It’s 1986. Deep in the jungles of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a young film director, John McTiernan, is crouched on the floor with his head in his hands. “My God, what have I got myself into?” He cries. Welcome to the set of PREDATOR.
Flashback to several months earlier. Arnold Schwarzenegger is looking around for his next project. “I’ll be back”, he promised audiences in THE TERMINATOR, and he kept his word, with three action movies that secured his reputation as the chief rival to Sylvester Stallone’s beefcake throne.
But, while no-brain popcorn flicks like COMMANDO, RED SONJA, and RAW DEAL were quick money-spinners, Schwarzenegger knew he needed a movie that could match the multi-million dollar grosses of THE TERMINATOR if he was going to KO the ROCKY star once and for all.
While Arnie pondered his next career move, producer Joel Silver was reading an unsolicited script that two wannabe writers, the brothers Jim and John Thomas, had shoved under his door.
A sci-fi shoot-em-up, “HUNTER,” was about a close encounter between a crack Special Forces unit and a nasty extraterrestrial, set in the jungles of South America.
Silver loved it: “The film is basically three movies in one,” he told his bosses at Twentieth Century Fox. “It starts out as a solid war story that suddenly turns into a horror film along the lines of ALIEN. There is some definite science fiction elements in there as well. HUNTER has everything.”
But what actor could convincingly hold his own in a one-on-one, bare-knuckle fight with an alien warrior?
Schwarzenegger agreed to play Special Forces Major “Dutch” Schaefer before Silver had even finished pitching him the idea. The CONAN star immediately sensed that “HUNTER” was a good project – a science fiction story, with plenty of action and many opportunities for him to show off his trademark muscles.
With Schwarzenegger locked in, the rest of the parts were easy to cast. Silver signed up Carl Weathers (who’s played Apollo Creed in the ROCKY films), professional wrestler and ex-Navy SEAL Jesse Ventura, and Arnie’s old sparring partner from COMMANDO, Bill Duke.
To spice up the squad, a Native American character called Billy was added to the script, and Silver hired ex-porn star Sonny Landham to play him. Landham’s reputation as a hellraiser preceded him, though. The studio’s insurance brokers would only allow him on set on the condition that a bodyguard accompanied him wherever he went – to protect the rest of the cast and crew from his boisterous 6’8″ giant.
Screenwriter Shane Black (who’d penned LETHAL WEAPON and would later write THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT) was given the role of the somewhat geeky Hawkins – even though he was several sizes smaller than any of the other actors – in exchange for polishing up the script.
The only real surprise was Silver’s choice of director. Few people had heard of New Yorker John McTiernan, and fewer still had seen his first feature, the supernatural chiller NOMADS, which starred Adam Ant.
There were several sniggers when Silver announced his choice – but the producer obviously knew talent when he saw it (McTiernan went on to direct DIE HARD and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER). With the cast and crew prepped, the production moved out to the Mexican jungle near Puerto Vallarta, where principal photography was scheduled to take place.
SHOOTING THE HUNT
No one was expecting the jungle shoot to be easy – but if they’d known quite how difficult it was destined to be, they would have probably taken the first plane home.
The combination of the heat, the tight schedule and the movie’s SFX-heavy storyline turned the production into a gruelling endurance test.
With a Mexican crew who couldn’t speak English, a location stuck out in the middle of nowhere, and a cast of testosterone-fuelled musclemen, McTiernan felt like he was on the verge of losing his mind and his career.
Most of the problems were caused by the complicated special effects. Dealing with the monster’s scenes was bad enough, but there were also several tricky sequences that involved the Predator’s heat vision and its unique chameleon-stay camouflage.
The balance between live-action and effect sequences was a nightmare for McTiernan, who’d never worked on an SFX movie. So, to make things easier on himself, he separated the shoot into two parts.
The first would cover all the live-action sequences (like the attack on the guerrilla camp) and the heat vision and camouflage scenes.
The second part of the shoot would focus on the climactic battle between Schwarzenegger and the Predator, where they’d need an actor in the monster suit to play the alien hunter.
The most challenging visual trick – and the one that helped win the film an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects – was the Predator’s “visible invisibility”. To get the camouflage effect right, an actor had to film the scenes in a bright red suit that covered his body and head. Then, in the labs, a computer cut the red suit out of the frame, leaving a “black hole” that the effects technicians could tamper with to create the illusion that the Predator’s body was reflecting the jungle background.
It was a tricky process – but it worked brilliantly. The only problem was that, for the actors, the sight of a man in a bright red suit jumping through the jungle kept reducing them to fits of laughter. It looked more like an oversized Teletubbie than a deadly alien hunter, and it was very difficult to act scared around it.
Whatever problems McTiernan faced, nobody went through as much misery as Schwarzenegger. The Austrian Oak wasn’t one to complain about hardship – just as long as his supply of Havana cigars was kept stocked up – but even he had to admit that the physical demands of the film were quite a stretch.
“I took more abuse in PREDATOR than I did in CONAN THE BARBARIAN. I fell down that waterfall and swam in this ice-cold water for days, and for weeks, I was covered in mud. It was freezing in the Mexican jungle. They had these heat lamps on all the time, but they were no good. If you stayed in front of the lamps, the mud dried. Then you had to take it off and put new mud on again. It was a no win situation. The location was tough. Never on flat ground. Always on a hill. We stood all day long on a hill, one leg up, one leg down. It was terrible.”
