While writing and shooting the prequel to John Carpenter's ice-cold horror story The Thing, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. had a chance to explore the original movie's backstory. Find out how and why the thing crashed on Earth in our exclusive interview.
Was The Thing always going to be a prequel movie? Or did it start out as a reboot or a sequel?
Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.: When I came on board, it was always a prequel. The producers always wanted to tell the Norwegian story. The remake or sequel was never an option.
Why was it important for you to tell The Thing the prequel?
Well, I saw John Carpenter's version when I was about 16, and it just blew me away. It was one of those movies that sparked the filmmaker in me, when I was young. It was always a special movie. And when they approached me, the fact that they wanted to do a take on this Norwegian story as being European, was sort of interesting to me. To make a sort of American movie with strong European influences, that was tempting.
What was the most important elements that your film had to have to work with John Carpenter's film?
The great thing about Carpenter's film and even in the short story, not so much the Howard Hawks version, is this sense of paranoia. People being happy in the beginning because they've found the find of the century. And then they slowly figure out that they can't leave because anyone of them could be a monster. And they have to sort it out amongst themselves, in combination with that paranoia. That was great to, sort of, get my fingers on.
Speaking of that dread, this film does feel like a break from all of the hyper quick-cut horror we've been seeing a lot of today. I was wondering if that was intentional, how much work did you put in to keep that slow pace, is it hard to film that way today?
It was hard to sell, in a way. I started watching movies in the 70s like Rosemary's Baby where you just have an endless introduction of characters. And even if you do that well, just the waiting for things to go wrong with a proper introduction of characters, that's great! It takes a little bit of an investment from the audience, but it really pays off in the end.
Did you find you had to slow yourself down while filming?
I wanted to go even slower and the studios said, "No, no, no you have to hit that beat on the 18th minute." Because you have this Hollywood formula about filmmaking, so it was more of a fight of "Can we postpone stuff before things go wrong?" I think I sort of succeeded in that.
You also go to great lengths to explain everything in the Norwegian camp when the Americans find it, the axe in the wall, certain holes in the ceiling. What was the hardest thing to recreate in the base?
When we started constructing the script we treated the whole thing as a crime scene. Fresh, young detectives on a crime scene. We see this, and we see that, there's hole and an axe, blood traces here, this guy who slit his throat. To make our own story work, not only making the plot work but so that it was just scripted naturally and paying tribute to those pieces of evidence, I think that was the hardest part. It's easy to just explain things, but it had to have a right place in the story. That took a lot of work.
Was there one particular scene that was the hardest to explain?
There was one scene that we actually shot but it never ended up in the movie. We shot the whole, the guy his name is Colin, the whole slitting his throat and his pulse is… we shot that scene completely. And now in the movie it just… we sort of set it up as something that happened [off camera]. It didn't work completely, and I wanted to have that scene in the movie so badly, because that's one of the best parts in John Carpenters movie, what happened to that guy? But the movie became about him, as opposed to about Mary and Joe at that point. So we had to delete it.
I was wondering if you guys were going to explain how someone could slit their wrists and then their throat?
Yeah you could make a whole movie explaining about why someone would slit their throat. But a cramped three minute scene, it just didn't feel right.
You must put it on the DVD extras.
That will happen.
Was there a lot of pressure to make the alien all CG and make it sleek and sexy. I know you used a lot of practical work, but did you feel the pressure to CG more part of the monster?
Well not so much pressure, I think for a movie like this and this kind of budget you don't have a year of prep. In the old days, [Rob] Bottin — he had a year to come up with all of these designs and make it. We had like 3 months. We made those puppets for real, and my intention was to just use the puppets as being the monsters. But in some cases they were fine, some cases they were good, and in some places they weren't fine. In the end it was looking like an 80s movie, instead a film from today. So in the post production, we had to sort of touch up some of those puppets.
I wonder if you could give a percentage or a ratio what sort of percentage of the Thing is CG versus practical.
I think sort of half/half.
How much thought did you put into The Thing's backstory? How did it get to Earth, why was it there, are there pages and pages of backstory that wasn't in the film?
In an early script there was more stuff explaining it. The idea was, and I don't know if I should tell you this, the idea was that the creature in the ice is not the original form of the thing. In my opinion it was always sort of a virus, it doesn't have an original form. So the creature they find in the ice it could have been a friendly creature that was then taken over by the thing. That backstory still holds, I think. We had, at some point, that they would go inside of the ship, in the beginning of the movie, and they would see that the ship was this big biolab and that they were specimen collectors that race, and it broke free and killed everyone in the ship. So the spaceship was a science fiction version of the Norwegian base in John Carpenter's movie. But then it sort of fucked up the story. Because if you have 50 dead aliens in a spaceship why would you concentrate so much on the guy frozen in the ice? So from a story point, that didn't work. It put too much emphases on the spaceship and not enough on the one creature in the ice. So we sort of abandoned that idea completely. Does that make sense?
It does, and I'm glad you abandoned it, you were right. Sure, it's too bad we didn't get to see more aliens but that wouldn't have worked. Paranoia on the base is the focus, and it works that way. So in the film, you have this fantastic homage to the infamous blood test scene in Carpenter's film, how did you come up with that? Did you have to come up with a lot of tests before you found the one that worked?
That was one of the biggest challenges. You have this Norwegian base filled with Norwegian scientists, and you would [think] that they're pretty smart. Maybe even smarter than the blue collar workers in the John Carpenter version. Why don't they come up with a blood test? That was a biggest [thing], because you can't do the blood test twice. Even in the short story, by Campbell, the blood test is sort of the climax of that story. So that's been done. I came up with the idea of The Thing having a problem with non-organic material. If it can clone you, it cannot [duplicate] stuff that's been put in your body later. From that point, we do a great scene with people based on whether or not they had fillings or not.
The score you use is very similar to Ennio Morricone's infamous music, was that important to you?
It was important to me because it plays in 1980 and I saw all my great movies in the 70s. So I just love old thematic scores, like Jerry Goldsmith and Morricone. So the approach was not to come up with the same thing but to come up with themes. In a lot of horror movies today it's just a wall of sound. I thought it would be interesting to approach it in an old fashioned way, a theme for the camp, and a theme for her and a theme for the monster, and that maybe gives it a similar feel to Morricone in a way.
Where do you stand on The Thing debate, when MacReady and Childs meet up in the end? Do you think Childs is the thing?
I think so! [Laughs] That's what I thought when I was 16 and saw the movie. I read, I think, that Bill Lancaster who wrote it actually thought they were both human, I think that was his intention (from what I read). But I don't know if that's what Carpenter thought.