The first thing I see on the set of THE THING is, well, the Thing. Or, more accurately, one of the Thing's many mutated forms. As anyone who has seen John Carpenter's legendary horror classic knows, the Thing is a pesky alien that can imitate and absorb the body of another creature, essentially inhabiting it for however long it needs... or until it's found out. When it is found out, or when it's attacked or provoked, it simply freaks the hell out, no better way to put it. While still resembling parts of a man - or dog or whatever the case may be - its flesh twists and transmutes until a grotesque mockery of what it once was is all that remains. And the worst part is, it's still trying to save itself... So after entering the Toronto-based set of THE THING, Universal Pictures' prequel to the 1982 film, I catch a glimpse of what is unmistakably the Thing hanging out off to the side, keeping to itself, not being noticed by the dozens of crewmembers who are hard at work on that day's shoot. A quiet chap, it looks glad to just have a break...Perhaps having no limbs, splitting open in places and wearing a look of crazed anguish will make you a more contemplative... Thing.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Lloyd, Joel Edgerton as Carter
Suffice it to say, whenever a remake of a beloved classic is announced, it's met with a certain amount of ire and trash-talking from the online community. When it came time to revamp THE THING for modern audiences, the announcement caused more of a skeptical grumbling. For starters, it's not a remake, it's a prequel. Semantics! some may accuse, and they'd pretty much be right; while this new version of THE THING takes place in the days before Carpenter's (indeed, the film takes place in 1982), it could easily be a remake (with some females thrown in). The sets, the blowtorches, the antiquated equipment, it really does look like I've been picked up and dropped off on the set of Carpenter's movie. Let's put it this way - in the fictional world where these events take place, the same guy designed both the Norwegian base and the American one.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Lloyd
The scene unfolding as I arrive (with a handful of other journalists, natch) takes place in the base's rec room; at this point in the tale, the shit has most certainly already hit the fan. A pool table is overturned, blood has been shed (on the walls, on the floor) and a character is about to be killed. (While I won't mention any names, you can consider the rest of this paragraph a SPOILER, so tread carefully.) Though it's unclear to me what exactly has just transpired, the character in question has been mortally injured by "the thing" - he's thrown back against a wall, his belly is bleeding, his outlook is grim. He's been infected, and he knows it as he slides painfully down the wall. He's met by another character, who unconvincingly tries to assure him that he'll be okay. Of course, they both know otherwise. "Don't let me end up like one of those things," the dying man says. "Burn me". After some hesitation, that's just what happens.
Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Watching all this unfold along with us is director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., the Dutch commercial director who is making his directorial debut on the project. van Heijningen gained some heat in Hollywood a few years ago when Zack Snyder hand-picked him to direct a zombie epic called ARMY OF THE DEAD. (van Heijningen is something of a protege of Snyder's, the two being big names in the commercial world.) Though that project never came together, van Heijningen's name was on the minds of Strike Entertainment, the production company in charge of THE THING, as well as DAWN OF THE DEAD, bringing the Snyder connection full circle.
Van Heijningen seems to know his stuff when it comes to horror. He mentions Ridley Scott's ALIEN as being "the benchmark" for sci-fi/horror films, and mentions it's as much of an inspiration as Carpenter's THE THING on this project. He also gets what makes THE THING really tick. "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."
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Jameson, Joel Edgerton as Carter
Wandering around the "Mega Stage" some more (indeed, that's it's real name, as it's the largest of its kind in North America), we get a look at what else the base consists of. Impressively, all of the rooms are actually linked together, so you're literally able to just walk from one room to another, which makes the illusion that much more convincing. (It's also helpful when you've got characters frantically running from one to the next.) The attention to detail is of course vital in this film's case, as it can be considered a period piece. (Although you needn't worry about bad 80s hair/fashion - the characters are all costumed in something of a "timeless" way.) Hence, you've got VHS tapes over here, issues of National Geographic (from the late 70s) over there, Norwegian calendars dated 1982, etc. Certainly there's a lived-in quality to the place, a work place that has seen its share of people trudge in and out for years. Even the books on the shelves look fatigued, worn out from years of use. The equipment room inspires a laugh from us; the machines are utterly ancient, archaic HPs that stand about as tall as a man, simple word processors that look to weigh about twenty pounds.
Joel Edgerton as Carter
We enter another room, the lab, and, like the rec room, it has certainly seen better days. Half the place is black with ash - the scene of a serious incineration. Perhaps it has something to do with the twisted, charred thing on the examination table; the very sight of the room brings to mind the sequence in Carpenter's film where Kurt Russell is forced to set their lab aflame (as well as the scene where they investigate the creepy corpse of the dog-thing). If you hadn't already gotten the message, everything I'm seeing is bringing to mind the original film. Is that good or bad? Guess it depends on your perspective...
Shooting an action sequence
Eventually, we get a gander at an exterior set. Well, an interior exterior if you will; the "generator set" is where the movie evidently opens, a wooden housing for the camp's generator where we first meet the thing in a most unique form... There's a giant green screen looming in the back and cotton snow underneath our feet. Drum barrels line the shed; pipes create a tangled web underneath.... Perfect place for the thing to hide. Yes, I see him. He's not human, he's not a dog.. he's something else. (I would describe the fella, but unfortunately Universal has pleaded with me not to. You'll have to wait and see.) We later learn that this isn't even the Thing's true form. Creature designer Alec Gillis told us, "Like the Carpenter movie, we're not showing The Thing in its pure form. This is an alien that is a host to whatever The Thing is doing to it." (Cool that we're getting to see another resident from the outer reaches in this flick.) Truth be told, we'll never get to see what the Thing really looks like. It's unknowable.
Finding the alien ship... and The Thing
When asked about how the the various "Things" came to be, physically, at least, Gillis says, "The way this process has worked, which has been really great for us, is that it is very collaborative. They had a really solid screenplay, it was very respectful of the Carpenter version, and it had some really freaky concepts in it." To nail down the look of the Thing, Gillis and partner Tom Woodruff Jr. would create a hundred or so thumbnail sketches for the director to look over. Once van Heijningen narrowed it down to twenty or so, the effects crew would go about creating "mockettes", tiny sculptures that better inform the team about how the creatures will look and move, where the wires will run, where a puppeteer will be stationed, among many other variables. "What's cool about this for us as creature effects designers is that we get to work within the language that was established by Carpenter and Rob Bottin in 1982," Gillis says. "But we also get to add some of our own stuff in terms of original creature design."
Eric Christian Olsen as Adam
Unfortunately, that's all I can tell you as far as that goes. Just let it be known that Gillis and Woodruff are indeed remaining faithful to the bizarre horrors found in Carpenter's film.
Stay tuned for more from my adventures from the set of THE THING, as I'll have some interviews from the cast and crew, including stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Eric Christian Olsen, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and more!
Some goofy journalists... and me in the middle