The Thing Set Visit Interview: Producer Marc Abraham
When it was first announced that production was starting on a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing, fans were outraged. A classic of the horror genre, the move suggested images of studio execs lighting their cigars with burning $100 bills. “They’re going to ruin it with digital effects!” “Who cares about the Norwegians?” “Why do they have a female character?” “You can’t replace Kurt Russell!” With plans for the project never put on hold, fans felt as though they weren’t be listened to. To the contrary, producer Marc Abraham was.
On board with the project since its inception, Abraham was not only one of those that helped convince studio heads to make a prequel instead of a straight remake, but also is bearing witness to a film that is trying its hardest to stay true to the original. Speaking with the producer on set, we discussed how much attention has been paid to the Norwegian base scene in Carpenter’s film, the path and difficulty of getting the film made, and possible solutions for the film’s confusing title.
Are there any little slight nods to any other types of aliens from other films in the film?
No, I don’t think it will be. The thing about this movie, is it’s really serious. This film is a serious film. We have really good actors in it and they’re really playing it. My attitude is always that films that are scary work if the characters that are in the movie believe what’s happening to them. Anytime they are winking or don’t want to really invest at that 100%, then you don’t invest, but if you have a really good actor – Sigourney Weaver – and she sees that and is scared, well then you’re terrified because she’s created that reality. Our film is along that line. It’s very serious, so there’s not a lot of references. The only thing that we’re going to make sure we have accurate is with John [Carpenter]’s movie, so that everything that happened and we discovered in that film, tracks in this.
So they really link up.
They really link up. You find the axe in the door in his movie, there’s an axe in the door and you see how the axe got in the door. So you see all of the rewind of that.
Is it safe to say that at some point one of the cast members will be playing the creature?
Oh yeah, it absolutely is. And that’s what’s brilliant about it is because when the original was written, it had a political point of view. To that extent, the movie is about paranoia. Its overall theme is “who do you trust and why do you trust them?” And it’s about the human condition and human nature, about trusting people.
And it really takes on that psychological level.
It’s very psychological. We played with that. We’ve very respectful of that movie and we really try to maintain that alignment. The first instinct of any fan, certainly fans of this genre, their first instinct is to want to think that we’re going to paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa. And that we’re callous, Hollywood slime bags who only care about getting enough money to make sure our pools are heated to 93 degrees. Well that may be true [laughs], but the fact of the matter is, most people get information, all you can do is, you have certain fans, and that’s good. That’s what you want – fans that are fanatics. It’s kind of great that they get excited, but they extrapolate what’s going to happen. For instance – and I don’t read this stuff much, my partner reads all this stuff – but things like “Oh, there going to screw it up because there’s going to be too much CGI” or “there not going to be respectful to the genre” or “I thought it was a Norwegian base? How come there are Americans there?” We took all this consideration, we’re serious filmmakers.
If you look at the movies that my company and my partner are involved in, we made Children of Men. We’re not just guys who are just trying to make movies just to make a buck. That’s a serious film. The Hurricane, or I directed a movie called Flash of Genius about a guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. We’re not guys out here making movies just to make a bunch of bills. So we take it seriously because we love the movie as much as anybody. The original, it’s a great movie. My point is, we’ve taken into consideration every single thing. For instance, we’ve tried to make sure we’ve honored Rob Botin’s original thing where there’s a lot of real monsters. We’ve got two great guys, ADI, those guys are so talented. We’ve got real monsters. I don’t know if they’ve showed you any of this, I guess they sent them off now. We have real monsters in this movie. This is not a CGI movie. There’s going to be CGI to actually help us animate them, but we built them. It’s very practical. It’s shockingly practical in this day and age.
When they did that movie, they wanted it to look as real as it could look. That’s what you want to do – it’s a real story about a bunch of people you really believe in with a good actor, actors who are talented and not just movie stars. Our job is to make it as real as it can be. So it’s not so much “are we trying to imitate the look of that picture;” that picture was trying to make their’s real, ours will be. We have more technology. But in terms of the practical aspects of the monsters, the creature, we really have gone way beyond what most people think about it, to actually build the monsters and the beauty of that. I think people are going to love the movie, they are going to hate the movie, they make it for philistines, whatever they’re going to say, no one will look at that and think, “Oh my God, those guys couldn’t make that scary.” We’re sure. Those monsters are cool and they’re scary. We have body casts of our actors and freaky looking stuff that you wouldn’t want to come across in your hotel room. [laughs] Our goal was just to make it as real as possible. You see the opening of that movie, we went up to the top of British Columbia, went on top of glaciers and when you see it…my son, who is really savvy, looked at the film and thought it was CGI. We actually shot it on top of a glacier. You look and think, “They must have built that.” We shot it.
