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

Monday, February 13, 2012

THE SCREENPLAY

               
         



              ( from last post )   ... was there someone out there of our generation who had no preconceived ideas or baggage, who hadn't written science fiction or horror before, and might like to try his hand at this?







Bill plays "The Hippie",upper right, in his dad's movie THE MIDNIGHT MAN 1974




         

                   Bill Lancaster hadn't read WHO GOES THERE? He wasn't sure whether or not he had seen THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD as a child - if he had, it didn't leave much of an impression. He later told me his father, Burt Lancaster, didn't particularly care for science fiction, calling it a "children's playground".              



          The movie he remembered giving him nightmares as a kid was NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. He said he later figured out what had scared him so much - in Robert Mitchum's out sized portrayal of a megalomaniac preacher (and his signature, almost inhuman wail), it was the idea of a man capable of becoming a monster... 








                  


               Having been a fan of  THE BAD NEWS BEARS since it's release in 1976, the idea of having Bill in to meet was mine. Watching the film again recently I found what impressed me so much at the time. The main characters (interestingly, in this case a team of 12 boys in the process of becoming men, one aging misanthrope and his barely teen aged daughter) are drawn with economy and precision - you understand quickly who's who. Well crafted, there is no particular emphasis on individual family back story or background, the focus for the most part is concentrated around events on the field of play. The dialogue has a natural, unfiltered air to it - you feel as if you are eavesdropping on kids talking like kids. Thirty five years on it still feels contemporary, nimble and fresh, a deserved winner of the Writers Guild award in 1977 for Best Original Screenplay (comedy).


                 When Bill did read WHO GOES THERE? he pronounced it "workable", not an overly enthusiastic initial response. But he said next that what intrigued him most was the chance to be able to push the paranoia aspect to an extreme. He imagined descending levels of mistrust among the characters so profound that the line of reality became blurred - something, if he worked it correctly, so airtight that it no longer mattered whether there was a monster or not - the men became the biggest threat to themselves. This was music to our ears, and as the conversation progressed I could see John visibly relax, maybe for the first time during this process. I know it was difficult for him to cede the writing of his movie to someone else, but with Bill an easy sort of camaraderie was forming ( one that was to continue and strengthen through pre-production ). There seemed to be melding of the minds, and I could sense John thinking, Ok, you supply the story and structure, I'll supply the monster...




               
               ..." I also thought it was timely, that in re-making the short story I could be true to my day making the movie, just like Hawks was true to his day when he made his." John Carpenter - Creative Screenwriting magazine            


                All of us participated in one initial meeting to make sure we were all on the same wavelength, using the novella as a template. It was here that we came to quick agreement on keeping the characters all male ( David Foster, whose expertise on such matters we paid attention to, believed it might actually be a selling point ). We knew the size of the group had to be reduced ( from something like 30 ) but left the exact number up to Bill. We eliminated the idea of telepathy as a form of communication from the creatures arsenal, figuring Bill would have his hands full trying to effectively dramatize the assimilation aspect alone ( and, boy, were we right ). In hewing close to the short story we all wanted to retain the idea of Blair as the one infected early on ( we liked the fact that behaving as he does throughout the story makes the creature clever ).

               We assumed a basic scenario regarding the creature's arrival - Spaceship in trouble, crash lands on Earth, creature gets out, freezes, wakes up probably not in the best of moods, and does what it has to do to survive and get the hell out of there. A character ultimately defined by its actions, perhaps the purest distillation of the Hawks ethos. No detailed back story, no thought of personality, intent or agenda at that time ( we did briefly discuss whether it was criminal in nature or not, but figured it really did not matter for the telling of this story ) ...


                 Calling it the "centerpiece" of the novella, nothing was more important to John than the inclusion of the blood test. He later told me the scene was the biggest single reason he wanted to make the movie and one he "knew how to do" ( I thought of this years later as I watched John at the moviola, alone, personally editing the scene ). As if all this wasn't enough Bill was also tasked with the idea of opening the film up, taking it outside Outpost 31 and giving it a sense of scale, if possible, but not at the expense of the internal drama.


              And with that, Bill and John headed up to John's place in Inverness, California to brainstorm and drink beer for a week or so...












               Six or seven weeks later, Bill ambled in with thirty pages, wanting to know if he was on the right track.Those first thirty pages were the first thirty minutes of THE THING as you see it today. The stunningly original opening scene ( fulfilling brilliantly the request that the film open up before closing back down ). The characters, their interaction, and the dialogue everyone now seems to know so well were all there, and remained essentially unchanged from this draft to the finished film.Thoughtful and smart, we were all knocked out by the quality of the writing. Bill took our enthusiasm very much to heart, although he knew he was a lot of hard work away from completion...


