While a lot of you have no idea who Matthijs van Heijningen is, by the end of next April, many of you are either going to love or hate him. That’s because van Heijningen is the director of The Thing prequel, and with the film getting released April 29, 2011, we’ll all know soon if van Heijningen has crafted a worthy film to stand alongside the classic John Carpenter movie with the same name.
But before you get nervous that Universal is somehow going to frak up a classic film, I got to visit the set of The Thing while the production was shooting in Toronto a few moths ago and everything I saw and learned on set tells me the prequel is shaping up to be a really cool movie, and not at all what you’re expecting.
Want to know more? Hit the jump:
As I said in my set report, the reason I’m excited for The Thing prequel is that van Heijningen understood what made the original work and he’s trying to exist in the same universe. What that means is he’s not trying to craft a fast cutting modern horror movie with tons of flash and zero substance. Instead, he wants to tell a character based movie which eventually becomes a horror film. He told us the best kinds of horror films are the ones where you start to care about the characters and then when things start to happen, you’re more invested in the people and the film.
He also told us that instead of having an all American cast, his movie has a lot of Norwegian actors and they’re not going to speak English. Yes, we’re getting some subtitles! While some don’t enjoy having to read while they’re in a movie theater, I love it. The reason is the more diverse the cast and the setting, the more everything feels real.
Also, since Universal has yet to release a trailer (although I think it’s getting released very soon), I’m providing the official synopsis:
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.
Here’s what Matthijs van Heijningen told us on set:
Question: Was this a project that you fought for or was this something that came after you? Can you talk about how you first got started.
MVH: I was prepping a movie called Army of the Dead, produced by Zach Snyder. It was 3 months before shooting and then the crisis hit and it fell apart. And then I was prepping that for a year, almost. So, I was like in a little void. And then I was in my car and I was like, oh God, I have to read all these scripts again. Is there anything like one of my favorite movies that I went to, thinking about Alien, thinking about The Thing and then I called my agent and said “whatever happened to The Thing? Did anyone ever do something with it?” And he said, “Yeah, Strike Entertainment is prepping something with The Thing.” I didn’t know if it was a prequel or a sequel. So they got me in contact with them and they had already a script. And then I said “hey well, can I read it?” And they were very enthusiastic about my work. And I read it and I liked it. And I said well, I think if you want to do a prequel to JC’s movie, it has to be really true to that movie. The monster is different, as an audience you would know who was The Thing. The basic rule of his movie is that you don’t know who’s the Thing, I mean, that’s the whole paranoia. And so, we started from scratch, to bring in JC’s movie as sort of the design of what our movie should be. Just really go back, you know. And I said well, if I can pitch it to the studio, it should be with real Norwegians. ‘Cause otherwise, as a European, I mean it’s ridiculous if it’s like America pretending to be Norwegians. And doing commercials the whole time, I’m just gonna pitch it and see, probably they don’t like it and it’s gonna be washed under the table. But they said it’s cool, let’s do it. Real Norwegians, that sort of thing. So that’s how it started.
Q: What was involved with reverse engineering all the stuff we saw for that movie, obviously a lot of things we see you can guess what happened, but you don’t really know…who was involved, was a lot of that done in the script stage?
MVH: Well, I think that was the beginning of our approach, let’s see all those key points in the Norwegian camp. The ax in the door, the two-faced monster. Is there a way for us to explain that and incorporate it in the story about all these people? So that’s how we sort of came up with the story. And of course Universal was fine with Norwegians but we need to have some Americans so that’s way we sort of constructed it in there.
Q: How did you bring the Americans into the story?
MVH: So, the way we did it was that one of the main characters is a Norwegian guy. And they basically want his help and he’s based in NY and he brings his team which brings 2 assistants which are Americans. So that’s sort of a logical way to get a little bit of Americans into the story.
Q: If you had to sum up the essence of The Thing in one phrase, what is it that makes the first film so exciting and what is it you’re trying to bring to your movie?
MVH: The core of that movie for me is how people behave when they start to distrust each other because anybody could be the monster. And that paranoia is, you know, you have to work together but at the same time, you cannot work together because the guy you work with or you have to cooperate with could be at the same time the monster. That paranoia, how you figure it out, how people turn against each other has been at the core… You know, what I like about JC’s movie, besides all these great horror effects, is that human aspect of…
Q: Is there one sequence in the original that you come back and say, wow, that sequence is incredible and I have to see if I can top that?
MVH: The spider head I think is one of them, and the blood testing sequence.
