TALK­ING TO A MAN ABOUT A THING

As John Car­pen­ter’s The Thing turns 35, Em­pire grills the Hor­ror Mas­ter about his mas­ter­piece

Empire (Australasia) - - Review - WORDS CHRIS HE­WITT POR­TRAIT COREY MILLER

WHEN IT CAME out in 1982, John Car­pen­ter’s The Thing boasted the tagline,

“Man is the warm­est place to hide.” As it turned out, the best — if not warm­est — place to hide for any alien bas­tard hell-bent on as­sim­i­lat­ing the hu­man race would have been in a cin­ema show­ing The Thing, for no­body turned up. Car­pen­ter, who was com­ing off a hot streak that in­cluded Hal­loween, The Fog and Es­cape From New York, had been drawn to Bill Lan­caster’s script about a group of sci­en­tists at an Antarc­tic re­search fa­cil­ity who un­freeze an alien that can im­i­tate liv­ing things. A re­make of one of Car­pen­ter’s favourite films, Chris­tian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ The Thing From An­other World, it seemed like it would be an­other hit for the di­rec­tor. Alas, no. Mauled by crit­ics, shunned by au­di­ences, it was Car­pen­ter’s first flop.

Thirty-five years later, The Thing’s fate has trans­formed. Now widely re­garded as Car­pen­ter’s mas­ter­piece, this som­bre, bleak, won­der­fully para­noid film is en­joy­ing a new lease of life. This year alone will see a pres­tige art book about the movie, a Mondo board game, and the de­but of a bells-and-whis­tles UK steel­book. We spoke to Car­pen­ter about the mak­ing of the movie, its res­ur­rec­tion, and that un­for­get­table end­ing.

The Thing is hav­ing a cul­tural mo­ment. Are you pleased by this, or is part of you think­ing, “Where were you guys 35 years ago?”

Most of the peo­ple who are do­ing all these things weren’t even born then. I’m very pleased. It’s de­light­ful that the movie is fi­nally get­ting, if not fi­nan­cially, some of the crit­i­cal recog­ni­tion that it did not get at the time. It was damned and hated at the time. Now, not so much.

Up un­til that point in your ca­reer, you’d had a se­ries of home runs, and then this was largely shunned. Was that tough to take?

It was very tough to take. None of that stuff felt like home runs to me. The re­ac­tion to The Thing was ex­tremely tough. My ca­reer would have been dif­fer­ent had it been fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful. I’m not say­ing it would have been bet­ter or worse, it would have been dif­fer­ent. Back then I was wor­ried. I was a young guy and I hadn’t ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing quite like that.

Was it char­ac­ter build­ing?

It has to be. You have to gain some sort of a hide and build your char­ac­ter a lit­tle bit and sur­vive it. You can’t take that stuff too per­son­ally. But I did.

You didn’t re­treat into your shell. You pretty much went straight into Christine.

It wasn’t as quick as it seemed, but I needed a job and that was the job I took.

Did it knock you back? Was it dif­fi­cult to get jobs af­ter The Thing?

Sure. I lost lots of jobs be­cause of The Thing.

I lost a movie called Firestarter, which could have been just great. It was a great script. But that’s all in the past.

The Thing is re­ally bleak and dark and ni­hilis­tic. Was that a re­flec­tion of where you were at that point in your life?

It wasn’t about me at the time. It was the story. We got into the story and went back to the orig­i­nal novella, Who Goes There, by John W. Camp­bell Jr [pub­lished un­der the pseu­do­nym, Don A. Stu­art]. If you start ex­plor­ing what it re­ally is, it’s kinda like the end of the world. It’s the end of ev­ery­thing. The first movie was much more heroic. That was made back in the early ’50s and it was a Cold War type of movie. This was a whole dif­fer­ent thing. I had a choice. I could have had these men hero­ically de­stroy the crea­ture, but that wasn’t the na­ture of this thing. This thing was you. It took you over and im­i­tated you. That’s a whole dif­fer­ent ball­game. My edi­tor at the time [Todd C. Ram­say] told me to em­brace the dark­ness. So I did. I em­braced it.

The orig­i­nal film is a movie that means a great deal to you. It pops up briefly in Hal­loween. Is it some­thing you had wanted to re­make?

No, not at all. Never thought about it. Never wanted to get near it. But it was sit­ting out there, and it was a chance to make a stu­dio film, and I couldn’t re­sist. It was a big­ger bud­get than I’d ever had be­fore. In do­ing that, I thought, “What am I go­ing to do that’s dif­fer­ent than Hawks and Chris­tian Nyby?” They did a good job with it back then for what it is. It’s a movie of its time. So is my film. It’s just look­ing at a dif­fer­ent side of things. It’s about the lack of trust be­tween hu­man be­ings.

It was your third film with Kurt Rus­sell, af­ter Elvis and Es­cape From New York.

I didn’t al­ways think of him for this. I wanted to do some­thing new. But Kurt wanted to do it, the stu­dio [Uni­ver­sal] wanted to do it, so I thought, “Aw hell, why am I fight­ing it?” Elvis was a take on a fa­mous per­son. Snake Plissken was a Clint East­wood im­pres­sion. There’s noth­ing ar­ti­fi­cial about R.J. Macready. I had trapped Kurt. There was no way he could im­i­tate any­one else in The Thing. He had to be that guy. He’s ca­pa­ble of do­ing any­thing. He doesn’t think about it. It’s just in there and it’s in­stinc­tual. No­body else has it.

Nowa­days it would prob­a­bly be shot in a stu­dio, the snow would be fake. But it was im­por­tant to you to shoot it au­then­ti­cally.

