A Visit to the Set of ‘The Thing’ Prequel: Part 2

The prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing – regularly regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made – will have a rough time living up to the technical brilliance of the first movie, but from what we were able to gather from our recent visit to the Toronto set, director Matthijs van Heijningen and the rest of his cast and crew are trying their damnedest to at the very least craft a worthy addition to the franchise. In part 2 of our visit to the set, we spoke with lead actor Joel Edgerton (addressing those inevitable Kurt Russell comparisons), hardworking production designer Sean Haworth (24 hours of no sleep – welcome to Hollywood!), and practical effects master Alec Gillis, who gave us a taste of the sort of gruesomeness we can expect to see in the finished film. Read inside for all the goodies!
There is a really great serious tone to Carpenter’s film where it’s really treated like a drama and I think a lot of great horror movies are like that. It would have been a shame to do a prequel or a sequel to this and add a tongue and cheek element to it. I wouldn’t have been interested in being involved in that case.” – Actor Joel Edgerton

The Thing

Read Part One

Last we left off we’d just finished speaking with executive producer J. Miles Dale, who gave us an idea of John Carpenter’s feelings about the prequel (the answer: somewhere in between), and now we were headed over to talk with the handsome and thoughtful Joel Edgerton, an Aussie actor who was most recently seen in this year’s critically-acclaimed indie Animal Kingdom. In this he plays the role of Sam Carter, who runs a helicopter service that transports people and supplies in and out of the Antarctic Norwegian base that was the site of the original massacre in the first film – and the fate of which is depicted in the prequel. This led all of us to wonder whether he was in fact playing the same pilot seen in the Norwegian helicopter in the first act of the `82 film.

No, no. There is one character and one canine that appear in the Carpenter film that you’ll see in this film, but everybody else is a new character“, Edgerton replied in a slight, charming lisp. “[A] trio of characters – myself, Jameson, and a character named Dregs – in any other given scenario we might be delivering food supplies out to the American base that you see in the Carpenter film.

With his scruffy facial hair and similar build, Edgerton gave off a Kurt Russell-esque vibe – bolstered by his description of his character as “sarcastic“, “cynical“, and “observant” – that couldn’t help but also make us speculate whether he would perhaps be filling the same sort of “reluctant hero” role as Mr. Goldie Hawn did in the first movie.

Yeah it’s sort of like that“, he told us. “You get a feeling that they are both cut from the same cloth. That the character I play is a similar character. In the films I guess it is a similar part because he becomes a bit of a hero. Yeah cut from the same cloth is probably the best way to say it but totally different guys in totally different stories.

Two totally different stories, but also very closely connected in that the events in the prequel happen almost directly prior to the start of the first film. In fact, Edgerton has had the opportunity to re-watch portions of the Carpenter film – which he first saw on video as a kid – while on set, in those times when the creative team pops it in their DVD player to be sure the “crossover” details are being matched up correctly. But for Edgerton the connection between the two films goes beyond just continuity in set design.

For me, watching the old film is more about the tone and the atmosphere of it“, he told us. “There is a really great serious tone to Carpenter’s film where it’s really treated like a drama and I think a lot of great horror movies are like that. It would have been a shame to do a prequel or a sequel to this and add a tongue and cheek element to it. I wouldn’t have been interested in being involved in that case. I think Matthijs and Marc and Eric, the producers, the general approach that they’ve had with making this film has been pretty much playing that line, atmospherically, tonally, in the design that it really does feel like it can sit side by side with the Carpenter film.

Obviously a feeling of paranoia – of not just human vs. monster but human vs. human – also played a huge role in Carpenter’s movie, in that the Thing wielded the ability to assimilate and take on the form of anyone at base camp – human or animal. Seeing as the prequel is set at the Norwegian facility (the majority of the cast is made up of actors who hail from that country) in this film there’s also an added language barrier to ramp up the tension. That extra element is one of the many ways in which director Matthijs van Heijningen has attempted to make the film feel like its own creation, as opposed to a repetitive retread of the first movie.

