Quint's exclusive day on the set of THE THING prequel! Practical Effects! Fire! Injuries! The Works!
Published at: Oct. 4, 2010, 4:36 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I know there are a few Thing set reports up today, so if you've read any of those I'd like to entice you to continue reading the below report. I didn't go on the group day, but had my own exclusive day on the set of THE THING prequel, so what I've got to say should be a fairly different read than what the other good online folks got on their group visit.
When the offer to travel to the set of the prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing came in from Universal I told them I’d be happy to make the visit, see what they were doing, but that they should know that this particular project has a lot to prove for me.
I’m no push-over when it comes to John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I have a one-sheet (featuring the classic Drew Struzan art) framed in my bedroom, I’ve watched it a few dozen times front to back starting around age 8 or 9.
It’s to their credit and apparent confidence in the project that they still extended the offer and let someone they knew was approaching with a highly critical eye onto the set.
Shortly after arriving in Toronto I was in a van en route to Pinewood Studios. Immediately after making the turn into the parking lot my van skidded to a quick halt as a jut of flame shot out from the open doors of a grip truck. One big burst, then a smaller burst, then nothing.
The driver inched forward and we saw two crewmen working on a flamethrower; bulky, a dark uniform color, hooked up to a giant propane tank, its tip still burning with the pilot flame. I had to smile.
After a quick meet up with Lisa, the onset publicist, I was led into the studio where the main bulk of sets were. It was foggy from an atmosphere machine and the first thing I noticed was three rows of crew chairs with the familiar THING font set up in front of some monitors (a large amount of the cast was there). The second item to catch my eye was a Thing being working on at the back of the room.
Poor Lisa was trying to lead me to the chairs, but being such a practical effects geek I turned into a fat, nerd Terminator. I couldn’t be reasoned with or pleaded with. I had to go see the Thing and branched off from the plotted course to the monitors.
The Thing was a man (whose identity I won’t reveal as part of the fun of these kinds of movies is the paranoia and not knowing who is a thing and who is still human) on a stand. Dozens of cables ran out of his groin/ass area. These will eventually lead to various control devices that will move bits of the man-sized puppet, including a fully animatronic face.
The support stand ran into his back, his chest facing skyward, head hanging back as if he had been impaled through the back and stuck up as some kind of macabre trophy.
This Thing’s arms and legs were gone, grotesque stumps sticking out from the even more grotesque torso. When this particular Thing reveals itself his arm just detaches and grows insect legs and turns into what was described on the set as the arm caterpillar.
His arms and legs become independent creatures trying to scurry away from or attack the mean old humans who want to burn it to a crisp.
A tentacle with a giant talon-like sharp point is to burst out of this Thing’s torso. That wasn’t built in to the puppet as I saw it being finished up. A toothy orifice had opened from groin to mid-stomach and there was a disgusting separation under the left armpit as the Thing creature began showing through the human visage.
As I watched, ADI’s technicians went about punching hair in the neck of the face, which looked eerily just like the actor who was to turn.
Later on I got a closer look at the arm caterpillar, even got to touch it and, pardon my French, it was fucking gross. The silicone was eerily flesh-like itself, but when I touched the insectoid arms and could feel the joints of the armature underneath the life-like flesh a chill really did go up my spine. These legs were equal parts arachnid and human fingers and the realistic feel of the really pushed it over the “we’re cool” line.
One end of the arm caterpillar is the “hand” end. The middle and ring fingers were merged together and ended in a hook, the pointer and pinky fingers still human-ish. The other end was more like a flat-headed insect, pincers and the whole works.
Fed up with my practical effects geekery, Lisa finally pulled me away to the monitors. The rows of chairs were set up about 6 or 7 in a row, three rows behind the first set of monitors. These were primarily for the actors (big cast) and their friends and family. There were also a smaller grouping of about 6 chairs around a bigger monitor in front of that giant group where the DP and director types sat.
From my point of view I could see the wooden backs of the sets, walls with supports peppered with a few windows and doors that gave small glimpses at the fully decorated sets on the other side.
But what first caught my eye was that director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. was shooting in pure Carpenter widescreen. That wide, wide style that is such a huge part of Carpenter’s vision is back and even more impressive is the set design which feels so in tone with Carpenter’s film that I must have had a huge grin on my face.
Producer Eric Newman came over to introduce himself as a long time reader of the site. I repeated to him my reservations about adding on to Carpenter’s film, but told him I loved the look of the animatronic Thing and the sets.
He smiled immediately and, with an “I’m gonna shut your mouth right now” glint in his eye he walked me around the sets that weren’t being used for the scene in question.
