The Predator: Reinventing the Myth On the Set
Shane Black goes home to reinvent The Predator, and we're there to see how, along with Olivia Munn, Boyd Holbrook, and Keegan Michael-Key.
He locks into my gaze, staring up at me with a blank fierceness that is both intimidating and strangely wistful—as if he is as aware as I of all the years that’ve gone by. It’s been a long time since the Predator’s good side was captured onscreen in 2010’s Predators. Some fans might argue it’s been longer still since he’s been captured in a truly good film. And yet, as I hold a dense mask with those rubberized dreadlocks in my hand, studying every crevasse and hanging mandible from that reliably ugly face, I find myself inexplicably moved, as if playing Hamlet to an intergalactic and homicidal poor Yorick.
Shane Black, co-writer and director on this sequel/semi-reboot, surmises it well during our visit to The Predator set: Here is an iconic movie screen alien of mythic quality. He’s due a film that embraces that legacy and builds onto it in a kickass way. Judging by the relatively gargantuan set Black has assembled in Vancouver, the filmmaker is certainly intent on doing that.
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When I and a group of fellow journalists arrive at that production within Mammoth Studios, it’s the 34th afternoon of a 66-day shoot. It’s also raining outside, but inside the soundstage, what’s falling is a different kind of perspiration. Actors sweat, rifles blast, and presumable Predator dogs go down in a hail of gunfire. The scene that’s being filmed is one in which an 11-year-old boy, played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay, is cornered on his school’s baseball field by pit bulls, and then a far deadlier hellhound.
The sequence is set on a warm Georgian night, but thanks to the miracle of blue screens, only some grass and bleacher seats surround the young actor, albeit his rescuers are real: Boyd Holbrook (of Logan fame) is his deadbeat dad Quinn and Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) is the scientist packing an assault rifle. They come flying out of a speeding pickup, running and gunning in an effort to save the child. Eventually the 2018 Predator’s version of action hero all-stars also appear on the scene; it’s a motley crew of PTSD-rattled soldiers played by genre vet Thomas Jane, comedian and theater stalwart Keegan-Michael Key, and complete unknown Augusto Aguilera. Together they’re twitchy, determined, and perhaps a step behind what audiences might expect.
Clearly, this movie will have a different sensibility from the original 1987 film, right down to the fact that the Predator is now being portrayed by world renowned parkour artist Brian Prince. And since Black appeared in the original cult machismo classic for a small acting role, this striking difference in temperament is likely all the more satisfying for a filmmaker who is coming home to his franchise… from a sideways angle.
“If you bought a comic book that just said ‘genre shit’ and started reading it, it could very well be this movie,” Black says with a laugh. While speaking to a group of journalists during his lunch break, the filmmaker seems fairly at ease in the midst of his shoot and the weight of Predator’s heritage. In this vein, he hopes to bring the same tonal dexterity that made his previous movie, The Nice Guys, such hard-to-categorize gem. During our set visit, we heard both star Holbrook and costume designer Tish Monaghan compare this level of franchise-reinvention to what Christopher Nolan did with the Batman character; it also was described as a war movie, a Western, and an alien invasion epic.
Hunting for the Ultimate Genre Movie
But above all else the film appears to be a homecoming due both to Black’s history with the Predator creature and his longer relationship with Fred Dekker, the co-writer of 2018’s The Predator and director of one of Black’s definitively ‘80s of screenplays, The Monster Squad (1987). Having them finally collaborate again on a shooting script is an implicit driving force in 2018 for a picture that appears both nostalgic and defiantly subversive of the Reagan Years tropes that are commonly associated with the original Predator.
“They say no matter how old you get that in your own mind, you’re never really capable of picturing more than 25-years-old as your current image,” Black reflects. “You always feel yourself to be roughly 25. So it’s been 30 years in the business for Fred and myself, and you look in the mirror, and part of you just says, ‘Geez, it’d just be nice to be a kid again.’ I mean there’s a maturity that comes with liking adult themes and adult subject matter, seeing Oscar winning films. But every once in a while, I say, ‘I’d love to do a Predator with Fred.’ Something that recalls for us all those exciting days when we were geeks, you know lining up for Star Trek: Wrath of Khan.”
