With a new cadre of soldiers and a beefed-up alien threat, The Predator aims to restore an iconic monster to its former glory. For director Shane Black, it’s all about recapturing the spirit of ’87
On set of the ugly mother’s big comeback — not Shane Black, don’t be rude — in the sequel that one of the all-time great movie monsters has always deserved.
"JESUS TAP-DANCING CHRIST! IS THAT... PINK?"
A blushing vision descends from the sky as actors Boyd Holbrook and Trevante Rhodes look on, dumbstruck. A helicopter, pink as a baboon’s arse, whips through the air to settle in a field next to them, a grinning Keegan-michael Key waving manically from the lilac interior. On the vehicle’s rosy fuselage, the silhouette of a naked woman reclines suggestively, the words “My Secret” and ”Heaven Sent” wrapped around her curves in flowery script.
”Well, that’s fancy,” observes Olivia Munn, as she, Rhodes and Holbrook shoulder weapons, grab their gear and get to the chopper — albeit one that appears to have been jacked from a sex-toy expo.
“What did you expect?” says Rhodes, grinning at his ride between takes. “This is a Shane Black movie, man.”
In the early ’90s, Black was the undisputed king of the Hollywood spec script. His screenplays, fuelled by a childhood spent inhaling pulp novels as fast as they were printed, were action-driven rides that refused to shy away from the awkward or absurd, punctuated by dark humour and biting dialogue. It wasn’t long before his words were worth their weight in gold,
earning him a record $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout, a figure dwarfed soon after when he sold The Long Kiss Goodnight for a ludicrous $4 million in 1994.
Black’s calling card, more than wit or one-liners, has been his delight in twisting genre tropes, turning convention on its head. When a Black character plays Russian roulette, there are brains on the wall at the first trigger pull. When the P.I. breaks a window with his fist, he ends up in the ER. And when the master villain is unmasked, he turns out to be Trevor Slattery, whose Lear was the toast of Croydon. It should come as no surprise, then, that when a bunch of misfit soldiers need transport in a hurry, Air Dildo is the only way to fly.
Three decades after Black got his big break with the script for Lethal Weapon, his work has lost none of its edge or pep. Off-screen, however, much like Danny Glover’s Murtaugh, the filmmaker had started to feel a little too old for this shit.
“You hit 50 and you remember thinking all this was gonna be so wonderful when you were 20,” he says, wearily. “And it is, but I wish I still had the same spark, the same friends, the same feeling and enthusiasm that I had when I was young. Basically, I was feeling old. And then someone at Fox mentioned Predator to me.”
Midlife crises can take many forms, of course. For some it’s an impractical car. For others a tryst with someone born after This Life went off the air. For Black, the Eat Pray Love moment came equipped with dreadlocks, mandibles and a shouldermounted plasma caster.
“I had so much fun making that film,” he recalls. “Just rolling in the mud and playing soldier. It’s why I wanted to go back and do it all again. Of all the things I could have chosen to represent a return to a youthful environ, it was the Predator.”
Not only was Black being offered a chance to revisit a singular experience from his youth, he was told he could bring on board Fred Dekker, a close friend since school, with whom he’d written Monster Squad back in the ’80s. It was perfect.
“I thought, ‘That’ll do it!’” he recalls. “Go back in time to those halcyon days standing in line in Westwood waiting on Raiders at the National Theatre when we were both just kids. The idea of being a kid again, playing in that particular sandbox with Fred — that appealed to me. I thought, ‘This’ll be a lark, an adventure, a chance to feel young again.’”
ONLY IN THE
hottest years they come. And this year it grows… wet. When Empire first arrives at The Predator set, on a remote farm just outside Vancouver, it’s a far cry from the sweltering Mexican jungle. Deep pockets of icy mud suck at our insulated wellies (a welcome loan from the prop department) as we squelch down the drive, a relentless drizzle whipping us around the head. It’s April 2017, day 35 of the shoot, and the ultimate big-game hunter has been waylaid by inclement weather. Shooting has stalled for the past three days with barely a break in the deluge, and tempers are fraying.
“This fucking weather, man,” growls star Thomas Jane, chewing on an unlit stogie the size of a courgette. We’ve had weather they’ve never seen in the history of Vancouver. Guys here who are 50, 60 years old have never seen shit like this. The schedule has been fucked!”
