IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Thing'

Thursday, 13 October 2011 12:49 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Thing'

In 1951, The Thing From Another World adapted a story by John W. Campbell Jr., telling the tale of scientists and US Air Force officers in the remote Arctic facing off an alien creature the biology of which was based off vegetables.  While that film stands as a fine example of the monster movies made during that time, the 1982 remake written by Bill Lancaster and directed by the inimitable John Carpenter moved the action South to the Antarctic and updated the material to far more horrific effect.  In The Thing, the eponymous alien creature is not a vegetable, but more a viral creature, infecting and imitating human life.

The Thing, which arrives in theaters this Friday, is not a remake of Carpenter's movie, despite the title.  It is, in fact, a prequel, depicting a Norwegian research base's discovery of an alien craft in the Antarctic ice, and charting the creature's decimation of the doomed inhabitants.  This leads directly to the beginning of the 1982 film, in which a seemingly crazed Norwegian chases a seemingly innocent canine to United States National Science Institute Station 4.

IAR's Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was on hand for a roundtable-style press conference promoting Universal Pictures' new The Thing.  Our press conference coverage includes director Mattijs van Heijningen Jr., along with stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Eric Christian Olsen discussing the challenges of creating a prequel to such a beloved horror movie, what makes the new film unique, and the perils of working with practical alien effects.

While the repetition of the title can be slightly confusing for audiences familiar with Carpenter's film, van Heijningen Jr. says that from even before he came aboard the project, Universal's intent was not to remake the 1982 version.  "When I came aboard, it was already a prequel," he said.  "And there was a script around, which I really didn’t like. I said you know, we have to be ... one of the major problems with that script was you already knew what the Thing was, and I said that doesn’t work."

For his approach to the material, the director worked backwards from Carpenter's The Thing, specifically a sequence in which the Americans visit the Norwegian camp after it's no longer home to anything breathing.  "Well it gave restrictions like we have to sort of treat this as a crime story in a sense," he explained.  "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 walls, so we base 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 there."

For Eric Christian Olsen, an actor known primarily for his resume of comedic work in the likes of Dumber & Dumberer, Beerfest, and NBC's Community, the prequel approach was the only way to go, as he said, "I think the movie stands on its own because it's a prequel, because there's no new information prior to that moment. It stands on its own, but I think it's more fulfilling if you've seen the first because I think there's a lot of parts that paid homage to what Carpenter did."

The 1982 film was, along with Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China, one of several collaborations between Carpenter and leading man Kurt Russell. Russell played MacReady, a pragmatic helicopter pilot and wearer of a super-cool beard.  Van Heijningen Jr. said that the iconic nature of MacReady presented something of an issue in developing the characters.  "Then we had to construct, thinking of the story, it has to be from somebody’s perspective. So we came up with, in a very early phase, with 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 I felt like we had to really stay away from MacReady and then we thought of a female lead, basically."

That female lead is Kate Lloyd, an American graduate student of paleontology who ends up being the most forceful and resilient individual in a camp full of men.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who previously starred in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Live Free or Die Hard, and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, plays Kate, and she was attracted to the portrayal of femininity the character presented. "It was super refreshing for me when I read it," she said.  "I was like wow. There’s like no romantic sub-plot, there’s no shower scene, there’s nothing like that. I was so like ... I kept waiting for something to happen, like at the end she’s undressing but it just never occurred. It was like wow, they’re not coming at it from that point of view, it’s just these people in this situation trying to fight for their lives, and the woman is no different than the man, you know. That was really refreshing for me, and really refreshing to play, as well."

She had no trouble creating a wholly different character from MacReady, while still anchoring the film in a similar way.  She said, "I mean he’s like a blue collar guy, she’s like an intellectual paleontologist. They’re just very different types of people. I kind of just accepted the fact that this is a woman who’s very serious about what she does. She’s strong, she’s smart, and she’s just trying to kind of survive when all this stuff goes down. I was trying to play someone who’s relatable in that way and not some girl who’s trying to be bad ass or anything like that. I was just trying to be a strong woman."

The cast of Carpenter's film was exclusively male, so, van Heijningen Jr. explained, Winstead's role in the film activated some interesting thematic effects to the material.  "I like the idea of strong women in films," he said.  "Because they have to solve their problems, not physical, but in a more mental way. The Thing is a very physical presence, so that’s sort of counterbalancing, you know, somebody with brains, has got to figure out how to kill the most ferocious physical animal alive. There was an interesting contrast."

