The story of the original Predator suit that was worn by Jean-Claude Van Damme

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In the early stages of production, the Predator looked much different to the alien we recognise – and Jean-Claude Van Damme was meant to play it…

Predator, featuring the galaxy hopping creature that likes to hunt for sport, spawned a multi media franchise with further films, video games, comics, novels and a cross over with the Alien universe.

However, if it had all gone to plan, the iconic dreadlocked, menacing mandible creature would’ve have looked very different and featured a new actor looking to make his break in Hollywood.

The origins for the very first Predator movie, believe it or not, came from Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise. By 1985, the fourth Rocky film had been released and a joke circulating around Hollywood at the time suggested that Stallone would run out of Earthly opponents, the next film would have to feature a fight with an alien. I mean, which of us wouldn’t have watched it? Imagine the montages.

Screenwriters Jim and John Thomas loved this idea and wrote a script about a band of alien creatures that go hunting together. As with most scripts, it went through several revisions and was streamlined to become the story of one alien versus a dangerous commando in central America. At this point in time, the film still had a simple one-word title – but it was Hunter.

The Thomas bothers spent a long time trying to get Hollywood to bite and it was 20th Century Fox who finally took an interest when the script was given to producer Michael Levy. He in turn passed it onto Joel Silver who had recently worked on the Arnold Schwarzenegger title, Commando.

Based on this, Silver would turn the script into a big budget film and hired his former boss Lawrence Gordon as co-producer. John McTiernan, who would go on to direct films such as Die Hard and Last Action Hero, was hired to direct. This would be his second directorial work after the critical flop of Nomads starring Pierce Brosnan. Schwarzenegger had seen the film and was so impressed with the tense atmosphere created on a low budget that he pushed for him to be the director of Hunter.

But who was going to play the imposing menace that could stand up to the six feet two inch frame of Schwarzenegger?

How about the  five feet and seven inches of Jean-Claude Van Damme? He had moved to America and become a US citizen with the intention of becoming an actor. His first role was as a stunt man in Chuck Norris’s Missing In Action, after working for him as a nightclub bouncer.

Van Damme managed to get an interview with McTiernan for Hunter. He was asked to demonstrate his athletic abilities by running and performing jumps around the studio. Impressed with his high jumps and movement, he was hired on the spot to be the man in the alien costume.

In a video interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Van Damme revealed he didn’t like the body casting process used to create the costume. His entire body was covered in what he called a “boiling hot” gelatinous liquid (behave). There was only a tube in his mouth to allow him to breath during this process and he was feeling quite claustrophobic. This process allows for the special effects studio to create a mannequin of an actor which they can use to create the costume which will then be a perfect fit.

However, when filming started Van Damme wasn’t very impressed. Neither was makeup effects artist Steve Johnson, who was part of Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios, which was tasked with building the monster.

Despite both McTiernan and Silver signing off on the design, Boss Film had objected, recognizing it would be problematic to execute, but as contracted they built the costume.

As Johnson said in an interview with the Stan Winston School of Character Arts in 2014, “we have this meeting and we’re sitting around a board table and it’s the usual suspects. It’s all of the executives. It’s Joel Silver, the producer; it’s John McTiernan, the director. With great pomp and ceremony, McTiernan comes in and slams down a bunch of designs that have already been done by a production designer, and they were awful.

Predator character model

The creature features backward bending legs, think of an extra section of leg bending backwards from the ankle. This meant the suit would require the performer to wear stilts and be suspended by harness from an overhead boom arm and considering the filming location, this would be impractical as Johnson explains,

It was ahead of its time, let’s put it that way. But the head did suck. They said, “Here’s what we want you to make.” What they needed was a character with backward-bent reptilian legs, extended arms, and a head that was out here, and they wanted to shoot on the muddy slopes of Mexico in the real jungles. It was virtually physically impossible to do. I told them it wouldn’t work.

In the film, the creature has an invisibility cloak, and this special effect is achieved with a bright red monster suit. The red is the complete colour opposite of the green jungle and blue sky, and made it easier for the creature to be removed from the picture and replaced with the rippling invisibility effect.

But Van Damme wasn’t told this was the first costume he would be trying on – he assumed the bright red suit was the final look of the menacing alien hunter, “I hate this. I hate this. I hate it. I look like a superhero,” he said.

Johnson tried to explain the use of the red suit, the invisibility effect and that he wouldn’t be seen for around half the film and this made Van Damme angrier. He believed he was hired for his martial arts and athletic skills, which he would be able to exhibit during the film.

Stuntman Peter Kent, who was Schwarzeneggers double for many of his films, also remembers Van Damme on set.

JCVD didn’t last long on this shoot. He was told about the rigors of the suit and the heat and the fact that there was a ‘rudimentary cooling system’ in it, but it proved too much. So did his constant complaining. After about two weeks, producer Joel Silver came to set and said, ‘there’s a plane ticket on your hotel bed. Get out of here.’

Predator character model

In interviews, Van Damme tells the story that producer Joel Silver asked him to perform a jump in the full costume with the attached stilts. He refused, stating this would be very dangerous and could easily go wrong. He was replaced with another stunt man who performed the task at hand and allegedly became seriously hurt as a result. Apparently, this is the reason why Van Damme was fired from the shoot.

Various cast and crew members have disputed that story, and there have been various reasons stated as to why that version of the Hunter was never used. Director John McTiernan only saw the alien costume when it arrived on set for the first time and wasn’t impressed. “It looked like a guy in a lizard suit with the head of a duck,” according to Schwarzenegger.

When the studio saw the initial test footage, they complained the monster head looked too much like a rat’s head. Allegedly, due to the heat of the Mexican jungle Van Damme often passed out from the intense heat. He also didn’t want to wear the alien head piece and wanted to be able to show off his martial arts skills – to which he was told aliens don’t know kickboxing.

Whatever really happened, everyone realised that the costume wasn’t working, and production was shut down to figure out where to go next.

Arnold recommended his friend Stan Winston and his creature workshop after working with him on films such as The Terminator.

Winston realised they needed not just an alien creature, but an actual character. He started sketching concepts for the alien inspired by an image of a Rastafarian warrior that hung in producer Joel Silver’s office.

At this time, the film Aliens had recently been released and Winston was on a flight to Japan for a promotional event along with the film’s director, James Cameron. Winston was still drawing ideas on the flight when Cameron enquired as to what he was doing. Winston explained the story of how he got the job and what he was designing. “You know, I’ve always wanted to see something with mandibles,” replied Cameron.

“Hmmm, that’s an interesting idea,” Winston replied and the iconic character of the Predator was born, designed and created in an intense six-week period. To make the Predator even more imposing, he was played by the  seven foot two-inch frame of Kevin Peter Hall.

Predator wasn’t a critical success, but the audience’s response was stronger and as we know, this kicked off a series of films, spin-offs and merchandise.

If the original suit inhabited by the muscles from Brussels had been completed, I don’t think you’d be reading about the film 35 years later.

Images: BigStock

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