‘Predator’: John McTiernan’s First Studio Gig that Became an Epic Action Classic

After Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV proved to be a huge box office hit back in 1985, earning more than 300 million dollars on a 28-million investment, a funny joke started circulating around Hollywood: that Rocky now has to fight a certain kind of an extraterrestrial fighter since he had run out of any real human opposition. Screenwriters Jim and John Thomas, however, chose not to giggle at the benevolent joke but instead turned it into the premise of their new project. The script was entitled The Hunter, and according to John McTiernan, the filmmaker who later directed it, it was first envisioned as a “Rocky meets Alien” sort of spectacle. The Hunter slowly transformed into Predator, and what was initially fashioned as a comical and outrageous response to one Rocky fan’s witty commentary became one of the staples of 1980s action filmmaking. Under the guidance of McTiernan, a hugely talented filmmaker who would go on to make such unforgettable classics as Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, the story of a group of experienced and highly skillful special forces soldiers stranded in the middle of Central American jungle and forced to deal with an intelligent and technologically advanced creature from outer space set out to hunt them down one by one immediately found its audience, resulting in a respectable box office haul (around 80 million dollars of pure profit) and, far more importantly, became a classic example of well-crafted mixture of horror and pure action. The Thomas brothers’ script was bought by 20th Century Fox, who handed over the project to producer Joel Silver (The Warriors, 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard), the man who worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the designated star of the film, on Commando the previous year. It was Silver’s decision to make a big-budget hit out of Predator, and John McTiernan landed his first studio gig based on his filmmaking debut Nomads with Pierce Brosnan. The actors chosen to keep Arnold Schwarzenegger company were the great Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed from the Rocky series), professional wrestler and former Navy UDT Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves and Schwarzenegger’s Commando partner Bill Duke, all of whom brought the raw bodybuilder physicality much needed for Predator to convey the general idea of the alien being’s absolute supremacy in its fight against top-notch human adversaries. For a brief time the company was aided by Jean-Claude Van Damme, but depending on your source (too short to be intimidating, unwilling to participate if he wasn’t allowed to show his face, constantly complaining about the working conditions, etc.), the Belgian star left the production after only several days. Whatever the reason for Van Damme’s exclusion was, the fact remains that the original design of the Predator was deemed too clumsy, difficult to handle and far too benign to be considered petrifying, with Schwarzenegger calling it a “lizard with the head of a duck.” When Kevin Peter Hall jumped into Van Damme’s shoes, the monster had already been transformed into a fearsome, formidable enemy thanks to the help of the one and only Stan Winston, who was chosen based on the recommendation of Schwarzenegger, who had previously testified to his skills on The Terminator.

According to Jim Thomas, the co-screenwriter, he developed the basic idea for Predator and asked his brother John to join him in the writing process. The two of them built the concept of a band of skilled war veterans of the most bad-ass kind getting their asses beaten one by one when encountered with a force of a far more advanced species. It took some time for their script to reach the right pair of eyes, as they sent “a barrage of letters out to every agent and producer they could think of and got rejections back from virtually everybody.” Luckily for them, Fox was hooked, Joel Silver was soon on board, and having worked with Schwarzenegger on Commando, the main star was acquired. Shane Black, who had just written his script for Lethal Weapon, was hired as a supporting actor with the producers’ intention of asking him for on-set rewrites if needed. According to co-producer John Davis, Black coldly turned down the offer and explained he’s just an actor in the film, so he became the first crew member to get killed—“he got killed seven minutes into the movie.”

I had the basic idea for Predator, which at that time was called Hunter, and my brother was laid up from a back injury from the beach, so I said, “Well, do you want to write a script with me?” and he said sure. We just sat out on the beach and composed this thing over a period of about three months. But the original conceit was always, “What would it be like to be hunted by a dilettante hunter from another planet the way we hunt big game in Africa?” And at first, we were thinking about how a band of hunters would branch out and hunt various and dangerous species on the planet, but we said “That’s going to be way too complex.” So, what’s the most dangerous creature? Man. And what’s the most dangerous men? Combat soldiers. At that time, we were doing lots of operations in Central America, so that’s where we set it. —Jim Thomas, screenwriter

 
The filming took place in Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, and everything went according to plan except a short break made so Schwarzenegger could fly off to get married to Maria Shriver. The job was physically demanding: apart from very low temperatures in the Mexican jungle and the rough terrain, there were some health issues caused by improperly filtered drinking water. In addition to that, the main actors got up every day an hour and a half early so they could exercise: they developed a sort of a competition and were very careful to appear as buffed up as possible. Kevin Peter Hall, on the other hand, had a lot of difficulty with acting in the Predator suit, as he couldn’t see properly and the outfit was very heavy and off-balance. “It wasn’t a movie,” he said later, “it was a survival story for all of us.”

