THE THING

THE THING
From right to left : John, Myself, Production Manager Robert Brown, Associate Producer Larry Franco. The Juneau Ice Field. Location Scout April, 1981

Sunday, October 2, 2011

THE ENDING YOU ALMOST SAW



There were three endings shot and / or edited for THE THING. They are: 
   


           
   

       (1) The ending as it now exists, little changed from Bill Lancaster's first draft...   









  
        (2) McCready awaiting a final blood test at McMurdo Station.
                    This was actually one long shot filmed at Rob's special effects facility, Heartland, on a day sometime after principal photography when Kurt was available ( we also did two additional scenes with him that day, but that's another story ). I was there when John filmed it, and what I remember was a very deliberate camera dolly down a deserted industrial hallway, slowing panning left and eventually coming to a stop at an open doorway to reveal McCready alive, alone, and shivering seated on a gurney at the far end of the room. I think he was dressed as he was in the final scene, with the same blanket wrapped around his shoulders. No Childs, and no other actors or extras.


                  My impression at the time is that this was an honest but half-hearted attempt to provide closure ( and clarity ) for those who were clamoring for it (see below ), and John was never serious about using it. For one thing, the corridor used at Heartland had a sort of harsh tech whiteness to it - we didn't bother to paint it, and after spending the entire film carefully crafting the use of color this didn't look like the sort of image John would want to end on... Never tested or screened, I last saw this piece of film sitting off by itself at the end of an editing room bench... 
   




                                                                                            
  
  
                                                                      
           (3) Childs disappearing forever into the snowy night, leaving McCready alone.
                 John has alluded to this version on his DVD commentary, but I don't think its generally known that this ending was approved  and was going to be the way you would have seen THE THING in its initial theatrical release, and perhaps beyond. Here's how it happened...    

  


     




                The first preview of THE THING was held on a Friday night in late May 1982 at the Red Rock theatre in Las Vegas, Nevada with CONAN THE BARBARIAN ( I wonder if the prequel was previewed with the remake of CONAN - the more things change, the more they stay the same...). The day began promisingly enough - we received word that we had received an "R" rating, which meant no recutting ( we were worried about an X ). I flew up early with the tech crews to check both sound and picture. My seatmate was Rob Bottin, who was in the process of decompressing and wanted to see how the movie played with an audience for the first time. Arriving at the theatre, I was dismayed to see  that the arc-driven projectors were producing way to dim an image - potentially disasterous, since the studio executives would also be arriving by private jet for their first look at the film - we were able to get a barely acceptable picture only by removing the glass ports separating the projectors from the auditorium, at the expense of hearing their racket throughout the screening.








              There had been some advertising in the local papers and on radio, but come showtime at 8:00 P.M. the theatre was not filled, a very bad sign for a Friday night As the film began John took a seat on the aisle in the back and was handed a box with the master volume control for the theatre ( a little like handing a match to a pyromaniac ). Modest applause for John's name and the title, and then... silence. The first notable rise was on the insert of the needle in arm - John serving early notice that this movie was not to be trusted. The kennel sequence received loud, sustained applause, the most we were to receive that night - I looked over at Rob and caught him smiling... then followed a large crack! which made the crowd jump and sounded like a rifle shot but was actually Blair breaking off a piece of the creature - I looked over at John who was laughing, having goosed the sound ( he was particularly good at getting the audience to jump by raising the " sting " when the hallway shadow passes Fuchs  - this is probably about the only fun you can have at a preview ). It was during Blair's autopsy that the cumulative effect of what Kurt Russell described as the "ick" factor began to show itself as there were a number of walkouts - this would be repeated at the preview the next night in Denver. The audience quieted down after that, and slipped into an uneasy silence for the rest of the movie, broken only by applause ( and some nervous laughter) at the conclusion of the major effects sequences ( Rob was a very happy camper that night ). Light scattered applause at the end, with nearly everybody up and out of their seats while the credits were rolling. In the lobby afterward, it was clear that something about this film made the audience deeply uncomfortable, not what Universal, currently basking in the glow of E.T.s bright light, was expecting.








                  We convened in a small conference room in the bowels of Caesar's Palace hotel after the screening for the post - mortem. There were a few cards marked "excellent", a larger number good or very good, but the majority fell into the average or "fair" category. Although there was almost unanimous praise for the effects, many were offended  by the amount of violence and gore perceived  to be inherent in their execution ( a number of people spoke of  the Norris transformation as a slow-motion human decapitation ). John was asked politely whether he would consider editing these scenes. He responded just as politely that the effects had to be that strong in order for the movie to work - and that was the last we heard from the studio on that particular topic.








                    But the largest block of criticism was reserved for the ambiguity inherent in the film, which seemed to have taken a mounting toll on people and deposited itself squarely on the doorstep of the final scene. Many were confused, and seemed really angry at their confusion, which took us all aback. Did the two men prevail over the monster or did they not ? Was it really dead ? Who was who ? What about this Mexican stand-off ? Were we deliberately keeping things open ended because we were planning a sequel ? Or, to put more succinctly by a frustrated studio executive,  does anybody in this movie win ? Well no, actually, but this would have been the wrong debate at the wrong time so a promise was made to continue working to see if we could find a way to provide a more affirmative, satisfactory conclusion to the film. We continued on to Denver the next night with essentially the same results, although at least the theatre was full...


