John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’: The Story of an SF Horror Game-Changer

Production still photographer: Chris Helcermanas-Benge © Universal Pictures, Turman-Foster Company

It’s always nice to see your films appreciated even decades after they were made, William Friedkin told us recently, but films are usually made for contemporary audiences. John Carpenter, the great filmmaker whom the world will remember for all those marvelous classics such as Halloween, The Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog and the subject of our today’s post, The Thing, as well as for countless brilliant yet still underappreciated movies like In the Mouth of Madness or Vampires, probably couldn’t agree more. The Thing, Carpenter’s unique take on John W. Campbell’s novella ‘Who Goes There?,’ the same story that inspired the Howard Hawks-produced, Christian Nyby-directed 1951 horror classic The Thing From Another World, was met with critical disdain and an utter lack of enthusiasm at the box office, partly due to the misfortune of coming out at about the same time as Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Scott’s Blade Runner. This was Carpenter’s first film made with the support of a major film studio, and the commercial defeat of it was a blow that the filmmaker took right to the heart. “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit,” Carpenter reasoned. When we talked to him a few years back, and used a polite phrase such as “a bleak response from the audience” to describe The Thing’s reception, Carpenter calmly set us straight, encouraging us to be more precise and call it what it really was in the eyes of the audience—raping of the Madonna. “They hated it. Hated. Especially the fans.” And yet, thirty-five years later, The Thing is universally considered to be one of the most prominent specimens of the science-fiction horror genre. A thrilling, brilliantly structured, nicely scored and well-acted masterpiece. It’s easy to forget an artist like John Carpenter in the sea of flashier, more commercially orientated filmmakers. Luckily for us, there are people like Guillermo del Toro here to remind us of the true values. Del Toro published a series of passionate tweets on Carpenter’s career, calling The Thing “a game-changer that cannot be matched, a Holy Grail,” among other superlatives handed to his colleague he obviously respects very much.

The version of the screenplay that Carpenter approved of was written by Bill Lancaster, son of a much more famous father Burt, but before that, there was a series of writers that attempted to adapt the material for a feature film, most prominent of whom were the authors of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, as well as Logan’s Run scribe William F. Nolan. Lancaster’s version blew Carpenter away, inciting him to call it the best screenplay he’d ever read. With Dean Cundey, with whom he worked on Halloween, The Fog and Escape from New York, behind the camera, with Ennio Morricone composing the score and later claiming the only reason Carpenter asked him to do it was because he got married to a Morricone score, with Kurt Russell in one of his most famous roles, surrounded by a less known, all-male cast because a great portion of the budget went into special effects, The Thing is a quintessential horror film of the eighties, still celebrated for the unbelievably fine effects and make-up that impressed even the misguided critics who hopped on the hate train at the time of the film’s release. It was then 22-year-old Rob Bottin who’s to thank for this. The legendary Stan Winston helped him out with one particular creature, but he was allegedly so impressed with Bottin’s work that he refused to receive credit for his effort.

The Thing remains one of the highlights of a distinctive, rich and somehow still undervalued career of a versatile filmmaker, accomplished composer and a modest, wise, down-to-earth man. Carpenter is a filmmaker whose work says everything you need to know about him, and The Thing talks in essays.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Bill Lancaster’s screenplay for The Thing [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
John Carpenter interviewed by Erik Bauer, Creative Screenwriting, January/February 1999.

Stuart Cohen has said you were very committed to not writing the script for The Thing.
Well, I had just come off making Escape from New York and before that I wasworking on the screenplay for The Philadelphia Experiment, which was one of these urban legend-type stories about a destroyer in World War II that sup-posedly time traveled and went into a weird warp. It had a great first twoacts but no ending, no third act; it was a shaggy dog story that didn’t end. So I struggled with it, but I couldn’t fix it. I hit the wall and I think it spooked me on writing for a little bit. I wanted somebody who could hammer out a script who wouldn’t have to worry about that. We met with a lot of people on The Thing and it was only when Bill Lancaster talked about what he would do with the short story that I thought, “This is the guy.” Bill was an incredibly charming person and I loved his movie, The Bad News Bears. I thought he was just brilliant, and that script was really, really good. He was the one who came up with a couple of reallykey scenes. He came up with the scene where the doctor tries to shock another character and The Thing comes out of his chest. And we discussed the ideaof the blood tests—that’s the reason I wanted to do the movie. That’s the showdown; that’s the big scene. Bill wrote the screenplay with the monsterin shadows, the old Hollywood cliché stuff, which everybody still talks about even to this day. Rob Bottin was the guy who said, “No, you’ve got to put him in the light, then the audience really goes nuts. They really go nuts becausethere it is in front of them.” I wasn’t sure, but that’s what we did.