I can only describe the sensation of walking from soundstage into Antarctic hallway as geek vertigo. You go from bare plywood and supports to movie world before your mind can really register it and it’s not just any movie world. This was walking into The Thing’s universe.
The set designers had a little bit of a job ahead of them because fans of the original will have seen the Norwegian base already. They need to not copy the original Thing to the point of dullness, but they have to be true to an earlier version of the base than the one MacReady tours.
I saw the communications room, ‘80s tech occupying shelving, maps on the walls. I saw hallways in disarray, blood smears on the ground. It just felt right, recognizable.
Then Newman asked for playback on a couple sequences already shot. The first up was a fairly wide, low angle shot of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who, while being a beautiful woman, was plained up significantly for this role. She plays an archeologist covertly brought in by the Norwegians when they make their big discovery.
I’ve always been googley-eyed by the girl next door type anyway, so I think she’s even prettier without the crazy movie make-up, but I like the direction they went here. She’s not glamorous, she’s not a movie star sitting with a bunch of Norwegian actors… she’s a bookish girl. A hot bookish girl, but a bookish girl nonetheless.
Anyway, this shot had the hot bookish Mary Elizabeth Winstead looking at something off camera, wearing the big, bulky flamethrower. Suddenly across the frame moves a Thing. It’s low in the frame, but you can see legs moving as Winstead reacts, swinging the flamethrower around and dousing the puppet with fire.
Around the middle of the frame it catches fire and, while on fire, moves the rest of the way out of frame.
Totally practical, everything in camera and extremely sweet to behold. That got me to ask about the practical vs. digital and Newman said that the balance is about 80/20 practical to CG with computer effects bringing to life smaller elements, like tentacles, and used primarily to enhance ADI’s practical builds.
That was music to my ears. We’ll see what we end up with… I’ve heard that line before for movies that ended up looking like a Playstation 2 game, but he seemed sincere and understood that if they were going to be making a prequel to a movie that has so much love, including from those spearheading the prequel at the studio, that film has to realistically lead in to the movie the fans adore.
You just can’t have a completely CGI’d Thing prequel and make it fit comfortably.
The next shot I was shown was an example of this new flame retardant gel being used on the film that is so cutting edge that the stunt people can apply it to bare skin, something impossible without serious burns a few years ago.
The shot had a character standing in the corner of a room, half his shirt ripped off. He’s hit with the flamethrower and is immediately engulfed in flame. People are going to think this shot is CG, and it’s possible they’ll go in after to manipulate it, but it’s a real deal in-camera burn. It’s incredibly effective and I can see it leading to some amazing cinema for those braver than normal actors.
Newman also showed me some stuff from their exterior shooting (on a glacier outside of Toronto, I believe) which looked solid, too. The best part was seeing a little bit from the end of the movie as one of the characters hops a chopper and goes after a certain four-legged thing-ball. Fans will know what that leads to, but the actor was wearing the same damn awesome weird snow goggles that we see at the beginning of Carpenter’s movie.
After this I returned to the monitors to watch the filming of a sequence where one of the characters is revealed to be the Thing. I described it above, but to recap… one of the group is injured and is being carried by his comrades, feet dragging, arms over the shoulders of his two friends.
Suddenly one of the arms slips off. At first they used a rubber arm that was fully painted, but didn’t move. I’m sure you’ll only see it in glimpses as this is when the appendage becomes the arm caterpillar. It grabs on to one of the humans’ own arm and digs in.
As that guy wrestles with this crazy thing attaching itself to his body, the rest of the scene erupts into chaos. The Thing is on the ground now, transforming. I didn’t see this particular shot, but I believe that is what the puppet was being prepped for.
What I was there for was the reactions of all the shit going down. People were shouting over each other, ducking a tentacle that wasn’t there. A long, thick tentacle growing out of the midsection of the thing will be added in later with CG. It flails around the room, breaking lights with its sharp tip and, eventually, impales one of the hapless humans.
As this is craziness is happening, the guy wrestling with the arm caterpillar is trying to pull it off him. ADI built this little contraption that strapped to his arm for closer shots that will feature a CG creation. On this device was a soda can-sized cylinder of green attached to a slide that allowed the actor to grab it and move it up and down his forearm. The idea is that he could more easily mime being attacked and make it more realistic if he had something to actually hold on to and move that also wouldn’t get in the way of the CGI guys later.
Image Engine, the VFX company behind the aliens in District 9, is doing the CG for the movie, so that’s a little load off as well. They’ve proven to be able to handle computer effects with restraint and professionalism.
In a perfect world we’d have a Thing film without one computer created creature, but if we’re living in an imperfect world Image Engine ain’t a bad ally.
