Interview: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (director of The Thing)

Interview: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (director of The Thing). By Simon Miraudo.

Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. is about to do battle with one of the fiercest monsters on the planet; one that would even frighten the shape-shifting subject of his new horror flick The Thing: the million-headed hydra of internet commentators and obsessed fans riled up by the very concept of someone tampering with the beloved John Carpenter classic of the same name. Although Van Heijningen is not remaking Carpenter’s 1982 feature, nor has he recast the iconic role of R.J. MacReady (played by Kurt Russell), his prequel will no doubt be heavily scrutinised. In his tale, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton face off against the extra-terrestrial invader at an Antarctic outpost comprised primarily of Norwegian scientists. I spoke to Van Heijningen about fighting the studio over the lack of English in the film, making a movie for fans and newcomers alike, and the prognosis on his past project Army of the Dead.

SM: Before you were on The Thing, you were working on Army of the Dead for Zack Snyder. Can you tell us a little bit about that film and what happened to it? I understand it fell apart, so can you tell us what transpired there?

MVH: Well actually, it’s still a very good project. It’s about: something goes wrong in a lab near Las Vegas, and the whole of Las Vegas is taken over by zombies. The government is quick in response to lock the whole of Vegas down and build a sort-of ‘Berlin Wall’ around it, hoping the zombies would die out at some point. Las Vegas is all torn to pieces, which, as a filmmaker, is great. Then there’s a journalist getting inside Las Vegas to figure out what happened to cause this epidemic and of course the government is trying to keep it under wraps. And then her father, who is like an ex-cop/bouncer/Nick Nolte type, is forced to save his daughter, and he has a terrible relationship with her. He tries to save her, but at the same time organises a heist of a vault in Los Vegas. He has a double agenda: saving his daughter and making some money on the side. And then they get all stuck in Vegas, and the movie is about them trying to escape. The movie has great set pieces at the Luxor and the Eiffel Tower crashes down, and a helicopter crashes into the Bellagio. It’s insane.

SM: That sounds pretty wonderful.

MVH: Yeah [laughs].

SM: Why did production stall?

MVH: I think we were four months before shooting, and it was like October 2008, and it became more and more expensive. Then the crisis hit in 2008 and everyone sort of froze. It was too risky to spend so much money on a zombie movie, so they pulled the plug.

SM: Fair enough. Can you tell us how you got from that project to The Thing?

MVH: I worked on Army for almost two years, so I was pretty gutted. Instead of reading scripts again, I just went through all the great horror movies I know. And I thought, ‘What about The Thing? No one did anything about The Thing.’ My agent said, ‘Oh, sacred ground’. But my agent heard about it, said ‘You should talk to these people who are working on a prequel. It’s European, which is very interesting. It’s a Norwegian story. It’s not a remake, or a sequel; it’s just a little piece of history that’s embedded in the movie’. So we start talking and we realised we were pretty much on the same line.

SM: Correct me if I’m wrong on any of this, but I believe the original script was written by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica).

MVH: Yeah.

SM: It’s since been rewritten [by Eric Heisserer], but that original one featured MacReady’s brother. Can you tell us why he was cut out and what other changes were made?

MVH: I don’t think he was in the original script, but we played around, and we thought, of course, ‘Who is the lead?’ But MacReady was always haunting us; anyone compared to MacReady just felt wrong. It was like, ‘Do you want to do another Alien movie with a different female lead?’ or something. So I said to Eric, ‘Stay away from him’. And he approached the movie with a difference. ‘What about having a female scientist? What about having her surrounded by big, bearded Norwegians?’ That idea was quite attractive. A woman; American and young. That contrast was already set up.

SM: The casting of the film is very interesting. You’ve got an Aussie [Joel Edgerton] in there playing an American, which is nice to see. But you’ve also got a lot of Norwegian actors. Did you ever get any backlash from the studio about featuring actors who weren’t speaking English all the time?