Q: How are you gonna top that? You can’t just test the blood again to see…
MVH: Well, the thing is, in the original story of Campbell, that’s already in that story. They did it and came up with it. That’s the core of the original novel. I tried everything (laughter). To be honest, I just stayed away from it because otherwise, you’re gonna compare it. You’re never gonna, you’re always… the same thing I thought the studio said ‘Well, we need a male protagonist and I said, “You’re never gonna win the battle of McCready with me. Well maybe we need some Ripley kind of figure to make a little bit of difference. ‘Cause otherwise you’re gonna compare it and you’re never gonna win that.” So, these were the factors.
Q: In addition to Carpenter’s The Thing, have you, are there any movies in particular, an assignment that you have that you look back at particularly as inspiration?
MVH: ‘Alien’, yeah, to me that’s the benchmark. The way it’s shot, the way it’s acted, the way it shows monsters or not. That’s all in your head, basically. These are my two favorite horror movies, so, the inspiration comes from those two movies.
Q: Did you try to make a slow burning horror movie? Especially in this day and age when everything is so fast and edited so quick. So, are you going against the grain with that, channeling the way those movies are paced and shot?
MVH: Yeah, because I really believe in, even films like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or all those movies where you really get to know these characters, you start to care about them and then, you know, when the horror seeps in slower, I really like that. I had to do sort of a big opening sequence and that satisfied the studio a little bit and then won some time so then, it’s really, I postpone it as much as I can.
Q: So we see more action, it seems all the destruction we see, we see a lot of fire, we see a lot of stuff going on, obviously there must have had many encounters that lead to all this stuff. Is there a lot more action in general?
MVH: A little bit more. Also, because we go really into the spaceship, so there’s a whole, you know, McCready never went, he didn’t even look in it.
Q: Is that your opening sequence, the spaceship?
MVH: It’s the finding of it, yeah.
Q: You mentioned the need to give the studio that opening action sequence, what is the compromise you have to make throughout the entire process?
MVH: It isn’t because actually… it’s not an action sequence, it’s just the way they find it, it’s quite spectacular and it’s actually quite nice so I don’t feel like it’s a compromise.
Q: But still, so many directors are inspired obviously by ‘Alien’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and yet we don’t end up with movies like that anymore. Why do you think that is?
MVH: Because maybe nowadays people need sort of instant satisfaction or just some blood and horror. I think that’s one of the reasons, I think they were given more time just to explore characters. Waiting for the horror is almost more frightening than actually seeing it. Just the pending dread. So I try to do as much as I can to stall.
Q: How far do you go into it, because we obviously know where the other movie starts, are we going to get to the point where we actually see the dog and the helicopter…
MVH: Yeah, I mean, this film ends with the crazy Norwegian stepping in a helicopter and leaving.
Q: But you don’t actually show, you leave it there.
MVH: I cast the exact same guy, got the exact same helicopter (laughs), we learn who this guy is.
Q: When you know where you need to go at the end does it leave a lot less room for improv? When you know you have have to set up so much stuff to get to where you’re going? Or has there been a lot of inspiration on the set with the actors?
MVH: Totally. A lot of inspiration. Because, you know, all these scenes are sort of written down and I direct it in amcertain way. Then if the actor comes up with, “It’s more logical to do this,” I just change it on the spot. So, scenes change while we’re shooting. Nowadays, while you’re shooting the movie, you’re cutting at the same time. So, you look back at that scene and it’s sort of an organic process, almost, which I love, it’s good.
Q: So you’re doing one of these where you’re seeing like a rough assembly.
Q: Have you realized the following day, oh, we need to pick up on that, let’s go get that?
MVH: Yes. Or, for me, directing is sort of like cooking or something. You know that you’re making this interesting recipe while you’re putting all the ingredients together, you can never oversee what it’s gonna taste exactly. So while you’re doing that, you’re tasting, you’re going. “Oh, it’s actually sadder than I thought it would be.” So the next scene, if he leaves that sad or that angry, the next scene, you know, you pick it up. It’s not all set in stone. Because I really care about the emotional journey of the characters. So, it’s a little improvising that way.
Q: One of the things people love about the original movie is the practical effects and I know you’re using a lot here. One of the things that drives me crazy about the first movie is that you can actually tell when they edit from one practical effect to another. Are you going to try to make that a little smoother?
MVH: Well, yeah, I mean, sort of in homage to that movie, I think we have to do as much practical as we can. My experience also is that for reaction shots, even if you’re not gonna use it, the reaction of an actor on a real monster is so much better than… so we will decide in post-production how much we’re gonna use but I tend to use as much as I can.
Q: What are the different stages of the thing?
MVH: Yeah, there’s a little different… even if you see that guy behind you… I like that sort of human element still in the monster as sort of just a passenger, he becomes the passenger of this creature so there’s always — in JC’s movie it’s always really completely this big, bloody blob, which I like but I thought maybe it’s nice to see the characters we already know, be part of that monster.