After the tentacle knocks out a hanging light fixture (stained glass, very ‘80s) Joel Edgerton’s character, Carter, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s character, Jameson, flip a pool table and duck behind.
Carter is essentially the MacReady of the movie, a US pilot that gives a lift to an incoming bunch of Norwegian, British and US scientists when their ride to the Norwegian base doesn’t show up. If Carter is the MacReady type, Jameson is the Childs type, but there’s a little more love between the two characters. They work together and are fresh to this crazy horror.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Kate is supposed to dive in behind the two. She does, but miscalculates and face planted into the flamethrower on Edgerton’s back.
I was sitting at the monitors with writer Eric Heisserer when this happened. We were discussing his abused A Nightmare on Elm Street script between takes. He was very political about it, but it was clear it was a troubled experience for him.
We were also talking about his script for The Thing prequel. I had gotten my hands on an earlier draft and was pleasantly surprised on how Heisserer was able to turn expectations on their heads. There are similar beats to this prequel, homages to John Carpenter’s film, but at most points you expect them to follow suit with what happens in Carpenter’s flick and Heisserer will throw a curve ball.
The test to find out if you’re human or not, for example. There’s a nice creative work around for those expecting another blood test like in the Carpenter film.
He also plays around with characters you’d expect to fit certain archetypes. I don’t want to say too much more because one of the driving factors of these kinds of movies is the mystery around the characters. It’s the Agatha Christie syndrome. If you’re not engaged by the characters, if you know exactly where they stand from frame one then the movie loses a lot of its impact.
At any rate, we were discussing the script, he was telling me about having to work backwards from the destroyed Norwegian base from the Carpenter movie and tailoring a workable story that still stays true to what we see in Carpenter’s film. In fact, he said he’d love for people to finish this film and immediately start Carpenter’s film and have it seamlessly connect as one big story.
Then Winstead dove head-first into the metal flamethrower backpack. I was watching the monitor and saw her head whip back.
Remember this scene is chaotic, Adewale screaming “Kill it!” and other people just screaming. When Winstead connected and fell to the floor holding her face there was an immediate hush on the set. Edgerton had his back to her and took a little bit to realize something was wrong, but quickly turned and tried to help as the set medics rushed in.
They brought her off the set and sat her down directly in front of me and Eric. I felt like an intruder as the looked at her eye. Apparently she connected just under her eye and if she had been slightly higher she could have caused serious damage. From where I was sitting it looked incredibly painful.
Once they got the okay from the medics that Winstead wasn’t seriously hurt the producers conferred and tried to figure out what coverage they could get now that they lost one of their leads for the rest of the day.
After a quick redress of the set they got different pieces from the moments leading up to the arm reveal and the moments after.
The next shot was Adewale falling to the ground, avoiding the tentacle. As he falls they also showered him in candy glass, so I think this is right when the tentacle takes out the hanging light. He jumps back to his feet, camera following him, as he shouts to Edgerton to flip the pool table. With each of them grabbing an end the heavy table is overturned and they duck behind.
Edgerton’s character is having trouble with the flamethrower and shouts over his shoulder to Adewale that “Something’s wrong!” Adewale quickly tries to fix a line on the back of the thrower when cut is called.
I really dig the chaos of this whole sequence. Tonally it reminds me of Carpenter’s film when a Thing reveals itself, be it Doc getting his arms bitten off or the dogs going all crazy. I connect with moments like that in film because I get a feeling deep inside that if I was in a similar situation that’s how it’d feel. People would be panicking, shouting, scrambling to get away.
There were a few more pieces captured from this sequence, but if I go into too much more depth then I’ll be revealing who dies, who’s a thing and all that jazz, so I won’t ruin the moment for you any more than I already have.
Am I convert? I went in a skeptic, that’s for sure, and what I saw gave me a lot of hope for the film, but there’s so much I didn’t see, so much that can go right or wrong in post-production, that I can’t really make a definitive statement. Their hearts seemed to be in the right place. This wasn’t just an excuse for the producers and filmmakers to take the brand name and churn out something hollow and be just another horror reboot/remake/prequel in theaters for a weekend.
They’re shooting for an R, there was a fight with the studio for going as practical as they are and there’s an obvious reverence for the tone, style and look of John Carpenter’s masterpiece.
Does that mean we’re gonna get a good movie? Of course not, but it means that our chances are much better than I expected.
I sat down with most of the cast and creative team, including Adewale, Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olson, ADI’s Alec Gillis and director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. Since I have long 1:1s with them I decided they’d be better to run as their own stories instead of trying to jam them all into one set visit piece, so keep an eye out for those to be hitting over the next 7-10 days!
Hope you guys enjoy the piece! Got another set visit hitting very soon! Keep an eye out!
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