The Thing - Mary Elizabeth Winstead and director Matthijs Van Heijningen
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate and director Matthijs Van Heijningen on the set © 2011 Universal Studios

The Thing Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr talks about the challenges of creating a prequel to the classic John Carpenter.

Remaking a popular genre film can be a difficult proposition; creating a prequel to a movie made nearly three decades earlier is even trickier. That was the challenge facing Matthijs van Heijningen Jr on The Thing. The Dutch-born director had to reverse-engineer a story that ended where John Carpenter’s 1982 film began, but could still stand entirely on its own merits.

In the 2011 version, Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as paleontologist Kate Lloyd, who travels to a Norwegian research camp in Antarctica, where an alien organism has been discovered buried in the ice. When an experiment frees the alien creature from its frozen prison, Kate teams up with pilot Carter (Joel Edgerton) and his partner Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to stop it from killing everyone in the camp. But when the alien can imitate any living organism, how can one distinguish friend from foe?

During a visit to the film’s Toronto set and a follow-up conversation in New York during post-production, the director discussed the complexities of creating a new- and yet familiar- version of The Thing

Why return to The Thing nearly three decades after the John Carpenter film?

The Thing - Poster
Poster © 2011 Universal Studios

I saw that film when I was 17 and always wondered why they never made a sequel. I never understood why they didn’t take the opportunity to do it earlier. My idea was always that they would make a sequel.

How did you end up working on a prequel instead?

I got involved when I was prepping another movie that fell through three months before shooting. It was a big zombie movie that Zack Snyder was going to produce, called Army of the Dead. I still think it’s a great project- zombies in Las Vegas- so it was three months before shooting and it became bigger and bigger because none of the casinos wanted to cooperate so we had to completely recreate the strip in the desert.

It was November 2008, three months before shooting when Warners pulled the plug, so after16 months of hard work, there was nothing. I was basically depressed for a week and my wife said, ‘You have to think of something else!’ And then Zack said, ‘You know, you should talk to Strike Entertainment, because I did Dawn of the Dead with them and they’re prepping The Thing. It’s the very early stages so it might be something for you to do!’ so I met those guys and we clicked.

How did you convince the studio that you were the right director for this project?

I’ve done commercials for ten years so I’m sort of trained in convincing people. Maybe that’s it, as long as you’re true to what you believe and how you feel, and if you don’t think about the consequences I just convey how I see this movie to people and if they pick it up and say, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ then I probably hit something. I really believe that this is the right approach and they picked it up and gave me the chance.

What was that approach?

The Thing - Kim Bubbs, Karl Carsten Bjyrnlund, Eric Christian Olsen, Trond Espen Seim and Ulrich Thomsen
Juliette (Kim Bubbs), Karl (Carsten Bjyrnlund), Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), Wolner (Trond Espen Seim) and Sander (Ulrich Thomsen) consider their autopsy © 2011 Universal Studios

I did a lot of artwork for it. I showed pieces of Alien to show how I wanted to shoot it. I talked about the characters and showed some designs for the monsters and how that approach was going to work. I think that was it. I hired some people for the artwork and what I thought the monsters should look like.

Did you have any input into the rewrite of the script?

When I came on, there was already a Ron Moore version, which I didn’t really like to be honest, for certain reasons that you knew who the thing was. I think the core of The Thing is that as an audience you don’t know who it is, so we basically started from scratch.

Was there any apprehension about following in the footsteps of John Carpenter and Howard Hawks?

Of course. I think as a filmmaker you want to do something original, but as I’ve explained it, the story about the Norwegians is sort of a story on its own and as a European I was really attached to that story and what happens to these Norwegians so it was a good opportunity to make a new story about what happened to the Norwegian base.

How did you build up the ‘ten little Indians’ suspense?

The Thing - Director Matthijs Van Heijningen
Director Matthijs Van Heijningen on the set © 2011 Universal Studios

Let’s say they all decide at some point that they figure out what the creature actually wants. It’s not so much to kill everybody in here, but to take over the world, which is what Blair actually says [in the Carpenter film] , so there’s a moment halfway through our movie where they basically figure out, ‘We can’t leave here and we have to make sure that nobody can leave!’ so they start disabling every form of transport. But the moment the guys who are disabling the vehicles think about what’s happening to the other people, once they come back, nobody trusts each other any more. It’s an extreme form of suspense.

So the climax of your film essentially has to dovetail with the opening of John Carpenter’s Thing?

The Norwegian that ends up in the American camp became a big character in our movie, because we end our movie with him, and it’s basically his dog that he’s chasing. We explain in this movie that it was his own dog that transforms and he tries to kill it in JC’s movie.

Is there an inherent problem when one already knows how the movie is going to end?

I don’t know if I should tell you this, but the movie ends with [name removed as a major spoiler] but we also explain how the movie continues, so it sort of has a double ending. We still find a way to continue the story with Lars who is our Norwegian guys who ends up in the other camp.

Are moviegoers more accepting of downbeat endings nowadays?

Maybe that’s true. I think if the story is good and you care about the people and you’re moved by the story and the characters, I don’t think you have to focus on a happy ending.

What are you happiest with now that you’ve finished the film?

I’m really happy with how the characters evolved. Filming everything out of synch and tracking all these different characters, my fear was that I wouldn’t care about these people. But now I can see that I really care about these characters. And knowing that they’re going to die violently and the paranoia that’s amongst them; I’m really happy with that!

The Thing opens in theaters October 14 2011


Joe Nazzaro

Joe is a New York based journalist