A Visit to the Set of ‘The Thing’ Prequel: Part 1

Back in May, Bloody-Disgusting reporter Chris Eggertsen visited the Toronto set of Universal’s The Thing prequel and was given the opportunity to interview some of the key players involved with the film, as well as getting a look at several key sets and some of the practical effects models that will be featured in the finished product. See inside for Part 1 of his set visit coverage, including interviews with producer Marc Abraham and star Mary Elizabeth Winstead! Topics covered include the amount of practical vs. CGI effects utilized in the movie, the challenges of getting the studio onboard for a prequel as opposed to a remake, and John Carpenter’s feelings on the project, which is being shot without his involvement. No matter what you do, somebody is going to come after you. You say ‘The Thing Begins’ and they go, ‘John Carpenter’s is the beginning, asshole. Yours is like ‘The Thing Bullshit’. Why don’t you call it that?” – Producer Marc Abraham on possible fanboy reactions to a new title

The Thing

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Considering its now iconic status as one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made, it’s interesting to note that John Carpenter’s The Thing was not a box-office success upon its initial 1982 release; only after years of being discovered and re-discovered by fans and critics has it achieved its lofty – and rightful – place in cinema history. Really, it’s a movie that would be nearly impossible to best – or even live up to – in a remake, making Universal’s decision to instead film a prequel a refreshing change of pace from the current uninspired Hollywood trend of “reimagining” old classics and – in most cases – gutting them of everything that made them so special in the first place. Of course, the studio’s choice also begs the question – what’s the title going to be?

“‘The Thing: The Early Years. This Time It’s Personal.’”, laughed executive producer J. Miles Dale. “I think we’re all locked into that.”

Ok, so let me back up a little. Here we were, on the enormous Toronto soundstage where much of the film was being shot. We’d earlier been led in by unit publicist Lisa Shamata and promptly seated in several chairs – each bearing spiral notepads provided by the production and our very own ‘Thing’ thermoses (!) – set in front of the video monitors. The scene being filmed by director Matthias van Heijningen Jr. (who we were unfortunately not given the opportunity to interview during our visit) involved one of the actors proceeding down a long, dark haunted-house hallway inside the crashed alien spacecraft – only briefly glimpsed in the first movie – complete with curved, skeletal, almost diamond-shaped walls. In reality, of course, the “spacecraft” was merely an impressively-designed interior set constructed on a raised platform inside the soundstage.

Ok, so I admit it wasn’t a very exciting scene (though they’d thankfully make up for that later), but it still gave us a better idea of the visual look of the film, with combination metallic/organic-looking sets seemingly inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien. After watching several takes of the shot and listening in over the headphones provided, we were shepherded outside to the large catering tent pitched just outside the soundstage to have a chat with producer Marc Abraham, whose credits include this year’s The Last Exorcism, cult 2006 alien-invasion film Slither, and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. With a baseball cap perched atop his head and a long, narrow face, Abraham – who I found very forthcoming and honest about the challenges he faced taking on the project – like Dale also addressed questions about the title.

“Titles are really hard”, he said frankly. “Do we call it The Thing, which is sort of what it is, sort of unequivocal? It’s not really The Thing, it’s a prequel to The Thing, but it’s part of The Thing. Do you start messing with that? The studio loves it. It’s one of the reasons they said yes, because it’s got name recognition, it’s a great title, [so] what do you do? Do you go with The Thing and underneath it you say ‘The Beginning’, ‘1.0′?

“The short story was called ‘Who Goes There?’”, he continued. “But I don’t know. You can’t call it ‘Who Goes There’?”

Someone in our group rightly suggested Who Goes There? sounded like a Tyler Perry movie. Another jokingly recommended they use an “ice pun” for the official title, like The Thing: Unthawed.

“No matter what you do, somebody is going to come after you. You say ‘The Thing Begins’ and they go, ‘John Carpenter’s is the beginning, asshole. Yours is like ‘The Thing Bullshit’. Why don’t you call it that?” he responded, lightly mocking the rabid fanbase of the first film. “They will, trust me. ‘The Thing: Fuck You’ [Laughs]. I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that…the other day I was thinking ‘The Thing: It’s Fucking Scary’. [Laughs]”

The first film is a highly obsessed-over piece of work for a legion of fanboys, many of whom have undoubtedly memorized every nook and cranny of Carpenter’s masterpiece. As the prequel deals with the events directly preceding the start of the first film, there will likely be many complaints if the specifics fail to match up. We asked Abraham about the challenges of adhering to these specifics, and he spoke to van Heijningen’s careful attention to detail in order not to alienate the devoted audience that has kept the ’82 film alive over the last nearly 30 years.

