Matthijs van Heijningen, Director of The Thing

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Talking on set to the man behind the prequel

It’s been a few weeks (or is it months?) since Shock Till You Drop ran our set report from Universal’s prelude to The Thing, which has since been moved back to the more appropriate pre-Halloween release of October 14, 2011.

Hopefully you already have some idea what to expect from the movie, but while on set, we had a chance to talk at length with the movie’s director, Matthijs van Heijningen, and we wanted to share that interview with you since it offers a lot more insights into how he’s approaching the material. We talked with the director–a second-generation filmmaker who bears an eerie resemblance to Bill Pullman–about the influence of the original movie by JC (that’s John Carpenter) as well as how the director plans on filling in the blanks with the prequel, the general attitude taken to handling the transformation of the infected and lots more.

Shock: So was this a project that you fought for or was this something they came after you to direct?

Matthijs Van Heijningen:
I was prepping a movie called “Army of the Dead,” produced by Zack Snyder. It was 3 months before shooting and then the crisis hit and it fell apart, and then I was prepping that for a year almost, so I was like in a little void. Then I was in my car and I was like, “Oh God, I have to read all these scripts again.” Is there anything like one of my favorite movies that I went to, thinking about “Alien,” thinking about “The Thing” and then I called my agent and said, “Whatever happened to The Thing? Did anyone ever do something with it?” And he said, “Yeah, Strike Entertainment is prepping something with ‘The Thing.'” I didn’t know if it was a prequel or a sequel. So they got me in contact with them and they had already a script, and then I said, “Hey, well, can I read it?” And they were very enthusiastic about my work. I read it and I liked it, and I said, “Well, I think if you want to do a prequel to JC’s movie, it has to be really true to that movie.” As an audience you would know who was The Thing, but the basic rule of his movie is that you don’t know who’s the Thing, I mean, that’s the whole paranoia. So we started from scratch, to bring in JC’s movie as sort of the design of what our movie should be. Just really go back, you know. I said, “Well, if I can pitch it to the studio, it should be with real Norwegian. Otherwise, as a European, I mean it’s ridiculous if it’s like Americans pretending to be Norwegians. I’m just gonna pitch it and see, probably they don’t like it and it’s gonna be washed under the table.” But they said, “It’s cool, let’s do it.” Real Norwegians, that sort of thing. So that’s how it started.

Shock: Do you have specific memories of your first exposure to “The Thing”?

Van Heijningen:
Yeah, that I went to see it at the cinema and it blew me away like, I really… the ending was that dark, which is something that I really liked. I’m really fighting for that same sort of tone.

Shock: What was involved with reverse-engineering all the stuff we saw in that movie? Obviously a lot of things we see you can guess what happened, but you don’t really know. Was a lot of that done in the script stage?

Van Heijningen:
Well, I think that was the beginning of our approach, “Let’s see all those key points in the Norwegian camp. The axe in the door, the two-faced monster. Is there a way for us to explain that and incorporate it in the story about all these people?” So that’s how we sort of came up with the story, and of course Universal was fine with Norwegians but we need to have some Americans so that way we sort of constructed it in there.

Shock: How did you bring the Americans into the story?

Van Heijningen:
The way we did it was that one of the main characters is a Norwegian guy, and they basically want his help and he’s based in NY and he brings his team and his two assistants which are Americans. So that’s sort of a logical way to get a little bit of Americans into the story.

Shock: Can you talk about casting? How did you arrive at Joel Edgerton, who not many Americans might know.

Van Heijningen:
No, I was just trying to find this believable, hardboiled guy, a Vietnam Vet who just starts a business in Antarctica and doesn’t care about people anymore. Maybe he experienced a lot of stuff. So we cast Joel. I read about him, that he was in a play on Broadway, which had rave reviews and he just came in and that’s the guy. And for Mary (Elizabeth Winstead), we were trying to find somebody who was between 25 and 30 and believable as a clever person that could be a scientist. So the moment that somebody pretends to be a scientist and you don’t believe it, I’ll basically step out. So that was what I was looking for.

