Now an action movie legend, Jean Claude Van Damme’s introduction to Hollywood wasn’t exactly glamorous.
To his surprise he found himself encased in a monster suit on the set of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s classic Predator. Yes, JCVD was set to be the original Predator monster, and it wasn’t the dreadlocked death machine audiences know today.
Colored bright red, this early version of the Predator resembled a praying mantis that had been dipped in paint.
FX supervisor Steve Johnson was interviewed by the Stan Winston School of Character Arts in 2014 and recalled the reaction of the “Muscles from Brussels.”
Van Damme “thought he was going to show his martial arts abilities to the world… We got him in at lunch and you could see his eyes through the rubber muscles of the neck and he’s like, ‘I hate this head. I hate it. I hate it. Hate it.’”
Johnson had his reservations from the moment the concept drawings were spread out in front of him. “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.” He was proved right, and Van Damme was eventually sent home.
Johnson’s interview with the Stan Winston School happened because Winston’s talents helped turn the Predator into the frightening foe audiences know today.
The inspiration for the final look came from an emerging director Winston was working with named James Cameron.
Whilst sitting on a plane together, the FX maestro was trying to come up with a concept. Cameron threw in the idea of mandibles and the rest is history.
The pair teamed up for Aliens (1986), which had the luxury of an established and terrifying monster. A sequel to Alien (1979), Cameron and Winston simply built on the distinctive, Gothic world designed by H.R. Giger.
However when 20th Century Fox were first putting the xenomorph flick together, one prospective director had a very different image in mind for the scary antagonist.
Producer Walter Hill spoke to Mike Garris of the WTF podcast last year, where he shed some light on a surreal moment in Alien’s development.
Veteran helmer Robert Aldrich, known for intense offerings such as What Ever Happened To Baby Jane (1962), was in the running to put the crew of the Nostromo through their paces.
According to Hill, “He said, ‘we’ve gotta come up with something really unique.’ And he said… ‘I don’t know, just off the top of my head…. this may not be a good idea but… maybe we could get, like, an orangutan… and shave it’ – And we were going, ‘God almighty. That’s one we hadn’t thought of!’”
This uniqueness led to Aldrich passing the baton to Ridley Scott, who put his own stamp on the chilling space opera.
If the monkey trainers had had their way, things would have been very different. Thankfully these kinks were ironed out in the run up to shooting, unlike the situation with Predator.
Once Cameron’s suggested mandibles were in place, the spiky-toothed human hunter went on to further exploits, the most recent of which (The Predator) has just been released. Viewers also witnessed the Alien v Predator franchise, leading to the return of Ridley Scott for prequel entries Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.
As for Van Damme, he went onto happier times. Ironically his complaint during Predator that he looked “like a superhero” was given a weird twist, thanks to his starring role in Cyborg (1989). The low budget actioner was shot on sets originally intended for a Spider Man movie.
Movies and monsters have had a profitable relationship over the decades. Though sometimes in the process of creating the perfect foe, the production encounters an uncontrollable monster all of its own.
Steve Palace is a writer, journalist and comedian from the UK. Sites he contributes to include The Vintage News, Art Knews Magazine and The Hollywood News. His short fiction has been published as part of the Iris Wildthyme range from Obverse Books.