You mentioned that you are paying strict attention to all of the details in the Norwegian base. How much time is spent going over John Carpenter’s film?
Oh, forget it. Matthijs [van Heijningen Jr.] has on his laptop not only screen captures of that entire movie, but there isn’t a moment when he doesn’t go back to the original. A million of them. He’s so careful about where the axe is in the door or what the ice block looked like, or the spaceship, where they stand when we see the spaceship. Because we can do so much more, so many things we could do, but when it came to being anything that was referenced in that movie, we have absolutely stayed with it. Thousands of hours he’s spent looking at that movie. He knows and is respectful of every aspect.
When I interviewed the screenwriter he said that they went through every scene, if there was a hole they would try to explain in the script why the hole was there and it was actually really challenging. Were there any fun moments when you were like, “I don’t know how we’re going to explain this.”
There are times when you can’t figure out every single thing, because when they were doing it they weren’t worried about that. But we have to stick to it. I mean, we pretty much have explained everything for the most part. Somethings we couldn’t explain we tried not to draw attention to.
If we were making a prequel to a movie that nobody liked, nobody saw, nobody gave a shit about, we would be less likely to worry about it. This is a movie that, though it was not hugely successful when it was released, is just regarded by fans as the top of the genre. And so, yeah, we’ve been very careful about it, so yes, but I wouldn’t say tied our hands because we’re the beneficiary of all the prequel has. So we didn’t go into it blindly and sort of go, “Oh, so we’ll do this thing and we’ll do whatever.” When knew from the beginning when we decided to do this what all the studios…the front page of the New York Times today. Do you know what it’s about? One of the biggest articles in today’s New York Times? That they’ve opened up Harry Potter World down in Florida. Every studio, every entertainment company, all they’re trying to do is figure out the least amount of risk and the most brand awareness.
That’s the world that we live in now. It’s frustrating sometimes, but that’s the reality. So when you have a studio and they own titles, they’re looking back through that to say, “How do we exploit these titles? Do these titles matter?” Given that it’s so hard to get people’s attention, as we all know, and the news travels at light speed, how do we get a leg up? Well, we use a brand. So when they started talking about that, and we looked at The Thing - because we had done a remake, and this was an actual remake, of Dawn of the Dead, which is a project my partner and I produced – we went into it with our eyes wide open. There was no question in our mind like, “Are we going to have to be careful?” The answer was yes. Did we feel that was an impediment? On a purely creative level we knew it would be difficult. On a much larger bird’s eye view, you say to yourself, “Hey, that’s the deal.” So you just go, “Okay.” You don’t bitch and moan and go like, “I can’t believe we have to do it.” That would be like, “Then why are you doing it?” I think that when we looked at it, it was more of a challenge. It’s kind of fun that you see an axe in a door, you see an ice block, you see a spaceship or you see this mayhem in this radio room. Because it’s like CSI – by the way, that’s a show I’ve never seen ever – but it’s a crime scene. What happened? And someone’s like, we had to go back and go, “At one point someone picked up an axe thinking that was going to vanquish this and at some point that axe went into the thing and there’s a reason why it didn’t take it out.” And there’s blood all over the axe, which meant that it might have the thing’s genetic shit, and we know if the thing’s genetic stuff hits you, you’re toast. So then it’s like, “Don’t!” He goes for the axe, “Don’t!” So now you’re left with that iconic image of the axe in the door.
Sounds like you’re working with an unpublished screenplay in a way or an outline for a film that hadn’t been made before.
It’s almost like a treasure. Somebody said you have to get from here to Des Moines, and you have to go to Cincinnati, and you go, “Well, that doesn’t make sense,” but you have to kind of figure out a route to get there in a certain number of days. So yeah, there’s a road map we had to follow.