Today, though, Team Predator is fighting back. Articulated cranes with giant rain shields have been deployed to keep the torrent at bay and, with a hint of sun at last peering weakly from between ash grey clouds, filming is back on.
Outside a large, burnt-red barn, Holbrook and Rhodes lean against a battered Winnebago. A quick peek inside reveals wall-to-wall firepower. Rifles and pistols adorn almost every surface, while jars of ammo line the kitchenette shelves like an anarchist’s spice rack. If you ever fancied holidaying in a conflict zone, this is the RV you’d want to be driving.
Black is camped out in a nearby tent, a thick black Puffa jacket keeping out the worst of the chill. He does not, if we’re honest, look particularly rejuvenated. Hunched behind a monitor, he sucks furiously on a vapestick, glancing enviously at Rhodes, who takes long, deep drags on the stub of an honest-to-god cigarette.
“He’s the only one in the film allowed to fucking smoke,” Black grouses. “You can cut off people’s heads, skin their corpses and blow their fucking brains out, but the second someone picks up a cigarette the studio will shut your ass down.”
He takes another hit, a cloud of thick vapour billowing around his head. “I use this thing because I’m desperately trying to quit. But this is a war movie, you know? They’re soldiers. What else are they fucking gonna do?”
Led by Holbrook’s Quinn Mckenna, Black’s band of brothers is about as far from Dutch Schaefer’s crack unit as it’s possible to get. A ragtag bunch of outcasts and burnouts affectionately dubbed ‘The Loonies’, they’re thrown together by circumstance when the bus taking them to a military psych unit is waylaid by the ornery alien.
“The first movie was all whacking each other on the butt with muscled, cable-like arms,” says Black. “That’s fun and all. I mean, who doesn’t like a good muscular butt slap? But I wanted to go leaner and meaner.”
Consisting of Rhodes, Jane and Key, along with Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera, The Loonies are exactly that: each one as damaged and broken as the next, with inner demons to spare.
“It’s basically saying, ‘What if you had the forgotten ones? The marginalised soldiers who didn’t get a chance to win that coveted spot on the elite team with Arnold. What would happen if you took the least likely unit ever to go up against the Predator?’”
In the scene we’re watching, The Loonies are tooling up to head off in pursuit of Mckenna’s son Rory (played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay), recently abducted by the same shadowy cabal that has covered up the Predators’ existence to-date. There’s no equivalent of Old Painless — Jesse Ventura’s ludicrous megagun — on show but military hardware abounds, with M4s, MP5S and Škorpion machine pistols passed around like candy bars. Even Munn, whose evolutionary biologist, Dr Casey Bracket, wouldn’t seem an obvious poster child for the NRA, cocks and locks her sidearm with quiet competence.
“It’s a micro-aggression that women are shown as either Lara Croft Tomb Raiders or the emotional stay-at-home caregiver,” she opines. “Any time you see a man in a movie, nobody wonders, ‘How do they know how to work that weapon?’ So I said, ‘How about she just knows?’”
“This isn’t the ’80s movie,” chips in Holbrook. “Which was so stereotypical. You know, the Native American has the headband, the cowboy has chewing tobacco and the smart guy has the glasses. That’s just not relatable now. Hats off to the original but this one’s rooted in reality. We’re letting the story speak for itself, rather than overriding it with those huge guns and oiled muscles.”
PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO.
1986. A camo-streaked Schwarzenegger raises one ham-sized fist and four men freeze instantly in their tracks. He spreads his fingers and the commandos fan out, taking up defensive positions in the undergrowth. Ahead of him, Sonny Landham stands alone in a clearing, staring into the jungle while fingering the medicine pouch around his neck. He’s rigid with tension; beads of sweat trickle down his face.
“What is it?” hisses Schwarzenegger, creeping cautiously up behind him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“There’s something in those trees…” Landham rumbles, portent hanging on his words. Both men study the foliage with mounting dread. The camera follows their gaze into the canopy, where we strain to pick out a shape among the branches.
Without warning, Landham breaks into a run. Fumbling with his belt as he sprints full-tilt for the tree line, the hulking soldier dives into the shrubbery, yanks down his trousers and proceeds to shit his guts out behind a bush.