Q: I’m just curious, film or digital and why?
MVH: I just hate digital. Looks ugly. Even if you were to shoot this anamorphic, which looks great, I just don’t like it, it feels like video… Although everybody shoots this sort of 2×3, 2.35. They shoot super 35 with just bars on it so it looks like cinemascope, like the old days. And I really pushed for the real anamorphic feel.
Q: Are you shooting with anamorphic lenses?
Q: I heard there’s not that many lenses available…
MVH: It is true. Any more light, the lenses are slower than normal 35, well you know, in old movies it looks great.
Q: Other than ‘The Thing’ obviously and ‘Alien’, were there other films or maybe just artwork that you and the cast looked at?
MVH: No, because I didn’t want to push them in a certain way. I spoke about ‘Alien’, about the realism of those characters. Like if you watch just a breakfast scene and you would show somebody, you know, that scene, it doesn’t really have to be a horror movie. That’s what I like about it. Polanski is a general reference that’s all about acting and then it becomes a horror movie which I always like, and you sort of slowly descend into this hell (illegible).
Q: A lot of the cast in this film is from Norway, who are in some cases theater actors, film actors who haven’t worked on a film of this scale, with the size of this budget, what was it like working with that? What do they bring to the table from Norway and do you speak Norwegian?
MVH: No (laughs), well, it’s close to Holland so the culture is a little the same. I picked faces you wouldn’t regularly see in a movie, I think. I think that brings a certain authenticity to it. Some of them I had to correct a little otherwise it becomes too vague or too stagey. But they were really nice to work with.
Q: Are you giving these characters more development? One of the criticisms of the ’82 one was that you don’t really find out much about these men, they’re just there. So, is there more backstory to some of these guys?
MVH: Yeah and no, because what I, even in ‘Alien’ you don’t know anything about Dallas or Ripley. It’s just how they perform, you imagine who they are. And if you do that good, then you don’t need ‘is he married or not’ and all that sort of… it’s all about performance I think and what kind of character they are at the moment, at that point. So I don’t give them a lot of backstory, no.
Q: Was it a challenge for you personally, I know you have a big commercial background and you’re directing this huge budget Hollywood movie, can you talk about that? Making that transition.
MVH: Well, it frightened me in the beginning. Working on a set and working with actors, that’s all the same. The moment you’re doing it and you’re in the moment, you don’t have time to think about it. You just have to make it as good as you possibly can on the moment.
Q: It’s also your first feature film and you’re not making a character drama, you’re making a movie that fanboys have a vested interest in. Are you prepared to face the fanboys? Are you prepared to go to conventions? You know what’s ahead of you. It’s a project that a lot of people have passion for.
MVH: Yes, yes.
Q: Have you been briefed of what you can expect?
MVH: Uh, no (laughter). You know, I love that movie so much and I just blindly went into it. And I just give it my best. I know I’m gonna be, you know — you know, I mean that’s how it is. As long as I stay true to what I believe is a good movie and what is my vision, that’s all I can do.
Q: If you have that anticipation, what kind of things do you think the fanboys are going to be concerned about? What are you prepared for to hear?
MVH: Well, that the monsters are different and it’s not as maybe… I haven’t even thought about it. So maybe that’s the best answer.
Q: Between this and “Army of the Dead,” you obviously have a love of genre movies. Is that the direction you want to keep going? Is this a good way to get into Hollywood movies? Do you feel you want to stay in this kind of genre?
MVH: I like genre movies and I like when they sort of cross overs, when they’re not just like pure, like, “Saw” or something, which is just pure horror. When they sort of cross over between drama and horror, that’s what I really like. Films like ‘Repulsion’ or something, I adore those movies because they start up this weird and becomes slowly this dark little, dark fairy tale. ‘Repulsion’ is a horror movie but it’s a strange horror movie.
Q: Do you have specific memories of your first exposure to ‘The Thing’?
MVH: Yeah, that I went to see it at the cinema and it blew me away like, I really… the ending was that dark, which is something that I really liked. I’m really fighting for that same sort of tone.
Q: But since we know what the ending is going in, how do you make sure that you make that ending have the same…
MVH: Well, I have this sort of spectacular end in mind, a sort of big, set ending. It ends a little bit in two ways because we have to continue the story but have to end this story, so we found a way for that, that is the same sort of darkness.
Q: Is there any reference made to the US base? Do they mention them at all?
Q: So they know they’re out there.