Getting the movie greenlit. It’s always hard. Once you know you’re making a movie you don’t really think about how hard it is – just how lucky you are to be doing it. The scary part, the frustrating part of the movie business when producing, and it’s the same for anybody in any job, is those times when your livelihood depends on it. When you think, “God, I have to get a job, I have to write a story.” When you’re closer and you put so much into it, and you’re on these highs and lows, because one minute you’re here and the studio really liked the screenplay, but then you’re here where some minor executive says, “Well, no. The chairman really didn’t think it was any good” or somebody else says, “I heard marketing thought it was great,” then “I don’t know, international’s really nervous.” I was screenwriter, I was a writer and I was a journalist for a long, long time, mostly a screenwriter. But I can remember going in and pitching stories and I was desperate. I had no money, I was just go in, pitch a story, and you were living on the shred of hope that somebody was going to change your life, that suddenly your agent was going to call you and say, “Guess what? They bought it” and suddenly you were going to make, in those days, $50 thousand. And then you’d get the high. “They really liked it” “Really they liked it?” “Yeah, they thought you did a great.” And you’re thinking maybe it’ll happen, and then the next thing you hear is “Well, but they’re not…”
No matter how many movies I make, 35 movies, you still get caught up in the anxiety. The hardest part of it is hoping and waiting for that moment when the studio says, “You know what? It’s a go.” After that, there’s always problems in how are you going to get this gigantic amount of scaffolding up, and can get the money together and is this going to rain, and be sure if you need it to snow it won’t snow and be sure if you need it to be sunny it won’t be sunny. The actors are going to turn out to be good, sometimes they’re better sometimes they’re like, “Oh my God, that guy’s a stiff. What are we going to do?” But at least you’re in the game. You know the difference. If you want to sell a story that’s a great idea, the anxiety of waiting, waiting, waiting, but once they tell you okay, the hard part starts but it’s a different level of anxiety. At least it’s in your hands. I think more anxiety comes in the creative arts and in life is the stress of uncertainty. That’s more stressful. Once you have certainty, then it’s like, “Oh God, can I deliver?” Imagine what Obama thinks everyday. How does he get up everyday? Every word is broadcast, every word that he says. Like giant plume of oil. I worked on an oil rig. I know what that’s like. We never got close to a mile deep, that was 90 miles in the Gulf of Mexico. We were 380 feet deep and it was scary. And what do you do? Everyday people are going like, “Hey, you idiot. You haven’t stopped the oil.” Really? That wasn’t my job description. You have some guy from British Petroleum saying, “Hope the little people aren’t hurt.”
Are you married to this title? When it’s released, a whole new generation is going to discover this and they won’t think twice about the title, but then there will be the two disc box set.
What do you think? I hear you. I asked my partner the same this exact question. I said, “Are we doing the write thing on this title?” Titles are hard. My experience with titles is either it’s a book and you just don’t change it, or when you come up with titles, either they’re perfect and they work from the get-go or they’re a nightmare. And I’ve had a lot of movies that I think I made the wrong decision on. I knew the day when we did Air Force One – that was a good title. But I did a movie that I love, and you might think it’s sappy, you might not have even seen the movie, called The Family Man. And I really think it’s a good picture. And it was Brett Ratner’s best movie and I think I made a horrible mistake of calling it The Family Man. Because it’s an ironic title. Had it been Jack Nicholson starring in it, and you saw a picture of Jack Nicholson with a cockeyed grin and The Family Man, you’d get the joke. But Nic Cage didn’t have that same cynicism. So many people have come up to me over the years and said, “I can’t tell you how much I love that movie. It was romantic, it was this, I thought it was going to be really sappy and it was, but I still fell for it.” But I think a lot of people your age, if you saw it now, young people, if you saw it now… I think it was really a mistake. Really a mistake.
Titles are really hard, and I’m worried about it because I have that same concern. Do we call it The Thing, which is sort of what it is, sort of unequivocal. It’s not really The Thing, it’s a prequel to The Thing, but it’s part of The Thing. Do you start messing with that? The studio loves it, it’s one of the reasons they said yes, because it’s got name recognition, it’s a great title, what do you do? Do you go with The Thing and underneath it you say “The Beginning,” “1.0.”
Was there resistance to doing a prequel instead of a straight remake?
Yeah, originally. Now everyone’s telling us we’re geniuses [laughs]. They just didn’t understand why we were going for a prequel. If we were doing a remake of the movie, we would be castigated, people would be killing us. And we also felt we don’t want to remake John’s movie. It was really good. It was a really good movie. We liked the movie. So what, we’re going to have somebody playing Kurt Russell? That’s a nightmare. But they didn’t get it. Why don’t you just remake the movie? And we convinced them finally they all went, “Yeah, that’s right.” We said we don’t even want to compete with MacReady. That’s one of the reasons we decided to switch it up with a woman. We wanted to not compete with MacReady right away, we wanted a woman to be in the spot. Just take it away from that. And maybe if this really works and people really like the movie we’ll do a sequel, which is a natural, but back to your question, because it’s such a good question.
