In the early 1980s, Belgian martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme arrived in America with dreams of stardom. Possessing a finely-honed physique, thanks to years of training in (among other things) karate, kickboxing, and ballet, he was ambitious and brimming with self-belief.
The acting bug bit Van Damme while he was still in his teens: he played “a bad guy with all the knives” in the 1984 French gangster movie Rue Barbare and, determined to further his goal of becoming an actor, hopped on a plane to Los Angeles. His first few years in America were, however, tough. He slept in a rental car for two weeks, and made money money by teaching aerobics and martial arts, delivering pizzas, and working as a doorman at a restaurant belonging to Chuck Norris.
After months of English lessons and auditions, and even placing pictures of himself under the windscreen wipers of film producers, Van Damme got a small but important break. He and his friend Michel Qissi – a fellow martial artist who’d emigrated from Belgium with the same dreams of stardom – were given bit-parts in the hip-hop culture movie Breakin’. It wasn’t much, but Van Damme finally had an American film credit under his belt – and what’s more, Breakin’ gave the young would-be star his first brush with Cannon Films, a company that would, more than any other, one day make him famous.
Until then, Van Damme managed to land another film role, this time in the 1986 martial arts flick No Retreat, No Surrender. He played Ivan Kraschinsky, a Russian kickboxing expert who’s ultimately felled by Jason Stillwell’s young hero. It was compared unfavourably to films like Rocky and The Karate Kid by critics, but to Van Damme, it was another small but vital step towards the fame he craved.
Meanwhile, producer Joel Silver was working on his next project: a sci-fi action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’d just had a decent-sized hit with Commando. The follow-up to Commando had begun life as a spec script called Hunter, and was famously based on a joke doing the rounds in Hollywood during the mid-80s: who would fight Rocky Balboa after his 1985 clash with Russian boxer Ivan Drago? An alien from outer space?
From that tiny germ of an idea came Hunter – later re-titled Predator – written by brothers Jim and John Thomas. The script, about a group of tough mercenaries encountering a vicious alien hunter in the steamy Central American jungle, was snapped up by 20th Century Fox in 1985. Silver and Schwarzenegger both saw the value in the story: after all, Arnold had just slaughtered an entire army of rank-and-file bad guys in Commando. If anything, the Austrian Oak needed a powerful new enemy even more than Stallone did.
Cast and crew were duly assembled around Schwarzenegger, including director John McTiernan, whose only previous credit was the low-budget horror film Nomads starring Pierce Brosnan. Despite some decidedly lukewarm reviews, McTiernan’s debut convinced Silver and Schwarzenegger that he was the director for their movie.
“What set [Nomads] apart was the tension McTiernan maintained in a film that cost less than $1 million to make,” Schwarzenegger wrote in his autobiography, Total Recall. “We felt that if he could create the kind of atmosphere with so little money, he must be very talented. Predator would need suspense from the moment the characters arrive in the jungle – we wanted the viewer to feel scared even without the predator around, just from the mists, the camera movements, the way things came toward you…”
The question was, what would this predator actually look like? The original concept called for a stealthy, ninja-like creature that could move rapidly among the trees. With a rapidly approaching shoot date – April 1986 – and a relatively small budget to create the alien, a company called Boss Film Creature Shot was hired to design and build the creature.
Around this time, the actor who would play the predator was chosen: none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme.
“I hate it”
For Van Damme, getting hired as the title creature in a major Hollywood movie must have seemed extraordinarily exciting. Sure, he’d be playing the villain again, but this time, he’d be on screen with one of the era’s biggest action stars – a chiselled European whose fame he sought to emulate.
There did, however, seem to be a bit of confusion over what the role entailed. In a 1989 interview with Starlog, Van Damme seemed to think that the amount of makeup and prosthetics required to make him the predator could have been quite minimal:
“They said I would be in a tight leotard with half-human, half-animal makeup on my face.”
This way, Van Damme would be able to run and jump, and do spinning kicks, and all the other things he specialised in. But gradually, reality dawned: the alien outfit would be large and difficult to move around in, and little, if anything, of the real Jean-Claude would appear on screen.
