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Total Recall at 30: Cohaagen, Benny & Johnny Cab recall Paul Verhoeven’s mind-bending masterpiece
It’s been 30 years since Paul Verhoeven blew our minds (and Quaid’s) with his RoboCop follow-up, Total Recall, starring the biggest movie star on the planet, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of the biggest movies (budget-wise) ever made at the time.
Based on the short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick, the memory-bending film did its best to absurdly screw with your mind. It begins with Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid at home on Earth, where he should be living happily ever after with his wife, Lori (Sharon Stone). Alas, he has dreams of Mars, so much so that he pays to get a memory implanted in his head that will make him think he’s been to Mars as a secret agent. Trouble is, before he gets that memory implanted, he realizes through communications with his former self, Carl Hauser, that he’s actually not only been to Mars, but is also vital to its survival.
To celebrate the film’s undeniable place in the sci-fi action pantheon, SYFY WIRE got the inside goods from a couple of Total Recall’s familiar faces — Ronny Cox, who plays big bad Cohaagen, and Mel Johnson Jr., aka Hauser/Quaid’s taxi driver/Mars tour guide, Benny. We also spoke to the man behind a very familiar face in the movie, Robert Picardo, whose head was previously molded by makeup/special effects genius Rob Bottin on Explorers, then used to create Total Recall’s Johnny Cab, the automated public transit puppet of the future.
We’ll get into what it took to pull off such a monumental film, what it was like working with Schwarzenegger at the height of his powers, and how all three were amazed while watching the special effects wizard Bottin perform his magic. But let’s begin our fascinating trip down recall lane with the man at the center of the mayhem: Paul Verhoeven, who exploded as a bold new voice in sci-fi storytelling and style with the completely bonkers vision of the future he established in RoboCop — which also featured Cox as a malicious evildoer with a bureaucratic bent.
ON PAUL VERHOEVEN...
“Paul and I, we just hit it off,” Cox tells SYFY WIRE. “My wife Mary was a Ph.D. chemist, and Paul was also a Ph.D. chemist — there’s something about that scientific mind that appeals to me. So Paul and I hit it off really well on RoboCop, so when he wanted me to be involved in Total Recall, I jumped at the chance.”
That’s not to say the gig didn’t come without inherent risk. “Any time you’re around Paul Verhoeven, there’s a certain amount of volatility that can go on. Paul is mercurial, as I'm sure you've heard,” Cox continues. “Being on the wrong end of one of his tirades is not a pleasant experience, although it has never, ever, in the two films I did with him, happened to me. Paul and I always had the most cordial, wonderful relationship that you can imagine.”
That said, Cox did test his director one time, but it was all for the advancement of the art. After shooting with Verhoeven for a couple of days, Cox had gone out to Los Angeles to get fitted by Bottin for the live mask needed for the big decompression scene at the end of the film. And Bottin slicked back Cox’s hair while doing so.
“And I realized at that time that that was the look that Cohaagen should have, and so I had Rob take a photograph of that, and I took it and showed it to Paul when I got back [to filming in Mexico City]," Cox says. "And I said, ‘Paul, I know that we've already shot two days, but I want you to look at this picture.’ And he saw the picture of me with Cohaagen with his hair all slicked back like that. And then he looked at me and said, ‘Ronnie, I’m very angry at you.’ And I was cringing, and I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because I'm going to have to reshoot two days.’ So that was my one [time] approaching a volatile point with Paul. No, we got along famously.”
Johnson didn’t even know that Verhoeven was directing the film when he went in for the first audition. But while they obviously hit it off, it was Verhoeven’s teenage daughters who really took to the actor, as Johnson found out on the plane ride down to Mexico City to start filming. “These two teenage girls walk down the aisle, and they look at me and they say, ‘Oh, you’re playing Benny ... We’re Paul Verhoeven’s daughters, and we picked you,’” Johnson told SYFY WIRE in a separate conversation. “And I went, ‘What?!’ He had shown all of his final screen tests to his daughters, the audience that he sort of wanted to reach.”
But Johnson was impressed by far more than the director’s casting practices.
“The thing about being in a film this big was Paul had so much to focus on. It was a huge production; they were using real explosions, this was the last time everything was real, no CGI, so all those explosions were real, they were greasing up people, I was freaking out,” Johnson says.
Johnson also notes that Verhoeven would shoot a lot of takes, but it was usually for something technical. During one such lengthy day of shooting, Johnson decided to switch things up and “bring it down just a little,” which immediately caught Verhoeven’s attention to see if his actor needed a break. “I didn't even think he was paying attention to me, but he had his eye on everything, and it was fascinating in that way,” he says.
For his part, Picardo had a leg up — or rather a head up. Bottin had decided to use the sculpt he’d previously made for Picardo’s Explorers role in order to create the look for Johnny Cab. So Bottin recommended Picardo audition to be the voice behind the crazy automated cabbie.
