A Futuristic Bourne: Screenwriter Mark Bomback on Total Recall

His initial trepidation about the project, deciding when to harken back to the original film and when to strike out on their own.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Mark Bomback is not in an enviable position. Sure, he's one of the screenwriters for a major, potential summer blockbuster, but when that blockbuster is a remake of the Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, a genre classic unto itself, it invites closer scrutiny than practically any other film on the landscape. Don't worry… he's taking it in stride. He called me while running his daily errands to talk about the complex adaptation process, his initial trepidation about the project, picking which scenes to reuse from the original film and the changes that were made to the script over the course of the production. 


CraveOnline: I’d like to talk to you about this adaptation. Obviously it’s a hell of a gig.

Mark Bomback: Yeah.


But I feel like in order to talk to you about it, I need to know where the script was when you came on board, and what sort of changes you brought to the project.

Sure. I actually had known Neal for a while. I’d done some work on other films for him, like Jack the Giant Killer and stuff. Neal Moritz, the producer, actually mentioned to me the possibility of doing a remake of Total Recall, but even back then he had said it’s based on the short story, it’s not going to necessarily be that faithful a remake, but we have the rights at Sony. And I confess, I actually said I don’t think that’s for me. I remember really fondly the original film and I’m not too sure I wanted to do attempt to do anything better. So I didn’t really pursue it when they were looking for somebody to do the writing. And then I heard Kurt [Wimmer] had come in with a good take.

And so, I don’t know how long, maybe a year or so later, Len Wiseman had gotten involved. I think he done some work with Kurt and then, to be truthful, I don’t even know the circumstances under which Kurt stopped work on it. I think he’s just very busy because he’s a working screenwriter. So then I got a call from Len Wiseman, who I had worked with on Live Free or Die Hard, and Neal was on the phone as well, and Toby Jaffe, and they all were giving the sell that, “We need someone to come on right away.” They were about four months away from shooting. So that’s where they were. And there was a lot of work to do.

Kurt had done something sort of brilliant, where his big way into the material was to not go to Mars. I didn’t know that when I even got the call from those guys. But the way that they went there, I said, “Oh, now I see. It’s sort of a futuristic Bourne.” That’s a very different tone, and also a very different narrative once you’re out of the gate than the original. Then I got very psyched about it. So that’s sort of how my involvement began, and I wound up working on the film a little more than I had anticipated. I wound working all through production. Like a lot of action films, you’re never really done with the rewriting until the last day because there’s so many moving parts.


There are a lot of new elements in this particular version. There’s “The Fall,” the transport from one side of Earth to the other, there’s the robots for example. Were those already in place?

A lot of those elements were there. I would say pretty much all of the elements were there. I’m trying to remember. We call them “Synths” or “Synthetics” in the movie, the robots. I don’t know if they had as prominent a role in the script. You wind up doing so many drafts that you forget what was where. I don’t think the Synths had as prominent a role when I came on as they wound up having. The Fall was definitely there. It didn’t have as crucial a role in the second half of the story as it wound up doing in ultimately ours. […] I don’t think I’ve ever seen that conceit before, where there is a tunnel that goes through the whole of the Earth. A lot of my job was taking these cool elements and bolstering the logic, and making sure that you weren’t questioning these elements. That the world was fleshed out enough that they felt organic to it.


I have seen holes through the center of the Earth in one other film, but that film was Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, so we do not speak of it.

[Laughs] I need to watch my Mortal Kombat.


You talked about “bolstering the logic.” In order for the film to have logic you probably had to come up with your take one whether or not it’s a dream, I imagine.

Well, that’s a great question. I think that the goal, honestly, the goal was that you could tell the story either way. That there is a legitimate version of this where it’s all a dream, it’s actually an easier version to wrap your head around because it requires less coincidence, and then there’s the “it’s not a dream.” There was a dance we were doing even into post-production, because if you start to tilt it in any one direction then it really hurts your investment in the other. I really, this is going to sound a little hoity-toity [laughs], more so than I mean it to, but I don’t think it’s really that important to know. In fact I think it’s sort of important not to know whether it’s a dream or not. I think that’s in the spirit of Philip K. Dick, to really never have a completely firm grasp on what’s happening. I think that, at the end of the film… I’ll be honest, we had lots of different ideas of how to end the film because we were worried about if it should be one way or the other. I will say I think in the original, the Schwarzenegger film, it’s very apparent to me having watched that film now a couple of times, that it is all a dream. You could argue that it’s maybe not, but it’s clearly all a dream in that film.


I agree.

You agree. You could even stop that film 30 minutes in. The minute the goes into Rekall, and he orders up the girl and it’s exactly the girl from the dream. [Laughs] You could argue that there is an argument that it is all dream.


I’ve heard some people say that this shouldn’t be called a remake, that it should be called a “reimagining,” but either way you are reusing certain plot elements.



And certain scenes play out in a very similar way. What sort of thought process went into that?

We grappled a lot with it. I would say that if we thought we could do anything better… and you could argue that we did nothing better or we did everything better, you could certainly make any argument you’d like [about] both films. We personally thought we could do it better, we didn’t want to do what the original had done, but when we said, gee, that’s a great idea; we’re trying to do back flips to improve upon it, but actually that’s a great way to go. We had a silent collaborator in the first film, and it was really a pity not to use stuff that was done well. I think that once we stopped being as neurotic about what’s in the original film, what’s in ours, and just treated the original film like just another piece of course material… Truthfully, we got as much as we could out of that short story, but it’s a short story, and then when you go from there, there are new ideas that we’re playing with but there’s some great stuff in terms of elements that were actually consciously saying that we need to do these, because there’s a certain… No matter what, the movie is called Total Recall, and ultimately a remake, and there are going to be certain expectations and a certain slight anticipation of what we’re borrowing and what we’re not. […]

I would say we were trying not to be too neurotic about it. I speak for myself, at least, I’m quite aware of and I myself hold the film to the same very, very high standard as to what’s allowable and what’s not when you’re basing a movie on the same idea that another movie was based on. I think that what I would hope from an audience member, who would be coming from a similar place that I would be coming from, is a certain amount of objectivity. It’s a hard thing to have, but to say, alright if this wasn’t based on another film, if there weren’t elements from another film, how I would feel about this? Hopefully you’ll enjoy it! It’s something we definitely worried over a lot. No one’s looking to just mimic. You’re trying to do something new but at the same time, when you have great source material why not exploit can be used? We already are going to be framed as a remake anyway, why not do the best of what we can do from the original stuff?


Which raises an interesting question, and I raised this to Len as well, did you think about someone who might be seeing this Total Recall first, younger people for example, and then going back to the original?

I think that would be a fun conversation. I think there’s probably going to be a lot of people like that. I know I was at a concert the other night and there was a kid nearby me who was eighteen, and I told what I did, and he said “Anything coming out now?” And I said I was one of the writers on Total Recall, and he said, “Oh, that movie seems cool!” And I said, “You know there’s another film from 1990, right?” And he had no idea. This was an eighteen-year-old who was a bright kid. So I actually there are a fair number of people who are going to come into the movie, either A) not even knowing it’s a remake, or B) knowing it but not having seen the original film. I think the [people] over the age of 25 is a very different movie-going audience when it comes to films like this.