On the set of The Predator, Shane Black considers his history with the franchise and his hope to subvert modern blockbusters.

Interview David Crow

May 16, 2018

Shane Black says he’s terrified of writing a comedy. As per the director himself, if you sat him down in front of a word processor and asked him to pen jokes, nothing would come. For those who are longtime fans of his numerous cult classics, including writing-directing efforts on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Nice Guys (2016), this is a bit surprising. But as the filmmaker confides, he doesn’t consider any of those uproarious genre-benders to be comedies. They’re action movies with jokes. Rather than laughs though, he is still drawn to the tension of a thriller, and the dread that visceral paranoia evokes. He is still, after all these years, beckoned to the hunter’s cry of The Predator.

Hence our meeting with him last year. It was on the set of his The Predator movie, a soft reboot and reimagining of the storied franchise. As a series, Predator obviously means much to Black. He was after all Hawkins in the original 1987 movie, the glasses-wearing, foul-joke telling cut-up who was also one of the first to get literally cut up while Arnold Schwarzenegger had his oily back turned. Thus it’s a sentimental franchise for Black. One that stands alongside his first several screenplays in Lethal Weapon (1986) and The Monster Squad (1987) as his true breaking into the Hollywood industry. Perhaps this is why he’s finally reteamed with Fred Dekker, who directed Monster Squad, to bring The Predator back to life in the script.

“It’s sort of a stew that represents to us the genre movie we would have loved to see when we were coming up when we were all still young and still felt 25,” Black muses while speaking with us for an extended period of time in the monitor tent. And yet there is something more to it. He wants to return to the way genre movies used to work with a sense of wonder.

While this is no doubt a blockbuster, one with the intent of having an R-rating too, Black also hopes for it to be a bit different from what moviegoers are used to enduring in CGI-heavy spectacles.

“When I saw Transformers for the first time I thought, ‘That’s pretty good,’” Black recalls. “Except there’s a scene where a robot goes through a skyscraper, breaks through one window, slides down the entire length of the office building and out the other side. And if it had just been that, you would’ve gone, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I saw that in a movie!’ But you know what, you go, ‘Oh, that happened.’”

This sort of missing awe is something Black hopes to return to the screen with The Predator. “It’s about the myth of alien incursion, it’s about watching the skies, and it’s about just basically guys who doubt themselves, who have skills but don’t truly believe they’re capable of facing what they’ve been pitted against.”

It’s about more than just jokes—although that playfulness is clearly there too—or simply recreating the nostalgia found for an ‘80s testosterone-fueled shoot ‘em up. For Black, it is about reinventing a legend and bringing a mythology back to big screen mythos.

You have a connection to the Predator. Obviously, you were in the original in a different capacity, but not only are you reaching back to that era by doing a new iteration of the movie, you also teamed up with Fred Decker who you worked with a lot in that era. Could you talk about bringing Fred back on and why you wanted to collaborate with him on this?

I’ve been working with Fred on a couple different projects. I just sort of found we complemented each other very well, and that goes back ages. I think they say no matter how old you get that in your own mind, you’re never really capable of picturing more than 25-years-old as your current image. You always feel yourself to be roughly 25. So it’s been 30 years in the business for Fred and myself, and you look in the mirror, and part of you just says, “Geez, it’d just be nice to be a kid again.” Go back and get part of 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 say, “I’d love to go do a Predator with Fred.” Something that recalls for us and all those exciting days when we were geeks, you know lining up for Star Trek: Wrath of Khan when it played in Westwood at the National. So I think there’s a great deal of nostalgia and also a desire to do an old school thriller in the form of The Predator, because the reason there is a lasting quality that the original movie has that is due in part to the fact that it was made before it was easy to just do a bunch of CGI effects, and before video games had taken a hold as well. So there was a more visceral war movie thriller-esque quality to the material, because they weren’t saying, “What if the camera swooshed around, and the character fell off a cliff and we followed him down, and then when he hit we ran with him.” You know, who’s the camera? [Laughs]

… 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 hardy and heart-felt war movie surrounding this story. And all the elements are like that: spies, romance, the mystery. Just stuff as much genre into one pack as we can. So you can literally unpack different facets of the movie, it’s sort of a stew that represents to us the genre movie we would have loved to see when we were coming up when we were all still young and still felt 25.

