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

Friday, October 26, 2012

ADVENTURES ON THE JUNEAU ICEFIELD ( PART TWO )







Now...




and then...
         

    
              In early January l981 Production Designer John Lloyd, tasked with the idea of finding a suitable location to serve as Antarctica somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere for THE THING, had a problem. Long range weather forecasts were unanimous in predicting lighter than average snowfall in the United States. He had taken an early look at possible sites in Utah, Colorado, and Montana ( including the original Glacier National Park location of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD ) but without a guarantee of adequate snow in time for filming that December it seemed useless to pursue any idea close to home. This fact lead Lloyd to pursue leads further and further north until it only made sense to land in Stewart, B.C., the snowfall capital of the world...





                   As spectacular a solution to our problems as Stewart was ( 24/7 access to the set by mining road, accommodations reasonably nearby ), the one thing it didn't offer was a concrete sense of  scale - the immense ocean of ice effect that pushes man and beast alike into insignificance. Luckily, there was a place around that would fill the bill nicely. if  we could figure out a way to film it... 







Dr. Maynard Miller conducting his "classroom" on the Juneau Icefield



                That we were able to film the opening sequence of THE THING on the Juneau Icefield at all was entirely due to the forbearance and wisdom of Dr. Maynard Miller who, beginning in 1946, established The Juneau Icefield Research Program at the University of Idaho which allowed participants supervised access to the site ( and indeed still does, to this day ). John Lloyd had gotten wind of the program and learned that they maintained several small "research stations" with rudimentary accommodations, whose existence was the key to successfully putting a small filming company on the ice for several weeks. Our initial scout of the location in January, 1981 resulted in our not being able to land due to deep recent snow - we ended up just hovering above one of the shacks which was completely snowed in up to the roof line. But what we saw in those few minutes - the camp was located at the top of a rocky promontory with the Taku Glacier spread out below - was enough to convince us that we had to figure out a way to make this place serve as the opening of the film...



Our Home Base - Camp 10 "The Nunatak Chalet"


                In mid March, 1981 John Lloyd and I spent a pleasant afternoon with Dr. Miller at his home in Idaho. After laying out what we had in mind ( a small crew of Fifteen to be flown in by helicopter to film the opening and assorted tie in shots, staying at the camp for a week and a half or so ), Dr. Miller agreed to the basic idea but saw a number of problems. Foremost was the weather - the only possible month for filming would be June, and even then, he promised, we needed to be prepared for storms and "whiteout" conditions that could last for days, which would hamper filming, isolate the crew, and also affect getting off the Icefield and back down to Juneau. Be sure to plan for and expect delays, he admonished. But if we were willing he was game, and would join us to advise, help negotiate the terrain and try to keep us out of trouble. An added bonus - to keep things all in the family his wife also kindly agreed to come and cook ( for all of this we made sure the Millers were properly compensated, and also made a sizable donation to The Icefield Research Program at the University )...





                     Dr. Miller would also function as the camps' "communications officer". This was no small thing in those pre-cellular days. Participants in the Icefield program now regularly blog and post photographs and data daily, but then our only form of communication with the outside world would be by CB radio.We planned to send the film down the mountain for processing by helicopter regularly, weather permitting, but considered it logistically impossible to attempt to have it sent back up to us in a timely way for viewing via videocassette. Not only would  we not be able to watch the dailies ourselves John would not be able to speak directly with anyone at Universal about their reaction to the rushes - for that crucial information we would be dependent on a number of ham radio operators stationed up and down the West Coast to pass what we hoped would be the good word along to us... 

               

Assistant Cameraman Clyde Bryan in foreground


                A spectacular sunny day in Juneau greeted our arrival to film in early June, 1981. Heading up to the Icefield in helicopters we anticipated a leisurely time unpacking and settling in. Not to be. Dr. Miller advised us the weather was about to change - better take advantage of what we had and head out right now...

