TALKING TO A MAN ABOUT A THING
As John Carpenter’s The Thing turns 35, Empire grills the Horror Master about his masterpiece
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.