The Thing died a noisy death when it debuted in 1982. In fact, this masterful paranoiac thriller about a vicious shape-shifting alien infiltrating a group of scientists stationed in Antarctica bombed so hard that director John Carpenter was fired from his follow-up gig working on Firestarter. (Roller Boogie director Mark L. Lester replaced him.)
Still, while Carpenter and his collaborators initially faced a hostile reception, their apocalyptic vision — a riff on 1951's The Thing from Another World — has since been reclaimed by critics and fans as a horror milestone.
Carpenter, composer Ennio Morricone and special-effects wizard Rob Bottin are often credited with The Thing's success, but the remarkable Kurt Russell–led ensemble cast deserves equal credit. Their fraternal chemistry makes what could have been a glossy, special effects–laden extravaganza feel like a character-driven mood piece, one whose lingering sense of dread is communicated almost exclusively through their body language. We spoke with Carpenter and four of the 10 surviving main cast members about the reality of filming in sub-zero temperatures, rehearsing with dogs and acting opposite blood-thirsty monsters.
Richard "Clark" Masur: I was sent in to play the part that Donald Moffat wound up playing. But when I got there, I said to John [Carpenter], "I really like this Clark character." He said, "Really?" I said, "Yeah. He's really weird, and almost everything he says is great. And I love dogs." He said, "If you want it, it's yours." I never read for it. It was just a conversation.
Keith "Childs" David: I remember having a really big audition with lot of guys in New York. We were in one of the producers' offices. We were rehearsing a fight scene, and in the heat of the moment, one of the actors actually threw everything off the producer's desk, including papers and telephone. I was so fascinated watching that go down that when my cue came up, there was a moment of silence. Everybody was looking up, thinking, "Who's next?" It was me, so I went, "Huh? Oh!" [Laughs]
David "Palmer" Clennon: I was called in to read for the part of George Bennings, the station’s meteorologist. I read the script, and I thought, "I want to take a crack at Palmer. I don't want to play another white-collar science man. I want to be the blue-collar stoner." [Casting director] Anita Dann deserves a lot of credit for the crew she and John put together at the outpost. I think it's a tribute to John's [genius] that he was willing to let me go against type and play the part.
Richard Masur: John's casting has a lot to do with people he has a good feeling about. He was never a big auditioner.
Wilford "Blair" Brimley: The director was very good.
John "the director" Carpenter: I didn't have experience working with an ensemble cast. So I brought an actor into my office and talked with him about his process. That conversation didn't give me any specific ideas for the movie, but it got me thinking about what my job is: giving the actors whatever they need to give a good performance. So for two weeks I rehearsed with all of these guys. I asked questions of them, and they asked questions of me.
Masur: Picture this: We're sitting around a bunch of tables put together in an almost pitch-black sound stage. There's a pool of light where the table is. It's a whole sound stage with nothing in it but this pool of light. It was a really eerie setup. It was very John.
Carpenter: The biggest thing when you work with actors is helping them to know what they're doing and who they are. Richard Dysart, who played the doc, said, "Well, I'm a Russian spy. I've been up at the North Pole." It didn't mean a damn thing for his performance, but I thought that was interesting.
Masur: My character's defining characteristic was that he wasn't really interested in people, but rather loved working with dogs. I got the idea for the character's personality from working with Jed the wolf-dog.
There was a little room off to the side in the sound stage. During the rehearsal period, dog trainer Clint Rowe brought Jed the wolf-dog in to get him used to the sound and smell of people. He was a young dog, so he was very jumpy. I worked with Jed and Clint for an hour on the first day of rehearsals and every day after that. It worked out very well during shooting, too. Jed would come and stand next to me, and he wouldn't do that thing that dogs do where they look back at their handlers. If you watch the scenes between us, he's never looking at my hand for a treat. He's just there with me; he's making his own choices. That’s what makes his performance so spooky.
David: [The Thing] was my first movie. I'm a speech teacher, so I spent the six or seven weeks prior doing my speech-teacher training. My experience as an actor was in the theater, and one of the things I was afraid of was that I'd have come in saying things like "Muthafucka," but wasn't going to be able to drop all the good American speech that I was just practicing.
