Total Recall Director Talks Remakes, Relevance and Real-Life Paranoia

"Of course the three-breasted woman is something that stayed with me"

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Michael Gibson / Columbia Pictures

Director Len Wiseman on the set of 'Total Recall'

Director Len Wiseman has taken on action-movie classics before—he tackled Live Free or Die Hard—so he knows that fans of 1990’s Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring Total Recall have high expectations for his reboot of the movie, which arrives in theaters Aug. 3. As in the first version of the film, which is based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” the protagonist Douglas Quaid (here played by Colin Farrell) begins to question his own identity when he has a run-in with a memory-alteration service called Rekall. In the new version, the resolution of that question does not involve a trip to Mars. Wiseman spoke to TIME about redoing Total Recall—and whether he would ever be tempted to go in for a little memory modification of his own.

TIME: I’ve heard that you’re a fan of the original Total Recall. How did that affect the way you approached the remake?

Wiseman: When I first read the original draft, it deviated so much from the original that, just as a fan of the original, I wanted to bring some things that were familiar back in—things that I would want to see as a fan. So I really just approached it from, if I wasn’t involved in the movie at all and was just buying a ticket—buying some popcorn and going in—what I would hope to see remnants of.

Was there anything you were sure you wanted to keep, from the outset?

I saw the movie when I was in high school and before I revisited it—it had been about 20 years since I had seen it—I wanted to make sure I wrote down a list of things that stayed with me throughout the years before I was influenced by a rewatching of it. I was 15, so it was a lot of the superficial stuff—Arnold pulling that thing out of his nose, and at the security checkpoint where the heavyset lady pulls the face open and a lot of the gadgets. Of course the three-breasted woman is something that stayed with me, like, “Oh my God, what is that?” I really wanted to take on the scene where the owner of Rekall comes in and sets the stage about fantasy versus reality.

But you didn’t feel attached to Mars.

I didn’t, but also it wasn’t something that was ever in the original draft that I had read. By the time that I came into the picture, they had already made that decision. When I read the first draft, I was first thrown by the fact that it didn’t go to Mars and thought, “When’s that going to happen? It doesn’t seem like we’re getting to Mars at any point,” and then immediately found myself intrigued by that because then I had no idea where the story was going—in a good way.

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Did you go back to the original Philip K. Dick story as a source?

For sure. In the short story, they actually never go to Mars. That’s something that [the 1990 version’s director Paul] Verhoeven’s team put into it. The short story is almost like a really great first act. It’s very short, 20, maybe 30 pages long. And as a filmmaker, stretching that out into a two-hour story, you have to then adapt what that adventure would be. Verhoeven took it to the planet of Mars, and we kept it on Earth—but with quite a big twist.

Now that we’re two decades closer to 2084, does that change anything?

Things all of a sudden become a little more relevant. That’s why I do love Philip K. Dick’s story and I do really believe that he was able to tap into a bit of the paranoid future that we are evolving into. He’s somebody who asks questions and puts them out there and rarely answers them, so we can think about them. What if technology took us this far? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What Rekall offers is a way to escape your own life if you’re unhappy, if you want to have a different experience of a life, you want to be somebody else, you want to be a superstar or a secret agent or a pro athlete. It’s a bit of the first stages we’re seeing on Facebook. A lot of people are existing as these characters almost, what they’ve created for themselves to be. You’re selecting exactly what you want the people out there to feel you are. You’re putting up the best pictures of yourself. It’s not unlike sitting in a chair at Rekall and someone saying, “What do you want to be? What kind of adventure? Tell me what person you’d like to be and we’ll give you that memory.”

It’s also why I really love science fiction. Science fiction is an extension of science. The whole idea that it comes from a grounded place, our world, our reality of what could possibly happen if society took us this far—that’s a big what if. Sometimes that what-if is not a pleasant one.

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Do you think sci-fi movies have changed to reflect that?

People are interested in a slightly more realistic portrayal of science fiction, of how it may relate to them. As society evolves, people are interested in a new take on an old beloved story. We see it a lot of times in comic books. When I was growing up, I was very used to some of our most beloved superheroes being reinvented and their origin stories being told again through the eyes of a different generation.

You mentioned that as the movie approaches, you’ve had to think a lot more about those comparisons than you did before. What is it like to be constantly asked about a movie other than your own?

Honestly, it is annoying—but at the same time I can’t complain about it too much because when you’re doing any kind of revision or remake that’s going to be a part of it. You shoulder that as a director. And until the movie comes out that’s kind of all there is, the preconceived notion and opinion of what it should be compared to the other. Hopefully when people actually watch the movie they’re not just comparing it the whole time, they actually get involved in the movie at hand.

If Rekall existed, would you be tempted to make use of their services?

I would probably think quite hard about it, and I’d probably wait for others to do it. Like Lasik surgery. I had to have plenty of friends who actually went through it before I did. But I could see being tempted by it and probably making a very horrible decision.

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