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Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mission to Mars

By the late ’80s, the Austrian bodybuilder-turned-actor had played a slew of mindless action heroes, and was looking for something different. That’s when he landed on ‘Total Recall,’ the supremely unique, bizarrely funny, mind-bending piece of science fiction that launched him to superstardom.

Efi Chalikopoulou

One day in the late 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger walked into Osteria Romana Orsini on Pico Boulevard in Beverly Hills and sat down for, possibly, the most fortuitous meal of his life. The spot was not an old haunt. The action hero was there only because his friend had suggested it. “He’s like, ‘Let’s go to this nice Italian restaurant,’” the actor says.

In between bites of pasta, Schwarzenegger noticed Paul Verhoeven at a nearby table. The director was coming off making RoboCop, which the Terminator himself naturally loved: “I thought that this idea of being a machine and all that stuff, we have done it, but it was a whole new spin. It was so creatively done and I really got engaged. It was just brilliant.” He remembers thinking, “I’ve gotta go over there and just tell him how much I enjoyed this movie.”

Schwarzenegger chatted with Verhoeven long enough for his pasta to get cold and for the seeds to be planted for a future collaboration. “‘Hopefully one day we could work together,’” Schwarzenegger told the director. “And he said, ‘I would love to.’” The conversation, Verhoeven says, “went very well.” When he left Osteria Romana Orsini, he relayed the chance encounter to his wife. “She said to me, ‘Oh, you should make a movie with Arnold,’” he remembers.

What the Dutch filmmaker didn’t know was that his new pal was developing a science-fiction epic of his own: Schwarzenegger had convinced a production company to acquire the rights to a script based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”; the adaptation was going by a shorter, punchier title. “I drive home from this lunch and I said to myself, ‘I’m such a fucking idiot,’” Schwarzenegger says. “I should’ve told him right away about Total Recall.”

The project represented the next step in the evolution of Schwarzenegger’s career. By then he’d headlined hits like Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, and Predator, and appeared with Danny DeVito in the comedy Twins, his first $100 million smash. But he’d never gotten the chance to play a role as complex as Total Recall’s protagonist, Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who doesn’t realize that he’s actually a secret agent and that his beautiful wife, Lori, is a plant sent by his boss-turned-archenemy, brutal Mars Colony Governor Vilos Cohaagen.

Before Schwarzenegger aggressively attached himself to the movie, everyone who had tried to make it had failed. Its utterly out-there premise, which dozens of unworkable versions of the screenplay had attempted to tackle, required both an ambitious star and a uniquely visionary director.

That’s why Schwarzenegger enlisted Verhoeven, who was fresh off breaking out with a movie that also had a dystopian aesthetic. “I’m a big believer in good directors,” the star says. “Because if they are really on, then the movie’s going to be on.”

On June 1, 1990, Total Recall was released, toting a then-astronomical budget of between $50 million and $60 million and looking and feeling like nothing that had ever hit the big screen. On the back of its technologically advanced but bleak depiction of the late 21st century, imaginative creatures, hyperviolence, and one-liners, the movie was a galactically huge box office success. And in giving Schwarzenegger his then-biggest hit ever, it was also a kingmaker.

Now, 30 years after the premiere of Total Recall, the stubbled 72-year-old former California governor—whose muscles haven’t deflated at all during quarantine—is explaining how he willed the film into existence. As he sits in an umbrella-shaded chair outside his Los Angeles home and talks breezily about turning an interplanetary movie about a quip-slinging American everyman with an Austrian accent into a blockbuster, one thing is certain: He makes the impossible sound easy.

TriStar Pictures

While there’s no way Total Recall would’ve worked without Verhoeven, the picture belonged to Schwarzenegger. “He’s the soul of the movie,” the director says. “Before shooting, during shooting, and after shooting.” With its iron-pumping leading man as its shepherd, the film overcame visual effects challenges, a physically demanding shoot, and a misguided promotional campaign to become a sci-fi classic. Always a step ahead of his peers, Schwarzenegger used something that no one could get made to launch himself into his prime as an action star.

