THE THING

THE THING
From right to left : John, Myself, Production Manager Robert Brown, Associate Producer Larry Franco. The Juneau Ice Field. Location Scout April, 1981

Saturday, January 21, 2012

THE WRITERS B. C. ( BEFORE CARPENTER )









" The group tensed abruptly. An air of crushing menace entered into every man's body. Sharply they looked at each other, more keenly than ever before - is that man next to me an inhuman monster?"






                      Well, this always seemed like a great premise for a movie to me, so  in late 1975 I took the idea of making WHO GOES THERE? to producer David Foster, whose company, Turman-Foster Productions, had recently made an production arrangement with Universal Studios. My first reading of the novella at age 12 had provoked a number of sleepless nights - initially out of fear, but later from curiosity as I tried to figure out why I was so excited by this material ( what I was reaching for at the time was the phrase Unity of Time, Place, and Action ). At it's heart a classic locked door murder mystery, it had always seemed to me that the story's strength lay in it's success in dramatizing the internal nature of the conflict and the resultant issues of trust and identity rather than the external threat posed by the creature ( which is what happened in just about every monster movie I had ever seen ). My hope was to stay as faithful as possible to this basic idea by utilizing the shape - shifting aspect central to the novella, rather than attempting any sort of straight - ahead remake of the first film...




The original appearance of WHO GOES THERE? August, 1938



                The rights to the short story had been kicking around Hollywood for awhile, usually with a very low level of interest attached ( I think it was actually out of print at the time ). It was sitting with the writing team of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, but when they passed Universal bought the rights for us to produce. Separately, to cover all the bases, the studio also acquired the re -make rights to the original film as well as its title from a gentleman named Wilbur Stark, and is the source of his Executive Producer credit on THE THING  ( Mr. Stark was well known to many of us at the studio, and owned the re-make rights to much of the RKO Studio library. He would wander into your office, pull out a well-worn list and ask if you were interested in re-making OUT OF THE PAST. And if not, what about I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE? or GUNGA DIN?...). I initially lobbied to have the project's first working title be WHO GOES THERE?, but at this early stage the studio felt there was some visibility, and therefore some value, in keeping things THE THING...  








           It was my intent to involve John at this point. I remember us first discussing the novella at the student cafeteria at USC in 1970 over mounds of french fries, and periodically since at various fast food restaurants scattered around Los Angeles ( Bobs Big Boy on Vine St. in Hollywood was a particular favorite, not just with John, but with David Lynch, who claimed he did his best thinking and writing while downing their silver goblet milkshake). This was years before John was to change the landscape with HALLOWEEN, and the studio was reluctant to commit to a relatively inexperienced director. We were asked to initially consider filmmakers who were than under contract to Universal, so I decided to bide my time and work to get a script written...


                
Tobe Hooper
Kim Henkel


                Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel had recently arrived at the Universal lot courtesy of the success of  THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and of director William Friedkin, who was loosely shepherding their initial stint at a major studio. They were looking for a project and the studio suggested THE THING, which seemed like a good idea to all involved. Their initial enthusiasm dimmed upon reading the novella, however. The issue of trust didn't particularly interest them as an overall theme. They also worried about their ability to dramatize the mechanics of assimilation and didn't want to be constrained by its use. Rejecting  the short story's central premise, they chose instead to try to fashion something original that, in their words, would "address the larger picture"...


            Written quickly in order to avoid an impending writers strike, what I remember of the script was an attempt at an man versus monster epic set at the bottom of the world, a sort of Antarctica MOBY DICK with an Ahab-like character (I believe his name was The Captain) battling a large, but decidedly non-shape shifting creature. Seemingly written as a tone poem with a stab at a Southern, Davis Grubb-like feel the script was dense, humorless, almost impenetrable (the word John used for it when he later came on board was incomprehensible). Judged by all at the time to be something akin to a disaster, we agreed to part company...




               For the record, we then had a short, exploratory meeting with director John Landis, who was in early post-production on ANIMAL HOUSE, and who passed...






