20 Things You Might Not Have Realised About Total Recall
When it comes to over-the-top early 90s sci-fi action movies, it really doesn’t get any better than Total Recall.
Released in 1990 and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as an everyday schmo who might actually be a secret agent destined for Mars, Total Recall was at the time one of the most expensive movies ever made. A super-violent, occasionally trippy and surprisingly intelligent blockbuster, alongside RoboCop (another movie directed by Paul Verhoeven) we remember it being a VHS tape that made it round every single boy in our school classroom.
Below are 20 things you might not have realised about this classic Arnie flick, and if you’re not interested in reading them, consider that a divorce!
20. The original script was penned by the same people who wrote Alien
The original Total Recall screenplay was written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the same pair that wrote Alien.
But despite the fact that it was released a decade after Ridley Scott’s horror masterpiece, O’Bannon and Shusett actually wrote Total Recall before they wrote Alien!
O’Bannon has always had a flair for non-straightforward horror movies, though in the 1980s and the work he made wasn’t as big-budget or as recognisable as Total Recall or Alien.
He was mostly known for Lifeforce, another movie based on a book, this time following the strange story of a group of vampires who lived in outer space, the people who fought them, and the end of the world.
Total Recall represented his biggest work yet, and helped to set him up for other more widely recognised titles, such as his involvement in making Return of the Living Dead in 1985.
O’Bannon and Shusett did work together one more time, to create the screenplay Haemoglobin that eventually became the low-budget horror flick Bleeders.
19. About 40 drafts of the script were written before the film was made
Total Recall is based on the late author Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, and whilst rights to the story were purchased whilst Dick was still alive, the project soon became stuck in development hell.
It passed through a number of studios over the next ten years, during which time more writers tried their hand at updating and fixing the original screenplay.
The pressure was on due to the big-budget nature of the movie, and the knowledge that they would eventually have to cast a big name star to take on the lead role.
Not only that, but the previous Phillip K. Dick book to be adapted was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which eventually became the massively successful movie Blade Runner.
All of these factors combined so that when the movie was finally made over a decade later, the screenplay had undergone over 40 total rewrites.
18. It could have starred Patrick Swayze rather than Schwarzenegger
A producer called Dino De Laurentiis took on the Total Recall project in the mid-1980s, and Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss was first choice for the lead.
Another actor to be considered was the late Patrick Swayze, who had only recently starred in Dirty Dancing.
It is now impossible to imagine anyone other than the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of Doug Quaid, but he wasn’t even very high in the running.
Both the various directors’ own personal preferences and the studio’s demands collated a list of actors that didn’t include Schwarzenegger, much to his dislike.
With that said, he finally got the role, and he ended up with more power than anybody else on set.
17. Schwarzenegger had final approval over both the movie’s director and cast
Arnold Schwarzenegger had been interested in the project for some time, and so he bagged himself the lead role the only way he knew how, by persuading a studio to purchase the project for him.
The studio in question was Carolco Pictures, who he had a long-term relationship with, and they were all too eager to oblige.
Arnie was therefore able to approve Total Recall’s producer, director, screenplay, co-stars, and even promotion. Not only that, but he was able to handpick a director.
He personally recruited director Paul Verhoeven because he was such a big fan of RoboCop (a movie for which Schwarzenegger was considered for the lead role).
The choice worked out well, as there were many similarities in tone and genre between the two movies, which made the director a natural choice even outside of Schwarzenegger’s own preference.
16. It very nearly had an X rating because of the violence
The original cut of the movie was given the notorious X rating in the US due to its extreme graphic violence.
However, filmmakers were keen to tone it down slightly to achieve an R rating instead, so some of the bloodshed had to be cut from the movie.
Fans have long speculated about the possibility of an X-rated version of the movie existing out there somewhere, but the reality is far less exciting.
In order to bring the movie down to an R-rating, very little actually had to be changed: certain camera angles were swapped out, and a few scenes were trimmed down by only a few seconds.
All of this happened relatively early in the editing process, making the slightly tamer cut the only one to exist.
15. The ‘Martian guards’ were all real American soldiers
The Martian guards in Total Recall probably didn’t have to do much acting to give off an air of authority, because they were all genuine soldiers.
Yes, every single person playing a guard was real-life military.
More specifically than that, the majority of the people portraying guards during the movie’s Mars scenes are American Marines.
The only other kind of personnel allowed to take part as one of the extras were American Naval officers.
It’s unclear whether the choice was due to a funding agreement with the American military, or just because the actors wouldn’t have to be taught to seem imposing and disciplined.