Reaching fame thanks to Back to the Future in 1985, the celebrated composer Alan Silvestri composed the score, with horn blasts and his trademark timpani rolls. Silvestri would go on to provide the score for the critically mostly panned 1990 sequel with Danny Glover as the headliner. Australian cinematographer Donald McAlpine (Romeo + Juliet, Patriot Games) was hired by McTiernan and prompted to fly to Mexico immediately. Military adviser Gary Goldman was brought in to train the actors, as McTiernan explained to him that they “honestly look like a bunch of ballerinas.” The director’s inclination to authenticity, displayed both in Goldman’s employment and the fact that several actors were chosen specifically because of their Vietnam War experience, paid off in the end: the expert extraterrestrial killer was confronted by a bunch of guys we honestly believe are ex-soldiers, the best that the American army had to offer.

It was quite an interesting start to the movie because this business of not getting crew from America, I never quite understood it, but when I got there I had this whole Mexican crew who were part of a syndicato. And the first day of shooting, I’d previously asked that all the lighting fixtures be changed from plastic fittings to ceramic because of the heat of the lamps I was using. Started to work and all the lights started exploding because they hadn’t changed them. And I realize then that the Mexican crew I had were basically schleppers (laughs) more than educated film crew. I pointed it out to Joel and he said, “Well what can I do?” And I said, “We’ll get you some guys from the states!” He says “I can’t get guys from the states. Can you get people from Australia?” So I spent all night basically on the phone ringing up people in Australia saying, “You working tomorrow?” “Nope” And basically getting to the point where I found people with a passport who were free and could get on the next plane to wherever we were. That’s the way we crewed the film. —Donald McAlpine, cinematographer

 
Predator premiered on June 12, 1987. The fame and machismo of its stars, the straightforward but effective screenplay by the Thomas brothers, Silvestri’s suspenseful tunes and McTiernan’s brilliant direction of action sequences secured the film’s place among action lovers’ favorites. Thirty years upon its release, Predator is still as exhilarating, nail-biting and terrifying as it was back when it premiered, and what kind of an influence it had on the world of entertainment is evident from the fact it brought us two sequels, several video games, novelizations and the upcoming The Predator directed and co-written by Shane Black. It also entered into popular culture: who hasn’t already heard the iconic “get to the choppa” line that permeated everyday speech? One of the best movies of Schwarzenegger’s rich career, a crucial step in the filmmaking career of McTiernan, who would make probably the best action film of all time only a year later (John McClane’s adventures at the Nakatomi Plaza), and a thrilling action classic people go back to with nostalgia and pure love. “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” Simple, epic and atmospheric as hell.

Screenwriter must-read: Jim Thomas & John Thomas’ screenplay for Predator [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
The following interview originally appeared on Moviefone, written by Drew Taylor, ‘Predator Director John McTiernan Celebrates the ’80s Classic’s 30th Anniversary.’

When did you first board the project?
Fox had developed it and they were ready to make it when they got to me.

What was appealing about the project to you?
Obviously, it was just fun. It was an innocent monster movie. It was good popcorn-eating. And most of those action films are filled with all sorts of hateful things and this one wasn’t, this was fun. In particular the idea became fun when they said they wanted to do it with Arnold. That made the entire thing much more interesting.

Was Arnold a part of the project before you became involved?
We went to meet him. We went down to South Carolina, where he was making a film, and met him there to talk about it.

Was he attracted to the same things you were about the story?
Sure. I think so yes. And it was certainly a great part for him.

 
The rest of the cast is really interesting, as well, between Carl Weathers or Shane Black. Was there any guiding principle for hiring the rest of the guys on Arnold’s team?
No, not really. To some extent, I wanted him to have a couple of good actors around him because Arnold wasn’t that experienced at the time. He hadn’t made very many movies. But I knew that he was very smart and he’s like a sponge. He just picks up information from people. So I tried to keep people around him who knew how to act, particularly Carl Weathers. Arnold was really wonderful about that—you could tell. Normally, the star stays in his trailer when they’re doing a scene with the second lead. Nope. Whenever Carl was working, particularly during the first half of the movie, Arnold somehow wasn’t in his trailer. He was standing around watching what was going on. He was learning! That’s why I cast Carl. Because Arnold is so competitive, right? So I gave him someone to compete with! A guy who is a much more experienced actor!

