The 36 Things We Learned from John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ Commentary

Commentaries don't get much better than this, folks.
The Thing

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Jeremy Kirk spends time with one of the most entertaining commentary tracks out there as John Carpenter and Kurt Russell talk 1982’s The Thing.

Sometimes an intro says it all, and one of those times is now. The Thing remains an all-time classic, even if it was lambasted on release, and the commentary with its director and leading man is the stuff of legend. We’ve listened to it before, and we’ll probably listen to it again, but for now, keep reading to see what we heard on the commentary for…

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

Commentators: John Carpenter (director), Kurt Russell (actor), the sounds of Carpenter’s lighter flicking

  • John Carpenter considers The Thing his first of what he calls his Apocalypse Trilogy. The other two films in that trilogy are Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.
  • When Kurt Russell arrived at Universal studios there was a sign welcoming Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds who were filming The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. No word on whether Wilford Brimley ever sang “I Will Always Love You”.
  • The Thing was released 2 weeks after E.T. Carpenter feels this was a big aspect to The Thing not doing well at the box office.
  • The man leaning out of the helicopter in the opening scene of The Thing is Larry J. Franco, who also served as associate producer on the film, first assistant director, and is Kurt Russell’s brother-in-law.
  • The opening sequence is one of the experiences that made Carpenter want to learn to fly a helicopter. Also the opening is all 2nd unit not shot by Carpenter himself.
  • “The only problem with this location was we couldn’t get any beer.” – John Carpenter about the opening sequence in Alaska. Priorities, man. Priorities.
  • There is a made-up backstory between Carpenter and Russell about MacReady being a former helicopter pilot in the Viet Nam war and that he’s probably an alcoholic. Carpenter also states he feels MacReady never wanted to be a leader. He just wants to survive and is thrust upon being a leader in the situation the group finds itself in.
  • “It’s impossible for Will to do anything phony. He’s really who he is.” – Carpenter on Wilford Brimley.
  • The pilot they used for shooting in Alaska offered to crash his helicopter for money.
  • Carpenter was incredibly impressed with the work done by the dog who is taken over by the Thing. The real dog’s name was Jed, and the shot of him walking down the hallway and searching for a human was done in only about 4 or 5 takes.
  • The destroyed Norwegian camp was the same set as the American outpost in which most of the film takes place after it had been blown up and revamped.
  • “‘It’s gonna be fine, John. Once we put the gel on it’s gonna come to life.’” – Russell quoting special effects and creature designer Rob Bottin from the set.
  • Russell hints that he may have taken a smoke off a cigarette at the beginning of certain shots in order to make the breath appear more visible.
  • It was not only an all-male cast, it was also a nearly all-male crew. One female crew member, Candy Artmont, the script supervisor, was pregnant at the time of shooting and had to leave midway through filming. So, basically, the Thing crashes a sausage party, the warmest place to hide, evidently.
  • It took Kurt Russell around a year to grow the famous beard and hair MacReady sports.
  • Wilford Brimley, being a real cowboy, didn’t have any issues handling some of the disgusting props used in the dissection sequences. When Carpenter asked him what he thought of in the more intense scenes, Brimley would reply, “I’m picking up my laundry.”.
  • Part of the fear instilled into The Thing came from the AIDs epidemic that was making itself known at the time of filming. The idea that you couldn’t tell who was infected just by looking at them, only blood tests would reveal it, was not lost on Carpenter.
  • The goop shot at the dog in the kennel scene was Carbopol, the same substance found inside Twinkies. Also having the alien bleed yellow was a conscious effort to make it less human. And I’m back on Ho Hos. For life.
  • One day after shooting a scene with the flamethrower, Russell pulled a practical joke on Carpenter by covering his face and head with bandages and claiming he had gotten burned.
  • Russell is always fascinated with directors who are able to make a group of people standing around a table and talking interesting to the audience. Cut to years later with Russell working with Tarantino for Death Proof.
