Franchises seem like second nature work to filmmaker Len Wiseman. After launching the successful Underworld franchise, he revised the Die Hard series with a fourth installment in the adventures of John McClane. Now he’s tackling a remake of Total Recall, the blockbuster 1990 Paul Verhoeven movie which was itself based on a story by acclaimed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. Movies sat down for a conversation with Wiseman Friday afternoon at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, where the filmmaker talked about taking on such an iconic property, and finding a balance between paying homage to its predecessor and creating something completely unique.
Movies.com: There’s always a dichotomy of influence when filmmakers tackle an adaptation or remake of a beloved piece of entertainment. In mounting a new film version of Total Recall, did you draw inspiration from Philip K. Dick’s source material, the Paul Verhoeven film or just the new script?
Len Wiseman: I didn’t have an approach because the script kind of took me by surprise. I didn’t know that there was a Recall script that was being worked on. So it came to me pretty fast. And in fact I had some of those same concerns – when I was first called about it, my initial thought was, is this a movie to be remade? And what’s it going to be? So I had the same thoughts myself until reading the script, and then I was just completely gripped by it being a new take. So because it went in a different direction, I was surprised by it, so that’s what hooked me on the project.
How much did you feel like this was an opportunity to reference or take inspiration from the original movie, versus doing something totally separate?
Wiseman: There was inspiration for sure from both, but really I just have a real interest in the concept, in the original Philip K. Dick concept of much more of the journey of that character – even moreso than the destination. The journey of what that character goes through, I’m fascinated by. So the original story and the film itself, I was a teenager at the time [it was released] and I grew up with that, so there’s certain things that even before I went back and rewatched it, there’s certain things that you just remember. So those things I guess you could say inspired or were really kind of stayed with you. So I’m paying homage to some of those things I loved when I was a teenager about Total Recall, and I wanted to make a point of listing what those things were before I went back and watched it, because it had been a good 15, 16 years. So it’s a whole combination in my own head.
There’s a meta-movie aspect to the original with a lot of ambiguity about what this character’s reality is. Do you want to preserve that or will this be a more visceral sort of adventure?
Wiseman: Part of the reason I thought it was something to get involved with was to have a deeper experience of the character and that struggle he’s going through with fantasy versus reality. I do love that Philip K. Dick questions reality, but he doesn’t necessarily answer it, and I’m fascinated by that as well. So I wanted to get further into that. It has its action, and all of those elements to it, but I thought there was more to be mined in that character who really is going through that struggle. And a different tone, too – it’s a different time, like you said. I think it’s one of Arnold’s best films by far, but when you really look at it, there’s a different take with going into that character, a little bit more.
Having made a film in Live Free or Die Hard that both paid tribute to the franchise and updated its character, how instrumental was Colin Farrell to the creative direction of Total Recall and how you maybe wanted to humanize the story in a way that Arnold’s film didn’t?
Wiseman: Quite a bit, and Colin is a huge part of that. I know that I got the right guy because I wanted to go with a certain type of tone for the character, and I don’t want this to sound bad, but you wouldn’t hire Colin to do the replacement of Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was not the intention by any stretch of the imagination. And so, Colin was a first choice for because of those qualities that he has. And we’re both very interested in that aspect of him. So I guess I would say we’ve done a lot of talking about it, and he brought a lot of it to the table too. He dove into this character and [asked] what would it really be like when you inherently feel like a good guy – you just know it, that’s in your heart – but you’re being told, no, in fact you’re not. So what do you do with that? That was something that we were really interested in from the beginning. And he’s also so fascinated by that as an actor, too.
Do you see thematic or aesthetic throughlines emerging from your work, even in retrospect? Things that distinguish your films or that you repeatedly bring to your work?
Wiseman: I mean, I guess it’s not as plotted out as that. I guess I wouldn’t even know any kind of pattern that evolving. But I do strive like with Total Recall, I love action, I love sci-fi, and those tentpole or event movies that allow you that kind of fun, but like to have the kind of characters I would see in a drama that I really love. You don’t see a lot of those, but that’s happening more and more lately, where people are willing to have a more serious tone, and have deeper characters with also these kickass visual effects and everything else combined. I think it’s a really exciting moment that’s happening, so that’s what I’m striving for. But whether it’s been there in the work so far? I have no idea (laughs).