Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of director John McTiernan’s release from jail after being convicted of lying to the FBI in a case involving wiretapping and a disgraced private investigator. He hasn’t made a film since 2003’s rough-to-watch Basic, but he has some great ones on his resume including Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, The Thomas Crowne Affair and… 1987’s Predator.
The film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a soldier tasked with leading a team into the jungle on a mission only to be interrupted by an alien presence. It remains a ton of old-school action fun nearly three decades later, and while four sequels/spinoffs/reboots have come and gone the original is still the best remembered. McTiernan recorded a commentary track for a special edition DVD release several years ago, and we gave it a listen to celebrate the anniversary of his freedom from the hoosegow.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for John McTiernan’s Predator.
Commentator: John McTiernan (director)
1. The 20th Century Fox logo is stretched because they wouldn’t let him use anamorphic widescreen due to the film’s opticals.
2. Producer John Davis developed the script with the idea that it was “Rocky meets Alien, I guess,” but McTiernan liked the idea of it feeling closer to King Kong. “Bunch of guys go to an island, and go deeper and deeper in, and shazam the thing they’re chasing turns out to be a lot bigger than they thought, and they have to turn around and run away!”
3. “Wow, I haven’t seen this movie in a long time,” he says, noting that he had forgotten all about the space-set opening sequence, in part because it was all post-production. “It was always in the script, but it never showed up until about an hour before the movie opened.”
4. The opening credits sequence was filmed in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico.
5. He points out that this was his first studio film, and it’s actually only his second feature period after the moody horror thriller, Nomads. “Terrifying in a lot of ways, and a learning experience in a lot of other ways.”
6. Schwarzenegger’s cigar wouldn’t light for the credits sequence, so they used optical effects to make it appear lit.
7. Carl Weathers came onboard because McTiernan wanted an actual actor to work against Schwarzenegger. The director had to fight to get a quality actor in the role. It’s unclear if Weathers was a first choice.
8. They had to ship three Huey helicopters to Mexico for the shoot. The montage of the choppers flying while the mercenaries chatted within was originally shot with the doors open against a blue screen, but it was far too much of a pain.
9. Shane Black was cast because McTiernan and producer Joel Silver wanted a writer on the set. “And he has a great wise-ass manner.”
10. Regarding Jesse Ventura, McTiernan was surprised to discover he was “a lot brighter than he pretended to be” and “truly astonished” when he heard Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota.
11. McTiernan and cinematographer Donald McAlpine had to plead the studio to let them film somewhere with actual jungle foliage, and they were granted permission. “There was somebody involved in the production, that turned out later for corrupt reasons, insisted that we do it in Puerta Vallarta.” He says he didn’t have enough cache yet to have a say in it, but “I have never let somebody choose the location for me since.”
12. “The production designer hadn’t done any research and had no idea that the trees lost their leaves on the west coast of Central America.” Two weeks into production the leaves all started dropping. Apparently the New York Times review commented on how the woods resemble the New Hampshire woods in November. He laughs about it now.
13. The first week of shooting was a nightmare at times due mostly to the crowded jungle conditions caused by the presence of 300 Mexican crewmen with little to nothing to do. The local union had overstocked the production with unnecessary workers, so McTiernan eventually sent half of them packing… with pay.
14. Before they could cast Sonny Landham the insurance company insisted that the production provide a bodyguard, “not to protect Sonny, but to protect other people from Sonny.”
15. McTiernan hand-picked the M134 minigun (aka “Painless”) that Blain (Ventura) uses. They had to slow the barrel down for the film because in reality it spins so fast that it doesn’t photograph well. A person could really only manage to carry roughly six seconds worth of ammo. “It’s ludicrous, what the fuck would he carry a thing like that for? It’s nonsense, but, it’s a movie, so who knows.” There’s also a 100lb battery behind the person firing it.
16. The shot of Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and his team crawling with the binoculars was accomplished with a crane and a remote control camera, and it pissed off the studio because it took “three hours to get the damn shot.”
17. The attack on the compound was shot by a 2nd unit director, but McTiernan wasn’t fond of its “stuntman” style consisting of “static shot after static shot” punctuated by explosions.
18. The machete-like weapon Dutch throws at the bad guy was made special for the film by a knife maker trying to sell the production his wares. McTiernan wasn’t thrilled with any of his existing blades but asked if the could manufacture a machete instead. It ended up being far bigger and heavier than they expected so the “Stick around” quip was added as a way for Dutch to get rid of it. Schwarzenegger gave it to the director at the end of shooting, and he still has it. (Or at least did when this commentary track was recorded.)
20th Century Fox
19. He points out a scene with a 180 degree camera dolly pan in it. “You couldn’t at the time get an American cameraman to do it,” he says, but McAlpine is Australian and had a much looser style. Is this true? Would McTiernan lie?
