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25th Anniversary: 5 Things You Might Not Know About 'Predator'

Photo of Drew Taylor 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.
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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.

Original Predator Design
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." 

This article is related to: On This Day In Movie History, Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude van Damme, John McTiernan, Shane Black


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