“That’s the part of the scene you don’t see,” laughs Black, remembering the incident. “He’d been barely holding it in the entire time! Bad water at the hotel. Everyone got sick on that movie.”
Punishing heat, venomous snakes, and rampant diarrhoea were all fixtures on John Mctiernan’s Predator shoot. But despite a wide assortment of discomforts, the 25-year-old Black was having the time of his life.
Uneasy with the nihilistic tone of ‘Hunter’, producer Joel Silver had ordered a new version with the laughs dialled way up. It didn’t work. So, as the script doctor du jour, Black had been asked to step in. Reluctant to tamper with an already great screenplay, he refused. But, with one eye on the beautiful Mexican resort town where the production was based, he agreed instead to a part in the film. It would, he assured Silver, allow him to be easily accessible if script work was required.
“I always liked Jim and John Thomas’ original script,” Black says. “I knew the studio would come all the way around the maypole and end up right back at that version, which is exactly what happened.”
And so, Black found himself on camera instead; playing soldier with the literal biggest stars in Hollywood. Surrounded by waxed chests and arms the size of traffic bollards, the young screenwriter was like the only punter at Summerslam ’86.
“It would have been extremely daunting were they not all such great fun. There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch,” he says. “Bill [Duke] and Jesse [Ventura] were very imposing figures. Bill was so intense — this huge guy with burning eyes — but he was a gentle giant. And when my mom and dad visited me on set, Jesse took us all out to dinner. He was the sweetest man.”
Most of all Black gravitated towards the brooding Landham, though. Infamously volatile, Landham was the production’s wild card. So much so that, legend has it, the studio hired a bodyguard to protect other people from him.
“They hired that guy to stop him getting drunk!” Black amends. “Because when he was sober he was great, but he had a short fuse when he drank. I became his de facto bodyguard because, for some reason, I was the only one who could talk him down.”
Schwarzenegger spent almost all of his downtime pumping iron, when not challenging Ventura to bicep-measuring contests or dining out with Maria Shriver, who he flew off to marry mid-shoot. Meanwhile, Carl Weathers maintained the fiction that he didn’t work out at all, insisting his physique was God-given, while sneaking off to the gym when his co-stars were in bed.
“Carl had just done Rocky III. He would take us to disco night in town and get up and dance while they played Living In America. The Mexican crowd would
“You can cut off people’s heads, skin their corpses and blow their fucking brains out, but the second someone picks up a cigarette the studio will shut your ass down.” SHANE BLACK
go nuts! They’d just watched the movie and here was the star in their little town, hitting the dance floor.“
Big actors with bigger personalities, Dutch’s commandos were a force of nature onscreen and off, their macho chemistry so effective that half the film’s battle seemed already won. The problem was the other half. The monster, the Predator itself, was not working. A reptilian lobster housing a then-unknown Jean-claude Van Damme, the creature looked ridiculous and everyone knew it.
“The decisions that were arrived at were very slipshod and last minute,” Black recalls. “‘What’s the monster look like? Fuck it, this.’ Eventually, they brought in Stan Winston but it was a scramble. Even that was like, ‘Fuck it, get Winston. He’s got two weeks!’”
Production shut down while Winston worked and, with a little help from James Cameron, who pitched its signature mouthparts, a very different creature began to take shape.
“MY FAVOURITE PART
is when you see the Predator’s face, when it removes its mask. It’s so cool! ’Cause it’s like a bug, but it’s not a bug — it’s a bug man! And then Arnold Schwarzenegger goes hand-to-hand with him and it’s awesome! That was bad… ummm.”
Ten-year-old Jacob Tremblay glances nervously at his mother. Mrs Tremblay cocks an eyebrow, indicating the presence of very thin ice.
“I can’t say that word or I’ll get in trouble,” he says, sheepishly. “It was bad-a-s-s,” he spells the word out carefully and earns a satisfied nod from Mum.
Spelled or spoken, the sentiment stands. Winston’s badass alien might have been thrown together in a fortnight but it would go on to become one of his most famous creations and a monster movie classic. Now, in a locked room at the back of the costume department,
Empire finally comes face to face with it.
El diablo que hace trofeos de los hombres — the demon that makes trophies of men.
