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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


                "We're Dead" remarked producer David Foster. The occasion was his return from the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and the premiere engagement of E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, where the trailer for THE THING also happened to be playing. The icy silence of the matinee audience of grandmothers escorting their grandchildren ( and vice versa ) was enough to elicit his precise statement of our predicament.


                   The ground had been shifting underneath our feet ever since the public previews, one executive confiding to me that the studio considered the movie a "missed opportunity", a product of failed expectations. The advertising campaign had changed overnight - the somber, predominately black and white imagery ( which we had been consulted on ) replaced overnight with the now familiar "glow face" ( which we hadn't ), the tag line " Man Is The Warmest Place To Hide" dumped for "The Ultimate In Alien Terror", which I abhorred ( "Man" was written by a publicist named Stephen Frankfort, who also came up with what I thought was the best tag line ever for ALIEN - "In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream".  He was hired early on and his company also created the earliest teaser with the ice block. The "Alien Terror" tagline was concocted by a studio suddenly desperate to display the word "Alien" above the title ). Both I thought represented a last minute demotion to "B" film status, something we had fought for years, and evidence that Universal was effectively throwing in the towel in trying to reach a broader, more mainstream audience.

                  At least the sniping over the ending was finally over - the studio recognizing, in the words of  head of distribution Robert Rehme that "the movie they had was the movie they had, and it was time to get it out there". Universal approved the making of six 70mm stereo prints, two of which we planned to use for the critics screenings on both coasts in an effort to put our best foot forward...

                 ..."a foolish, depressing, over-produced movie... aspiring to be the quintessential moron movie of the 1980's" - Vincent Canby, The New York Times

                      ... a lot of good this did. The reviews, primarily from print sources at that time ( newspapers and weekly magazines ) were delivered to us in packets assembled by the studio's publicity department. Either one paragraph dismissive or openly hostile, the general line labelled the film as an exercise in unrelenting gore at the expense of story, character development, and tension.

               ..."the structure of the piece reminds unpleasantly of porno films...Daily Variety

 We were not prepared for the amount of anger unleashed on the film in general, or on John in particular ( the gore - pornographer charges that were made in some quarters were outrageous and particularly stung).

               ..."this movie is more disgusting than frightening, and most of it is just boring." David Denby 

               "...It has no pace, sloppy continuity, bland characters... It's my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct science fiction horror movies. Here are some things he'd be better suited to direct: Traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings..." Alan Spencer, Starlog magazine November, 1982

                  THE THING had no official premiere as such, just a lame attempt at a opening day screening at the Hollywood Pacific theatre presided over by Elvira, where free admission was given if you came dressed as your favorite monster. After the film started I walked around the corner to the Cahuenga Newstand to pick up the new issue of  STARLOG, whose review promised to be more sympathetic to the cause. No such luck - a pan, where it seemed to me that even the fan base had deserted us...

                ..." because this material has been done before, and better, especially in the original THE THING and ALIEN, there's no need to see this version "... Roger Ebert - The Chicago-Sun Times

                  I spent opening weekend visiting a dozen or so theaters in the Los Angeles area. First up were the 70mm venues ( The Hollywood Pacific and the Crest in Westwood ) followed by a host of smaller theatres in the San Fernando Valley and vicinity ( most of which were still not equipped for Dolby stereo and played the film in mono ). Crowd size seemed to be pretty much the same wherever I went. Theatres were not filled for the 8 O'clock showing on opening Friday, maybe at most half-to three quarters full. GREASE II, also opening, was drawing consistently larger crowds in the multiplexes where both films were playing. There was no line for tickets for the 10 O'clock, with only a small group waiting to be let in...

              The reaction of those attending those first showings? Muted, at best. Not for the first time I sensed that the film made a  large portion of the audience feel uneasy, and that as captives they were neither  happy or comfortable with that fact...

I'd be delighted to report that I had some advance sense that the film was having an impact on future generations of critics and film goers that first weekend but the truth was I saw no evidence of any groundswell. My impression was that a very large portion those that came were unprepared for what awaited them. In theatre lobbies afterward the most positive reaction I could elicit was an ambivalent sort of "its okay". No excited overheard conversation, just quiet ( I suppose you could say they were stunned into submission but I think that's putting too kind a face on matters...). 

               " It Didn't Open " were the three words that greeted me on the phone Sunday morning, spoken by Universal V.P. Helena Hacker. The film was projected to earn under Three Million Dollars for the weekend, well below studio estimates. It would go on to lose close to 50% of its theatres by the middle of its second week of release and, in a yardstick measured closely by exhibitors in the age of Lucas and Spielberg, generate virtually no repeat business.

