Ep. 31 – John Carpenter’s The Thing, Wargames (Film Lessons), Vai Piano Reductions (Mike Keneally)

Support this Podcast on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/carlking

In this episode, Carl King shares TWO Filmmaking Lessons: John Carpenter’s The Thing & Wargames, and the Album of the Week: Vai Piano Reductions (Mike Keneally)

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts

Subscribe on Spotify

Get John Carpenter’s The Thing

Get Wargames


I’m Carl King, and this is The Carl King Podcast, where we learn about music, filmmaking, and the other creative arts. To support this podcast, head over to Patreon.com/carlking, and join for just $1 or $5 per month. Special thank you to my Illusionist $51 level patrons, both Hank Howard III and Chewbode. 

Quick shout-out to my music endorsements: Vienna Symphonic Library, Fractal Audio, Ernie Ball Strings, Toontrack, and Millennia Media. All 5 of those companies make amazing musical gear that I love to use. 

Now let’s start to prepare to start getting started!


Ok, we have a SHORT episode this week, so let’s jump right into the Carl King The Human Update. 


This has been a stressful week. As you know, a HURRICANE hit my home state of Florida. And unfortunately, my family back home was at the center of it. I’ve been doing what I can to help and coordinate with them remotely, from out in California, so I haven’t had the usual time to prepare for this week’s episode. I’m pretty overloaded, so we’re gonna make the best of the time here, and get right to it. 

But I want to quickly share just a couple of news items. 

First of all, I want to thank my creative associate Mark Borchardt for sending me a copy of his film COVEN on VHS tape this week. And I appreciated his nice little handwritten note. Mark is a massive positive influence on me, and I encourage you to check out his work. He has a site where he occasionally sells VHS copy of his short film, so go and visit it. That’s Coven Film Dot Square Dot Site. 


Second, I received a very positive and enthusiastic review from a Patreon Patron the other day. Modiak wrote me a nice post that says:

“Ok ok ok, the cosmic arm has been twisted. I am supporting Carl King on Patreon. You are entertaining and I feel you have a valuable product to give to the world. Loving the podcast, movie making lessons are pure gold, love your musical analysis and I find myself chiming along whenever Carl King says “Folks…Folks!””

Well, here’s a Folks… FOOLKS… just for Modiak. And thank you to EVERYONE who has been joining my Patreon. As I said before, every time I get a little notification email of a new member, it makes my day. 

Anyway, since we’re short on time, let’s move on to this week’s Movie Reviews, or Film Reviews, or Filmmaking Lessons. 

MOVIE REVIEW #1 – Wargames (1983)

If you’re new to this, here are the rules. 1. I watch a movie (or film) and take notes as I’m watching it. And 2. I attempt to extract USEFUL filmmaking lessons from it. 3. I share them with you. 

So up first, we have Wargames, from 1983. Directed by John Badham. Written by Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker. 

Lasker also wrote Project X starring Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt from 1987. 

I looked it up and the budget for Wargames was 12 million but grossed $125 Million worldwide. AND it was nominated for THREE Academy Awards.

So, you know, it’s always a surprise to me. When the writers of such successful movies don’t seem to go on to have more of their writing produced. But that’s the speculative nightmare that is screenwriting, or any kind of filmmaking. It’s like, why should I hire you, what did you do? Well, I wrote a movie that made 10x it’s budget. Now can I have another job? Well, no. So even successful directors and screenwriters might NEVER get hired again. I’m not confident it’s the best way for the movie industry to be structured. It’s a revolving door of creative people who might get to make only one single successful movie before disappearing. And replaced by new people with even less experience.

Wargames came out the same year as Return of the Jedi. Ferriss Bueller was 3 years later, in 1986.

Now check this out. This was only Matthew Broderick’s SECOND movie role. And it looks like this was the movie that was his breakthrough. Since then he has starred in somewhere around EIGHTY FILMS. Can you imagine that? Eighty. 

Well. According to the website Collider, that’s nothing. Because Danny Trejo has been in over FOUR HUNDRED. Some quick math says: If you watched Danny Trejo’s movies 24 hours a day and didn’t sleep, it would take something like a MONTH to get through them all. Or you could watch one of his movies every day for a year and still not get through them. 