Shock: Did you have to audition with her or did you see some of her previous work?

Van Heijningen:
Yeah, we auditioned and she felt calm and strong and believable and sort of vulnerable in the beginning, and then she has to step up, not because she wants to but because she has to. That’s what I like.

Shock: In 1981, you can have the character that Kurt Russell played by an American actor, but nowadays it pretty much seems you have to go to Australia to find an American Alpha Male. Why do you think that is?

Van Heijningen:
Well, I’m in America, so tell me. There is something about the Aussies. You send them into the woods and they build a treehouse in 5 minutes, something John Wayne-ish.

Shock: Is there a McReady parallel going on with Joel’s character?

Van Heijningen:
A little bit, yeah.

Shock: A lot of the cast in this film is from Norway, who haven’t worked on a film of this scale or budget, so what do they bring to the table and do you speak Norwegian?

Van Heijningen:
No. (laughs) Well, it’s close to Holland so the culture is a little the same. I picked faces you wouldn’t regularly see in a movie, and I think that brings a certain authenticity to it. Some of them I had to correct a little otherwise it becomes too vague or too stagey, but they were really nice to work with.

Shock: Are you giving these characters more development? One of the criticisms of the ’82 movie was that you don’t really find out much about the characters so is there more backstory to these characters?

Van Heijningen:
Yeah and no, because even in “Alien,” you don’t know anything about Dallas or Ripley. It’s just how they perform, you imagine who they are, and if you do that good, then you don’t need “Is he married or not?” and all that sort of… it’s all about performance I think and what kind of character they are at the moment, so I don’t give them a lot of backstory, no.

Shock: If you had to sum up the essence of “The Thing” in one phrase, what is it that makes the first film so exciting and what is it you’re trying to bring to your movie?

Van Heijningen:
The core of that movie for me is how people behave when they start to distrust each other because anybody could be the monster. You have to work together but at the same time, you cannot work together, because the guy you work with or you have to cooperate with could be at the same time the monster. That paranoia, how you figure it out, how people turn against each other has been at the core… You know, what I like about JC’s movie, besides all these great horror effects, is that human aspect of it.

Shock: Is there one sequence in the original that you come back and say, “Wwow, that sequence is incredible and I have to see if I can top that”?

Van Heijningen:
The spider head I think is one of them, and the blood testing sequence.

Shock: How are you gonna top that? You can’t just test the blood again to see…

Van Heijningen: Well, the thing is, in the original story of Campbell, that’s already in that story. They did it and came up with it. That’s the core of the original novel. I tried everything (laughter). To be honest, I just stayed away from it because otherwise, you’re gonna compare it. You’re never gonna, you’re always… the same thing I thought the studio said ‘Well, we need a male protagonist and I said, “You’re never gonna win the battle of McCready with me. Well maybe we need some Ripley kind of figure to make a little bit of difference. ‘Cause otherwise you’re gonna compare it and you’re never gonna win that.” So, these were the factors.

Shock: One of the things people love about the original movie is the practical FX, which I know you’re using a lot of, but one thing that drives me crazy about that movie that you can tell when they edit from one animatronic to the next. We saw different stages of the creature’s transformation but we never really saw the transition between those stages. Are you going to try to make that a little smoother?

Van Heijningen:
Well, yeah, I mean, sort of in homage to that movie, I think we have to do as much practical as we can. My experience also is that for reaction shots, even if you’re not gonna use it, the reaction of an actor on a real monster is so much better, so we will decide in post-production how much we’re going to use but I tend to use as much as I can. This is a little different. Even if you see that guy behind you… (points to one of the animatronic sculptures of one of the characters being transformed by the infection). I like that sort of human element still in the monster as this sort of passenger, he becomes the passenger of this creature. In JC’s movie, it’s always really completely this big, bloody blob, which I like, but I thought maybe it’s nice to see the characters we already know, be part of that monster.