“For Arnold and I, we got exactly what we wanted,” Verhoeven says. “Without me trying.”

For Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven to join forces, they needed a filmable screenplay. In the 1970s, Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, who collaborated on Alien, were the first to take a shot at adapting “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Dick’s 1966 story centers on a government employee named Douglas Quail, whose dreams of the Red Planet lead him to seek out the services of Rekall Incorporated, a company that implants exciting memories in its clients. The procedure triggers the truth in him: He’s a government assassin whose mind has been wiped.

Shusett and O’Bannon’s script eventually landed in the hands of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis. At one time or another in the ’80s, Richard Dreyfuss, Patrick Swazye, and William Hurt were all in talks to star. None did. Canadian director David Cronenberg even attempted to crack the story, but after a dozen drafts, couldn’t make it work. No one could seem to figure out how to properly blend the narrative’s action and adventure with its sci-fi elements and psychodrama. Plus, the ending was a mess.

All the while, Schwarzenegger was eyeing the movie. But De Laurentiis, whose production company had financed Conan the Barbarian, didn’t think that the former Mr. Universe was the right person to play a supposedly normal guy. “I’ve been chasing for years, years, years,” Schwarzenegger says. “Because Dino De Laurentiis had it. And he always felt, ‘Schwarzenegger, I’d like you to be Conan. I don’t like you to be in Total Recall. I have Jeff Bridges.’”

In the meantime, Schwarzenegger honed his onscreen villain-crushing skills. And after seeing an article about De Laurentiis Entertainment Group going bankrupt in 1988, he pounced. “As soon as I read that, I said to myself, ‘Total Recall. He owns Total Recall,” Schwarzenegger says. He contacted Mario Kassar and Andy Vanja at Carolco Pictures, the small-but-aggressive studio that had made the Rambo series and the Schwarzenegger buddy-cop film Red Heat. “Guys,” he remembers telling them. “Total Recall is available.”

It didn’t take long for the producers to call Schwarzenegger back with good news: They’d purchased the rights to Total Recall for a reported $3 million. “Literally the next day,” he says. “It was immediate action. That’s the way those guys operated, Andy and Mario.”

Soon after that, Carolco offered Verhoeven the directing job. “We shook hands, Arnold and I, and said, ‘We’re going to do this,’” Verhoeven says. “And that was it. No talk about money or anything. It was just looking at each other and believing that Mario could finance it and that Arnold and I were a good team.”

“He was European, so I understood his character,” Schwarzenegger says. “And the outrageousness and everything he had done. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Flesh and Blood. He just has a very great eye and it was very violent. And I thought that’s the way the movie could be.”

There was, however, one problem left to solve: the script. There were, Verhoeven claims, about 40 drafts. None quite worked. To Verhoeven, the problem was obvious. “The third act was just a chase, continuously, for 30 minutes,” he says. So he hired Gary Goldman, the writer of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, to fix the climax. They also wisely changed Douglas Quaid’s occupation from feeble pencil-pusher to jackhammer-wielding construction worker.

“The original character in the original script is a measly accountant,” Verhoeven says. “That would be silly with Arnold.”

TriStar Pictures

Since Mars wasn’t available, Verhoeven chose to film Total Recall in Mexico City. Its star remembers the director being attracted to the architecture. “He thought that the look is so futuristic,” Schwarzenegger says. Much of the shoot took place not on location but rather in the cavernous sound stages of Estudios Churubusco, where the off-world setting was painstakingly built.

Dream Quest Images, which had come up with the visual effects for James Cameron’s The Abyss, was tasked with visualizing the future that Verhoeven had imagined. In addition to building intricate miniature Mars sets, the company created realistic-looking, full-body X-ray scanners, flat-screen television screens, holographic projections, and the interior details of self-driving taxis called Johnny Cabs.

“That was one of the great, great ideas, the way it was used in the movie,” Schwarzenegger says. “Because now you have vehicles that drive by themselves and you can program.” (For the record: Schwarzenegger loves a good self-driving car; last year he set Greta Thunberg up with one.)

