David Cronenberg, well-known director on the horror/science fiction scene, was one of many who might have directed TOTAL RECALL but didn’t. It was late in 1984 that Dino De Laurentiis DEG Company brought in Cronenberg, whose involvement subsequently attracted actor Richard Dreyfuss for the role of Quaid. Cronenberg was handed a script written by Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett that was much like the one Paul Verhoeven would eventually film, minus a few significant changes Shusett was still having problems with the script’s third act and many less important ones.
The script centered on a strong, forceful leading man and included some tough action and fight scenes, which gave Dreyfuss cause for concern. The actor felt that, if he was going to play Quaid, the character would have to be rewritten so that he would narrowly escape his predicaments instead of bulldozing his way through. The character, insisted Dreyfuss, should depend on his wits and cleverness, and barely get out of each situation with his life.
Cronenberg went to work on the script, changing the main character in accordance with Dreyfuss’ wishes and his own. The new Quaid used resourcefulness and courage, never overpowering anybody, never shooting or punching. In terms of plot structure, the first half of the Cronenberg rewrite remained roughly what it had been all along, but the second half took off in another direction entirely. The third act in particular was altered by Cronenberg to explore intellectual and moral choices, instead of unthinking action. It was Cronenberg who introduced the idea that Quaid should discover that he does not want to go back to his real identity, an idea that survived all successive rewrites. The emphasis in the Cronenberg version switched from the Quaid heroic to the human, as Quaid comes to realize he does not want to be the cold EIA agent he has been.
“This change gave the third act an interesting twist,” remarked Shusett. “It seemed to help the third act considerably.” It did not help to sell the script, however. MGM, which was DEG’s distributor at the time, balked, judging the Cronenberg version as too intellectual. MGM demanded a return to a more heroic and visually exciting script, but when an actor more suited to the action part failed to appear, MGM dropped out. Cronenberg then wrote a new second half for TOTAL RECALL, which neither Shusett nor DEG liked. The director quit shortly thereafter, finally having had enough of the troubled project, and went on to direct the successful reincarnation of THE FLY. Not for the first time and not for the last, TOTAL RECALL ground to a halt.
“Cronenberg quit for a number of reasons,” said Shusett ” First of all, he and I were having a number of creative disagreements, which started about the time of Dreyfuss’ involvement, because DEG didn’t want to do it as it was written for Dreyfuss. We didn’t have a script to fit another actor, so Cronenberg started to feel that the movie should take on a whole new approach, different than either of the previous ones. I disagreed with him. I wanted to go either with our earlier approach, which was partly pride of authorship, I was in love with it, or I wanted to go with the second approach, with was the one Dreyfuss, Cronenberg and I had evolved. But suddenly David was against his own ideas.” Shusett added. “We parted great friends.” Cronenberg declined to be interviewed about his stint on Mars.
It does not take long to see the difference in tone between the Cronenberg version of the script and the final version developed by director Paul Verhoeven and writer Gary Goldman. Quaid easily disarms his EIA “wife” at the beginning of Cronenberg’s script rather than engaging in the intense and protracted pitched battle that was filmed. In Cronenberg’s draft there is no lengthy and violent chase sequence in the subway station. The action of the Johnny Cab pursuit sequence of Verhoeven’s version is absent. And with Quaid disguised as an old woman, the excitement of Verhoeven’s Mars Port scene is virtually nonexistent.
Once on Mars, the plot of Cronenberg’s version begins to diverge to a much greater degree from later rewrites. The Mars Hilton has been taken over by the EIA and serves as Cohaagen’s home. Quaid takes a cab driven by Benny (a young Oriental in this version) to the cab depot, where he finds Melina, the chief cabbie. She gives him a job as a cab driver and he quickly avails himself of his own transportation to visit Quato, a memory manipulator. As in the film. Quato has a malformed head growing out of his body, a concept devised by Cronenberg which he called the “Oracle.” The Oracle kills Quato and itself in an effort to bring Quaid’s secret past to light.
Quaid next visits Pintaldi, a face changer, whose manipulations of Quaid’s facial structure reveals to his utter surprise that he is Chairman Mandrell, dictator of Earth. Pintaldi’s masseuse becomes Quaid’s first victim, after her assassination attempt is foiled by his hologram watch.
Quaid (now Mandrell) confronts Cohaagen, who convinces him that the Mars Fed – not the EIA-suppressed his true identity. Cohaagen convinces Mandrell that he must infiltrate the Mars Fed and bring back its leader, Van Rindt, and gives Mandrell a signal generator to track his location. When the generator explodes, meant to kill Mandrell, but killing Benny the cabdriver instead Mandrell returns to the cab depot, where an EIA doctor tries to convince him he’s dreaming, a scene almost exactly like the final film’s Dr. Edgemar sequence.