“Matthijs has on his laptop…screen captures of that entire movie”, he said. “He’s so careful about where the axe is in the door or what the ice block looked like, or the spaceship, where they stand when we see the spaceship…when it [comes] to being anything that was referenced in that movie, we have absolutely stayed with it. Thousands of hours he’s spent looking at that movie. He knows and is respectful of every aspect.”

Interestingly, these are challenges that would never have been a factor had Abraham and his associates gone the more traditional route and pitched a remake – something that certainly would have been an easier sell to the studio, which was initially resistant to the less road-tested idea of a prequel.

“They just didn’t understand why we were going for a prequel”, said Abraham. “We…felt we [didn't] want to remake John’s movie…it was a really good movie. We liked the movie. So what, we’re going to have somebody playing Kurt Russell? That’s a nightmare. But they didn’t get it.
‘Why don’t you just remake the movie?’ And we convinced them [and] finally they all went, ‘yeah, that’s right.’ We said we don’t even want to compete with MacReady. That’s one of the reasons we decided to switch it up with a woman. We wanted to not compete with MacReady right away, we wanted a woman to be in the spot. Just take it away from that.”

Speaking of the film’s gender switch, our next interview was with lead actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays Kate Lloyd, a scientist at the Norwegian camp.
A tall drink of water – if she isn’t six feet, she’s certainly close – Winstead has an apple-cheeked, girl-next-door face and a robust, healthy figure that is a welcome change of pace from the army of stick-thin starlets currently populating Hollywood casting calls. She’s also down to earth and friendly as hell, a vibe that instantly brought to mind another sci-fi/action/horror heroine – goddess Sigourney Weaver. Turns out van Heijningen was thinking same thing.

“I know that one of the things that Matthijs saw in me that he liked, was he thought that I embodied that somewhat”, said Winstead. “And ‘Alien’ and Ripley are big inspirations for him. They are two iconic things that are in his head all of the time. So I took that as just being flattering, that’s all I can really do. I’m hugely flattered that he sees me as being somewhat relatable to that character, and I just go forth.

“She’s definitely a strong, independent, intelligent character who ends up really taking care of herself in this situation, so I think she sort of fits in with that theme of strong heroines in the genre”, she continued. “But what’s nice about her is she’s sort of— she’s a real person. You know, she’s a scientist. She’s not a bad ass chick who comes in to, like, save the day. She sort of just has to become strong throughout this situation and become stronger than she ever thought she could be.”

The Thing

There seemed to be a lot of emphasis on voicing the desire to keep the film grounded – or at least as “grounded” as a sci-fi/horror film is capable of being – in all of our on-set interviews, and it’s understandable why. Part of what made the first film so rewarding, after all, was that Carpenter took time to focus on the relationships between the characters before letting loose with all the action. From everything we were told, van Heijningen is also focused on creating that feeling of intimacy.

“It’s actually very similar to the tone and the pace of the first”, said Winstead. “It sort of starts out— one of the actors was describing it the other day and I thought it was a really good way to say it – it starts out as a drama, sort of slowly turns into a thriller, and slowly turns into a horror film, and then turns into an action film…you know, it starts out as just these characters getting to know each other — sort of, you know, feeling each other out — then something starts going wrong and you start playing the whole “whodunit” sort of game of like, who’s the Thing and who’s not? Then, you know, people start dying, and things get really sort of bloody and scary and then, you know, you’ve got to sort of take care of business and get tough and sort of get into [the] action.”

And oh, yes, there will be action. Winstead specifically – in true ‘Ripley’ fashion (not to mention MacReady) – gets to wield one bad-ass flamethrower.

“It’s a little heavy sometimes, and a little rough to run around with”, she said. “But it’s fun, it actually instantly makes you carry yourself differently…you’ve got this power in your hands to set something on fire. Watching it back I’ve been really surprised to watch myself look that crazy. You instantly get this different look on your face when you’re burning something, like you’ve lost your mind. It’s kinda cool.”