VFX supervisor Eric Brevig spent much of the production worrying about whether what he was doing would please the exacting Verhoeven. “He was always challenging me, like, ‘You’re not going to be able to make this look good,’” says Brevig, who recalls assuring the director that “No, no, no, it’ll be good.” But Brevig now admits, “It was just as much hoping as anything else.”

Total Recall may not have used CGI like visually groundbreaking early ’90s blockbusters Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, but its combination of clever practical and digital effects showed that even the most fantastical flourishes could be brought to life, and in doing so, set a new standard for the sci-fi action genre.

Rob Bottin, the creature effects guru behind Carpenter’s The Thing, conjured a remarkable amount of memorably strange imagery. In one shot, Quaid extracts a glowing tracking probe from his nose with a device that looks like an orbitoclast. In another, his eyes and tongue grotesquely puff up when he’s oxygen-deprived on Mars. That was created by employing an air-inflated model of Schwarzenegger’s face.

“There were really wild characters,” Schwarzenegger says. Like, for example, Mars resistance leader Kuato, a mutant attached to his own brother George. And a woman whose head splits apart into segments to reveal that she’s Quaid in disguise. “I thought it would just simply open up and he will be there,” Verhoeven says. “Rob Bottin made all these layers, layer by layer, just basically because he felt that doing it by just opening it was too blunt and too mechanical and too banal.”

There was also, of course, the movie’s visual pièce de résistance, a Mars sex worker with a unique set of assets. “The three-breasted woman,” Schwarzenegger reminds me. (How could I forget?)

“Rob Bottin made that,” the now 81-year-old Verhoeven says, before launching into a monologue about breasts, nipples, and his discoveries as a college student in the Netherlands. “I know that some women had, let’s say, not two nipples, but they have four nipples. Like a dog, whatever. That’s what they have. They exist, basically, and I’ve seen the medical photos when I was at university. And I knew that. I wanted four nipples and breasts, with big breasts and smaller breasts underneath. And Rob Bottin, I think, felt that it was too realistic for the film. And basically that three breasts would be more, let’s say, in the style of the whole movie.”

Three decades later, as Total Recall and its three-breasted woman sit in a special place in sci-fi lore, Verhoeven sounds thankful for Bottin’s instincts. The director now concedes: “He was right.”

TriStar Pictures

The five-month Total Recall shoot, spanning the spring and summer of 1989, took a toll on the movie’s cast and crew. Gastrointestinal distress was common. The sets were full of dust. And Schwarzenegger suffered multiple minor injuries while filming some of the movie’s rougher fight scenes. “Broken fingers, and cuts with glass, and things like that,” he says. “I had to be stitched up at two in the morning because it was a lot of night shooting.”

For Verhoeven, a few takes were never enough. But running through a scene 15 or 20 times never bothered Schwarzenegger. “Arnold has no ego,” the director says. “He has not the feeling of, ‘Everything I do is good.’ He has the feeling of, ‘If anything is not so good, it should be redone.’”

It was Schwarzenegger who refused to allow the demands of the production to sour everyone’s mood. “His goal was to keep things light, move it along, no drama, and do his job,” says Mel Johnson Jr., who plays Mars taxi driver Benny. During the filming of one scene, Johnson recalls walking a tad farther away from Schwarzenegger than he had been instructed to during his audition. Johnson didn’t have his reading glasses on, so he wanted his costar to appear less blurry. After Verhoeven immediately cut and ordered another take, Johnson again drifted too far. That led Schwarzenegger to chime in: “Man, if you want to be in the movie, the camera’s going to be on me.”

“Everybody howled,” says Johnson, who also recalls Schwarzenegger playfully tossing sarcastic zingers over Verhoeven’s head. “Paul wasn’t getting it at all. It was hysterical.”

Midway through the production, Schwarzenegger organized a dinner at an upscale Mexico City restaurant. When Ronny Cox, who plays Cohaagen, was making a speech, Johnson noticed a styrofoam ball flying through the air. Then another whizzed by. And then another. Soon it was a full-on ball fight. In the middle of a restaurant. Schwarzenegger had arranged it. “It was a hysterical way to release all that tension,” Johnson says.