Is there any truth to you having Shane Black on set for rewrites, but then not using him at all?
Well, we tried to get him to be on set for rewrites and he didn’t want to take the job—and he was happy to take a job as an actor. And yes, he did contribute. He was always coming up with ideas and things. Like that goofy joke he told, that terrible joke—I heard him tell some guy that joke at lunch, and I said, “We’ve got to put that in the movie!” Because it was what Shane was like. We just used him for what he was like. He didn’t have to act or pretend to be somebody else. It was neat.

And now Shane is directing a ‘Predator’ movie. Have you talked to him about it at all?
No, I haven’t.

You shot the movie in Mexico. What was that experience like?
Well, it was two parts: I was a very young director at the time, so I didn’t have a lot of credibility. The cameraman and I wanted to do it on the Caribbean side of Mexico, where there’s jungle. And there was somebody with the studio who wanted to do it in Puerto Vallarta, because it has big hotels. I think he owned a condo there. And he hadn’t done any homework and the Pacific side of Mexico, the trees are deciduous, they drop their leaves. So, we prepared the movie when it all looked green and we got there to shoot and the leaves were turning orange and falling off. So after we’d shot two-thirds of the movie or so, by then the studio had been seeing footage and they decided they trusted me a little bit, so we then got to move the company over to the Caribbean side of Mexico, near Palenque. All of the jungle that’s in the movie was shot there.

 
I remember seeing documentary footage of you guys having to glue leaves back to trees.
It was pretty ridiculous.

You famously ordered a redesign of the monster during shooting. But is it true that Jean-Claude Van Damme was in the original version of the suit?
Yes. We never shot anything with him. It was a complete screw up with his agent, trying to hustle him into a job and didn’t know what the movie was. It’s silly. It was really silly.

When you saw the second version of the monster did you know he was going to be a classic creature?
Oh, yeah. We’d been working on it for a couple of months in Los Angeles, practicing things and working out how the whole crab face worked. That was a lot of fun to watch because it was all airplane controllers, the various things on his face. So there were like five kids off camera who had some portion of his face with a radio airplane control on it. There was one kid who had the eyebrows and one kid who had the claws. And they had to practice. It was like puppetry—but very complex puppetry. You had five puppeteers make one monster work.

Has the legacy of the film surprised you?
I don’t know. It was a good, fun movie and I’m glad people still like it.

But you didn’t know you were making a classic?
No, one doesn’t set out to do that.

 
In the breadth of your career, where do you place this movie?
It was just a fun thing to do. I enjoyed it. But, again, I’m not a historian of my own career and I don’t find it real useful to think about stuff like that. That’s for other people to do. As I said, the whole idea of it was it was supposed to be fun. And it seemed innocent. I still get meetings for action movies and most of them are mean, they have mean hearts and are filled with cruelty in one sort or another. It just misses the point of why people go to the movies. People go to the movies to have a good time. Most people forget that or lose track of it—why those people sent their $10 to see the movies.

And the sequence where they’re shooting into the forest is your commentary on guns, right?
Well, it was sort of a commentary. There were some studio types who were basically into gun pornography. They wanted to sell gun pornography. They said I wasn’t doing enough close-ups of guns and stuff. So I said, “Why don’t I just do a whole scene?” But I also made it one that had something to do with the story, because all of these guys have giant guns and the whole point is that they’re helpless in the face of this monster. That’s the whole point of the story. They’re these enormously, heavily-armed guys, and they’re not prepared for this. So the whole point was, we hit nothing. But it also got rid of the gun pornographers because I gave them five minutes of nothing but guns. So they were quiet after that.

Jesse Ventura’s gun was off of a helicopter, right?
Well, we made it. There were a couple of guns we made up, that the military made afterwards. The one with the 40mm grenades? We made that. There was nothing like that. And it seems like the military has made one. We made one. It was scenery. It was battery-powered. And we made it for the movie because we thought it was cool. We were thinking like 14-year-old kids. That is the ultimate critic or advisor in a movie like that, you have to listen to the 14-year-old boy in you. So we made up that gun. The Gatling gun was a machine that is mounted on helicopters. Nobody’s ever carried it. That’s ridiculous. It runs at a quarter speed—just so you could see the barrels rotating. Otherwise, the barrel would go so fast you couldn’t see it. And if it was running at full speed and shooting—one, even somebody as big as Jesse Ventura could only carry two seconds of ammunition—but it would also bury him in shell casings up to his knees in about ten seconds. It’s ridiculous. But it was fun. We made it up.