The actress also gave an early indication of the type of effects that will be seen in the film – sure to be the greatest point of contention for fans of the original, which featured some of the most amazing practical effects work in movie history – and yes, there will be some CGI. How much is “some”? Here’s what Winstead had to say about shooting scenes opposite the creature:

“Sometimes we’re dealing with a huge animatronic puppeteer creature”, she said. “And sometimes it’s only half there and the rest will be CG’ed. It’s interesting to see all the different ways they’ve been working this out. It’s been really great to have something there to act to, it’s not just a green screen, it’s actually moving, and something actually set on fire. So it’s been fun.”

Oh, I can hear the groaning already. And I get it – I prefer practical over CGI any day of the week. Which is why, when it came to our next interview – executive producer J. Miles Dale (remember him?) – I made sure to ask him just where exactly the CGI would be used.

“Just a little bit of everything”, he said unapologetically. “We did our Norwegian camp in a gravel pit north of town here. So there’ll be a lot of matte paintings and set extensions there, you know, dropping that in the middle of the Arctic. There’s obviously a lot of creature stuff. There’s various other kind of environments. There’s some fire, all kinds of stuff really. A bunch of green-screen work, there’s some stuff on the spaceships, some set extensions there. So you know, all kinds of stuff…so really I would say creature, spaceship set extensions, green screen, Arctic matte paintings, that’s 90 per cent of it.”

To be honest, I actually appreciated his forthrightness – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a producer going on and on about how the CGI will be “minimal” and then it turns out to be the majority of the effects work featured in the film. Dale didn’t try and sugarcoat it, which I appreciated.

“We were just of the mind that we always wanted to do a lot of practical but we always wanted to do what was best for the movie”, he said. “So A.D.I. [practical effects studio Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.]…had some great ideas, and we saw them. And they’re doing all our creatures. And they’re brilliant, and there’s several different variations…and then there’s a bunch of CGI too.”

Now, before you get your panties all up in a bunch about the use of CGI in the film, keep in mind that had Carpenter and his team enjoyed access to the modern computer effects technology that’s available today, you can be 99% sure they would’ve taken advantage of it. It’s all a question of whether it’s used judiciously – that is, utilizing it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the practicals and take you out of the movie. Luckily, Image Engine – the studio behind the fantastic CG effects in last year’s District 9 – is holding the digital reins here, so hopefully they’ll be able to adhere closely to the type of work they pulled off so brilliantly in Neil Blomkamp’s movie.

Another possible – and completely understandable – point of contention for fans of the first film is likely to be the fact that van Heijningen has never before directed a feature. He came from the world of commercials, where he has directed ads for major brands like Toyota, Pepsi, and Bud Light. Not that no director has ever come from commercials and done phenomenally well in the feature-film world.

“There’s a lot of commercial directors who haven’t broken through but there are a bunch who have – you know, [David] Fincher and Zack Snyder and those guys have turned into kind of titans of our business”, said Dale. “And you know, Matthias – if you looked at his reel, and I don’t know if you have – but his commercials are amazing stories. And I’m kind of the opinion if you can tell a great story with distinctive characters in sixty or ninety seconds, that’s way harder than doing it in two hours, you know?”

Dale’s claim that telling a story in a commercial is harder than telling a story in a full-length feature is extremely dubious, though he is correct that in rare cases there has been successful crossover; of course, for every great director like David Fincher who’s come from the ad world there’s also a bloated gas bag like Michael Bay. You have to consider, too, that John Carpenter already had seven feature films under his belt when he took on the first movie.

Speaking of Carpenter, just how does he feel about the fact that a prequel to one of his greatest films is going forward without his involvement? Well, it’s hard to say.

“John [Carpenter] really hasn’t had much to do with this…I think probably by his choice, and by Matthias’ choice”, said Dale. “[Matthias] just wants to do his own thing and then when we’re done he’ll show John the movie…but I think David [Foster, a producer on the original and an executive producer on the prequel] told him a little bit about the movie and he seemed to like the idea a lot…but I think that we’ve got an idea that when we show him the movie he’ll like the movie. I mean, it’s a good film and as I said, it kinda is tonally true to [the first] film, you know? It’s not overly Hollywood…so we hope he likes it. Hopefully he’ll come to the premiere.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our set report in the coming days, where we talk to star Joel Edgerton, practical effects guru Alec Gillis – doing his best to live up to the work of Rob Bottin – and also get a look at the massive interior set of the alien spacecraft! Oh, and we get a sweet-ass look at some dude getting blasted with a flamethrower – for real! (ok, there might have been some fire retardant gel involved somewhere).

Read Part Two

The Thing