But Schwarzenegger wasn’t just generating laughs off camera. No movie he’d been in, not even Twins, embraced his comic timing like Total Recall. “With Arnold it would have a good chance to be powerful, and funny, and lighthearted, with violence and all that,” Verhoven says. “And that was all true.”

The film, which has a body count so high that spoof sequel Hot Shots: Part Deux later made a point to top it, somehow manages to soften its over-the-top gore with one-liners—usually delivered by Schwarzenegger. There’s “Get your ass to Mars,” “Sue me, dickhead,” and “Clever girl.” Sharon Stone’s Lori, who first poses as Quaid’s wife before revealing that she’s been spying on him, at one point tries to manipulate him. But before she can pull out her gun to shoot him, he puts a bullet in her head and says, “Consider that a divorce.”

“The face of Sharon Stone goes from diabolical evil to the most sweet and lovely expression as possible,” Verhoeven says. “That transition for me was so notable. The evil in her eyes changes into the love of her life in a couple seconds.” That look, Verhoeven claims, led him to cast her in Basic Instinct.

While the movie isn’t as subversive as the anticorporate RoboCop, Total Recall is by no means apolitical. That Cohaagen and his cronies, including Michael Ironside’s sleazy Richter, Lori’s real lover, run a corrupt government that subjugates Mars’s poorest citizens is, well, a little too prescient. Still, it’s fun to see Verhoeven gleefully turn a summer tentpole into a mindfuck. Long before Christopher Nolan did it, the Dutch director was playing with the concepts of memory and time. Behind everything that happens after Quaid visits Rekall—Quaid getting a procedure that unearths experiences that may or may not have truly happened; the revelation that Quaid is actually mind-wiped Cohaagen ally Carl Hauser; the revamped climax, in which Schwarzenegger’s character and his love interest, Rachel Ticotin’s Melina, activate an ancient alien reactor that produces enough air for all of Mars to breathe—lies an unshakable, potentially crippling question: Is all of this real or just a Rekall fantasy?

“I just had a terrible thought,” Quaid says in the film’s final moments. “What if this is a dream?”

“Well, then,” Melina replies, “kiss me quick before you wake up.”

The ending is ambiguous, just as Verhoeven desired. “Gary [Goldman] and I really emphasized that there were two realities,” he says. “And that both realities were true at every moment. It is a dream and it is true.”

If that sounds like a risky way to finish an action movie, that’s because it was. At the time, audiences were accustomed to satisfyingly concrete endings; the good guy kills the bad guy and gets the girl. But Verhoeven wasn’t concerned with such preconceptions. He had Schwarzenegger to back him up, and Schwarzenegger wasn’t just the star of Total Recall—he was its bodyguard.

“When the producers wanted to take out scenes because it was so expensive, Arnold jumped in and basically said, ‘Cut me out if you’re going to change the script for budgetary reasons,’” Verhoeven says. “Throughout the shooting of the movie, he was supporting me. He would just be behind me, all the time. Whatever difficulties there were, whatever we needed, Arnold jumped in.”

To Schwarzenegger, Verhoeven was the perfect partner. On Sundays, the only day off the out-of-town production had, the star could reliably find the director on the roof of their hotel listening to and selecting pieces of Jerry Goldsmith’s music for the score. “He would have his notepad there,” Schwarzenegger says of Verhoeven, who on Monday nights screened his films for the cast. “He was like a professor. I always compared him to a teacher. That’s the way he is.”

At the Total Recall wrap party, Schwarzenegger orchestrated another brawl—this one with water pistols. Verhoeven remembers people diving under tables to avoid getting wet. “I don’t even think people were drunk,” he says. “They were so happy to be children, to shoot at each other with water. That typified him very much, you know?”

