Lethal Weapons from Space: Shane Black revives the carnage of 'The Predator'

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One of the best articles on screenwriting was published by The Guardian back in 2009, in which filmmaker Shane Black talked about the fundamentals of action cinema such as having high and lows, awkward moments and humor under pressure. “Those are all part and parcel of the inherent bag of tricks, in addition to finding a theme and a story that you want to tell,” stated Black, who burst upon the Hollywood scene with a script called Lethal Weapon (1987) and became one of its highest-paid screenwriters. He has since added directing to his repertoire with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Iron Man 3 (2013) and The Nice Guys (2016). “You learn to start editing yourself at the keyboard and make everything count because with all of the money and time at stake, this is not a whimsical process.”

Black appeared on camera as the foul, joke-telling commando Hawkins, the first victim of the vicious alien in Predator (1987). Now he returns to the franchise by stepping behind the camera with 20th Century Fox’s The Predator—but he does not see the science-fiction thriller as bringing his career full circle. “Not so much. I’ll tell you why. The original Predator was a fun thing that I was lucky enough to have a fairly minor role in. But the timing and the point of my life that it represented, I was like a neophyte, having just come out of college and had three projects going. There was Predator, The Monster Squad (1987) and Lethal Weapon. I was writing Lethal Weapon 2 (1989). It was an exciting and nostalgic time. I was working with Fred Dekker, who is my partner on The Predator as a writer. This seemed like an opportunity to play in the sandbox again and maybe even invite Fred in with me. I know it sounds horrible! The two of us wanted to try to relive those days and recapture that spirit of two wide-eyed sci-fi fans at it again. Now my mistake was to think it would be a lark, because it’s a two-year responsibility and a massive amount of work.”

Dekker and Black previously collaborated on The Monster Squad, in which a group of children have a series of misadventures as they attempt to thwart Count Dracula and his minions from taking over their hometown; the action comedy was not a direct influence on the duo’s reunion effort. “We have a character who is a kid and there’s a Spielbergian sense of wonder in that we tried to make this about looking to the skies watching for the incursion,” Black notes. “But mostly Fred and I love a good adventure story. The Monster Squad had kids who were funny and wiseass. The Predator deals with the misfits of the world. The kid is on the autism spectrum. There’s a woman scientist who is a misanthrope and stays away from people. As opposed to being an elite crack squad of commandos and Green Berets, we have marginalized soldiers who for whatever reason are sidelined, lost faith in themselves and have to recapture that. The misfit aspect of it is similar to Monster Squad, but other than that, not really.”

Their psychological damage helps to ground the characters. “I hope it makes them more relatable,” Black says. “Instead of getting a bunch of behemoths—although by the way there were some great actors in the first film—it mostly enables me to go out and search for character actors who have the ability to portray real frightened, vulnerable, broken people. There’s not as much as flexing and, hopefully, more bouncing off each other as people—that’s always been my strength.”

Casting was not difficult. “We had to find a suitable lead. Boyd Holbrook has a certain Steve McQueen-like quality which appealed to everyone. The rest of the cast was easy. I’ve always loved Keegan-Michael Key. Thomas Jane is one my favorites. Augusto Aguilera gave one audition and we said, ‘Okay, sign him. That’s it.’ What a surprise! Never heard of him. But he’s fantastic. Alfie Allen is as solid as they come. Trevante Rhodes and Sterling K. Brown are two of the best actors you could possibly find. Then, of course, there’s Olivia Munn, who is a foil to them. Her character is more collected, calm and professional than the others. She has a sense of humor that is dry and sharp, which is especially appropriate. Olivia could do the tough-guy dialogue back and forth. Jacob Tremblay [the young boy in Room] is an actor’s actor who knows more about the fine points of technical acting in many ways than people in their fifties that I’ve worked with.”

