For Dutch commercial director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., making 2011’s The Thing was a minefield. But that’s what you get when you make a prequel to a 1982 film that went from being critically reviled to critically revered. And you can see that part of this interview gets a little contentious. But Heijningen was on his feet, and was game for some probing, even into spoiler territory. Check it out…
How do feel about Carpenter’s version? And did you get nervous playing in that universe?
I love John Carpenter’s version so much, it gave me good scares. But you know, I saw the movie when I was seventeen in Amsterdam, and I just loved the human paranoia combined with proper, real horror. And I never saw that in another movie, after all these years. So, it was just too tempting to say no.
I know you actually use the John Carpenter film in order to construct the Norwegian base. How many times would you say that you actually watched that scene?
We saw it like a million times to figure out the layout. There’s a site called Outpost 31.com, and they’re hardcore geeks, and they made a diagram of what they thought was the layout of the Norwegian camp, and it was completely accurate. So, we used that as a guide to construct it.
Can you talk about the freedom that doing this as a prequel gave you as a director rather than trying to make an actual remake of the Carpenter film and was there talk of doing it as a remake?
No, when I came aboard, it was already a prequel, and there was a script around, which I really didn’t like. One of the major problems with that script was you already knew what the thing was, and that doesn’t work. It gave freedom and restrictions – we have to treat this as a crime story in a sense. There’s all this evidence of what happened, the axe in the door and the two-faced monster outside and certain holes in the walls and so we base our story around those pieces of evidence. That is restrictive in a way because you the two-faced monster has to come out of this part of the building because it lies on the ground, in John Carpenter’s movie.
It gave us freedom because it was a different camp. It was a European camp, Norwegian scientists, not the blue-collar workers in John Carpenter’s movie, but slightly more sophisticated than those guys. So then it has to be from somebody’s perspective. So in a very early phase it was with a male lead. We were even thinking, which was completely stupid, MacReady’s brother for some reason, a really bad idea. But every time we thought about a lead character as a man, he was always overshadowed by MacReady. Then I felt like we had to really stay away from MacReady and then we thought of a female lead.
The paranoia element in the John Carpenter version was playing on the paranoia around the cold war. So when you’re taking a film like that, that’s so of its time, what’s the-is it universal paranoia now?
I think so, and reading stuff from John Carpenter, I think he and the writer Bill Lancaster were influenced by the AIDS epidemic at that point. Everybody could have a monster inside, you don’t know if you have AIDS. And I don’t think that has changed that much, that you’re carrying a disease, you don’t even know if you are the disease at that point. That sort of universal paranoia is still the same.
How important was, for you, just the use of practical effects versus computer?
Very important. I was doing commercial and I make my living with it, so it’s not like I have to do this movie. If I’m doing this movie, I had two demands from the studio: it has to be real Norwegians, because as a European, you can’t watch Americans playing Norwegians, that makes no sense. They said fine, Norwegians are fine.
And then there has to be practical effects. Because I thought we have to pay tribute to that way of filmmaking. The problem was they only gave us three or four months time of prep, and knowing in those old movies they had like a year of prep. So it was a little rushed, to be honest. So some things looked good, while we were shooting it, and sometimes it didn’t. Or it looked like an 80s movie and not have the sort of nowadays feel. So we improved with CG. Sometimes we replaced it completely and sometimes we kept it practical.
Was there ever talk of making it modern or anything like that?
No. Because when I came aboard it was already defined as being the Norwegian story, but I think if they’re going to do a sequel it’s going to be a real problem. Let’s say she survives and you could take it to modern day, everybody’s reachable.
I know you there were some reshoots at the end. Why did you guys decide not to go with the pods?
It’s a long story. In the original script they would arrive at the space ship and they would go inside, so they would explore the whole space ship and then they saw the pods and then they figured this is a museum/biolab vessel. While prepping that it became really clear there was too much emphasis on the space ship. We left that idea when basically she has to try to kill the monster, we didn’t have time to explain that pod story because there’s no dialogue and she’s alone, so we abandoned that idea. I still liked it because initially the idea of having a Norwegian base in space was very appealing, like a whole space ship with species being wiped out and all these clues.
Did you think about the aliens’ motivation? I don’t know if we ever in the Carpenter version, you know, know why the aliens came here. If it was just to take us over. Did you come up with a conclusion of that for itself?
Well, as a virus it just wants to infect more people. Infect more specimen, and this virus can take over any organism. So that makes it sort of logical in a way, and in my mind the creature they find is not the thing, it was a host. It was probably a peaceful creature and taken over. It crashed on Earth and basically saw only ice around and thought well, I’ve got to freeze myself in waiting to be found.
So it made a choice to freeze itself?
In my opinion.
Do you in your own mind have an idea of what the thing really looks like?
It has no form, basically.Just an organism, very small, tiny.
Like an amoeba?
Like a virus. I think it kills the beauty of it if it has like an original form. It sort of thrives by the fact it can take every other form. It doesn’t have an original form itself.
When you were designing effects or looking at effects, was there a sort of a game plan? Because when you see that monster, you’ve lobster kind of legs, is there a thought process in combining all of that?