“They did a cast of my body,” Van Damme later recalled. “My feet were in the cast of the alien. My hands were in the forearms, my head was in the neck. I was moving everything with cables.”
Steve Johnson was the makeup effects supervisor for Boss Films at the time, and he provided a delightfully funny insight into what was going on behind the scenes in the spring of 1986. According to Johnson, the original concept for the predator was handed to Boss Films by McTiernan and the production designer; with long, awkwardly-jointed legs and a tiny head mounted atop a slender neck, it looked more like a refugee from the Mos Eisley Cantina than a deadly hunter capable of tearing Arnold Schwarzenegger limb from limb.
“What they needed was a character with backward bent reptilian legs, extended arms and a head that was out here,” Johnson said. “They wanted to shoot on the muddy slopes of Mexico in the real jungles. It was virtually physically impossible to do. I told them it wouldn’t work.”
The designers weren’t the only unhappy ones. Jean-Claude had put on a brave face while having his body cast – there’s even a photo of him, smiling uneasily, as he stands topless next to a large white mould of himself in Boss Films’ workshop. But when Van Damme returned for his costume fitting, the grim task ahead suddenly to hit home.
“Jean-Claude comes in and we’re fitting him in this red suit and just assuming, like the slaves that we are, that the higher ups have told him exactly what’s going on,” Johnson said. “But he thought this was actually the real look of the monster in the movie, and he was, ‘I hate this. I hate this. I hate it. I look like a superhero.’ He was so angry.”
As the actor was strapped into his suit, little did he know that worse was to come. The red version of the suit was designed to be keyed out at the post-production stage – thus creating the distinctive invisibility effect which proved to be such a highlight in the finished film. Worryingly, nobody had bothered to tell Van Damme that he’d be invisible for most of the movie, either.
“I’m like, ‘Jean-Claude, did no one tell you? It’s a cloaking device. You’re invisible for half of the picture. This is not you.’ Which made him even angrier because he thought he could do his martial arts, he could fight Arnold Schwarzenegger. Impossible. Absolutely impossible.”
“Oh, are we in trouble…”
Despite Van Damme’s increasing disgruntlement, production was already well underway, with filming taking place in Palenque, Mexico. The shoot had been gruelling; the heat was intense, the terrain was rough, there were bouts of illness, and McTiernan lost about 25 pounds because he refused to eat the local food. Nevertheless, Predator’s tough cast – with Schwarzenegger joined by the similarly outsized Sonny Landham, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Richard Chaves and Commando veteran Bill Duke – rose to the occasion. They even got up early to sneak in some extra iron-pumping sessions in at the gym.
(We can only imagine how Shane Black, hired to play the wisecracking merc Rick Hawkins, must have felt among such larger-than-life company; at the time, Lethal Weapon, which he wrote and Joel Silver produced, had yet to be released.)
Shooting continued for several weeks without a predator in sight. There had been delays in getting the suit down to the filming location in the Palenque jungle, but no matter: McTiernan and his crew just got on with shooting all the other sequences instead. Then, finally, a large box arrived with the much-anticipated costume inside it.
“We took the crowbars and opened the crate, McTiernan recalled, “lifted it out of the box, looked at each other and said, ‘Oh are we in trouble…’”
The supposedly deadly creature, able to hold its own against a platoon of muscle-bound ’80s action heroes, looked worryingly apologetic. “It looked like guy in a lizard suit with the head of a duck,” was how Schwarzenegger would later describe it.
“Maybe if you shoot it from a low angle, it’ll look bigger,” one producer suggested, weakly.
McTiernan and his crew, perhaps gritting their teeth by this point, decided to put Van Damme in the suit and see how it all looked on camera. Production photos show Jean-Claude being helped into his predator costume, its ungainly rubber shoulders slumping. In one picture, we see McTiernan pulling on one of the predator’s red rubber arms with its pointy claws, smiling wanly. In another, the most amusing of the lot, Van Damme sits next to actor Carl Weathers. Weathers has on a prosthetic stump – required for the scene where his character has his arm violently blown off – and he’s looking at Van Damme with an unreadable expression. Van Damme is staring at the horizon, apparently with a mixture of exhaustion and sheer disbelief.
