Mary Elizabeth Winstead is scared. She’s standing inside an Arctic bunker wearing a heavy winter coat and looking at something on the ground. The scene is being shot with two cameras. One is focused on Winstead, and the other is a wide shot which includes more of the surroundings. For at least eight seconds we see Winstead reacting to whatever is on the floor, and after awhile, she decides to turn on what’s in her hand and strapped to her back. I guess now would be a good time to mention she’s wielding a flamethrower!
But let me back up a second.
As I type these words I’m on a plane flying back to Los Angeles from Toronto. It’s June 8th, 2010 and I spent yesterday on the set of director Mattthijs Van Heijninger’s prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing. While I was neither for or against the prequel before I arrived on set, I can tell you with certainty the set visit sold me on not only the film, but the cast and the filmmakers. It was a great set visit which I’ll share in more detail after the jump:
Since many of you might not have seen John Carpenter’s The Thing, I strongly suggest renting/buying the movie. You can read a recap of the film here.
The most important thing to know about that movie is that it begins with a Norwegian helicopter landing at an American research base in the Antarctic. One of the passengers is not what it seems. The rest of the movie is the station dealing with a life form that has invaded their home as they try and survive.
While Carpenter’s movie starts with that helicopter, the prequel is about what made that helicopter land there in the first place. Even though some purists might have a hard time accepting Universal messing around with a classic film, everything the filmmakers and cast told me yesterday sounded like they had a handle on the material, and they all spoke with a reverential tone when mentioning Carpenter’s movie. None of them want to make a movie that fucks up The Thing’s legacy.
I guess the first thing that sold me that this could be a very cool movie was the team isn’t trying to make a hardcore action film that loses character development. They are not making a film with tons of fast cuts and good looking people screaming and yelling. Instead, the filmmakers have cast people that look the part so they can make a movie that will stand alongside Carpenter’s film. For the Norwegians characters, they cast some of the best actors from Norway. They all grew facial hair. They are all treating the film as a serious piece of art.
Also, rather than having everyone speak English, the Norwegians are going to have subtitles in at least a few scenes. The crew wants to make a film that takes place in the same reality as Carpenter’s: a place where the people on screen are real and the way they react to an alien entity is the same way you’d react if you were there in their situation.
Since the film has to have some English-speaking parts, the story calls for some experts from around the world to help with the investigation with something found in the ice. That’s why Winstead’s character is there. But the reason Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are there is because their characters move goods around the arctic. That’s how they make their living. When the alien ship is found in the ice, they’re involved to help move things with their equipment. It was probably a bad decision.
The Thing Prequel Synopsis
Before getting to the actual set visit, since Universal hasn’t yet released a trailer, I think you should read the actual synopsis for the prequel:
Antarctica: an extraordinary continent of awesome beauty. It is also home to an isolated outpost where a discovery full of scientific possibility becomes a mission of survival when an alien is unearthed by a crew of international scientists. The shape-shifting creature, accidentally unleashed at this marooned colony, has the ability to turn itself into a perfect replica of any living being. It can look just like you or me, but inside, it remains inhuman. In the thriller The Thing, paranoia spreads like an epidemic among a group of researchers as they’re infected, one by one, by a mystery from another planet.
Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has traveled to the desolate region for the expedition of her lifetime. Joining a Norwegian scientific team that has stumbled across an extraterrestrial ship buried in the ice, she discovers an organism that seems to have died in the crash eons ago. But it is about to wake up.
When a simple experiment frees the alien from its frozen prison, Kate must join the crew’s pilot, Carter (Joel Edgerton), to keep it from killing them off one at a time. And in this vast, intense land, a parasite that can mimic anything it touches will pit human against human as it tries to survive and flourish.
The Set Visit
Also, unlike some set visits that have up to 12 people, Universal had a small group of 6 including me, so it made for an intimate setting as we moved from set to set. It wasn’t like a herd of elephants trampling the forest.
When we arrived at Pinewood Toronto Studios, we were told they were filming in the “Megastage”. While I first sort of laughed at the name, they really weren’t kidding around as the production had built tons of individual parts of the Arctic station and each one felt real and lived in. Also, between each room was plenty of space for key members of the production to work and keep everything clear and organized.
The first thing I saw as we approached was that they were filming a massive helicopter without the blades on top. They told us the almost life-size chopper was brought in on a crane.
Next to the chopper was a dead body for practical special effects work. The body’s head appeared to be lifelike (it was freaky) and the bottom had about 20 wires coming out of it and they were attached to four controller decks so people could animated the body for the scene. I don’t know what happens in the film to this body, I just know it’s going to look awesome when they pretend to kill whoever this was.
Shortly after taking in the surroundings, we walked a short distance and all sat down in chairs labeled “The Thing.” We were in the crew area where the director, producers and key personal were working and we had two small monitors in front of us so we could watch what was being shot.
Unfortunately, the scene being filmed was a MAJOR spoiler, so I can’t tell you what we saw. However, I will say the scene had most of the main cast (Winstead, Edgerton, Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and it was towards the end of the movie after the shit has hit the fan. Also, the scene ends with Mary Elizabeth Winstead using a real flamethrower and the entire room ends up on fire. It was all kinds of awesome to watch being filmed.
As we sat there watching filming for an hour or two, we conducted interviews with the producers, director, and learned a lot more about the film. Since the production was going to use the Toronto soundstages for a lot of the production, when they shot on location, they went near the locations where they shot the original film for a few days of exteriors. It should make everything a lot more believable.
