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

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by Drew Taylor
June 12, 2012 11:00 AM
9 Comments
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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." 

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9 Comments

  • Paul | June 13, 2012 5:29 PMReply

    Whoa - didn't know he had a chance to do 'Mission: Impossible'

    'Die Hard 3' and 'The Hunt for Red October' remain classics alongside Predator, IMO.

  • Graham | June 13, 2012 4:34 AMReply

    It wasn't McTiernan's idea to approach Winston to redesign the alien. That came from Schwarzenegger who had experience of Stan's work firsthand on Terminator. He suggested Winston after everyone burst out laughing at the unveiling of the 7 foot tadpole thing originally supposed to be the Predator.

  • Alan | June 13, 2012 4:27 AMReply

    John McTiernan is one of the smartest action directors of the last 30 years, and he should have gone onto a more varied and interesting career than he did. If you listen to any of his audio commentaries, you will notice how articulate he is about his visual choices for his films, and I am surprised that - Spielberg-style - he wasn't able to jump from blockbusters to dramas. Unfortunately, he helmed a few flops and then turned down sure-fire hits ('Batman Forever', 'Mission: Impossible'), which made him less and less viable as a commercial director.

  • Paul | June 12, 2012 6:15 PMReply

    This movie still holds up. Great soundtrack, camerawork & pacing. Love the dialogue too. Complete package

  • Zinjo | June 12, 2012 2:54 PMReply

    @ Drew Taylor - Dude to see it when it came out was exactly that! My cousin and I went to see it. He being a rural dude expecting the Ahnold gunfest was blown away (no pun intended) by the film. Yeah, it really caught a lot of people by surprise...
    It was also a break out role for Jesse Ventura who was winding down his old wrestling career at the time. The reason we don't see films like it now is because the good writers are either overlooked or rushed by the Hollywood accountants to crank out a script in 3 months when it should take at least 6 months or hack writers are better connected to get hired for such high concept projects.

    The future of compelling cinema is diverting rapidly from Hollywood studios toward cooperative small shingle production companies. Similar to how the TV networks are bringing shlock "reality" programing and it is the cable networks like AMC, Showtime, HBO, etc that are producing the high quality, frequently watched programming that home audiences are being entertained by these days.

  • StickAround | June 12, 2012 12:25 PMReply

    I don't understand why more action stars today go the "Predator" route - aka facing off against an alien badass. It worked so well for Arnold, I'm not sure why Jason Statham hasn't gone up against a predator yet.

  • Huffy | June 12, 2012 11:57 AMReply

    Love Predator but McTiernan is full of shit with that Columbine line. Never mind the fact that the whole "films/music/games made them do it" is retarded but I guarantee you that a kid watching Predator isn't going to catch the significance behind that sequence; I know I didn't growing up. And I also think he's overrating the film's subversive nature, especially when compared to something like Robocop with is an absolutely perfect blend of mindless action and though-provoking commentary.

  • Whodatninja | June 14, 2012 2:22 PM

    Funny you should say that because I actually saw Predator and Robocop as a double feature at the theaters when they first came out. Great double feature. They were night and day as far as the commentary and subversive nature. Predator had great themes about third world countries vs. better equipped soldiers and the reversal, and the primal test of men and hunting and killing as a sport, but it was Robocop that really gave audiences a funhouse reflection of where we are and where we are going as a society. Lots of shooting too.

  • Stevo the Magnificent | June 12, 2012 10:03 PM

    Agreed, McTiernan may have been a great action director once - he hasn't made a good film since 1999 - but he's just plain wrong about Columbine, that tragedy happened because two bad apples decided to shoot innocents for kicks, no movie/video game/rock star made them or influenced them to do it, McTiernan needs to get some perspective...or a box of smokes to barter with when he goes to the big house!

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