With great films like Halloween, Escape From New York, and They Live, director John Carpenter is a master of genre film-making. While most of his films are gruesome, bloody, and chock-full of tension, The Thing stands out as being his true masterpiece. Released during the summer of 1982, The Thing is a classic piece of cinema and proves that suspense is more important than cheap scares and bloody horror. The film has been analyzed and dissected more than 30 years after its initial release, but it turns more changed during its production than you might expect.
One of the reasons why The Thing is arguably John Carpenter’s scariest film is the amount of time the then 33-year-old director took while making and putting together the final product. In a lengthy and in-depth blog post, one of the film’s producers, Stuart Cohen, documented (in five parts) the process Carpenter and his production team went through while making The Thing.
The Thing had the luxury of a long production schedule. This time gave John Carpenter the opportunity to refine the film. A majority of the film’s refinement occurred during a six-week break in The Thing’s production schedule, which lasted from late October to December 1981. After the film wrapped on almost eight weeks of stage production, a six-week hiatus was scheduled because of a possible labor strike at Universal Studios, where the film was financed. During the six weeks, Carpenter took a look at the assembled film and decided that The Thing wasn’t taking shape like he thought it would.
John Carpenter then ruthlessly rewrote, restructured, and re-edited The Thing to ratchet up the tension and suspense. He cut all the fat in the film, including banter between the outpost crew, beefed up the MacReady (Kurt Russell) role, and added new death scenes for two characters.
Carpenter also de-emphasized the “murder mystery” element of the film and made it more about who would get picked off next. According to Cohen, the best part about the six-week hiatus was that studio executives were not able to oversee their progress because the break was part of the film’s production. If The Thing hadn’t had that six-week break, Carpenter might not have figured out what was wrong with The Thing until it was too late.
When principal photography resumed in in British Columbia, Canada in December 1981, Carpenter also had the luxury of having the largest crew he has ever had on any film, with a team of about 250 crewmembers. Carpenter had completely rewritten the film’s second and third acts. Cohen notes that these pages are difficult to find today because they were never part of The Thing’s original screenplay. The new pages featured MacReady now driving the action and tension instead of the ensemble like originally written.
As production in British Columbia went on, tensions among the cast emerged when the process took longer than the first eight weeks of production prior to the six-week hiatus. Most of the cast, except for Kurt Russell, had never worked with Carpenter before, so it was unclear to them how the production was coming along. Carpenter put himself into the spirit of MacReady while making The Thing. MacReady wasn’t certain he could survive the shape-shifting alien, and John Carpenter was uncertain if he would survive The Thing’s production.
You can read more about the production of John Carpenter’s The Thing on Stuart Cohen’s website. Cohen also documents all of the scene changes in the final film. If you have never watched The Thing, shame on you, it’s on Netflix Instant. Go watch it now!!