'The Thing' Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. On Prequels & Effects

The Thing, the prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 beloved sci-fi horror by the same name, opens in theaters this weekend.

Acting as a direct prelude to Carpenters film, The Thing (2011) follows American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as she travels to Antarctica where a Norwegian research team has unearthed an alien space craft and a creature frozen in ice for millions of years. When an experiment revives and unleashes the shape-shifting alien, Kate and the Norwegian crew find themselves in a gruesome fight for their lives.

The stakes are raised even further when they realize that any one of them could be the enemy in disguise. Battling fear, paranoia and a seemingly unstoppable enemy, Kate and the team's helicopter pilot Carter (Joel Edgerton) join forces to exterminate the alien before it has the opportunity to infect the population at large.

We recently had the chance to participate in a small roundtable discussion with the film's director, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., who makes his feature film debut with The Thing.

How much pressure did you feel working on this movie when you initially took it on?

"I saw the movie when I was seventeen in Amsterdam, and I just loved the human paranoia combined with proper, real horror. And I never saw that in another movie, after all these years. So, it was just too tempting to say no."

I know you actually used the John Carpenter film in order to construct the Norwegian base. How many times would you say that you watched that scene?

"We saw it like a million times to figure out the layout. But there’s a site called, and they're like hardcore geeks, and they sort of made a diagram of what they thought the layout of the Norwegian camp was. And actually it was completely accurate. So, we used that as a sort of guide, basically, to construct it."

Can you talk about the freedom that doing this as a prequel gave you as a director, rather than trying to make an actual remake of the Carpenter film? And was there talk of doing it as a remake?

"No, when I came aboard, it was already a prequel, and there was a script around, which I really didn’t like. One of the major problems with that script was that you already knew what the thing was, and I said that doesn’t work. There were restrictions, like we had to sort of treat it as a crime story in a sense. Like there’s all this evidence of what happened, the axe in the door, and the two-faced monster outside and certain holes in the wall. So we based our story around those pieces of evidence. That is restrictive in a way because the two-faced monster has to come out of this part of the building, because it lies on the ground in John Carpenter’s movie here. In that sense we had to really construct it around the evidence. It gave us freedom because it was a different camp. It was a European camp, Norwegian scientists, not the blue-collar workers in John Carpenter’s movie, but slightly more sophisticated than those guys. So then we had to construct the story from somebody’s perspective. So we came up with (in a very early phase) a male lead. We were even sort of thinking (which was completely stupid) like MacReady’s brother for some reason. Which was a really bad idea. But every time we thought about a lead character, a man, he was always overshadowed by MacReady. He didn’t have a personality of his own, and then I felt like we had to really stay away from MacReady, and then we thought of a female lead."

Kurt Russell with a practical effect puppett in 1982s The Thing
Kurt Russell with a practical effect puppett in 1982s "The Thing"

What was interesting to you about having the lead be a female?

"I like the idea of strong women in films. Because they have to solve their problems, not physically, but in a more mental way. And The Thing is a very physical presence, so that’s sort of counterbalancing. Somebody with brains who's got to figure out how to kill the most ferocious physical animal alive. There was an interesting contrast."

Can you talk a little bit about casting Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the role?

"When we decided it has to be a female lead we knew she had to be 25-30, open, smart, maybe slightly naïve and and a little shy. I thought it was interesting to export a female to a Norwegian base with all big men with beards. So these were sort of the things I laid out for what she should be. And then I saw a lot of people, and she (Winstead) came up so natural in a way to me, like sort of a little holding back, which I liked. There was no other alternative to her."

And what about Joel (Edgerton)?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton in The Thing
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton in 'The Thing'

The paranoia element in the 1951 The Thing From Another World and even the John Carpenter version were kind of playing on the paranoia around the cold war. So when you’re taking on a film like that, that’s so of its time, what’s your approach? Is it universal paranoia now or is there something specific to our time that you were dealing with?

"I think so, and you know, reading stuff from John Carpenter, he and the writer Lancaster were pretty much influenced  by the AIDS epidemic at that point. Everybody has basically a monster inside, you don’t know if you have AIDS. And I don’t think that has changed that much, that you’re carrying a disease, you don’t even know if you are the disease at that point. That sort of universal paranoia is still the same."

How important was it for you to use practical effects?

The Thing 2011 Dissection Scene
One of few non-CGI creature moments in 'The Thing'

So obviously you’re informed by Carpenter and his creature designs. When you were designing effects or looking at effects, was there a game plan?

"Well you had the creature and the eyes, which in my mind was a host, not the original form, so that was sort of a separate thing. The other thing that I liked about some monster elements in John Carpenter’s film, was that whenever the monster explodes, you see parts of the human, as a sort of a passenger. You know, just like on the spider head there’s still sort of human activity. It can’t do anything anymore, because it’s just a passenger—but it has a sort of passive awareness of the horror it’s riding on or something. I liked that idea, which was our theme in creating the creatures."

As a first time director what would you say was the most important thing you learned making this film?

"You need a lot of stamina. No, but it’s with everything you make, even if you just write a story. You have to know up front what you want. If you don’t, or if you think it will solve itself, it won’t solve itself, you know. You have to have a clear cut idea about what things should be."

You worked with some of the producers of the original. Did you talk to John Carpenter at all about this?

"No, I haven’t. No, I haven’t."

Are you going to show it to him?

A Review of The Thing (2011) Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead

What did David Foster (producer on the 1982 The Thing and 2011 The Thing) bring to the movie?

"He was sort of a guide. You know, he’s very old, but he told me all the back stories, how things were shot and how things were prepped. He was very knowledgeable about how they made movies thirty years ago. It shifted from far more prep and less time at the end. Nowadays it’s just rush, rush, rush at the beginning and you get like a year of post-production. And he told me that it wasn't easy for John Carpenter to control a whole group of men. It was sort of a little bit comforting. Because it was my first movie, my first experience with a lot of actors in the same room and how to deal with that, so he gave me advice on that."

What were some of the challenges when dealing with the actors?

"If you put ten actors in the room and three have dialogue, they all want to do something, you know. So they will all come with improvisations, like 'should I walk through the room? Maybe it's nice if I go stand by the window.' But if you do that, you have to give them a close-up because they change positions. It’s sort of a trick for them."

Did you see this film as sort of your way to break into America?

"Yeah. I think so. Unconsciously, yes. It was not planned, but because it came along, and I thought it was a great idea to make this Norwegian story. But it would be nice to do something that completely stands on its own. Because now this is always going to be compared (to its predecessor)."

Stay tuned for more from Matthijs van Heijningen, and his star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, when we bring you an-all SPOILERS discussion on the design and purpose of the alien, and the fate of the characters in The Thing early next week.

The Thing opens in theaters today, Friday, October 14th.

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