The interesting trick for Matthijs has been that he has worked tirelessly to make the film work“, said Edgerton. “We had a conversation once that often if you get two different sets of humans together they will handle the same situations with similar solutions. After some time they may stumble on the same solutions so the trick is to not make those solutions so similar that there is no point to us even making this film…we wanted it to stand on its own two feet. At the same time…you do have those similar beats.

Focusing on making the prequel satisfying for fans of the first film while also keeping it just different enough to avoid a feeling of redundancy is a difficult balance, but one that van Heijningen – according to Edgerton – has worked hard to strike.

I think you need to have someone who [is] a fan of the old movie“, said the actor. “And I know [van Heijningen] really loves the original `Thing’, and he really loves the original `Alien’. So his kind of enthusiasm for the project means a lot. I think it’s really gonna find its way on screen…he’s putting all this time and energy into crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. By that I mean, you’re dealing with a world of rules. Whenever you deal with science fiction you are setting up a world of rules. I think you work hard to establish the rules. And you also have to work even harder to maintain those rules, and within that find excitement and unpredictability.

Part of that unpredictability will come from the new and inventive ways in which the Thing will mutate in this film as opposed to the first; and while the studio has put the clamp-down on outright descriptions of the creature, Edgerton did voice his appreciation for many of the effects being practical creations he could react to on set (while also, it should be noted, mentioning that he doesn’t believe the prequel will feature as many “buckets of blood” as the Carpenter film).

What’s pretty cool on this is that the actual machines and the mechanical real practical effects are there for us to look at“, he said. “There’s a percentage of CG, but quite a heavy percentage is practical effects, so we do get to perform with real things in the room rather than tennis balls. And you’ve seen the sets – the sets are really epic. It’s not just wandering around on a completely green set. So I’m really thankful for that…the sets and the detail that goes into that and the creatures are fucking awesome.

It remains to be seen the types of human-to-Thing transformations we’ll be treated to in the prequel – though van Heijningen and his team will be hard-pressed to top the “spider head” gag from the Carpenter film – but hopefully they’ll be just different enough so as to come off fresh. One new and potentially exciting feature fans can expect from the prequel is a look inside the crashed alien spacecraft only briefly glimpsed in the ’82 movie. Luckily for us, an enormous interior set – created by production designer Sean Haworth and a team of about twelve others – had been constructed (mostly out of a combination of foam, plaster, fiberglass, and plywood) like the living embodiment of every sci-fi fanboy’s wet dream on the soundstage nearby.

Called the “pod room” – the portion of the spacecraft in which the alien creatures manning it had collected specimens of different alien species from around the universe in a sort of futuristic zoological expedition – the set was several stories high and gloriously detailed, with a metallic/organic dichotomy that reminded me instantly of the ship discovered by the exploratory team on LV-426 near the beginning of Alien. This resemblance actually did come up during our conversation with Haworth – miraculously still standing after being up for a full 24 hours in a rush to complete the gigantic set – who admitted that the influence of Scott’s film may have inadvertently creeped into his own design.

You know, I think we’re all big fans of the original `Alien’ and [H.R.] Giger“, he answered. “But…you kinda want to do your own thing. So there may be certain things where you’re like, the tonality of [another movie] is really interesting, so you borrow that from another movie. But you try to make it your own. You always get influenced to some degree by the work of others.

It was also imperative that the production designer and his team use the exterior of the ship seen in Carpenter’s movie – along with, according to Haworth, close-up photographs of bug antennas and dust mites, and imagining what they would look like writ large – as an influence. Although being that the ship was mostly seen covered with snow in the first film, he was also forced to use his imagination to fill in the gaps.

It wasn’t a big focus for them [on the first film]…so we tried to use it as kind of a baseline and kind of expand on it“, he said. “We’re trying to look at it from the perspective of, `ok, these things weren’t built by humans’, it was built by a completely alien race. It was built to fit them, maybe an environment that’s not fit for humans. So the proportions were the first thing that we looked at, you know, the size of the doorways, the size of the hallways. You’re kinda stumbling around because it’s not designed for humans.

