the prolific and forward-looking Philip Kindred Dick existed at the poverty level before his 1968 short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was adapted by Ridley Scott for the Warner Brothers release Blade Runner (1982). Though a box office disappointment, Blade Runner alerted Hollywood to Dick’s back catalogue of twisty SF tales – not that it did him any practical good, as the writer died of a heart attack at age 53 three months before the film’s American premiere. Subsequent big box adaptations of Dick’s works included Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), John Woo’s Paycheck (2003), and George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau (2011), while more modest efforts – among them Nikos Nikolaidis’ Morning Patrol (1987) from Greece, Jérôme Boivin’s Barjo (1992) from France, and Christian Duguay’s Screamers (1995) from Canada – drifted in over the years from all points of the compass. Biggest of all, most expensive and most profitable, was Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall.
Though Total Recall went into production nearly a decade after Dick’s death, the property had been optioned as early as 1974 by little-known screenwriter Ronald Shusett, whose claim to anything resembling fame at the time was a story credit on the Cinerama Releasing Corporation thriller W (1974), which paired Twiggy with a pre-Battlestar Galactica Dirk Benedict. Paying $1,000 for the story rights, Shusett pressed friend Dan O’Bannon into adapting “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” for the big screen. (O’Bannon had cowritten the low budget space opera Dark Star , the first feature film for director John Carpenter.) When the futuristic tale – which featured space travel and memory manipulation – began to seem to the collaborators too expensive, they shifted focus to a more modest tale of interstellar terror, which became (as fate would have it) Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The success of Alien brought Shusett to the attention of Disney, where Total Recall found a home for a time. Eventually, the property drifted to the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group) and Rome, where maverick Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis ordered the production artwork, the construction of sets, and the cashiering of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg as his director.
Cronenberg stayed with Total Recall for a year, writing more than a dozen drafts of the script, scouting locations in Tunis, and bringing in Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss (though he preferred the more cerebral William Hurt) to play a mild-mannered government clerk who comes to believe he is an amnesiac secret agent embroiled in a conspiracy with intergalactic implications. He eventually parted ways with both de Laurentiis and Shusett over irreconcilable artistic differences; The Stunt Man (1980) director Richard Rush would jump ship for similar reasons. De Laurentiis then passed the property to Australian director Bruce Beresford, with Dreyfuss replaced by Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze. Production resumed Down Under until D.E.G. ran out of money, at which point the property was acquired by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carolco Pictures (for whom Schwarzenegger had just headlined Red Heat ) for $3,000,000. A fan of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), Schwarzenegger tapped the Dutch expatriate to take the reins on the runaway production – an apt selection, given that Verhoeven was Shusett’s director-of-choice a decade earlier, based on his 1977 film Soldier of Orange (which starred a pre-Blade Runner Rutger Hauer).
Bringing on screenwriter Gary Goldman (fresh from penning John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China ), Verhoeven, producer Shusett, and star Schwarzenegger recrafted the tale, teasing the dry, cerebral exercise favored by Cronenberg (whose subplot of Martian mutants was nonetheless retained) toward the paradigm of an action film (Shusett’s model had long been Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark) in which the protagonist was changed to a brawny construction worker who fantasizes about an exciting life on Mars and pays to have that false memory implanted in his brain – only to find out the dream is reality. Setting up shop at Mexico City’s Churubusco Studios in March 1989 with a budget of $50,000,000, Verhoeven put a crew of five hundred to work on forty-five sets built inside eight soundstages. Total Recall would be one of the first Hollywood films to combine live action, miniatures, matte work, and animatronics with a glazing of computer generated imagery (later branded as CGI) to seal the illusion of far-flung futurism. Cast as Schwarzenegger’s duplicitous wife was newcomer Sharon Stone (star of Verhoeven’s follow-up blockbuster Basic Instinct ), athletic character actress Rachel Ticotin, RoboCop villain Ronny Cox (as yet another corporate rotter) and Michael Ironside, a Canadian film actor best known for his dastardly turn in Cronenberg’s Scanners.
A gamble for Carolco at the price, Total Recall nonetheless earned a massive return on its investment upon release in June 1990, recouping nearly half of its production budget on opening weekend alone and garnering an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Despite the big numbers, interest in a sequel was low, as film franchises (even in the wake of James Cameron’s Aliens  and Terminator 2: Judgment Day , which starred Schwarzenegger) remained an idea whose time had not yet come. It was Gary Goldman who got the ball rolling when he optioned the 1956 Philip Dick story “Minority Report,” about a police agency that uses precognition to apprehend criminals before any crime has been committed, with a mind toward directing it a low budget feature. When Goldman tapped Verhoeven to executive produce, the idea was floated to reshape Minority Report as a Total Recall sequel, with Goldman demoted to writer, Verhoeven stepping in as director, and Schwarzenegger returning as the name above the title. The subsequent bankruptcy of Carolco drove the property to 20th Century Fox, where Verhoeven lost ownership of the project and all plans for Total Recall 2 were dropped in favor of Minority Report being a stand-alone feature, slated initially to be directed by Verhoeven’s countryman Jan De Bont until De Bont lost favor with Fox over the failure of Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) and The Haunting (1999).
Steven Spielberg ultimately took the reins of Minority Report, which took several more years to coalesce into a feature film starring Tom Cruise. Meanwhile), Total Recall spawned a short-lived Canadian TV series, Total Recall 2070, which ran to 22 episodes in 1999. In 2009, a feature-length remake of Total Recall was announced in the Hollywood trades, with Kurt Wimmer slated to direct. (Wimmer’s previous credit was the hyper-violent futuristic cop tale Equilibrium , a thinly-veiled cash-in on the widely popular The Matrix .) By the time the Columbia Pictures release went before the cameras in Toronto, however, Underworld‘s Len Wiseman was sitting in the director’s chair, with Colin Farrell playing the Schwarzenegger role and Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel the women in his life (and dreams). As slate gray monochromatic as Verhoeven’s adaptation had been chromatically candied, Total Recall (2012) was a critical and box office nonstarter that oddly elected to jettison the Mars setting of the earlier film in favor of an exclusively earthbound narrative – a tack that had been championed years earlier by Dino De Laurentiis, who was shouted down by every director he had hired for the job.
By Richard Harland Smith
“We Can Rewrite It For You Wholesale” by David Hughes, Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? (Titan Books, 2003-2012)
Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger with Peter Petre (Simon and Schuster, 2012)
The Cinema of David Cronenberg: From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero by Ernest Mathijs (Wallflower Press, 2008)
Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin (Da Capo Press, 2005)