It was clear within the time it took to take a couple of test shots that the predator costume simply wasn’t working. You only have to look at the resulting footage to see just how comical it all looked:
“I just remember looking through the trees and seeing this giant red thing coming at us like this [lumbering movement] – just exactly what we were trying not to have,” McTiernan said. “It was just impossible. I shot a shot. Two shots. Then I sent it back to the studio, saying ‘you really don’t want us to continue with this, do you?’ then they looked at it and said, ‘no way. Stop.’”
“We started to worry as soon as we started test shooting, and after a few scenes, the worry crystallized,” Schwarzenegger later wrote. “The creature didn’t work, it was hokey, it didn’t look believable.”
Almost as an afterthought, he added: “Also, Jean-Claude Van Damme, who was playing the predator, was a relentless complainer.”
Faced with the unwelcoming prospect of a sci-fi action horror movie with a ridiculous monster in the middle of it, the studio decided to shut the production down while a solution could be found. Producer Lawrence Gordon managed to secure extra funding, which meant that McTiernan could now afford to hire makeup design legend Stan Winston to redesign the creature. While on a plane to Japan, Winston happened to be sitting next to James Cameron, who said, “You know, I always wanted to see something with mandibles…”
Accounts differ as to how Jean-Claude Van Damme and the predator parted company. In the late ’80s, he suggested that he’d left the production because of fears for his own safety.
“The costume took about 20 minutes to put on,” Van Damme told Starlog. “It was thick rubber and I couldn’t see anything, there was just a small piece to breathe through. I needed cables to move my jaw and head, and it was hard to keep my balance. They wanted me to make a big jump, and I told them, ‘It’s impossible [from that height]. I know my limitations, and I’ll break my legs.’”
According to this story, a stunt man was brought in to put on the predator outfit and do the jump instead. The stunt man promptly broke his leg. When production shut down afterwards, Van Damme left and was never asked to return.
Whether Van Damme left, was fired, or simply quietly dropped, the predator itself took on a wildly different form in the hands of Stan Winston. The much more imposing Kevin Peter Hall (who, at seven foot two, was well over a foot taller than Van Damme) was brought in to play the creature, who was now conceived as a muscular, tribal-looking hunter.
Filming resumed for a further four weeks, with McTiernan capturing the final confrontation between the predator and Schwarzenegger. The shoot was still tough – Arnold spent hours caked in freezing mud, while Kevin Peter Hall found moving difficult in his 200 lb suit. But the movie finally had the intimidating monster it needed, and the resulting film was a huge hit – one of the biggest of 1987.
All told, Van Damme spent just two days on the set of Predator, and was never credited for his brief tenure inside the alien suit. It was a less than glittering moment in his young career – but, as it turned out, his involvement in Predator wasn’t a complete waste of time.
Van Damme managed to set up a meeting with Menahem Globus, one of the producers at Cannon Films – the wayward studio who’d made Breakin‘ back in 1982. Famous for its B-movies starring the likes of Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff, Cannon seemed like the natural fit for a martial artist and would-be actor like Van Damme.
And to Van Damme’s surprise, Globus had heard of Predator and that Van Damme had been involved in it. Globus hadn’t actually seen the film – he’d been too busy, no doubt, frantically greenlighting the dozens of pictures Cannon put out each year – so he just assumed that it was Van Damme in the title role, and that cinemagoers would be looking out for him in future movies.
“…when I met Menahem Golan from Cannon,” Van Damme told AV Club in 2008, “he heard about me playing the Predator, and he was very excited to sign me for Bloodsport. That helped me a lot. He didn’t know I was an alien. He thought I was the type of alien with a human face and body, where people would be able to recognise me. The studio gave me good money and helped me to stretch another year in Los Angeles…”
Bloodsport, released in 1988, was the first in a string of successful movies with Van Damme in the lead. It was soon followed by the likes of Cyborg, Kickboxer, Universal Soldier, Hard Target, and Timecop. Van Damme may have detested his experience on the production of Predator, but it did, in a round-about way, ultimately provide the unlikely bridge to the fame he was seeking so hungrily.
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.