That’s actually how we’ve heard it described today: as a Western, a thriller, a comedy, a sci-fi movie. Does that mixture of genre labels please you?

Yeah, but I’ll give you an example. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, there was a scene where Robert Downey shoots a guy in rage and then he realizes he’s 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. “Hey man, I just shot a guy, and I never did that before.” But then a scene later, they shoot a guy in the head by accident, and he’s burying him and he’s like, “Okay, got that done.” And [we thought] this is never going to cut together because the tones are so dissonant, but it seems seamless to me.

So the idea of being able to manage tone, as long as the editing process is specific enough, it’s a balancing act. That’s what makes it so much more difficult than doing a film that relies solely on the continuation throughout of a single unwavering tone. It’s ultimately going to be a thriller; it’s not going to be a comedy. It’s an R-rated movie, and it’s supposed to be kind of a harrowing experience. But the fact that 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.

“Page One: comedy, right? This is supposed to be really funny?” But if you say write a thriller and put some jokes in it, I’m fine. Then I don’t have to worry; the curse comes off, because of the narrative and the thrills. “You know what’d be great here? If the guy threw him the gun and he missed, and the gun just broke the window.” Or whatever. It’s that sort of combination and tone and shuffling that becomes… the juggling act but also the challenge and the joy too, of what we’re trying to do.

You and Fred wrote a script called Shadow Company, and that was a sort of similar scenario where a supernatural event is happening in a small town with lots of gunfire. Did you guys draw from that experience with this movie?

Partly yes, and partly no. I mean, I don’t think it’s giving a lot away to say that the extent this happens in a small town is a small part of the movie. They say, “Well, it’s set in the suburbs.” No. I mean there’s scenes that happen where people are on suburban streets, but the idea that it’s all about this big [neighborhood] club that gets interrupted by the Predator? [Laughs] That’s not how it happens.

We’ve heard the word reinvention quite a bit in talking about this film. Could you talk about your approach in making The Predator fresh and new while still honoring the legacy of at least the first and second films?

Well, I think there is a basic premise which 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, right? But beyond that, I think there’s infinite variability. It’s like Monkey Bars. You ever play on the gym when you’re 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 a lot of room to move around. You just know the borders are there every once in a while.

So we just tried to take this existing mythology and try to take it a step further, asking 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 is just not 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 just not 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, I think, 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 espionage, and whatever. The government is involved in this. So it takes it to the level of what happens when the Predator strikes, and these incursions are just not a 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 marshalling forces against these incoming Predator strikes. So it’s what the next step is when they get noticed as our jumping off point for what’s different. And also what happens when the Predators get a little more ambitious. Maybe it’s just not a weekend anymore. So we’ve had some fun with that.

The actors have said you’ve given them a lot of freedom to work on their own backstories and a lot of improvisation and coming up with their own stuff. Obviously thinking of you as a writer, it’s interesting for you to give up that much freedom. I’m curious just about that process?

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 going to be a 150 pages long. Let’s find these characters. We can’t define seven characters perfectly; let’s cast them.” So then we’ve been writing through production. We write the pages.

And on Iron Man, Downey would be like, “Time!” And [I’d say], “What, we’re shooting?” [He’d respond], “No, shut the camera off.” And then we’d go back to the trailer and all write, because he wanted new lines. So maybe it’s a little bit of that, I took a lesson from him, but we’ve had a great deal of fun incorporating the input from talented people who haven’t been looking at the same pages for two years. And you know, Ryan Gosling’s input on Nice Guys, and Robert Downey’s input on anything, I’m happy that: a) they elevate the material, and b) to take credit for whatever lines they happen to generate. [Laughs]

The first original film is a pretty meat and potatoes action movie. What did you see in the Predator that made you want to take on PTSD and disabilities, and things with the government and stuff like that?

I guess it was a reaction against perfection, and the Predator going up against the perfect specimen all the time, and that being solely based on physical appearance and muscles. I thought, “Well, maybe misfits, and maybe there’s a version where misfits play more of a role, and maybe there’s even the sense that the Predator himself is an outcast.”

So we’re trying to find thematic elements that work for us.