            To put it mildly, effects of filming at 5000 feet on a group of out of shape inveterate cigarette smokers fresh up from Los Angeles took their toll. Movement was hard, seemingly taking place in slow motion. For ground level shots there was no take 2. Each setup was new, requiring the camera to be constantly repositioned in order to avoid footprints across the virgin snow scape - both ours and the dog's. Simple tasks like the application of decals to the helicopter to determine its identity ( Norwegian or American ) seemed almost beyond our numbed grasp, and seemed to take forever. Oh, well. John had a good feeling about what little film he was shooting, and tomorrow, with extended daylight hours at our disposal...

             We awoke the next morning to thick fog, effectively grounding us for most of the day. This would become the "new norm" for the remainder of the shoot - the weather would suddenly improve, allowing for an hour or two of hit and miss filming, and then close back down again until ? The uncertainty of the situation, despite being forewarned, was driving everybody crazy ( with the exception of Jed, who was having the time of his life ). There ought to have been some romance in the notion that we were stranded in one of the most exotic locations in the world, but the cramped quarters, the idea of not being able to see five feet in front of your face, and the omnipresent stillness together felt oppressive. Parallels with the plight of our fictional counterparts in THE THING did not go unnoticed. Someone joked to John that the extended down time would qualify as field research into the effects of isolation and boredom. John, who was frustrated by the delays and just wanted to get on with the work and get out of there, didn't seem particularly amused. The filming proceeded piecemeal, grabbing a shot here and there when we could... 
                         





                  In a scene reminiscent of the final tableau in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD we huddled around the CB radio to receive the verdict on the inaugural batch of dailies. We couldn't hear what was being said - we knew information was being passed from ham radio operator to ham radio operator up the West Coast, and were hopeful that nothing got scrambled. Dr. Miller began scribbling on the pad in front of him. The first word:

                                                                                             RE- SHOOT 

               Exactly what we didn't want to see. Dr. Miller began writing down scene numbers - 108, 108x, 109 ect, about twenty in all - virtually the complete inventory from the first two days of filming. We were thunderstruck. The problem, as relayed to us, was a spot on the lens that John's editor, Todd Ramsay, thought was too distracting and that infected all of the ground level footage shot of Jed being pursued. Knowing how difficult filming had been John was loathe to scrap what amounted to the first several days work without having an idea exactly how distracting the offending spot was, but, unable to view the dailies himself, was flying blind - dependent on one person's indirect word...

                We considered sending John down by helicopter to Juneau to have a conversation by phone, but the weather as usual was not co-operating. We finally decided we needed at least one other person whose judgement we respected to weigh in, so I suggested that we have Verna Fields, Universal Vice President and ace editor of JAWS and AMERICAN GRAFFITI, look at the film ASAP and render a verdict. The only question John wanted answered: was there any way we could we live with the problem? Dr. Miller relayed the word down the coast, and we waited... 






                    ... a few hours later, the considered judgment came back: Yes - no need to re-shoot. Good news this, for the weather seemed to be getting worse - Dr. Miller had gotten word about an extended storm front that he felt was capable of grounding the helicopters for a week or so and make travel off the Icefield impossible, except on foot. Best to try and finish up quickly ( the object of every one's concern was a grayish elliptical dot in the lower right third of the frame that can be faintly seen from the ground during the chase in the original release prints as well as early laser disc issues - it seems to have been scrubbed clean in the film's recent digital incarnation ).

              Being the most expendable member of the filming company during the next, brief break in the weather I made a run for it and escorted the  largest batch of film down to Los Angeles for processing. I was able to relay word up the coast early the next morning to the company that everything looked fine   ( not just fine, actually - the footage was spectacular ) - the signal to get off the Icefield before the next wave of storms and head home...

              




                 THE FLIGHT FROM HELL






               If you want to know what truly, deeply, strikes fear into the heart of John Carpenter sidle up to him sometime and quietly speak the two words  "Grauman Goose" and watch him recoil in spasms of terror...



The "Goose"

               After scouting Stewart, B.C. one Friday afternoon, in a hurry to catch our flight in Ketchican, Alaska down the coast to Los Angeles in time for the weekend, we arranged to charter a WW II era seaplane, the famed "Grauman Goose" for the short 10 minute trip. John was seated in front with the pilot, Larry Franco and myself in the back. Taxiing out onto the open waterway we contented ourselves with thoughts of a semi-relaxing weekend when we heard a huge CRASH, the plane shuddering, turning sideways and coming to a stop...

