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An Interview with Matthijs van Heijningen, director of The Thing

Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. may not be a household name, though the shape-shifting alien of his first feature, the big-budget “The Thing,” a prequel to John Carpenter’s cult classic of the same title, is. Starring Joel Edgerton (last seen in Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior”) the movie also marks the filmmaker’s first foray into Hollywood. Prior to the film’s release in Holland I spoke with the engaging studio newbie about everything from making art from commercials, to taking inspiration from Polanski, to why the next big thing might not be emerging from his homeland anytime soon.

Lauren Wissot: So, first off, can you talk a bit about how you got involved in “The Thing”?

Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.: Yes. Well, I was doing another movie called “Army of The Dead.” I was prepping that movie –

LW: The Zack Snyder one.

MvH: Yeah, Zack Snyder produced this big, zombie Las Vegas project (laughs) and we were three months before shooting, and the (financial) crisis broke, so then they pulled the plug. I’d been working on that movie for one and a half years and suddenly I was out of work.

LW: Typical.

MvH: Yeah, so I was thinking about “The Thing” – whatever happened to The Thing? So I called my agent and he said, “Well, you should talk to these people because they want to make a prequel.” And I got in contact with the producers and I pitched my ideas about it and they liked it. So I pitched to Universal and they said, “Let’s do it.”

LW: Wow.

MvH: That’s how it happened.

LW: That sounds like a pretty easy process.

MvH: It was easier than I thought it would be. As a first time director I sort of imagined it would be so hard to make your first feature, but it actually went pretty smooth.

LW: That’s an unusual thing to happen, but that’s great. Speaking of unusual, hailing from Holland, how did you get to Hollywood in the first place? I mean, I spend part of my year in Amsterdam because my sister lives there, and the country just doesn’t seem to be spawning a lot of Hollywood directors.

MvH: I’m a commercial director so I’ve been making commercials for, like, the last ten years. I also make them for America, so I have some contacts with America through that. It was always like a “boy’s dream” to make a movie in Hollywood so one day I just picked up, packed my bags, sold the house, and went to Hollywood. I just showed my reel around, met with agents, and basically took it from there. As simple as it could get actually.

LW: That’s highly unusual that you could break in so quickly.

MvH: Well, it took four years for me to make a movie.

LW: That’s short in Hollywood time, though.

MvH: Yeah, it is.

LW: That’s interesting. What’s also interesting to me is, as much as I love Amsterdam, what I don’t like is the Dutch bureaucracy and its tendency to make everything fit neatly into a formula – to force round pegs into square holes at all costs.

MvH: Yeah, yeah.

LW: But honestly, I kind of see that with Hollywood, too. So I’m wondering, do you notice any similarities between the Dutch bureaucracy and the studio system? Did it maybe make your adjustment to Hollywood easier?

MvH: Well, as you say, everything in Holland is very bureaucratic and works by commission. So anything creative is going to be evaluated by some semi-creative people who think they can do your stuff better than you can. (laughs) So that’s completely demoralizing. In Hollywood it’s all about making money – which is actually much clearer. So if you can contain your own creative ideas and sort of sell it as a profitable enterprise then Hollywood’s much easier in that sense.

LW: So they’ll leave you alone if you can guarantee the box office.

MvH: Yeah, if they have the feeling that whatever you do you’re going to make money, which is always a gamble, my experience has been – and I sort of learned that in commercials as well – that as long as you make us sell our products, well, we don’t care what you do. So I found the Dutch system much more suffocating than the Hollywood system.

LW: Yes, I guess you’re right. You look back historically to the artists in Hollywood who were able to get away with the most and you see guys like Hitchcock who always made sure to put butts in the seats. And I did notice that with the Dutch it’s, as you said, creativity by commission. (laughs)

MvH: Yeah, it’s pretty horrible.

LW: Speaking of the Dutch, when you go to The Netherlands it’s quite apparent that there’s an appetite for culture and that the Dutch really do love films. There’s definitely a cinephile scene in Amsterdam. Yet the country hasn’t produced any film artists on a grand scale since Paul Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer. Any guesses as to why this is? I’ve been trying to figure that out for some time now.

MvH: Yeah, I’ve been wondering as well. I think it has to do with just talent, to be honest. If there’s talent they will make their way for a short while in Holland and then they’ll have to leave. For me the beginning of my career was doing commercials in Holland and expressing myself through commercials and low budget features and stuff. But I don’t think there’s just enough talent.

LW: It’s very upsetting to me. I mean, the culture is so vibrant, but the filmmaking is just, well, it’s not up to par. When you look at what’s going on in the rest of the world in terms of filmmaking The Netherlands is really far behind.

MvH: Yeah, but it’s also a cultural thing. We’ve been brought up to behave very normal. For example, there is no genre moviemaking in Holland. Everything is very realistic. And if it’s not completely set in today’s world it’s about the Second World War, which has been exhausted to death. But like monster movies, or fantasy movies, or anything else outside reality, that concept doesn’t exist. It’s usually just talking heads with interior problems and not a visual spectacle. Which is strange because our heritage is Rembrandt and Vermeer and very visual artists.

LW: Yes! That’s why this is such a puzzle.

