Total Recall's secrets to building a future that'll always look like one

Contributed by
Dec 17, 2012

On the Toronto soundstage where the new remake of Total Recall was being filmed last August, I stood around in the middle of set construction watching the past being jammed into Total Recall's stylized future.

While I'm walking around the sets of this resurrection of a late 1980s/early 1990s classic, the construction crews' radio is blasting the Dead or Alive's quintessentially 1980s hit "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)." This intrusion of an artifact from the past that at the time seemed "futuristic" seems kind of quaint in this context.

The last set visit I went to for a different film involved me seeing no real sets or stages whatsoever. Most of that movie was shot against green screen, so instead of seeing cool science-fictional sets and being in physical environments that are supposed to be unreal or otherworldly, I was shown a bunch of storyboards and Styrofoam mockups of sets that would never actually be built out of wood planks and plaster, but out of 1s and 0s on a bunch of hard drives.

Here, I am standing in a future that is grounded solidly in the past. The vibe that director Len Wiseman wanted to give Rekall, the service that implants false memories into people's heads, is that of an old-school opium den. The walkways and sidewalks in front of Rekall have a sense of being an insane representation of a 1950s Chinese restaurant by way of William S. Burroughs' Interzone.

Yes, everything on the soundstage is new construction intended to represent sketchy parts of the territory known as New Asia, but the scenic painters have so convincingly aged the doors and gates and the metal that, as a guy who grew up in the Rust Belt, I am seeing a lot of things that look and feel really familiar. Most of this stuff looks like it hasn't been maintained for 50 years. In one part of the set, set buyers have laid their hands on barber chairs that look like they belong in Floyd's barbershop in Mayberry. And there are also hairdryers that look like they should be fluffing Betty Draper's golden locks. A big trench is being constructed in the middle the set that will be flooded with two feet of water to represent a Venice-like canal. Each façade of this set will be used five times; green screens and redressing will change the look of the sets for each of the five different locations it supposed to represent.

Total Recall production designer Patrick Tatopoulos talked about this science-fictional vibe through the past approach. "There was a lot of great work done on the [first Total Recall from 1990]. The vibe and the tone of [this] movie are quite different, ... The worlds are different. Quaid's [the hero's] apartment, for example, is quite different. In a sense, the original film felt more 'sci-fi' to me. When you arrive at his apartment at the beginning, it's so 'sci-fi' right there. I think our approach is a little bit more like saying, 'You almost start the film thinking like you're in the regular world, and then when you open your window it's like, #@*$! Everything is different! That kind of vibe. There are going to be a lot of elements that are recognizable."

I asked him about the challenges of designing a movie like this, as, to paraphrase William Gibson, the future has already happened? Does he ever feel that he might be too late to envision a future, since we're already there?

"That's true. But you can have a good sense of what the world will be like 100 years from now. The future consists of elements that repeat themselves. In that sense, I agree with [Gibson]. In another sense, there are so many things that can change the direction of the future. Starting with war or whatever. ... To me, we're floating into this world that's 100 years into the future. We keep repeating ourselves. This is the danger. We have to stay exciting. It's hard for me to concern myself with this completely. First of all, we're creating something fun. We're using some references from the past and projecting them into the future. At the end of the day, no one knows about the future will look like."

The costume department of Total Recall looks like a sartorial, vintage paradise as envisioned by a hipster as he pedals his fixie bike to his favorite ironically trendy bar for some frosty PBRs to be sipped through the hairs of his curly 'stache. It's a science fiction film, but the clothes look like they came from your granny's closet. The smell of mothballs and cedar is conspicuously absent.

Due to the fact that in the world of this Total Recall, it's going to be raining al the time, a lot of rack space is devoted to trench coats. According to costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays, "Most of the trench coats, I'd say maybe 70 percent were found [used] and just overdyed. Almost nothing in front of the camera is as we bought it. Most of the stuff goes through this shop to be overdyed and then aged so that it looks like has been used for while. And then we're building some trench coats. We printed a lot of fabric with different prints so that they are not just boring monochromatic stuff. So about 30 percent we are building and about 70 percent we bought. But that's just for the raincoats."

"[The costuming is] not going to be very futuristic except for the police. Len and I decided that that to tell a story a human story, that people are going to relate to the story, people should look like something that we can relate to. ... So the only thing we decided that can look futuristic is the police. Because we know that the police are going more and more technological. And we don't have to relate to the police. Everyone else in the story is quite realistic, because as we know, fashion repeats itself. People now are wearing 1970s clothes, and then the '80s clothes are back. So maybe 20, 30, 40 years from now, will be wearing clothes from 2010? Who knows? But we've all seen those movies that that try to do the futuristic costumes, we can't really relate to them."

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