TriStar Pictures

During postproduction, Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven reversed roles. Now the star was the teacher and the director the student. “He told me, ‘Paul, there’s two things that you have to do to make a movie work: That is, make the movie, and do the publicity,’” Verhoeven says. “He was way ahead of me because I never thought about these things.” The promotional campaign for Total Recall, he adds, “was done by Arnold. He was behind everything. ”

Though, not always right away. The first trailer for Total Recall, made by distributor TriStar Pictures, was a dud. Audience test scores for the minute-long teaser, which hit multiplexes in early 1990, were too low, and Schwarzenegger insisted he knew why. The dramatic clip—“How would you know if someone stole your mind?” a deep-voiced narrator asks—features a close-up of Schwarzenegger looking into space before his head tilts downward toward what appears to be the surface of Mars. It showed off none of the movie’s elaborate special effects or any of its action sequences.

To Schwarzenegger, the teaser cheapened the film. “It looks like a $20 million movie in this trailer,” he remembers saying to himself. “It’s like a $50 million movie. Which in those days is a huge budget.” Not about to let a potential blockbuster slip away, he contacted Peter Guber, the studio head at Sony, which owned TriStar Pictures. “I said to Peter—I knew him well—‘Peter, you’ve got to help me with this,’” Schwarzenegger says. “I know you’ve got your hands full now taking over a studio and all this, but here’s a movie where you guys could make a lot of money. And I said, ‘They’re not really getting what the story is and how to sell it.’”

According to Schwarzenegger, Guber proceeded to hire Cimarron/Bacon/O’Brien to cut a new Total Recall trailer. The firm—which had done campaigns for The Empire Strikes Back, The Terminator, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—came up with a far showier cut that included some of the movie’s best special effects shots, explosions, and shots of Schwarzenegger’s character wreaking havoc on Mars.

Sure enough, as soon as the redone trailer was circulated, the audience scores went up. He also started hearing from producers, including action movie maven Joel Silver, who said that the film looked like a sure hit. (“Joel Silver always has good taste with these kinds of things,” Schwarzenegger says.)

Over its first three days in theaters in June, Total Recall made $25.5 million, the year’s highest weekend box office total (edging out the debut of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). “It was a spectacular opening,” says Schwarzenegger. “It was a bang.”

The hard-R, tongue-in-cheek space opera pulled in $261.3 million worldwide, ended up as the fifth-highest-grossing movie of 1990, and took home an Academy Award for its visual effects. By shooting beyond the moon and all the way to Mars, Schwarzenegger had become Hollywood’s hottest star. In the four years that followed Total Recall, the actor made Kindergarten Cop, Terminator 2, and True Lies—three movies that combined to gross over a billion dollars.

The ascendance didn’t surprise Johnson, who while filming Total Recall had a conversation with Schwarzenegger about his early years in Hollywood. Upon arriving, the then-aspiring action hero said that he was told three things: You’re too big, no one can understand what you’re saying, and your name is impossible to pronounce. A young Schwarzenegger then sculpted down and took voice lessons. But he kept his name. “He said,” Johnson remembers, “‘I was going to be a big enough movie star that everybody would learn how to pronounce my name.’”

By the early ’90s, Schwarzenegger had gone from being a novice actor whose lines were dubbed out of his feature film debut to being a megastar pulling in an eight-figure-per-picture salary. The success of Total Recall confirmed what he, but not Quaid, knew to be true: His fantasy was real.

“You can watch that movie today; you don’t need any of the new technology or anything like that,” Schwarzenegger says of the film, which got remade, humorlessly, in 2012. “I’m very happy to have made a few movies that really hold up. Not because of my doing, but because of brilliant directors.”

To the disappointment of both, Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger never teamed up again. In the ’90s, they did try to make a big-budget epic set during the Crusades, but Carolco instead chose to fund Renny Harlin’s $100 million Cutthroat Island, a pirate film that bombed so badly it helped lead to the studio’s collapse.

“Working with Arnold is basically paradise,” says Verhoeven. “I’m so sad that we could not do a second movie.” At least they’ll always have Total Recall.

Back outside his L.A. home, Schwarzenegger says that, pre-shutdown, he recently had company over. While flipping through the TV channels, the group came across Total Recall, mid-fight-scene. Blissfully, it was not a dream. “That is really great filmmaking,” Schwarzenegger says, “when you can, after 30 years, watch a movie and it still feels the same.” That day, he and his friends ended up watching the whole thing.

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