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

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Ernie Hudson
Geoffrey Holder
Carl Weathers

Isaac Hayes

Bernie Casey

                    From my incomplete notes made at the time: John gave some initial consideration to Isaac Hayes, having just worked together in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK ( John also did the same with Lee Van Cleef for the role of Garry ). Geoffrey Holder's availability was checked very early on. Carl Weathers and Bernie Casey met and read, but it was Ernie Hudson who had the inside track until late in the process and was on the way to being cast when we met Keith...

Friday, October 28, 2011


               As emblematic as Kurt Russell's performance as MacCready in THE THING has become, his was the last role cast. Early on there were  general discussions about whether we should stay true to the idea of keeping the movie a strictly ensemble piece or lean in the direction of an established star. I think Kurt was always in the back of John's mind but, having worked twice previously together at this stage in their careers both wanted to keep their options open. These general conversations necessarily involved the studio at this point and were only exploratory, with no commitment from either party implied. My notes from the time aren't complete, but they show that availability was checked on the following actors:

Christopher Walken

Jeff Bridges
Sam Shepard
Nick Nolte

Bridges, Nolte and Walken were unavailable or passed without comment very early on. There was the usual initial trouble with the perception that a movie called THE THING could be anything other than a "B" grade sci -fi thriller and it wasn't until actors and agents  actually read the script that they warmed to the idea.We were intrigued with Sam Shepard, whom we were told liked the script but things didn't progress very far and no meeting was held. My notes don't reflect it, but I also seem to remember some early interest in Kris Kristofferson...

John Heard
Ed Harris
Brian Dennehy
Tom Berenger

Jack Thompson
Scott Glenn
Fred Ward
Peter Coyote
Tom Atkins
Tim McIntyre

          These actors met with or read for us for the role of MacCready. John would begin each session with a stern warning about the physical nature of the film and the rigors of working in the cold. Tom Atkins read and was an early favorite of John's when we were thinking solely in terms of  "the group". Others, like Scott Glenn and Ed Harris, met but passed soon thereafter. Both Peter Coyote and Tim McIntyre were openly lukewarm about appearing in a monster movie. Brian Dennehy was initially considered but became for a long while the first choice for Copper (switching like this was not unusual. Richard Masur came in originally for the role of Bennings, but expressed interest in Clark, for example).

               Australian actor Jack Thompson, then currently starring in BREAKER MORANT was a surprisingly strong late contender for MacCready. The film was shown to the studio and he was flown in to read for John in his office, but in the end what seemed to be the best fit and make the most sense was staying with Kurt, a decision no one has regretted since...
              John made the decision to cast Kurt on the day we left to film the initial ice field sequences above Juneau in early June, 1981. There he also shot the footage of Mac flying to the Norwegian Camp and the flying saucer ( the helicopter pilot filling in ), an occasion as I think he has pointed out where he filmed the costume before he filmed the actor... 



Sunday, October 23, 2011



                    When John was asked recently what the men at Outpost 31 did in their jobs he replied  "I don't know" and this is literally the truth. Running away as fast as we could from the usual stereotype of Dedicated Scientists Engaged in Something Bigger than Themselves, it was essential that our group be bored with their garden variety activities and, more importantly, bored and on edge with each other, a process accelerated by the creature's arrival and it's subsequent manipulations ( This as opposed to the usual dynamic of putting aside one's differences and banding together to fight and destroy a common enemy ). More caretakers really than scientists, keeping the men in the same wardrobe throughout the film serves as a physical reminder of that boredom, and also helps to re-enforce the glacial passage of time.

               "... I suggested putting ceilings on all the sets and bringing the pipes into the frame line to heighten the claustrophobia... I suggested using practical lighting to make it look realistic, so we lit whole scenes with just the flares the actors carried... We ended up using color selectively, with " The Thing " it's most colorful object..." Dean Cundey, Starlog magazine, November, 1982

            The anomaly of an all male ( and indeed, mostly middle aged male ) cast was surprisingly not much of an issue at the time. Once we had decided with Bill Lancaster to stay true to the intent of the original novella we were never asked to re-consider ( John was prepared to use THE WILD BUNCH as an example should the issue come up, and I thought about using THE GREAT ESCAPE ). I think now that probably the biggest factor in our favor was that everyone from the studio on down recognized at the outset that Bill's script worked , the characters and their interaction worked, and why mess with something that good ?

                After Bill came back from the Los Angeles Public Library from doing some basic research on Antarctica he asked us a  question:  how accurate do we want to be in our portrayal of Outpost 31 as a functioning research station?  We decided early on  to go to great lengths to protect the large elements that were essential to the telling of this story - the cold ( sets were originally planned to be built inside abandoned ice houses in the Los Angeles area ) and the sense of isolation leading to paranoia - and if we didn't get some of the details right, well... It's no secret flamethrowers, gun racks in hallways, dynamite in storage rooms, and a commander wandering around with a gun on his hip aren't exactly standard operating procedure, but it is pleasing to see that the film is prized now by those who inhabit the Antarctic research community, and is screened yearly at McMurdo on Winter Solstice ( great reading can be had at, a special section devoted to the film from people who ought to know... ).