20. The pussy jokes were all Shane Black.
21. They initially attempted to use real heat vision cameras to capture the Predator’s vision, but not only was it a large piece of equipment with an umbilical that would only stretch four feet from the van, but there was also an even bigger problem. “The ambient temperature in Mexico was in the 90s. Consequently, people were the same temperature as the background, and they were perfectly camouflaged.” The effects folks tried to fix this by spraying down the trees with ice water and having the actors stand beside a fire before their scenes, but it was a huge waste of time and money. McTiernan had to go behind the studio’s and producers’ backs to try some tests at a video production house. They created the effects digitally and were accepted once he proved their value.
22. He points out how much Schwarzenegger resembles Sgt. Rock and mentions that the actor was discussing the possibility of making that movie even then.
23. Some of the early Predator shots were accomplished with a stuntman in a red suit – that would later be layered with the visual effect – “but what I really wanted was a monkey.” McTiernan got his monkey, “but once we got the red suit on him… the monkey was so embarrassed by the red suit that he hid! He’d go up in a tree and cower, and he wouldn’t do what monkeys do.”
24. McTiernan feels there’s a fascination among audiences about seeing guns being fired, so he added the scene of the remaining team members firing blindly into the jungle for a couple minutes. “What I was really doing was to quietly ridicule the desire to see pictures of guns firing. All of this is sort of a moral separate peace here, and in order to do it I set up the circumstance where there were no human beings in front of the guns. In fact the point of all the firing was, as the man says as soon as they stop shooting, ‘We hit nothing.’ The whole point was the impotence of all the guns. Which was the exact opposite of what believe I was being hired to sell.” He points out that he did the same thing in Die Hard.
25. He draws a shaky correlation between movie violence and tragedies like Columbine. That’s unfortunate.
26. The green alien blood was originally meant to be orange, but it was difficult to accomplish. An effects guy instead suggested they cut open those glow sticks and simply poor the liquid wherever needed.
27. McTiernan doesn’t read subtitles when watching foreign films. “I really didn’t care what people say. I don’t pay attention to what they say. I pay attention to what they look like when they say it and how it sounds.” It’s why he frequently has people speaking in a foreign language without subs so audiences will get the feel of how they’re saying things instead of what they’re saying.
28. He’s sure to point out that the murdered pig was fake. “That pig was so unreal are you kidding me.”
29. In an effort not to get sick while filming in Mexico he instead went without much eating. “I lost 25lbs, the line producer lost almost forty.” Schwarzenegger did get sick due to eating street food in Puerta Vallarta. “He ended up playing a scene with an IV bottle in his arm once.” The actor grows visibly thinner throughout the movie as he began not eating as well in order to avoid illness.
30. McTiernan originally wanted the team to arrive on scene via a halo jump and describes the entire sequence as written – a C130 plane, an attacking Mig, and Dutch putting his gun to the pilot’s head to force him over the landing zone at which point he would run for the back ramp, grab a parachute off the wall and jump – but he sacrificed it in exchange for not including an interior shot in the Predator’s spaceship. Schwarzenegger later used it in Eraser.
31. The only scene where anyone was actually hurt on the film is the bit where Dutch slides down the hillside and falls into the river. The stuntman apparently threw his knee out while falling. Well, there was a second injury. “It turned out after the fact, and I found out after I got back to the States, that I had broken my wrist and had just worked through it. I fell out of a tree. I was too embarrassed to admit I was hurt.”
32. The big tree used in the end confrontation is made out of concrete.
33. McTiernan wants to be clear that the Predator’s dreadlocks are in no way a signifier of racial ethnicity.
34. The original creature design was by all accounts terrible, but when they brought on Stan Winston the effects wizard went away for a week and returned with the design seen in the final film. When it came time to shoot he also brought a team of young guys operating individual controls to make the creature’s face move.
35. Kevin Peter Hall, who plays the Predator (and Harry from Harry and the Hendersons), has a cameo in the helicopter at the end of the film.
36. The “curtain call” at the end was due to McTiernan’s desire to show the team together again after the downer ending. “You know where I stole this? From Robert Altman, a movie called Brewster McCloud.” Black is seen reading a Sgt. Rock comic.
Best in Commentary
- “The first day of shooting was the worst nightmare I’ve ever seen.”
- “Carl’s strength is what allows Arnold to be plausible here.”
- “Yes it was a real scorpion. It was a creature which was indeed hurt for this production, but it was only one.”
- “There was a certain amount of friendly competition between the actors. Arnold tends to create that boys club and boys gym kind of feeling.”
- “Here you’re seeing Jesse actually carrying Painless. He had no ammunition at this point which is why he could carry it.”
- “There are a number of scenes in the sequel that I campaigned like crazy not to have in this movie.”
- “The reason you have to storyboard opticals is that optical companies always raise the price after you’re in the middle.”
Per IMDB, McTiernan currently has two films in pre-production – Warbirds and Red Squad – but there’s no word on when either film should realistically be expected to hit theaters. Regardless, he’s already crafted more incredibly entertaining movies than most directors can claim. His commentary here is somewhat dry at times, but it’s filled with interesting anecdotes and details about the film’s production.