Melina turns out to be a double agent for the Mars Fed and helps Mandrell escape from the EIA, leading him to Van Rindt. The Mars leader helps Mandrell see that Cohaagen wants him dead, and convinces him to assist in the overthrow of the EIA on Mars. In the climax of Cronenberg’s script, Mandrell and Cohaagen find themselves alone on a robot-controlled tour bus, moving over the Martian desert. Cohaagen reveals that Mandrell never really existed, that Quaid is just a minor government functionary selected to fill the role of chairman. Cohaagen planned to take over, using Quaid’s Mandrell image.
The two engage in a fight to the death inside the tour bus. Cohaagen pops off his false hand to reveal a spinning steel blade protruding from his wrist. Quaid Mandrell rips open his pectoral muscle and withdraws a small pistol from its place against his real chest. Quaid, of course, defeats Cohaagen and goes on to resume his role of Chairman Mandrell, with Melina as his aide.
More than just the plot might have been different had Cronenberg seen his version of TOTAL RECALL filmed. Ron Miller, hired by DEG as production illustrator about the time of Cronenberg’s involvement, remembered creatures called “Ganzibulls” in some of Cronenberg’s drafts.
“Those were monsters from Ron Shusett’s original script, which Cronenberg elaborated on,” said Miller. “They were creatures that lived in the sewers of the Mars city, called Venusville. In Cronenberg’s version, they were mutant camels. In Ron’s original script, the Martian colonists used camels as pack animals, and the camels wore oxygen masks. That was one of my favorite images of the whole script. I really was looking forward to seeing camels with oxygen masks. It was a totally unlikely, bizarre idea, but I really wanted it in there. Cronenberg elaborated on the camels idea by having the monsters in the sewers be mutant camels. They were in most of Cronenberg’s scripts, I think.”
Miller, art director Pier Luigi Basile and other illustrators spent a great deal of time at DEG’s studios in Rome, where “nothing much really happened,” Miller said. “We just drew all day for weeks on end. Cronenberg finally was hired and he gave us more direction, more purpose. Bob Ringwood was going to do the costume design for the Cronenberg version, so he was there, off and on, for a couple of weeks and did a few sketches.”
The illustrator offered his own explanation for Cronenberg’s departure from TOTAL RECALL. “David’s version never got made, mainly because of disagreements with Dino [De Laurentiis],” said Miller, “Dino just didn’t like Cronenberg’s script, which is so different from Shusett’s. In fact, Ron said they could easily use it as a sequel, just by changing the first part a little bit. Cronenberg preferred not to shoot something he hadn’t written or rewritten, as the case might be. He worked closely with Shusett on his version, and Shusett basically liked it with some reservations, but it was completely different. For one thing, it didn’t have all the humor that Shusett had written. Shusett’s script was kind of like an Indiana Jones movie tongue-in-cheek adventure.”
Pier Luigi Basile, who worked with Miller in Rome, agreed. “Dino was very baffled by all this, ” said Basile. “That’s what the problem was. Dino was not sure where to start. He was not very happy about the script, because David wanted to do it in his own style, and David Cronenberg’s style is very specific. Cronenberg rewrote the script, but Dino wasn’t happy with it, and he stopped the preparation. He wanted a big, spectacular, action film, whereas Cronenberg didn’t want to make an action film. He wanted to make a story about the main character. Dino wanted a big set, big special effects, big models. So, I don’t think that Dino ever understood what kind of film Cronenberg was developing. I had brought up draftsmen, I had that whole art department set up, and he stopped it all.”
Basile said he regretted the missed opportunity of ever getting to make the film. “From the first time they gave me the script, I thought it was a wonderful story.” said Basile. “Every time they cancelled, I said, ‘Please do it, because this is the right moment.’ This was years ago. It was the right time to make that kind of crazy but intriguing story.”
Miller, who worked with Basile on DeLaurentiis’ DUNE, was also eager to stay with TOTAL RECALL. “I was very fond of the script, “he said. “It was-is-a slam bang movie; it starts up with some great pieces of action and then just goes, non-stop, all the way through. Shusett has this wonderfully quirky sense of humor, and I like that a lot too.”
An exhibition of ancient torture instruments was held in Rome during the time that Cronenberg and the small art staff was there. “Cronenberg and I and some others went to see the torture exhibit one evening,” recalled Miller. “Now these were the real things, nasty stuff, with incredibly vivid graphic captions describing the use of the instruments. About halfway through the exhibit, Cronenberg started to look a little queasy. I mentioned it to him. “You practically invented exploding heads! Why does this stuff seem to bother you so much?’ He said, “Because this stuff is real!”
Cinefantastique Vol. 21 #1