by Erik Bauer
One of the undisputed masters of the horror genre, John Carpenter’s career has spanned forty years and over forty films. A director who straddles the line between mainstream and cult filmmaking, his most personal work, including John Carpenter’s The Thing, Halloween, and less successfully, Prince of Darkness, is permeated with a sense of dread and the inevitability of violence. While he tends to collaborate with other writers on his films, and nearly all of his best films have been co-written, Carpenter is a staunch defender of the auteur theory, arguing that he normally has more personal impact on a film than any other collaborator. The Thing, arguably his best work, lends some support to Carpenter’s argument. Written by Bill Lancaster, the finished film deviates substantially from the script and clearly bears the marks of both Carpenter and Rob Bottin, creator of the film’s special make-up effects. Sadly, Bill Lancaster died in 1997. In his stead, Carpenter graciously agreed to discuss the landmark film’s script.
What attracted you most to John Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” Was it the mystery or the horror?
Well, to be quite frank with you, what attracted me to go back and re-read it was my utter fear of the Hawks movie [The Thing from Another World]. Stuart Cohen, a friend of mine from USC, said we’re going to remake it, and the idea of trying that was terrifying. The monster wasn’t any great shakes in it, but the whole stylistic approach…you just can’t touch that, and I was afraid to try. So he suggested I read the short story and see what I thought, and it was Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians in many ways, but it was the creepiness of the imitation business and the questions that it brought up that I thought were really interesting. I also thought it was timely, that in remaking the short story I could be true to my day making this movie, just like Hawks was true to his day when he made his. And there was something else, that whole “who goes there?” – it was a spooky idea. The horror and the creature didn’t come in until later when Rob Bottin got a crack at it.
One thing you’ve said is the people at Universal didn’t really understand the Campbell story because of its pulp style. What did you mean by that?
The story is written very much the way the pulps were written back in those days. The hero is masculine, you know, strong-jawed, steely eyes looking at the other men in the camp – it’s very hyped, written for the pulp magazines people picked off the shelves and got excited about. I don’t think they quite got the uniqueness of the imitation aspect. They wanted a movie called The Thing and they wanted me to direct it. They just didn’t know anything else.
Why do you think pulp material makes for such good films?
I think they fit into a three-act structure. They have an imagination that captures the attention of a guy walking past a newsstand and a guy going to a movie. They have this real spark, an imagination, fun.
You’re a fan of the old hardboiled novels too.
Well, they came from the pulps. Raymond Chandler wrote for a pulp magazine called Black Mask, and for his first novel, The Big Sleep, he just took two stories in Black Mask and stuck them together. That’s why that story doesn’t make any sense. He took the plot about Geiger being blackmailed and he took the second part about Joe Brody out in the gambling house in Ventura County and stuck the two of them together with a kind of cheesy connecting device and it makes no sense. It’s not really written.
Stuart Cohen has said you were very committed to not writing the script for The Thing.
Well, I had just come off making Escape from New York and before that I was working on the screenplay for The Philadelphia Experiment, which was one of these urban legend-type stories about a destroyer in World War II that supposedly time traveled and went into a weird warp. It had a great first two acts but no ending, no third act; it was a shaggy dog story that didn’t end. So I struggled with it, but I couldn’t fix it. I hit the wall and I think it spooked me on writing for a little bit. I wanted somebody who could hammer out a script who wouldn’t have to worry about that.
We met with a lot of people on The Thing and it was only when Bill Lancaster talked about what he would do with the short story that I thought, “This is the guy.” Bill was an incredibly charming person and I loved his movie, The Bad News Bears. I thought he was just brilliant, and that script was really, really good. He was the one who came up with a couple of really key scenes. He came up with the scene where the doctor tries to shock another character and The Thing comes out of his chest. And we discussed the idea of the blood tests – that’s the reason I wanted to do the movie. That’s the showdown; that’s the big scene. Bill wrote the screenplay with the monster in shadows, the old Hollywood cliché stuff, which everybody still talks about even to this day. Rob Bottin was the guy who said, “No, you’ve got to put him in the light, then the audience really goes nuts. They really go nuts because there it is in front of them.” I wasn’t sure, but that’s what we did.
