Sci-fi thriller was almost filmed in Australia, industry veteran Sue Milliken writes in
ALONG with interminable casting problems as pre-production proceeded, the expansive financial environment in which we had begun the Total Recall adventure began to change. In Hollywood, DEG posted a first-quarter loss; its slate of movies started opening and ominously, one after the other, died at the box office. Disastrous flops.
There began a weekly battle over cashflow to make sure we had enough funds to meet the payroll. We had huge outgoings with production staff, model makers, art department staff, construction staff, visual effects staff, rent and travel. DEG began taking its time to send us drawdowns.
[American actor] Mark Harmon indicated he was interested in doing the film. At the end of July, Dino faxed that he had made a pay or play offer to Harmon, and that everything was on track for a January start to filming. Then Mark Harmon told Bruce, ‘‘ I’d really like to work with you but it may not be on this one.’’
We asked Dino if we could screen test Sam Neill, who was perfect for the role. Dino said no. The same day, Dino told Bruce’s agent that ‘‘ the financial difficulties were behind him, and he was ready to proceed’’. But the green light kept going on and off.
At the end of each working day we would gather in my office, open a bottle of wine and glumly discuss the getting the film made.
After waiting weeks for a response from Tom Berenger, next on the list, Bruce called him. Berenger told Bruce he had not received the script — sent from DEG to his agent. So he had not even read it. But, Berenger said, I have a script of my own which I’d like you to direct . . .
He informed Bruce that he had three more pictures to do before he would be needed for Total Recall and ‘‘ I might be tired by then.’’
Mickey Rourke passed. Jeff Bridges passed. Richard Dreyfuss was in Brazil for two months. Dino sent him a script but there wasn’t much likelihood of an answer. Dino agreed for us to test Sam Neill.
Meanwhile, the production was like a runner with his feet on the blocks, and the starting gun keeps getting raised, cocked . . . then dropped. Everyone was going nuts. We had a crew T-shirt printed which said ‘‘ Any News?’’ on the front, and ‘‘ No News’’ on the back.
Dino arrived in Sydney for a DEL Board meeting in September. Bruce screened the Sam Neill test to the board, who liked it, but Dino would not give the okay. To be fair, Sam was at that time a big name in Australia and on television internationally due to the TV series Reilly, Ace of Spies, but he was not a star of the standing to carry a large film like Total Recall. Braver people would have taken the risk and made him a star, but with DEG in financial trouble, Dino had other problems.
The next morning, on Dino’s way to the airport to fly back to LA, we screened, courtesy of George Miller, 10 minutes of Sam’s new film Dead Calm at the lab in Camperdown. We hoped that his performance and the likelihood that the film would become a hit would persuade Dino to say yes to him. After the screening as we were walking out to the carpark, Dino asked me to start making a deal with Sam. Oh, the relief! On this decision hung the next year of my life — and everyone else’s involved with the film.
When Dino arrived back in LA he was still keen on Sam, but a couple of days later, when I
actually phoned him to get approval for Sam’s deal before signing off on it, he was non-committal. ‘‘ I discuss it with Bruce when he comes here.’’ He then admitted to me that ‘‘ they’’ at DEG — unspecified but suddenly powerful, as the other films lost money — did not want to use Sam in the movie. I passed the news on to Bruce. The line had been crossed. He called Dino. ‘‘ No Sam, no director,’’ he told him. Stalemate. Picture back on hold again. Bruce eventually agreed to replacing Sam if the actor was right for the role and made the money people more amenable. The script was sent to Willem Dafoe and Richard Dreyfuss, now back from Brazil. Both passed. The latest suggestion was Chris Cooper. Chris Cooper? Not exactly a household name even now.
It got worse. They started insisting that every role in the film be played by Americans. The film was being shot in Australia and we had budgeted to cast all the supporting roles, and hopefully a lead or two, locally. The union, no surprise, was breathing down our necks, fangs bared, just waiting for an opportunity to cause trouble. No film, then or since, imports every actor, as it is a crazy waste of money when there are fine local actors available.
Meantime DEG approved a down payment to Introvision to send their technicians to Sydney to work with the model makers, so now we had a special effects company but no cast.
The script went to Tom Selleck. He passed. Bruce came up with the idea of Patrick Swayze, then very hot from Dirty Dancing. Swayze said yes! A breakthrough! But by then, DEG was in worse shape than ever. The full commitment to funding the picture was still withheld, even with a star who was acceptable to everyone. Howard Koch Jr, a tough, second-generation Hollywood producer with extensive hands-on production experience, was brought in as Head of Production at DEG and he assumed financial control of expenditure for Total Recall.
Fed up with the indecision, Bruce told Dino to cancel the whole thing. Howard Koch agreed. It was time to bail out. But Dino begged Bruce to stay with it. He told Bruce that everyone loved the script (even though Bruce had serious concerns about it, and the third act wasn’t working at all). Dino said that his new Steve Martin film had just collapsed because David Lynch had pulled out as director. If Total Recall went down, it might finish him. The house of cards was tottering.
Bruce, against all common sense but out of loyalty to Dino, agreed to stay with it for a bit longer. So we stayed too. It was my job to tell the 50 or so employees we already had on the payroll, that even though there were problems with the financing, it might be okay.
Meanwhile, we were still casting Total Recall. The female lead, a character called Melina, was the next role to be approved by DEG. Bruce wanted a young actress called Nicole Kidman who had starred opposite Sam Neill in Dead Calm. She had done a couple of Australian films and a lot of television, but she was unknown outside Australia. We were still fighting about the number of Americans in the cast, the studio having ignored Bruce’s suggestion of Jack Thompson — who, as he said, was better known internationally than most of the names they were putting up — for the head of the bad guys. Dino was completely uninterested in Nicole but wary of upsetting Bruce again so soon. He allowed us to screen test her. Off went the screen test to LA.
A DEG movie called Million Dollar Mystery opened in the US. The premise was, watch the film, follow the clues, guess where the money is hidden and win a million dollars. A woman from Bakersfield, California, guessed the answer in the first week and collected the money. The film died stone dead. And with it, the DEG empire.
‘‘ We no use Nicole Kidman,’’ Dino told Bruce. Howard Koch Jr called me. ‘‘ We’re never going to approve Nicole Kidman. We want an American in the role.’’ They wanted Alexandra Paul to play Melina.
We were told that DEG was being sold and they might not proceed with Total Recall, but that we — that was, DEL and I — should look at other means of financing, such as a raising under the Australian tax legislation, 10BA. Not possible, I told them. You want an all-American cast. The film is American, it won’t qualify for the tax incentives. They hated hearing that. ‘‘ But if creative control is in the hands of Australians?’’
Terry [Jackman] called Bruce to say that Dino was leaving DEG. We got another call from Dino and Howard Koch, threatening that either all the cast were to be American, or they would move the film to Dino’s studios in North Carolina. I told them that not only would the union close the picture down if we tried to import all the cast,