               Mindful of the difficult job still ahead, John said to Bill  "see you in about a year"... 






                ... well it wasn't, quite, but still a very long time. There was a contractual delivery date but we didn't pressure Bill, knowing that we were on to something very special. Bill eventually delivered his first draft three and a half months late, in the fall of 1980 ( too late for the film to be made as a summer 1981 release,which was the original thought ). Four copies were made, one each for John, myself, David Foster, and David's partner Larry Turman. The reaction? First, David: "They'll be crazy if they don't want to make this". Then John, who still needed to formally commit to directing the film: "This is the best script I've ever read". Are you in, I asked. A pause, and then "Oh,Yeah"...


                As with the initial thirty pages, the rest of this first draft resides in much of  THE THING as it now exists. Only minor changes were made in terms of characters and dialogue from this point forward ( name changes, for instance). The only substantial alterations made to the screenplay during pre - production were those necessitated by budget concerns ( the original Bennings death on ice sequence, for example ) and, most importantly, the effects sequences, which were re-conceived by John, Rob, and Bill ( who actively participated in many of these meetings, and would work the ideas into subsequent drafts ). This first pass compellingly made the case for this film in terms no studio could afford to ignore - and with John's star having ascended I wondered if we at long last had managed to catch lightning in a bottle - an ideal match of director and the script he was born to make...




               So excited were we by the screenplay we decided to make a big deal out its delivery.  We dressed a couple of actors in parkas and snowshoes and send them shivering up the elevator to hand the script in person to Universal Motion Picture President Ned Tannen for his formal approval. My idea originally was to encase the script in a block of ice, but I had to settle for a cooler full of dry ice...


               The reaction to the screenplay by the studio was everything we had hoped for. Their enthusiasm matched ours, and was such that they had no notes. No one questioned the idea of an all male cast. They expressed no concern over the ambiguity of the ending, later to be the cause of so much angst. Everyone realized the script worked, and with the euphoria the film was quickly scheduled as a release "sometime"in the summer of 1982 ( at this early stage we had no inkling what Universal had in the pipeline, or what their summer lineup would eventually consist of ).    


Bill, second from left. Photograph by Peter Sorel


                Bill maintained an active presence as pre-production on THE THING advanced. In addition to being an essential participant in the effects meetings, he also sat in on a number of casting sessions as well as cast rehearsals, his opinion always welcome. This was a real tribute to John, who felt secure enough by this time to allow this interaction to occur, and a testament to the bond that that formed between them. As the movie swung into production he largely disappeared from view, a victim of his own success, to write FIRESTARTER for John and the studio... 
                




           




                 In the short time between Universal's acceptance of the script and its first formal publication Bill wanted someone to bounce some ideas around with and take care of a few last minute notes John and we had. John was tied up, so he asked me. This was a time where Bill was as happy as I had seen him. The early reviews were in, and they were great - he knew, we knew, he had this project licked, so we worked for the next six days or so at my home in an relaxed, expansive atmosphere. The work was minor -  fine tuning scene transitions, a line here or there, debating the  question of when to be clear about things ( I remember: Me: "Dammit, Bill, we've got to get across the idea that somebody here ain't who he appears to be". Bill: "Then why don't we just say it" ). We had the time and the inclination to talk through many matters. It was here we discussed the last scene ( his feeling: human, but written with plenty of room for argument ). He took a craftsman's pride and pleasure in the dialogue and the way he was able to "slide stuff  in" as he put it, in an offhand way ( "Wakes up, probably not in the best of moods"... "I don't know what's in there, but it's weird and pissed off, whatever it is", ect.). He took delight in trying to avoid using the word "Thing" in dialogue until absolutely the right moment - when Windows blurts out "he could be one of those things" ( this changed later on ). He was good company and it was here that our working relationship evolved into friendship, something that I will always cherish.  


                    A second-draft version of Bill's screenplay for THE THING is available both at Outpost 31 and at IMDB. Given the time and care Bill took with it's execution probably the highest compliment you could pay him would be for you to think of it as a good read... 





































       

2 comments:

  1. Great piece on Bill, I would be curious to see something on why Carpenter didn't write this one himself. Did he believe it to be too difficult for his more 'pulp' style of film making.
    The Bill Lancaster screenplay is the only thing which is better than the movie itself and I would have loved to have see the original Bennings Death as well as the Lights out scene, The Norwegian 'Tape' scene and the original ending as planned.
    I love the film but oh, what could have been...

    ReplyDelete