The Challenge of The Thing, the 2011 prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film, was to make a film that lived in the universe of that cult classic, but also lived up to it. For co-star Eric Christen Olsen, being a part of the legacy of that movie was one of the great drawing points. As Olsen says, the horror genre is often terrible, and he wanted to be involved with something that was truly scary. We talked about the film and more in our interview. Check it out…
How was your experience working on this movie?
Amazing, I loved it. I’ve turned down horror movies for my whole career because they aren’t the stories that I wanted to tell. I remember when they sent the script over for this and I had seen the original it scared the crap out of me. My dad had saw the first, first one – the 1954 one – and he was nine years old. He asked my grandpa if he could go and my grandpa said “no, you’ll get scared so you can’t go see it.”
So my dad snuck in and he sat behind the chair because he got so scared – he’d watch as much as he could and then he peaked back down – he watched the whole movie from behind these chairs. He couldn’t sleep for a week and finally he told my grandpa he watched the movie and how much it scared him and when I told him about this movie he’s like “you have to do it!” He was like “that was the movie that terrified me most as a kid.” I go back now and it’s just a guy with just a claw isn’t it? Have you seen the ’54?
He was a living vegetable. There’s this scene where he breaks in and he’s all ARRRHG! And he looks kind of like Frankenstein.
Anyway, terrified my dad. But also because my favorite version of this genre is thrillers. I think that if you look at a perfect moment in storytelling in the ’82 version it’s the scene where they’re testing the blood. That’s a perfect scene. That’s just man versus man, it’s paranoia, it’s about trust and there’s nothing happening. What they make now is a guy with an axe coming through a window and chasing the characters around until someone takes their top off and then they die.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
There is something wrong with it! It’s a sh*tty movie. I saw a movie two years ago where literally people are dying and then someone decides to go wakeboarding? And I was like “what are we doing with our lives?” There’s no story, there’s no plot, it’s literally about finding this person and hacking them up, finding this person and hacking them up.
The Thing is about is that we all have issues with trust, we all have issues with paranoia and in all relationships – whether it be at work, in our own personal relationships or family – it’s about who we can trust in these situations and when the sh*t falls apart, what those alliances are and which ones are gonna fail us. And I think that’s why I was so attracted to the ’82 movie, and this is why I was attracted to the prequel that we’re doing now.
So was the tooth-checking moment like the blood testing moment for you?
Yeah, and I think especially for my character because the way that I decided to play with Matthijs (van Heijningen Jr.) is that my character isn’t strong enough to exist on his own. There is no flame-thrower for me, there is no knife for me, it’s literally making alliances to a stronger character – so I come in allied with Sander (Ulrich Thomsen). And when I realize that Mary (Elizabeth Winstead)’s more in control and smarter than Sander, I make an alliance with her.
When we get to that scene where they’re checking my teeth and she bails on me, I lose everything – I lose my only defense. And that I think there’s that’s why that scene for me is it’s obviously the most critical for my character, but also I think it’s our version of kind of that blood testing scene.
I know you mostly through comedies; Community, etc. Was this role originally funny or do you see this more as like a career change sort of role?
I think that there’s one thing that we’ve been good at – as far as my representation – is finding diverse roles and doing a lot of comedies, but even in the comedy doing as broad as they can be in playing like a younger Jim Carey versus Fired Up versus Community, trying to make sure there is diverse as possible in that genre. I think that I’ve also done a lot of dramas, but nothing like this, so I think yea, I think you’re right. I think it’s a big departure for me. I don’t know if it’s a career change, but I definitely think it’s just a way to show more diversity.
Do you see yourself working against like some of your comic impulses in a film like this?
No, because I think even in dramas you use comedy to diffuse situations so that works up until a point and so it doesn’t work anymore and I think that all through Act II and Act III there’s no comedic moments. I did some when we were shooting early on, but a lot of those are gone, but I think that also kind of helps pull the audience in a little bit. We get to know the characters before we set the world on fire.
When you first heard about this that it was sort of going to be a prequel and almost like a side prequel to the original film, what did you think about that idea?
I think it’s the only way you can do it. I think you remake this movie, you’ve got a bullet on your head. You put a target on your back. I saw Rise of the Apes and I was like “what is this movie? What is this crap? I’m not seeing this movie!” And I read the reviews and then I was like “oh it perfectly dovetails in the first movie” and I went and saw it and by the last ten minutes I got it. I know what happened! And that’s fulfilling as an audience member. And I think that’s what they’ve done with this.
