When you see Shane Black’s name attached to a project, there’s a couple things you can count on. First and foremost, you know that the film will be made with a sincere love for the genre its operating in. But at the same time, you know that the filmmaker behind Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3 is going to find a way to subvert those expectations, spin the genre on its head a bit, and give you a fresh take on the familiar. That’s what makes The Predator so exciting. Co-written and directed by Black, with a killer cast and studio budget behind it, The Predator promises the return of the beloved action sci-fi staple with an infusion of humanism and wit to go with all those big, burly muscles.
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the set of The Predator with a small group of journalists and get a small peek at how Black is mixing his signature subversive style with the traditions of the Predator franchise. A lot of times on set visits the director is (understandably) too busy to sit down with the press for any extended period of time, but Black was courteous as heck and gave up a good chunk of his lunch break to talk with us.
The filmmaker discussed reuniting with his The Monster Squad collaborator Fred Dekker on the script, making a film that’s overflowing with love for genre storytelling, reinventing the franchise while honoring the original film, tapping into the techniques of an old-school thriller, bringing a sense of myth to the Predator, giving his cast the freedom to collaborate and improvise, how they’re approaching the special effects, and a whole lot more. It’s a fun, wide-ranging conversation on all things The Predator — well, all non-spoiler things in any case — and you can read the full chat below.
Can you talk about bringing back Fred Dekker and why you wanted to collaborate on him with this?
BLACK: Well, I’ve been working with Fred on a couple of different projects. We found that we sort of complement each other very well. And that goes back ages. They say that no matter how old you get that in your own mind you’re never really capable of picturing more than twenty-five years old as your current age. You always feel yourself to be roughly twenty-five. It’s been thirty years in the business for Fred and myself. And, you look in the mirror and part of you just says, ‘Jeez, it’d be nice to be a kid again and go back and get that excitement back.’ 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’d say, ‘Boy, I’d just like to do a Predator movie with Fred.’ Something that recalls for us all those wonderful, exciting days when we were geeks, lining up for Star Trek: Wrath of Khan when it played in Westwood at The National.
And so, I think there was a great deal of nostalgia and also a desire to do a kind of old-school thriller in the form of The Predator, because I think the reason there’s a lasting quality that the original movie has that’s due I think, in part to the fact that it was made before it was so easy to just do a bunch of CGI effects and before video games had taken hold as well. So, there was a more visceral kind of war movie thriller-esque quality to the material because they weren’t saying, ‘What if the camera whooshed around, and the character fell off a cliff, and we followed him down, and then when he hit and we ran with him.’ Who’s the cameraman?! [laughter]
Fred and I just thought — obviously we’ve kept up on visual effects and technology and we’re big fans — but let’s try to do an old-school kind of real hearty and heartfelt kind of war movie surrounding this story. And all the elements were like, spies, romance, mystery. Just stuff as much genre into one pack as we can, so you can literally unpack different facets of the movie, which is sort of a stew that represents, to us, the genre movie that we would’ve loved to see when we were coming up, when we were all young and still felt twenty-five.
That’s how we’ve heard it described today. A western, a thriller, a comedy, a sci-fi movie… Does that mixture of genre labels please you?
BLACK: Yeah, but I’ll give you an example: in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang there’s a scene where Robert Downey shoots a guy in rage and then he realizes he never shot anybody before, he’s never committed an act of violence, so he kind of breaks down a little bit. He’s really upset and he goes, ‘Hey man, I just shot a guy, I never did that before.’ But then, in a scene later they shoot a guy in the head by accident and he’s like ‘Okay’, and this is never gonna cut together because the tones are so disparate. It just seems seamless to me. So, the idea is being able to manage tone, as long as the editing process is specific enough. It’s a balancing act, but that’s what makes it so much more difficult than doing a film that relies solely on the continuation of a single unwavering tone.
It’s ultimately gonna be a thriller. It’s not gonna be a comedy. It’s an R-rated movie and it’s supposed to be a kind of harrowing experience. I think it goes to what Fred and I are very familiar with, which is, if you told me to write a comedy I’d be helpless, but if you say write a thriller and put some jokes in it, then fine. Then, I don’t have to worry. The curse comes off because of the narrative and the thrills…”You know what would be great here, is if the guy threw him the gun and he missed and the gun just broke a window.” Or, y’know, whatever. So, it’s that sort of combination and tone shuffling that becomes at once the juggling act and also the challenge, but the joy too of what we’re trying to do.
You and Fred did something called The Shadow Company, which had similar themes to The Predator story. Did you draw from that experience for this?
BLACK: Partly yes and partly no. I don’t think it’s giving a lot away to say that to the extent that this happens in a small town, it’s a small part of the movie. They said well, ‘It’s set in the suburbs’. No. I mean there’s scenes that happen that are set in suburban streets, but the idea that it’s some Mahjong club fighting a Predator isn’t how it’s gonna happen.
