Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos Talks Car Designs, Constructing New Cities, Product Placement and More on the Set of TOTAL RECALL

     June 12, 2012


As the production designer of I, Robot, Dark City, Independence Day and Underworld: Evolution, Patrick Tatopoulos has shown he can create interesting and unique make-believe worlds.  However, in director Len Wiseman‘s remake of Total Recall, Tatopoulos has the difficult challenge of not only creating a cool futuristic setting for today’s moviegoers, he’s also going to have his work compared to William Sandell‘s production design from the original Total Recall that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger.  And even though it’s a difficult challenge, based on what I saw when I got to visit the set last summer, I think Tatopoulos has done a great job and moviegoers are going to be very happy.

During a group interview on the set of Total Recall, Tatopoulos told us about the differences between the remake and the original, what fictional products they created for the film, the difficulties in creating a realistic version of the future that no one has seen, how many hovercrafts they had to build for the big chase sequence, and a lot more.  Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview.

Before getting to the interview, here’s the latest trailer:

As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get the interview: you can either click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below.   Total Recall opens August 3.

total-recall-remake-posterPatrick Tatopoulos:  … Quatto’s new name is Matthias.  And I keep saying “Euramerica,” but it’s been changed to United Federation of Britain (UFB).  I’m going to keep calling it Euramerica because that’s what I’ve been calling it for the last six months, so bear with me.

Question:  We were just talking about Quatto.  The big question is do we have the original Quatto (who is very famous) making an appearance in this film?

Tatopoulos:  You mean the actual character?

I mean someone who opens their shirt and…

Tatopoulos:  I’m going to let Len Wiseman answer that question.  That’s not my thing.  I’ll let you ask him that question.  You need to ask him a few interesting questions, if you give me all the story questions I won’t be able to give him a chance to answer those.  My answer could be that this is a slightly different character, and this is why we changed the name.

In the film, there are two different levels of society.  There’s the poor and then the rich.  How much have these people been affected by pollution or mutation?  Do we get to see that in this movie?

Tatopoulos:  You’ll see very little of that.  Remember, in the original, we’re on Mars and that’s a big reason why things get to that point.  We are still on Earth here, we’re going from one side to the other side, so there may be some aspect of mutation on a certain level – but nowhere to the extent that you saw in the original.

Will you be directing any second unit work on this?

Tatopoulos:  No.  Usually second unit stuff is handed by stunt people, which makes a lot of sense.  A lot of those action scenes are directed by… So I won’t be doing any of that, I concentrated on this.  We’re almost at the end, we’re a month away from being done.  Most of the movie has been shot.

Sometimes productions are rushed.  Some have a lot of time.  When did you find out you were getting this gig, and did you have a normal amount of pre-production time?

Colin-Farrell-Total-Recall-imageTatopoulos:  I had a decent amount of time.  I had about three-and-a-half months, which is decent.  A movie like this would require more.  This thing that Len and I do, since we have the same office in LA, we work together all the time. When he got involved in a progect, what we start to do together, we start designing and coming up with set ideas before what you would call “pre-production.” When we arrive at pre-production we have a pretty decent sense of what we what to do.  Part of that development is actually presentation for the studio, so they know how we want it to work, blah blah.  So that’s what helps us when we start pre-production. Even if it’s a shorter pre-production, we have enough information to start our director, costume designer, everybody. We have enough material to get started quick. So like we started form scratch on pre-production. So I think it’s okay, it’s enough time.

It seems like there’s a big push to differentiate yourself from the original movie, for obvious reasons.  But are there things you’re bringing over or other references like that?

Tatopoulos:  Definitely.  There was a lot of great work done on the older movie.  The vibe and the tone of the movie is quite different in the first place.  Because the worlds are different.  Quaid’s apartment, for example, is going to feel quite different now from the original.  In a sense, the original film felt more sci-fi to me.  When you arrive at his apartment at the beginning, it felt like a sci-fi movie right there.  I think our approach is a little bit more like saying:  you want to start the movie almost feeling like you’re in the regular world, and then when you open your window it’s like, fuck! Everything is different.  That kind of vibe.  There are going to be a lot of elements that are going to be very recognizable.