Hence for its director and screenwriters, a “Nolan” styled revival of The Predator appears to be throwing everything they loved from their youth into a blender.
Says Black, “Spies, romance, the mystery. Just stuff as much genre into one pack as we can. It’s sort of a stew that represents to us the genre movie we would have loved to see when we were coming up when we were all still young and still felt 25.”
From just a cursory (and tightly controlled) tour of some of the sets, it’s obvious that there is a lot of genre shit, indeed, stuffed to the brims here.
A New Hunt, New Tools
The aforementioned scene we were on set for occurs between the end of the movie’s first act and the beginning of its second. The one rule Black says he feels all Predator movies must maintain is that the story, on some level, will always be about a hunt, and what we viewed was evidently the moment where the bugle rang out.
The level of gunfire in the soundstage is at times deafening—so much so that when Olivia Munn first came by to say hi with her rescue pup Frankie, she had to briefly depart when the lap dog suddenly attempted to bolt in abject terror from the sounds of gunshots 50 yards away (she later clarified that Frankie “was running toward the gunfire, because he’s a badass”). But it is all due to a different kind of pooch that humans need to be rescued from.
During the sequence being shot, Jacob Tremblay’s Rory is wearing an obvious piece of Predator armor on his wrist—it’s a space-aged gauntlet that Tremblay later describes to us as containing a “Q-Drive.” And as he flees what is at first real-life dogs, he is soon being also pursued by Predator dogs, beasts from the stars who share their master’s taste for human prey.
The dogs will be completely digital, but there were several practice runs between takes where Tremblay, and later Holbrook react to stunt proxies (foam dog mannequins) in order to know exactly the size of the threat and where it would be encroaching from.
“We try to get as much interaction done on set,” VFX supervisor Jonathan Rothbart explains. While emphasizing the aim is to make the film as grounded and practical as possible, he also of course notes when you have alien mongrels, sometimes digitalization cannot be helped. According to the supervisor, these Predator dogs will be nothing like the ones glimpsed in 2010’s Predators, but rather a new creation that reaches back to the designs of Stan Winston, Tom Woodruff Jr., and Alec Gillis. After all, Woodruff and Gillis’ company Amalgamated Dynamics is doing the Predator suit and Predator dog designs (the company had nothing to do with Predators).
“When we do the design in any film, but [especially] in this film, we try to baseline it off, in this case, the Predator,” Rothbart says. “So we try to keep it where at least we have some familiar aspects to the dog that you can bring back to the Predators. They have some level of dreads to them, and their mouths are not the same as a Predator mouth, but they do have that kind of extended jaw.” He even states they have the same skin while being based on some real life breeds—specifically pit bulls. “They have to play sometimes a very angry, mean role, and sometimes a nicer role, so we looked at dogs that fit that same, both scary and friendly, feeling.”
The desire to tie back to the original film’s aesthetics is clearly the north star for everything occurring on set. Whereas Rothbart talks about always walking the line of modernizing the Predator tech from cloaking devices to his thermal vision (it has been 30 years of technological advancement for the aliens too!), he says they never want to get too far from the familiar.
It is also present in some of the sets still under construction that we gleaned. For example, supervising art director Michael Diner walked us through the in-progress Predator spaceship being built in a far corner of the soundstage. It remains fairly intimate, suggesting that Predators prefer to fly solo. At only 100 feet in length, the oval shaped ship and its equally rounded windows, reminiscent or the orifice hatchways designed by H.R. Giger in another famed 20th Century Fox franchise, has a sparse utilitarian look. It also has literal dreads in the guise of exposed piping along the interior walls.
However, this does not appear to be simply another tale of a Predator on a weekend getaway. In fact, everything about the movie’s plot that was hinted at or teased during the visit suggests something far more ambitious. Hence we also saw a rising scientific lab that will likely be used near the beginning of the picture. While still wood and scaffolding when we were there, it will ultimately be glossy chrome and glass in the finished film. It also suggests a viewing gallery built around a circular room where a beast—or an alien—can be kept prisoner.