According too Letterboxd, he’s only been acting for about 40 years, which means he’s been in… 10 movies a year? Someone likes being in movies. Can you imagine being in that many movies? How much sweating and waiting around in a condemned building that is? 

So, back to Wargames. Let’s look at some more context. Both Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy were about 21 at the time. This was TWO YEARS BEFORE Sheedy was in Breakfast Club (1985) by John Hughes. And also St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) the same year by Joel Schumacher. 

Sheedy also went on to star in Short Circuit after this one. 3 years later, with the same director. No disassemble. 

Now here’s some story analysis.

The opening scene for Wargames was Expert Level. And by that, I mean this: while there is dialogue happening, there is NO dialogue at all to suggest what is happening or where they are. Everything we need to know… is entirely visual. 

The only dialogue is nonsense small talk, like you’d have as anyone is clocking in and out of a job. But this is no ordinary day job.  

A less crafty screenwriter could have made the characters SPEAK the plot. For example, they could have said: “You know, I hate being down in this top secret missile control room, in charge of launching nuclear weapons.”

But instead, on the way down in the elevator, one of the guys is talking about… what seems to be marijuana? The small talk is so vague and personal I didn’t even entirely follow it. And some of the other workers criticized them for being a bit late to work, which was also non-exposition. 

I’ll take a moment here to point out an unexpected detail. When the guys are going into the control room, there’s a sign on the wall. 

“Anyone urinating in this area will be discharged.” 

This is deep within an underground, top secret military base in maybe New Mexico? Do they not have a bathroom? Do the military personnel have to hold their pee-pee for 24 hours in there? 

And do people urinate right there frequently? Enough to warrant a SIGN? 

But this was a film set, so it was intentional. It was someone’s job to make that sign and put it there. And it was a prominent sign. I think everyone who watches this movie probably sees it. So whose idea was that? Why did they do it? No clue. 

Anyway, the scene ends a few minutes later on a tense moment, with one guy holding a gun to the other guy’s head. We can assume what happened, or actually what DIDN’T happen after that. But it’s such a skillful opening scene, from start to finish. Possibly the best scene of the whole movie. 

So then we meet our protagonist, played by Matthew Broderick. And there’s nothing that unusual or memorable about him. He’s a clever, teenage computer hacker. That’s all we need to know, I guess. 

But what struck me was the detail put into Ally Sheedy’s character. Either the writer or director, instead of just making her a generic female sidekick — wrote her as physically active and even athletic. It was a good contrast to the hacker nerd. 

I’ll go through some examples of her physically active personality… First, she shows up on a MOPED. Well that’s different. She gives our nerdy hero a ride home from school on it. That’s a strong choice. Because it could have been a car, but they went for something different. 

The second time she goes over to his house, she’s JOGGING. 

When we see her again, she’s doing some kind of workout in leotards. I think later in the movie she mentions that she was scheduled to do some dancing on TV. 

This was all a good bit of character detail. And if you think about it, it had NOTHING to do with the plot. She never uses her athleticism to solve a problem, save the day, or move things forward. It seems to have been there simply to make Ally Sheedy’s character more real. 

This is where I start to wonder, was this all left in there from a previous draft of the screenplay? Was her physicality originally plot-related, but now it served no purpose? Were they like, it seems cool, let’s just keep it? Possibly. 

So now we deal with Geographical Anomalies:

Both she and Matthew Broderick’s character live in Seattle, Washington. 

After hacking into NORAD a few times, he gets arrested by  the FBI outside the local 7-Eleven.

But I’m wondering — why would the FBI stake out a 7-Eleven? There are undercover FBI dudes all around the convenience store waiting for him. Why didn’t they just go to his house and get him? Because when they approach him, they already knew his name. And even though he’s a minor, they don’t even tell his parents. They just throw him in a van and drive off. I suppose maybe if the FBI had to go to his house, it would legally bog down the film, since his parents would then be involved, and they’d probably take his parents in, too. 

Anyway, they bring him in “for questioning.” But where do they take him? To one of the most important military structures in the US. NORAD. In Colorado. The same base he just hacked into. 