MvH: But I think also, I’ve done many interviews for the Dutch press, and they always ask, “How can an average Dutch boy like you make it in Hollywood?” And I think, “What do you mean by average Dutch boy?” So I think our state of mind is that we are all just average, small country boys, and it’s not really done to have big dreams. To conquer the world – it’s not really in our culture.

LW: Yeah, I agree with that. I don’t think the next Bill Gates is going to come out of Holland.

MvH: (laughs) Or Steve Jobs.

LW: Yeah.

MvH: You look back at our filmmakers, and you see that Verhoeven was a very extravagant character. Holland was very soon to dispose of him. So it’s based on talent and character.

LW: Yes, and it seems like not many filmmakers there have stories to tell.

MvH: No.

LW: I mean, they’ve got the skills in terms of the cinematography, and they know how to put a film together, but there’s nothing below the surface. It’s like there’s no stories supporting the skill.

MvH: Yeah, yeah.

LW: So how then did you get attracted to the horror genre in the first place? Why did that draw you in?

MvH: What I like about horror movies – really a certain kind of horror movie – is I like movies that sort of start normal, and then slowly descend into these weird worlds where there’s danger. I like stories that start normal and then descend into the abnormal. When I was a kid I started reading Kafka’s stories. They start very normal and then become very absurd. That’s really my fascination. How do characters hold themselves together when slowly the floor underneath them starts to give way? I like those stories. But it doesn’t even have to be horror. It can also be science fiction or just dramatic stories. Stories like “Rosemary’s Baby” where it’s a normal couple and slowly things start to change and it becomes very dark and sinister. That’s fascinating to me.

LW: So besides the brilliant Polanski – who’s one of my all-time favorite directors – which other directors were you influenced by when you decided to make films?

MvH: Well, Polanski was most influential. I saw “Repulsion” when I was fifteen.

LW: That’s not a good age to see “Repulsion,” though. (laughs)

MvH: (laughs) Well, you’re angry with the world when you’re fifteen, you know, and the girl Catherine Deneuve plays becomes this sort of monster.

LW: Yeah, I shouldn’t talk. I saw “A Clockwork Orange” when I was ten, which probably screwed me up for life. (MvH laughs) So do you see yourself delving into other genres besides horror?

MvH: Yeah, maybe more dark comedy and also pure drama – although that’s going to be difficult nowadays.

LW: But you write your own scripts, right?

MvH: No, I don’t. I rewrite stuff but I don’t write from scratch.

LW: Oh, so do you have a screenwriter you usually work with or do you work with different writers?

MvH: No, as this is my first movie there was a screenwriter assigned to me. But with commercials I basically rewrite them myself.

LW: This is really fascinating to me since I don’t get to interview a lot of Hollywood directors. Usually I chat with indie writer-directors who just figure a way to throw it all together outside the system. (laughs) I tend to forget that the Hollywood system is more split up, where there’s different compartments. So do you even get to take your creative team over with you to Hollywood?

MvH: I think it has to do with experience. There’s so much money involved so in the beginning they’re protective.

LW: So did you get to pick your DP even?

MvH: No, not even.

LW: Wow!

MvH: Yeah, yes, that’s pretty hardcore. (laughs) It was a bit of a struggle since I’ve been working with the same guy for the past ten years.

LW: Yet you’re still excited about working in Hollywood.

MvH: Yes, my experience was really positive. I pitched my idea, they approved it and gave me money, they showed up the first week on set, and I never saw them again. So it felt like an independent movie.

LW: (laughs) I really think your experience is not normal. I don’t think most first-time directors get away with that. I usually speak with directors who use Hollywood to pay the bills.

MvH: What I think you learn with commercials – and my commercials are really personal to me. They’re not just, like, paying the bills. I really try to make something out of it. With commercials I learned how to persuade people to leave me alone.

LW: Sure. Spike Lee does commercials. Spike Jonze does commercials. There’s a lot of artistry in that arena. They’re just making short films.

MvH: That’s how I always treated them. I don’t give a shit about the products I have to sell. (laughs) I just want to make a weird little film.

LW: So you started in Dutch commercials, for Dutch-language TV?

MvH: Well, yes, but most commercials I did I rewrote them and they happened in China or in India or in other locations. So for me in these commercials nobody speaks. So it was an exercise in silent film. How do you express yourself in shots and emotions, and not by talking? As minimalistic as can be.

LW: So what is your background? You went to film school in Holland?

MvH: No. I studied law. (laughs)

LW: Ah, so this is why you’re able to make it in Hollywood – because you didn’t go through the Dutch film system! (laughs)

MvH: No, I was too scared to be a filmmaker and I had the opportunity to study so I studied something. Then I realized that was bullshit – that I had to make films.

LW: One of your parents is involved in film, correct?

MvH: Yes, my father is a film producer. I was sort of drenched in filmmaking around me. When I was 21 I started a little company, a sort of anarchistic company, borrowing money and making short films with friends. And then I realized I couldn’t make a living doing that within the Dutch system. So I thought maybe making weird little commercials might be a way to learn how to make movies.

LW: Sure, people really underestimate the short film form. You can do a lot in just a few minutes. So do you still work in Holland?

MvH: No, no, I haven’t done commercials there in nine years. I’ve been working internationally in England, France, and the United States. I find there’s more creativity there as well.

 

Front page image: “The Thing/What is It” by C.G.P. Grey, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license