Well you had the creature and the eyes, which in my mind was a host, not the original form, so that was sort of a separate thing. The other thing that I liked was whenever the monster explodes, you see parts of the human as a sort of a passenger. Just like in the spider head there’s still sort of human activity. It can’t do anything anymore, because it’s just a passenger and being – but it’s sort of passive awareness of the horror it’s riding on, I liked that idea. Which was our theme of creating the creatures.
What would you say was the most important thing you learned in doing this?
You need a lot of stamina. It’s with everything you make, even if you just write a story, you have to know up front what you want. If you don’t, or if you think it will solve itself, it won’t solve itself. You have to have a clear cut idea about what things should be.
Obviously you worked with some of the producers of the original. Did you talk to John Carpenter at all about this?
No, I haven’t.
Are you going to show it to him?
I would love to, yes. I’d love to. I’m a little scared, to be honest, but you know.
In a film like this you’ve got eight to ten to twelve people in a room at one time. I think one of the great things about the original is that Carpenter figured out how to shoot that dynamically. What were your tricks to shooting a room full of people?
What I learned from doing commercials is to improvise a lot. If you do a two-day shoot of a commercial and there’s a lot of pressure on it, and you do a scene and it doesn’t work – it’s a little bit like cooking. You’re cooking and then you’re tasting and you’re like hmm, it doesn’t taste well. I gave myself the freedom just to rehearse and to do stuff on set, and if something didn’t work we settled down. It made the studio quite nervous, but I cannot see something working unless I really see it. I felt like a theater director.
Can you talk a little bit about casting Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the role?
When we decided it has to be a female lead, she had to be around 25-30, open, smart, maybe slightly naïve and a little shy. I thought that was interesting if you export a female to a Norwegian base with all big men with beards. So these were sort of the things I laid out for what she should be and then I saw a lot of people and she was so natural, holding back. There was no other alternative than her.
And what about Joel?
The whole Joel character was of course a little tribute to MacReady, and I did some research about, in Antarctica, 40% are scientists, 60% are basically just working people. You have 30 research stations in Antarctica and nothing grows there, everything is imported, so you have a lot of traffic. The idea of a helicopter pilot just flying stuff from A to B, sort of an ex-Vietnam vet, casting a lot of Americans and then this sort of rough Australian walked in and it was an easy choice.
So what’s next for you?
I don’t know yet. I like horror movies, I like genre movies. I like uncomfortable humor. And comedy and horror is a great combination. A movie like American Werewolf in London, for example, basically. So something like that where in moments you’re very frightened and then you have to laugh as well. I think maybe something like that.
Would you do another prequel kind of thing or would you like to do an original?
Yeah, I’d like to do an original.
Did you see this as sort of your way to break into America then?
Unconsciously, yes. It was not planned but because it came along, and I thought it was a great idea to make this Norwegian story, but it would be nice to do something that completely stands on its own. Because now it’s always going to be compared.
I think you know, you said, comedy, horror and comedy, there may be attraction, it’s binary- either you laugh or you don’t. You’re scared or you aren’t. Did you see it as very similar once you were directing?
Yes, because the things that are similar between comedy and horror is it works by surprise. If you see a joke coming, it’s not funny. It’s coming out of nowhere and that’s why you have to laugh. So it’s sort of the same principle, in a way. I mean, you have threat in horror, which is not like a surprise but it’s sort of building up. But playing with feelings of the audience is the same as in comedy.
Did you work out a story for Joel Edgerton character while has was away from the movie? Was there ever a thought of showing something?
Actually the whole scene in the helicopter was a crazy fighting scene. And that you would see that they would survive. But then I thought “maybe it’s actually more interesting not to see that and don’t know if they made it out alive or if they were transformed and made it out alive?” Keep the ambiguity. They are not the thing at that point so they made it out alive. Maybe it was because of budget reasons. I don’t know.
Were you also sort of tied down in a sense by the ending?
But I think that’s to the benefit of a horror film. The idea that you go in thinking nobody’s going to survive.
Well a lot of people ask me questions, like “how do you make it interesting if everybody dies?” and I think “isn’t that great?” I had endless discussions with the studio about what happens to Mary at the end, and in my opinion she would just freeze to death. And I think she does. She can’t go back to the Norwegian station, she doesn’t know where the Russian station is, so in my ultimate version, she just freezes. But that’s probably not going to happen.
The Thing can’t replicate inorganic materials, right?
Is it taking people’s clothes off before it replicates them, and puts them back on-
That’s a very good question.
How does that work?
I hoped you wouldn’t ask this question. Also, in John Carpenter’s movie, they go around it very wisely. You could say if I transform I do it through your eye, and I keep your clothes intact and break you down and build you up again. So you could sort of do it that way. It could be more violent and your clothes are ripped and then you have to change clothes.
See, because I always thought because of the cellular level reaction that you had to the thing, if the thing touches you you’re f*cked, which is why I thought perhaps Mary Elizabeth Winstead is not safe at the end.
Maybe. We haven’t seen real proof that just touching would, or a sort of magnetic connection.
Hard to say.
But it’s fascinating to think about it.
The Thing opens October 14. Keep watching the skies.