The critics really hammered that aspect of it.
I’ve always thought that was somewhat unfair. I mean, the whole point of the monster is to be monstrous, to be repellent. That’s what makes you sidewith the human beings. I didn’t have a problem with that. The critics thought the movie was boring and didn’t allow for any hope. That was the part they really hammered on. The lack of hope is built into the story. There is an inevitability to it, but that’s not necessarily a negative. Well, in the short story the humans clearly win, but then they look up and wonder if the Thing got to the birds and they’re flying to the mainland. It was just a question mark that wasn’t quite the two men freezing to death in the snow to save humanity. I thought that was the ultimate heroic act, but audiences didn’t see it that way. I remember the studio wanted some market research screenings and after one I got up and talked to the audience about what they thought of the film. There was one young gal who asked, “Well what happened in the very end? Which one was the Thing, and which one was the good guy?” And I said, “Well, you have to use your imagination.” And she said, “Oh, God. I hate that.”

[Laughs] What a great comment.
We were dead. Dead in the water. Dead. Horrible.

In the wake of that type of response, what gave you the strength to stick with Bill Lancaster’s ending when you had shot a happier alternative?
Well, it wasn’t a happier ending. It was one shot of Kurt [Russell] having survived and what we would have had to do was a fade out or some type of title card or something, so stylistically it would have been cheesy. We did test another ending where MacReady blows up the Thing. He comes in and sits down by himself in the cold and then you go to black. You don’t have Childs coming in. There was absolutely no difference in audience reaction between that and the one we had. So the problem was inherent—the film wasn’t heroic enough, it wasn’t the U.S. Hockey team beating the Russians. That’s what people wanted to see.

It wasn’t ID4.
Yeaahhh!

A number of writers worked on this project before Bill Lancaster, and they all seemed to think the material needed to be larger, needed to be opened up. Why did you think this was a story best told in a bottle?
That’s what it’s all about. It’s a siege from within. What’s scary about the movie is not that’s it big and action-filled, but it’s small and there’s nothing out there but this blowing blackness and storm and cold and right next to you maybe a creature. That’s the creepiness of the story.

Was Lancaster the first screenwriter you worked with who wasn’t a personal friend?
Yeah, he was the first.

How did you two collaborate?
Bill wrote the first thirty or forty pages and gave it to me. I read it and I loved it. And then he struggled with the second act and the rest of the script. When he finished it we went up to Northern California together for a weekend, just to kind of hang out and talk it through. We asked ourselves, “Why are we making this movie? What is this about?” We went back through it again in our minds. And it was interesting. He had a different voice than the one I wrote with. He heard dialogue differently and had different ideas. So I talked to him a lot about how he saw things. How to you seeing this playing? How do you see this character? Is this a fast dialogue, or is it slow? Of course all of that went out the window as soon as the actors arrived. You’re at their mercy. But Bill did an incredible job on the screenplay.

Was it his idea to move away from Campbell’s “happy ending” toward something that was a little more gray?
His original ending had both MacReady and Charles turning into the Thing and being rescued in the spring. The helicopter lands and out they come out, “Hey, which way to a hot meal?” I thought no, let’s not do that. It was a little too glib.

Lancaster’s second draft screenplay is referred to on the DVD. Was there a draft after that, or was that the shooting draft you used?
I did a little second act work on it. It was never published.

There are a number of scenes in the script that weren’t in the film. Did you actually shoot that material?
It depends. There were several sections where there was way too much dialogue.

Right. That was definitely cut back.
What plays on paper doesn’t necessarily play on the screen. And some of itjust didn’t play. It wasn’t making sense. We were losing some of the tensions that we were trying to build.

Was a little bit of the verbosity a holdover from the short story?
I suppose a little bit. But primarily we had scenes that seemed to be repeating themselves. It probably was the way I directed it, but it seemed like it was going to be the dullest picture ever made unless we got a little bit moremood in there, a little more paranoia. Verbose? Yes, a little. Mainly repetitive.

In the film MacReady has a great monologue out in the snow with everyone standing around—I love that monologue. It’s one of my favorite parts of the film, but I couldn’t find it in the script.
It’s not in there. I wrote that. We needed MacReady to stand up there and say, here’s what’s happening.

That pulled the second act of the film together.
Also, Bill tended to write ensemble stories, which is what this was. But I wanted to push Kurt out a little more heroically when he finally takes over.