Why do you think people are kind of pushing away from the sci-fi element as if that’s some sort of thing that’s not going to click with people today?

Colin-Farrell-Total-Recall-imageTatopoulos:  No, no.  When the studio is pushing for things like this, and really pushing for character work as well, they want to make sure it’s not too disconnecting.  There’s a lot of emotional moments in this movie, there is a very strong emotional connection between Quaid and Melina, his supposed wife.  There is a lot of character work and I don’t think Len wanted to float into this world of sci-fi, where everything feels un-relatable.  I’m a big supporter of that.  We always project the world in the future, 100 years from now, I know for sure that a ton of stuff we have now will be here and tons of stuff will be different. We need to keep it a little bit accurate. I think that’s the reason why.

One of the things people dig about the original movie are the little touches.  Like that girl whose nails change color. There were little things in the original that was really cool.  Can you talk about some of the little things in this movie that could be considered cool?

Tatopoulos:  We have little things.  I already told you about the tattoos, it’s a tattoo parlor, but they do tattoos in a way we don’t do them today.  It’s a cool little thing to me the way people carry them.  I also talked about the billboards, and the way they’re a part of you, almost.  They appear, like little glimpses in the movie.  They’re not a constant.  Those are the little things we add to the movie, here and there that’s going to be “Oh wow, that’s cool.”  We try to not repeat the ones that were created back then [in the original movie], but give something new, as much as we really love the original.

Is there going to be a Johnny Cab?

Tatopoulos:  There’s cabs.  [Laughs]

One of the fun things about incorporating ads in sci-fi films is that sometimes they get pulled out and it’s a whole world in just a glimpse. What are you selling in this feature?

Colin-Farrell-Total-Recall-imageTatopoulos:  Those ads that you can walk through (as you’ll see), they’re going to mostly be in New Asia.  We don’t care about people, we just want to blast them with information.  The technique you know very well – there’s no reason for someone to create a billboard people can walk through?  It’s quite aggressive in some ways.  It’s one way to show that it’s all about filling people with information, and it also gives us a chance to do something funky.  Walking the street, seeing the billboard, walking through.  One thing I do want to say about all those things:  any piece of visual CG element will always be helped by a practical reference on set.  For example, for those billboard I’m talking about, we are going to create arms with lights, so whenever someone walks into the light, there’s an interactive light.  Very often, some ideas come in post-production and some people have to create light, which never really looks completely convincing, so we’re really making sure we’re using practical reference lighting.  The object that creates the billboard is going to be on set, it will be real. So we’re hoping, by that approach, that it’s going to feel quite convincing.

Are you designing special logos for these ads or are you waiting for the studio, to see if it actually wants to do any branding?

Tatopoulos:  That’s a good question: we are.

Is it going to be fictional products, or a mix of things we know and things we’ve never heard of?

Tatopoulos:  Both! We need to get clearance on some of those products.  We want products of today to have changed by tomorrow.  It becomes interesting because you have a partnership with those products, obviously financial as well, and they want you to use their product, but you also want to take their product and push it into the future.  And your choice of design is sometimes, to them, an issue.  With Chrysler, we’re dealing with this every day.  They’re very ready to work with us, but have to obviously make them happy.

Jessica-Biel-Total-Recall-imageIt’s sort of a jaundiced view on advertising.  They have to sort of be in on the joke.  Putting in a product placement for Chrysler, it’s like you’re kind of tweaking it a little.

Tatopoulos:  Exactly.  Just to be clear, I’m definitely involved, but I have a team of graphic designers.  Their job is to come up with ideas that we like and then making sure that everybody is cool with it.

You feel like you’re in an episode of Mad Men.

Tatopoulos:  Very much so.

