Matthijs Van Heijningen Jr. had two conditions when he signed on to direct The Thing, the Universal Pictures prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 horror classic: The Norwegian characters had to be played by real Norwegians, and the studio absolutely had to use practical effects and puppets for the monster, the titular Thing.
”I had [those] two demands to the studio, and I am completely fresh into it and I’m doing commercials at the same time, so I thought, ‘I’ll put these two things on the table, they’re probably just going to fire me,’” van Heijningen laughed.
Set just days before the events of the original film, The Thing tells the story of what happened to the team of Norwegian scientists that initially discovered the alien creature in the Antarctic ice.
A Dutch commercial director for 15 years, van Heijningen seems like an odd choice to direct the American horror movie prequel, especially as The Thing is his first feature. However, he said he's a huge fan of the original, telling members of the press he's watched it “a hundred times, at least.”
“You never see movies, and I had never seen movies, that played with this whole element of character development and paranoia element at the same time. Because of those two elements it is one of my favorite movies,” said van Heijningen, who admitted he "sort of sneaked into the theater" at age 17 to watch the film in its original release.
Diving into the film, the director revealed that while Carpenter took a year to prep for shooting the 1982 classic, van Heijningen only had three months. However, he thinks his experience with commercials helped, as he's used to pulling shoots together in a short amount of time.
“Commercial work teaches you how to improvise, because you have like two days and it has to happen in two days,” he said. Explaining that he tends to favor improving with actors on the sets of his commercials, the director confessed that his improvisational background was something he fell back on a lot during The Thing.
“I didn’t know how [features] worked. I had a script and then we would rehearse and it didn’t work and I’d get everyone together and say, ‘This didn’t work, let’s do something else,’ and then the studio would freak out because I wasn’t sticking to the script!” van Heijningen laughed.
Touching on the challenges of shooting, van Heijningen said that while the Thing itself was made of a series of puppets and robots, the director used CG to smooth the creature's transformations, and added effects that would've been impossible with practical puppets.
“The problem with CG is that it is done badly too many times,” he said. Although he liked using practical effects and puppets, he said he recognizes the necessity of CG, and thinks it can look great when done right.
“District 9, for example, nobody talked about CG because it was completely believable and a lot of people thought they were puppets," van Heijningen said. "So I think it’s always going to be a back and forth, as puppetry is limited. Or else you have to build perfect robots that can emulate human behavior."
Intricately involved in the puppet and digital-design process for the Thing, van Heijningen praised the work of effects company Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated.
“From the moment we got a green light I met with different special makeup companies, and then I went with ADI because I like what they did on Alien 3," he said. "They had in their studio all these sort of Ripley look-alikes in different mutation forms, which was really impressive."
Heavily involved in the story and script process, van Heijningen told reporters the biggest challenge was differentiating his film from the 1982 version, especially when it came to creating a protagonist that wasn't just a copy of R.J. MacReady, the helicopter pilot played by Kurt Russell.
“When we were thinking about the lead, any time we were thinking about or writing something, the shadow of MacReady was looming over us," he said. "We can’t beat MacReady, and it always became too close to him, so then we had to stay away from him completely." The director said he realized that rather than studying the 1982 script, they should be examining another sci-fi/horror classic, Alien.
“Looking at Alien we said, ‘What about if it’s a female and she’s basically the brains of the story and she has to sort of figure this out not physically but mentally,’ which was a nice counterpoint to the physical destruction of the Thing itself,” van Heijningen said. That lead to the creation of paleontology graduate student Kate Lloyd, the terrified but grim protagonist played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. To give the ‘80s fans a thrill, van Heijningen ended up adding tough helicopter pilot Sam Carter, played by Warrior star Joel Edgerton.
“Joel we wanted to do a little bit of a tribute to MacReady, so he’s the helicopter pilot who flew them in,” van Heijningen said.
Another pivotal detail for van Heijningen was making sure that everything in the Norwegian station matched the station as it appeared in the Carpenter movie.
“We treated it as a crime scene, basically, noting there’s a hole in the wall there, there’s something burned here and there’s an ax here,” he said. As there were no blueprints of the original Carpenter set, van Heijningen matched as many shots as he could by eye. When that failed, he turned to the Internet for help.
“There’s a site called Outpost 31 that’s been up for 15 years or something, of hardcore fans, and they made diagrams of the Norwegian base, and I basically used them," the director said. "They were completely accurate, they studied every shot. They measured it 3D-wise!”
Van Heijningen ended the discussion by reiterating how much he loved the Carpenter film and that entire era of horror.
“I’m sort of old school that I like horror movies not to start out as horror movies but to start out normally," he said. "A great example is Rosemary’s Baby, where you meet these people and then you slowly, slowly descend into this other world of horror, which nowadays they don’t let you give that much exposition up front."
Trying to emulate that with The Thing, van Heijningen said he re-watched the 1982 film as many times as he could, trying to place himself in the shoes of the protagonists. However, when asked what he would do if he was actually in MacReady and Kate’s shoes, the director laughed again.
“I would just run away!”
The Thing opens Oct. 14 nationwide.