MVH: Well I think they – and I have to be careful here – didn’t realise too much what the consequences were. They thought, ‘Yeah, they’re Norwegian, but they’re going to speak English the whole time’ [laughs]. I think that was their assumption, and then they read the script or saw the dailies and thought, ‘Oh, so there’s more’. Then they asked me to shoot stuff in English, which I sort of refused, because it had to be Norwegian. I think there are parts in the movie where it’s so great that they speak Norwegian and the American cast cannot understand what they’re saying, and that enhances the paranoia.

SM: Absolutely. The film wasn’t shot in Antarctica, for obvious reasons, but in Toronto.

MVH: Toronto and British Columbia.

SM: I still imagine things were pretty cold. Can you tell us how conditions were? What was a bad day on the set when you’re battling those elements?

MVH: British Columbia was amazing. We’d fly there by helicopter and do all the cave stuff, which was fascinating because we were close to the outpost where [the original Thing] was shot; it was like a day drive between the Norwegian camp and the outpost. Toronto was shot in a quarry – did I use the right word? – like a mine pit, in the north part of Toronto. We shot in February and they told us, ‘It’s freezing and snowing that time of year’. It was the year of the Canadian Olympics, and it was like the warmest winter ever, so we had to put on snow machines, and at some point it was like 20 degrees, and we had to make it look minus 20, which was horrible. Not only for me, but for the actors, because you act differently when it’s hot than when it’s cold.

SM: When working on a prequel, you’re at something of a disadvantage because everyone knows how the next film begins, and to some degree they think they know how the prequel will end. Was that something that concerned you going in?

MVH: Not really. What I always liked in John Carpenter’s movie is it had that nihilistic ending. I didn’t mind that it was sort-of assumed that ours would sort of be the same; that they wouldn’t expect a happy Hollywood ending. As a parallel, if you’re going to see Hamlet, you know he’s going to die.

SM: Spoiler alert!

MVH: [Laughs] Yeah, spoiler. You’re not going to like it less, because you know the outcome of the play. I wasn’t worried about that.

SM: Do you have a favourite moment from Carpenter’s film?

MVH: That’s a good question, actually. There are so many good moments. There’s a moment where, I think, Blair asks the dog handler, ‘How long were you alone with the dog?’ And he says, ‘A couple of hours.’ When I saw the film for the first time, that was such a mislead, because you were sure the dog handler must be a ‘thing’ at that point. It’s a little scene where they have a moment together.

SM: Good one. Have you seen the original, by Howard Hawks?

MVH: Yes I have.

SM: How does it hold up?

MVH: Knowing it’s a 50’s movie, it’s actually pretty good.

SM: Is there much similarity between that and the John Carpenter film or yours?

MVH: No [laughs]. It’s a vegetable-eating creature in Howard Hawks. They made it a green Frankenstein-thing rather than a shape-shifter.

SM: The John Carpenter version of the film is much loved and has a very passionate fan base. That being said, there are going to be a lot of people coming to see your film that aren’t aware of the 1982 version. Can you tell me a bit about balancing the expectations of fans, and also making a film that newcomers can enjoy?

MVH: That’s a really good question, because I made the film – in the beginning, my way of stepping into it – by assuming everyone had seen John Carpenter’s. So in the beginning when we were shooting it, we didn’t explain everything because I thought, ‘Well, we don’t have to explain anything, because everyone understands’. Then the studio said, ‘Well, maybe 70% haven’t seen the film’. There was a little balancing act to not make it boring for the fans, but so people who had no clue of the original would understand the logic.

SM: I know the movie hasn’t even come out yet, but what’s next? Have you got any projects lined up? Will Army of the Dead get back off the ground?

MVH: Maybe. Maybe that gets a revival. I want to do something funny. But, horror-funny, or dark, dark, comedy-horror. I think that’s an interesting combination. Like, one of my favourite horror-comedy movies is An American Werewolf in London.

SM: Great.

MVH: That combination of horror and comedy is great if you do it right.

The Thing arrives in Australian cinemas October 13, 2011.

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