It Came from Outer Space: Director Shane Black on ‘The Predator’

You could call it a homecoming of sorts. Shane Black broke through in Hollywood thanks to his screenplay for Lethal Weapon, a runaway hit that also led to a string of acting roles in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Predator (1987), with its sweltering jungle film shoot, was one of Black’s first studio pictures as an actor. Decades later, the film’s titular alien hunter remains embedded in the popular consciousness, and Black returns to that world to direct The Predator (2018), which follows the story line of the first two films in the franchise. BOXOFFICE spoke with Black about how he came to the project and the new elements he decided to incorporate to introduce the Predator to a new generation of moviegoers.

The Predator has become an iconic character for contemporary movie audiences. You appeared in the original film; what did coming back to the franchise represent to you?

I’ve always been amazed at the enduring quality of this thing, the fact that even young kids today seem to know who the Predator is. There have been so many movies over the course of the last 30 years that have come and gone; yet somehow the Predator has mysteriously persevered. I had worked on the original, was down there in Mexico shooting it and living it up—and that’s always been a really fond memory for me. Even then, I was reluctant to jump into a franchise until I spoke to Fred Dekker, someone I’ve worked with several times in the past—most notably on The Monster Squad (1987). I remember him convincing me: “This could be fun, it could be a lark—a throwback to our college days.” I love that notion of recapturing that feel movies had when I was back in college; we all lined up for Raiders of the Lost Ark, going to see the first Alien movie. I liked that aspect to it, of going back to the original Predator and writing a love letter to it for contemporary audiences.

I came in on a lark, thinking it was just going to be fun. Two years later, it’s taken over my entire life and absorbed me! I think what drew me to it was the ability to make a monster movie that just happens to have a monster in the background. I wasn’t interested in doing an effects movie with swirly colors and characters flying around shooting bolts at each other—movies these days tend to have people who shoot bolts of something from a part of their body. I thought it would be good to stage this as a war movie that happens to include a monster, and to make that monster very mysterious. It’s a movie where the story of the characters looking for the Predator is every bit as interesting as the notion of the Predator. It gave me a chance to riff again on some fun pulp material with a guy I love—Fred Dekker—at a scale and budget I would never have received on an independent project. The people at Fox have been terrific; Emma Watts, Matt Riley, Stacey Snider have all been very supportive. 

This isn’t simply a remake of that original film. What are some of the added elements you sought to introduce to the story for this movie?

There have been a number of attempts and several movies that have featured the Predator. We wanted to bring a lot of elements together and try to make—let’s call it a particularly well-seasoned stew out of it. This film pays a loving tribute to the original, but it also gives a leaner, meaner quality to the guys who are going up against the Predator. We don’t really focus as much on giant muscles, the comic book macho element. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always love that sort of movie—the banter-under-fire movie with back-and-forth deadpan humor. That’s something I’ve loved since I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a movie that has been my Holy Grail for a long time. At the same time, we wanted to inject a bit of humanity into the characters instead of focusing on their powerful weapons. We wanted to give these guys fallibilities and vulnerable natures. It’s a loose, ragtag group who are rediscovering their abilities instead of walking on-screen with a full set of commando skills.

That’s perfectly in-line with your previous films: the interrelationship between these men who aren’t pre-built, perfect heroes—how they talk to each other, how they fail to live up to the challenges they face. How did those themes come through in the casting for The Predator?

It’s a great ensemble—we’ve got people with great acting chops who can swap back-and-forth military commands and one-liners in equal measure. We weren’t looking for the tough, lauded heroes that everyone immediately respects. We wanted our cast to feel marginalized, to be forgotten men in a sense. Guys that have a skill set but who also have demons that plague them and a broken brain that doesn’t let them fit into society. When you do that, you’re essentially courting the oddball element. You want guys who can be macho, who can turn it on, but you also want an oddball group that, in some respects, are the last guys you ever want to see going up against the Predator. You want an audience to see them at first and think, “Oh no, not these guys—surely, they’ll lose,” and show how they can come together and pull it off. That’s the fun of it. Watching a group of diminished, overlooked guys who can come together and do what the entire U.S. Army can’t. That was the notion with which we approached casting the movie. Anyone from our ensemble can play a leading man or a character role. Tom Jane, Trevante Rhodes—these are actors with great chops who can do comedy and drama. They were a joy to work with and came together as a unit, a dysfunctional family that just happens to set their sights on a creature from outer space.

The Predator has been introduced in a variety of different settings. Was there anything you wanted to try out and explicitly avoid in your approach to this film?

Once again, we wanted to make a stew, so we didn’t want to do anything so specific as to say, “This time he’s in a building! It’s Die Hard … with Predator!” We didn’t want to be that specific.

That sounds pretty good, though … I think I’d watch that movie.

I would too, actually [laughs], as long as the Predator is the one running with the gun. We wanted to pay homage to the jungle, to hunting in the hot climate, but take things in a slightly different direction. Go a little bit off course. What if the ship didn’t land exactly where they thought it did? The Predator is a domestic terrorist this time; he’s inside our borders. Our movie acknowledges that the government knows about these Predators, that they know they exist and have prepared for an event. This is the story of one of those incursions; what happens when a Predator lands on Earth and everyone comes together in an unlikely way based on a random crash.

Why is The Predator a movie that deserves to be seen on a big screen at the cinema?

There have been a number of Predator movies made over the years and it seems to me that they all had their great qualities. Each of them seems to have been made with a budget that came along with an expectation level. But seeing the longevity and endurance of this character, I think the studio realized the potential of what they had in their hands. When I came in to direct, I told them, “I would love to do this, but I need to be able to make it bigger. This can’t be just another Predator movie.” And that’s what we set out to make: an event movie, something people want to buy tickets in advance for. We came in to make a big movie with scale that can reinvigorate the franchise to being more than just a series of episodes. 

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