Honoring previous installments involved concentrating on two key elements. “A Predator movie is essentially not about an invasion; it’s always framed somehow as a hunt,” notes Black. “That’s their modus operandi. The second thing is to recapture how deadly and swift they are, to get a sense of foreboding that the first movie had. As the costume became more iconic, it wore off a bit. In fact, if you go to Comic-Con, where I am now, you can find a perfectly serviceable Predator walking around. It’s not like the costume by itself sells any more the notion of deadliness. You have to [convey this] with your lighting, mood, and with the way they act and carry themselves. They are swift, athletic, and absolutely deadly. They strike in a second. They’re gone. You’re dead.”

Multiple Predators make an appearance, with one deemed the ultimate genetic hybrid. “The idea was a rogue group of Predators are angry that Earth has killed their champion not once but twice and perhaps more, depending on how many movies you want to include in the canon. We also toyed with this notion that there would be different kinds of Predators. Predators are walking around in tribal-looking outfits with spears and boomerangs yet they arrive in an interstellar starship, so there has to be a science contingent as well. There have to be ranks of Predators that occupy different aspects of society. The idea of a Predator in conflict with other Predators didn’t seem that out of the box. It has been touched on in other films.”

Collaborating with Black was cinematographer Larry Fong, who is well-versed in the action genre having lensed Kong: Skull Island, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 300. “Larry was good because he would listen and would try to figure out the feel that we were going for. We did have pre-vis, because when you’re shooting against green screen you can’t make it up on the fly. You need to know where to point the camera and pre-imagine what’s going to happen. Larry was useful in numerous ways, mostly in that the lighting in this film is like a Picasso. It’s gorgeous. He recaptured the moodiness and mysterious quality that we needed. A Predator never appears unless it feels frightening. That’s essential. They can’t be over- or under-lit or have the camera linger too long. I also talked to Larry about avoiding the videogame feel that has come upon too many of these adventure movies, where the shots go on forever in ways that seemingly defy the idea of a cameraman. They’re so elaborate that they could only be CG. I said, ‘Let’s make this as though we’re shooting in the 1980s. We’ll still have effects, but it’ll be a war movie that happens to be against Predators instead of a science-fiction green-screen movie that happens to have soldiers in it.’”

Balancing the humor and gore was important. “It’s always a tonal tightrope walk, but I believe that movies can effortlessly have more than one tone,” Black observes. “If anything, the first movie demonstrated that in the midst of all that tension there was a lot of winking. People remember iconic lines like ‘I ain’t got time to bleed.’ There was plenty of comradery and bravery in the sense of people having each other’s backs. You have to make sure that you don’t go too far in any one direction, but there’s plenty of room to keep it human, relatable and frightening.”

The story takes place during Halloween rather than a particular holiday celebration. “I used to use Christmas as a touchstone that had some meaning to me. I tried in various venues to explain why I did that. As soon as people noticed I was doing that, I said, ‘To hell with it. Who needs Christmas if it seems like a gimmick?’ It wasn’t. I’m happy to tell a story anywhere at any time. I’ve written several scripts and treatments that never got made which took place at other times as well. I happen to think that Christmas is a wonderful backdrop, especially for a thriller for some odd reason.”

Extensive reshoots were conducted for the third-act finale, which was switched from a daytime to nighttime setting. “There’s a climax in and out of the woods that was all cobbled together with different locations and effects,” explains Black. “We were going off of storyboards and pre-vis, telling the actors, ‘This is going to be moving now, so you have to act if we’re rocking and shaking here,’ and just trying to keep track [of it all]. We’ve succeeded in sewing together an adventure sequence toward the end, like the last ten minutes, which is compelling. That’s exciting because we couldn’t see it while we were shooting. There was so much green screen. As we were starting to get the effects in, I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s coming to life! This is what we thought it would be.’” Unlike his first encounter with the alien antagonist, Black lives to fight another day.

“I’m excited to be doing a lean, mean adventure film that made me feel at times like the kid who wandered the jungles and broke bread with gods, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura and the gang. I come away from it chastened by the difficulty but also reinvigorated to go onto something new.”