Director's Chair: Len Wiseman - 'Total Recall'
Issue: July 1, 2012

Director's Chair: Len Wiseman - 'Total Recall'

HOLLYWOOD — Director/writer/producer Len Wiseman, who began his career as a storyboard and conceptual artist as well as an art department assistant on such Roland Emmerich blockbusters as Independence Day and Stargate, has since racked up his own string of hits, including Live Free or Die Hard and the Underworld franchise.

Now Wiseman, who also successfully rebooted the iconic TV show Hawaii Five-O, (by directing the pilot and setting the tone for the series) has remade Total Recall, the beloved 1990 sci-fi thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by Paul Verhoeven. This time out, Colin Farrell takes on the Schwarzenegger role, alongside a cast that includes Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston and the director’s Underworld star — and real-life-wife — Kate Beckinsale.

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, the director, who was deep in the final stages of post at press time, talks about making the film and dealing with 1,800 visual effects shots.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make with Total Recall? 
LEN WISEMAN: “A very grounded, realistic fantasy film. That sounds like a contradiction, but that was my aim. It’s got such a fantasy element to it — in both its futuristic world and the whole concept of being able to implant your own fantasies through a chemical brain alteration — and I wanted to surround that with a very gritty real world, with real settings and characters.”

POST: How tough was it rebooting the original, and what are the main changes you made?
WISEMAN: “I first attacked the tone, and felt there was a much different vision of the concept in its tone. It was very tough. It’s always a challenge when there’s a loved version already out there, and I wrestled with the idea of even doing it. 

“I had the same experience with Die Hard, which wasn’t a remake, but it was picking up a sequel to a franchise so many people loved. So there’s always a lot of opinion about what a new version should be, and some people will agree with me and others will want it to be much more like the original. You can drive yourself crazy worrying about the right direction to take and, ultimately, you just have to trust your own instincts.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together?
WISEMAN: “The whole movie was very ambitious and incredibly technical. There’s this huge hover-car chase that was so challenging, and a big elevator action sequence. With my prop background I still like to do as much as I can practically — I just didn’t want to go CG with all that. So we built six of these hover-cars, put them on a race-car chassis, put the actors in them and shot them with a Russian Arm at 65 mph like a regular car chase. That way all the VFX become a slave to that real car chase, instead of the reverse. But it was so tricky in how you’re manipulating all that and knowing what you’re going to change and add later in post, so they all look like they’re really hovering. 

“Then we had all the zero gravity elements of the elevator sequence, which travels through the core of the Earth in the future — there’s no more air travel. So we built these massive sets, like a futuristic subway, and as you travel through the core of the Earth the gravity changes, and all the passengers rotate, and there’s another big zero gravity action sequence. Again, I wanted to shoot it and not do it greenscreen or just CG, so we built sets upside down, had camera systems upside down and actors on wires, and used a lot of tricks so it’s hard to tell if they’re on wires. So it was extremely complicated to even figure out. I’d line up the shot, go to the video village and check the shot, and they would look like they’re floating — it looked great — then walk on set and it would be completely the reverse of what’s in your monitors. It was almost like directing performance in a mirror.”

POST: You and your DP Paul Cameron, whose credits include Collateral for Michael Mann and Man on Fire for Tony Scott, shot this on Red Epics with anamorphics. Wasn’t that a first for you?
WISEMAN: “It was. I had produced the last Underworld film and used the Epics on that, so I had a sense of what they were like. I actually set out to shoot this on film and we only changed over at the last minute. We’d even ordered our camera package and had to send it all back because I was waiting for Red to be able to adapt anamorphic lenses. 

“That was a big part of the futuristic look I really wanted, and I also feel that the digital cameras are almost too clean for me. I like that organic feel you get with film. So Red developed the Panavision anamorphic lenses for us, brought them up to Toronto where we were shooting, and we’re the first film to use Red and anamorphic. So we got a great filmic look with all the technical advantages of the digital process.”

POST: How tough was the shoot?
WISEMAN: “It was long and hard. We shot it mostly on stage with some locations. We had massive sets — the biggest sets I’ve ever been on.”