    


                    At the studio on Monday amid a steady trickle of downbeat news ( it was clear Universal was disappointed in the preview results ) the ending was scrutinised again. A version was tried that eliminated most of the early part of the scene ( Childs' evasive answers to McCready's questions ), in an attempt to make him seem less suspicious. Alternate takes were parsed for more affirmative line readings - with John's permission, Universal's Verna Fields headed to the editing room to give it a try at the behest of the studio ( this is not as odorous as it sounds. Verna was the editor on AMERICAN GRAFFITI and JAWS, and her opinion was respected by all ). These were all attempts to provide clarity and resolution to a scene that really wasn't supposed to have any, so the idea came to create what is in essence a new scene - eliminate the final confrontation entirely by having Childs disappear completely, leaving McCready alone to ponder his fate.









                This ending was tested on the Universal lot that Friday night to a recruited audience - Two small screening rooms were used, one showing the film with the ending intact and the other the new version. This screening was all about the ending - everything else had been fought through and decided. The lab had to begin making prints on Tuesday to make the release date, so time was short. Only two questions were on the cards : (1) do you like / dislike the ending ? (2) Do you like / dislike this film? Gathering in John's office afterward were Universal Motion Picture President Ned Tanen, our production executive Helena Hacker, David Foster, John, myself, and the editor, Todd Ramsay. The cards indicated a slight preference, by three or four percent, for the new ending, enough of an edge it seemed at the time to convince a studio very eager for an uptick in positive news to want to try it, so we all reluctantly signed off on this decision...


                  In trying to convey an accurate sense of the environment we were in I realise now that there was a movie being made at the same time a half - mile to our East with ending problems of its own, and for some of the same reasons - BLADE RUNNER. Ridley Scott felt pressured  to end his film on an artificially optimistic note, which marred its initial release. In any case, as the meeting broke up that night it had been decided to release THE THING with this ending.


                    Over the weekend, none of us could sleep - the ending was flat, a betrayal of everything the movie stood for. On Monday morning I spoke to Helena Hacker, our Universal executive (and friend of the film ) who was having the same feelings herself. She promptly set up a meeting with Ned Tanen, and we arranged for John to be available by phone from North Carolina (he was there beginning to prepare what was to be his next film for the studio, FIRESTARTER ) In Ned's office late that morning we made the case that there wasn't that much difference in the preview numbers and that we felt strongly that we would rather leave the audience with a question than with nothing at all. After taking a moment to confer with John and grumbling that it was probably best way out of a ditch with two bad options, he gave his approval to restore the original ending, some 10 hours before release printing was to begin. As a last request, we added the scream heard over the exterior of the final camp explosion to resolve the monsters death for those "who choose to believe it" as Tannen put it.








                    I think now that if  THE THING had been released with the new ending several things would have happened. First,  it probably have made almost no difference in box-office revenue. Second, within a year or two with the films release on cable and tape there would have been rumors of the famous unused ending, and a groundswell would develop to restore things as they were, a la BLADE RUNNER if  the film could be found..








                    Well, enough boilerplate. Most of you want to know who was who in the final scene. Unsurprisingly, there is no definitive answer but I can tell you what Bill Lancaster thought when he wrote it - he believed both men were human. He felt this was the most poetic way to end things -  two individuals moved beyond exhaustion, framed in a tableau of fire and ice, having a last drink in the Antartica night before freezing to death. I subscribe to this view. I can not, however with 100% certainty tell you that John agrees with this - what I can say is that given the fact this scene still bears the remnants of this massive re-working with many hands it is counterintuitive for me to think that there exists a hidden level of meaning that offers clues to identity (The J&B bottle being passed back and forth, Childs lack of breath in several cuts, ect. ). Believe me, all we were trying to do was keep the scene in the movie...

















13 comments:

  1. Beautiful post, Stewart! This is great, great stuff! Please keep it coming! :)

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  2. amazing story. We need this stuff on a special edition of THE THING.

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  3. Dear Mr.Cohen,

    thank you very much for sharing your stories and knowledge with us. I absolutely LOVE The Thing (which IMHO both outclasses the original Thing and even "Who Goes There?" and while I certainly have no high hopes for the upcoming prequel (which focuses on the very wrong aspects of its predecessor/successor (by basically trading the key elements - the feeling of paranoia and hopelessness for cheap action and gore, thus focusing on the wrong parts), I still hope it succeeds as this would get more people to explore your great movie. It's sad that the 80s will remain the golden era of the horror genre (Alien, The Thing and The Fly are the three equal kings of it IMO)as back then the filmmakers understood that a slow first act didn't hurt a movie but actually helped it. The Thing was one of those movies that made me study film and I just want to thank you and everyone who was involved for inspiring me.

    All the best from Austria,
    Ben

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  4. Wow, thanks for this incredible post! Any chance those endings exist anywhere? I'd like to see them, even if it was just on YouTube or something.

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  5. Thank you for sharing all these wonderful stories!

    I am curious if you are aware of this interesting fan analysis of the question whether Childs was a thing or not. It is fascinating that Lancaster's intent was that they were both human, as this analysis has some pretty compelling reasoning that convinces me he is a thing:


    THE THING film analysis (update) "Was Childs infected?"

    Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SppG-I_Dhxw
    Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgRWMbGSUec

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  6. Brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing. Please keep them coming :)

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  7. Indeed, thanks again for sharing, Stuart! Can't wait to hear about the alternate Bennings deaths!

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  8. Fantastic !! thanks for this read...

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  9. I agree with Bill. I think both were human, but we have that added dark element of neither man trusting the other, and in that distrust freezing to death on the snow, the world never knowing that these brave men (and the Norwegians) saved us all. About the lack of breath with Childs, look close it's there, but the lighting obscures it.

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  10. Darkest ending of a movie I've ever seen. IMO This will always be my favorite sci-fi/horror, and my favorite of the Carpenter films. THANK YOU!!

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