Somehow, Making 'Predator' Was More Intense Than The Actual Movie

At some point in the mid-1980s, producer Joel Silver was asked to come aboard a project developed from a mysterious script that appeared under an executive's door one day. Arranged as a vehicle for Austrian body-builder-turned-action-star Arnold Schwarzenegger, Predator was an unexpected genre experiment that's widely regarded as one of the best '80s action movies. Though the cast and crew seems to have had fun in the jungle together, the making of Predator was tough from start to finish.

Schwarzenegger stars as Dutch, a soldier in charge of leading his elite Special Forces team into a Central American jungle on a rescue mission. The mission is interrupted by an alien presence, and all hell breaks loose. Shooting primarily near Palenque, Mexico, the cast and crew dealt with the extreme heat of the jungle and serious illnesses brought on by eating and drinking contaminated food and water.

But illness was only one of the movie’s obstacles. Director John McTiernan recalls trouble right out of the gate, saying, “The first day of shooting was the worst nightmare I’ve ever seen.” Things didn't get easier. One of the most interesting Predator behind-the-scenes stories centers on the original Predator suit, and the muscle-bound man from Brussels initially hired to play the part. They were both a complete disaster.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

  • Jean-Claude Van Damme Was Originally Cast As The Predator

    Belgian martial artist and uber-buff muscle man Jean-Claude Van Damme went to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a super star actor. The Muscles from Brussels landed the role of the Predator but didn't realize he would be unrecognizable once he put on the suit.

    Makeup effects supervisor Steve Johnson recalls, "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."

    There's some debate surrounding the exact reason why Van Damme was replaced as the Predator. Did he quit? Was he fired? Though the jury is still out, Schwarzenegger described the Belgian as a “relentless complainer.” As Van Damme put it:

    "The costume took about 20 minutes to put on. 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.’”

    Actor Bill Duke added to saga in an appearance on The Murder Master Music Show, saying that Van Damme twice passed out during stunts due to dehydration.  According to Duke, "The producer said, ‘If you pass out again I’m gonna fire you!’ Two weeks go by and the guy passes out and the producer goes over and fires him."

    As the legend goes, a stuntman was brought in to wear the Predator suit and do the jump the Belgian refused or was unable to perform. Lo and behold, Van Damme was correct - the jump was dangerous, and the stuntman broke his leg. Still, Van Damme was replaced by Kevin Peter Hall, who stood at 7'2" (a foot taller than Van Damme), and was a very good actor. Hall was fresh off playing Harry in Harry and the Hendersons when he took over the title role in Predator. Hall also makes a very brief appearance out of costume as the helicopter pilot at the end of the movie.

  • John McTiernan Broke His Wrist Falling Out Of A Tree And Arnold Had To Perform One Scene With An IV In His Arm

    As you might imagine, filming in the jungles of Mexico is rough. Just about every member of the cast and crew got sick during production. There were venomous snakes, extreme heat, and the drinking water at the hotel was not filtered properly, so many came down with diarrhea and fever.

    McTiernan refused to eat much local food for fear of getting sick. "I lost 25lbs, the line producer lost almost 40,” he recalls. The film's star also suffered. McTiernan said Schwarzenegger had to perform one scene with an IV bottle in his arm, and he grows noticeably thinner throughout the movie because he made an effort to eat less in order to avoid sickness.

    McTiernan also broke his wrist after falling out of a tree during production.

  • The Screenwriters Got The Idea For 'Predator' From A Joke About 'Rocky'

    When the idea for Predator was first bandied about back lots in Hollywood, Arnold Schwarzenegger was coming off the success of 1985's Commando, which was produced by Joel Silver, who was brought aboard a sci-fi project based on a spec script (one written speculatively, not as an assignment) slipped under an executive's door by brothers Jim and John Thomas. The Thomas brothers had never sold anything before, and got their scripts into the hands of producers by sneaking onto the Fox lot.  

    Predator was originally called Hunter. The famous joke going around Hollywood in the mid-'80s was about who Rocky Balboa would fight in Rocky V after defeating much larger, much stronger Russian opponent Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Rocky had beaten just about everyone, so would his next opponent have to be an alien? The Thomas brothers based their script on that joke.

  • The Temperature On Location Was About The Same As Human Body Temp, Making Actors Invisible To Infrared Cameras For POV Shots

    Those super cool shots of the Predator's vision were a nightmare to film. The crew tried real heat vision cameras to get the eponymous alien's POV shots, but the big camera's cord only stretched four feet from the production van. Temperatures on location caused further problems. Director John McTiernan explained:

    “The ambient temperature in Mexico was in the 90s. Consequently, people were the same temperature as the background, and they were perfectly camouflaged."

    The crew tried to fix the temperature issue by spraying trees with ice water and making actors stand by a fire before filming. Neither of these ideas worked. In the end, the effect was created by a combination of shots created with multiple types of cameras at once and the use of expensive digital effects. Money for the latter wasn't in the budget, so McTiernan had to plead his case to producers to get the film finished.

  • Production Was Shut Down To Work On The Monster, With Accidental Input From None Other Than James Cameron

    Imagine trying to make a monster movie and the monster looks like a ridiculous duck. Also, the 200-pound suit was a life-threatening danger to anyone who dared to wear it. The studio decided to shut down production to make a better monster. During the shutdown, the producers needed to drum up additional financing and convince the studio not to stop the movie completely. 

    By showing a rough assembly of about an hour of footage to studio executives, producers secured funding to finish Predator, including money to hire legendary makeup design artist Stan Winston to work on a new Predator suit. In a miraculous example of Hollywood kismet, Winston was on a plane to Japan with James Cameron while working on designs for Predator. Cameron said to Winston, “You know, I always wanted to see something with mandibles...”

  • Arnold Got Health-Conscious Carl Weathers Hooked On Cigars

    As seen in The Unseen Arnold Schwarzenegger, a short, behind-the-scenes doc from the Predator special edition Blu-ray, the supreme muscle man was always smoking cigars on the set of Predator. He handed his cigar to the closest crew member right before takes and, immediately after the take was finished, shouted "Who has my stogie?" He can even be seen smoking during arduous physical rehearsal.

    Carl Weathers, formerly of the NFL, was very conscious of what he put in his body during his career as an actor and athlete. As he said in an interview about the making of Predator, 

    "Being the athlete that I am, and the clean living person that I am, never in a million years would I let tobacco touch my lips. Absolutely not. But I sat there in that chair getting a whiff of this great, great aroma of this stogie. And Arnold eventually said 'Carl, you want one?' 'Sure, why not?' I was hooked. It was all over... within a few days, Arnold had a box of stogies delivered to me."