By Drew Taylor | The Playlist June 12, 2012 at 11:00AM
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?' "