By the way, NORAD is a 16 hour drive from Seattle. And I’m assuming they took him by car. It’s POSSIBLE they flew him there, although there’s no evidence either way. 

But he soon escapes NORAD. And he hitchhikes to Grand Junction. Halfway across the state, 300 miles away. 

And he decides he needs to get from Grand Junction, CO to Salem Oregon. To try to find the inventor of the computer he hacked into. 

So he calls Ally Sheedy, a 17 year old high school girl, whom he just met maybe the day before… and says, can I borrow some money? Send me money to the airport, I’ll pick it up there. 

But instead, she SHOWS UP there. She came from Seattle, and she says it was only a 3 hour drive. But it should have been more like 16 hours. Depending on how fast you drive, but it’s about 1100 miles. Now that might have taken a bit longer on her moped. 

So then they FLY all the way back to Salem, Oregon. Which would be a 16 hour drive. I guess she leaves her moped, or maybe her parents’ car there in Grand Junction. 

Then they travel by bus and ferry to GOOSE ISLAND, which is another few hours away. 

Quick side note here: They find the scientist. And his house is am outrageous set. Because he has tall succulents INSIDE his living room. Hard to believe those could survive in there. Then again he’s a scientist so who knows what he is capable of. 

The scientist doesn’t want to help, so they leave. 

Since they missed the ferry, and it’s now late at night, Ally Sheedy suggests they SWIM the 2-3 miles back to the Oregon mainland. And Matthew Broderick admits he doesn’t know how to swim. What does this have to do with the plot? Nothing. Maybe this stuff, like I said before, was related to a previous scene that got cut out. Maybe this was all set-up in a previous version of the screenplay, where Ally Sheedy would save him from drowning. I don’t know. But it ends up serving as a character texture. Now we know more about Matthew Broderick’s character other than he’s a hacker. Because aside from that, there’s not much to him. 

Back to our Geographical Anomalies. 

As Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy do a kissing scene, a helicopter appears and chases them. After some wasted time running around in circles, we learn The Scientist himself is piloting it. He could have just walked out into his yard and said, hey guys, you know what, you’re right. Let’s go stop a nuclear war. I can get us to NORAD. I have a helicopter. 

Yeah. He has his own NORAD helicopter. So he flies them BACK to Norad again. But this time, it’s 1,300 miles. That made me wonder… What is the range on a typical  helicopter, anyway? Google says about 250 miles. So they probably had to refuel like 4 or 5 times. 

Anyway, I ASSUME he was flying them straight to NORAD in the helicopter. But then when they arrive it’s by Jeep. So then I was curious… well what happened in between the helicopter and the Jeep? How does one go about flying a helicopter into NORAD? Is that allowed? Because when he arrives, they didn’t seem to know he was coming. 

But you know what? In the end, does ANY of that affect the story? Does anyone watching the movie CARE about it? No. 

The Filmmaking Lesson to be Extracted is, don’t get bogged down in those sorts of tiny details. Unless you really want to. When I write my screenplays, I really do TRY to get all those things exact. I’d worry about physics and how long it takes to get from one location to another. Can an apocalyptaraptor really run as fast as a plane? I might pick up on more logical errors and implausibilities. But I’m sure I miss some of them. 

As a writer, it can give you some relief to work in broad strokes, and maybe it doesn’t matter if you get all the geographical details correct. It’s just a story. That is, unless it really stands out as implausible. Or straight-up impossible. As long as those sorts of details stay below the conscious threshold, the illusion is maintained.  

Here’s something I appreciated: The ending has a “moral of the story.” That Nuclear War is un-winnable. That’s a big statement to make in 1983. 

So I give this movie 5 out of 5 stars on Letterboxd. 


Up next, we have THE THING, from 1982. Starring Wilford Brimley, who plays the role of a doctor. And this was perhaps the start of his long career in medicine. 

It was directed by John Carpenter, with a screenplay by Bill Lancaster. Who also wrote some of the Bad News Bears movies, and nothing else. If that doesn’t tell you how speculative this business is, I don’t know what will. 

The Thing is based on a 1938 novella, called Who Goes There? The first movie based on it was The Thing From Another World in 1951. 

