John Carpenter Talks ‘The Thing’ at EW’s CapeTown Film Festival

By May 3, 2013
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Horror master John Carpenter has two films playing this week at Entertainment Weekly’s inaugural CapeTown Film Festival in Hollywood – The Thing and Escape From New York – but it’s his 1982 classic that drew a packed crowd to the historic Egyptian Theater on Thursday night. The festival – which is the brainchild of journalist Geoff Boucher, who founded the L.A. Times’ Hero Complex blog before bouncing over to EW late last year – features screenings of films old and new (Iron Man 3 was a surprise screening earlier this week), special surprise guests, and Q&As with some of the talent responsible for the films on display.

Last night, I had the chance to attend a 31st anniversary screening of The Thing, complete with a Q&A with Carpenter himself. The film is often cited as one of the best horror movies ever made (rightly so), and its use of practical effects adds a huge element of terror and realism that CG simply can’t replicate. (Just ask Universal, who remade the movie again in 2011 with disappointing results.) The writer/director/composer was in high spirits at the event, reflecting back on the tough experience of making this movie in brutal weather conditions:

“It was f*cked. I apologize. We shot a second unit up above Juneau, Alaska, in the ice fields up there. Then we shot on stage, and then we went to Stewart, British Columbia, up on a glacier and shot. Oh my God. It was cold, it was miserable, there were no girls, it was an all-male crew and cast. It was horrible. It got pretty cold up there…[Later in the conversation, when asked about the toughest aspect of shooting]…There was a snowstorm on the set. It was freezing cold. It was at night. I think it was the scene when they’re burying this guy in a bulldozer. I fell asleep in my chair, and snow piled up on my eyelids.”

He also recalled that even though the movie is considered a classic now, audiences didn’t like it at all when it was released:

“I’m always looking to do something different I haven’t done before. Back when I made The Thing, I had only done my own films, independent movies. This was the first studio film I ever did and this was the biggest budget I ever worked with. The movie tanked when it came out, by the way. It was hated – hated – by fans. I lost a job, people hated me, they thought I was this horrible, violent – and I was. (laughs)”

He mentioned that he no longer watches his own films (“I’ve seen them enough,” he joked), but he spoke about how his relationship with this movie has changed over the years:

“I’m delighted that the movie still works for audiences. Some of the pain is gone from the old days. I’m more mature now and I accept these things, but I’m very proud of The Thing. It was a tough movie to make, storytelling-wise. Cinematic storytelling-wise, it was difficult. We had so many characters. And really, this is a movie about the end of the world, so for those of you who haven’t seen it, it does not have a real happy ending. And it has what a lot of audiences cannot stand, which is an ending that has no conclusion. It’s ambiguous. I do know in the end who the Thing is, but I cannot tell you.”

This ambiguity became one of the major topics of the evening. He recounted a story of the studio resisting the famous ending (spoiler alert, but really – go see this movie immediately if you haven’t yet):

“The studio asked me to cut the movie, drop out the final scene, have Kurt Russell do what he does with the dynamite – blow it up – and then walk out, and then the movie ends. And it didn’t test any differently. So I said, ‘We’re not going to do that. We’re going to use my ending.’ I showed it at a test screening, and there was a young lady who stood up at the end – she was a teenager – and she said, ‘Who’s the Thing at the end?’ And I said, ‘Well, you just have to use your imagination.’ She said, ‘God, I hate that.’ (Everyone laughs.) So I knew we were dead.”

He praised his collaborators on the project for creating the incredible creature effects, and though they managed to do an amazing job, there was one scene in the script that wasn’t filmed:

“There was also another sequence where the Thing attacks people from under the ice, and nobody could figure out how to do that.”

Carpenter also gave props to his cast (“I got really lucky,” he said) and to star Kurt Russell in particular, a man with whom he’s worked many times:

“You don’t have to say much with Kurt. He’s an enormously talented actor. He comes from Disney training, and by that I mean he had to know, word-perfect, the script. He had to hit his marks, and the script supervisor would cut if he was off a word. So he is one of the most trained actors I ever worked with.”

I’ll be heading back to the CapeTown Film Festival this evening to see Escape From New York and the scheduled Q&A with star Kurt Russell, so I imagine we’ll be finding out more about this pairing’s working relationship very soon. Stay tuned for more from the fest in the coming days.

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Ben is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. His work has been featured at ScreenRant.com, FirstShowing.net, MySpace.com, GeekTyrant.com, and many more sites across the web. Some of his favorite movies include The Rocketeer, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Tombstone, Lucky Number Slevin, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Collateral, Double Indemnity, Back to the Future and The Prestige. Follow him on Twitter: @BenPears.