I recently interviewed Hollywood action movie director Len Wiseman for Film Ireland magazine while he was in town to promote Total Recall (2012). We discussed his new film, how to structure an action sequence, the unfortunate censorship of Live Free or Die Hard/Die Hard 4.0 and the big question of the day: which was the better action movie, The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises?
It took making a movie with Colin Farrell to get Len Wiseman to Ireland. The Californian director of Total Recall was on his star’s home turf for the European premiere of the movie, when I spoke with him at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. Busy with press and the premiere that day, he assured me that Farrell had promised to show him the town before he left.
Wiseman, a director of high-octane video game-influenced action blockbusters was a strong choice to put in charge of this sci-fi remake, originally made by the Dutch master Paul Verhoeven in 1990. That film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, a blue collar worker who discovers all his memories have been implanted, and he is actually a spy. Big shoes had to be filled, especially when remaking a film that was so commercially successful while also wooing critics. Wiseman launched his name through the Underworld movies, vampires versus werewolves romps, which he created and now produces – the series has now taken nearly $500,000,000 worldwide. His Total Recall, following The Dark Knight Rises into cinemas, has not had as warm a reception thus far. So what drew him to the project?
“It kind of came to me out of left field,” he admitted. “I’d been focused on prepping a different movie at the time that didn’t go through. They sent me a script, I actually read it with quite a bit of scepticism about what it would be. I’m a fan of the original, so I was more reading it trying to convince myself why not to do it. I was just hooked by the direction that it went in, it was a very different take, and it felt like such a different experience than the Verhoeven film.”
Wiseman is a fan of the original film, but confessed when he saw it first, aged 17, he was “just going to see the next Arnold action movie!” Years later, in college, he read the short story it was based on, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, by sci-fi soothsayer Philip K. Dick, unaware of the connection. “I remember reading and thinking: ‘Hey this is that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger!’ When I read the story it did have a very different kind of Quaid to me, and it was a different experience. So that’s what made me feel both more comfortable and [with the script]; it reminded me more of the short story.”
Verhoeven’s Total Recall can still surprise now, given that it touches on concepts such as “what is reality?” nearly 10 years before The Matrix and eXistenZ. So what message can Total Recall carry now, another 12 years later? Wiseman said the idea of implanting happier memories than the ones we have, through the sci-fi product ‘Rekall’, is more pertinent now than ever. “If the technology actually gets to the point where we can experience something like Rekall, is it the right thing to do?” he suggested. “Is it safe? To me it’s amazing that Philip K. Dick’s work, not just in this story, is so relevant. Some people just have a window into our future and where we’re going. I mean even Facebook, look at what we have today, we’re ordering up, putting up the pictures that we want, saying this is who I am, how I’m describing myself. I’ll leave out all the bad stuff. This is my alter ego of me, who I want to be. Rekall is an extension of that science. An extension of our technology of being actually able to say ‘this is who I want to be’.”
This Total Recall has a particularly glossy look, with its story shifting between a futuristic London and its enslaved colony in Australia. Influenced by the likes of Blade Runner and Minority Report and Wiseman’s ever-growing collection of sci-fi artwork (he refers to his home as a “big geek fest”), the director explained that his team also borrowed the look of Rio de Janeiro’s slums and Asian fishing villages to create a “hodge podge” of interlocking cultures. The decision to bathe the film in light was taken on his own distaste for underlit action movies. “I love to see what is going on,” he said, “both in my camera movements, in the way that things are choreographed. [Cinematographer] Paul Cameron did an amazing job. We talked about it a lot; that’s why there’s so much practical light within those sets, so we can have a reason to splash light all over the place. I think you can have a very dark image – Total Recall is very dark – but you can still see everything because the contrast level is able to be really dark when it’s black, but as long as you’re putting spots on everything that you need to see it works.”
And what about those extended, frenetic action scenes? “I think it’s very important for an action sequence to be its own story, and have a first act, second act, third act within the action. Otherwise it’s just relentless action – it doesn’t make any sense. There is a difference between just an action scene and an action sequence, and what it means to me is that in an action sequence you can remember the sequence, it should tell some story and ratch it up and tell its conclusion rather than just be noise and shaky cameras.”
Perhaps the film’s finest moment is a sequence where Farrell’s Quaid rediscovers his talents as a spy and surprises himself by taking out a dozen SWAT team members in what appears to be a single, swooping take. “It appears to be!” Wiseman laughed, like a magician who delights in revealing his tricks. “That was something that was very difficult. It’s funny because when there’s something that people don’t quite grasp they go *snap fingers* “CG”, because we’re in a day and age where that’s commonplace. But it was 100% practical – it was put together with what are called super slider rigs, that they shoot football games with. They’re these remote cameras that move at about 35mph so you can’t man them. It was a lot of R&D on our end, but we put seven of those tracks together and what would happen is one of these cameras would go along at 35mph and when it crossed another one the computer would pick up and this one would take off from where the other left off. And we stitched all of those together. It took two days to shoot. Colin and the guys had to do the fight 22 times!”
