The Thing, a prelude to the 1982 classic from John Carpenter, follows a team at an isolated outpost in Antarctica, who discover an alien creature unearthed by a crew of international scientists. As paranoia spreads and they start to question which of them have been infected with something inhuman that has the ability to turn itself into an exact replica of any living being, paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), helicopter pilot Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton) and his friend Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the Norwegian scientific team find themselves fighting this terrifying parasite to keep it from killing them off one at a time.
A veteran commercial director from Holland, Matthijs Van Heijningen makes his feature film debut with The Thing. To promote the scary thriller, he spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about the appeal of telling a story that leads up to the beloved Carpenter film, being both scared and eager to take on his first American movie, the positive response they got from their first test screening, doing reshoots to clarify certain aspects of the story, and that he’s planning on a 20-minute making of feature, some deleted scenes and audio commentary for the DVD/Blu-ray. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Matthijs Van Heijningen: Yeah, because I was a real fan of the original, so remaking it was out of the question. It’s scary to make your first movie a tribute to John Carpenter’s cult classic. But, the fact that it was the Norwegian story, as a European, was really tempting. Also, it justified giving it a European flavor. So, a sequel and a remake was out of the question, but this was interesting, when we started.
Was your vision of the film something you had to fight for, or was the studio on board with what you wanted to do?
Van Heijningen: It took a little bit of convincing that the Norwegians really had to be Norwegian. They went along with it, and then when they saw the first cut, they said, “Geez, there’s a lot of Norwegian in there, and a lot of subtitles.” I think they were a little shocked, but they liked it because it enhanced the sense of paranoia. The Norwegians can talk in a language the Americans don’t understand, so it was a good extra asset to the story. Having unknown actors and having them talk Norwegian, it makes it special.
Were you nervous about taking this film on, as your first big American film, or were you just eager to do something of this size?
Van Heijningen: Both. I was scared as hell, but eager as well because I thought I could pull it off. But, it’s difficult to make something that stands in the shadow of the legacy of another movie. In some ways, that’s very restricted because you’ve got to live up to that feeling. John Carpenter’s movie is nearly 30 years old, and it’s been carried so preciously by all these fans, so it was quite daunting.
Van Heijningen: If you don’t read it, it’s easy. It works like that. I’ve done this with as clear a conscience and true heart towards Carpenter’s original, as possible. I didn’t deceive myself, so I’m fine.
The effects of paranoia and the distrust that people have for each other is really what’s ultimately at the core of the film. Was using those human elements the key to getting people to identify with the story, and then have the horror and gore grow out of that?
Van Heijningen: The Thing is the only example, as far as I know, where paranoia is such an essential part of the story. You have Alien, and all these other movies, but the danger is always outside the group. Now, you have a monster that’s inside the group, and hidden as this perfect replica. It was great to do stuff with that again.
Van Heijningen: From the start, we knew that if we went to the studio and said, “Well, this is about 12 Norwegians, and they just speak Norwegian,” it would never happen. But, the moment we figured out that these people were geologists, and they’re not biologists and paleontologists, it gave us a good opportunity to introduce Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and two Americans.
What do you think the addition of a female lead does for this film, and what made Mary Elizabeth Winstead your perfect actress for this?
Van Heijningen: The choice to come up with a female lead was because we struggled, in the beginning, when we were writing the script with a male lead. We felt really uncomfortable because Kurt Russell’s character, MacReady, is such a great character. We wanted to stay away from MacReady, but he had to have the same aspects as MacReady, and he would never fully come to life because his more famous big brother would always steal the show. So then, it was an easy choice to go 180 degrees away from him and come up with a female lead.
And, I like movies with strong women, like Alien, so we wanted to find somebody who had Sigourney Weaver-ish character traits of being pretty, but not caring about her looks because she’s a proper scientist. So, we auditioned a lot of women and, when Mary walked in, she nailed it. What I tried to do was make her a little bit insecure, in the beginning, and then she has to slowly step up, amongst all those men, to prove that she’s right. She isn’t looking to be a hero. She’s just the smartest girl on the block, and she tries to warn everybody. The dynamic between a young American female, and 40-year-old Norwegians with beards was an interesting contrast.