14. The guards have 1980s calculators strapped to their wrists
We’re sure that many of you will have seen Total Recall a number of times, but have you ever noticed that the guards have calculators strapped to their wrists?
Yes, it’s true. Having a 1980s calculator instead of a more expensive prop will no doubt have helped cut the movie’s budget.
Not only that, but the actors will have been able to keep themselves amused in between takes by turning them upside-down and spelling BOOBLESS on them!
Not very mature, but the wrist-calculators were supposed to be communicators, a futuristic piece of tech which has since become pretty commonplace.
Not only that, but any Apple Watch owners will tell you that they’re not used for anything more important than spelling out funny words, at least usually.
13. The ‘futuristic’ train station was the real Mexican public underground system
Remember the scene in the movie when Arnie speeds through a futuristic train system?
Well, both the station and its vehicles were real features of Mexico City’s public transportation system.
The choice was mostly a convenience one, since the shooting location was already based in Mexico for a variety of other reasons.
With that said, it did help that the train system was already one of the most advanced in the world, and also had the right kind of gritty futuristic aesthetic.
A few little tweaks were necessary to make the train cars seem less 20th century, but those were the only changes made.
12. Nearly all of the cast and crew got serious food poisoning
Many of the movie’s cast and crew got an extremely serious bout of food poisoning during the movie’s production, with some even having to be taken to hospital.
This was allegedly due to the film’s Mexico City shooting location, as other movies shooting in the same place had included casts plagued with similar issues.
Most of the cast took some precautions, which mainly meant avoiding the tap water and drinking out of bottles whenever possible.
However, some even took it further than that, brushing their teeth with bottled water and even using it to wash their face while on-set.
Schwarzenegger was one of the few to escape unscathed, as he had all of his meal’s and drinks catered from the US.
11. The film has been criticised for being degrading to women
Many people believe that Total Recall is gratuitously violent, and whilst we’d be hard-pressed to disagree with that view, there are also some who have criticised its portrayal of women.
For example, a critic called Susan Faludi called it “one of an endless stream of war and action movies in which women are reduced to mute and incidental characters or banished altogether.”
This was a problem recognised with eighties and nineties movies in general, especially when it came to action movies with a genre twist, such as sci-fi or horror.
However, Total Recall caught extra scrutiny due to it coming close to the end of the era where such movies were popular, as well as its undeniably over the top aesthetic.
It also didn’t help that many actresses were vocal about feeling uncomfortable on-set, specifically with the ways in which they were supposed to portray their characters.
10. Arnold Schwarzenegger was almost fired from the film for being too manly
We’ve already discussed how it took Schwarzenegger persuading the studio he was closest with to the buy the movie for him to get the part, but he did try more convenient methods first.
At first, he just asked for the role, but the director at the time De Laurentiis was quick to shut him down for one very specific reason.
The reason was that the original book’s version of the character was actually a shlubby, office-job type who wore a suit and was pretty boring in most respects.
The director knew the lead would have to be a bit more exciting to attract audiences to the cinema, but going from a chubby, middle-aged man to Arnie was too much of a stretch.
That’s part of the reason the movie had to undergo so many rewrites, as the script had to accommodate this fairly dull and drudging character becoming an action hero.
9. Sharon Stone refused to show more skin for the director
Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of Quaid might be iconic, but Sharon Stone’s portrayal of his wife Lori has also become pretty infamous in the years since the movie’s release.
However, if director Verhoeven had gotten his way, several scenes containing her would have looked pretty different, in particular her love scene with Schwarzenegger.
The director was constantly urging her to show more skin while filming the scene, but take after take Stone refused to take off any more clothes than she already had.
However, as a compromise, Stone did agree to pose for Playboy in the edition that coincided with the movie’s release.
It wasn’t enough for the director though, who claimed he “got her back” by convincing her to be naked throughout the movie Basic Instinct.
8. The film has many ties to RoboCop
We’ve already discussed how Schwarzenegger was in the running for RoboCop, and was so upset to lose out on playing the part that he hand picked RoboCop’s director for Total Recall.
However, what you might not know is that there are many other connections between RoboCop and Total Recall.
One other similarity is in the character of Richter, which was very similar to the character of Clarence Boddicker in RoboCop.
In fact, they were so similar that when Kurtwood Smith was asked to play Richter, he declined because he felt it would be no different to playing Boddicker.
Not every actor was concerned about doubling-up their character archetypes however, as Ronny Cox agreed to play Cohaagen in Total Recall after playing the basically identical Dick Jones in Robocop.
