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15 Things You Might Not Know About Total Recall

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We may be eager to forget its lackluster 2012 remake, but the 1990 blockbuster Total Recall—which was released 25 years ago today—will live forever as a benchmark of gloriously silly science fiction. Even if you’ve rewatched the film ad nauseam on cable reruns, there are still a few facts you might not know about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s modern classic.

1. THE MOVIE WAS IN DEVELOPMENT FOR OVER A DECADE. 

In 1976, fledgling screenwriters Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon teamed up to adapt Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” The pair purchased the rights to the piece that year, but soon hit the first of many delays on the road to the screen.

Difficulties in reimagining the story as a film forced the pair to take a long break from the Dick story to work on a different project. (This distraction would prove rather fortuitous, ultimately becoming the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s Alien.) Over the course of many years, the screenplay went through more than 40 revisions. 

2. TOTAL RECALL ALMOST COST THE WORLD THE FLY. 

Even after Shusett and O’Bannon’s script found a patron in power producer Dino De Laurentiis, setbacks persisted as finding the right director proved challenging. David Cronenberg, then only on the precipice of his cult glory, was the first director assigned to the project. He opted to take on Total Recall instead of an offer to direct a different film: The Fly, which was then snagged by commercial director Robert Bierman.

After spending a year working on the Dick adaptation, Cronenberg parted ways with production, handing the baton off to Tender Mercies director Bruce Beresford. Cronenberg returned his sights to The Fly—a newly vacant job after the departure of Bierman due to a personal tragedy—ultimately making it his most iconic feature. (By the time Total Recall actually went into production, Beresford would be gone, too.)

3. CRONENBERG’S VERSION WAS CONSIDERED TOO FAITHFUL TO THE STORY.

As the story always goes, “creative differences” prompted Cronenberg to jump ship on Total Recall. While the director approached the project hoping to pay homage to Dick’s writing, its producers fostered a divergent vision that Cronenberg described as “Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.” In a 2003 conversation with WIRED, the filmmaker remembered an odd exchange with the writing team: “Eventually we got to a point where Ron Shusett said, ‘You know what you've done? You've done the Philip K. Dick version.’ I said, ‘Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing?’” 

4. SOME OF CRONENBERG’S CREATIONS REMAIN IN THE FINAL CUT. 

Although the project shifted gears in a major way following Cronenberg’s departure, he did leave behind a few creative concepts that survived in the version of Total Recall that hit theaters. Chief among them was the community of Martian mutants—among the movie’s most memorable elements—including the major character Kuato.

5. THE QUAID/HAUSER CHARACTER WENT THROUGH AN IMAGE OVERHAUL. 

Producer De Laurentiis’ initial vision of the film’s hero Douglas Quaid (originally named “Quail”)/Carl Hauser was decidedly more in line with Dick’s short story: A schlubby office drone who dreams of a more exciting life. With this characterization in mind, his first choice for the part was Richard Dreyfuss. Over time, the desired machismo of the film’s leading man increased, prompting suggestions like William Hurt (courtesy of Cronenberg) and Patrick Swayze. 

6. AT FIRST, ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER WAS TURNED DOWN FOR BEING TOO MANLY. 

Despite the gradual growth of Quaid’s imagined virility, there was a limit to how far De Laurentiis was willing to stray from the original character. He insisted that someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger was out of the question for the part and even turned down the Terminator star when Schwarzenegger expressed interest in the role. 

7. TO GET THE PART, SCHWARZENEGGER LED ANOTHER COMPANY TO BUY THE MOVIE. 

Schwarzenegger saw an opportunity when De Laurentiis’ production company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went bankrupt. The actor convinced Carolco Pictures, with whom he had recently worked on Red Heat, to purchase the rights to Total Recall.

8. SCHWARZENEGGER HAD AN UNUSUAL AMOUNT OF CONTROL OVER PRODUCTION. 

The coveted role of Quaid was not the only thing Schwarzenegger won in the transaction: In addition to being welcome to recruit the director of his choice (as a big fan of RoboCop, he picked Paul Verhoeven), Schwarzenegger maintained authority over all creative aspects of the film, script, production, and even elements of distribution. 

For instance, Schwarzenegger took issue with the portrayal of the movie in its TriStar Pictures studio trailer, demanding that the company create and release a preview that better represented Total Recall. Furthermore, when the actor was dissatisfied with the middling public awareness conjured by the movie in the weeks leading up to release, he convinced Carolco to invest more and more money into marketing until virtually everyone had heard of Total Recall

9. THE MOVIE WAS ORIGINALLY RATED “X.” 

The notorious “X” rating did not enjoy a particularly long tenure in the culture of United States cinema, starting in 1968 and lasting only up to 1990, when it gave way to “NC-17.” Total Recall, heavy with graphic violence and soaked in bloodshed, would have been one of the last movies rated “X” were it not softened up late in production in the interest of achieving the more commercially viable “R” rating. 

10. THE MOVIE’S FUTURISTIC VEHICLES WERE ACTUALLY MEXICAN PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION.

A memorable sequence involves Schwarzenegger’s character speeding away from his pursuers through a futuristic public train station. Though evocative of the film’s 2084 setting, the station and its vehicles were in fact actual features of the Mexico City public transportation system. Minor touch-ups like sleek silver paint and television screens were applied to boost the ultramodern feel, but surprisingly little effort was needed to make the setting read as “of another time.” 

11. TOTAL RECALL MARKED THE TRANSITION FROM OLD TO NEW SPECIAL EFFECTS. 

The 1990 film was both one of the final movies to heavily utilize miniature effects and one of the first to employ computer-generated imagery. The former camp, which involves the projection of filmed shots inside miniature scale model sets, includes a number of Total Recall’s Mars scenes. In the latter category are only sequences featuring Schwarzenegger’s passage through a transit station’s X-ray machine. The coming years would see CGI quickly become the predominant form of special effects used in Hollywood filmmaking, with the miniature method all but losing its place to more advanced techniques following Total Recall

12. THE MARTIAN GUARDS WERE REAL AMERICAN SOLDIERS. 

All of the actors portraying guards in the movie’s Mars scenes are in fact genuine American Marines and Naval officers.

13. ALMOST EVERYONE GOT SICK OR INJURED ON SET. 

Multiple cast and crew members had to be hospitalized during production. First, a craft services foul-up resulted in almost everybody on set enduring a bout of food poisoning. Only Schwarzenegger, who ate privately catered food, and the fanatically health-conscious Shusett were exempt from the illness. Verhoeven required a steady stream of medication and fluids and regular access to a nearby ambulance in order to keep directing through the pain.

Next, associate producer Elliot Schick fell terribly ill due to the rampant air pollution of Mexico City. Finally, the least surprising accident of the lot: Schwarzenegger repeatedly cut and damaged his hand, even breaking his finger at one point, during shooting of the film’s innumerable punching stunts. 

14. TOTAL RECALL WAS, POSSIBLY, THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE EVER MADE AT THE TIME OF ITS PRODUCTION. 

Although exact accounts of the Total Recall budget are elusive, official estimates have the film costing around $65 million. This neighborhood makes it one of the most—if not the most—expensive movies produced by 1990.

15. THE MOVIE WON AN OSCAR.

By winning the Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the 63rd annual Academy Awards, Total Recall became the first—and to date only—Philip K. Dick film adaptation to win an Oscar. Total Recall was also the final live-action picture to receive the Special Achievement prize; the only film to win since has been Toy Story, recognized five years later for its advancements in computer animation.

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Mill Creek Entertainment
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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Ape Meets Girl
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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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