Here’s something that surprised me, this movie came out in 1982, but they started development for this version in the mid-70s! It went through several writers and directors before landing in the hands of John Carpenter. 

By the way, this movie came out AFTER Escape From New York, which was from 1981. 

John Carpenter’s The Thing opened on the same day as Blade Runner. And it performed SO POORLY, that according to Wikipedia, John Carpenter LOST HIS JOB as director of what would be his next film, Firestarter. And Universal bought out his multiple film contract. In other words, they paid him money, so he would STOP making more movies for them. 

But, it turned out, Firestarter didn’t do too great without him, either. 

But here’s what’s hard for me to accept. That one of the most influential directors in the world, having created so many iconic films, was considered a failure at almost every step. Maybe it shows how short-sighted the film studios are — or how everyone is. Because his career is like a bunch of box office bombs in a row that add up to a legend. 

John Carpenter has directed 24 films now, the latest was in 2010, called, The Ward, starring everyone’s favorite woman: Amber Heard. John Carpenter was 62 at the time he directed The Ward — and it of course, guess what? It bombed. Made only half of its budget back. 

Is there some kind of rule that his films will only make exactly half of their budget back? Is it like a curse? Or some kind of mathematical absolute? To balance out the universe, is there a director out there whose films always make DOUBLE? 

My guess is this — MAYBE his films only bomb because they’re being marketed as mainstream films. You know, force-fed to large audiences. Rather than cult films for the true fans. Because his works are beloved within the horror genre. That seems to be why Carpenter quick making major films. 

Back to The Thing. Oddly enough, on Letterboxd, The Thing comes up as the most POPULAR of John Carpenter’s films. Even above Halloween, which comes in second. I would have thought Halloween would be 1 and maybe Big Trouble In Little China would be 2. But hey, the snobby film people have spoken. 

So here we go. Let’s do some analysis. 

This is another film with 2 minutes of white credits over black. Two whole minutes. I wonder, how expensive is it, in terms of attention, to fill the first two minutes of a film? 

If you take the film’s entire budget, which was 15 million, and divide it by the total running time of 109 minutes, those opening credits were worth about $275,000. In 1982. That would be $844,000 today. Almost half a million dollars a minute, wow. No wonder movies spend so little time on simple opening and end credits these days. 

Also, maybe you can get away with that kind of thing when people are already in their seats in a theater to see a horror movie. 

But in the times of streaming, how many people would already be bored and click away? I know on YouTube, NO ONE would have the patience. The movie would need to GET TO IT in 30 seconds. If not 10 seconds, because otherwise the audience is LONG GONE.  

This film reminds me a bit of The Shining. From 1980. Only TWO YEARS EARLIER? Folks. Fooolks. When I looked that up, I was surprised The Shining was from 1980. I would NEVER have thought of The Shining as an 80s movie. I honestly assumed it was from the 60s or 70s. Shows you how little I know. But that’s what we’re here for, to learn. But some of us, like me, will never learn. 

Anyway, the reason I bring up The Shining. This is another spooky film about people in an isolated, snowy location, trying to entertain themselves. Kind of losing their minds. 

They’re pretty much doing nothing. But then the story creates intrigue with the husky. What’s the deal with it? Is IT the Thing? We don’t know. 

Slow movie. 17 minutes in we have no idea what’s going on. Something is up. Why did the guy go crazy? 

Also there was that shot of a flying saucer in the opening first shot. What was that about? Are we going to see aliens? Also reminds me of reminding me of Alien from 1979 by Ridley Scott.

In the meantime, this film has naturalistic acting. A slow pace. The characters are constantly DRINKING. It’s kinda like Portland. 

By the middle of the movie, about an hour in, I started to check out. I’m not caring about the story at all. You know why? 

Because I think, once we know it’s an alien that’s infecting and trying to kill everyone, it stops being a film and becomes a video game. Once we know the stakes, can the filmmaker sustain the STORY? In order to do that, I think the novelty and surprise has to increase. It can’t just be characters running from a bad guy. Which is what so many horror movies turn into. I’m not interested in a clearly defined field with two teams like football. What I like to see are more twists and mysteries. Keep surprising me with unexpected turns. Not just escalation of the same thing with bigger and bigger explosions. Otherwise, we pretty much know what is going to happen. The good guy will probably win. 