I was intrigued by the cars as well.  It seems like there are some elements from Minority Report as well… is it to the extent where they go up into the…

Tatopoulos:  No, we don’t do this.  And you know, knowing about I, Robot and Minority Report, you do Total Recall in this kind of world.  You know you’re going to be on the ffringe of those things.  Gliding cars are something that makes sense for the future, it totally makes sense.  It’s acceptable to use the concept.  What we had to do was try to create an infrastructure that feels different from what you saw in Minority Report or I, Robot.  For example, the way you travel from one side of the world to the other, you actually travel underneath the world system.  That, to me, makes sense.  We’re going to need more space in the future, how do you compress it?  Well, you travel with magnets.  How do you go from one world system to the other?  We created a magnetized elevator as well, so the cart sildes until it’s level and keeps going. It’s part of the action scene.  We all talked to futurists, just to get a sense of what the world would be tomorrow.  So we’re getting the same information.  So what do you do?  To a certain extent, we have to listen to this guy, but we’re going to have to come up with some ideas.  It’s a good sign that we all look into the same place; it means that some things will start shaping up for the future.  It’s close enough a future for us that you’ll find similarities.  At the end of the day the movie is quite different, the tone is quite different.  I’ve got to say, The China Fall, creating a spacecraft of an elevator thing is very unique.  I’ve never seen that.  There we were lucky – because what we’re going to do hasn’t been seen before.  I mean I haven’t seen an elevator at that level.  And that allowed is to create things you haven’t seen before as well.  When it’s on the page it’s easier to come up with good stuff.  If I had to create a spaceship flying between the planets, it would be more challenging to come up with something quite different.

How long does it take to get through the China Fall?

Kate-Beckinsale-Total-RecallTatopoulos:  We make it a trip of about 15 – 20 minutes.  It’s very brief.  It goes really fast.  People use the time to read information, news, things like that.  Basically you just go sit in there – the seats are very similar to those you’d find in an amusement park ride.  They keep you in place.  It’s like 20 minutes, and then you’re on the other side of the world.  If you know if you take a steel ball and let it go through the Earth, it’ll take about 30 minutes, which is incredibly fast in my mind.  Those are scientifically recognized facts.  So The China Fall takes 20 minutes with the magnetized element, all that makes sense.

How are the gore levels in this movie?

Tatopoulos:  It’s great when you have robots because you can shoot the hell out of everything and there’s not too much blood coming out, but no, the gore in this movie … I don’t know what the rating will be on this movie but it’s not a gore movie.

If you take something like RoboCop, everyone dies, basically, in that movie.

Tatopoulos:  And very violent deaths.  People die here too, but I don’t think the gore is the main thing we’ve been questing for.

China Fall seems really cool, but it also seems like a focal point of this film.  Is this integral to the plot?

Tatopoulos:  It’s very much important to the plot.  It’s a timing thing.  You travel very fast through the Earth. It’s very important, I can’t tell you much more now, I will let Len tell you that.  It is very central to the storytelling.

So would you say that China Fall is like the reactor of this movie?

Len-Wiseman-Total-Recall-imageTatopoulos:  [Laughs] Yes, to a certain extent.  It’s two worlds and what’s sitting between those two worlds; that’s the China Fall.  The war is between those two worlds, so obviously it’s very important to the movie.

Are there any other worlds on Earth, or are those the only two remaining?

Tatopoulos:  Yes.  When you watch the movie and you start looking at all the design, there are worlds within worlds.  For example, I talked about New Asia, and how everything is all on water.  The fact that it’s a suspended city that looks like a habitat, where the blue collars live, those two worlds are quite drastically different.  So within the world you have different bibles.  And you can go in the bowel of the city as well.  There is an underground world, which I haven’t mentioned to you, which is part of each one of those worlds, which lead you to different looks as well.

When you are building a new city from the ground up, where does that begin for you?  Is it a small detail, or is it something grand?