Shock: In addition to Carpenter’s “The Thing,” are there any movies in particular that you look back at particularly as inspiration?

Van Heijningen:
“Alien,” yeah, to me that’s the benchmark. The way it’s shot, the way it’s acted, the way it shows monsters or not. That’s all in your head, basically. These are my two favorite horror movies, so, the inspiration comes from those two movies. I spoke about “Alien,” about the realism of those characters. Like if you watch just a breakfast scene and you would show somebody that scene, it doesn’t really have to be a horror movie. That’s what I like about it. Polanski is a general reference that’s all about acting and then it becomes a horror movie, which I always like, and you sort of slowly descend into this hell.

Shock: In general, are you trying to make more of a slow-burn horror movie? In this day and age, everything is so far and edited so quickly so are you going against that grain and trying to channel how those movies were shot and paced?

Van Heijningen: Yeah, because I really believe in… even films like “Rosemary’s Baby” or all those movies where you really get to know these characters, you start to care about them and then, you know, when the horror seeps in slower, I really like that. I had to do sort of a big opening sequence and that satisfied the studio a little bit and then won some time so then, it’s really, I postpone it as much as I can.

Shock: So many directors have been inspired by “Alien” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” and yet we don’t end up with movies like that anymore. Why do you think that is?

Van Heijningen:
Because maybe nowadays people need sort of instant satisfactionor just some blood and horror. I think that’s one of the reasons, I think they were given more time just to explore characters. Waiting for the horror is almost more frightening than actually seeing it–just the pending dread–so I try to do as much as I can to stall.

Shock: Was making this movie a challenge for you personally? I know you have a background doing commercials and now you’re directing this huge budget Hollywood movie, so can you talk about making that transition?

Van Heijningen:
Well, it frightened me in the beginning. Working on a set and working with actors, that’s all the same. The moment you’re doing it and you’re in the moment, you don’t have time to think about it. You just have to make it as good as you possibly can on the moment.

Shock: This being your first Hollywood movie, what was the thing you thought would be the biggest challenge and what actually has been the biggest challenge?

Van Heijningen:
The biggest breakout scene. The breakout, you know the climax scene where the biggest creature appears, where everything goes haywire. Because there’s so much things happening, there are so many characters at the same time. There’s a lot of acting and a lot of special effects at the same time. So that’s the biggest challenge so far.

Shock: With all of the fire and destruction we’re seeing on set, there’s a lot going on, so would you say there’s more action in this movie?

Van Heijningen:
A little bit more. Also, because we go really into the spaceship, so there’s a whole… McCready never went, he didn’t even look in it.

Shock: Is that your opening sequence, the spaceship?

Van Heijningen:
It’s the finding of it, yeah.

Shock: You mentioned the need to give the studio that opening action sequence, what is the compromise you have to make throughout the entire process?

Van Heijningen:
It isn’t because it’s not an action sequence, it’s just the way they find it. It’s quite spectacular and it’s actually quite nice so I don’t feel like it’s a compromise.

Shock: We also heard obviously you’re building the alien ship. How much fun did you have helping to design it?

Van Heijningen:
No, no, a lot. I mean, there’s one of the biggest challenges because how many really good alien ships have you seen in films? So there was a big search, but I’m happy with what we came up with.

Shock: We heard it doesn’t feel man-made, that it feels alien. Could you talk about how you got to that, designing or helping to design that whole “not feeling man-made” feel?

Van Heijningen:
Well, first of all it’s not designed to walk into straight hallways so there’s not so much of up and down.

Shock: Since we generally know how this is going to end, how do you make sure that the ending of your movie has the same impact?

Van Heijningen:
Well, I have this sort of spectacular end in mind, a sort of big, set ending. It ends a little bit in 2 ways because we have to continue the story but have to end this story, so we found a way for that, that is the same sort of darkness.

Shock: Is there any reference made to the US base? Do they mention them at all?

Van Heijningen:
Yes.

Shock: So they know they’re out there.

