PREDATOR: 30TH ANNIVERSARY
Original Predator screenwriter Jim Thomas looks back on the unlikely origin story of one of cinema’s greatest monsters
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.