The Predator — or ‘Yautja’, as it is known in the vast expanded universe of comics, books and games — is just as we remember from that first big reveal: sunken, beady eyes; mottled, reptilian skin and gaping mandibles revealing inner rows of pointed teeth. Aside from its attire — fitted armour plating, rather than the fishnet look we’re used to — the Predator is wholly familiar; an old friend. Which in itself represents a problem.
“The challenge became to make it frightening,” says Black. “’Cause upon that hinged everything — whether you bought our heroes going up against him and felt a real threat for them. We had to invent a scenario in which the Predators were mysterious and scary again.”
Black and Dekker’s handiwork resulted in the ‘Upgrade’. Predator plus. Bigger, meaner and nasty as hell. Ten feet tall and midnight black, bristling with spines, skin thickened with chitinous organic armour — the product of harvesting DNA from the deadliest creatures on every world it’s hunted. The ultimate expression of Predator dominance. It is, it’s fair to say, one giant, ugly motherfucker.
“Our idea was that on Predator World things haven’t stood still,” Black reveals. “It’s not like they congregate and just wait for the next bus to Earth so they can hunt some more. Things have moved on.”
The next step in Predator evolution, it’s an escalation for the mythology and one that will, with inevitable tedium, draw ire from certain quarters of the internet.
“There are some fans that will say, ‘This new Predator movie sucks. Here’s what I would do.’ And they go into such detail. Like, ‘I want the Black Blade clan — or whatever — to discover that they’re genetically inferior to the Yautja Prime!’ Really? No matter what, There’s always going to be a group of fans who go, ‘Fuck you, Iron Man 3 guy! So, the Predator’s
gonna be Ben Kingsley when he takes off his mask, right?’ No. That’s a funny joke, though. I’ve only heard that one 12 times today.”
WHEN WE NEXT
catch up with Black it’s on a sofa in the front room of his LA home. It’s June 2018 and the edit is all but done, with only final visual-effects work to complete. Black reclines on cushions, idly scratching the ears of his bull terrier, Ollie. Still vaping, but with slightly less fervour. Here, surrounded by walnut bookcases lined with his beloved detective novels, Black is at ease, his memory-lane marathon all but complete.
“Yeah, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the lark part,” he says, with a rueful sigh. “If I had known how arduous and time-consuming this would be…”
It’s been a long slog, longer than anticipated, with the release date pushed from February to September and substantial reshoots taking up the early part of this year. Black’s cheeky chopper has, disappointingly, been replaced by a still garish but less risqué weather-copter (“Clearance issues with Victoria’s Secret, I think”) and large sections of the finale have been revisited. Contrary to internet scuttlebutt, he says, the additional time was not to save a production in crisis. It was for reasons far more prosaic.
“The first time we shot the third act it was daytime,” he explains. “It’s all this spooky stuff but then it’s bright sunlight. It just didn’t work. So I said, ‘Ummm, can we do this again at night?’”
Has it made all the difference? “Well, yeah,” Black snorts. “The difference has been night and day.”
The Predator has not been the carefree return to twentysomething life that he’d hoped for, but Black is happy with the result. Inspired, he says, by Stranger Things, which milked every drop of nostalgia from ’80s horror, Black has worked a similar trick for action movies. He’s composed a love letter to his youth, filled with callbacks, homages and everything he loved about the film he made 31 years ago.
“I wanted to make the ultimate conglomeration,” he says. “Roll it all up in this movie, this wild ride with a group of misfits who have one last chance to recapture the life they’d previously neglected. To go out in a blaze of glory.”
A lark, in other words. An adventure. A chance to feel young again.
THE PREDATOR IS IN CINEMAS FROM 12 SEPTEMBER
Clockwise from here: The Upgrade Predator, a genetic hybrid that absorbs the DNA of its prey; Boyd Holbrook’s Quinn takes aim; Director Shane Black and pal on set; Keegan-michael Key as ‘Loonie’ Coyle.
The Predator shows off its shiny new armour.
Clockwise from right: Loonies Williams (Trevante Rhodes), Lynch (Alfie Allen), Quinn, Coyle and Baxley (Thomas Jane); Jake Busey as the son of Peter Keyes — his dad Gary’s character in Predator 2; Olivia Munn as biologist Casey Bracket; Jacob...