  • The shot of MacReady walking to the small hole in the ice where the alien was buried was filmed on the Universal backlot. The snow, helicopter, and alien ship in the background, basically all of the surroundings, were painted.
  • The computer sequence showing how the alien takes over its prey was designed by John Wash, a friend of Carpenter’s from USC, who also designed the opening computer graphics in Escape from New York. During an early test screening, someone made a note that those type of graphics and the program didn’t exist at the time. Likewise, Carpenter and Russell remember playing a lot of Pong on set.
  • There were many discussions on set about whether someone would know if they were the Thing or not. An agreement was made that if the Thing is a perfect imitation, whoever was taken over would still believe they were human, not an alien.
  • Carpenter has been told my many who have seen The Thing that shots of people getting stuck with needles bother them more than anything else in the film. Camera operator Raymond Stella stood in for all the needle shots. Carpenter says Stella told him he could do that all day. Russell questions if Stella is in rehab today. Poor, Raymond Stella.
  • MacReady’s line, “Trust is a tough thing to come by these days.” is one of Carpenter’s favorite lines of the film. He feels is summarizes everything The Thing has to say.
  • For a long time during filming, Carpenter struggled with a way of making MacReady the Thing. He finally chose to leave the film ambiguous and just tease it. Also a bigger ending with Childs and MacReady turning on each other was considered, but the logistics could never be worked out. Ambiguity won out again probably to the benefit of the overall film.
  • Blair’s hangman’s rope was an element originally found in Bill Lancaster’s screenplay.
  • There is constant conversation about how hot the flares were and how much Carpenter and Russell burned themselves with them. In the scene where MacReady threatens the camp with dynamite and a flare, he rushed through his dialogue in order to get it all in before the 90-second flare ran out.
  • David Clennon’s line, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding.” is Russell’s favorite and never fails to make him crack up. This is indicated by the uproarious laughter than comes from Russell at that key moment watching the film on commentary.
  • It was in one of the reviews for The Thing that one critic deemed Carpenter a “pornographer of violence.” “That really had me thinking about my career,” says Carpenter. Yeah, that. Not Ghosts of Mars. Being called a “pornographer”.
  • MacReady throwing the dynamite at Palmer as the Thing created a much bigger blast than Russell expected. If you watch closely, you’ll notice Russel off to the side reacting genuinely to the explosion.
  • When they begin blowing up the camp near the end, the crew wasn’t 100% sure if the explosions they were setting up would bring the camp down as it needed. If it didn’t work correctly, Carpenter states, they would have had to us a special effects explosions to cover. It did.
  • Carpenter always likened the end of The Thing to a World War II film where a crew is set on a suicide mission they have to fulfill even though they know they won’t survive it.
  • 50 people operated the Blair monster at the end.
  • Kurt Russell came up with the final moment with MacReady and Childs during filming. Likewise, Russell came up with the final line of dilaogue, and what a phenomenal line it is. On that note, it should be mentioned the only screenplay Russell has ever received credit for was Escape from L.A. Although the screenplay for that was drastically different than the finished product, we have to say you can’t win ’em all, Kurt.
  • Carpenter still doesn’t know whether one, both, or neither of the men at the end are the Thing.

Best in Commentary

“The paranoia is the glue that holds the movie together.” – John Carpenter

“It just ate his head.” – Kurt Russell

Final Thoughts

The camaraderie on the set of The Thing really comes through in the way John Carpenter and Kurt Russell talk about their experiences. It doesn’t sound like it was an easy shoot in any way, shape, or form, but the honor of being a part of it is something every member of the cast and crew seems to wear like a badge. That comes through in this commentary, as well. Carpenter and Russell are good friends. You can tell that just in the way they interact. The way they speak on their experience with The Thing gives us an incredible amount of insight into what went into making the film a reality. This insight touches on both technical aspects involved in creating the film as well as personal anecdotes that shed some interesting light on the personal experiences. Most importantly, there’s very little dead air in their commentary.

Stay tuned for more ‘Commentary Commentary’…

Jeremy Kirk: