On June 12th, 1987, audiences around the country got their first look at that (to borrow one of the more quotable bits from the movie) ugly motherfucker that is “Predator.” It heralded a number of promising new stars – most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger finally getting a bona fide blockbuster after sleeper hits like “The Terminator” and “Conan The Barbarian” – and director John McTiernan would emerge as one of the freshest, most stylish voices in action filmmaking since John Ford. The movie, which was produced by action luminary Joel Silver, and featured a platoon of hardened bad-asses on a clandestine mission in the jungles of South America, who come across something way more threatening than drug runners or Soviets, is a classic of the action sci-fi genre, a runaway train of a movie that has held up remarkably well in the 25 (!) years since its release. The film would go on to spawn two sequels (1990’s hopelessly dated and grandiose “Predator 2” and 2010’s underrated, Robert Rodriguez-produced “Predators”), two spin-offs which melded it with Fox’s other big franchise “Alien” (both regrettable), and countless adaptations in comic book, videogame, and novel form.
But let’s take a trip back to 1987 now and share some details that you might not know about “Predator.” Can you imagine going to see the movie thinking it was just some Arnold testosterone-fest and then watching, in horror and delight, as things got progressively stranger? Man, that must have been incredible. We wish we weren’t so damn small at the time, or that our parents were way more lax.
1. It Started Out As “Rocky V”
Well, not literally. But after the blockbuster success of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky IV” (worldwide box office haul: $300 million in 1985) a common joke in Hollywood was that Rocky would have to fight some kind of outer space boxer because he had run out of humans to punch. Jim and John Thomas, a brotherly writing team that would go on to write “Executive Decision,” “Wild Wild West,” and create the cult sci-fi series “Hard Time on Planet Earth,” took the joke to heart and wrote a script called “The Hunter,” which even director John McTiernan admits was originally fashioned as “ ’Rocky’ meets ‘Alien,’ I guess.” Jim Thomas said of the script’s origins (as part of a “text commentary” on the DVD), “The original conceit was ‘What would it be like if human beings were hunted by dilettante hunters the way humans hunt big game in Africa?’ ” In order to ground the story in some semi-realistic fashion, the brothers did extensive research into clandestine US military operations in South America, which at the time were rampant but incredibly hush-hush. John Thomas noted, “If this was a few years earlier, it would have been set in Vietnam.” (Several of the actors were real-life Vietnam vets.) Director John McTiernan, who would handily reinvent the genre with his next movie for Fox (something called “Die Hard”), wasn’t wooed by “Predator”‘s “Rocky”-ish foundations or militaristic setting. Instead, he was drawn to how “straightforward” it was, citing “King Kong” as an obvious influence, with guys descending into the jungle, realizing that they’re facing something way nastier, and running away. Jim and John Thomas have said that the bedtime stories their parents used to read to them, including Grimm’s fairy tales and Greek mythology, were fundamental to the story as well. “There’ve always been creatures or characters like the Predator,” John Thomas said.
2. It Was John McTiernan’s First Studio Film
While he’s remembered for being a genre trendsetter with “Die Hard” (which carved out its own niche of a sub-genre), it’s often forgotten that “Predator” was his first studio feature. (A year earlier he had written and directed a poorly received but still fairly effective supernatural thriller called “Nomads,” which starred Pierce Brosnan, who would later star in McTiernan’s elegant, superior “Thomas Crown Affair” remake.) McTiernan had a background in theater, which made him an easy fit with actors, but when it came to the film’s action sequences, it was more of a struggle. At that point, action sequences were shot very statically, with the camera not moving and scenes playing out to their fullest before cutting. For “Predator,” McTiernan introduced a more European sensibility to the movie’s action set pieces, with an emphasis on the image over actual dialogue (which comes from McTiernan’s childhood watching foreign films without subtitles), cutting on action (instead of, say, letting the scene play out while a fireball finishes unfurling), and things like 180 degree pans and constantly tracking camerawork. McTiernan insists that he couldn’t even get an American camera operator to do the things that he wanted to do, which is why he hired a wily Australian Donald McAlpine, who was an influential part of the Australian New Wave (he shot “My Brilliant Career” and “Breaker Morant“). The biggest disconnect between what the studio was trying to enforce for the action sequences and what McTiernan wanted to do himself, is the opening siege on the camp, which was mostly constructed by his second unit team and is frightfully boring. Gone are McTiernan’s fluid, subjective shots, and in their place are flat plates of things exploding and people firing guns. At the very beginning of the DVD commentary track, McTiernan admits that the production was, “terrifying in a lot of ways.” (And not just because everyone got really sick – in one sequence Arnold performs while an IV drip is sticking out of his arm, just off camera. McTiernan himself lost 25 pounds, just from not eating.) Elsewhere on the same DVD, Carl Weathers describes McTiernan on set: “I remember a lot of times seeing John with his head in his hands, like ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’ “
3. Shane Black Was Cast As Insurance More Than Anything Else
On the typically hilarious and deadpan commentary for the “Predator” special edition DVD, McTiernan lets out an agonized groan every time Shane Black, as radio operator Hawkins, lets out one of his infamous “pussy” jokes. (Example: “The other day, I went up to my girlfriend, I said, ‘Y’know I’d like a little pussy.’ She said, ‘Me too, mine’s as big as a house!’ ”) “I cast him because I wanted a writer on the set,” McTiernan admits. At the time Black was starting out in Hollywood, having written “Lethal Weapon” and “Monster Squad,” both of which were released the same year as “Predator,” but already had a reputation as someone to go to for big studio movies with snappy dialogue and clever scenarios. McTiernan elaborated (briefly) on the commentary: “I loved his work and he’s got a great wise-ass manner.” Producer Jon Davis somewhat more bluntly said: “The idea was hatched – we’ll hire him as an actor and then when he’s stuck in Mexico we’ll make him rewrite it.” What makes this arrangement so funny – having who would become the highest paid screenwriter in the history of Hollywood on your movie, available to use (for free) – is that they never actually used Black’s writing skills (except for the second “pussy joke”). “I did nothing on the script. What the studio did, and what they always do, was they get seven different writers, go all around the circle, and they go back to the original draft.” While they weren’t completely wed to the Thomas brothers’ screenplay, it was a solid enough foundation that Black’s tinkering was never necessary, instead McTiernan followed the “Robert Altman technique” of bringing in solid actors and, in his words “turning them loose.” McTiernan, during the same audio commentary, claims that he did concoct the sequence where Arnold booby-traps the jungle, “Apocalypto”-style, after editing together a rough cut where that sequence wasn’t in place.
4. At One Time The Predator Was Played By Jean-Claude Van Damme (Also: A Monkey)
The special effects situation on “Predator” was more or less a shit-show from day one. Everything was a complete pain in the ass, from the green screen/rear projection helicopter stuff (scrapped entirely in favor of an expressionistic red hue) to early attempts at the now iconic “heat vision” sequences (special effects guys originally wanted to capture the look by spraying ice water on the Mexican jungle and having the actors stand next to a crackling fire). But nothing was quite as daunting as the actual alien Predator. McTiernan was adamant that truly great monster designs only come along “once in a generation,” and that the generation’s quota had already been filled by H.R. Giger’s terrifying design for “Alien.” And for a while, McTiernan was right. The original Predator design was gangly and unwieldy – with a long neck, tiger stripes, big golden eyes and a small head. It looked kind of like the Anubis creature from “Stargate” mixed with a giant praying mantis, but not the least bit threatening. (“They lifted it out of the box and we said, ‘Oh are we in trouble,’ ” recalls McTiernan in a retrospective documentary.) When production on “Predator” ground to a halt after the money ran out, combined with the fact that the supposedly forested areas in Mexico proved too spare and phony looking to pass as jungle (they would reconvene in a much lusher, more tropical area), McTiernan used the opportunity to commission a new creature (he called the break in production “wonderful” and cited Woody Allen for budgeting time to shut down into every one of his movies). This time the monster came from genius creature designer Stan Winston (James Cameron, on a flight they were taking to Japan, supposedly supplied Winston with the idea of the mandibles). Winston developed the iconic Predator look – the mandibles, dreadlocks, mesh suit – that has lasted for countless sequels and spin-offs. But just as amazing as what the Predator could have looked like was who was originally supposed to play him – none other than the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme was hired based on his agility and the fluidity of his movements, so instead of lurking we imagine this first version of the Predator gleefully prancing around the jungle. Van Damme quit after two days, complaining about the suit and being marginalized to a special effect. Instead, Winston and McTiernan hired Kevin Peter Hall, a 7’2” basketball player and actor who McTiernan admitted “could barely walk outside of the suit.” (Hall would reprise his role as the fearsome Predator for the underwhelming sequel but in a tragic postscript would die at the age of 35 after contracting HIV while receiving a blood transfusion on the set of the TV version of “Harry and the Hendersons.”) But Van Damme wouldn’t be the only famous potential Predator – the creature was also, at one point, played by a small monkey dressed in a red suit. This wasn’t for the actual attacks but was supposed to be a reference point for when the creature is in his “invisibility mode” – with the red-suited monkey, high in the trees, later painted out by optical technicians. The monkey didn’t work out either, McTiernan notes, mostly because it was so “embarrassed” to be in that damn suit.
5. It’s More Subversive Than You’d Think
While “Predator” is often labeled a “macho” movie, thanks largely to the Herculean presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, all those guns, and the similarity of the film’s title to the previous Arnold/Joel Silver action movie, “Commando.” But McTiernan is a thoughtful, sneakily subversive director (even his worst film, the remake of “Rollerball,” is full of barbed satire), who was able (even at that point in his career) to make sure that progressiveness was present in “Predator.” The biggest example of this is a sequence, almost an hour into the film, where the soldiers unload their guns into the jungle, searching for the killer Predator but hitting nothing. The sequence was born out of McTiernan’s alarm at the “pornographic desire to market images of gunfire,” saying “I didn’t want to advertise to little kids how wonderful guns were.” The filmmaker slyly set about “to delicately ridicule the desire to see guns firing.” And he knew just how to take all the thrill out of large men shooting large weapons. “In order to do that I had to set up a situation where there are no beings in front of the guns,” McTiernan explained. He added: “The whole point is the impotence of all the guns.” (McTiernan staged a similar sequence in “Die Hard” – the scene where the bad guys are shooting the glass windows out.) Later, McTiernan says, a certain producer on the film (who is very obviously Joel Silver) took that idea and instead of hitting nothing he lined bodies up in front of the gunfire. In the commentary track on the DVD he said gravely: “And they wonder why Columbine happened.”