Making John Carpenter's 'The Thing' Was Almost As Dangerous As Its Body-Snatching

John Carpenter’s The Thing is the apex of both the sci-fi and horror genres. In just over an hour and a half, Carpenter crafts a tense, bleak story about the downfall of humanity that also manages to contain some of the most amazing creature designs ever set to film. Many consider The Thing one of the best movies of all time. However, good art rarely comes without a price, and the filming process of The Thing was almost as treacherous as the film's eponymous creature.

Behind the scenes of The Thing, Carpenter was an absolute workhorse. He essentially shot the film twice, pushed his actors (including Kurt Russell) to the edge, and went toe to toe with Universal Studios over the cost of his film. Meanwhile, the cast had to deal with the constant risk of blasts, a dog known to turn "spooky," and freezing conditions that almost ended them in more ways than one.

Photo: Universal Pictures

  • The Cast Almost Slid Off A Cliff On The Way To The Filming Location

    On the trip to the ice station set in Stewart, British Columbia (BC), the cast found themselves in a slippery situation. They landed in Prince Rupert, BC, during a vicious snowstorm, after which they had to take a long bus ride to the filming location. Joel Polis, who plays Fuchs, said that in the middle of the six-hour drive, the sleeping cast awoke to the driver screaming, "Slide!" 

    Everyone felt the back of the bus sliding towards a mountain. When the bus driver corrected the vehicle, it slid towards an unprotected edge of the road, almost sending them off the hill. The driver did manage to get the bus straightened out, and they eventually reached their destination safely. Polis said:

    [One actor] will tell you that the bus was hanging over the abyss and that we pushed it back onto the road. What I remember is that the adrenalized cast took a moment to calm down, and we all made our way to the front of the bus and, once under way again, we watched our progress intently over the driver's shoulder as the windshield wipers ticked off the snow and the minutes as we crept our way through the continuing blizzard, the headlights only making visible what was 20 feet ahead.

  • The Special Effects Makeup Artist Was Hospitalized For Overwork

    In the featurette The Making of The Thing, the film's special effects makeup artist Rob Bottin says that while he worked on the film, he was living on the Universal lot and working around the clock for "a year and five weeks" without taking a day off. He claims he slept on the sets, in the locker room, and at his workspace to make sure he could always be on call. Bottin says, "I ended up working so hard that I ended up at the hospital at the end of the show. John looked at me and you said, 'you don't look well.'"

    Bottin eventually had to call in special effects guru Stan Winston to pick up the slack and design the "Dog-Thing," which turned out to be one of the first effects seen in the movie. Even though Winston's creation is memorable, he maintains that it was truly "Bottin's movie." 

  • Filming The Norris Scene Resulted In A Huge Ball Of Fire

    The Thing's practical effects pushed the boundaries of the craft, but as revolutionary as they were, they also proved nearly life-ending. Directly following the scene in which the "Norris-Thing" bites off Dr. Copper's arms, the creature's head rises from its body, grows legs, and attempts to skitter away. 

    To make the beast appear especially viscid, special makeup effects creator Rob Bottin covered his creation with a substance that happened to be flammable. Bottin says after he applied it, John Carpenter realized, for continuity's sake, flames should burn directly below the camera lens. 

    Bottin says while the crew prepped the fire bar, "the room was filling up with [dangerous] fumes," and when the fire was ignited, the replica body burst, engulfing the room. Everyone turned out fine, but a day-long break ensued before they filmed a second take.

  • Kurt Russell Nearly Blew Himself Up With Dynamite

    According to John Carpenter's commentary on The Thing, the cast and crew were in constant conflict with the flares and other incendiary materials they were using - especially Kurt Russell. Apparently, Carpenter and Russell burned their hands left and right. Additionally, in the scene where MacReady holds the camp at bay with a flare and stick of dynamite, Russell had to rush his dialogue so he could finish his lines before the flare expired. 

    However, they were hardly Russell's biggest hurdle - that was the TNT. At the end of the tense blood-sample scene, in which MacReady sets Palmer aflame before throwing a stick at him, the ensuing bang was so enormous it blew Russell backward.

  • The Crew Risked Treacherous Conditions To Get The Perfect Shot Of The Spaceship

    Since putting a life-sized spaceship in British Columbia's ice was impossible, the crew used a scale model. This model was sometimes combined with matte paintings to expand the scene. On one shoot with the ship, a few crew members nearly became stuck in the snow overnight. John Lloyd, the production designer, explained:

    The big problem was getting the spaceship [to set]. We had to hook it to a helicopter and drop it... and then when we went to shoot the matte shots, Albert wanted to wait until the evening to get the magic hour... then we waited too long, and the helicopter was waiting, and we waited and waited, and finally, Albert says, "Once more," and then [the pilot] says, "That's it, we're leaving."

    After getting everyone and their gear in the helicopter, the chopper almost ran out of fuel mid-flight - had the fuel run completely dry, they would have either gone down or have to make a perilous landing, after which they would have had to sleep overnight in the chopper. Lloyd continued, "We didn't realize what kind of trouble we were in."

  • The Alaskan Cold Broke The Film's Equipment

    Most of The Thing was filmed indoors, either on sets in British Columbia or at the Universal lot - all of the snow-heavy scenes, however, were filmed on location in Juneau, AK. As phenomenal as the footage appeared, the crew had to double their equipment essentially.

    In the film's making-of featurette, John Carpenter revealed that cameras used outside had to stay outside, and those used inside had to remain inside. He said the change in temperature would ruin the lenses, and his desired pace wouldn't allow time for the equipment to adjust. The lenses weren't the only things that had trouble with the Alaskan weather - Kurt Russell claimed the crew barely survived the cold. Supposedly, the weather added to the film's "realism."