It also helped that A.D.I. [Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc., the practical effects company that worked on the film] had already designed the look of the aliens who had been piloting the ship by the time Haworth came on board, giving him an idea of what sort of environment would be designed around their physical forms.

We were kind of seeing what A.D.I. had done, the kind of structure and physics of the [aliens]“, said Haworth. “It looks like the aliens could walk in any direction they wanted to, they could crawl on the walls and the ceilings, so we tried to avoid the walkways. We tried to make it look like, `well, the aliens could walk along the ceiling or the sides of walls’, so we kind of did a structure that looked like, `ok, well, maybe something could crawl sideways on this thing.’ There’s no real up or down.

Following our conversation with Haworth we were led to the “interior base sets” of the Norwegian cam, where second unit was preparing to shoot a scene in which one of the characters – we weren’t let in on which one – is roasted alive with a flamethrower by one of his compatriots when he begins transforming.
While obviously not as grandiose as the interior of the alien spacecraft we’d just witnessed, the base camp sets – basically a series of adjoining rooms constructed on a soundstage – were nevertheless impressive in their level of detail. If nothing else, they certainly fit what you would expect a remote Antarctic base populated mostly by men to look like – `80s-era pinups tacked to the walls, beer bottles perched on countertops, playing cards scattered about, toolboxes lining the hallways – all topped off with lovingly-rendered (if not kitschy) period detail (loved those hideous orange curtains adorning the windows).

The crew appeared nervous as we entered the crowded set in a single-file line and arranged ourselves around the monitors, with one woman even throwing off a dirty look in our direction, as if we’d arrived there specifically with the intention of getting in her way (there’s at least one of those on every visit, believe me). In the next room, the unlucky stunt man tasked with doubling for the actor whose character gets broiled was preparing to shoot the dangerous bit (with a legally-required fire marshal standing by in case anything went awry). He’d apparently just been coated with some kind of fire-retardant gel, which to me would come as small comfort were I about to get blasted with a potentially deadly surge of fire for several excruciating seconds (but then I’m also not insane).

From what I was able to gather via the playback monitors, the scene involved Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character (she’d shot her part earlier) in full Ripley mode, toasting one of her colleagues with the flamethrower before he has the opportunity to unleash his inner Thing. The tension loomed thickly as second unit director Clay Staub prepared to shoot (though to be fair, I’m sure us journalists buzzing about didn’t exactly help tame the anxiety level), and, as everyone settled down to watch, the flamethrower was unleashed on the poor stunt guy, who was forced to remain still for several seconds as his body was – whoosh! – engulfed in a skein of fire. Then, just as quickly, the flames were extinguished to a round of applause from the crew – not to mention a far-away sigh of relief from the studio’s legal team.

Up next – and surely the part of the tour we’d most been anticipating – came a visit to a nearby studio where A.D.I., the practical effects house handed the unenviable task of following up Rob Bottin’s lauded work on the first film, had set up temporary shop.

The space was a treasure-trove of goodies for any fan of real-live, brick-and-mortar special effects, as it featured a plethora of models showcasing the various stages of human-to-Thing transformations. The grotesque fusions of man and beast on display – twisted, veiny limbs, torn and damaged flesh, human features warped in all manner of unnatural contortions – made up what I can only describe as a museum of otherworldly agony, and frankly I could’ve spent hours admiring the collection. The centerpiece of the room, perhaps, was an animatronic model – a tangle of cables shooting from its ass – depicting a human-to-Thing metamorphosis that during filming required eleven puppeteers to manipulate. Even the thrillingly realistic facial muscles, as effects guru Alec Gillis would demonstrate for us, could be remotely controlled by an experienced on-set technician.

We’ve opted to use cables as opposed to going into more complex hydraulics because there is an organic feel to a performer pushing and pulling, and that kind of immediate feedback is satisfying“, Gillis told us as he demonstrated the model for us. “These puppets aren’t so huge that they require massive power like the stuff we did on `Starship Troopers’ or something, so that’s why we’re going with cables.