“The only thing I remember from the audition is I kept trying to sell [Verhoeven] on doing a joke with Arnold, because Arnold famously had that great Austrian accent that no one ever acknowledged in his movies, which I always thought was kind of funny,” Picardo says, in yet another conversation with SYFY WIRE. “So I said, 'Mr. Verhoeven, when he gets in the cab and he says [Austrian accent] "Drive, Just drive," and cab drivers always have sort of a pattern ... what if I turned to him and said, [Johnny Cab accent] "You talk kind of funny, are you from out of town?"'
"And I remember Paul Verhoeven said, [Dutch accent] ‘No, no. We don't do that with Arnold.’ And I said, ‘What about just as a joke for the crew?’ And he said, ‘No, no. We don't do that with Arnold,’” Picardo continues. “I got the message right then that you don't do that with Arnold. I thought, ‘Hey, what a cool thing to be able to insult someone from 2,000 miles away, 'cause they’re shooting in Mexico City and I’m safely in L.A.' But it never worked out.”
ON ARNOLD ...
That said, according to Cox and Johnson, it would seem Schwarzenegger would have enjoyed such shenanigans.
“Here's the thing about Arnold, and actually Arnold and I got along really kind of famously on the film," Cox says. "Arnold, I think unfairly in some ways, got a reputation of being kind of a bully on the set because he teases and rides people mercilessly because that's sort of his way."
He continues: "Look, you gotta realize that Arnold came from that world of bodybuilders, and you had to sort of prove you’re macho to survive, and so because of that, [he] probably thought that's how you dealt with people. And I realized early on that I'm playing Cohaagen, and oftentimes, if you find an actor or some other forceful personality ... sometimes that spills over into acting [out] scenes that you're doing — the one character trying to dominate the other character. And I knew as Cohaagen that I could never allow anyone to be dominant over me. So I knew early on that Arnold and I had to work out a relationship [where] in no way was I subservient to him.”
That relationship, Cox explains, turned into a fruitful give and take.
“It worked out great. I mean he and I ended up having a relationship based on mutual put-downs,” Cox says.
“He would come to me and say, [Austrian accent] ‘Oh, I'm Ronny Cox, I'm a big famous actor, I play "Dueling Banjos" danna na na na na.’ And make big fun about that,” Cox, who got his big break in Hollywood famously guitar picking and river rafting in Deliverance, explains. “And so I was always getting him the same way. And in many ways, since I didn't kowtow to him, I think he appreciated that. Because ... he was the biggest movie star around in those days and he was around sycophants all the time. I think it was refreshing to him not to be [in a place] where everybody was a yes man all the time, and we had [a relationship where] we just dealt with each other. Actually, Arnold and I got along together quite well.”
Johnson also enjoyed his time spent working with Schwarzenegger on the film — which was a lot of time, too, as Benny basically took Hauser/Quaid to all his various stops on Mars. Those scenes took up basically the entire back half of the shoot (they shot the film sequentially, amazingly enough).
“We had a wonderful time doing this film. Arnold was no muss, no fuss, witty, charming,” Johnson recalls. “It was hysterical, because Paul, he was really ... I won’t say overly serious, but focused. And maybe because he was foreign, sarcasm went right over his head, and Arnold is one for throwing zingers, and Paul would never get it. And it was hysterical.”
Mel also recounted a story in which they got into an elevator at their hotel in Mexico City, and a guy recognized Maria Shriver rather than Arnold, but couldn’t pronounce Shriver’s new-ish last name, Schwarzenegger. “He kept screwing it up, and we were howling, and Arnold didn’t say a thing. He was laughing back there, saying, ‘Don’t say anything,’” Johnson says. “So, yes, he was a big star, but people were still screwing up his name. But just in general, he had no entourage, he was no muss, no fuss, usually hung with his family, or his stunt double or his body double.”
“Arnold was extremely witty and funny, but not like ... on,” Johnson continues. “But no muss, no fuss, meaning: ‘Let’s get the job done.’ He worked all those hours, we were never behind ... it was fun.”
ON ROB BOTTIN...
A great deal of the Total Recall’s success can also be attributed to Rob Bottin, who earned a Special Achievement Academy Award for his efforts on the film. Or as Picardo says, he was an award-winning “special effects/makeup guy back when there really was a lot of special effects/makeup, before CGI entered.”
“You know he won a special Academy Award for this because this was probably the last film [wherein] everything was absolutely real,” Johnson says.
“You’ve heard of people who have photographic memory, well, Rob has photographic memory in his hands,” Cox recalls. “He can sit and draw perfect photographic likeness of you with pen and paper, or he can take clay and make an absolute total replica of you.”
Which is what Bottin had to do for Cox and Schwarzenegger for the Mars decompression scene, in which Cohaagen, Quaid/Hauser, and Melina (Rachel Ticotin) get sucked out to the surface of the Red Planet and basically implode until their eyes pop out.