Wiseman was clearly impressed with his leading man. “I had the funnest time with Colin. He’s a complete pleasure, and such a professional as well. And immensely funny, that’s one thing really struck me. He’s very talented, he has a hold body of work that’s wildly intelligent, but I was not aware of just how quick witted and funny he is. It really makes a difference on set to have somebody who’s devoted but also keeps it fun.”
It’s less easy to ask Wiseman about working with his leading lady, Kate Beckinsale, without feeling as though your probing like a tabloid mag; the pair are married, having met on the set of the first Underworld film. She plays Lori, a spy pretending to be Quaid’s wife, keeping him under her thumb before having to hunt him down when he discovers who he is. I asked Wiseman if it’s coincidence he gave her character all the best lines. “A lot of those lines are her!” he replied. “Part of what I wanted from Kate and why I thought she’d be great for this movie is that people don’t realise through the Underworld movies or through the serious dramas and indies that she’s done is that she has such a sharp and fun and cunning sense of humour. And I knew that she would be able to bring a lot of that to the film. I wanted Laurie to have a taunting quality to Colin, and I knew that she would know how to bring that. So a lot of the one-liners are hers.”
Very much in demand these days, Bryan Cranston was cast as the totalitarian Chancellor Cohaagen, his first villainous role in a movie since his character Walter White shifted from hero to villain in his TV series Breaking Bad. The choice was an obvious one for Wiseman. “He was my first choice. I was watching Breaking Bad at the time and I was like ‘I’ve gotta work with this guy’. The thing that surprised me about him is that I had no idea about his other show (the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, which ran for six years in the early ‘00s), so I didn’t see that side of him. I only know him as Walter White. So he shows up and I thought ‘You know what, this guy has such a menacing quality about him that he may be difficult to work with’. I was setting myself up for who knows. He could not be a sweeter guy! And I kept waiting for that [mean] side of him to come out … because he’s so great in that role as Walter White. He’s a dear guy but just has a great presence in the film.”
Wiseman went on to tell me about his pre-Underworld days, when he worked as a props master on Independence Day director Roland Emmerich’s biggest films of the 1990s. He described the experience as “a bit of film school for me in terms of problem solving, technique and using a budget”, before sharing an anecdote in which Emmerich, despite having a $75,000,000 for Independence Day, was ordering sets to be built at the last minute from leftover pieces of other film’s sets. “We literally built this little set in an hour of a hallway that was needed, just on the fly, and then walk them through and done. That was really helpful.”
With a fifth film in the Die Hard series due next year, was Wiseman ever in the run for to direct it, following his successful fourth instalment Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) back in 2007? “It was, it was. Bruce [Willis] kind of went out there publicly and said so, but I was already working. I would love to jump in the ring again, but I was already well into the mix.”
The director also admitted his disappointment at how the studio censored that film. “I shot a rated R movie,” he insisted, and referenced the ‘Harder’ cut available on DVD. “I had no idea it was going to be PG-13; that came in halfway through the process. And I gotta tell you as a fan I felt like “I’m gonna walk.” If they it PG-13! You know Bruce was really up in arms about it and everything. But in the end it was the most expensive Die Hard. It was also my first studio film, so I lost that battle over the rating. I’m not big on doing the cartoon gore. But McClane is McClane, so that’s really why I was glad to get that (the extended cut) out.”
The question all action movie fans need to be asked this summer is The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises? Wiseman seemed very torn up about having to choose. “I actually thought beforehand ‘Dark Knight Rises is gonna hit it out of the park, but Avengers, that’s gonna be interesting, how are you gonna pull that one off?’ And I mean I was just watching [Avengers] thinking ‘I’m really liking this. It’s servicing the characters very well, it’s tying in very well, it’s really fun’, and I completely got into. I gotta say, the end of Dark Knight, how it all wrapped up and tied up I really liked. But Avengers was just… you walk out of that movie saying ‘That was so much fun.’ The difference is: Avengers I’ve seen twice.”
So when the media circuit, or “circus” as Wiseman corrected me, for Total Recall is done, what will he do next? More Underworld? “I actually don’t know about Underworld!” he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. “I should be the right guy to ask, but I actually said there wasn’t going to be a fourth one! So I’m not sure about that. I’m producing a movie called Darkness, which is based off the Top Cow comic books. Then I’ve got two scripts that I’m working on – I’d love to get back to my own creations again.
“That’s how I started my career. Sequels and remakes are a thing of the past for me, I’d love to go back to getting my scripts off the ground.”
Total Recall is out in cinemas in Ireland and the UK now.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)