Interview: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. Discusses Reinventing ‘The Thing’

By  · Published on October 13th, 2011

Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. had a lot going against him when he took on The Thing. Fanboy outrage notwithstanding, the filmmaker had to take the same concept ‐ characters discovering an alien running amuck, guessing who’s not human, that sense of paranoia ‐ and still make his own film, and not simply a series of retreads.

The obvious reliance on CGI over practical effects isn’t the greatest difference from John Carpenter’s film; it’s all the spins and deviations Heijningen crafted ‐ the unique alien designs that differ vastly from the original’s transformations, the lack of any bad-ass heroes, the twist on the blood test scene, and plenty more ‐ which make this prequel stand apart.

Here’s what director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. had to say about revamping concepts, why you’ll be seeing more CG versions of the alien over practical versions, and why we shouldn’t expect an unrated cut:

To start off, how difficult was it to find a structure that’s distinct from the original film, while also dealing with the core situations and themes?

Yeah, that was a big challenge. It’s sort of the same Outpost as Outpost #31, so it was [about] not falling in the same traps or doing the same thing. I think the set up was different, because you have this happy bunch of Norwegian scientists on top of the world, because they’ve discovered this thing. The ending of the movie is completely different, too. Almost by following John Carpenter’s lead with, for example, the two-faced creature, created a natural path for things to happen. I hope that it doesn’t feel the same.

I’d say something that’s similar is a general lack of exposition. After the set up, was it important to have that bullet pace and have no pit-stop where you explain where the alien came from?

I think the poetry of not understanding where the creature came from is nice. Of course, I had a back story for it. For me, the creature doesn’t have a form, and it’s sort of a virus or a parasite. It just takes other species’ forms, so it shouldn’t have its own form. The creature in the ice is a victim of the thing, not its actual self. It’s about how it got into that creature and into that spaceship; the spaceship is not the thing’s spaceship, it just took over the host and used it to travel to another planet.

Did you ever get that note of, “Why not have that explanation in the movie!”?

No. [Laughs]

[Laughs] That’s surprising to hear. Jumping into the design work ‐ they’re definitely distinct from Carpenter’s versions of the thing. Can you talk about the creation of some of those looks?

Early on in the process, I approached ADI who helped create the creatures. At the beginning we sat down, watched The Thing, and said, “Okay, this is what we’d like.” Thematically, if the thing was inside you and burst out just into a monster, it wouldn’t be interesting. I thought it’d be interesting if the human remained and was conscious of what happened to him, so they are aware of the transformation, but there’s just not much they can do about it.

When it came to the test scene of “let’s see which one of us is human,” how difficult was it to find a spin for that?

Well, it gave me hard headaches. You have this group of scientists ‐ not like the original, where you just had Doc and Blair ‐ so the question of “why wouldn’t they come up with a blood test?” was killing us. With constructing the story, I came up with the idea of, “What if you cloned somebody? Would you be completely the same? No, because if you put metal stuff on after you’ve been born, you can’t clone that.” Out of that sort of thinking came the teeth-checking scene, the replacement for the blood test scene.

Since the film is mostly about a pack of scientists, did that perpetuate the reasoning to not have any genuine bad-asses in the film?

I think if you go to a research station in Antarctica, they are very smart people, but not the biggest of guys. Maybe it’s because Europeans don’t have the tendency for stepping up and grabbing a gun; we don’t really know superhero culture over in Europe. That came natural, that idea. Story-wise, it it also gave Mary [Elizabeth Winstead]’s character the opportunity to have to step up.

I remember during the Comic-Con footage, there was this whole section of Mary’s character in New York. Was that introduction redone in the reshoots?

I never liked that scene.

To be honest, I cringed at that scene.

Yes, yes! Also, it was one of the first scenes we shot. Even her makeup was all wrong, because she shouldn’t have any makeup. It felt wrong on every level. It’s great that you can reshoot stuff and just make it better.

People always have that tendency of freaking out over reshoots, but it seemed to help in this case.

Yeah, and I also made the small mistake of making a movie for only the people who had seen John Carpenter’s version. The studio said, “You know, a lot of people haven’t seen John Carpenter’s version.” I was a little too easy on the logic of The Thing, like, “We know how it works! We don’t have to explain it all.” We clarified in the reshoots the logic of The Thing, and we did a better introduction of the Norwegian characters.

There was also a lot of talk about practical effects at Comic-Con, but there’s a surprising amount of CGI in the film. With some of the crazier designs and the difficulty of shooting in tight spaces, was it just not possible to get what you wanted practically?

It had to do with the amount of time we had. We shot everything practical, and then to have the transformations look as realistic as possible, we either enhanced it or replaced.

Will we see any of those original versions on the Blu-ray, like an unrated or director’s cut?

[Laughs] No, because this is pretty much my cut. The studio wasn’t on my back and didn’t force me to do things I didn’t want to. There are additional scenes we cut, which are nice to see, but didn’t make it in the movie.

The Thing opens this Friday, October 14th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.