Yeah. We wanted to find a place that was the real thing. There were a cou­ple of choices. The orig­i­nal ’51 movie was in North Dakota, which can be pretty cold. But with this, there were three dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. There were the Juno ice fields, above Juno, Alaska. We shot sec­ond unit up there. We shot on the set, the in­te­ri­ors and a few ex­te­ri­ors. We shot the rest of the movie and the end of the movie on this glacier in Ste­wart, Bri­tish Columbia. There was a min­ing camp up above us. We built the set in the sum­mer­time so when the snow came it snowed on the set, and looked real, and it was great up there to be real and to be there, but it was rough. What was the at­mos­phere like on set?

When we got up on lo­ca­tion, it was tough. But I’ve never seen a cast of ac­tors drink more than those guys on a Satur­day night. You’d have peo­ple pass­ing out. It was un­be­liev­able, the amount of liquor go­ing down.

Be­cause they were so cold? Bored? Far away from home?

Ev­ery­thing. Every­body turns into a child when they go away on lo­ca­tion. Es­pe­cially this one. It was re­mote and grim. This place was kind of law­less. I’m sure it’s peace­ful now, but it was like the Old West. So these ac­tors roll into town and they start drink­ing and they’re try­ing to keep up with the lo­cals and they can’t do it. No­body could do it. The peo­ple are tough up there. They’re tough. How did you han­dle it?

I slept. The di­rec­tor and the pro­ducer and the pro­duc­tion de­signer, we were all in a nice ho­tel. The crew was in a barge that they parked at the bay. It was pretty raw.

Per­haps the movie’s key scene is the blood-test se­quence, where Macready tries to work out who’s the Thing.

I re­mem­ber want­ing to do the movie be­cause of that dang se­quence. It pre­sented a great chance for me to strut my stuff. It doesn’t ap­pear to be showoffy, but it is. It’s all done in cut­ting.

The big re­veal in that se­quence is that Palmer (David Clen­non) is a Thing. He’s very shifty and quiet here, which is not like that char­ac­ter. Was that your di­rec­tion to him?

No, it wasn’t. That’s all David. Palmer doesn’t want to give away that he’s this crea­ture. He wants to re­main hid­den un­til the last sec­ond. You say shifty. It de­pends on how you look at it. He’s not usu­ally cast in that kind of a role. David Clen­non played some­what evil, vi­cious peo­ple and this was a chance for him to play against type.

Did you give dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion to peo­ple who were the Thing?

No. The im­i­ta­tion is per­fect, so no­body’s go­ing to know. Don’t play it any dif­fer­ently

“IT WAS DAMNED AND HATED. NOW, NOT SO MUCH...” John Car­pen­ter

than how you would play it. What would one do? Would you indi­cate to the au­di­ence that you’re the Thing? What would be the per­for­mance? I don’t know. So just act like this char­ac­ter. That’s what they would do. They would im­i­tate you per­fectly.

There’s been lots of spec­u­la­tion about when cer­tain char­ac­ters be­come the Thing…

It’s ridicu­lous. We don’t know. We don’t know.

You must know. You di­rected it! I know, but I’m not go­ing to tell any­body. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen.

Well, let’s ask any­way. At the end, only Macready and Childs are left. Is one of them a Thing?

One of them is the Thing. But I’m not go­ing to tell you who it is.

Where did that end­ing — with Macready’s last line, “Let’s just sit here for a lit­tle while and see what hap­pens” — come from?

An­other end­ing was writ­ten. It wasn’t very sat­is­fy­ing. In a sense I wanted to leave a lit­tle room for some hope. Maybe they’ll get out. Maybe they’ll live. There’s no way they can, re­ally. What’s go­ing to hap­pen is that the two of them are go­ing to end up sit­ting on the snow un­til the one of them who is the Thing is go­ing to make its move. Rather than show that, I just left it off. It just seemed right.

You use your in­stincts and it was a great last line. Kurt came up with that line. What was the orig­i­nal end­ing?

There was a scene af­ter the scene you see now. They start play­ing chess to­gether and then it cuts to Mc­murdo Base. A he­li­copter lands and we see they’ve res­cued the two of them. “Which way to a hot lunch?” says one of them, mean­ing they’re now both Things. I thought, “No, I don’t think so.” I think maybe we’ll be classy here and do it this way.

Did Uni­ver­sal have a prob­lem with the end­ing? They wanted me to change it, so it was more heroic. And we even cut a ver­sion for them but it didn’t make any dif­fer­ence, so they let me keep my fi­nal cut. I have to give it to them. Not every­body is so gen­er­ous.

What was dif­fer­ent about the heroic cut?

When Kurt throws the dy­na­mite and dives, the crea­ture blows up and that was the end. It was ridicu­lous. Ta-daaaaa! We win!

What’s the weird­est the­ory you’ve heard about the end­ing?

There’s one where you can’t see some­body’s breath at the end, and they’re pass­ing the bot­tle to each other, so does that make you a Thing?

Childs doesn’t seem to breathe.

It’s just the way the light­ing was. It means noth­ing.

THE THING IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DIG­I­TAL DOWN­LOAD

Op­po­site, from top to bot­tom:

Nauls (T.K. Carter), Macready (Kurt Rus­sell) and Garry (Don­ald Mof­fat) are left out in the cold; The Thing in all its grotesque glory; Keith David and Kurt Rus­sell on set with di­rec­tor John Car­pen­ter; Sto­ry­board il­lus­tra­tions for the Thing as it sprouts legs from a de­cap­i­tated head.

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