One scene in the second draft that stands out in my memory was the snowmobile chase after the dogs. Was that something you shot?
No, it was too expensive for us. I believe we had a shooting script after that, that didn’t involve that. The snowmobile chase was a great idea. It’s underthe ice, isn’t it?

Yeah.
Yeah. It was a great idea but we couldn’t pull it off.

Lancaster’s script contains a number of classic horror beats that were removed in the film. After making pictures like The Fog where you punched up that kind of horror, how did you decide to turn your back on some of those conventions for this picture? For example, when they’re searching the Norwegian camp, a body falls out in a surprising way.
I shot that, but it seemed out of place, cheap. It was obvious.

Keeping that stuff out of The Thing made it a lot classier.
Here’s the thing: at that particular time I had unleashed this terrible thing about horror movies with Halloween. All these imitators came out and threw every possible cliché up onto the screen—the body in the closet, the thing behind the door, all of that stuff. I suppose I was trying to get away from that and make this film better, or I just shot it and it wasn’t any good.

Do you think a great science fiction film needs to have some kind of a social anchor? I mean, a social relevance, a metaphor, or a statement that it makes?
It has to have a thematic concern. Every great work has something that’s thematic about it. Not a message, because I don’t think movies do messages very well. They fall flat. Socially, I mean, some great films were made back in the ’30s and ’40s and you can see that they were placed in the time they were made, but their themes are for all time. The biggest thing is the story, but within that you need some thematic element that gets the audience going, that reaches out to them.

Your remake of The Thing is a great movie, but it was a box office failure when it was released—
El tanko.

[Laughs]—do you think that was because it failed to reach out to the audience of 1982? It didn’t have relevance for them?
Yes, it was unpleasant for them to deal with. I think the social climate in the country at that time had a whole lot to do with it. There was a recession under way and people rejected its downbeat, depressing view of things. They didn’t like the horrible inevitability of the movie.

I can see through what you’ve put into the DVD version of The Thing that you really care about this film. How badly did the savage criticism it received hurt you?
Oh, big. Big. But I wasn’t used to—look, I was just a skinny kid from Kentucky who came to Hollywood, and I got real lucky in my life. If you want to playin the big leagues you’ve got to be ready for the hits. So that was my first big one. I’d gotten bad reviews before, but I had had some success, I’d been built up a little bit in the eyes of the critics and now they needed to swat me back. And I don’t blame them. Whatever they want to do is fine. —John Carpenter interviewed by Erik Bauer

 
Dean Cundey ASC discusses the making of director John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror classic. —Flashback: The Thing

A producers guide to the evolution and production of The Thing. From the blogs of Stuart Cohen. Courtesy of Movie Memorabilia Emporium.

STARLOG 060—JOHN CARPENTER DIRECTING THE THING

 

STARLOG 058—BILL LANCASTER ON SCRIPTING THE THING

 

STARLOG 059—AN INTERVIEW WITH DP DEAN CUNDEY

 

JOHN CARPENTER WITH ENNIO MORRICONE

John Carpenter didn’t do the music himself, since the studio never thought about it and Carpenter never asked. Ennio Morricone was available and Carpenter felt he did a great job with the score.

“Regarding The Thing, by John Carpenter, I’ve asked him, as he was preparing some electronic music with an assistant to edit on the film, ‘Why did you call me, if you want to do it on your own?’ He surprised me, he said—’I got married to your music. This is why I’ve called you.’ I was quite amazed, he called me because he had my music at his wedding. Then when he showed me the film, later when I wrote the music, we didn’t exchange ideas. He ran away, nearly ashamed of showing it to me. I wrote the music on my own without his advice. Naturally, as I had become quite clever since 1982, I’ve written several scores relating to my life. And I had written one, which was electronic music. And [Carpenter] took the electronic score.” —Ennio Morricone

 
“Carpenter flew to Rome and showed me his film,” Morricone says. “He was very insistent, and I liked his movie, so I decided to do it. The only thing is though, we barely talked about what he had in mind. When I flew to Los Angeles to record the score, I brough along a tape that contained some synthesizer music I had recorded here in Italy. It was realy difficult for me to understand what kind of score he wanted, so I composed an array of totally different things, hoping he’d find something of particular interest to him. Now I’ve been in this business for 30 years,” says Morricone, “and I think I know what my clients want, and guess what?” He (Carpenter) picked the piece which mostly resembled his own personal compositions. “That is of course the main theme, which can be heard throughout the movie.” Confirmation of this claim comes from the film’s soundtrack, which contains a great deal of music which never made it into the movie. The main theme is virtually the sole composition heard during the film, and collectors consider the alblum “a rather peculiar one” as a result. “I wrote an hour of music for The Thing, and I just can’t believe the way it was ignored,” frowns Morricone. “So when they asked me what to put on the album, I recovered all the stuff we had previously recorded. You can’t sell a soundtrack album with only one theme: its like cheating your potential buyers!”

