“The Thing,” a prequel to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 film of the same name, is directed by Matthijs van Heijningen in his feature film debut. A veteran commercial director from Holland and a big fan of the original movie, van Heijningen is skilled at crafting fascinating tales combined with a good visual sense which made him the perfect choice to helm the thriller. He’s also very passionate about character and authenticity while remaining respectful of the original. To ensure accuracy, van Heijningen spent a great deal of time examining each frame of Carpenter’s film and making sure that, where appropriate, touch points and artifacts were referenced.
MoviesOnline sat down with van Heijningen recently at a roundtable interview held on the backlot of Universal Studios to talk about what it was like directing his first film. He told us how Carpenter’s earlier version influenced his approach, why he focused on practical effects, and how shooting a scene with a two-headed monster alien posed some unexpected challenges. He also discussed why he insisted on Norwegians playing Norwegians, what inspired the line “Don’t trust the Americans,” and how he cast Australian actor Joel Edgerton in the role of the heroic Carter in part as a tribute to Kurt Russell’s MacReady in the original.
Q: How did you like directing your first film?
MVH: It was good. I mean, it was scary, of course. I’ve been doing commercials for 15 years so being on set and being with actors and that whole procedure is very natural to me. Dealing with studios and the whole prep and the excitement about doing a prequel about this movie, that was at some point pretty daunting in a way, but in a good way.
Q: Were you familiar with the Hawks and Carpenter versions that came before?
Q: It wasn’t like you were coming into it completely cold?
MVH: No, because I saw the movie when I was 17 in Holland. In Holland, you have a rating of 12 years and 18 years and I was 16 or 17 so I sneaked into the theater and saw it then. Ten years later, I saw the Howard Hawks version and it was completely impressive. You never see movies and I think I never saw movies that play with this horror element and with character development and the paranoia element at the same time. Because of those two elements, it was one of my favorite movies.
Q: There was a scene with a two-headed monster alien that you shot simultaneously while everyone was getting attacked. How ambitious was that and was that a nervous day for you?
MVH: Yes, it was a nervous day in the sense that do you track everybody. I was not so much concerned about the monster stuff, because a lot of stuff we just did pick-ups later, but if you put 6 or 7 people in a room and a monster breaks out, my first question is why doesn’t everybody run away. How can we make it logical that they have to stay? The Adam character gets attacked and is on the ground so that gave the more brave people in the room a reason to hide behind the pool table and the more cowardly people flee. I would just run away. That was like that’s not work.
Q: How involved were you in the process of overseeing the making of the puppets?
MVH: Totally. I mean, from the moment we got a green light, I met with different special make-up companies and then I ended up with ADI because I liked what they did on “Alien 3.” They had in their studio all these Ripley look-a-likes in different mutation forms which was really impressive. So we hired them. We worked together and then we just started brainstorming about how they should look and what is their behavior and then we made clay models of it and life size and then we made puppets out of it.
Q: From the beginning, were you thinking practical even thought there’s CGI?
MVH: Yes. I had two demands for the studio and I was 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 and they’re probably just going to fire me. I said there has to be Norwegians, no Americans playing Norwegians, and it has to be practical. And they thought that was fine.
Q: The practical stuff is great and when it’s combined with the CG it seems seamless and you don’t think about it.
MVH: I think the problem nowadays, and it’s something that I learned, is that Rob Bottin and John Carpenter had a year of prep on the whole movie and we had three months, so things got a little rushed sometimes. Sometimes it held up and sometimes it just looked like an 80s movie and then we had to enhance it or in some cases replace it.
Q: Can you talk about the casting and putting Mary in the lead role and then filling it out with Joel Edgerton, an up and coming Australian, and so forth?
MVH: When we started thinking about doing this Norwegian take and thinking about the cast, it was a Norwegian research station so it should all be pretty much scientists but have maybe two blue collar workers like Lars and Peter in the movie. And then, we were thinking about the lead and every time we were thinking about it or writing something, it was like the shadow of MacReady was sort of looming over us. We can’t beat MacReady somehow. It always became too close to him so then we said we have to stay away from him completely and then looking at “Alien” at that point. What if it’s a female and she’s basically the brains of the story and she has to figure this out, not physically but mentally in a way which was a nice counterpoint to the physical destruction of The Thing itself. Joel, we wanted to do some sort of tribute to MacReady so the helicopter pilot that flew them in. We cast a lot of American actors and then Joel came in sort of grumping with this Australian presence that sold it straight away actually. And the Norwegians, Norway is a very small country with only 4 million people so the amount of actors is not endless and a lot of the actors were doing other stuff. I have a Norwegian director friend here and he helped me a little bit with who’s good or not. But we had so little prep that I hadn’t even met them before shooting and I noticed from commercials that sometimes you have to pick people from tapes so they came in and they’re like okay. The funny thing is then you see somebody like Jonas (Kristofer Hivju), the guy with the red beard, and you go “Oh, we can make him like this.” So it was a little bit like casting people in sort of reverse engineering that you met them and then they molded the character a little bit around their presence.