We’ve heard throughout today that you want this to be an event movie, so what do you think you specifically can bring to this landscape that other alien movies and other Predator sequels have missed?

Well it’s the ambitiousness of not wanting to stay small, and just wanting to pack in as many different possibilities, themes, and characters in it. I think in the same way Aliens succeeded because you had the Bill Paxtons and the Jenette Goldsteins, and people like that, Lance Henrickson. You had great characters. 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’s bigger, I think it costs more—I know it costs more! [Laughs] There’s a hammer over my head.

But that’s where the thriller part comes in. It’s just, change the scales, up the stakes, and make it as thrilling as you can. There’s just so many set-pieces and sequences, and influences that we’re going by that are not sort of the spectacle—like remember Michael Bay. When I saw Transformers for the first time I thought, “That’s pretty good.” Except there’s a scene where a robot goes through a skyscraper, breaks through one window, slides down the entire length of the office building and out the other side. And if it had just been that, you would’ve gone, “Wow! I can’t believe I saw that in a movie!” But you know what, you go, “Oh, that happened.” Because you’re surrounded by 50 identical stunts, and you just stare at it and go, “Another one. There goes another one.”

So our quest to be a cut above so that you keep changing it up, so it feels more like a thriller and less like just action. Because action to me is not sustainable to me over two hours. I mean you can like it; you can like the Transporter movies, you know? They’re fun, but at the end, you don’t feel like you’ve had an experience 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. And that’s a big if. That’s a lot. [Laughs]

It’s interesting that in a lot of your movies, they seem more preoccupied than the average action movie with humanism. With bringing a certain subtext to it, like Tom Jane talked a little bit about how he thinks war is terrible and he doesn’t think this movie is glorifying the hardware and the killing. Can you talk about bringing humanism to it?

Yeah, that was important to me, because when I grew up, war movies were not about the thrill of war. In the ‘70s, they were about the horror of war, but they still celebrated the camaraderie of the men. And I guess that’s where we are now. But I guess I love dipping a toe in that right-wing pond every once and a while, because I’m a devout liberal, but every once in a while you have to get your Mad Helm on and say, “What would happen if you just executed assignments and didn’t ask about moral questions?” Just get it done.

I like the mentality of guys available who do that, but then have been damaged by that. And so we get a little taste, I think, of characters who aren’t as comfortable, but who are also killers. Ultimately, no matter how they might feel about it, they have a certain set of skills that can’t be turned off. The faucet can be reduced, but the drip will always be there, and the tendency toward violence, the tendency toward people with a facile skill that elevated and separated them from other mortal men. So even though Tom’s character for instance has his own disability, he picks up a gun and it quells the disability. It’s that sort of thing.

What you said earlier is a little bit radical, in a large movie environment now where anything over $100 million, let alone $200 million, almost has to have an action beat, a big action sequence, every eight to 10 minutes. Is that something you have to buck against?

No, I think, Joel Silver taught me about the “Whamo” meter, which is every 10 minutes you have a big action sequence. The question is what a “Whamo?” What is the action sequence? Does it have to be spectacle or can it be something more clever than that?

I thought that Logan made a big action sequence when he escapes from that oil refinery or wherever they’re being held, and he’s pulling the fence along with him. I thought that was very clever and cool, but it wasn’t just an action movie, I thought. And I think Logan is not actually a bad model in terms of the time spent offering you satisfying action. But also visceral action, and then also spending time on surprising character beats. So if we could do half their business I’d be thrilled. [Laughs]

We’re also in the position of doing—I mean we have a big budget, but we don’t have a big budget. So we’re looking at doing Iron Man 3, I came in and just said, “Let’s keep our appetite up.” We’re doing Iron Man 3 and they say that was $200 million, and we have $100 million [on The Predator]. I said, “Keep your appetite up, just keep your mouths open and assume a meal will enter it. Don’t shoot for low, shoot for high. And we’re making “Iron Man 3” it turns out. We found ways to do it on half the budget, but the ambition level is the same as if we were allotted the same kinds of resources that we had on Iron Man 3.

There’ve obviously been major advancements in visual effects technology in the last 30 years, on this film what is your sort of attitude on in-camera versus digital and are you in anyway trying to recapture the aesthetic of the special effects in the original?