               We had collided with another seaplane. Bobbing up and down on the water, we looked out the hatch and saw one wing cutting into the other, forming a large v shaped wedge. One of the propellers seemed bent, but I guess we considered ourselves lucky that there wasn't an explosion ( I envisioned the propeller cutting through the cabin a la THE CROWDED SKY). After the two pilots spent a few minutes yelling at each other they pulled out canoe paddles and pushed the planes apart. We began to limp back to the dock. Ah, hell - with the plane obviously out of commission we were going to miss our connection, have to spend the week-end in Stewart, and... 






                 ...with a tremendous ROAR the pilot guns the engines and we begin to pick up speed - we are attempting to take off after all. John turns to look at Larry and myself, eyes wide with a "what the fuck" look, and then, saying nothing, turns back to stare straight ahead. Larry and I look at each other, and then as one out the window. The V shaped indentation is still there, and we can see the wing wildly vibrating - the engine with the bent propeller is also making some sort of a gurgling noise, and appears to be streaming oil. But up we go...

                  ... and then followed the longest eight or nine minutes of our young lives, Not a word was spoken - we all knew we were about to die. At one point I looked down and saw the airport runway almost directly beneath us. What's the pilot trying to do, circle, and ?... No.We drop out of the sky into a steep, nearly vertical dive, the engines screaming, like something out of a Chuck Jones cartoon. I envision the wings ripping off one-by-one as the pilot pulls out at the final second, at last touching earth...

                John, his face a whiter shade of pale, exits quickly and without breaking stride makes it into the airport bar, still not speaking until the first beer was gone. And then : "Oh, My Lord..."

                 The flight, however, did supply something of a bond between the three of us - whenever things got particularly dire on the movie, one of us would look at the other and solemnly invoke  "The Goose" - a sure sign that things could be worse...




Larry Franco pondering the aftereffects of a ride on "The Goose"



          FILMAKING 480 - THE BLUE BARREL


                 The question: how to "tie in" two disparate locations shot six months apart and make them seem as one? The answer: a single prop, one blue oil barrel taken with us to the Juneau Icefield and used by John to signal the approach of civilization...



Filmed on the Juneau Ice Field June, 1981
   


The next shot: filmed in Stewart B. C. December, 1981

                 A graceful, seamless transition from the Icefield to the friendlier confines of Outpost 31....             




               ANOTHER CAMEO APPEARANCE ?










                  Put this under the heading of informed speculation : The approach to the spaceship was shot on the Ice Field using doubles, with crew members dutifully filling in...





                I am reasonably sure the Palmer figure is special effects co - ordinator Roy Arbogast.The Norris figure is either prop master John Zemansky or Jed's trainer Clint Rowe. But when I looked at the shot recently I was struck by something very familiar in the body language and walk used by the crew member playing MacCready, and I think there is an excellent chance it's John himself  - I remember him trying the hat and jacket on in front of a mirror in the wardrobe department when in the process of deciding what to bring ( Kurt had not been cast at the time ), and I think he was the most natural fit for the job...             








3 comments:

  1. Hi Stuart, another very exciting post, thank !
    I think to have been the first to post a pic of you on internet when I spoke about the prequel on my blog ( at this time it was asid you were at job in its preproduction.. ). I posted another one in the first part on my The Thing's celebration : http://creatures-imagination.blogspot.fr/2012/10/a-lorigine-de-la-chose.html I think it includes a pic of never filmed Bennings first dead on ice ( I believe to have a Blair-boxmonster head too, coming in the next part ), perhaps you have already saw it ?

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  2. About the black and white designs we spoke about, I contacted one of the artists, Tom Kidd, he was enough kind to answer to me and gave me confirmation that someone was seeking designs for The Thing and so he was contacted by a friend about some contest to drew the monster ( I think it was directly based upon the novella , probably that he was somebody from Universal before Bill Lancaster was hired to write the first draft of the actual script.

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