Childs is the strong, silent type, so I had a one-line response to most things, like "Oh, hell no!" or "What, are you kiddin'?" I learned a lot just by watching guys like Kurt Russell and Donald Moffat. Donald was from the theater, too. I learned so much about digesting information and not showing everything you're thinking just from watching Donald let whatever was said to him sink in. All you have to do is think it, and believe it, and it shows.
Richard Masur also pulled me aside and said, "Listen, man, you're doing fine, but you don't need to project as much in this movie." [Laughs] So I had to learn how to pull it back. That was my very first lesson in movie acting.
Masur: During rehearsal, [Keith David] and I started talking about how our characters felt about each other. That’s how we [knew we didn't like each other.] Like in the scene where Childs pulls a gun on my character and I pull a knife on him. Mind you: In California, it was really hard to get a knife that would flip open. I wanted it to be a buck knife, so I got one at a survivalist store. And while I was there, I also got a little attachment so you could flick the knife open with your thumb. I oiled the hell out of that knife and cut my hand several times.
Clennon: We wasted hours and hours of rehearsal time discussing fucking metaphysics! Some of the actors were obsessed with this question: When you become the Thing — when the alien takes over your mind and body — do you know that you've become the Thing? Or do you just go on thinking that you are your old self? I couldn't see the point of solving that silly riddle. What difference was it going to make in anybody's performance? The story's point was that every creature looked, sounded and smelled exactly the way it did before the alien took it over.
Carpenter: The big question that kept coming to me was: If you were a Thing, would you know? I think Kurt Russell started that one. I said, "I think you would." But he kept asking that question, so I don't think that answer was sufficient.
Masur: John said — a couple of times — that the worst mistake he made was having rehearsals. We knew what we wanted to accomplish with these characters, but John had storyboarded the whole film way before we worked on it. Ultimately, [rehearsals] really did contribute to the feeling of the film.
Shooting Begins at Universal Studios' Los Angeles Backlot
David: I got into a car accident right before my first day of shooting, and I broke my hand.
By the time I had to be at work in the morning, my hand had swollen up to the size of a boxing glove. I could see John Carpenter and [producer] Larry Franco on the set, so I tried to hide my hand behind my back. But I couldn't function because it hurt so bad. So, as I walked very slowly towards them, I let my hand drop to my side. Their eyes grew to the size of saucers when they saw my hand. "What happened to you?!" They immediately sent me to the hospital, where they put two pins in my hand. I was able to start shooting in the next couple days, but there was still a bit of swelling. So I put on a surgical glove to cover my stitches, and put on a black glove over it that was painted to match my skin. You'll note that you never see my left hand in the first part of the movie.
Carpenter: A typical shooting day [on the L.A. backlot set] was pretty straightforward. There was only one real problem: Everybody got a cold because, while the sets were refrigerated, it was really hot outdoors.
Masur: There were two sets that were refrigerated, but I didn't work on either of them. There was the Norwegian camp, and then the room with the ice block. Those sets were on the same stage. They figured out how to make the sets look very cold from the original The Thing from Another World. You have to keep the sets at about 40 degrees, just above freezing. And then you have to spray humidity into the air. It's the humidity that makes it possible to see the actors' breath. But most of the time, we were working in full arctic gear on a nicely air-conditioned sound stage. It was only horrible when we went outside.
Carpenter: The actors' questions didn't change during the filming of the movie. They mostly asked technical questions about how we would stage certain scenes. Sometimes I would encourage them to do what they wanted to do. [The scene where they discover the blood bags opened up] was also complex. I was intimidated by how many actors I had to work with. I wouldn't be intimidated today, but I was a young man then. Well, a younger man.
Brimley: John's a wonderful man. Everything he did put us in the right frame of mind. He understood what a director is supposed to do, and that’s his gift. He didn’t say very much, which I think is the best way to be.
David: John was very encouraging. I only remember him raising his voice one time. That was when Joel Polis, Tommy Waites and I had a scene walking down the hallway. We had our mics on, and we heard the bell that signals that we're about to shoot the scene. That also meant that John had put on his headphones to listen to the dialogue. As we were waiting for the scene to happen, the three of us started talking: "I don't know why John is going to shoot this. He's only going to wind up changing it later. We've already established this and that, so this scene doesn't quite make sense." This was a conversation that we would have had in front of him. But because it was a difference of opinion, it seemed like we were having a conversation behind his back. And John, who never yells, came around the corner and said, "We're gonna shoot the scene like this because I said so!" It really shocked the shit out of us.
