The first tribal pipe ceremony that filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg participated in took him by surprise. Rather than occurring out on location, and in the wilderness where much of his upcoming Predator reimagining, Prey, takes place, it was during the day before principal photography started on Stoney Nakoda Nation lands that a small group of filmmakers were invited to participate in a ritual with local Indigenous leaders.
“It was profound in that it wasn’t out in the camp we had set up,” Trachtenberg explains to Den of Geek. “It was just in an office, and it was a very moving experience where everyone approached the elders and had very specific secret things happen that not everyone could hear. It was deeply emotional.”
It was a private blessing on the production; it was also the beginning of a journey for Trachtenberg’s team. They were, after all, about to make the first good Predator movie in nearly 40 years—and perhaps more importantly a movie that took Indigenous and First People’s experiences seriously.
Filming in the Stoney Nakoda Nation, which is located near Calgary in Canada, Prey looks far removed from our modern expectations for Hollywood franchises. Shot in roughly the same area that Alejandro González Iñárritu filmed much of The Revenant—and similarly reliant on natural light for most scenes—Prey has an elemental and deliberately antiquated aesthetic. It is set 300 years ago, before much of the North American continent had been colonized by European settlers, and tells the story of Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman who is a gifted hunter and tracker that wants to break gender norms in her community and prove she is likewise a great warrior. She gets that chance (and much more) when a familiar-looking alien descends from the sky to begin his own hunt.
The film is obviously a product of science fiction and fantasy, complete with invisible cloaks and the neon green blood that now looks like a historical relic itself, albeit from the 1980s. However, unlike recent, stumbling attempts to relaunch the Predator franchise, Prey also succeeds by mirroring a real culture and real world that has long been undervalued onscreen.
“I thought about how Native Americans, and specifically Comanche, are so often relegated to playing sidekicks or the villains,” Trachtenberg says, “never the hero. So it was sort of a combination of all those things that wound up as the idea of this film.” And while Trachtenberg and his screenwriter Patrick Aison did not come from Native backgrounds, producer Jhane Myers does. As a woman of Comanche descent, she sees Prey as a unique and golden opportunity.
“For me, this is amazing because we always wonder what life was like on the Great Plains back in the 1700s,” Myers beams after entering the Den of Geek studio at San Diego Comic-Con. “So it’s pretty amazing to bring people to see just that. You see what that life is like and what the Comanche world is.” This also ties into one of the most intriguing aspects of the film: There will be a second version of Prey available on Hulu exclusively in the Comanche language.
While the default version that will be offered to Hulu users in the U.S. (and Disney+ users in the UK) will feature all of the lead actors speaking in English with smatterings of actual Comanche (as well as some French), there is a version of the film where all the English-speaking scenes have been dubbed by their actors in Comanche, including Midthunder and Dakota Beavers, who plays Naru’s courageous brother Taabe. Additionally, there are a handful of scenes filmed in actual Comanche.*
When we ask Myers if she thinks that is the definitive cut of the movie, she says, “I think, for me, yes absolutely. Because this is the first time that a brand new feature film coming out has ever been in my language in Comanche, and this is also a first for Native people because this is the first time a brand new movie is out in a Native language. So I recommend that you watch it two times. Watch it once in Comanche and once in English.”
To achieve that effect onscreen was a learning process for many involved, including the stars. For instance, Midthunder is descended from Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda people. Thus taking on a Comanche story was a great responsibility; yet getting the chance to tell that story on Nakoda lands was also a rare and precious opportunity for her as well.
“I’ve been very intentional in the past few times I’ve chosen Indigenous-specific roles,” Midthunder tells us. “I’ve never done a period piece. So to get to go to work everyday there [was exciting]. Like there was a time when I stopped before work at a gas station, and everyone in the station spoke my language, and I’ve never gotten that experience at work…. That to me was the most mind-blowing and special part of this experience.”
It also added to the film’s visceral return to nature in the Predator mythos. Whereas most of the other films in the franchise after the ’87 original were set in urban cities or suburban sprawls, when night falls in Prey, the scene really is lit by only how much lumination a torch can produce. Compared to so many other modern blockbusters and streaming extensions of IP, this feels transgressive. It was also a thrill to make.
“I enjoyed the crap out of it,” Beavers says. “I’m a big outdoors guy anyway, so to be able to run around and ride horses and fight, and do that sort of stuff with good people was a dream come true.”
Trachtenberg cites Terrence Malick as a reference for the look of the film. Of course Malick never had an alien monster wreak havoc in his period dramas. But that’s the appeal, which the filmmaker likens to his last movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and how that also shifted between genres and tones. However, the filmmaker wanted the sci-fi elements to feel more organically of a piece with the first half of the film set primarily amongst the day-to-day living of Naru’s people. Hence a slightly different take on the Predator.
“Dan provided me with a very high creative ceiling in terms of the way this Predator thought and moved, and such, and he definitely wanted something different,” says Dane DiLiegro, a former basketball player who at a height of 6’9” might be the most imposing actor to ever inhabit the Predator’s suit. “There were a lot of keywords: ‘feral,’ ‘primal,’ that he gave to me. We worked together to create this more animalistic, a little bit less human creature.”
For the director it was about returning a ferocity to the Predator’s presence onscreen.
Says Trachtenberg, “I wanted to get away from any vestige of the ‘80s, of it feeling too much like a man in a suit, too much like a professional wrestler lumbering around. I wanted this to feel much more alien.”
He adds, “The thing I wanted to have in this movie was something that was really only around in the first film, which is surprise with the Predator. The first time you saw the ’87 movie, and you saw it [invisibly] cloaked, and you thought that was the being. Then you saw it decloaked with the biomask on, and you thought, ‘Oh that’s what the Predator is!’ And then it still had yet another look, and that’s something we haven’t gotten from any of the movies since then.”
Prey debuts on Hulu in the U.S. and on Disney+ in the UK on Aug. 5.
*An earlier version of this article inaccurately said all of the scenes were filmed a second time in Comanche, as opposed to a mixture of scenes filmed with the actors speaking Comanche and most others being dubbed.