A “midlife crisis” brought shAne blAck bAck to the Predator universe for the first time in 30 yeArs – And, As he tells richArd edwArds, he’s out to mAke cinemA’s ultimAte hunter scAry AgAin
Ban hunting, we say. Especially when we’re the ones being hunted… SFX runs and hides as writer/director Shane Black revives the star-beast franchise.
SHANE BLACK DIDN’T MAKE IT TO THE end of the original Predator. Starring as the wisecracking Hawkins – the youngest member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s elite team of soldiers – he was the first to be eliminated, the most expendable role in an ensemble where life expectancies were, by dramatic necessity, a tad limited.
now, some 31 years later, Black’s making a return to the killer alien saga as director and writer with the efficiently titled The Predator.
“The thing is, I didn’t really consider myself to be an essential part of the first Predator!” he confides to SFX when we meet in a San Diego hotel, the day before the film’s Comic-Con panel. “I know it makes for a good point of reference in a story, but really I was just there to observe and get murdered as quickly as possible. So I really didn’t expect to revisit it.
“But I will tell you I was surprised by its longevity,” he continues. “The [Predator] costume was cobbled together in a period of weeks by Stan Winston. The title ‘Predator’
was just an afterthought when they said, ‘We can’t call it The Hunter, because there’s a show by that name.’ And yet these seemingly very 11th hour decisions ended up generating these concepts which have lingered in the zeitgeist for over 30 years. I suppose there was always a vector in place that I would inevitably be confronted with it some day!”
Yet for much of those three decades, there was little indication that Black was destined for another face-off with one of those “ugly motherfuckers”. Off the back of Lethal Weapon he became one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters (the first Lethal Weapon sequel, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight),
before turning director with the excellent Kiss
Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3 – all projects notable for their complete lack of an alien with weird four-way mandibles. But this particular franchise had extra appeal thanks to Black’s fond memories of having a good time “as a wide-eyed kid with my buddies”.
“The Predator itself was the most indelible example of pure ’80s pop art – the Rambo craze combined with the Alien craze, with a slight wink because there was that humour in it, too. And they were these muscle-bound guys who were so over the top, and such a crack team of X-whatever special ops soldiers, that you thought, ‘Okay, that’s just a very pure concept.’
“I had a bit of a midlife crisis and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great, just as a lark, to go back and be a kid again? What could it hurt to revisit a time that was so special, and a type of filmmaking before videogames and CG polluted the market with visual overload? When you’re forced to rely on a bit more ingenuity to conjure the same sort of effects? It’ll be a lark. Let’s do it!’”
the Black List
While Black himself has been away from the hunt for three decades, the Predator species most certainly has not, returning in two straight sequels (Predator 2 and Predators), two brand-splicing crossovers (the Alien Vs
Predator movies), and numerous comics and games. And yet, considering the Predator’s status as one of the most iconic extraterrestrials in cinema – up there on a cosmic plinth with Giger’s Alien – it’s been an awfully long time since it’s done anything truly memorable on screen. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say its only truly classic outing was John McTiernan’s 1987 original – and that the formula for what makes a successful Predator movie is far from set in stone.
“[We started with] a session between Fred [Dekker, co-writer] and me watching the movies, and asking, ‘What’s iconic?’ Well, there’s the tension of the hunt, so we
when the Predator strikes, the results have to be calamitous
acknowledge that any interaction of a Predator movie has to in some way include a version of framing it as a hunt. Also, the tension of the unseen is very important. And then the brutality, which started to get lost as the movies went PG. So we said, ‘Okay, let’s make sure we get this at least rated R,’ so that when the Predator strikes, the results have to be calamitous, and often bloody.
“It was our task to satisfy those requirements and stay true, so that John McTiernan, were he to look at this after it was finished, would hopefully say something like, ‘nice job, guys.’”
One of the biggest challenges facing the new movie is that the original Predator is almost as memorable for the interplay between its testosterone-filled military heroes as its alien visitor – like Aliens, released a year earlier, it basically wrote the blueprint for putting soldiers in the crosshairs of an angry eT. So it seems one hell of a gamble pitting the Predator against a new rag-tag assortment of soldiers…
“I think if you’re going to go back after 30 years you can change some things, but don’t change too much,” counters Black. “I don’t think anyone will want a Predator where a group of pre-school kids teams up with the host of a late-night horror show to go to Miami Beach to battle Predators in a Pachinko tournament. You don’t want to go that far.”
Yet the soldiers in The Predator are a different breed to the cartoonish, bulging biceps brigade personified by Arnie, Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers in the original movie. Led by Boyd (Logan) Holbrook’s Quinn Mckenna, “the Loonies” are a bunch of military outcasts who come together when the transport taking them to a psychiatric unit has a close encounter with a certain visitor from outer space.
“We made a decision not to go with the sort of over-the-top muscles or the stunt casting,” explains Black. “But if you don’t have that, how do you make them a little more vulnerable, a little more broken and relatable than the super soldiers who populated that first film? We toned them down to the extent that these are the more marginalised and broken contingent – the least likely, as opposed to the most likely, people you would choose to save the world. I loved just bouncing random, broken people off each other in a movie, and getting actors good enough that all I have to do is essentially stay out of their way.
“We also brought in a kid as part of this group of misfits [played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay], who was on the autism spectrum, and a misanthropic female scientist who’s not very fond of people, but loves animals [ X-Men: Apocalypse’s Olivia Munn]. They’re misfits who don’t quite fit in, who’ve been marginalised. They were suddenly thrust onto a stage of having to save the world.”