“So Arnold and I, for that scene, went in and Rob Bottin made live-masks of us ... you know they put latex all over our faces and make those live-masks,” Cox explains. “Arnold and I spent one whole day contorting our faces in every grimace and look that we could possibly do, as much as we could stretch our faces. And Rob went through and duplicated those faces in masks, and then inside the mask he put little air pockets, so he could take a face where we were making some horrible grimace and by injecting more air in there, he could exaggerate that look even more, and that's how he was able to do that.”
Picardo’s journey with Bottin began with a director he’s worked with frequently, Joe Dante, who had utilized Bottin’s talents on Piranha, The Howling, Explorers, and Innerspace. But after all the time spent in the makeup chair during Explorers, Picardo had had enough.
“[In] Explorers I played three different characters. One of them, the father alien character, was such a brutal makeup to wear that I sort of said to myself that maybe that's it for me being inside the suit,” Picardo recalls. “But Rob and I were friends and he basically asked me if he could mold Johnny Cab [using my face] — he just liked my face. So he said, ‘This will be your swan song ... we'll do a cast once more of your face with his ridiculous grin on, and then I'm going to make a puppet. And then he said, ‘I’ll recommend you to Paul,' who I’d already read for — I read for Paul in RoboCop, so I’d already met him, and read for the part that was done so brilliantly by Kurtwood Smith. But I went in and had to audition to be the voice that comes out of my own face and Johnny Cab, and he cast me.”
As a surprise mutant with a memorable long-armed reveal, Johnson also got to spend a lot of quality time with Bottin.
“For him to do my arm, I had to be in a complete half-body cast from my waist up to my neck, and I had never, ever broken a limb or anything, so I was never in a cast before,” Johnson says. “I had to learn how to do body acting with my arm because there were like seven guys behind me moving that electronically when they took it off. And I just loved it. I love the part when I take it off and I just leave to go back to pick it up, and I pick my hand up off the shelf. I thought it was great.”
To make his point of how important Bottin’s contribution was, Johnson then brings up the famous Kuato effect, where the leader of the Mars resistance, like a baby Benjamin Button, is still in the womb.
“You know Kuato looks so great. Even in today’s terms you would have thought it was like a CGI thing, but Kuato was real. Kuato was like a physical thing. So all those movements were physical,” Johnson says. “Kuato, in order to work ... it had to be a robot [not Marshall Bell, the actor who plays Kuato’s home stomach] to get the mechanics for Kuato to work. And Paul really didn’t want that, because he did not want that kind of a look, he just didn’t want it. And Rob, on his own, built the whole thing ... built it with Kuato in it, and shot it, shot a test thing, and showed it to Paul.
"Paul went, ‘How did Marshall do this? Who told Marshall to do this scene without me?’ And Rob said, ‘Uh-uh, that’s not Marshall, that’s my robot. I did it just so you could see, just from your reaction, that you didn’t know that’s not Marshall,'" Johnson says. "It was built so no one knew that that wasn’t Marshall Bell. It was stuff like that, the attention to detail that Rob did, and it was great to watch him do that stuff.”
ON THE SCOPE OF THE FILM …
The movie would go on to become a big hit, and the creators certainly got what they paid for (which isn’t always the case in Hollywood, of course).
“There were huge sets. As you know, at that time, Total Recall was the most expensive film in the history of film, it cost $100 million, and this was in like, what, 1988 or something like that we were shooting. So there was very little joking around on the set,” Cox says (for the record, Box Office Mojo reports the film made $261 million globally on a $65 million budget). “That film had been around for 14 years because nobody could figure out how to make it for the right price.”
“So in many ways even though we took over the whole of Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, it felt like the cheapest low-budget film — other than the sets and the stuff on the film — that you've ever been involved with,” Cox continues. “It wasn't like a big, high-budget movie, with motor homes and all the accoutrements. It felt like a low-budget because every dime was going into production.”
“The fact that they took over the entire studio, and most of Mexico City — those subways were the Mexico City subway system,” Johnson adds. “When I was driving my cab, they built tunnels to connect the soundstages, from the hotel to Venusville. They had built roads, and tunnels. So yeah, you saw it [the budget].”
Because they filmed in Mexico, the production team were able to pull off some things that would have probably been more difficult elsewhere — like explosions. “They never would have been able to use the explosives, they were using like naphthalene, which is one step below napalm, for those explosions in that first scene there. It was just thrilling to be a part of that,” Johnson says.
Those practical effects really gave moviegoers something to viscerally cling to.
“There was only one CGI scene in that film, and that was when Arnold walks through the X-ray and they show his skeleton and he breaks through — that was the only one that was CGI, everything else was real,” Johnson says. “And that's sort of why film geeks and regular people just love the film, because this was probably the last one, and then right after that CGI really kicked in. But you really needed a Rob Bottin to have the technical ability to make it look that real, you know, to make it believable, to have all that stuff work. And then Paul, I never heard him say, ‘No, we have to not take this many takes.’ He just wanted to keep it on schedule, and we did. You know nowadays they shoot a film in maybe a month or so, but this was six months doing this movie.”
Six months of their lives, which led to 30 years of poignantly recalled memories for us. So thanks for the memories (implanted and otherwise), Total Recall.