                 Early the next week I went to see John at his home. When he opened the door he looked stricken, as if he had physically been punched in the gut.The financial failure of the film was one thing, but another was the amount of vitriolic slop that was thrown in his face for good measure. It was if he had crossed a moral boundary of some sort and, as seriously as we both took our roles in the production of the film we both still knew it was only a movie...


                     The immediate consequences for John were severe. In advanced preparation of Stephen King's FIRESTARTER as his next film for Universal, the project was abruptly cancelled ( FIRESTARTER, with an initial draft written by Bill Lancaster, had sailed though development in something under a year and was, up until the day of THE THING'S release, a testament to the studios continued faith in John ). I was in the process of setting up a re -make of  ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS with John ( to have taken place along the Alaskan Pipeline with helicopters ) at another studio, but this went down in flames as well...

                Although the simultaneous release of E.T. by the same studio is often mentioned as a conditional reason for THE THING'S failure, I  think it more the case that the film was simply out of sync with the tone and tenor of the 1980's. At a time when people were seeking re-assurance THE THING was offering up very little. To be certain E.T. had sucked all the oxygen out of Universal's publicity and distribution departments, but I doubt that a release date later that year would have made much difference ( and exhibitors at the time had the quaint axiom that "snow" pictures didn't play well in Winter). Perhaps the title of the film was an issue. John himself  made a late plea for a title change ( back to WHO GOES THERE? ), worried about the surfeit of horror and fantasy films in the pipeline as well as the release later that summer of SWAMP THING...

                    Thirty years later, it seems to me that THE THING plays right into the wheelhouse of contemporary culture. In an Internet age where questions of identity are now commonplace ( the accepted use of assumed names at online forums, for instance) it is becoming increasingly easy to make the case that almost no one is who he appears to be - a  validation of the film's theme that trust, always a fragile commodity, is a hard thing to come by...

                 Several weeks after the film opened I was approached in a bar by writer - actor Buck Henry (creator of GET SMART, writer of THE GRADUATE, one of the stars of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH) who told me THE THING was "twenty five years ahead of it's time". Alone in his sentiments then, it now seems he was pretty much on the money...



                      The identities of the six individuals featured above are, right to left, camera operator Ray Stella, production manager Robert Brown, producer David Foster, and associate producer Larry Franco. On the far left is stunt coordinator Dick Warlock. Second from left is none other than screenwriter Bill Lancaster, making a deserved cameo appearance. Shot several days before filming began by production still photographer Peter Sorel, the original idea as an "in" joke was to feature all the producers, but I was deemed too clean shaven - Bill was having lunch on the lot that day, so we shoved him in instead - I am now awfully glad that we did...



                      ... was intended to be Palmer. At the time of filming  David Clennon's silhouette was considered too distinct, a dead giveaway. Cinematographer Dean Cundey tried to soften the edges to diffuse the image, but in the end John used stunt coordinator Dick Warlock to throw everyone off the scent...

                    The scene as originally written ended with the shadow figure uttering a barely decipherable "Hello, Boy" and the door slamming shut from the inside. Additionally, this is the last piece of an originally much longer sequence that had the dog weaving its way through the radio room, storeroom, kitchen and hallway, methodically surveying the scene. Beautifully shot by John, as seen in one piece it had the effect of establishing the camp geography from a dogs eye point of view. Great stuff, but John felt it slowed the story up and cut it down, with only small pieces used ( The brush against Bennings underneath the rec room table, for instance )...

Sunday, November 20, 2011


      Very early in preproduction on THE THING John was searching for unusual techniques to capture the wave motion of, lets say, tentacles and the like. He wanted to be able to vary camera speed by quickly whipping the motor back and forth over a wide range of something like 10 to 300 frames per second ( fast to slow ) by way of a remote box that he would control. In  another example of  tapping resources the studio had on offer, Universal's camera department teamed up with the Panavision Corporation to build an experimental camera with this capability. A special high torque motor was built that could withstand the tremendous swings, but the sticking point became the large, gradated, neutral density filter that was designed to rotate in front of the lens as the speed changed in order to keep exposure constant and prevent telltale white flashes. Several tests were made, and although the effect looked great in small stretches there was always an overexposed frame or two that gave the game away. Finally considered too unreliable for our use the camera was reluctantly abandoned, although I understand it had a brief shelf life in commercials... 

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...