Tatopoulos:  Well, in this case, it’s interesting.  We found this incredible factory just around the corner, and we went there too look as a place to build some of our sets, and I looked at the structure of this place.  It was gigantic. This huge place!  We started to plan on building in there, this incredible concrete structure in there, and then as we were moving forward, and very excited to create our world in there because it was so huge, such an expense, the studio saw a lot of leftover chemicals in this place, so we couldn’t shoot, so we canned that.  However that became the focal point, the idea of a concrete slab with water in between to define the world in some ways.  So we worked on that.  Have you ever read the book City of Darkness; this incredible Asian troglodyte city that’s just trashed.  If you have a chance to see it, it’s a world of compressed little structures.  It was so surreal and very much constructional, keep building on building on building.  People were right next to each other, two feet away from the next window.  That also became a very important focal point for us that we became really excited about.  So you take this and put it into this context of the big structure and it became our world.  That’s one way to do it.  Sometimes it’s a sketch and sometimes it’s a visual thing you find and then you build on that.

Do you think one of the challenges of designing a movie like this is related to what William Gibson said, which is “The future has happened. ” You’ve designed a number of future environments.  Do you ever feel you might be too late to envision a future since we’re already there?

Len-Wiseman-Total-Recall-imageTatopoulos:  That’s true.  But you have a good sense of what 100 years from now will be like, really?  I like the concept, because the future is elements that repeat themselves.  In that sense, I agree with him.  In another sense there are so many things that can change the direction of the future, start of war or whatever, we don’t have a great sense of that.  Maybe it is too late?  To me, we’re floating into this world that’s 100 years into the future – we keep repeating ourselves.  This is the danger.  We have to stay exciting.  It’s hard for me to concern myself with this completely.  First of all, we’re making a movie, we’re making something fun.  We’re using some references from the past and projecting them into the future.  At the end of the day, nobody knows about the future, we all have total control about what we think the future should look like. I think we need to do exciting, fun, and bring something new to the table. I’m not saying we did this, we tried.

What is the environment like where Cohaagen works?

Tatopoulos:  It’s Euramerica basically.  Cohaagen is the man who controls this world basically.  So I never really had to create an environment, which is also cool because when you start to see some of the characters in the movie, we define of [unintelligible] and you start getting a sense of what the world looks like.  Yet the big man, you never quite go into his lair.  The good thing about that is he’s bigger than any space you could fit him into.  You just see visions of him on screens.  He appears until the final . . . You always see him through a lot of billboards and things like that.  I like that he’s a bigger character than any space you could create in some ways.

Patrick Tatopoulos Total RecallWhat’s one thing you can’t wait for the audience to see?

Tatopoulos:  I think the whole China Fall trip thing is going to be… again, we talked about Blade Runner and New Asia, it’s going to be different, but then you talk about the pristine world (like the one from I, Robot).  There’s Minority Report. I think we’ve done something different.  I think China Fall is the thing I hope people are going to look at and say, “Wow.  That I haven’t seen before. ”

I know there’s a big hovercraft chase sequence.  How many hovercrafts did you guys actually make?  And how many cars?

Tatopoulos:  Well, we built a portion of one.  We built seven or eight cars, total. You’ve seen how they function?  You’ve seen the cars, you haven’t seen the way we shoot them.

Well, you can see that there’s someone driving below the car.

Tatopoulos:  You may have seen that, it’s on the internet as well.  I’ve gotta say the cars is very much credit for Len in the way you approach shooting this. When he told me he wanted me to build 6 or 7 of them I said “what’s the point? They’re never going to be working together. It would be a huge mess.” And he was right, that was the way to go. All the cars are very practical.  We have a few CG in the very background, and just the sheer fact that we shot 12 cars, and they’re in real ways it’s going to feel so real.  I’m hoping this is one of the assets of the movie, you’ll know those cars are real. So that was Len saying all along: I need to make this real.  He didn’t want to go CG at all on those guys.  You will have background CG cars, but over all every car chase you’re seeing is real.

For more on Total Recall, here’s my on set interviews:

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