On the set of 'The Thing'
Credit: Universal Pictures
Perhaps it's George Lucas' fault, but for certain movie fans, the word "prequel" has become a dangerous one, not quite as fatigued as the word "reboot," but close.
"Prequel" has come to mean, "Answers unresolved questions you never really had in the first place, only with a cheaper cast and no understanding of what made the original work."
Every once in a while, though, there's a prequel idea that actually makes sense.
John Carpenter's 1982 film "The Thing" is a genre classic that holds up amazingly, 28 years later. It's a masterful combination of practical effects and flawless suspense technique, boosted by swaggering performances and an evocative Ennio Morricone score (Razzie nominated, but to heck with them).
But while some movies end with question marks, "The Thing" begins with one. There's the helicopter, the two Norwegians and the dog they're trying to kill. There's the trip to the ravaged, body-strewn Norwegian camp, the mysterious block of ice and the briefly revealed crash site. We saw the havoc the protean Thing was able to wreak on the American base, but there's a whole story that had already taken place when Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley and company became involved.
That story is the basis for Universal Pictures' "The Thing," which keeps the name of the Carpenter original, but definitely isn't a remake. Back in June, HitFix joined a small group of outlets at the film's production stages in Toronto, where the filmmakers explained their approach to the Carpenter favorite.
For the purposes of this story, it would work best if I could lay the groundwork by saying that it was an oppressively hot June in Toronto, but that stepping into the Pinewood Toronto Studios set for "The Thing" was like getting transported to Antarctica, circa 1981.
Instead, it's unseasonably chilly outside and predictably stuffy on the stage, which is a series of rooms meant to represent the interior of the Norwegian base. The call sheet says that it's day 49 of 62 in the shoot and the base is worse for wear. The walls have been mauled, doors dislodged and there are gouges in several walls suggesting that something -- or some Thing -- has come through with claws or an axe.
There are stains on the floors. I'm guessing blood.
Wherever we are in the story -- spoiler alert! -- the humans don't appear to be winning.
Away from the main base, there are two good signs.
The first is that we all have reusable water bottles. It's a Green set. That will make some people happy for environmental reasons, but it isn't what attracts the attention of the assembled journalists. No, the bottles all read "The Thing" and the title treatment is identical to the script/font used for the Carpenter original. That doesn't mean that when the movie hits theaters, that will still be the case, but it means that as they're shooting, they're maintaining continuity even down to what some people would consider to be the smallest detail.
The second good sign is the corpse near the door.
Normally, randomly discarded bodies aren't a good sign and this one seems to have been particularly poorly treated. It's ribs are sticking out. Literally. Protruding from the chest. Its expressive eyes are buggy. Its tongue is partially distended and the veins throughout the face are in harsh relief. It also has no arms and legs.
I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one in a major motion picture, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this guy -- I won't reveal his name, because what fun would that be? -- didn't die of natural causes.
The vital signs for the character are poor, but for the ethos of the film? The pulse is strong. When plans to do a new "Thing" were first announced, fans expressed fear about the transition from Rob Bottin's effects on the original to the inevitable CGI invasion.
The corpse in the corner suggests those fans can relax. Alec Gillis and Tood Woodruff Jr. from Amalgamated Dynamics, Incorporated (ADI) are on-hand providing creature and make-up effects (more on that in another story) and the filmmakers are committed to keeping as much practical effects work in the film as possible.
"[S]ort of in homage to that movie, I think we have to do as much practical as we can," promises Matthijis Van Heijningen. "My experience also is that for reaction shots, even if you’re not gonna use it, the reaction of an actor on a real monster is so much better than... so we will decide in post-production how much we’re gonna use but I tend to use as much as I can."
Indeed, maybe the commitment is less to practical effects than to the spirit of the first film.
"Look, if those guys could have done CG when that movie came out, they would have," says executive producer J. Miles Dale. "So we're going to use the tools that we can to make the best movie we can."
Around the set, Carpenter's movie is discussed with the requisite awe. If you were of the proper religious bent, you'd think everybody was calling Carpenter "JC" with divine purpose, or perhaps you'd just find it sacrilegious. The adherence to the original 1981 film -- Christian Nyby's (and Howard Hawks') 1951 "The Thing from Another World" shares source material, but isn't a part of the equation -- extends through original producer David Foster's role as executive producer, a round of exterior shooting within five miles of the original's British Columbia locations, and presence of veteran location scout Robin Mounsey, who had one of his first gigs on the first film.
That's not necessarily a ton of carry-over, but the filmmakers have a bigger concern, namely not doing anything to screw the original up, or as producer Marc Abraham puts it, not "painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa." Part of the trick was in not doing a remake, but rather focusing on the earlier events, a puzzle first broken by Ronald D. Moore and then embellished in later drafts by Eric Heisserer. As of now, official publicity for "The Thing" refers to the movie as a "prelude."
"Prelude sounds a bit more ominous... I think people have talked about it," Dale says. "The big idea, the idea of doing a remake always seemed like a dangerous proposition, because it's such a well-loved film and the idea of doing a prequel was a great idea, because it's what happened. There are certain clues about what happened. You see guys fly in. You see the camp. You see it burnt down. You see a creature burnt up in the snow. You see a guy who cut up his wrists. You've got this little, mini roadmap to start with, but filling in the rest of it, we know where the movie ends, this movie, but where does it begin? That was the breakthrough. The idea of doing a remake was seen by everybody as a little bit of a loser's game, because the movie was very well-loved, hard to recreate, obviously you know what's gonna happen and living up to the standard of the John Carpenter is a tough deal. So everyone was excited about that idea."