 

FANGORIA—THE THING ARTICLES

 
The Incredible Effects of The Thing, Cinefantastique issue detailing the design and implementation of many of The Thing’s effects sequences.

 

THE THING: STORYBOARDS

The visuals of both the desolate Antarctic and the ever-morphing alien creatures in The Thing were envisioned long before the movie was shot.

Extensive storyboards were drawn by artist Michael Ploog so that all the departments of the production were on the same page in their preparation for the shoot. This is nothing new… but the similarity between the storyboards and the final imagery shot by legendary DP Dean Cundey is staggering. Storyboards are often only a guide, but in this film they were so specifically rendered that they became gospel. The detail and artistry of Ploog’s work up front, allowed the crew to have clear and defined goals on those frigid shooting days in both Alaska and Canada.

To demonstrate this point… I’ve taken two scenes from The Thing and laid down the storyboards next to the shots in the final edit of the film. The video below examines the discovery of the alien spaceship and the transformation of Norris in the shocking scene that still haunts me today. Just like Hitchcock worked with Saul Bass to create the famous shower scene in Psycho, Ploog crafted beautiful storyboards for Carpenter so that the time on set was best utilized to tell the story. Be it pencil to paper or an iPad app filmmakers can share the envisionment of the worlds they are creating by using storyboards. —Vashi Nedomansky, The Thing: Storyboards to Film Comparison

 
Interview with the filmmakers from The Thing about the making of the movie and its amazing creature special effects that were designed and created by young Rob Bottin. Bottin himself in his enthusiastic and “mad scientist” look a like appearance discuss The Thing special effects and the challenges that he and the crew faced and how they did the effects sequences itself. The interview is a part of special collectors DVD edition. And also important notes we’re made by director John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey. Courtesy of William Forsche.

 

THE THING: TERROR TAKES SHAPE

The Thing: Terror Takes Shape, created by Daniel Barros, focuses on the making of the horrific and intense thriller. It basically offers fans everything they ever wanted to know about The Thing, so it’s definitely worth watching when you get a chance. —Geektyrant

 
Fear Is Just the Beginning chronicles the work of cult director John Carpenter through interviews with him and his associates, with emphases on the earlier work.


Open YouTube video

 

‘BIG JOHN’

In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a genre film director; and in the USA, a bum. These are the famous words of John Carpenter, one of the most influential horror film directors of all time, whose works such as Halloween, The Thing, The Fog and In the Mouth of Madness remain an inescapable part of every horror film encyclopedia. A talented filmmaker, a modest, humble and practical man, and, for this occasion equally important, a disarmingly, refreshingly honest interviewee. It was from France, to go back to the quote we started with, that the idea for this rare documentary came to life. In 2006 filmmaker Julien Dunand made a documentary film simply called Big John, a 75-minute exploration of Carpenter’s career, character and American film industry in general. The film lacks clips from Carpenter’s movies, most likely due to budgetary issues, but more than makes up for it with a series of enlightening interviews with both Carpenter himself (mostly filmed behind the wheel while driving around L.A.) and a whole gallery of his frequent collaborators, such as producing partner Debra Hill, the Assault on Precinct 13 star Austin Stoker, actress and ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau, the Christine protagonist Keith Gordon, Carpenter’s composing collaborator Alan Howarth, who also did the music for the documentary, and many others. The central value of this film, which is obviously made with a lot of love and respect both for Carpenter and the craft, lies in the one-on-one conversations between Dunand and Carpenter, which give insight into the life and work of a filmmaker whose golden days may be long gone, but whose significance for the art of film can’t be diminished. As on many other occasions, Carpenter leaves the impression of a sympathetic, straightforward fellow who feels he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “Many of my film school colleagues were more talented than me,” he told us a couple of years back, “so you mustn’t underestimate the importance of sheer luck.” That may be the case, but through a career spanning four decades and eighteen movies, obvious talent and hard work was what kept him at the top.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Production still photographer: Chris Helcermanas-Benge © Universal Pictures, Turman-Foster Company. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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