I’m very open to digital techniques that look real, but I also know the eye can be easily fooled. And the eye knows when it’s being fooled, so if it’s going to be a digital shot, it just has to feel real. You have to know there’s a camera and the camera shook. For instance, on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, there’s a shot where Harrison Ford runs out over a chasm, and it’s looking straight down and straight up a thousand feet, and he’s just perched like almost falling into the chasm. And you see it from a distance, and it’s a special effects shot, obviously. But [the camera shakes].

And they didn’t have to do that, but they knew you’d assume it was a helicopter shot if the special effect moved. So they simulate the reality, they make it feel real even if it’s an effect. And similarly, you combine things like Jurassic Park with the real sculpted dinosaur head that comes into the car, but then the CG dinosaur walks away through the windshield. So using that technique where half is digital and half is sculpted is also part of our goal. And we use a lot of sculpture. We’ve got ADI, the original Predator designers, I think they skipped the last one, but Wodruff and Gillis are doing our Predator for us.

A big dynamic that’s existed in pretty much all of your movies is that kind of two-hander buddy dynamic that doesn’t necessarily appear to be in this story. I’m curious if that was an active decision to sort of move away from that?

Yeah, because if you’re doing The Dirty Dozen, you have to sort of adapt to that. So instead of doing the buddy Western, with which I’m certainly very familiar, instead now you have “The Magnificent Six.” So what are you going to do with that? And that’s been fun. And Olivia Munn, adding her as a scientist and bringing in the scientific element, the government element, and adding the kid. In other words, if you bought a comic book that just said “GENRE SHIT” and started reading it, it could very well be this movie. [Laughs]

And it’s also not set during Christmas.

No. As soon as people noticed it, I said fuck it. [Laughs]

From a nostalgia standpoint, from the very beginning up until now, I’m curious what is it like to be working on The Predator after coming from the ’87 Predator. I mean is that journey from a minor role in that film to directing, you’re the head of this ship now. What is that like for you on this journey?

I mean, there’s a certain satisfaction in it. It’s hard in the midst of production—you don’t wake up every day and say, “What a great journey I’m at the culmination of my career.” I’m tired, the money’s not coming, it’s really just a day-by-day thing. I suppose when it’s over and I have time to reflect back, it’ll feel satisfying to continue the tradition, assuming we pull it off and people accept what we’ve done.
I still get the beheading hate mail from Iron Man 3, because we changed something. And I understand that. But I think we’re not changing the sense of what the Predator is. We’re expanding on what’s there, and I think we’re, hopefully, making a thriller that’ll play on the same—I mean, in my head the templates I go to are never small. Jaws to me is a small movie, but it’s not a small movie. It’s an epic sea adventure, and within it, [Steven Spielberg] didn’t stop short and say, “Well let’s just take the boat out in the harbor and pull it around a couple times, and we’ll get what we get.” No, he said, “We’re going to make the ultimate sea adventure, and you’re going to feel every second of this. You’re going to feel the tension of the rope, and the precariousness of the ship, and the flooding of the water, and the mythic sort of timelessness of this nemesis under the water that prowls at night and waits for you. That’s what we’re going to get.”

And so we took the element of myth and said let’s put myth in this thing, and not just make an event that happens. Like, “Oh, look a Predator, honey. It just ate a guy.” No. It’s about the myth of alien incursion, it’s about watching the skies, and it’s about just basically guys who doubt themselves, who have skills but don’t truly believe they’re capable of facing what they’ve been pitted against. And it’s the thrill of the hunt waking them up again to the possibilities [of who they are].

Years ago you did a DVD documentary about the first Predator, and you said you still thought there was some gas in the tank with this franchise. Did you then see the potential or have the idea kind of percolating, or was it just sort of an opportunity that presented itself?

I just thought that it was a great, iconic alien. And what separated it from other alien invasion movies is that it just wasn’t a space blob, it was an actual creature with a mythos behind it, and a sense of honor in some respect. A mission. And a sense of humor, oddly. The idea of the game it plays, and there are even shots of it—it’s rare that the Predator shows humor—but there are moments where you see it almost look at someone like, “Really?” So we’re not done yet, we’re still shooting the Predators, but the extent to which we humanize them slightly, that might be a good thing.

The Predator comes from the sky on Sept. 14.