Matthijs van Heijningen Jr interview: directing The Thing, and practical versus CG effects

As icy sci-fi horror prequel The Thing gets its home release, we speak to director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr about its writing, shooting and effects…

Following John Carpenter’s out-and-out classic The Thing would be a daunting task for any director. Since its release in 1982, the film’s gained a revered status, with its sublime mixture of Dean Cundey’s cinematography, Ennio Morricone’s murmuring bassline and Rob Bottin’s special effects still standing up remarkably well even 30 years later.

When Universal sought to continue the legacy of The Thing as a potential franchise, thawing out a property that has, like the shape-shifting beast of the title, lain dormant for some time, it’s to the studio’s credit that it didn’t attempt to make some sort of PG-13 blockbuster to win over the multiplex crowd.

Instead, producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman were given the latitude to pursue the same downbeat, chilly tone of the original, its paranoia, and its eye-popping moments of graphic violence.

Set shortly before the events of the 1982 film, The Thing 2011 takes us back in time to the days when a strange, apparently dead creature is found entombed in the wastes of the Antarctic. Naturally, it doesn’t stay frozen for long…

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With The Thing out in the UK this Friday on DVD and Blu-ray, we settled down for a chat with Matthijs van Heijningen Jr about his prequel’s writing and production, its mixture of CG and practical effects, and just how smart the protean star beast really is…

How did you become involved in The Thing in the first place?

I was in Hollywood trying to make my first feature, and then I met with Zach Snyder. I did commercials, and he was a commercials director as well, and he had this project called Army Of The Dead, which he was producing and co-writing. He wanted me to do it, and so I went to the studio and we began pre-production on this big zombie movie.

Then the [financial] crisis hit, and it fell through. But through [Snyder] I met the producer Eric Newman, and he told me that he was doing a prequel for John Carpenter’s The Thing. That’s one of my all-time favourites, so I was really enthusiastic to do it, and it went from there.

Were they quite supportive of your creative ideas for The Thing, or were there certain things that you couldn’t do with the property?

They were quite supportive, actually. I thought the whole problem of having a couple of Norwegians being the stars of the movie – of their being real Norwegians – would be a hurdle, you know, that they wouldn’t take to it. But to my surprise, they were okay with Europeans playing Norwegians rather than Americans. They said, “Oh it’s fine,” you know? So they were really supportive, actually.

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I understand that, when you first got involved, Ronald D Moore had written the script.


What was his script like, and what changed from his to the one you eventually shot with?

He made something which I had a lot of admiration for, but I thought it was the wrong approach. For example, he set up a situation where the audience knew for a long time who was the Thing. It became almost an extra character. And in my opinion, you should not know who the Thing is, or you lose the whole paranoia angle for the audience. That was not something we would change.

Obviously, the big thing you’ve introduced in this film is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character. When did the idea for a female protagonist come along, and what do you think it did to the overall dynamic of the film?

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Well, you need a lead character, even though it’s an ensemble piece, you see it through her or his eyes. In the beginning, we had a male character, but that character was always getting compared to MacReady in John Carpenter’s movie, so I just thought we could never win that battle, because he’s such an iconic figure. I said we should stay away from anything that resembles him, and at the same time, I’m a big Alien fan. So it sort of seemed logical that the character should be female.

It came out of a comparison to John Carpenter, and that changes the dynamic completely, of course. It wasn’t that rough [group of] blue-collar guys, but proper scientists.

One of the things I liked about this film was the way you shot it. There aren’t lots of modern fast cuts and shaky cameras. It looks like Carpenter’s film while still having a look of its own. What was your intention?

I wasn’t trying to copy – I think it’s just my style. I sort of like that easy, quiet way of telling stories. And I thought it would work better if you just observe the characters a little better.

I read, too, that John Carpenter was going to have a cameo in the film, but he couldn’t fit it into his schedule. What part would he have played?

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It was in an earlier version of the script where some characters would have a stop in a main camp, and from there they go to the outpost. But they end up in a bar, and in the bar we’d maybe have had John Carpenter play the barkeeper. We deleted that whole part, so it sort of fell through.

What was the atmosphere like on the set? I know on Carpenter’s film, it was quite tough, because they had refrigerated sets and so on.

Well, shooting with eight Norwegians is an experience in itself, because they like to drink [laughs]. For me, it was a natural cultural difference to the American actors, which really helped. The way they approached things, the way they expressed themselves. And then the Norwegians would always joke with other people. There was already this separation, so I exploited that a little bit. But it was fun – it didn’t feel like a Hollywood movie.

The important thing was creating that atmosphere of paranoia. Did your actors bring their own ideas to how they’d portray their characters?

Uh, no. And you know why? Everyone who was part of this saw and loved John Carpenter’s movie. I didn’t have to explain anything about that sense of awkwardness, because there was a great example of it in the movie. We saw the movie all together before we started. So it all felt very natural – it was already familiar to everybody.

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Along with the characters and the paranoia and the build-up, we have the pay-off with the creature and the special effects. What was it like to shoot those, as a hybrid of practical and CG?

Well, the initial plan – slightly naïve, maybe – was to build everything practically. Which is great to have on set, because if someone kicks open a door and there’s a monster standing there, you don’t have to act much. They’re reacting to what they’re seeing – you don’t have to explain to the actor what they’re seeing. Whether they’re believable or not, it’s so much better than in these Star Wars movies where they have to pretend there’s something there.

Although we shot the film practically, at the end of the day, it didn’t hold up. It looked a bit like an 80s movie, actually, which for some people is really special, but perhaps not in 2010, 2011. So we enhanced it with CG.

So what percentage of effects, in the end, were computer generated? Did you overlay quite a few of them?

Everything was there, except for the last creature, which came up in a reshoot, actually. It was mostly overlying stuff we’d already shot, but as a percentage, I think it’s 70 to 30.

Was that the reason why it was delayed from its original launch slot?

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Yeah, the effects took more time, and there were some parts that were slightly unclear, so that’s why we had a couple of days of reshoots. We juggled the story a bit.

I thought one of the sequences that was particularly effective, and I really enjoyed, was the drilling sequence near the beginning, where they first drill down into the ice. How did that come about? Was  it in the script from the beginning?

Yeah, it was always there. I studied a lot into how they drill into mammoth corpses in the ice in Siberia. I was watching this stuff, and they basically just take a hand drill and drill into it, so that’s what we did. I mean, you know the Thing’s going to wake up in a movie like this, so this whole scene of them subtly drilling into it became the reason why it wakes up. That was an easy suspense scene, actually.

But the way that it was shot was quite interesting, with that close-in side view, which was so simple yet effective. Was that just shot on-set?

Yeah, it was literally just a block of ice. But yeah, it’s definitely a suspenseful element.

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When you were developing the movie, did you ever have a conversation about just how intelligent the Thing is? It’s something I’ve often wondered. Is it just an animal, or is it more sophisticated?

For me, it was always an extremely sophisticated predator. A highly designed, engineered, intelligent virus. It does everything it can to survive or multiply its self. It has no true form. It starts like a virus, and uses its hosts to spread. So on a very basic level, it’s very effective.

Matthijs van Heijningen Jr, thank you very much.

The Thing is out on DVD and Blu-ray on Friday in the UK.

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