In 1987, a hyper-advanced alien species known as the “Yautja” descended upon an elite military squad in Guatemala. Thanks to its memorable performances, quotable dialogue and inventive action set pieces, “Predator” became an American action movie staple. The film has spawned four sequels, including the new Hulu film “Prey,” and two spinoffs. Yet, the mega franchise all started with a piece of paper underneath a door.
“The Thomas brothers snuck the script onto the Fox lot and under somebody’s door,” says John Davis, who has produced all seven “Predator” movies. “We got there on Monday, and there was this script. I was an executive at the time, and I had been working with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was a really good friend of mine. We were always both trying to figure out how we could work together. And so I’m the executive on this movie at Fox, and what happened is I became a producer. I auditioned to become a producer. And Arnold says, ‘Well, you’re becoming a producer now. You need to actually produce this movie and come to the jungle with me. Let’s go make this.’”
For the first-time producer, finding himself on the set of “Predator” was an unforgettable experience. While the jungle was a bit different than the Fox offices Davis had known, things on set were made a little easier thanks to Schwarzenegger, who brought a private chef with him to the jungle every day.
“We’d be in the jungle, and his chef would make like, smoked salmon on toast,” Davis explains. “I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy cool! I should do this the rest of my life!’ You hang out with all these people in the jungle all day, and you’re making this movie and you’re doing these cool action scenes. And you’re figuring out how to crash a helicopter and you’re sweating with all these guys.”
And sweat they did. The producer recalls getting knocks on his door at 5:30 a.m. for morning workouts with Schwarzenegger and company, and, after one five-hour workout session that left Davis nearly unable to move, he concluded that he was “not going to survive this entire movie.” Thanks to some fake sleeping antics, though, Davis did in fact survive the shoot. Still, 35 years later, Davis recalls the difficulty getting the movie to the big screen.
“We ran out of money, so we didn’t shoot the end,” Davis remembers. “And then a new head of the studio, Leonard Goldberg, came in. And he saw three quarters of the movie and he said ‘Okay, it’s pretty good. Why don’t you guys just go finish it.’ And I met [John] McTiernan somehow. I saw one movie he had done before and I said, ‘This is the guy to direct this movie.’”
With John McTiernan on board, the film was coming together. McTiernan, the revered helmer behind “Die Hard” and “The Hunt for Red October,” brought together an all-star cast of macho men, including Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall, Shane Black, Bill Duke, Sonny Landham and Jesse Ventura.
“[McTiernan] never read any actors. His process was, ‘I can tell in a conversation,’” Davis explains. “That conversation would enlighten him to whether or not the actor was right for the movie. And at the end of the day, we had two governors in the movie.”
At the end of the day, “Predator’s” manly-men made the film an action classic with bulging muscles and countless deaths. Thanks in large part to McTiernan’s intense directing and Schwarzenegger’s legendary performance, “Predator” has cemented itself into the action movie hall of fame. And, of course, having an outstandingly deadly and mysterious alien assuredly helped the film’s cool-ness factor.
“The alien is an iconic creature. A comic monster, if you will,” Davis says. “Monster movies get made again and again and again and again. Look how many Dracula movies have been made. Or the Wolf Man. I mean, you can go through these iconic monsters or creatures. Once you establish them, people know them, understand the mythology of them and want to see them again in different situations. And I think both ‘Alien’ and ‘Predator’ on the 20th Century Fox side are their most mythic monsters. These are 20th Century Fox’s most mythic creatures.”
Three years later, the franchise expanded with the first “Predator” sequel: “Predator 2.” The film, which now found the alien species ravaging the streets of Los Angeles, wasn’t received as well as the first. Currently sitting at a 32% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, “Predator 2” saw Danny Glover taking the reins from Schwarzenegger as the protagonist. However, Davis reveals that Arnold was in fact supposed to return as Duke for the film.
“The Thomas brothers wrote that also, and Stephen Hopkins directed it. It was a really wonderful script,” Davis explains. “Arnold was gonna play [the lead] role. The studio was negotiating with him, and the whole deal fell apart over $250,000. And it was obvious: Joe Roth, who was the head of the studio at the time, just said, ‘I won’t go past this number’ and Arnold wanted this other number.”
While two spinoffs — “Alien vs. Predator” and “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” — came in the mid-2000s, it took 20 years for a direct sequel of the “Predator” franchise to get made. The 2010 film “Predators” saw a new group of killers being hunted down by the creature, this time on a different planet used solely for hunting. In 2018, Shane Black directed the modern-day take on the story with “The Predator.” During the shooting of that film, Davis recalls being approached by “10 Cloverfield Lane” director Dan Trachtenberg, who floated the idea of a newly-imagined installment to the franchise.
“Dan came to me and we went to the studio, and it was in the middle of making the other movie,” Davis says. “And we decided, ‘Alright, let’s do this, but we’re gonna make it a top secret project.’ So the whole idea was to keep this top secret. The other movie would come out, and then we would announce that we were ready right away to make this. Now, it took a lot longer than right away because different things happened and Fox got sold. It moved over into Disney, and I think it’s great. Disney understood the potential of this franchise.”
With “Prey,” Trachtenberg takes the Predator to 1700s America. The film, which features Native American and First Nation talent in front of and behind the camera, follows a young Comanche woman as she takes on the alien with tomahawks, traps and ingenuity.
“Dan did a terrific job,” Davis says. “This movie is his imagination. This movie was his idea. People just need a fresh reinterpretation of this franchise from time to time. And if they have it, it will survive 100 years.”
Now that fans have seen the Yautja alien in Guatemala, Los Angeles, a different planet and the Comanche nation, it’s only natural to wonder: what is next for the Predator? Could there be a Civil War-era Predator? How about Ancient Rome? Predator vs Pirates?
“Well, maybe there’s an origin origin story. Right?” says Davis. “Maybe there’s another ‘Alien vs. Predator’ story in a different situation. And maybe there’s a new modern-day version. And maybe there’s something somewhere in between. I think this character can show up throughout history.”
Still, 1987’s “Predator” is a time capsule of the action-packed Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone films that took over Hollywood in the 1980s. To Davis, shooting “Predator” was a representation of what Hollywood is dreamed to be.
“It was neat. It was wonderful. It was glamorous. It was everything Hollywood was supposed to be,” Davis says. “Arnold had decided we should all smoke cigars all the time. All the time. And then at the end of the movie, the studio gave us the bill for the cigars and we’re like, ‘Oh. Yeah…’”
‘Predator’ 35 Years Later: Producer John Davis Recalls How Cigars, Smoked Salmon Toast and Mayhem Created a Mega Action Franchise