But good news, this story has an ambiguous ending. It’s two guys staring at each other. And we don’t know which one of them is The Thing. 

I like that Kurt Russell said it comes back and ends on the basic theme of the film: PARANOIA.

Good stuff. 

So the filmmaking lessons to extract might be:

1 – Keep the STORY fresh and surprising beyond the beginning of that third act. Keep us guessing. Don’t make us watch sports. 

2 – It’s possible to have a VERY long and successful directing career, even if MANY of your films quote-unquote fail. That is, if you’re John Carpenter. 

My own personal opinion? I didn’t emotionally enjoy this film a whole lot. But it’s a classic and it did give me a lot to think about. So just because I didn’t exactly like it, I still think it’s GOOD. 

So I give it 5 out of 5 stars on Letterboxd. 

And now, for the Album of the Week. 


This week’s album of the week is: Vai Piano Reductions, Volume 1.

Folks. Fooolks? How many of these Albums of the Week can I do before I cover all my favorites? Well, this album has gotta be at least in my top 5. There’s really nothing like it, so it has to occupy ONE of those top spots. 

Maybe it’s #4? Let’s see. Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare is #1. Permanently, and nothing can dislodge it. Mr. Bungle’s first album is probably #2? I can’t imagine a world in which I didn’t hear that record. 

It’s difficult to say whether Steve Vai’s Flex-able needs to be #3 or #2, honestly. Or maybe Steve Vai’s Sex & Religion should be #3. Anyway, Vai Piano Reductions is right up there with those NECESSARY albums. My point is, if we had to wipe out all of the albums from existence and only save 5, this would have to be one of them. Maybe someday I will get the opportunity to do a Thanos reboot on all music. In which case I should probably choose a bunch of Stravinsky and be done with it. 

But that tells you how much I love this record. 

I actually wrote to both Steve Vai and Mike Keneally in December 2006 and told them they should stop making all other music and commit themselves to making more of this material. But that’s another story. 

Imagine a bunch of Steve Vai compositions turned into solo piano pieces, performed by Mike Keneally. And although it’s called Reductions, they are FAR from being reductions. They are truly EXPANSIONS. 

It’s a bit confusing whether the official artist is Mike Keneally, or Steve Vai, but if you’re trying to find it, try both of those. It comes up as Mike Keneally on Apple Music. But it’s listed as Steve Vai on Spotify. 

Now I’d like to draw your attention to the rendition of the piece called PIG, a song that originally appeared on the Sex & Religion album. You know, the one that Devin Townsend originally sang on. If you listen to nothing else, go and listen to PIG. It’s a dissonant, energetic, somewhat atonal storm of unusual melodies and syncopations. Very asymmetrical, very 20th century. Very FUN. 

PIG by Steve Vai / Keneally Piano Reductions

And I need to tell you this, because I know you’re worried about breaking the rules. There are NO headphones required this time. Only for this week, you can listen through regular speakers. Because Vai Piano Reductions is only one instrument: acoustic piano. And it will come through just fine on pretty much any device. 

By the way, there IS a volume 2 in this series, performed by a different pianist — Miho Arai. And it’s superbly done. But it didn’t strike me, personally, like the Keneally tracks did. However, I’m sure that most people who enjoy Volume 1, will enjoy that Volume 2. 

And if you ever run into those guys, Vai or Keneally, tell them you agree with me. MORE PIANO ALBUMS. Okay? Okay. 


OK, that’s the end of this Episode of the Carl King Podcast. Remember to subscribe on Spotify, Apple Music, or anywhere else you listen to these dang podcasts. And support the creation of more episodes by joining my Patreon for $1 or $5 a month. https://www.patreon.com/carlking

And as always, special thanks to my $51 a month Patrons, at the special Illusionist level, Chewbode and Hank Howard III. And thank you to ALL of the Very Good Friends of Carl King for listening, and as I always say: folks. foooolks. 

Thanks for reading. If you like this post, join me on Patreon.

Leave a Reply