PREDA­TOR: 30TH AN­NIVER­SARY

Orig­i­nal Preda­tor screen­writer Jim Thomas looks back on the un­likely ori­gin story of one of cinema’s great­est mon­sters

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Screen­writer Jim Thomas writes about the thrills, spills and kills of the sci-fi ac­tion-horror clas­sic, plus the Preda­tor’s de­sign­ers talk through their cre­ation.

It all de­pends on the point of view of the ob­server or par­tic­i­pant. Mine is just one per­spec­tive. But as with all movies it be­gins with the script. The evo­lu­tion of Preda­tor should be of in­ter­est for the sim­ple rea­son that my brother John and I, as novice writ­ers, man­aged to sell a spec-script to a ma­jor film com­pany without the ben­e­fit of an agent or lawyer, and saw it go into pro­duc­tion within a year. A rare event in Hol­ly­wood.

Our story is one of right tim­ing, the right sub­ject mat­ter, per­se­ver­ance, and cer­tainly a healthy dose of luck.

An ed­i­tor for The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter re­cently told me there is a story mak­ing the rounds that my brother and I used to sneak onto the 20th Cen­tury Fox lot and slide our script un­der the doors of ex­ec­u­tives and pro­duc­ers. It’s a myth. But it’s some­thing we didn’t try only be­cause we didn’t think of it.

My brother John and I had both been beach life­guards for Los An­ge­les City and I was liv­ing in a small room of an old house on the beach in Ma­rina del Rey. I had writ­ten sev­eral scripts and had a good sense of form and style, and I had the ba­sic idea for Preda­tor. My brother was re­cov­er­ing from an ac­ci­dent sus­tained from jump­ing out of his tower to make a res­cue. I asked him if he wanted to col­lab­o­rate, he said yes, so we set up shop at the one place most com­fort­able to us: the beach. With an old ca­ble spool for a ta­ble and a beach um­brella for shade, we de­voted the next six months to writ­ing and rewrit­ing the script.

The con­ceit of the story was al­ways, “What would it be like to be hunted by some dilet­tante, ex­tra-ter­res­trial sports­man, the way we hunt big game in Africa, as tro­phies?” In fact, the orig­i­nal ti­tle of the script was ‘Hunter’. The first scene of the script, never shot, opened in­side an alien space­craft, fo­cused on a screen re­veal­ing a kind of hunter’s guide for Earth. It rapidly flipped through all the dan­ger­ous game, com­ing to fo­cus on a hu­man form. A com­plete bio-me­chan­i­cal anal­y­sis fol­lowed, the hu­man fi­nally dressed and armed as a sol­dier. The screen then ze­roed in on a lo­ca­tion in Cen­tral Amer­ica and then we were on Earth with our team.

THE HIS­TORY OF ANY FILM PROJECT IS AT BEST A RASHOMON EX­PE­RI­ENCE.

We wanted to avoid as much as pos­si­ble cre­at­ing a story fea­tur­ing a man in a rub­ber suit. We needed a real char­ac­ter for the Preda­tor, one that had its own arc, per­son­al­ity and, of course, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. The best rub­ber-suit sto­ries are the ones that keep the crea­ture hid­den away as much as pos­si­ble, re­veal­ing it in stages. Jaws is a per­fect ex­am­ple. Alien is an­other, with the meta­mor­pho­sis el­e­ment and only brief, ter­ri­fy­ing re­veals in­side darkened spa­ces and flashes of light.

Our ap­proach was to re­veal the Preda­tor in stages. The first re­veal, which was never shot prob­a­bly be­cause CGI was in its in­fancy, was high up in the jun­gle canopy. We fo­cused on the sol­diers silently mov­ing through the for­est. Then, a but­ter­fly which landed on a limb, fan­ning its wings. The but­ter­fly flew away, leav­ing be­hind an im­age of it­self which slowly faded — and then the limb it­self moved. We didn’t re­veal the Preda­tor him­self un­til the end of the first act, and then only his heat-vi­sion POV and his abil­ity to mimic his prey. Then the cam­ou­flage ef­fect was revealed when the Preda­tor made his first at­tack, on Shane Black. Still later, we revealed that un­der the cam­ou­flage ef­fect was a very com­plex-look­ing alien war­rior: a think­ing, cal­cu­lat­ing hunter.

Sav­ing the best for last was the face re­veal of the alien crea­ture it­self, which Stan Win­ston ren­dered be­yond what even we had en­vi­sioned. We imag­ined him as some­thing a bit more lithe and simian-like than was fi­nally ren­dered, but when we saw Stan Win­ston’s cre­ation, we had to ad­mit it was im­pos­si­ble to beat. As good as it gets for a man in a rub­ber suit.

