JunsuiFilm Interview

By Junsui Films | July 2012

 The legendary Production Designer chats exclusively to Junsui Films about his time on Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi classic TOTAL RECALL… 



Junsui Films:  More than two decades on what is it that makes Total Recall so enduring?

 William Sandell:  I’m always amazed the film holds up so well after all this time.  It’s a real tribute to the great storytelling, direction and I like to think the interesting sets. Of course, you’ve also got Arnold firing on all cylinders too.

JF:  How aware were you of the film’s notorious stint in development hell before you joined the project?

I had seen the other directors storyboards (quite different films) and read the [various] other scripts.  I then filed them away, and with Paul [Verhoeven] started to seek and find a distinct new visual style for our picture.

JF:  Total Recall was your second film with [director] Paul [Verhoeven] following your previous collaboration on Robocop.  Tell us a little bit about your creative relationship and the bond you forged on Robocop.

Well, as with most of the US crew it started rocky.  Paul hadn’t worked with a Hollywood crew before and was a bit leery of our capabilities and the way we operated.  But we all worked exceptionally hard on Robocop, full seven day weeks where we managed to keep up with his incredible energy.  I guess he ” got it ” because he had us back for Total Recall.  At least with Paul, if you build it, you know he will come and shoot the hell out of it, and then blow it up!

JF:  How much time were you afforded in pre-production, formulating and testing ideas?   

There is never enough prep time, but we had a few months at Carolco Pictures on Sunset Blvd. in L.A.  Paul was casting, and re-writing with Ron Shusett, artists were drawing and painting future Mars colonies.  I was flying to NASA in Houston and here in Ca. to the Ames Research inst. ( NASA ) gathering info on the reality of building a colony on Mars and the potential to greenhouse the planet.  Like most good directors Paul wanted all the facts, and then he felt free to interpret them in a cinematic way. 

JF:  Were there any specific artists [film or otherwise] who you looked to for inspiration when designing the worlds of Total Recall?

Well, when we did Robocop, I wanted to do something that would stand out from The Terminator ( still the tightest killer film of all time ) and when Total Recall came around we wanted our own signature look from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.  I saw it as a visual competition in those days.

I think this was always on Paul’s mind too.  I have a big architectural library and was showing Paul lots of books on ’20s and ’30s design, as well as  ’70s institutional concrete buildings, loosely called the New Brutalism that had a very cold impersonal pre-fab look.  Albert Speer type stuff.  Mexico City has incredible stark corporate buildings.  So we found a great look for our exterior sets.

JF:  Paul’s [Verhoeven] familiar potent mix of violence, humour and surrealism is rife in the film, how much of this was channelled into your production design?    

Like all good Art Departments my task is to play it straight, and then let Paul and his writers infuse all the gags and humour.  From a design perspective the world and sets of Total Recall had to feel real –  if that makes any sense at all to say about a Philip K. Dick inspired film!

JF:  How involved was Arnold [Schwarzenegger] during the design process and did he have any creative input at all?

Arnold was everywhere.  When production would bridle at something the director wanted, Arnold was there backing Paul all the way.  In those days he was absolutely the Man.

JF:  Made before the CGI revolution, the film features some incredible model work and boasted a healthy budget for its time; how much of that was given over to the production team and how challenging was it creating two distinct dystopian worlds?

Location, location, location.  Great Mexico City architecture and we had ten old brick stages at Churubusco Studios (built by Howard Hughes) to do the sets.  We built 24hrs a day for ten months around the clock.  Real, big sets.  We’d shoot a huge set, bulldoze that night and start another huge set.  Ten stages and we got forty or more big sets shot on them. 

JF:  What was it that attracted you to Mexico City from a design perspective?

We looked at a few places.  Wilmington N.C., Acapulco (they had an empty convention centre) but I needed a lot of stage space.  Churubusco was just what we needed.  I brought in art directors, key painters, cont. coordinator, foreman, plasterers.  I was also fortunate to inherit some great James Bond art dept. crew who just finished with the latest Bond picture.  Hired 400 Mexican crew and we hit the road running and never stopped for ten months!  Phew.

JF:  The film packs so many iconic sets from Rekall Inc to Venusville; is there a particular production aspect that you’re most proud of?

No, not really.  I’m just proud of being able to keep up with Paul and the hectic shooting schedule, what with things changing all the time, the need for new sets, all the typical crazy stuff you’d expect with a big film.

JF:  What are your thoughts on Len Wiseman’s upcoming remake, and were you ever consulted during the making of the film?

I really don’t know anything about it.  I noticed in the trailers that everything looks just like we designed it twenty years ago!  That’s a little odd, since our film was a very loose interpretation of a very short Philip K. Dick story.

JF:  Finally, Quaid’s new beginning, reality or ‘Rekall fantasy’?

I’m not answering that question…!