7. A live cougar attacked Schwarzenegger on-set
It’s a long-standing entertainment maxim that out of all the kinds of roles you could take, you should never act in anything that includes either children or animals.
Total Recall pretty much gets around the “no children” rule, but there were a variety of animals on-set, including some you might not expect.
In fact, maybe the oddest thing about the production was that there was a live cougar on-set, who would hang out in people’s trailers and nap next to his trainer.
Once, the cougar even attacked the lead talent Arnold Schwarzenegger, diving on his back from behind when he walked into his trailer.
Thankfully though, it turned out the animal just wanted to play-wrestle, and wasn’t using his teeth or claws on the star.
6. The characters constantly spoil the end of the movie
There’s a fairly common technique in cinema called foreshadowing, where characters or situations subtly imply how the story will end.
However, Total Recall takes this concept above and beyond, by having characters just completely spell out how the movie will go.
For example, when Bob McClane pitches the mission to Quaid near the beginning, he describes it as “Get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet”, which is exactly what happened.
There’s also an instance when Dr. Lull tosses Ernie a computer chip and he looks at it and says “That’s a new one! ‘Blue Sky on Mars'”, which is a huge spoiler.
Even when Quaid threatens to shoot Roy Brocksmith, the doctor describes the third act in full detail.
5. The character of Doug nearly looked very different
We’ve already talked about how Schwarzenegger was not the first pick for the character of Quaid, and how it could have been Patrick Swayze to take his place.
However, what you might not have realised is just how many people were in the running, and the kind of actors who had been prioritised.
One of the biggest names to be the running was Matthew Broderick, who perfectly embodied the early geekiness of the character.
Other names to be included were Christopher Reeve and Jeff Bridges, both of which had some mix of geekiness and leading man.
With that said, by far the most unusual pick was when Cronenberg was at the helm, as he wanted William Hurt to be Quaid.
4. David Cronenberg’s vision of the story got him removed from the film
Speaking of Cronenburg, he was brought on as director relatively early on, and was super passionate about the project.
He worked on it for a whole year, but was eventually told to walk away as no-one else in the production was responding well to his vision.
The main problem was that his version of the story was too close to the original story, and so was less enticing for theatre audiences.
Instead of the authentic adaptation Cronenberg wanted, Ron Shusett told him he wanted “Raiders of the Lost Ark Goes to Mars.”
After Cronenberg walked away from the project, he was replaced by a much more blockbuster-friendly director in Verhoeven.
3. Cronenberg’s body-horror vision left a lasting legacy on the film
Despite the fact that Cronenberg himself didn’t last on the project, his vision for what the movie could have looked like definitely did.
The final product still has a flair of Cronenberg body horror that can be seen in his other movies, and which a lot of sci-fi action blockbusters shy away from.
Not only that, but Cronenberg did add a few of his own ideas to the authentic adaptation, and most of those changes stuck around to the final draft.
Most notably, it was Cronenberg who came up with the idea to add the character of Kuato, who has since become one of the most infamous elements of the movie.
He also came up with the idea of mutants on Mars in general, which is obviously an important element of the movie.
2. The physical effects ruined the actor’s lives
Total Recall might have been one of the first movies to try and implement CGI, but it was also one of the last to emphasise its practical effects.
This included the use of minatures and matte paintings, but it mostly focussed on the crazy FX needed to bring the characters to life.
These effects were definitely cool, but wearing them wasn’t always a fun experience for the actors and actressses involved.
For example, Lycia Naff, the actress who played Total Recall’s three-breasted escort, felt so humiliated during filming that she refused to do any promotion for the movie afterwards, even turning down an interview spot on the Tonight Show.
Not only that, but Marshall Bell, the actor that Kuato was built into, had to field questions for years, asking if he was truly a mutant or if he had a secret siamese twin.
1. The movie’s body count is higher than you might think
Total Recall isn’t explicitly a horror movie, and its camp sensibility and somewhat over-the-top goofiness means it’s often considered a fun movie to watch.
That’s true, but it’s also true that the movie contains a lot of deaths, with a body count that is in the high 70s by the time the movie is over.
Thankfully we don’t see most of them, but there are some extended death scenes that have become pretty infamous in the years since the movie’s release.
For example, Richter dies when he is pulled up an elevator shaft, which leads to his arms being ripped off before he falls to his death.
Not only that, but in an even more infamous kill, someone is thrown out into the vacuum of space, leading to their eyes popping out uncomfortably.
Of course, there are also a fair few classic Arnie action deaths, with him shooting people as well as snapping their necks with his bare hands.