The critics really hammered that aspect of it.
I’ve always thought that was somewhat unfair. I mean, the whole point of the monster is to be monstrous, to be repellent. That’s what makes you side with the human beings. I didn’t have a problem with that. The critics thought the movie was boring and didn’t allow for any hope. That was the part they really hammered on.
The lack of hope is built into the story. There is an inevitability to it, but that’s not necessarily a negative.
Well, in the short story the humans clearly win, but then they look up and wonder if the Thing got to the birds and they’re flying to the mainland. It was just a question mark that wasn’t quite the two men freezing to death in the snow to save humanity. I thought that was the ultimate heroic act, but audiences didn’t see it that way. I remember the studio wanted some market research screenings and after one I got up and talked to the audience about what they thought of the film. There was one young gal who asked, “Well what happened in the very end? Which one was the Thing, and which one was the good guy?” And I said, “Well, you have to use your imagination.” And she said, “Oh, God. I hate that.”
[Laughs] What a great comment.
We were dead. Dead in the water. Dead. Horrible.
In the wake of that type of response, what gave you the strength to stick with Bill Lancaster’s ending when you had shot a happier alternative?
Well, it wasn’t a happier ending. It was one shot of Kurt [Russell] having survived and what we would have had to do was a fade out or some type of title card or something, so stylistically it would have been cheesy. We did test another ending where MacReady blows up the Thing. He comes in and sits down by himself in the cold and then you go to black. You don’t have Childs coming in. There was absolutely no difference in audience reaction between that and the one we had. So the problem was inherent—the film wasn’t hero- ic enough, it wasn’t the U.S. Hockey team beating the Russians. That’s what people wanted to see.
It wasn’t Independence Day.
A number of writers worked on this project before Bill Lancaster, and they all seemed to think the material needed to be larger, needed to be opened up. Why did you think this was a story best told in a bottle?
That’s what it’s all about. It’s a siege from within. What’s scary about the movie is not that’s it big and action-filled, but it’s small and there’s nothing out there but this blowing blackness and storm and cold and right next to you maybe a creature. That’s the creepiness of the story.
Was Lancaster the first screenwriter you worked with who wasn’t a personal friend?
Yeah, he was the first.
How did you two collaborate?
Bill wrote the first thirty or forty pages and gave it to me. I read it and I loved it. And then he struggled with the second act and the rest of the script. When he finished it we went up to Northern California together for a weekend, just to kind of hang out and talk it through. We asked ourselves, “Why are we making this movie? What is this about?” We went back through it again in our minds. And it was interesting. He had a different voice than the one I wrote with. He heard dialogue differently and had different ideas. So I talked to him a lot about how he saw things. How to you seeing this playing? How do you see this character? Is this a fast dialogue, or is it slow? Of course all of that went out the window as soon as the actors arrived. You’re at their mercy. But Bill did an incredible job on the screenplay.
Was it his idea to move away from Campbell’s “happy ending” toward something that was a little more gray?
His original ending had both MacReady and Charles turning into the Thing and being rescued in the spring. The helicopter lands and out they come out, “Hey, which way to a hot meal?” I thought no, let’s not do that. It was a little too glib.
Lancaster’s second draft screenplay is referred to on the DVD. Was there a draft after that, or was that the shooting draft you used?
I did a little second act work on it. It was never published.
There are a number of scenes in the script that weren’t in the film. Did you actually shoot that material?
It depends. There were several sections where there was way too much dialogue.
Right. That was definitely cut back.
What plays on paper doesn’t necessarily play on the screen. And some of it just didn’t play. It wasn’t making sense. We were losing some of the tensions that we were trying to build.
Was a little bit of the verbosity a holdover from the short story?
I suppose a little bit. But primarily we had scenes that seemed to be repeat- ing themselves. It probably was the way I directed it, but it seemed like it was going to be the dullest picture ever made unless we got a little bit more mood in there, a little more paranoia. Verbose? Yes, a little. Mainly repetitive.
In the film MacReady has a great monologue out in the snow with everyone standing around – I love that monologue. It’s one of my favorite parts of the film, but I couldn’t find it in the script.
It’s not in there. I wrote that. We needed MacReady to stand up there and say, here’s what’s happening.