Working with Special Effects
Masur: One day we were sitting around, talking about an upcoming scene. And [Wilford Brimley] is just sitting there chuckling. I said, "What?" And he said, "You guys still don't get it. This movie isn't about us — it's about the rubber guy."
Brimley: This was my first experience in a movie featuring special effects. There was a kid in charge [of the creature effects], Rob Bottin, a genius at developing that stuff. At one point, I had [makeup] all over me and turned into the Thing. That was something.
Carpenter: There was no average working day with Rob. Sometimes he took forever, but sometimes he was really quick. Mostly he took forever; that was really rough. There was a lot of setup time, which mainly involved discussions about lighting. Rob would want the lighting to be darker, and [director of photography Dean Cundey] would want the lighting to be brighter. At one point Rob said, "Maybe it's not a good idea to use this blood. Maybe we oughta use a different color." He was thinking about the MPAA. So we toned that down a bit.
Clennon: It was all happening in front of us: We didn't have to imagine some post-production [computer-generated] effects and then pretend to be shocked or mesmerized. Rob Bottin gave us all we needed to be well and truly freaked.
Brimley: I've personally never been a big fan of rubber dogs, monsters, special effects and stuff like that. But on this occasion, it seemed necessary. These things did not look like puppets. They were hideous. I mean, the dogs in the movie — the real dogs — were nice to be around. But the creatures that that kid Rob created were horrible! [Editor's Note: Stan Winston designed the dog-related special effects.]
Masur: There was also a great stunt guy who specialized in burns. He had a Clennon-as-the-Thing mask on, and these big monster hands, and he was covered in fireproof gel. It was very elaborate. He was set on fire, stumbled at people and crashed through the door.
Carpenter: I'm always concerned about safety, so any time you set somebody on fire … jeez. We also held our breath every time the actors used [flamethrowers]. [Laughs] These things shoot gasoline and are on fire! And these are actors. You just don't know. They might turn around to ask you a question and burn you up. We trained the actors to put out the fire during the scene in the dog kennel. They ran in and put it out. They actually put out the fire too quickly. But I didn't worry about it then … and I usually worry about everything.
Shooting Continues in British Columbia
Masur: John sat down with a roughly assembled version of the film between when we shut down at Universal and when we started up again in Alaska. There was little special effects in the film at the time. So John said, "This is a boring movie about a bunch of guys talking." He rewrote a couple of scenes so that they would be shot outdoors. Some scenes shot at Universal that were originally shot indoors were now re-staged outdoors, like the one where [MacReady, Kurt Russell's character] says, "I know I'm human, but I don't know about any of you." Turns out John was right: People love the scenes that we shot outdoors.
Carpenter: The British Columbia shoot was a little more difficult because … well, frankly, it was cold! And remote. Everybody was eager to do whatever I wanted in order to get out of there.
Masur: We stayed at a town called Stewart in British Columbia. We weirdly had to drive from British Columbia through Alaska, and then through Alaska to get to the set.
Clennon: As I recall, we all went to the set in the morning in a school bus, like a bunch of school kids going on a field trip.
David: It took about an hour and a half to drive up the mountain to the set. And every morning, we would see as many as seven bald eagles in a tree or gliding along a little ice lake where the salmon was spawning. The snow would sometimes be red with blood from the eagles catching the salmon. It was beautiful. The snowdrifts would be flying in the air, and the sun would create a rainbow.
Carpenter: I stayed in a nice old hotel in Stewart. But the crew had to stay on a harbor barge. Luckily, I didn't have to put up with that.
Masur: The crew stayed on Portland Canal, which is the longest fjord in North America. Stewart has the highest snowfall in all of North America … like 96 feet of snow on average. At the end of this canal were a couple of big residential barges that had 30 rooms apiece and were typically used for mining crews. But we were there in December, so the hunters and miners had cleared out for the winter. We were the idiots who came up to shoot a movie.