We’ve heard the word reinvention a lot for The Predator. Can you talk about your approach to making Predator fresh and new while honoring the legacy of the first two films?
BLACK: Well, I think that there’s a basic premise that has to be honored every time you make a Predator film and that’s in some way, whatever the plot turns out to be, it has to, at some level, represent a hunt. But, beyond that, I think there’s infinite variability. It’s like monkey bars. You ever play on the jungle gym when you were a kid? It looks like they’re rigid and hard and it’d be hard to play on these things because they’re so rough, but if you go inside them there’s actually a lot of room to move around, you just know that the borders are there every once in a while.
So, we just tried to take the existing mythology and take it a step further. Ask some questions about why? Why do Predators do what they do? What would be the next step for them? How do we up the stakes so that there’s not just a single Predator hunting a group of soldiers? Who are the soldiers? How are they different? What’s the heroic quotient and how do you make it not just 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 a fine actor as far as that goes. But the actors we tended to get for this are a cut above, I think, the average tough guy.
There’s an element of intrigue and I think espionage/mystery, whatever. The government is involved in this and it takes it to the level of what happens when the Predator strikes, these incursions are not just an every-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 marshaling forces against these incoming Predator strikes. And, so it’s that sort of what the next step is, when they get noticed, that’s kind of what we start as our jumping off point for what’s different. And also, what happens when the Predators get a little more ambitious? Maybe it’s not just a weekend anymore. So, we’ve had some fun with that.
We keep hearing that there’s you give a lot of freedom for improvising and collaboration with your actors. Can you talk a little about why you like to work that way.
BLACK: Well, because it’s a Predator movie so much of it was plot and action. We had a lot of character beats, but as we were writing it, I would say to Fred, ‘You know what? This thing is gonna be a hundred and fifty pages. Let’s just find these characters. We can’t define seven characters perfectly. Let’s cast them.’ And so, we’ve been writing through production. And, on Iron Man 3, Downey would be like, ‘Time!’ and I’d be like, ‘What? We’re shooting!’ and he’d be, ‘No, shut the cameras’ and we’d go back to the trailer and we’d all write, because he wanted new lines. I mean, maybe it’s a little bit of that. Maybe I took a lesson from him. We’ve had a great deal of fun incorporating input from talented people who haven’t been looking at the same pages for two years.
You know, Ryan Gosling’s input on The Nice Guys and Robert Downey’s input on anything, I’m happy A) That they elevate the material and B) To take credit for whatever lines they happen to generate. [Laughs]
The first movie was a pretty meat and potatoes action movie. What did you see in The Predator that made you want to take on PTSD and learning disabilities and themes about the government?
BLACK: I guess it was a reaction against perfection and the Predator going up against a perfect specimen all the time. And that being solely based on physical appearance and muscles. I thought, well, maybe misfits; maybe there’s a version in which misfits play more of a role and maybe there’s even a sense that The Predator himself is even an outcast. So, we were trying to find thematic elements that work for us.
We’ve heard how you want this to be an event film that’s different from other Predator films. What do you think you can bring to this landscape that other alien movies and other Predator sequels have missed?
BLACK: It’s the ambitiousness of not wanting to stay small and just wanting to pack as many different possibilities, themes, and characters. I think in the same way that Aliens succeeded so well that you had Bill Paxton and Jeanette Goldstein and Lance Henrikson that were popular. You had great characters. So, I think the death of some of the Predator movies has been a dearth of really intriguing characters that have development. But, beyond that, I think this one is bigger and that it costs more…I know it costs more [laughter]. It’s a hammer over my head. But, that’s where the thriller part comes in. Change the scale, up the stakes and make it as thrilling as you can. I mean, there’s just so many set pieces and sequence and the influences that we were going by are not sort of the spectacle.
Like, I remember Michael Bay — when I saw Transformers for the first time, and I thought that’s pretty good, except there’s a scene where a robot goes through a skyscraper, breaks through one window, slides down an entire length of the office building and breaks through the other side and if it had just been that, then you would’ve gone, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I saw that in a movie.’ But, you’re surrounded by fifty identical stunts, so you just sit there and go, ‘Another one. There goes another one.’
So, our quest to be a cut above is to make it so you keep changing it up. So, that it feels more like a thriller and less like just action. Because action, to me, is not sustainable over two hours. I mean, you can like it. You can like the Transporter movies. They’re fun. But at the end you don’t feel like you’ve had an experience with a guy that you want to sit down with, you feel like you’ve watched an action character flex his muscles. So hopefully, we’ve given you a bigger canvas, more action, and better characters. That’s a lot.