As Munn says, “It’s like there are two different stories in the beginning. There’s Boyd and Keegan, and Trevante [Rhodes] and Thomas Jane, and Augusto. They are the soldiers and they’re encountered with the Predator. And then on the other side, [there’s] this other story that’s going on.” One that involves the CIA, government cover-ups… and more than a few types of aliens.
A Different Kind of Predator Story
When asked if he is working on more than just the Predator and Predator dog designs, Rothbart smiles for a moment before conceding, “We are, but I am not at liberty to say.” In fact, the entire premise of 2018’s Predator seems wholly more daunting than the sci-fi version of The Greatest Game in which Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers attempted to out-flex each other during a handshake.
The basic set-up is that Boyd Holbrook’s Quinn is an absentee father separated his 11-year-old and special needs son, Rory. Quinn spends too much time enjoying his soldier of fortune lifestyle, working as a mercenary for hire following a notable military career. And yet, he sees something on a mission in Mexico that he apparently should not have spied; something that co-star Thomas Jane helpfully reveals to us is an alien… although it is not necessarily clear if it is a Predator.
“That’s when Boyd gets thrown on the bus too with us,” Jane says of how his character Baxley meets Quinn. “Because he’s seen an alien and they want to cover that shit up.”
More precisely, The Predator appears to be set in a world where the U.S. government is aware that the Predator exists, and that due to countermeasures, it is no longer a friendly little game of sportsmanship.
Says Black, “It takes it to the level of what happens when the Predator strikes, and these incursions are just not a once in a while phenomenon known to a few, but have come to the attention of an establishment that is actually set on preparing for and marshalling forces against these incoming Predator strikes. And also what happens when the Predators get a little more ambitious. Maybe it’s just not a weekend anymore?”
All of which might narrow exactly down to the scene we saw filmed; the moment where the Predator makes his first visible move against Rory. Thus the humor and real emotional core of the story is about a father getting back to a special needs son he never truly connected with. It also allows his character to bring a 2018 variation on the original’s men on a mission trope.
Indeed, everyone so helpfully describes Quinn’s accomplices as “the Loonies,” a seemingly patented term for VA hospital rejects with whom a crazed alien conspiracy theorist would fit right in.
“I get into the VA, and I’m sort of teamed up with these guys, in my [character’s] opinion unfortunately,” Holbrook says of the narrative conceit. “They’re a bunch of bozos, a bunch of maybe schizophrenic, maybe, I don’t know, PTSD? Real issues.” Yet, they’re as close to action heroes as he is going to get.
For Holbrook, even though this is his first major starring role as a protagonist, he’s been around genre reinventions and subversions before. He even contributed to a highly memorable one in 2017’s Logan, a superhero Western for adults. While his role was limited there, he notices overlap in the narrative for The Predator.
“It does play a little slower, maybe like a Western, which would lend itself to that fear factor.” It also is a promising departure from the original film, which Holbrook says he’s a fan of—and that Shane Black apparently had running on loop for two weeks in the production office of the film before shooting started—but the star repeatedly demurs at comparisons with his Quinn to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Übermensch in the original 1987 picture.
“I think what Shane wanted to do for the entire story is to give it a complete freshness… to give it a heartbeat, going away from the machismo sort of guns and guns.”
Hence the second and complementary narrative thread Munn previously suggested, involving her Dr. Casey Brackett. Sitting down with us between takes, she is aware that her character is the lone (or token) woman in an action movie filled with male stars. But while discussing that issue, noticeably with a prop firearm attached to her leg, she also is adamant that her character, an evolutionary biologist, offers an authentic scientific counterpoint to the sometimes machismo proceedings. The backstory she and Black developed is that of a woman who has waited her whole life to make contact with aliens.