          One additional note : when John went down to the sound stage to look at the finished Outpost 31 interior several day before filming was to begin it was painted a lighter, almost antiseptic hospital green. He immediately ordered it completely repainted with the cooler grey-blue color you see now - a small change making a big cumulative difference...



                           When I first saw THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD on television in my living room on a hot summer afternoon in the late 1950's, the 16mm print was greyed out, bright sunlight filled the room and I could see no detail  in anything, particularly the creatures face. I realised later this lack of information allowed me to form in my mind my own idea of what THE THING looked like ( a horrible sort of grinning skeleton informed by tons of EC comic books ) which, together with Dimitri Tiompkin' pulse pounding music was enough to send me out of the room, terrified... 

                    With a nod toward Halloween the Norwegian camp as a storytelling device for us was the functional equivalent of a haunted house, a chance to give the audience the impression that the worst kind of hell had broken loose without offering much in the way of specific incident - and have their imagination take it from there...

                 The interior portion occupied the first four the days of production ( to ease the company into shooting mode, with only two principal characters to contend with ) on refrigerated sets in the middle of a white hot San Fernando Valley summer. As filming proceeded John, in characteristic fashion, worked to strip the scene down to its essentials -  a continuing exercise in the elimination of  detail...

                   Bill Lancaster's early drafts had something more of a "spook alley" feel to them, involving incidents with a severed arm caught in a doorway (not filmed) and a partial body hanging upside down in a cabinet ( filmed, thought redundant and not used, although you hear Copper refer to it ). Additionally, Copper was to have found an audio cassette recorder and listen to a small snippet of what would have been the audiences first encounter with the creature ( this was re-written to be included in the videotape review scene, but was ultimately not shot ).

                    After all this was stripped away, what is left to register specifically are three images - the frozen man, the ice block, and the final grotesque discovery outside. We had planned to punctuate the scene with radio static here and there but dropped even that after hearing Morricone's music. The result is a meld of stillness, light, and sound ( knitted together by an ever - present, very even wind ) that is as sensual as it is eerie...

               " Here's the thing: at that particular time I had unleashed this terrible thing about horror movies with HALLOWEEN. All those imitations came out and threw every possible cliche' up onto the screen - the body in the closet, the thing behind the door, all of that stuff. I suppose I was just trying to get away from all that and make this film better " - John Carpenter, Creative Screenwriting magazine

The frozen man was modelled after veteran mold maker ( and member of Rob Bottin's crew ) GUNNAR FERDINASEN, a Norweigan...

                   The Camp exterior was originally going to be built a quarter mile away from Outpost 31 ( down the hill and to the left of the main set ) requiring a separate road. John, who hated cold, snow, and travel declared that if he was going to be forced to take a snow cat up the mountain for two hours just to get to the location he'd be damned if he take another snow cat down the mountain to get to the Camp...bearing that in mind we figured out a way to shoot the back of the Outpost 31 set a couple of days after we blew it up, and saved $250.000 dollars in the process (most of which went to Rob Bottin).

The remains of the Outpost 31 set shot two days after "the Big Blow"...



A rehearsal for the climatic scene in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. I haven't seen them before - courtesy of Life Photos...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


                  ... and with good reason. The script originally called for the Norwegian helicopter to veer out of control, crash and explode with the lone survivor (the pilot) emerging to follow the dog into camp. We couldn't responsibly figure out a way to do this practically so very early on in pre-production it was decided to try to do the crash with MINIATURES. A scale snow scape set was designed by John Lloyd and constructed on stilts on the back lot, designed to work with a very expensive remote control helicopter flown by our mechanical effects coordinator, Roy Arbogast.

                 The very first film shot on THE THING, John, although skeptical, directed an all -star crew that included Dean Cundey, Albert Whitlock and Bill Taylor. Despite everybody's valiant efforts the result looked like something out of TEAM AMERICA : WORLD POLICE...

               We looked at other alternatives. Several pilots connected with the production in Stewart offered to crash a helicopter for real - an offer not accepted because of the dangers involved. We gave five seconds consideration to the idea of having the helicopter simply disappear below the glacier and play the explosion off camera before we burst out laughing - the idea was a cliche', an audience cheat... The script was finally re-written to accommodate the action you now see, below  - the burning chopper is a shell dragged up the mountain in Stewart and set on fire...