David Wiltse



          
                 David Foster then suggested New York playwright and author David Wiltse, who had recently re-written several scripts for the studio and was thought highly of. Although agreeing to take the assignment on, David considered himself a "serious writer" ( his words ), and the conflict between this perception of himself and the material he was working with was something he could never reconcile. A mis-match of historic porportions, and our fault for attempting it. The only image from the script I seem to recall was the creature as abstraction, a pyramid of blue glowing light floating out over the ice, enveloping its victim and disappearing inside...






William F Nolan



               On the strength of the success of LOGAN'S RUN Universal suggested William F. Nolan, who was familiar with the short story ( he called it an "old chestnut") and had his own take on the material. Mr. Nolan has recently published his treatment so readers may judge for themselves, but we found at the time the results disappointing, and chose not to proceed.










           Common to all three of the adaptations was the rejection of the novella's central device. Perhaps it was due to my own inexperience, but I did not understand why there was so much resistance to trying to dramatize the internal nature of the conflict and its consequences ( note to self - maybe because it's really, really hard to pull something like this off.. ). I certainly understood the impulse for writers to want to put their own stamp on their work and if anybody had came up with something interesting in place of the chameleon aspect we would have been open to it. As it was the scripts made many of the same mistakes ( going to great lengths to establish the characters and the important work that they were doing, for instance), becoming more or less formulaic, and none were thought to be viable...


             Things were then quiet for a time, the projects fortunes at a low ebb. After three tries, we had succeeded in draining any enthusiasm the studio had for making a grade A monster movie. We simply hadn't made the case. But there was something on the horizon that could...







 



                         On the Monday following ALIEN's opening weekend I walked into David Foster's office and asked the following question -  "Do you think they'll understand now"? Hollywood likes nothing more than precedent, and ALIEN'S financial success would serve as a terrific springboard for us. David responded "I think they will". And they did. Johns star had risen and the studio immediately agreed to re-start the project with him as director. John made it clear that his interest lay in adapting the novella's central premise as the core of his movie - nothing else would do, and was a deal breaker if anyone tried to suggest anything else.
          
          At the outset, John also made clear his intention not to write the screenplay himself, a first. He half-jokingly said he had earned the right to have someone else do the suffering , and his career had reached the point where he no longer had the kind of concentrated time to devote to the endeavor. The search began...







Richard Matheson
Nigel Kneale


Richard Matheson was approached and available but turned us down cold, refusing even to meet. His agent asserting that even if we planned on using the novella as source he would never be involved in something called THE THING.

             Nigel Kneale (QUATERMASS) was discussed. A sticking point was the need to have someone essentially Los Angeles based due to John's schedule...




Derek Washburn
Ron Koslow




  We met with Derek Washburn (THE DEER HUNTER) and Ron Koslow (LIFEGUARD and later BEAUTY AND THE BEAST)   



                  ... and a few others but no one seemed quite the right fit. We detected a heavy note of condescension from some toward the entire project. For others, it was old hat. It struck us that we had been meeting with or discussing writers primarily much older than we - was there someone out there of our generation, with no pre-conceived  ideas or baggage, who hadn't written science fiction or horror before but might like to try his hand  at it ?










NEXT:  THE SCREENPLAY

















                              



                   ....

6 comments:

  1. Stuart, this stuff is solid gold.

    Do you have plans to turn this blog into a book? (If not, why not?!)

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  2. Looking forward to the Lancaster stuff, that guy was a genius writer. Shame he didn't do much before he died.

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  3. Everything here is a fantastic material, and a must reed for the thing fan, keep up the good work!

    BTW is it possible to descibe deleted scenes in other entries of Your blog??

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  4. Yep, an absolute must read and can't help but thank you again and again for your commitment in this wonderful movie!

    I'd like to hear more about Lancaster as I find the script is one of the strong points of the movie, and I find the original script even better as some things are more clear. I would have loved to see the "lights out" scene for instance...

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  5. Awesome!! Love the movie and so glad you shepherded it through it's various twist and turns at Universal.

    Now a small caveat... that picture of Bob's Big Boy is the one in Burbank/Toluca Lake (on Riverside Dr), not the one on Vine St. in Hollywood (the Vine location no longer exists, but the Burbank one does).

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