“Seeing it is a very emotional experience,” she says of how her character interprets her first encounter with photographs of the Predator. While others might be terrified of aliens, “This is like seeing God to her. This is what she’s studying: how creatures change and evolve, and how it’s not scary. It is a very beautiful thing to see.”
Offering this wider view of what a Predator alien could mean on Earth, Munn elaborates, “I’m an animal lover, and so is Shane. So we were able to tap into that with this character as well. If you ever see a dog that’s growling at you, and just a stray dog, the thought is to run away… [But] for me, someone who loves animals and loves dogs, I’m like, ‘Where is its owner? What’s going on?’ You’re trying to understand it more.”
That same level of empathy or awareness might apply to the film’s unique version of a military unit too.
Here Come the Loonies
The first actor among “the Loonies” band we meet is Keegan Michael-Key, who is obviously thrilled to be on set for the kind of action movies he used to so perfectly deconstruct on Key & Peele. As a lifelong Predator fan, he views this role as a transitional moment in his career. He’ll obviously be providing comedy in the film. By his own admission, his character Coyle is the “big mouth of the Loonies.” One who’s “chock full of one-liners, which is a Shane Black specialty.”
And yet, simply looking at the costume design he worked on with Tish Monaghan, there is also an air of the tragic. In a backstory he and Black invented out of whole cloth, Coyle only has any semblance of human intimacy with a fellow U.S. marine from his time in the Gulf War, Thomas Jane’s Baxley, whom Coyle inflicted a shared trauma on when he got all of Baxley’s men killed in Iraq. The friction of his psyche is instantly visible in the patches of his costume, which is a Vietnam era U.S. army jacket worn and tattered by multiple generations of conflict.
“It’s not his jacket,” Key says while remarking on the Travis Bickle quality he and Monaghan strove for. “It’s his father’s jacket from the Vietnam War. And as you’ll see, half the jacket has vet material from Desert Shield and half from Vietnam. And then he also wears his father’s Army ring, even though his father was in Army and he was in the Marine Corps.” This kind of cheeky irony is one of the many hints we have about the Loonies being informed by an unusual amount of pathos and tragedy for “men on a mission.”
That paradox is one Black visibly enjoys, going so far as to note the movie’s eclectic ensemble was built to further cultivate these nuances.
“I guess it was a reaction against perfection, and the Predator going up against the perfect specimen all the time, and that being solely based on physical appearance and muscles,” Black says. “I thought, ‘Well maybe misfits, and maybe there’s a version where misfits play more of a role, and maybe there’s even the sense that the Predator himself is an outcast.” In this line of thinking, Black suspects one of the aspects that many of the previous Predator sequels missed was the lack of great characters for audiences to adore. Even the original Predator movie he starred in more than three decades ago lacks a particular self-awareness.
“What’s the heroic quotient, and how do you make it just not guys with tough talk and big arms? I mean I always favor real characters with real actors in these movies. I’m happy to have someone like Jesse Ventura. He’s actually, I think, a fine actor as far as that goes. But the actors we tended to get for this are a cut above.”
Key acutely summarizes what he hopes is the difference between the Loonies and the Special Forces brigade of biceps from the original picture.
“I’m really thankful to Shane for giving these guys that humanity. There’s something deliciously two-dimensional about the characters in the original film, and I think there’s going to be something deliciously three-dimensional about these characters, which is difficult to do with an ensemble.”
Intriguingly, this extra dimension came intentionally from pushing the cast to via improvise and self-edit. Recalling how the first draft risked being a 150 pages long, Black says he turned to Fred Dekker and said they can’t define seven characters in dialogue; they have to cast them.
And each casting choice on the set had stories about shocking amounts of latitude for building their characters. For instance, big screen newcomer Augusto Aguilera was on unemployment before he stepped into The Predator audition. He even jokes that Black was his first fan after his mother. But in the film, he plays an Army helicopter pilot, Nettles, whose defining characteristic the actor was allowed to create and develop.