MVH: They try to contact them. Because they are in distress and they try any way to escape. They even… part of the team decides to get to there, to the outpost. They never make it but you know, so it’s…
Q: So no Wilfred Brimley cameo? (Laughter). How about a different approach, the Wilfred Brimley character, obviously we have different associations with Wilfred Brimley but he still brings a sort of age and gravitas to this movie. Is there a corresponding character who serves a similar purpose?
MVH: Yeah. That Norwegian guy they call for which is like the Norwegian professor. ‘Cause this is a camp for geoscientists, geologists, they don’t know anything about, you know, biology so they call for this guy to help them out. He turns out to be this sort of dark father figure.
Q: This being your first Hollywood kind of movie, what was the thing you thought would be the biggest challenge? What actually has been the biggest challenge?
MVH: The biggest breakout scene. The breakout, you know the climax scene where the biggest creature appears, where everything goes haywire. Because there’s so much things happening, there are so many characters at the same time. There’s a lot of acting and a lot of special effects at the same time. So that’s the biggest challenge so far.
Q: Are you one of these people that, we were watching earlier, we saw many takes of this one particular scene. Is that the way you normally direct, where there’s that many takes?
MVH: Yeah, if I can’t find what I want, then I keep going until I find my moment.
Q: Have you done many of these scenes where you only have 2 or 3 takes?
MVH: Yeah, a lot of them. This is sort of, what you saw is a good bye scene, you know these characters that really care about each other, and she has to burn this guy. So, for him to step away from it and give her the go-ahead to burn his best friend, you need a serious expression for that little beat.
Q: I’m also curious about how much do you read on-line sites like…
MVH: I do but no no, I don’t.
Q: So, you did before you started filming?
MVH: Yeah, but you know, you start reading about ‘who the fuck is this guy remaking what,’ you stay away from it.
Q: I actually, I don’t necessarily mean this film, I mean are you one of these people that enjoys reading the movie sites and seeing what’s going on?
MVH: Yes. Yes, to a certain degree.
Q: Can you talk about casting? How did you arrive at someone like Mary Elizabeth Winstead or Joel Edgerton, I guess he’s the male lead, but nobody really knows who he is in American audiences.
MVH: No, I was just trying to find this believable, hardboiled guy, and just you know, Vietnam Vet who just starts a business in Antarctica and doesn’t care about people anymore. Maybe he experienced a lot of stuff. I read about him, that he was in a play on Broadway which had raving reviews and he just came in and that’s the guy. And for Mary, we were trying to find somebody who was between 25 and 30 and believable as a clever person that could be a scientist. So the moment that somebody pretends to be a scientist and you don’t believe it, I’ll basically step out. So that was what I was looking for.
Q: Did you have to audition with her?
MVH: Yeah, we auditioned and she felt calm and strong and believable and sort of vulnerable in the beginning and then she has to step up and not because she wants to but because she has to. That’s what I like.
Q: In 1981, you can have the character that Kurt Russell played, you can actually have him played by an American actor. But nowadays pretty much it seems you have to go to Australia to find an American Alpha Male. Why do you think that is?
MVH: Well, I’m in America, tell me.
Q: But you know what you saw, I mean you know what you would’ve auditioned. Is there no American who is capable of doing that?
MVH: There is something about the Aussies, you know. You send them into the woods and they build a tree-house in 5 minutes. Something, you know, John Wayne-ish or something.
Q: Is there a McReady parallel going on with him?
MVH: A little bit, yeah.
Q: Have you met or spoken with John Carpenter at all?
MVH: No. I spoke…
Q: You plan to?
MVH: Yeah, but he’s really reclusive. I spoke to his old producer and he endorses it but he said, do your own thing, I’m not gonna interfere. So, there will probably be a time, it hasn’t happened yet.
Q: I see that you’re, today we’ve been watching you filming with 2 cameras. Is there other days where you’re filming with 3 or 4 or is 2…?
Q: Have you done it on previous things?
MVH: No, actually. Usually we do 2 or 3 for stunts, big stunts maybe, but the lighting is always… you light for a certain direction if you’re covered with different angles it becomes sort of mediocre or a little concession for every cameras, so I prefer not.
Q: We also heard obviously you’re building the alien ship. How much fun did you have helping to design that thing? Or did you just say…?
MVH: No, no, a lot. I mean, there’s one of the biggest challenges because how many really good alien ships have you seen in films…
Q: Well, I saw Independence Day.
MVH: Exactly (laughter). So there was a big search but I’m happy with what we came up with.
Q: We heard it doesn’t feel man-made, it feels alien, could you talk about how you got to that, designing or helping to design that whole “not feeling man-made” feel?
MVH: Well, first of all it’s not designed to walk into straight hallways so there’s not so much of up and down.
For More Coverage on The Thing:
And look for more on set interviews later this week