That pulled the second act of the film together.
Also, Bill tended to write ensemble stories, which is what this was. But I wanted to push Kurt out a little more heroically when he finally takes over.
One scene in the second draft that stands out in my memory was the snowmobile chase after the dogs. Was that something you shot?
No, it was too expensive for us. I believe we had a shooting script after that, that didn’t involve that. The snowmobile chase was a great idea. It’s under the ice, isn’t it? It was a great idea but we couldn’t pull it off.
Lancaster’s script contains a number of classic horror beats that were removed in the film. After making pictures like The Fog where you punched up that kind of horror, how did you decide to turn your back on some of those conventions for this picture? For example, when they’re searching the Norwegian camp, a body falls out in a surprising way.
I shot that, but it seemed out of place, cheap. It was obvious.
Keeping that stuff out of The Thing made it a lot classier.
Here’s the thing: at that particular time I had unleashed this terrible thing about horror movies with Halloween. All these imitators came out and threw every possible cliché up onto the screen—the body in the closet, the thing behind the door, all of that stuff. I suppose I was trying to get away from that and make this film better, or I just shot it and it wasn’t any good.
Do you think a great science fiction film needs to have some kind of a social anchor? I mean, a social relevance, a metaphor, or a statement that it makes?
It has to have a thematic concern. Every great work has something that’s thematic about it. Not a message, because I don’t think movies do messages very well. They fall flat. Socially, I mean, some great films were made back in the ’30s and ’40s and you can see that they were placed in the time they were made, but their themes are for all time. The biggest thing is the story, but within that you need some thematic element that gets the audience going, that reaches out to them.
So much of Hollywood filmmaking tries to somehow tie into the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. Do you think that’s overplayed?
I don’t think so. Movies reflect the time in which they were made. Great movies go beyond that, they reach out over time. You know, I can still watch a movie like Only Angels Have Wings which was made in 1939, and get affected. It’s dated, but it still has something really unique in it. These days they’re just trying to make a buck, that’s all.
Your remake of The Thing is a great movie, but it was a box office failure when it was released –
[Laughs]—do you think that was because it failed to reach out to the audience of 1982? It didn’t have relevance for them?
Yes, it was unpleasant for them to deal with. I think the social climate in the country at that time had a whole lot to do with it. There was a recession under way and people rejected its downbeat, depressing view of things. They didn’t like the horrible inevitability of the movie.
In your work you’ve drawn a line between the fantastic horror that you create and the more “realistic” horror of other filmmakers, like Seven or Silence of the Lambs. Do you ever want to cross that line?
Not that we need another serial killer movie, but – Yeah. That’s a good question. I don’t know what I’d bring new to it. Seven was a really good script. Really good. Highly improbable killer, but the acting was terrific. And the directing’s terrific. They did a great job with that. When I read the script, I though, hmmm, is anybody going to buy this? In my hands, it would have been a comedy.
Oh, cross the line? Seven and Silence of the Lambs are cop movies, essentially. They’re procedurals which you either have a feel for or you don’t. You know, I’ve always loved watching procedurals, cop pictures, but I don’t know if I’d be very good at making them.
I can see through what you’ve put into the DVD version of The Thing that you really care about this film. How badly did the savage criticism it received hurt you?
Oh, big. Big. But I wasn’t used to – look, I was just a skinny kid from Kentucky who came to Hollywood, and I got real lucky in my life. If you want to play in the big leagues you’ve got to be ready for the hits. So that was my first big one. I’d gotten bad reviews before, but I had had some success, I’d been built up a little bit in the eyes of the critics and now they needed to swat me back. And I don’t blame them. Whatever they want to do is fine.
Have there ever been serious discussions about making a sequel to The Thing?
Nothing serious, no.
Would you think about that?
Sure. I’d use the Dark Horse comic book series. There’s a three-book series they did in the ’80s which started with MacReady and Childs coming across the ice, getting discovered by a ship, and being brought back. It’s a great story that ends up in a submarine. It’s really cool. I’d just do that. It’s all there. Big budget, though.
But again, it’s always the story. That’s the big thing. You have to come up with a great story.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting Volume 6 #1.