But I understand how only fans will really care and for the film to be a success it has to appease far more than just fans.
It really does, but I don’t want to be stupid about it. Once you go The Thing: The Beginning... the short story was called Who Goes There? But I don’t know. You can’t call it Who Goes There?
Sounds like a Tyler Perry comedy.
Exactly. And you want it to have name recognition.
You know what, I’ve just started thinking about it, but I keep coming back to… it cleared the wrath of people saying, “Oh, it’s not The Thing,” having been surprised how much we respect the original movie. It is about The Thing, or come up with something that is a little lacking, like The Thing Begins or something. Then you start going like, “The Thing Begins. Hmm, that might be alright.” That’s a hard one. If you have any good ideas…
Do an ice pun. The Thing Unthawed.
It’s a really good question and it’s a very hard one if you’re on the line. If you don’t want to devalue it, and you really want people to see the movie – and you do because you worked your butt off on it – so you want to give it something which is alright. No matter what you do, somebody is going to come after you. You say The Thing Begins and they go “John Carpenter’s is the beginning, asshole. Yours is like The Thing Bullshit. Why don’t you call it that?” They will, trust me. The Thing: Fuck You [laughs]. I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that. I wish I could wake up in the middle of the night. The other day I was thinking The Thing: It’s Fucking Scary [laughs].
You mentioned that there was a bit of a trouble with the studio over the remake vs. prequel bit, but now that you are getting the jump on Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, how do they feel about it?
They love it. I talked to Adam Horowitz yesterday, he’s the chairman of the studio, and he feels really good about it. I think they ended up trusting us and now they know why. It’s a natural thing. We remade Dawn of the Dead, and I never felt bad about remaking Dawn of the Dead because a lot more people said they saw Dawn of the Dead than had actually seen Dawn of the Dead. So many. “Oh yeah, I love that movie.” “Where is it set?” “Uhh…racetrack?” People didn’t see that, that’s number one. Number two, it was made on such a miniscule budget, and it’s a good movie, but we felt like there was things that we could do with it that would be fine. And we did. We actually kept the spirit of this sort-of nihilistic, slightly sarcastic political commentary of the movie alive, but we could do things that were different. I felt fully comfortable with that. I grew up, I liked the film.
So when I saw the movie, I’m a Kurt Russell fan. I think Kurt Russell is a really great actor. You ever see Sky High? He’s a funny actor too. He can do anything. That idea of recasting Kurt Russell there was never a thought in my mind that that was a good idea. Never. “Let’s get a new guy to be MacReady.” Then you’re just talking about making the same movie. My movie career’s all over the place. Whether it’s Air Force One, Children of Men, to Let’s Go To Prison, to Babysitters Club to The Commitments to The Rundown. I just make movies I want to make.
You mentioned Dawn of the Dead and I know that George Romero has been somewhat critical of that. Has Carpenter been involved with the production of this film?
Carpenter’s totally cool about this. The thing about Romero is he kind of liked the movie, the problem is we got the rights from Richard Rubinstein and he and Richard had a really weird relationship. So he wasn’t happy, he feels like he’s been exploited. But he didn’t have a problem with the movie really. The movie’s good. But John’s signed off on all of this, and we have the rights to another one of his movies that we might remake, They Live.
Where is that in production?
We’ve got one version of the script that we weren’t happy with so we’re reworking it.
You were nervous about recasting Kurt Russell, what about recasting the lead of that in today’s times?
No, I don’t think anyone saw They Live, really.
Where are things with The Creature From The Black Lagoon?
We’ve gone through a bunch of different incarnations of scripts and none that me and my partner were satisfied with. Gary Ross is involved with us as a producer and his wife, Allison [Thomas]. None of us have been satisfied. I think we have a really cool take on the movie now – much hipper, interesting version of it and we’re looking for a new writer who’s after that. And, in fact, I just had breakfast and I was writing down my notes about it, about how I think it should go. I thing we have a really cool take on it. Still set in South America, really a more not-a-guy-in-a-rubber-suit-coming-out-of…much more psychological transformation, more literary transformation. I think a really interesting idea.
Is it still a monster movie?
Ultimately. I think it’s almost more of an original Marvel movie than it is that. It’s more of an origin story and how that happens.
Do you see it as the basis for a potential franchise?
I don’t know about that.
For full coverage of my set visit, click here to see my report, interviews and more!
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