IF It BLeedS We CaN KILL It
Arguably even more of a potential banana skin than the casting is the Predator itself. Only the most die-hard fan could claim it’s anywhere near as scary as it was back in 1987, a symptom of the sort of over-familiarity that’s also neutered Freddy krueger, Jason Voorhees and the Xenomorph in recent outings – by now humanity has defeated them in numerous ways, and they’ve even been made kid-friendly and cute as plushies and Pop! vinyl figures.
there must be scientists building those things on Predator world
“That was a very real problem,” Black admits, “because although the Predator make-up is still enduring and really cool, it’s got to the point of recognisability where you can walk out the door at Comic-Con, see a pretty serviceable Predator walking around and go, ‘Damn, you could film that!’
“You can’t really change the make-up,” he goes on. “What you can do is change the way you film it, so that it doesn’t look clunky, and never reveal it in harsh light or for too long. You can emphasise again the elements that made the Predator frightening in the first movie, which were how fast, how effortlessly, bloodily efficient it is. And once again, don’t see too much of him. He’s a hunter. He appears, he strikes, he retreats. Just keep him as deadly, as fast, agile and almost cheetah-like as possible. The more you see him walking around doing stuff or making himself breakfast, the less it’s going to be effective.”
Black also utilised another weapon in his battle against familiarity. So in the long-honoured tradition of creature sequels introducing us to something bigger and deadlier than we saw before – the Alien Queen being the classic example – The Predator will introduce a new genetically modified, souped-up version of the species. “What we’ve touched on in the movie is the notion that this is a civilisation that, yes, goes to planets and hunts; they wear tribal garb and netting; they carry skulls; they have spears and masks. But yet for all their ceremonial look, they arrived in an interstellar spaceship. Which means there must be scientists who built those things on Predator World. They’re not just jumping around in trees, making those spaceships, so the idea is that a
he is bred using traits from other hunted species to be the enforcer
group of rogue Predators on their world is not happy that they’ve been bested not once but twice – and perhaps more – by humans. They send their champions, and the champions never come home.
“This is not sitting well with a group that’s particularly contentious and ambitious. So I think they conspire to produce a second Predator, the one you see in the movie, who’s basically an assassin. He is bred using traits from other species that they have hunted to be the enforcer, the guy who just gets it done. He has a sort of under armour as it were, almost like a crustacean. He goes from one colour to another like a chameleon, so he’s got these weird survival skills. When this larger Predator steps out and reveals himself, hopefully audiences say, ‘Well, at least that’s not the traditional Predator outfit we’re used to.’”
The origins of Predatorplus are a nod to a mythology that’s gradually expanded via movies and comics since the creature first appeared as a mysterious (but lethal) blur in that Central American jungle. Black says that he likes to read the comics (though he says that little made it into the movie: “at one point there was a line about them coming [to earth] since medieval times”), and says that – unlike some other franchises that deny the existence of any sequels inconvenient to continuity – he isn’t pretending that any of the follow-ups don’t exist. “In my mind, in ’87 there was this experience with
Dutch Schaefer’s patrol, looking for Jim Hopper. Then there was the second one, which took place. And then there was the third one and the AvP universe. It’s like, who’s to say? There was a mention in the [new] film, that’s since been cut, that humans have suspected there have been abductions. I’ve tried to service the fact that it’s not a reboot, but a sequel that implies it’s simply 30 years following the first one. The difference is that Predators are up to something. They didn’t just sit around. They’ve evolved, and they’ve done stuff.
“On earth, the first encounters flew under the radar, or were disbelieved, and have given way to an environment where it’s sufficiently prevalent that the government, or a private agency, has noticed. So they’ve appointed a group to await the next incursion. This movie is the story of that next incursion. There’s a group of professionals who are waiting for it, and there’s a group of completely ignorant grunts who just got caught up in it. To me the fun is watching all the professionals get diced and sliced, and then it’s up to the grunts to save the world when no one else can.”
The Predator may have a lucrative track record at the box office, but there’s still a sense that Black needs to save something in the real world – the franchise’s soul. The question is, how does he feel – after two-and-a-half years on the movie – about his return to the saga. And did it help him recapture that lost youth?
“It was a mistake, I think, thinking it would just be a fun lark, because my God, it’s been tough!” he laughs. “Working within the limitations of a budget, shooting in Vancouver in the rain, greenscreen every day…
“The good news is that all of this knits together very well. It’s been a ride and a nostalgia thing. It was mostly a midlife crisis thing, if I were to be honest about it. If it hasn’t exactly made me feel like a kid again, it’s certainly reinvigorated me to keep going. I’m blessed and honoured to be viable in moviemaking – I’ve seen lots of people around me fall off. The fact that after 30-something years I’m still able to even do this is something I’m eternally grateful for. I don’t know why or how I was given that opportunity, but I’m grateful for it.”
The Predator is in cinemas from 13 September.
No time wasted when it comes to throwing his weight around. Unsurprisingly, his time onLove Island had proved brief.
Boyd Holbrook’s Quinn finds himself leading the fightback.
Someone’s been polishing their mask…
A larger, hybrid Predator is joining the fight on Earth.
The Predators are keen to make amends for previous defeats.
Jacob Tremblay as misfit Rory.
Walking tall on a good hair day.
Shane Black talks the troops through a scene.