Van Heijningen, whose background is in commercials and whose mentors include Zack Snyder explains, "I think that was the beginning of our approach, let’s see all those key points in the Norwegian camp. The ax in the door, the two-faced monster. Is there a way for us to explain that and incorporate it in the story about all these people? So that’s how we sort of came up with the story. And of course Universal was fine with Norwegians but we need to have some Americans so that’s way we sort of constructed it in there."
That's how "The Thing" came to feature a cast of Norwegian film and theater stars, but also Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Eric Christian Olsen. The plan is to have parts of the movie in Norwegian with subtitles, but it helps if you can point to stars from "Scott Pilgrim" and "Lost," or the latest in a long line of transplanted Aussie Alpha Males. But even those stars aren't so huge that you can predict the casualty order, which was important to Dale.
"In that first movie, it's Kurt Russell. You're pretty sure that Kurt Russell's not gonna turn into The Thing and die," Dale says. "There's something that's sort of epitomized by that movie 'Open Water.' When you see it, those two people, you have no idea who they are, so you're pretty sure they're in danger. If that's Tom and Nicole in the water, you've got a pretty good idea they're hopping on a boat. So for us, not having recognizable names is helpful, because it could be anyone."
And the day we happen to be on set, the scene being shot indicates that The Thing has scored another fatality.
That all ties into the director's approach to the theme of the film.
"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," Van Heijningen says. "That paranoia, how you figure it out, how people turn against each other has been at the core..."
After that crazed intro with the helicopter and the shooting, the original "Thing" has a very slow build, a prolonged calm before the story. That's a progression the prelude hopes to emulate.
"I really believe in, even films like 'Rosemary’s Baby' or all those movies where you really get to know these characters, you start to care about them and then, you know, when the horror seeps in slower, I really like that," Van Heijningen says. "I had to do sort of a big opening sequence and that satisfied the studio a little bit and then won some time so then, it’s really, I postpone it as much as I can."
Dale references a different genre landmark.
"Obviously the horror-porn kind of thing where it hits you harder and the jolt-meter goes up and up and up, that's not the movie that anybody wanted to make," Dale says. "This is really more along like the lines of 'Alien' meets the first movie. We introduce our characters. It's a little while before anything happens, but the build is good. We feel like yeah, we've gotta stay true to that horror, but it's also a thriller, it's also about the human condition when you get in a bad situation and paranoia and suspicion and those human traits go bad. It's about a lot. So sure, some of those things are shocking, but we wanted to engage people's minds, too."
Part of that mental engagement will include the "Which of us is The Thing?" tension that was so palpable in the original, plus the aforementioned reverse-engineering into the first movie, but there will also be wholly new spectacles, including an exploration of the alien craft barely spotted in the first movie.
One of the things I was curious about was the value of using "The Thing" as a brand name, the marketing worth of conjuring up associations to a movie made many years before the core demographic for this genre was even born.
Abraham's answer was a long one, but I also think it's interestingly candid.
"We're living in a time when, because of the cost of marketing and all this, that people are constantly looking for some leg up and the idea they can get inside people's brains," Abraham explains. "There are so many things that are asking for our attention constantly... that studios and anybody who's selling anything is looking for a branding idea. That's not a new thing. People have been doing that forever. I think it's overvalued. I do. But it's in my interests, if it coincides with something I want to do, to believe in it. But I think it's overvalued."
He continues, "I think if you have a franchise that's really really fresh, hasn't been exploited and is continually having source material that's being generated, like 'Harry Potter,' well yes, my three-year-old can probably say that's a good idea. But we're going back to a movie where the first movies was... 1951, to 1982, so now we're going back 30 years basically. Look, the title is one you can remember. So if there was nothing else, if tomorrow there was never a thing called 'The Thing' and one of you came up and said, 'I've got a great idea for a movie called 'The Thing,' you'd probably get people who'd pay attention to it, who'd go 'Oh yeah. Why didn't I think of that?' So I think there's value in that. I think there there's a level of people that have the knowledge that you guys have and your sampling of a lot of people in the very vocal Internet community, which we all know has some value, that are very much caught up in it, so it gives it a core. But that's certainly not enough people to make a difference in whether or not the movie becomes a success. So it's a really subjective thing."
Abraham adds, "Is 'Marmaduke' a good idea? Today, it's the stupidest idea in America. But 18 months ago, at 20th Century Fox, somebody thought, 'Marmaduke! Of course! 'Marmaduke: The Movie.' If you'd told me somebody was gonna make 'Chipmunks' sequels that were gonna make that much money... So anything's possible. But at the same time, some guy says, 'How about 'Zombieland'?' Totally fresh, makes a really good movie."
That leads us to the issue of a potential sequel. If this new "Thing" does well, hasn't the best available sequel already been made? Or have they figured or a direction to take another possible new "Thing"?
"Stay tuned," is all Dale will say, smiling.
"The Thing" opens on April 29, 2011.