Also, something I thought was awesome was director Matthijs van Heijningen telling us he was shooting The Thing with anamorphic widescreen lenses and trying to shoot as much practically as possible. Of course CGI is going to be used (as it should be to amplify the scenes), but it is always great to hear the word “practical” on any movie set. Also, van Heijningen kept saying how much he loved Ridley Scott’s Alien and Carpenter’s Thing, and he wants to make a movie like that. It was like music to my ears.
Other interesting things I learned from the producers were:
- a lot of people who were fans of the original wanted to work on the prequel
- they aren’t sure of the release date yet
- they think the movie will be finished by Christmas
- not shooting in 3D
- they made sure to spend some of the money on the alien spaceship (which they go into in the movie!). Also, they want the ship to look alien and not at all man made
- they wanted to cast unknowns on purpose
- Also, they want to make The Thing scary but not gross people out
Shortly after doing a number of interviews, we grabbed lunch with the crew and then toured the sets as everyone was off the “Megastage”. The first thing that struck me as we got to see the sets was how lived in everything seemed.
The first room we entered was the crew rec room and it was like going back in time. The first thing I saw was an old TV with turn knobs to change channels and two very old VCR’s with VHS tapes around the decks. Also, everything you’d expect to see in a rec room was there and it was all from the era. From the stereo, to the pictures, to seeing a typewriter on a desk instead of a computer…it was like visiting 1982.
What I also loved about all the rooms and the early 80’s stuff was seeing the old magazines and even the coffeemaker. No matter where the camera is stationed and what you see on the screen, it’ll feel authentic.
The next room we saw was the kitchen and it was loaded with foods in other languages and it was stocked like a full pantry that had to feed a dozen men. Also, the cans were period specific and I wondered who had to create all the labels.
The lab was our next stop and it was in this room I finally found the future: a Hewlett Packard 85B computer. Yes, technology had reached the Arctic. We all stood around the HP computer for a little while and imagined what it must have been like when that was brand new.
Also, the lab was an interesting set because half of the room looked like a fire had ripped through it. We also saw what appeared to be an alien body burnt to a crisp on a table….
Other rooms we saw were the map room and the radio room. Both were like the previous sets as they felt period specific with technology from the era. What I liked about the radio room was the Sanka coffee on the table. Sanka was big in the 80’s.
The Generator Set and Aliens
While all the sets so far were in the Megastage, for the next location we had to walk across the parking lot.
After a very short walk, we entered a stage they were still building: the generator set. The set had about 10 people working on it as they were making the stage appear to be outdoors. The crew was using some sort of cotton from very long rolls to blanket the floor, as it made it look like snow was on the ground. When we first got inside half the room was done, and by the time we left the entire floor was covered.
Regarding the actual set, we learned the sets weren’t built to go inside. The location was purely to do outdoor filming indoors and the generator set was going to have a nice sized action sequence filmed on it next week.
Even though all the rooms thus far had been cool, the generator set had something that made it the best: an alien creature. When we first arrived, we saw a number of people working on an alien prosthetic suit that was situated below one of the two buildings.
The easiest way to describe the creature would be to say it looked a bit like an insect mixed with a sort of Predator head. The legs were long like lobster’s legs and the entire body must have been 6 feet. Also, along the legs were sharp spikes. Another way to describe the creature would be to say it looked a bit like the bugs in Starship Troopers. But to make a blanket comparison like that doesn’t do the alien justice. Ultimately, it just looked cool.
After awhile, we spoke to the men responsible for the creature work (ADI Group) and they explained how they got involved and how it was a very quick assignment. The more and more I do set visits, the more I think almost no project has enough time in pre-production, as almost everyone always says it happens so fast.
What was interesting to learn after speaking to the ADI guys was the alien that we all stared at for 20 minutes will barely be seen in the movie. The plan is for the crew to go outside and encounter the alien under the base, but it’s a lot of flashlights and whenever they get close, the alien backs away – further beneath the base.
The ADI guys also told us the alien we got to see is not the only alien in the movie…perhaps another alien was on the ship they discovered. Also, what was most interesting to learn was neither alien is the true “Thing” alien. The way they spoke, when the ship crashed or landed on Earth, the Thing was already inside the body of the alien and we won’t know how it got there or where it came from. While some might be frustrated with the not knowing, I think it’s cool and I’m glad the film isn’t going to try and explain everything.
After speaking with the guys, we got a few more minutes to walk around and that’s where we noticed about 200 4 x 6 cards that were the storyboards of the entire generator set sequence. Since I don’t want to spoil the scene, I’ll just say the scene starts off with two men walking outside and they encounter the alien. One gets killed quickly and then the rest of the crew from inside the base comes out and the rest of the scene is trying to stop the alien and also survive. While storyboards are sometimes not the best way to see something for the first time, I imagined the entire scene as I went board to board and it’s going to look very cool.
More Interviews and The Day is Almost Done
After leaving the set, we finally started talking with the cast, and everyone was incredible gracious with their time and unlike some sets…everyone was very relaxed and we got plenty of time to ask questions.
Finally, after the interviews finished, we went back to set to watch Winstead use the flamethrower a few more times. I’d love to tell you more about the scene, but it would really spoil the movie.
If the purpose of a set visit is to get you excited for a movie, then Universal made the right choice sending me to The Thing. I think what most excited me was the fact that they’re staying so true to the 1982 movie, yet also telling their own story. I really do think if this film comes together, you’ll be able to watch both films back to back and it’ll be something special.
I’m sure by the time you have read this, you’ll have seen a trailer, images and know a lot about the movie. But right now, on June 8, 2010, I’ve got a great feeling about the film. Fingers crossed it all works out.
The Thing gets released April 29, 2011.
For More Coverage on The Thing:
And look for more on set interviews later this week