So The Thing (user reviews) opened over the weekend to somewhat disappointing box office and mixed-to-negative reviews. I’ve seen the film twice now, once a couple of months ago and again two weeks back and I had issues with it on each viewing. My deep love of John Carpenter’s 1982 film was my baggage and cross to bear during my first viewing. There were certainly things I liked in this new prequel but I honestly didn’t know what my true feelings about it were. The second time I saw the film I feel like I was in a better position to divorce myself from that baggage and assess The Thing 2011 on its own merits. I tried to force myself to see how it worked just as a standalone movie – and I still had some issues. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton give good performances and there’s some cool ideas in the movie (I like it more than some of my peers) but the CG, pacing and editorial aspects never fully come together.
Of course it was never going to be as good as the 1982 John Carpenter film. No way. Not only is it so aesthetically similar to that film that it invites unfavorable comparisons, but the studio climate today doesn’t really allow slow burn movies like that to happen anymore. Remakes, sequels and prequels are considered to be “safe” investments (though after Fright Night and this… perhaps less so) and the “film by committee” syndrome is often more evident in movies like these than other studio films where new ideas can fly under the radar because they’re not yet considered valuable properties.
That’s not to say every finger should be pointed at Universal. Filmmakers are filmmakers no matter what circumstance they’re working under and sometimes part of the job is to successfully advocate for your film in that environment. If you want to own what works, you have to own what doesn’t work. And that’s ultimately how I feel about the film. Some some of it works and some of it doesn’t.
A few weeks ago I sat down with Eric Heisserer, the film’s screenwriter, for a frank chat about what does and doesn’t work in The Thing 2011. It was quite clear that he’s just as big of a fan as Carpenter’s film as anyone else and was concerned with doing it justice. He was also extremely generous with his time and we wound up talking for 90 minutes so I can only give a few highlights. Beware – this entire interview should be considered a SPOILER.
“I can tell you that we had originally planned for a slow boil of a movie. We had a lot more character work.”
Hit the jump to check it out.
There’s a lot of CGI in the film. While it was in development we kept hearing that the effects would be practical [Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking practical effects are a hallmark of the 1982 The Thing]. When did this come into play? “I got this job going in with the firm, fervid belief that no CGI should ever be in this movie. That it should be all practical. We are creating a very grounded psychological thriller and part of that paranoia with the monster movie is to have the monsters as real and as grounded as everything else we’re making around them. That’s not to say that I am slighting the CG department, because those guys are workhorses… [But] the last thing you want to do is take the audience out of the film. You want to have them married to the story. And I felt that, what little I saw being onset and in the dailies, the practical stuff looked great. But that’s an argument that I was out of and it’s an argument that I trust [director] Mattjis [van Heijningen Jr.] stuck with for as long as he could and for his reasons. While I’m not quite as qualified to talk about the specifics, I know that as a storyteller, we were all onboard with this being a practical movie.”
Was this always going to be a prequel? “I was given a handful of mandates going in. Make it a prequel, because I think [the studio] always wanted a remake but Eric Newman at Strike realized that it was hallowed ground and we couldn’t do it that way. But that we could do something that was adjacent. The other mandate was to have the lead be a female. I was nervous about that but then I did my research and found that it was feasible. And Mary pulls it off and that wasn’t a problem with Alien and we’re not treating her as a stereotypical female commodity like a lot of these movies do“.
On the amount of control the filmmakers had over the project. “The thing that we all have to remember is that it is first and foremost a studio property. There is a trend, and it’s been a trend for a while, where young filmmakers get an opportunity to work on major studio films. The drawback is that they don’t have nearly the authority of someone like Ridley Scott. And their vision going into the project may end up being very different from what the final cut is.”
Principal photography wrapped a while back. What’s the gestation process on this been like? “Test screenings really changed the shape of this film from what I wrote to what the audience will ultimately see, for better or worse… I can say that going through this experience that no studio would make a film like ‘Alien’ or even Carpenter and Lancaster’s version of ‘The Thing’ today. There is a sense of impatience from the audience to just get to whatever it is they paid their ticket for. And that can hurt filmmakers but it can also help box office. It’s a strange argument to have.”
So what was added in reshoots? “As I understand it, they were replacing scene work outside of Antarctica. Like at Columbia where we meet Kate and to a lesser extent where we meet the other American members. The other re-shoots as I know them were more of a fight between practical effects and CG. When I was on set and when Mattjis shot a lot of this, and he’s a great director by the way, it was all practical. We had Mary using a flamethrower on an animatronic and it looked great. It’s hard to say what it looked like once they got into editing, I wasn’t a part of that process, but I do know that there were two definite sides of the argument. There were people saying we had to replace with CG and there were people saying we could make the practical [effects] better in places where they fell short.”