Norbert Weisser as the Norweigan pilot

Thursday, October 6, 2011


                 I have been repeatedly struck by the ease in which the word assimilation has found its way into casual conversation and broader popular culture today ( THE THING "ASSIMILATION" MAZE at Universal Studios). Now accepted vernacular and taken for granted, when discussing this movie  the debate has moved on to the when, the where, and the why, but in 1981 one of the biggest storytelling problems John faced was how to effectively communicate the idea of assimilation in terms clear enough an audience would understand and accept. With this as preface, we turn to the variety of ways we dreamed up to kill off our friend Bennings... 


        OUT ON THE ICE



                Originally a set piece of Bill Lancaster's first two drafts, this terrific scene had McCready, Childs, and Bennings giving chase to infected dogs ( in this draft Blair didn't kill them all ). Bennings at one point was to be pulled under the ice by the creature, quickly bobbing up in different areas in progressive states of assimilation. Action was also to include one of the dogs leaping at Mcready while changing in mid-air.  Original plans called for a large exterior ice scape set to be built on stilts on one of  Universal's largest sound stages, running half  its length and continuing up the wall, creating a cul-de-sac.

                  The only exterior that would have been shot indoors the scene, although written for day, was switched to night to make it both more dramatic and easier to shoot. It was to be lit by the headlights on the snow cats, catching nightmarish glimpses of what we needed to see ( and in the process hiding what we had to ). In full operational mode, the set would have featured an army of effects people working both above and below, wind machines, snow cats, real and fake dogs, flamethrowers, explosives, a ton of goo and rubber, sophisticated hydraulics ( at one point I remember a tentacle was to grab a snow cat and fling it into the night) all done in an environment cooled to 40 degrees for good measure.

                   Although we made some attempt to simplify the scenes workings, it became clear as we prepared the rest of the film that it was increasingly unaffordable, with a cost estimate of close to two million dollars and a month to set up and shoot  ( a small movie in itself ).  



                 Conceived as a relatively simple way to dispose of a major character without involving any effects work ( Rob was well underway by this time on the other sequences, and did not have the time and money to take it on ) this second attempt was written by Bill Lancaster as a straight "Halloween " style  murder scene. It involved just two people, with Bennings being stabbed in the back with an icepick by an unseen assailant  ( intended to be Blair, whom you were to never see ). As you might imagine it was filmed very effectively by John, but when it came time to look at a first rough cut of the movie it felt aberrant, out of place, almost as if it belonged in a different film. But there was a bigger problem looming...

               " I don't think they (the studio) quite got the uniqueness of the imitation aspect." John Carpenter - Creative Screenwriting magazine

                     John's first look at a rough cut occurred during a five week hiatus the company took between the conclusion of principal photography on stage and the resumption of work in Stewart. Although some of the film played well, an early overriding concern was the need to effectively dramatize the nature of assimilation and it's consequences. With three already designed to be off - camera ( Blair, Palmer, and Norris ), the audience had only the Kennel to see the act in progress and that involved dogs, not humans. We had plenty of transitions back out once the creature was discovered, but was the essential defense the creature employs to disguise itself explained clearly enough? Time to go on the record. It was decided  to go back to the drawing board to come up with a scene that would unambiguously show Bennings in the process of being assimilated....   



                   ... but how to accomplish this ? We had completed interior filming in Los Angeles and there was no more Outpost 31. Rob and his crew were behind schedule with the effects on his plate and couldn't afford to be involved in any way - whatever John came up with would have to be shot on location in Stewart and added to the busy schedule there, with very little preparation...

                The resulting scene, written by John between the end of filming in Los Angeles and the beginning of location work in Stewart, accomplishes its goal in very simple ways. A new storeroom set and partial corridor were constructed on location inside the Outpost 31 exterior, the only interior scene shot there ( one small portion of the set was used to film the tie -in  where Jed sees the helicopter land ). Robs' shop sent up some miscellaneous rubber tentacles, orange dye and KY jelly as well as the same pair of slip on gloves stunt coordinator Dick Warlock wore in his "flight" to the ceiling as Palmer... 


                    A testament to his storytelling skills, John makes full use out of very little and fashions a sequence, from the foreground blanket raise to Bennings strange wobble and tortured final scream that efficiently and without elaboration does what it needs to - make the physical connection between man and monster.

Peter Maloney wearing the same pair of slip - on  gloves that stunt coordinator Dick Warlock wore as Palmer in his "flight" to the ceiling...

                 And just to make sure the audience understands what has just happened and the stakes involved MacCready in the very next scene tells Garry " that was one of those things out there, trying to imitate him"...

               This short scene, also written by John, was filmed at Heartland the same day the alternate McMurdo ending with Kurt was done. Its purpose was to hammer home verbally the idea of assimilation to the audience. No subtlety or shaded references here, just lay it on the line and mission accomplished  (for now, but we'll return to this theme later ).

                An additional note - those that picked up the fact that Windows dropped the keys off - camera as he runs to get MacCready are correct, and we did lift the sound of them hitting the floor in post production for emphasis...