WHEN WE HAD

a pol­ished draft, my brother and I faced the daunt­ing prob­lem of sell­ing it. Writ­ing it was the easy part, we soon re­alised. With no nepo­tism avail­able we only had the query let­ter to turn to. “Dear ___, This is the story of an ex­tra-ter­res­trial hunter who comes to this planet to hunt the most dan­ger­ous species, com­bat sol­diers in the jun­gles of Cen­tral Amer­ica” — short and sweet and hope­fully tan­ta­lis­ing. The feed­back was over­whelm­ing. I think I had a col­lec­tion of over a hun­dred re­jec­tion let­ters from ev­ery stu­dio, pro­ducer, lawyer and agent that we could come up with.

I had been work­ing part-time as a grip, elec­tri­cian and sound-man on non-union, low-bud­get films and com­mer­cials, which made me feel I was at least in­volved in the in­dus­try I longed to be a part of. A cine­matog­ra­pher friend of mine said he knew some­one who he be­lieved had a con­tact in­side 20th Cen­tury Fox. I met with the guy, who I quickly as­sessed as be­ing a bot­tom feeder of the Hol­ly­wood scene, gave him the script and agreed to a per­cent­age if it sold. I wasn’t im­pressed, but the guy was a hus­tler and what did we have to lose?

His in­side con­tact at Fox turned out to be a script reader, but here’s where Lady Luck dealt a card: it turns out that at that very mo­ment a ma­jor change was tak­ing place at Fox, one ad­min­is­tra­tion re­plac­ing an­other. Our in­side con­tact liked the script but had no-one to sub­mit it to. So she left it be­hind with a note, “Read this.”

A young, am­bi­tious ju­nior ex­ec­u­tive found the script on his desk, read it and liked it — his first project. But our real lucky break was the fact that the new stu­dio pres­i­dent was Larry Gor­don, a suc­cess­ful pro­ducer who had been men­tored by Roger Cor­man, and Preda­tor was just his kind of script. Tim­ing can be every­thing.

A cou­ple of months later, I had just re­turned from a run on the beach when the phone rang and I raced to an­swer it.

A guy iden­ti­fied him­self as the head of busi­ness af­fairs at 20th Cen­tury Fox, say­ing they wanted to buy our script and hire us to re­write it. One of those crys­talline mo­ments

I will never for­get.

THE NEXT EL­E­MENT

of the script process for many writ­ers is the de­vel­op­ment phase, which can be a night­mare. For­tu­nately for us we were spared that el­e­ment, as a di­rec­tor was as­signed to the project from the very be­gin­ning. Ge­off Mur­phy was known as the Steven Spiel­berg of New Zealand, and was also new to Hol­ly­wood. We hit it off and spent the next sev­eral months on the Fox lot pre­par­ing the script for pro­duc­tion. We were liv­ing the dream. Or so we thought.

When Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger be­came at­tached it all came to a screech­ing halt, and all be­cause of Co­nan The Bar­bar­ian.

Ge­off had pre­vi­ously in­ter­viewed as a pos­si­ble di­rec­tor for the next Co­nan movie, but in his New Zealand wit had re­ferred to Arnold as Co­nan The Li­brar­ian, which Arnold ap­par­ently didn’t find amus­ing. So Ge­off was off the project, and soon we had a new di­rec­tor to work with: John Mctier­nan.

Once a di­rec­tor is at­tached, what of­ten hap­pens is they have their read and then say, “Now, here’s the way I see it,” which es­sen­tially means a re­write, and some­times a com­plete re­write. Which was to be our fate. The prob­lem was, we seemed to have a com­plete block when it came to un­der­stand­ing what is was John was want­ing to com­mu­ni­cate to us about rewrit­ing our story. It just wasn’t go­ing to work. More im­por­tantly, we didn’t un­der­stand why the script had to be so rad­i­cally changed in the first place. But it’s a di­rec­tor’s medium, so re­luc­tantly we took our bow and stepped away from the project. Heart­break­ing. It had been a great ride while it lasted.

We heard the stu­dio had hired David Webb Peo­ples, co-writer of Blade Run­ner, to re­write the script based on John Mctier­nan’s notes. Great. Blade Run­ner. So we made a deal at Dis­ney and moved on with our bud­ding ca­reers in the screen trade.

And then an­other mem­o­rable phone call, this time from our new agent at ICM, Bill Block (it’s easy to get one af­ter

you’ve sold a screen­play. Trust me, they come out of the wood­work like roaches). “The re­write is in,” he said, “and the stu­dio hates it. And they want you back, and for more money, and they want you to go to Mex­ico for pro­duc­tion.” Doesn’t get any sweeter than that. We were back, as Ge­orge Costanza would say...

