Total recall: Talking shop with producer/screenwriter Ronald Shusett

by Mark Burger

For devotees of science-fiction, horror and fantasy, Ronald Shusett is a name to be reckoned with. As a writer and producer, his credits include such blockbusters as Alien (1979), Total Recall (1990) and Minority Report (2002), as well as the cult classic Dead & Buried (1981) and the box-office hit Above the Law (1988), which made an instant action star of Steven Seagal.

In an exclusive interview with YES! Weekly, Shusett talked about the past, present and future, hits and misses, and lessons learned from almost 40 years playing the Hollywood game. What was originally supposed to be a 30-minute interview stretched to more than an hour, and as Shusett is a delightfully forthright and charming raconteur, this interview will be continued in next week’s column.

“Movies are always hard to get made,” Shusett says. “Maybe they’d be easier if I were to do something less imaginative or less crazy, but I tend to write expensive movies.”

Undoubtedly the biggest of these was the original 1990 version of Total Recall, on which Shusett toiled for almost a decade. Dino De Laurentiis had optioned the rights to Philip K. Dick’s story in the early 1980s, and various directors (including David Cronenberg, Bruce Beresford and Richard Rush) were attached at one time or another, but the projected budget proved prohibitive.

“Dino was the most colorful guy of all,” Shusett recalls. “I expected a bully and he was just the opposite. He’d lost his son a few years before and I think I was kind of a surrogate son to him. He was an amazing guy.”

Although Shusett never did get to make Total Recall with De Laurentiis, he did get a screenwriting credit on King Kong Lives (1986). “It didn’t work at all,” Shusett admits. “It looked good on the page, though.”

Just when Shusett figured that Total Recall would be consigned to oblivion, he got a phone call out of the blue from Arnold Schwarzenegger. “He said, ‘I love your script. I want to make it.’” Schwarzenegger had gone from Hollywood punchline to Hollywood superstar, riding high on the success of The Terminator (1984), The Running Man (1987) and Predator (1987). His first comedy, Twins (1988), grossed over $100 million and his face was on the cover of Time. “Guess who’s No.1?” Shusett quipped. “That’s what got Total Recall made.”

With Schwarzenegger came director Paul Verhoeven, and financing came from Carolco, the big-budget masters of hype and promotion. Carolco approved a budget of $57 million, which Shusett immediately said wouldn’t be enough.

“I tried my hardest, but costs were rising,” Shusett says. “As co-writer and producer, naturally, who would get the blame?” In mid-production, Carolco sent him a ticket home, essentially dismissing him from the project. But Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven stood by their man. “Arnold basically said, ‘If he walks, I walk.’” The final budget, reports Shusett, was $73 million. “It was one of the most expensive movies ever made,” he says, “and I knew it would be.”

All contretemps were forgotten when the film opened and became an immediate blockbuster. Carolco even offered him another project, but the company went bankrupt before that could happen.

The success of Total Recall led to Freejack (1992), an adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s novel produced by James G. Robinson’s Morgan Creek Productions. “They treated me fair, but the director mangled it,” Shusett says. “It’s my only real flop. It could have been a classic.”

The film starred Emilio Estevez as a 20th century man whisked to the 21st century so that his healthy body can be used to house the intelligence of ailing tycoon Anthony Hopkins. In one of his rare acting roles, rock ‘n’ roll icon Mick Jagger co-starred as Hopkins’ ruthless enforcer.

Shusett felt that Estevez, not even 30 at the time, was miscast, but at the time he was a big enough name to get the movie made and he had expressed tremendous enthusiasm for the project. “This was going to be his Total Recall,” Shusett says, “and he really wanted to do it.”

One of Shusett’s fondest memories is being on the set with Jagger, who told him “I’m here because of you.”

“Can you imagine?” Shusett laughs, “Mick Jagger saying he was there because of me? It turns out he was a huge fan of Alien and Total Recall.”

During filming, however, director Geoff Murphy — who had previously worked with Estevez on Young Guns II (1990) — began emphasizing the action over the existential aspects of the story, thereby distorting Shusett’s original intent. Shusett took his bows and bid farewell. When the film scored low in audience previews, Morgan Creek asked Shusett to return and supervise reshoots. “It was testing in the 30s and 40s, and the reshoots brought it up to the high 60s and 70s.”

Shusett isn’t one to gloat. “That doesn’t accomplish anything,” he says simply.

Distributor Warner Bros. opted not to prescreen the movie for critics, which Shusett believes was the kiss of death. “It makes it look like the studio is embarrassed by the movie, or that the movie’s in trouble. I’m not saying it would have gotten great reviews, but some critics are predisposed not to like a film when it hasn’t been pre-screened.”

With 20 years’ distance from Freejack, Shusett is more objective about the outcome. “Visually, it’s stunning, and people have told me they really like the film. I think some of what we wanted to do is there.”

As for the recent remake of Total Recall, on which he received credit for the original screen story, “I was afraid it wouldn’t work and it didn’t. They wanted to do it as a serious, Hitchcockian thriller and they took the humor out.”

Next week, Ronald Shusett talks Alien, Minority Report and what he’s working on now.