EXCLUSIVE! “THE THING” DIRECTOR SPEAKS ON CARPENTER, ARMY OF THE DEAD, AND FUTURE PROJECTS
Horror fans wait with bated breath for the release tomorrow of The Thing, the much-anticipated and already much-reviled prequel to John Carpenter’s much-lauded classic. The DLB spoke to director Mattjis van Heijningen, Jr., earlier today about the expectations of fans, combining practical effects with CGI, and his future plans, including the status of that much-talked-about zombie epic Army of the Dead.
I spoke with your actress Kim Bubbs last night at the Toronto premiere, and she described the filming as really fun, like being at “summer camp.” Was it like that for you too, and how did you enjoy the experience?
Maybe Kim wasn’t that far off. I felt like a theatre director with a great bunch of actors, and we sort of figured it out amongst ourselves instead of a rigid studio set-up or something. Everybody had fun and everybody had space and the energy to put their own foot forward. Yeah, it was actually really relaxed. I mean, of course it was a lot of stress with all the special effects and stuff, but all the stuff that you act is really, really nice.
Kim was also saying that the cast always had some sort of practical puppet to work with on set, as opposed to acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick. Tell me about your decision to work as much as possible with practical creature effects.
I always wanted to do that, to have those practical effects on set for that reason and just see how much we could use and how much we had to enhance later on, and I think it was sort of a mix between practical effects in the end and CGI.
What is your background as a horror fan, and what was your relationship with John Carpenter’s The Thing and the original Thing From Another World going into this film?
From very young on, I always like horror movies, and I think I started to like horror movies when I saw early Polanski movies like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. And then I started to explore. Jaws came out when I was 16 or 15. And then The Thing was playing, and in Holland you had to be 18-years old, but I was 15 and I snuck into the theatre. Alien came out just two or three years before that. I kind of grew up in that era with Alien, Jaws and The Thing.
Having seen Carpenter’s version, did you ever wonder whatever happened at the Norwegian base?
Yeah. As a European I was always really interested. In that movie they make really fun because they always talk about the Swedes, but they’re actually Norwegians. They’re kind of thrown up on this Scandinavian heap! But as a European living close to Norway that must have been horrible what happened to them, and it was always like this big mystery. So when I got involved and the studio and the producers asked, ‘Are you interested in making a prequel about these Norwegians?,’ I thought that’s fascinating.
Ultimately, why did you want to make this film?
I was such a fan of The Thing. And there are so many monster movies but always the monster is an exterior thing. As a character, you think if I’m going to hide then I might get away with it, and this was the only movie where the creature is really inside of you which creates this enormous amount of paranoia. And that sense of monster movie and paranoia I never saw in a movie after seeing The Thing. And that’s what sort of fascinated me about John Carpenter’s version. So when I got that opportunity to explore that kind of feeling again I think that was the reason to do it.
Do you hope kids sneak downstairs and watch your version on really low volume when their parents are asleep?
Yes. What I actually hope, and this was sort of always the intention, that they would see my movie first and like it and then straight go to watch John Carpenter’s version as one big The Thing marathon. That was always my intention. You cut the end titles off and the begin titles and just one four-hour The Thing experience.
At what point did you realize that Carpenter’s Thing had this cult of fans which was protective of it and had misgivings about the prequel?
Being a fan myself and seeing the movie in the theatre and just really following how… Because it wasn’t a success in the ‘80s. If you read those critics, they just nailed this movie. They sort of slashed this movie, and I just really followed it. It came out on VHS in the late ‘80s, and then in the mid-‘90s it came on DVD, and I sort of saw it growing, to my pleasure.
I understand to be honest, and I think if I had not made this movie and somebody else would, I think I would have the same feeling because you sort of treasure this movie for so long with you, almost like 30 years. And then I think a lot of people saw it when they were like 15 or 20 and now they’re in their 40s. It’s part of their childhood. So I understand that they might feel that precious feeling they have might be sort of ruined by a middle-of-the-road prequel. I totally understand that.
To what extent do you hope that your film creates a dialogue with the audience in the same way that Carpenter’s film still does?
As a filmmaker of course that’s what you hope. I hope I gave a little different light on the story so it doesn’t feel like the same sort of experience, but it’s far more European. You know, in America, and also how the cast in the original Thing, they’re sort of blue collar. MacReady, he doesn’t want to be, but he’s an obvious hero, and I think the European approach to those kind of problems… Europeans are far more chicken than Americans, I think. So for me it was interesting to sort of figure out how would a bunch of Norwegians react to this. So if it creates a little diversity, and at the same time it evokes the same sort of fear or sense of paranoia, that would be great.
Have you had any contact with John Carpenter about this film, and do you hope he likes it? I interviewed him recently where he very nonchalantly said a prequel was fine as long as someone cut him a cheque.
(Laughs) Well, I did not have contact with him. The producers and the studio did of course, and he sort of gave his blessing. So there was no reason to brainstorm with him. Also because I think his stand was, as you say, quite nonchalant, in a sort of ‘okay, you have my blessing, go on with it.’ But I truly hope he likes it, of course.
Would you be interested in filming a sequel?
I don’t know. It was a great experience and I really, truly enjoyed it, but I think it’s for me now in my career to do something that hadn’t been linked to anything else, just to create my own universe.
Is Army of the Dead still a going concern for you?
I don’t know. That’s something to basically wait to see what happens to the movie. I really don’t know yet.
What else do you have coming up?
There is something, but it’s really early stage. It has this sort of dark comedy-horror feel. The only film that really sort of mostly comes close is An American Werewolf in London. It’s one of the movies I really like as well because I like the combination of twisted dark humour and horror; it’s a great combination. So I’m sort of working on something in very early stage, but I would like to sort of experiment with that with these two entities: dark, dark black humour and true horror.
How would you reassure concerned Thing fans about your prequel?
I think they should just see it. I and the producers and the studio and the whole crew and the cast made it with a true love for… John Carpenter’s version. So I just think that they won’t be disappointed. If they like John Carpenter’s version, they’re going to like this as well.