Van Heijningen: We wanted to have an American blue collar worker, but he was also a little bit too much like MacReady. So, we came up with this transport pilot, who has no interest in whatever happens in that camp. Casting a rough American male character, we auditioned a lot of people. There’s something about Australians, and I don’t know what it is, but they always look like they just built their own hut or something. It comes natural to them, so that was quite easy.
Did you intentionally decide not to include a romantic storyline in the film, at all?
Van Heijningen: There shouldn’t be any romance in The Thing. That would be just a very ingenuine thing, if that was incorporated. As a joke, Joel and I wrote a romantic ending and gave it to Mary, as if it was from the studio, and she completely freaked out!
Van Heijningen: It was greenlit in November and we were shooting in March, so we had four months to prep it. I was hoping we would have more time, actually. We had to replace some of them with CG. The idea was to do everything practical, and some looked good, but some just didn’t hold up. For a director, it’s great to have practical effects because you have some screaming weirdo in front of the actors, and they have a proper reaction, instead of pretending there’s something there that they don’t actually see.
Once you finished the film, what sort of feedback did you get from the studio and from test screenings? Did everybody react in the way that you had hoped?
Van Heijningen: The first test screening went really well. There were parts not finished, and some of the effects weren’t done. As a filmmaker, or as a storyteller, the first thing you want is for people to believe your story. If you get them hooked in, opened up and just going with the flow, although there were things not right, at that point, which we changed, I felt that people were taking that leap of faith to delve into the story.
Van Heijningen: In the reshoots, we did more exposition on the Norwegians. That was a little underexposed. In the principal shoot, I underestimated some things a little bit, as a fan of the original, and I didn’t explain them. I assumed that everybody would know John Carpenter’s movie and that you didn’t have to explain everything twice. The studio people also said, “I haven’t seen that movie in so long. You have to explain it a little bit better.” So, in the reshoots, we just explained some things more clearly, about the way the Thing operates.
Do you know what you’ll be including on the DVD/Blu-ray, as far as behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes and extras?
Van Heijningen: Yeah. I haven’t seen it, but there’s a 20-minute making of feature. There are some deleted scenes. There is a commentary of me and Eric Newman, the producer. We really developed the story together, so that’s really nice.
Van Heijningen: Not much, actually. It’s always tricky with deleted scenes because, if they’re really bad, you shouldn’t show them. There are a few. I think there are four or five.
Do you enjoy doing an audio commentary to give people insight into what goes into making a film like this?
Van Heijningen: Yeah. You do it live, in one go, and you realize how much work went into it. There were endless discussions with everybody, about the script and the actors. It’s fulfilling. It rounds off the whole process, very nicely.
In doing a film of this scale and scope, what were the biggest challenges of making it?
Van Heijningen: That it all make sense. It’s so big and it’s so many days of shooting, and the shooting is out of order, so to make it as one coherent thing is the most daunting thing, for a first-time filmmaker. And then, when you start filming, you see that it works.
Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next?
Van Heijningen: There’s nothing lined up. There’s Army of the Dead, which was the film that I was working on. I don’t know if that will be revived, but that might be an option. And, I’m just still looking around.
Do you want to stick with genre films, or are you looking to branch out to other films as well?
Van Heijningen: I like genre movies, but I’m always interested in crossing genres, like in An American Werewolf in London. It’s a beautiful love story, it’s about friendship, it’s very funny, and it’s dark horror, at the same time. Something like that would be great.
What was it that originally inspired you to be a storyteller? Was it just something you always wanted to do?
Van Heijningen: I think you’re born with that. I wasn’t the guy who told the funniest jokes in school, but I was always drawing and taking pictures and reading crazy stories. There was always this fascination with creating a new reality and entertaining people with it. I watched Star Wars when I was 11, and I remember buying it. How easy is that? If you just tell it properly, in the beginning, people are completely open to accepting the rules you’re laying out in front of them.