Well, being someone who is a fan of your films, it’s obvious what the studio made you stick in the movie, but you had ways of getting back at them. They didn’t let you shoot anamorphic so you stretched out the Fox logo at the beginning, right?
[laughs] Yeah, that was funny. They wouldn’t let us shoot anamorphic at the time because it was early days on computer stuff, and they didn’t think they could handle it. Now, they can do it—but, at the time, they were just hoping they could figure out how to do it. So they were afraid to let us work with anamorphic.

You think if you made it today, would you approach it any differently?
No, I don’t think so. You have to make the movie that the 14-year-old boy wants to see.

 

AN ORAL HISTORY OF ‘PREDATOR’

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the action-horror classic’s release, THR spoke to key players who persevered through oppressive heat, bugs, a “red rubber chicken” and the diva-esque behavior of a future star (no, not that one) to launch a franchise.

 
“There was a rather humorous joke making the rounds of Hollywood studios around the time Rocky IV was released. The laughing consensus was that Rocky Balboa had run out of earthly opponents and that any further fisticuffs in the series would probably involve Sylvester Stallone going 10 rounds with E.T. Jim and John Thomas, a pair of screenwriters, took the joke. Quite seriously. ‘I suppose it has almost reached a point with these action films where one of these heroes would have to fight a creature from another world,’ says producer Joel Silver of the ‘joke’ that has become the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger romp, Predator. ‘It just looks like Arnold has beaten Stallone to the punch.’ Silver is in good spirits this day as he takes time out from ‘taking a meeting’ to discuss his latest field trip into never-never land. And with good reason.”

So, if the Predator was a denizen of a colder and darker planet, what was it doing hunting in the heat and humidity of an Earth jungle? Simply, the Predator was a sportsman. If the game is good, a true sportsman will travel to the high Himalayas or deep into the wilds of Zaire in search of innocent animals to kill.

 

IF IT BLEEDS WE CAN KILL IT: THE MAKING OF ‘PREDATOR’

“Holding up remarkably well, even two years after its 25th anniversary, Predator possesses some of the best behind-the-scenes stories around, whether focusing on the psychological toll the film took on McTiernan (causing him to lose 25 pounds), or the fact that actor Sonny Landham requested the production hire a bodyguard to protect the cast and crew from him and his violent tendencies. Its Special Edition DVD charted many of these tales in both small featurettes and the half-hour documentary If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It. Featuring interviews with McTiernan, Schwarzenegger, and co-stars Weathers, Bill Duke, and Jesse Ventura (whose competition of muscles between him and Schwarzenegger is classic), the video is an excellent and entertaining account of exactly what went down in the forests of Mexico.” —Charlie Schmidlin, IndieWire


Open YouTube video

“The first day of shooting was the worst nightmare I’ve ever seen.”


Open YouTube video

 

HAND-DRAWN STORYBOARDS AND CREATURE DESIGNS

Assorted hand-drawn storyboards and concept artwork used in the production of John McTiernan’s sci-fi action film Predator. Acquired from the collection of visual effects artist Richard Edlund, this set includes five storyboard sheets depicting the duel between Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the wounded “Hunter,” along with two sheets illustrating early concepts for the creature, courtesy of Prop Store.

 

JOHN MCTIERNAN ON FILMMAKING PHILOSOPHY

John McTiernan talks about how he approaches actors when making a film, his notions on filmmaking and editing. Do not miss this, you’ll learn something you didn’t know, courtesy of filmschoolthrucommentaries.


Open YouTube video

Here’s a compilation of all the valuable bits from all of the commentaries John McTiernan had recorded and then making them screen specific, courtesy of filmschoolthrucommentaries.

Director John McTiernan discusses defining the medium of filmmaking.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John McTiernan’s Predator. Photographed by Zade Rosenthal & Alfredo Ruvalcaba © Amercent Films, American Entertainment Partners L.P., Davis Entertainment, Lawrence Gordon Productions, Silver Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in