“I did a backstory on my character. I had this accident in a helicopter and I had a bit of TBI, which is traumatic brain injury. So just a beat behind,” Aguilera says. “I feel like the group’s one character that’s been broken apart into a bunch of different characters, which is really kind of beautiful, so we all get to play on these specifics. And mine I felt was the heart of the group, which is just big-hearted and vulnerable in a way that seeing horrible things leaves you.”
The entire process is also a departure for talent like Trevante Rhodes. Fresh off being on the Oscar stage when Moonlight won Best Picture, he is now thrown into an action world in which his character, named Nebraska, is supposed to run point as team leader of the Loonies.
“On Moonlight, I spent maybe eight days to shoot the duration of everything,” laughs Rhodes. “And we spent 10 days on one sequence last week, and I’m following a little laser across a green screen.”
And that thoroughness is also an aspect Thomas Jane thinks distinguishes this picture. An acting veteran himself who has been in genre movies and TV shows of all sizes, Jane always drifts into interviews at the beat of his own drum, offering frequently candid and unexpected insights into his experience. Like his director, Jane optimistically appears to hope that this sci-fi thriller, wherein he plays a PTSD rattled marine gunning at aliens, is somehow tangibly real in its depiction of these soldiers’ aliments—and reminiscent of a different kind of moviemaking aesthetic that predated the ’87 version’s unabashed jingoism.
Looking back on meeting with former members of the military in preparation for the film, Jane reflects, “Their buddies getting shot up and all that stuff; arms getting blown off; all that crazy shit that happens when people do incredibly stupid things like go to war. I don’t know, I’ll never understand it, but it’s just an accepted part of our society, you know? We honor the people who go and do it. If you’re going to go, you’re going to go do it, and we respect that. But I don’t respect the whole business of war at all.”
He adds about his own currently filming movie, “Are we glorifying this? I don’t think so… It’s good to feel like you’re commenting on the state of whatever the hell is going on. I’m hoping is we have a return of people [being] interested again. In the ‘70s, people were interested in the shit that’s going on in our world. That’s why all those great films, that’s why they were made, because people were interested, and they lost interest. They just wanted to see cute little aliens and sharks, and shit.”
Shane Black also hopes that his movie reaches back toward ‘70s sensibilities where camaraderie was celebrated, but the horrors of war were not so quickly dismissed. Then again, he is still making a Predator movie.
“I guess I love dipping a toe in that right-wing pond every once and a while,” the filmmaker speculates with a mischievous smile. “Because I’m a devout liberal, but every once in a while you have to get your Matt Helm on and say, ‘What would happen if you just executed assignments and didn’t ask about moral questions?’ Just get it done… So even though Tom’s character for instance has his own disability, he picks up a gun and it quells the disability. It’s that sort of thing.”
Old is New
And again, it comes back to that mask. The visage of the Predator is seared into popular culture, yet the monster has probably only starred in one great movie—a movie that 2018’s The Predator is intrinsically linked to, as well as constantly trying to reinvent.
When Trish Monaghan shows us the new armor she’s designed for the Predator, for instance, it has a medieval quality to its design, as if it belongs to a ritualized order of knights. One element she is particularly proud of is his new armor his back-flap, evoking feudal Japan.
“It’s a bit Samurai, so it was able to cover, so he wasn’t too exposed,” she says of how it covers some of the musculature in the legs while still showcasing the familiar shape of what Schwarzenegger memorably deemed to be “one ugly motherfucker.”
And he still might be just that, but there is a palpable passion from Monaghan, the actors she’s outfitting, and a whole set that is rare for a franchised sequel 30 years in. Despite being the fourth movie (or sixth if one counts the horrendous Alien vs. Predator pictures) in its series, this is one that no one appears to think is obligatory.
Searching for the words of what drives that fascination for himself, Black eventually finds, “I just thought that it was a great, iconic alien. And what separated it from other alien invasion movies is that it just wasn’t a space blob; it was an actual creature with a mythos behind it, and a sense of honor in some respect. A mission. And a sense of humor, oddly.”
The filmmaker is perhaps unintentionally describing his qualities too. With any luck, they’ll also come through on the screen when The Predator’s hunt begins on Sept. 14.