POST: How long was post and do you like the post process? 
WISEMAN: “It’s been 23 weeks so far, and I don’t like post as much as shooting. I love shooting because I feel I’m being my most creative, and I love to make and build things and fix those problems and set up a shot. For me, post is a lot of giving notes to people who then go and do what you’re asking, and then you sit and look at it. It’s a lot of tedious finish work that takes so many stages. So it’s not my favorite part, but I do enjoy the edit.”

POST: The film was edited by Christian Wagner, whose credits include Mission Impossible 2 and Battle Los Angeles. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
WISEMAN: “It’s the first time I’d worked with him, and he’s a very creative, hard-working guy. He’s the sole editor, and usually you have two, three, even four editors on a movie of this scale, so that tells you a lot. We cut on Avid.”

POST: Where did you do the post? 
WISEMAN: “I did my director’s cut at my offices in Santa Monica, and then we moved to the Sony lot and expanded the crew. They have a great team there, and it’s great to have the mix next door, and the color timing at Colorworks, and I can do all the 2K effects reviews with the Skype sessions in the screening rooms. That’s been a great process for me, since on Die Hard this sort of system wasn’t even set up yet. 

“So I can work with Dneg in London, look at the 2K file, and then draw on a tablet on the 2K image in full res — and it’s so great to be able to draw in realtime. Post was also really helpful in a way that I’d never used it before, in terms of previs. I’d used previs before this, but I really didn’t use it as much of a cutting guide since it wasn’t developed far enough. 

On this I worked closely with The Third Floor for previs, and it was like this very high-end, videogame-quality previs that brings you very close to what all the visual effects will look like, so it’s very cuttable. That was such a helpful process for me.”

POST: There are obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there, who did them, and what was your approach to dealing with them?
WISEMAN: “For as much as I tried to do in-camera, we’re at 1,800 shots... a huge amount. Double Negative did over 90 percent, with a few other companies — Prime Focus VFX, The Senate VFX — doing the overflow. My approach was always this: the thing your eye focuses on the most, I wanted to make sure was practical. So for the hover-car chase, I wanted the cars to be real, and the world around them could be visual effects. 

“It’s like when you see a dinosaur in a movie running at you. You want to make sure the face and eyes and teeth all look as real as possible, since no one’s studying his feet. It’s the same thing with big action scenes that also involve lots of CG. I’m just not a big fan of greenscreen. I know all these VFX houses probably don’t completely understand me because here I am doing a movie with 1,800 effects shots, but I’d cringe when I walked on set and saw greenscreen.”

POST: Your VFX supervisor was Adrian De Wet, whose credits include The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Hellboy 11. How did that relationship work?
WISEMAN: (Laughs) With [Dneg] in London, it means I get up really early and starting my day with two hours of effects reviews over Skype. I also took a lot of trips over to London when we began designing, and it’s gone very smoothly. They’re a very creative company.”

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
WISEMAN: “It’s huge, over 50 percent of the experience in my mind and crucial in terms of mood and tone. I get very involved in set design and costumes, and it’s just as important. I wanted a score that didn’t sound too traditional or too ‘action-y,’ and composer Harry Gregson-Williams just nailed it. It feels big and epic but it’s also dark and moody. Paul Massey, who did Rango and the new Spider-Man film, is doing the mix here on the lot.”

POST: How about the DI?
WISEMAN: “The DI is so vital now, and we did that at Colorworks [with colorist Steve Bowen using Baselight 8]. I really love the DI. That’s where I start to feel more like an artist again, and it’s more immediate. I do so much design and Photoshop on my own, so the DI is natural to me. [DP] Paul Cameron did an amazing job. This is the most visually beautiful-looking film I’ve made. The Underworld films have their own look, and Die Hard was a bit more traditional, and on this Paul captured a mood without it going monochrome or too depressing. It’s very rich, and even with the Avid resolution people have been watching it and commenting on the great lighting right away, before it even went to the DI. So I’m really happy with the way it looks.”

POST: What’s next? 
WISEMAN: “I have a sci-fi project I wrote and I hope to get going on that next. I’ve always liked to do my own stuff. People think Underworld was based on a comic book, but I co-wrote and put it together, and I want to keep doing my own projects.”