David: It was about 20 below zero. We had our long johns on, so we were never uncomfortable. What you didn't do was walk out of the hotel with your bare hands and touch a car-door handle. You would freeze to it immediately. Because it got dark so soon, the sun wouldn't come up until 9 a.m., and it would set at 3 p.m..
Masur: I decided that my character spent a lot of his time outdoors. So I came outside in long johns, a heavy wool shirt and thick moleskin pants. By the time the first rehearsal in British Columbia was over, I had lost the feeling in my hands and in my face. I really dug the fact that everyone but Clark was bundling up. It made [my appearance] a little spooky.
Carpenter: The shoot was totally dependent on the weather. We lost a lot of time because we would get whiteouts that we couldn't shoot in. Sometimes we couldn't even leave the base camp.
David: There was a lot of drinking going on. I mean, it was a mining town. But there were several nights where I got sloshed. If I don't drink today it's because I drank enough then.
Carpenter: There was a bar in Hyder where we could go and drink. It was right on the border between British Columbia and Alaska.
Masur: The thing was, alcohol in Canada has always been more expensive than alcohol in the U.S., and much more controlled in terms of when you can buy it. So two miles from Stewart is a little [Alaskan] town called Hyder which, at the time, had a permanent population of 15 people. There were seven bars in Hyder. Hunters, fisherman, miners and residents of Stewart would go there to drink because it was much cheaper to drink there.
There was a border-patrol kiosk between Hyder and Stewart. That kiosk was where they collected duties on alcohol brought from Hyder back to Stewart. The kiosk was a burned-out wreck because somebody torched it two days after it was built.
In Hyder, there was a bar called the Hyder Inn with a 50-60 feet giant tree cut lengthwise that ran the length of the entire room. That tree was the bar. Kurt asked me, after my first day on the set, "You just got here, right?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "So you haven't been Hyderized yet." I said, "No, I don't know what that is." He said, "We're gonna get off the bus at Hyder, go to the Hyder Inn and then we'll walk back." So I said, "It's fuckin' freezing out here, Kurt." He said, "We're dressed for it, don't worry about it." We wore our costumes back and forth, because why not?
So we got into the Hyder Inn, and we're the only two people there. Kurt says to the bartender, "My friend here needs to get Hyderized." The guy brings this little 4 oz. juice glass, and he fills it with white liquid. You have to blow it back in one shot and then turn it over on the bar. Then the bartender rubs the glass around on the bar, picks the glass up and lights it on fire. The glass explodes instantly because it was full of pure grain alcohol. Your head explodes after the booze hits your stomach. You're shit-faced drunk almost immediately, especially if you've been working all day and haven't eaten in several hours.
Kurt and I walked back. It was a brilliantly clear night. You could see a gazillion stars. It was unbelievably cold, but I didn't feel the cold, 'cause I was loaded. Kurt didn't have anything to drink; I think he was colder than I was. We just shot the shit all two miles back to Stewart. It was great.
After the Shoot
Clennon: I think I saw the film at a cast-and-crew screening. Alien was still fresh in my mind. That film was very effective because you had a clear fix on who each of the characters were. So when the alien was stalking a particular crew member, you had an emotional investment in that character. Take Harry Dean Stanton and his kitten, for instance. You really didn't want the alien to shred him or his kitten.
In The Thing, [screenwriter] Bill Lancaster had written scenes that introduced each of the 12 men. And we shot those scenes — maybe two, three minutes total — but John left that material out during editing. I felt the audience didn't have a chance to identify each character before they got sucked up into being a Thing. It was a little fuzzy at first: "Who's that guy? Is he the biologist? The geologist? The company doctor? Should I care?" I think that made it harder for a general audience to get involved in The Thing. Maybe that's why Alien had a broader appeal and drew bigger crowds into the theaters.
Then again, The Thing has its own integrity. It's a colder, harder, darker world. The outpost culture is totally male, and the outlook at the end is grim and pessimistic.
Carpenter: Would I change anything about the movie? It doesn't work like that for me. I would change everything. [Laughs] I always think I fucked things up. But I'm really proud and really happy with the film.
Brimley: I didn't go to the premiere. I didn't see it in a theater. I finally saw the movie in my home, and I thought it was really good.