A.D.I.’s work with cables is very similar to some of the feats performed by Rob Bottin on the first movie, which brings up the question of just how Gillis is dealing with the pressure of living up that film’s groundbreaking, and still masterfully persuasive, effects work.

It’s intimidating as hell“, said Gillis. “In 1982 I…watched that in college. Bottin is just a couple of years older than me. So I’m sitting there at like 20. He was 22, I think, when he helmed that. And I’m sitting there thinking, `woah!’ Cause I was just getting into the business. What do I do? What do you have to do to be in this business? Because it was so…it was so…the term `groundbreaking’ is always used. But it was so imaginative, you know, beyond even what the technical aspects of it were, the materials used. The concepts were so very imaginative.

Luckily, Gillis and his team had quite a bit more to work with in 2010 than Bottin had when he created the effects for the first film, including more sophisticated animatronics technology that Gillis described as a “mini-revolution“. And, of course…

It’s got the digital to embellish it. I don’t think you can really tell this story without digital because as great as animatronics can be, and as big a believer in them as I am, I think that you still need to open things up a bit with the digital, especially when it comes to transformations. And so once you have the best of both worlds, you’re free to let the audience enjoy the [conceptual design].

Not that Gillis, as a practical effects guy, doesn’t have his own reservations about CG. It’s just that he’s living in a time in which it’s difficult not to cave to the pressure – not to mention the allure – of using digital technology to “enhance” (however you want to view that word) the in-camera effects. Of course, it helps alleviate the guilt a bit when you’re working with a digital studio that has in past films demonstrated they understand how to create some bitchin’ – and nearly seamless – CG effects.

I have my opinions about how it should be used and how it should not be used, but we have the guys that did `District 9′ [Image Engine]“, said Gillis. “So even I, as a snobby animatronics and makeup guy, I look at that work and I go, `that is frickin’ amazing work’. So I think we’re in very good hands on the digital end as well.

As if the pressure to try and live up to Bottin’s work from the original wasn’t a difficult enough burden to bear, Gillis and his team had the added challenge of coming up with the look of the alien in the ice block unearthed by the Norwegians.
The main problem being: how do you create something that audiences haven’t seen before, following decades and decades of sci-fi films featuring all manner of slimy alien creatures?

Let me tell ya, I’ve been doing this since 1980 and [creating something original] was a lot easier then than it is now“, said Gillis. “Because now so much has been done – gaming, and movies, and even our own films, you know? I mean, one of the things that we’re really trying to avoid is, does it look like [H.R.] Giger’s Alien, or does it look like a Predator, or does it…and there are a lot of beats that you find…your brain, your neural paths have been worn down and you start to go that way, and then you [go], `no, no.’

Initially the idea had been merely to show the silhouette of the creature inside the ice block – which Gillis and his collaborators had designed as an assortment of “jaggedy, vicious shapes” – until the effects team was thrown a curveball later on in the development process that necessitated a much more complex design.

Matthijs was liking [our initial silhouette designs], and then he or the writer came up with the idea of `Hey, why don’t we take that creature and make it something? It looks so cool, let’s have it out of the ice block, and what would he like then?’“, said Gillis with a leftover note of exasperation. “And we’re like, `oh shit, how do we build this thing?’ So we kinda designed backwards from that silhouette, and [the finished design] is in fact a creature suit that Tom Woodruff [co-founder of A.D.I. along with Gillis] wears.

Unfortunately, given the nature of the studio embargo on this thing I am not at liberty to describe what the alien creature from the ice block looks like, nor am I able to divulge any other specifics of any of the other iterations of the Thing, but let me assure you that the practicals being created for this film are top-notch, extraordinary works of art that – if the powers-that-be don’t overwhelm them with CG during post-production – will likely please any fan of the ’82 film. Fans will also be happy to know that – at least in the eyes of Gillis – it is improbable the prequel will emerge as a watered-down PG-13 creation.

I don’t think so“, he laughed. “I hope not.

Read Part One

The Thing