Friday, December 4, 2009

The Thing, addendum

Just some bits of trivia from rewatching the Collector's Edition of the film with the commentary track featuring John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

The Thing
was the first of John Carpenter's apocalypse trilogy, which includes Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth of Madness.

The Thing was released two weeks after another alien flick, ET, and was crushed at the box office by it.

When the cast arrived at the Universal Studios lot, the banner greeting visitors featured the two big Universal stars at the time: Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.

The opening title, when "The Thing" appears on the screen, was simply created by burning a black plastic garbage back in the shape of the letters and placing a bright light and smoke behind it.

The opening shot with the spacecraft flying quickly by the camera into Earth's atmosphere was copied for the movie Predator five years later.

The early shot with the dog running across the snow field was filmed outside Juneau, Alaska, which had the record at the time for the most snowfall anywhere in North America. As Carpenter put it, "the only problem with this location is we couldn't get any beer."

Working on The Thing with all of its helicopter work persuaded John Carpenter to get his own helicopter pilot's license.

The intended background of MacReady, Kurt Russell's character, is of a Vietnam veteran pilot who became an alcoholic after the war and sought isolation, hence his J&B drinking and service in Antarctica.

Originally the cast was going to be a true ensemble, with no main character or hero. MacReady would have only become the center at the very end once everyone else except the monster was dead. This sounds pretty similar to Ripley in Alien. Once Kurt Russell, a fairly well-known star was brought in, the script was adapted.

MacReady's big silly hat was forced on Russell because the second-unit footage had already been shot with another actor (or pilot) wearing the hat, shot from behind. In order for the footage to match Russell had to wear it too.

Russell was upset when they got to British Columbia because he realized it would be great skiing and no one thought to bring their skis.

Stewart, British Columbia is near Hyder, Alaska. In the area they have a tradition called Hyderizing or Hyderization. You have to drink Everclear, and if you can keep it down they take your glass and set it on fire.

Carpenter described the white-out conditions in Stewart as "being inside a ping pong ball and trying to find a way out."

The bush pilots in Alaska were apparently a bit nuts. One of them approached Carpenter and offered to crash his own helicopter for the movie if they would pay him.

The "base" that was built in Stewart was always kept at 31 degrees and the cast and crew really lived in it. It was specially designed to be destroyable across the shooting schedule.

The charred set of the Norwegian outpost was actually the American outpost once it was blown up for the end of the movie, rather than building two sets.

The interiors of the destroyed Norwegian compound were actually filmed on a sound stage at Universal in Los Angeles. It was almost 100 degrees outside at the time and the cast had to wear their full winter outfits around the lot. On the set it was refrigerated down to 28 degrees. In order to create the full visible breath the crew ran misters to put humidity into the air. When that didn't work the actors had to put special baskets in their mouths containing dry ice.

When Rob Bottin, the makeup and creature effects artist, made something Carpenter thought didn't pass muster, Bottin would just slather more gel on it until it looked good on camera. The slime was made of carbopol, the same ingredient used in Twinkies to hold them together.

Besides an all-male cast, the crew was all-male as well. The one woman who worked on the shoot was Candy Marcellino, but she was pregnant at the time and had to leave. Kurt Russell observed that, because there were no females around, the men did not engage in posturing.

The "steam" rising off the half-changed corpse of the Thing was something called A&B Smoke. All the coughing and wincing from the actors is real due to the pungent smoke.

John Carpenter was worried about how to shoot 12 actors all in a scene together exchanging dialogue and ensure it made sense to the audience. However, when he watched the original 1951 film, he saw that at one point director Christian Nyby shot a scene with 36 people.

Wilford Brimley had no trouble with the scene where he dissects the dead Thing and pulls out its organs. Brimley had been a real cowboy and rodeo rider prior to his acting career. He also was an extra on an episode of "Gunsmoke" which starred James Arness, the monster from The Thing from Another World.

Carpenter considered The Thing to be partially a metaphor for AIDS and the early hysteria surrounding it, because the disease was so deadly and you couldn't tell who had it.

When the dog creature extends a flower-like appendage, it's actually a collection of dog tongues with rows of teeth.

One day at lunch on the set, after a day of filming with the flame throwers, Kurt Russell played a practical joke on John Carpenter. He went up to Carpenter with bandages covering his face and said he couldn't work anymore because he had been burned. It took Carpenter minute to look at the expressions of the other cast members and figure out it was a joke.

If you ever visit Antarctica and want to dig up your own UFO, here is the map.

When shooting the scene with the UFO in the ice, the cast had to be very careful where they stepped along the glacier at all times. Because the entire area was solid white, one step could be solid and a misstep could send you 400 feet straight down.

The scene where the three actors are walking toward the spot where the frozen alien was found was actually shot by having the actors walk across a white sheet laid on the ground at the Universal back lot in Los Angeles. Everything in the scene surrounding them is a matte painting.

Carpenter and Russell joked that the crude computer animation of the cells being assimilated looked like the Atari game Asteroids.

For the scene where Wilford Brimley has a nervous breakdown and destroys the room with an axe, two cameras were running and Brimley was told to just go to town.

At one point Keith David has to hide his hand from the camera because he had broken it in a car accident. The hand was bandaged and a painted glove was then placed over that. The only car he had driven prior to that incident was one he had stolen in New York City.

The fake ice put in the actor's hair and beards was made from sugar.

Each flare only lasted 90 seconds, so shots had to be done quickly before it burned out. One scene would take multiple flares. The actors had to hold the flare close enough to his face to light himself for the camera but not too close to burn himself.

In the scene where Charlie Hallahan's chest opens up and severs Richard Dysart's arms, Hallahan had to lay on the table motionless for 8 hours of makeup.

One of the negative reviews when the film came out called John Carpenter a "pornographer of violence."

Notice that once Blair (Wilford Brimley) becomes the Thing, he no longer needs his glasses.
John Carpenter really admired Brimley as an actor and was impressed by his performance. When Carpenter asked Brimley what he thought about during a certain scene, Brimley replied "picking up my laundry."

The end scene with the floorboards being tossed in the air sequentially was accomplished by putting a big metal ball under the floor and dragging it with a winch.

The final monster sequence required 50 people to operate the giant puppet.


  1. This is great man. I've never watched it with the commentary track before. I've seen some of the stuff with Rob Bottin. He's hilarious, a little crazy, and one hell of an effects guy (probably one of the best I've seen, and he has the resume to back it up). I didn't realize that there was an apocalypse trilogy. I've never seen Prince of Darkness, but In the Mouth of Madness is probably my second favorite Carpenter film, after Big Trouble in Little China, of course, and The Thing is probably third. Oh, and now I have to go back and watch Predator again. I can't believe I missed that. I must be slipping in my old age.

  2. The documentary Terror Takes Shape has a lot of Rob Bottin in it (that's where I got the screenshot of the UFO model at the top). He's definitely eccentric and gives 110% to his work. He did so much on The Thing that he had to be hospitalized for a few days from exhaustion.

    Prince of Darkness is pretty awful if you ask me, though. The plot makes no sense and it looks like it cost about fifty bucks to shoot.