As the first phase of shooting was drawing to a close, things suddenly took an unexpected turn for the worse.
The crate containing the long-awaited monster suit had finally arrived from the SFX labs in the US. There was a sudden silence on set as the cast and crew gathered around for their first glimpse of the film’s alien star.
The crate was opened, the wrapping came off, and a collective gasp went up from the crowd. “Oh boy, are we in trouble!” Exclaimed a troubled McTiernan.
For Jean Claude Van Damme, the offer to work on a big-budget Hollywood movie was a dream come true. The karate star of NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER was desperate for some experience in an American production, so desperate that he didn’t care about spending several weeks in the jungle or dressing up in a rubber monster suit.
McTiernan had offered the little-known martial artist the part based on his fighting skills. Van Damme eagerly accepted, thinking that this might be his big break. But it wasn’t to be.
As soon as he arrived in the jungle, Van Damme discovered that his role had vanished overnight. The monster suit was completely unworkable: “They made an outfit out of very thick rubber. It was very large – my feet were in the calves of the animal outfit, so I wasn’t balanced. My head was in the neck so I had to open the fake mouth with a cable. It was very dangerous and nothing like the director wanted,” he recalls.
The worst thing was how dangerous the stupid suit was. “They wanted me to jump wearing this thing and I knew I was going to fall and break something.”
Fortunately, Van Damme wasn’t the only person who disliked the suit. Nobody had a good word to say about the rubber monstrosity – it was the most ridiculous alien anyone had ever seen, with just one eye and a huge pair of stilt-like legs. Worst of all, it was about as convincing as a Muppet on steroids.
McTiernan took one look at it and closed down the production, flying back to Hollywood for a major pow-wow with the Los Angeles studio heads.
He knew that there was absolutely no way that this movie was going to be a success unless they had a decent monster.
Since they’d already invested $15 million in the production – and agreed with the director’s assessment that the monster wouldn’t scare a three-year-old – the financiers at Twentieth Century Fox handed over an extra $2 million for Silver and McTiernan to hire a new SFX company to design an alternative suit.
James Cameron was called in as a ‘monster consultant’, and the legendary SFX guru Stan Winston (who’d just won an Oscar for his work on Cameron’s ALIENS) was tasked with designing and building Arnie’s new nemesis.
Van Damme was the first casualty of the redesign. Winston decided to redesign the new monster around the seven-feet-two-inch actor Kevin Peter Hall, who’d gained firsthand experience with SFX suits working on HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS.
Van Damme was out of a job but wasn’t too disappointed: “That was fine, because the film gave me my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card. Thanks God. And I got to meet Arnold.”
When it was unveiled, Winston’s new design surprised everyone: “The creature is very cultural looking, a mix between a Spartan and an African warrior,” explained one of his technicians. “It wears stylised technological weaponry. The large back of the head resembles Rastafarian dreadlocks. The face has movable pincer-like mandible, which fold and flare out like a spider’s mouth. The eyes are deep set with no nose… It’s a very unusual look.”
Since he was so tall, Kevin Peter Hall didn’t suffer from any of the problems the much shorter Van Damme had. Besides the Predator’s facial expressions, which were hooked to a remote computer, everything else was under Hall’s control, reducing logistical problems surrounding the suit’s SFX.
With all the glitches smoothly ironed out, the crew returned to Mexico to shoot the movie’s final scenes – the climatic battle between Schwarzenegger and the Predator.
Filming in a jungle ravine, some 1,000 miles in the middle of nowhere, and almost two days’ drive from Mexico City, the showdown with the Predator was hard work for everybody, particularly the film’s human star.
“There was plenty of fear there, believe me,” Schwarzenegger said when asked if he found his fight scenes with the Predator scary. “Working with something like this was wild because he couldn’t really see . In the movie he has heat-seeking eyes; in reality Kevin couldn’t see shit. So when he’s supposed to slap me around and stay far from my face, all of a sudden, whap! There is this hand with claws on it!”
PREDATOR ON THE LOOSE
When PREDATOR hit cinemas in June 1987, the on-set problems were reduced to a distant memory. Taking $70 million (a phenomenal amount of money that was twice the gross of THE TERMINATOR), PREDATOR’s success more than made up for the months of heartache and stress everyone involved had gone through.
It did brisk business, topping the charts in the US for the next month until ROBOCOP knocked it off the top spot. Even when critics complained about the film’s violence and its lack of any love interest, Schwarzenegger was ready for them: “You have this Predator monster wiping out all the soldiers around you… You don’t have any room for a love scene. My love interest was my gun at that point.”
PREDATOR was Schwarzenegger’s breakthrough movie. Not only did it prove that he was enough of an actor to carry a film on his own – he was all alone with the alien for the last 20 minutes – it also showed Hollywood and the rest of the world that he was ready to take Stallone’s action-man crown.
While the star of Rocky and Rambo floundered at the box office in the late ’80s with his attempts to reinvent himself as a caring, sharing entertainer in the arm-wrestling drama OVER THE TOP, Arnie had staked out his territory in the science fiction genre.
As THE RUNNING MAN would prove, Arnie’s days of pumping iron at the bottom of the Hollywood pile were well and truly over.