OUR FIRST MEET­ING

with Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger took place at the Bev­erly Hills man­sion of Marvin Davis, the oil bil­lion­aire who then owned Fox, and whose son, John, was a pro­ducer on the film. Af­ter clear­ing the Uzi-bear­ing guards at the gates, we won­dered where in this pala­tial man­sion would our meet­ing take place? In the liv­ing room, the den, the li­brary, the bil­liard room? Nope, in a hot tub, and of course, buck naked, with Arnold’s ever-present cigar. But de­spite his weird sense of hu­mour, Arnold is a very smart, per­cep­tive guy, and de­spite the ca­sual set­ting, seriously wanted our take on the char­ac­ter he was to be play­ing.

I said, “You’ve just done a film called Com­mando, in which you are first in­tro­duced car­ry­ing an en­tire tree over one shoul­der with a chain­saw in the other. This Paul Bun­yan ref­er­ence tells us im­me­di­ately this is go­ing to be a com­edy of some sort. There may be ac­tion and bul­lets and ex­plo­sions but noth­ing is ever go­ing to ‘hap­pen’ to you. But if you’ll play this sol­dier more like an Ev­ery­man, a real guy who can bleed and die, there will be real, clas­sic jeop­ardy.”

He seemed to have got­ten the mes­sage, and to his credit I think he did it like a real Ev­ery­man, with no self-par­ody. The last scene of Arnold fly­ing off in the he­li­copter is not your typ­i­cal Arnold end­ing. This is a guy who has truly sur­vived a death-de­fy­ing ordeal.

And still the Hol­ly­wood in­trigue con­tin­ued. Read­ing over the cast we saw the name of a young writer named Shane Black, cast as the ra­dio man, Hawkins. We knew Shane was one of the writ­ers Fox had ap­proached to do the re­write but had de­clined for some rea­son. We soon learned the pro­ducer, Joel Sil­ver, had cast Shane in the movie so he’d have a back-up writer on hand in case we gave him any trouble on lo­ca­tion. And the irony of that was while we were in Puerto Val­larta, where most of the film was shot, Joel slipped us a copy of Shane’s script, Lethal Weapon, Joel’s next pic­ture, with the po­ten­tial of rewrit­ing it. For­tu­nately, it didn’t come to that, and the rest is his­tory.

Shane did con­trib­ute some colour­ful jokes to the film, I give him credit for that. He’s just fin­ished di­rect­ing The Preda­tor, and we wish him and the fran­chise all the best. Any­thing can and does hap­pen in Hol­ly­wood.

THUS BE­GAN AN

amaz­ing ad­ven­ture in Mex­ico for the next five-to-six months, an ex­pe­ri­ence I’ll never for­get. Hang­ing out with the fascinating cast of ‘manly men’ in the jun­gle ev­ery day (two of whom would later be­come gover­nors), the stunt­men, the pro­duc­tion peo­ple from the US, Aus­tralia, and Mex­ico, the charm and beauty of Puerto Val­larta as a back­drop. It was a one-of-a-kind ex­pe­ri­ence and I truly en­joyed ev­ery mo­ment of it.

We had no idea at the time that the film would go on to be­come an icon of sorts, tak­ing on a life of its own and es­tab­lish­ing it­self as part of the cur­rent cul­ture. It was at a Comic-con pro­mot­ing Preda­tor 2 when I saw my first Preda­tor tat­too, which was a bit weird. Now if you Google Preda­tor tat­toos you’ll find pages of them, and some pretty re­mark­able art­work too.

But the full im­pact of what had evolved from our script was only re­alised when I vis­ited Stan Win­ston’s shop a few years later. In the en­trance­way he had a gallery of his cre­ations, on pedestals like Ro­man stat­u­ary: the Preda­tor at eight feet tall, the Alien, and the Ter­mi­na­tor. They have be­come part of our cur­rent mythol­ogy, much the same as the Cy­clops, the Mino­taur, Gren­del and oth­ers that pre­ceded them. Fan­tas­tic crea­tures that came from our prim­i­tive fears of the un­known, the dark­ness be­yond the camp­fire.

Clock­wise from top left: Dutch (Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger) and Dillon (Carl Weath­ers) with Preda­tor vic­tim Blain (Jesse Ven­tura); Ven­tura gets some fin­ish­ing touches to his gap­ing wound; Dutch blends into his en­vi­ron­ment; The Preda­tor emerges from a...

Clock­wise from top left: Go­ing Com­mando: The elite sol­diers are ready to head into the jun­gle; Cast and crew take a breather; Dutch in con­tem­pla­tive mood; Kevin Peter Hall be­com­ing the Preda­tor; Di­rec­tor John Mctier­nan on lo­ca­tion.

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