THE PREDA­TOR

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

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JAMES DYER

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...

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