On what he misses most from early drafts and what Scott Frank (Out Of Sight, The Interpreter) contributed to the film. “In terms of it being a slow boil, another victim of the test screening process was the character introductions. I think again it’s a case of either for better or for worse. Either audiences are going to really get into the movie, or they’ll feel that something is missing. Coming from the standpoint where I know everything that is missing, it’s hard for me not to go, `wait a minute!’ Scott Frank and I both talked about ‘Jaws’ as a benchmark when it comes to character introductions. Scott did a quick pass on the script at one point and wrote some fantastic material for when you first meet Carter, Griggs, Jameson, and of course, Kate. The Norwegian pilot doesn’t arrive to pick them up at McMurdo, so Kate and Sander ask Carter for a ride. That’s Carter’s original introduction — when he faces off against Kate’s boss. So when we lose [those] moment[s], we lose good character building stuff that glues the scenes together. Right now we get to the monster as fast as possible and, since the test screenings proved that’s what those audiences wanted. I can’t say yay or nay to it. But it does feel like there are pieces of it missing.”
Right now the alien is out of the ice in 20 minutes or something. “Right. And we had it pegged closer to 30.”
The first time we see The Creature in action, it quickly bursts out of a block of ice which seems uncharacteristic from the 1982 film. “We did a lot of research and a lot of work. We studied Carpenter’s film over and over again. For example, the block of ice that Macready and Copper find in the Norwegian camp is this big rectangle that’s a few feet tall that’s been hollowed out in the middle. I took that footage to an anthropologist, a guy who pulls mammoths out of the ice, and had him inspect it. And the first thing he noted was that nobody would take a body out of the ice like that. You don’t carve inside and give yourself all the work of having to reach in somehow and lift it out. You go in from the side, because then you can just slide it out. So there are some inaccuracies that bump a moviegoer seeing Carpenter’s film, but coming at it from a scientific angle where all the members of our crew are anthropologists or geologists, we had to at least give them that amount of intelligence. Which is why, ultimately, dealing with an artifact of Carpenter’s film, we had to keep our scientists smart while still being in canon with Carpenter. That’s why it bursts out, it gives us the continuity we need while keeping our scientists smart. There are scenes of Kate explaining this that are no longer in the film.”
Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a strong performance without being relegated to love interest or even sexualized in any way. “Thankfully we’re at a time in 2011 where we can have a woman in the film who is not a sex object or romantic interest.”
In Carpenter’s film there’s a sense of identity for everyone at the base. Here the American characters are easily identifiable, but the Norwegians kind of blend into the background. “The work we put into the Norwegians also got marginalized for the sake of running time. They just wanted to make the movie leaner and meaner. One of the things that wound up on the cutting room floor is a real sense of individualism among the Norwegians… In doing so, I think we lost some really fun continuity moments between this film and the Carpenter/Lancaster one. For instance, one of the Norwegians, Lars had a number of moments where he was just a klutz. He was a butterfingers. He dropped things. And it gave you the sense that this guy is going to be “Thinged” right away. He’s a red shirt, he’s not gonna last. And the surprise is that he makes it all the way to the end. He’s one of the two guys who makes it all the way to the helicopter. And when you watch Carpenter’s version you realize he’s the one who drops the grenade and blows himself up, because he’s the klutz. I don’t think much of that managed to make it to the end…”
So does Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character die at the end? In the film it’s a little unclear, was that ever spelled out in a draft? “I was very clear with Kate’s fate in the draft. I understand that what I gave them doesn’t help in terms of growing a franchise. But there’s no way that she could survive. I had it written so that they chase after Sander [on the way to the ship at the end of the film]. They’re in a snowcat but he isn’t. But then you start to see his tracks they they’re following to the ship get longer and longer and more alien. And you realize that he transformed into something that can go very fast on the ice. That’s what the smart creature would do. So they get there and Carter checks the one flame unit they have and finds that it’s almost completely out of fuel. So they decide to take all of the fuel from the Snowcat and put it into the flame unit. Because it’s better to kill this thing [than to be able to get away]. So at the end where she makes a decision that she thinks Carter is The Thing [and she needs to kill him], we realize that she is burning her fuel. She’s burning her way home. And the last scene is her looking at the burning snowcat, with no other way of getting anywhere. And just the emotions of the past two days, she starts to cry and then just heads into the wind and starts walking. She is screwed. So that doesn’t happen [in the final film], but then again, that may be what audiences want“.
Carter is `The Thing’ when she burns him at the end, though it can be hard to pinpoint when/where he changed. “Carter turns [into The Thing] in the spaceship. I think they may have vacuumed out a lot of the air from those moments. Moments where they were separate long enough for that to happen. And as Kate is killing The Thing, Carter realizes it’s too late to save the other version of himself from being blown up, so the best he can do is try to survive himself and get back and occupy her.”