THE MAKING OF THE THING
HOLLYWOOD – In our ‘The Making of… Series’ we turn our attention to the classic science fiction/ horror remake: John Carpenter’s The Thing.
John Carpenter had wanted to make another Science Fiction film following his debut Dark Star in 1974. He made Escape from New York in 1981 and then immediately started work on The Thing I Like About You, a musical comedy written by Burt Lancaster’s son Bill Lancaster. Kurt Russell, who had just finished working with Carpenter playing Snake Pilsen in Escape, was immediately cast as the shoes salesman who becomes hopeless involved with a millionairess and a Sheik. It was obvious to Russell that Carpenter wasn’t inspired by the story:
To begin with, he immediately had us move the production from New England to British Columbia. Before we knew it all the women and the musicians got fired and the script was changing every day. It soon became obvious that John had an old Science Fiction film in mind but everything was on the hoof. The funny thing was – if you’ll excuse the pun – the title didn’t change. And in fact the first full cut of the film still had the title card the The Thing I Like About You. It was actually a note from a Universal Exec that had us abbreviate it.
Filming in sub-zero temperatures was a challenge for the cast and crew as John Carpenter revealed in his autobiography ‘Everything Looks Like a Nail’:
We would film from seven in the morning and go into the night. But the next morning I would find Kurt Russell had frozen solid. At first we rushed him to hospital but the doctors assured me that he was perfectly preserved and no damage had happened. Apparently it happens all the time in Canada. So it became a thing. We’d send a guy to Kurt’s room an hour early so he could defrost Kurt. Then we’d film and that night Kurt would freeze again. Someone suggested we should move him to room with heating, but what with the freezing and unfreezing Kurt didn’t have to eat for the whole shoot and we saved a lot of money on rice and beans.
The special effects to create the monster were particularly difficult. Stan Winston was called in to do some work:
Most of the work was done before I even got there but there was one particular creature they couldn’t get right. And they were very pushed for time. This was described in the script as a dog. Now I assumed the dog had been taken over by the alien, so that’s what I created, but when I showed John he said no it has to look more like a dog. I went away, had a think and then did it again. By the third or fourth time, I decided as a joke just to show him a real dog. He said that was perfect and in the end that’s what appears in the film. Just a dog!
The ending of the film proved particularly difficult and John Carpenter was forced by the studio to shoot an alternative ending which has Kurt Russell waking up and realizing the whole thing was a dream.
The film was released in a double bill with E.T. and proved to be both a financial and critical failure. Vincent Canby in the New York Times complained that his seat wasn’t comfy and the popcorn he was given was slightly stale, whereas Roger Ebert wrote: ‘Watching John Carpenter’s The Thing, I had this air current on my neck. I don’t know if it was the air-conditioning or what but by the time I came out I had this really sore neck. It was irritating.’
Now the film is a cult classic and the air-conditioning has been fixed.