That’s some pretty great grounds to mine for storytelling. And then I got excited because I think when you have all of that…not only the story that you told, but the type of storytelling that he did, when you can build up and pave that road to get to that place, I think that that’s exciting for me. When you watch this movie, I went to a test screening, and audiences cheered when that bass line comes in of “du dun” from the original. When that kicks in, people go crazy and I go crazy ’cause I get excited like we’ve got to that place. We’re now to the place where it all makes sense to me.
Is there any fear that maybe the film wouldn’t resonate with audiences that didn’t know the original or do you think it just plays on its own level for both fans and not?
I think the movie stands on its own because it’s a prequel, because there’s no new information prior to that moment. It stands on its own, but I think it’s more fulfilling if you’ve seen the first because I think there’s a lot of parts that paid homage to what Carpenter did.
What’s one of things that you enjoyed the most?
One of the things I enjoyed the most? The very first scene that we shot I was doing Community and CSI:LA at the same time and I got on a red eye flight that flew to Vancouver, and then got on a charter flight that went from Vancouver to most northern tip of Canada and the border of Alaska and then got in a van that took me to the middle of nowhere and then got in a helicopter that took me to 10,000 feet to the middle of a glacier.
It was Mary and I and one other person shooting exterior shots and you don’t have an understanding of how claustrophobic something like that can be until you’re there. I went into Craft Service and there was tons of food and I was like “why do we have so much food at Craft Service?” And the guy was like “this is if we get snowed in, if a storm comes. If we can’t get everybody off the top of the mountain and the storm comes in, we have to have enough food to survive.” And that’s the movie we’re making!
The whole day I was like “did we get this? Are we good? ‘Cause I’m gonna get a helicopter, I’m ready to go!” And there was stakes everywhere, and I was like “why are the stakes there?” And they’re like “because that’s as far as we kind of scoped and if you walk past that, you can fall 100 feet and we’ll never find you.” And you get a sense of “oh, that’s what these characters are feeling.” What a great way to start the movie because as far as the eye can see there’s nothing but mountains of white and you know how long it took you to get there, and if anything goes wrong, you’re never getting out of there. It’s just so isolated and so alone. I’ve never experienced anything like that.
My first movie was Pearl Harbor and I flew in the glass bubble of a B-25 bomber taking off an aircraft carrier. And nobody else wanted to do it, they were just flying back to San Diego, I was like “I’ll get in,” and they looked at me like I was crazy. But that’s…you know you get to experience these crazy things. And to do that at 10,000 feet in Alaska, it was pretty awesome. Terrifying, but awesome.
SPOILERS FOLLOW BELOW ABOUT THE FATES OF CERTAIN CHARACTERS
Could you talk about the scene you’re melding with the beast scene?
Yes, how much of a that was…was there a puppet there?
Yeah, and that’s another reason that from day one when you’re gonna make this movie there’s a couple ways to make it. You can make the crappy version with Chad Michael Mary and Hilary Duff or you can make the version where you go out and get Mary Elizabeth Winsted – who is our Ripley – and you go out and you get Joel Edgerton who just came off of Broadway and he’s crushing it and one of the best actors of our generation, and you get all these great Norwegian character actors, that’s the type of movie you’re making.
When you decide that it’s cheaper to do CGI and you still do all this, they did tons of practical, so that day or that scene took eight days, and there’s eight dudes all dressed in black with levers working that machine as it comes towards you and that’s the movie they’re trying to make. So you take that and you blend it in with CGI, it costs three times as much more money, but you’ve got to do justice to what Carpenter did in ’82. So I think that’s…that scene I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve seen worse because that creature actually rose up, crawled over to me, rose up, slammed me into the ground, and then the neck extends and turns and literally pushed my head so hard into the ground that I almost had a concussion for that half a day.
How bad was your makeup then?
I mean the makeup at that point is like…we had a chart that led from day one to the end of it on how f*cked you were. And if you end up this is totally f*cked, and this is like oh I’m awesome, like that by that time I’m white, like my eyes are gone, I hadn’t slept in I think at that point was two and a half days. We all looked like sh*t.
Twelve hour makeup days?
That scene was mostly special effects guys that came in and did all the mortars and put the things through my body. Things are just blowing up everywhere, I mean buckets of blood after it stabs through with the tentacle. And then they mold them together, that’s practical and those guys came in with this machine that was like a giant MRI machine that took everything of my whole body and then they made that creature. And I walked in the first time to see it, and the guy was like “I don’t know if you’re supposed to see it.” And I was like “well I’m just gonna go in there.” And I went in there and opened the thing up and I immediately I got goose bumps because it was so me. It was my teeth, it was my exact eyes; everything was me. It was terrifying, it was terrifying.
The Thing opens October 14.