Still, he and screenwriter Eric Heisserer found a way to include a MacReady-like character in the form of Braxton Carter, a helicopter pilot played by Joel Edgerton, who starred in last month's Warrior.  "The whole Joel character was of course a little tribute to MacReady. I did some research about, in Antarctica, and 40% are scientists, while 60% are basically just working people. You have like thirty bases, and thirty research stations in Antarctica where nothing grows, everything is imported, so you have a lot of traffic. The idea of a helicopter pilot just flying stuff from A to B, sort of an ex-Vietnam vet makes sense. We were casting a lot of Americans and then this sort of rough Australian walked in and it was an easy choice."

Similarly, the production sought to keep The Thing's depiction of the creature in line with the last iteration. Carpenter's film remains famous for its practical special effects and horrific makeup effects designed by Rob Bottin.  The director explained, "I thought we have to pay tribute to that way of filmmaking. The problem was they only gave us three or four months time of prep, knowing that in those old movies they had like a year of prep. So it was a little rushed, to be honest. So some things looked good, while we were shooting it, and sometimes they didn’t. Or it looked like an '80s movie and did not have the sort of nowadays feel. So we improved it with CG. Sometimes we replaced it completely and sometimes we sort of kept it practical."

"I’ll be honest with you, I was physically repulsed," said Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of the first time he encountered any of the creature effects created by Acme F/X and Amalgamated Dynamics.  "I think they did an amazing job, and they didn’t unveil it to us as a cast until the last quarter of the movie. So we actually shot it like a drama. Then all of a sudden there were these these prosthetic, animated creatures, very lifelike, and some were fashioned on the faces of the actors. They’d be crawling and arms would fall off, tentacles would come out, it was very gory. It was great for an actor to have that instead of a green screen and someone calling out, “Now an arm falls off.” But the arm was falling out and the tentacles were coming out and it’s nasty. Sometimes the blood would spurt over you. But it all helps the performance. I think there’s a point in the movie where you can see the reaction, and it’s real, because you can’t believe it."

That wasn't always the case, according to Winstead. "I mean we had people in suits running around with these crazy tentacles chasing us and stuff like that," she said. "It sometimes almost looked sort of silly, but then when you would see it on the monitors it would look awesome. So it was interesting because when you’re doing something and you’re like okay, this looks ridiculous, but then the way it’s being shot, it actually looks great."

"I mean that always happens in horror films," she continued. "Because I think there’s always things that end up happening that are kind of hilarious but you have to stay in the moment and act like you’re terrified. You know, like people being splashed in the face with fake blood and it’s going in their ears and their nose and it’s just so hard to keep a straight face."

Agbaje, who just appeared alongside Robert De Niro in Killer Elite, agreed that playing scared was an interesting, sometimes incongruous experience. "As an actor playing horror is a challenge. It’s like comedy, to make really good comedy it’s quite complicated, to arrive at the beats of suspense in this type of movie you have to be real, you can’t be acting, you have to be invested in the situation you’re in to make it authentic. There is the thought to run away or be cool because you’re in a horror movie, but you’ve always got pull the reigns down. It was a new discipline. Subtlety and I suppose authenticity, but it brings you back to basics."

Part of what makes this prequel unique, according to Agbaje, was the decision to hire a Dutch commercial director who would be making his feature debut.  "I think they made an interesting decision in hiring Matthijs for the movie," he commented.  "I think they wanted that European element. Both sides have their strong points, but I think the European element brings an intellectual side to it. You get more invested in the characters than just big bangs. He was particularly insistent on the acting. The star of the movie is the Thing, so we were in service of that. It’s an ensemble so it’s all about actors, but it was more of a drama. We had to be real with the horror and the suspense because this was the first movie like this I’ve done and it’s very hard to act like you’re scared and not overact, or trying to be too cool. So he was very insistent on keeping real, down to the Norwegians speaking Norwegian. I like that. He’s an actor’s director."

For Eric Christian Olsen, the universality of the film's paranoid themes make The Thing really special.  "I think why it's universal, is that we all have issues with trust," he said.  "We all have issues with paranoia and in all relationships; whether it be at work, whether it be in our own personal relationships or family, it's about who we can trust in these situations and when the shit falls apart, what those alliances are and which ones are gonna fail us. I think that's why I was so attracted to the '82 movie, and this is why I was attracted to the prequel that we're doing now."

The Thing brings the paranoia to a theater near you Friday, October 14th.

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