Q: You also paired certain people together because of their personalities?
Q: Did that fact that you’ve done so much commercial work help because you didn’t have much prep and you had to do things quickly?
MVH: Commercial work teaches you how to improvise. With commercials, you have like two days. It all has to happen in two days. But, with a movie, you have 70 days so you have a little bit more time. But I didn’t know how it worked. I had a script and then we’d rehearse and then it didn’t work and then I put everybody together and said “If this doesn’t work, let’s do something else.” And the studio would freak out. You have to stick to the script. But I work in a way that I can only see if it works if you start playing with it and see it in front of you. I think the confidence of working with improvisation I learned with commercials.
Q: Who came up with the line “Don’t trust the Americans”?
MVH: I think that’s something I did. It’s a bit of a shot for open goal as we say in Holland.
Q: It was perfect because there aren’t a lot of intentional laugh out loud moments in the movie and this was the one moment the audience got a good chuckle out of.
MVH: Yes, probably an American audience.
Q: Do you think in the industry there’s a return to puppetry like in “Real Steel” because of the backlash against CGI?
MVH: I haven’t seen “Real Steel yet.” The problem with CG is that it’s done badly too many times. “District 9,” for example, nobody talked about CG because it was completely believable and a lot of people thought there were puppets. I think it’s going to always be a bit of back and forth although puppetry at some points is just limited. Or you have to build perfect robots that can completely emulate human behavior. And it’s good. It should always be there, both of them.
Q: Is there a sequence that was more challenging than you expected it would be?
MVH: There is a scene we shot which is not in the movie which was actually quite challenging. I’m sort of old school and I like horror movies that start out not as horror movies, but start out normally. To name a great example, “Rosemary’s Baby,” where you just 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. I did a scene with the introduction of Carter, Jameson and Griggs in McMurdo before Kate arrives basically to sell it to the studios that it would work. In other words, it was just a character scene that was quite a challenging scene but they didn’t like it. I think it’s on the DVD extra stuff.
Q: At the end, we’re not really sure what’s going to happen to her. Can you give us a little insight as a director as to which way you were leaning?
MVH: I always said to the studio she has to freeze to death because she’s in a car, has no clue and no maps. She can’t go to the Thule station because there are monsters there. She has no clue where that Russian station is. She doesn’t know where Outpost 31 is. So my idea is she just dies. I had an ending where the lab was completely frozen and the studio said no, keep it open, for obvious reasons I think.
Q: How close did you stay to the original? It seemed like bit and pieces are answered in this one that were unanswered in the first one.
MVH: We tried to stay [close]. We treated it as a crime scene basically – just noting there’s a hole in the wall there, there’s something burned here and there’s an axe here. And actually there’s a site called Outpost 31 that’s been up there for 15 years or something of real hard core fans. They made diagrams of the Norwegian base and I basically used them. They were completely accurate. They stopped every shot and measured it 3D-wise and I checked it and it was accurate. There were no original diagrams or blueprints from the sets so we had to eye match it basically. I tried to account for everything. There are a lot of things not right in my opinion. In the cold storage area at the end there are all sorts of holes in the wall. They’re not explained. You can force your movie so much to explain it and then it hurts your movie so we studied it pretty well.
Q: How many times do you think you saw it overall?
MVH: Over those last 30 years? A hundred times, I think.
Q: Did you film anything here at all on the studio lot?
MVH: No. It was all in Toronto and British Columbia.
Q: I appreciated that it was not in 3D. Was there any discussion about that?
Q: What’s your personal take on 3D?
MVH: It works for kids movies, I think. I saw a movie with my kids, “Tangled.” I thought it was great. I really loved it. It was very artistic. The problem with 3D is it’s shot on video. It’s basically two video cameras capturing two different angles so it will always have this sort of video-ish look. And, really loving film, anamorphic film, it’s just not an option for me. I just dislike it.
Q: Where would you like to go from here? I know that you had started on “Army of the Dead” but that’s on the shelf for a while. What would you like to do next?
MVH: I’m skilled in comedy, commercial-wise, not broad comedy but also sort of weird comedy. I also like movies like “American Werewolf in London” which is a great character piece but it’s like a love story and it’s this crazy horror and it’s funny at the same time. So maybe that’s something to explore, but also something completely serious. I like certain genres but it doesn’t have to be horror or science fiction.
“The Thing” opens in theaters on October 14th.