Van Heijningen:
They try to contact them. Because they are in distress and part of the team decides to get to the outpost. They never make it but you know, so…

Shock: So no Wilfred Brimley cameo? (Laughter) Is there a character that brings a similar age and gravitas to this as he did in that movie?

Van Heijningen:
Yeah. That Norwegian guy they call for, which is like the Norwegian professor… ‘cause is a camp for geoscientists, geologists. They don’t know anything about

biology so they call for this guy to help them out. He turns out to be this sort of dark father figure.

Shock: How far do you go into it? We obviously know where the other movie starts, so are we going to get to the point where we actually see the dog and the helicopter?

Van Heijningen:
Yeah, I mean, this film ends with the crazy Norwegian stepping in a helicopter and leaving.

Shock: But you don’t actually show (what we saw in Carpenter’s movie), you leave it there.

Van Heijningen:
I cast the exact same guy, got the exact same helicopter (laughs), we learn who this guy is.

Shock: When you know where you need to go at the end does it leave a lot less room for improv since you know you have to set-up stuff to get to where you need to be? Or has there been a lot of inspiration on set with the actors?

Van Heijningen:
Totally. A lot of inspiration. Because, you know, all these scenes are sort of written down and I direct it in a certain way. Then if the actor comes up with, “It’s more logical to do this,” I just change it on the spot, so scenes change while we’re shooting. Nowadays, while you’re shooting the movie, you’re cutting at the same time, so you look back at that scene and it’s sort of an organic process, almost, which I love, it’s good.

Shock: So you’re doing one of those things where you’re seeing a rough assembly while you’re shooting?

Van Heijningen:
Yes.

Shock: Have you ever realized the following day that you need to pick up on something or reshoot a scene?

Van Heijningen:
Yes. For me, directing is sort of like cooking or something. You know that you’re making this interesting recipe while you’re putting all the ingredients together, you can never oversee what it’s gonna taste like exactly. So while you’re doing that, you’re tasting, you’re going. “Oh, it’s actually sadder than I thought it would be.” So the next scene, if he leaves that sad or that angry, the next scene, you know, you pick it up. It’s not all set in stone, because I really care about the emotional journey of the characters, so it’s a little improvising that way.

Shock: Being that your first feature is one that fanboys have a vested interest in, are you prepared to go to conventions and face the fanboys? Have you been briefed on what to expect?

Van Heijningen:
Uh, no. (laughter). You know, I love that movie so much and I just blindly went into it. And I just give it my best. I know I’m gonna be, you know — you know, I mean that’s how it is. As long as I stay true to what I believe is a good movie and what is my vision, that’s all I can do.

Shock: What kinds of things do you think the fanboys are going to be concerned about? What are you prepared for to hear?

Van Heijningen:
Well, that the monsters are different and it’s not as maybe… I haven’t even thought about it. So maybe that’s the best answer.

Shock: I’m also curious about how much you read online sites or did you before you started filming?

Van Heijningen:
I do, but no no, I don’t. But you know, you start reading “Who the f*ck is this guy remaking what?” you stay away from it.

Shock: Between this and “Army of the Dead,” you obviously have a love of genre movies. Is that the direction you want to keep going?

Van Heijningen:
I like genre movies and I like when they sort of crossover, when they’re not just like pure, like “Saw” or something, which is just pure horror. When they sort of crossover between drama and horror, that’s what I really like. Films like “Repulsion,” or something, I adore those movies because they start up this weird and becomes slowly this dark little, dark fairy tale. “Repulsion” is a horror movie but it’s a strange horror movie.

Shock: Have you met or spoken with John Carpenter at all?

Van Heijningen:
No.

Shock: Do you plan to?

Van Heijningen:
Yeah, but he’s really reclusive. I spoke to his old producer and he endorses it but he said, “Do your own thing, I’m not gonna interfere.” So, there will probably be a time (but) it hasn’t happened yet.

And now, the spoilery stuff about some specific things in the movie and how it correlates to John Carpenter’s movie:

The Thing opens on October 14, 2011.



Source: Edward Douglas