Back in December Bloody-Disgusting reporter Chris Eggertsen visited the set of Nimrod Antal’s upcoming Predators (releasing July 9th), shooting at producer Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas. In this first of three parts, Chris tours the skull-ridden “Predator Camp”, gets a look at actor Carey Jones in full Predator getup, and is reassured that the film will indeed share very little (if anything) in common with those mostly-lame AvP debacles. Also, two words: Oleg Taktarov.
“My character kind of got like everything from everyone but mostly from Arnold. Like I got lines I say like, `What an ugly face you got. What an ugly motherfucker you are.’ I’ll say that in Russian and in English.” – Russian actor Oleg Taktarov (Nikolai), comparing his character to characters from the first film
While much location filming had taken place in Hawaii previously, the set I visited was at Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas. For those in the know, Troublemaker is the production company founded by Robert Rodriguez and his ex-wife Elizabeth Avellan, which is set on a sprawling swath of land that was formerly home to the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. The facilities are truly impressive – the lot includes five massive stages housed in former airplane hangars, extensive backlots, and several buildings housing offices, construction shops, a prop warehouse, and various other production-related facilities.
Our first stop on the tour was two sets constructed for the production: one a large outdoor “Predator camp” set, and the other a smaller one consisting of heavy, “jungle”-like foliage. Both were created by greens designer Richard Bell, a blonde, blue-eyed wisp of a man with an air of introverted soft-spokeness. Bell explained the extensive amount of work that went into transplanting the non-native plants to the Texas city, including efforts to keep them alive during the often-freezing/below-freezing Austin winter. The sets functioned as a stand-in to the Hawaiian jungle they had shot in previously, meaning that every tiny detail of that environment needed to be replicated as closely as possible.
Bell explained that unlike the first film, the environment was not a South American tropical location but rather an alien planet that a group of elite warriors (and perhaps some other, “non-Predator” alien life-forms?) are transplanted to in order to be hunted by the fearsome titular killers (and where they encounter a mysterious character named Noland, played by recent cast addition Laurence Fishburne, who we were not given the opportunity to interview). Truly, the design of the Predator camp was like nothing encountered on Earth – sparse foliage against a muddy, inhospitable environment, and – true to franchise form – skulls and bones scattered about, some of them displayed atop wooden poles to serve as grim trophies. In short: the perfect setting for a battle royale between man and alien hunter.
After a quick trip to the craft services cart, we were briskly introduced to actor Louis Ozawa Changchien, who plays the character of Hanzo, a Japanese warrior (samurai?) who knows his way around a sword. Changchien spoke a bit about his duel with one of the Predators. “It’s a great fight”, he said. “Nimrod our director is a big fan of Ken-do, and I’ve been practicing Ken-Do since I was five. So he was insisting that it be a real authentic Japanese sword fight with a Predator, which is a challenge to find out how their true fighting styles would meet up.” Which begs the question: what exactly is the fighting style of the Predators in this film? Can we expect more of the same, or a new breed? “The new Predator is a lot more agile than the original ones, but compared to a swordfighter I think he’s a little slower”, Changchien told us. “But he has a vicious blade; it’s a different design of blade.”
Just so you guys get a better idea of what the set visit was like, I have to admit it was a little intense – much more intense than the few others I’ve been on. During all of our conversations, most of the cast and crew members under interrogation repeatedly looked in the direction of the stable of jumpy publicists continuously hovering nearby, alternately typing furiously away on iPhones and Blackberries and eyeing the visiting journalists like wary jackals. It creates a rather unwelcoming atmosphere for a visiting reporter, but hey – it’s their job. And these particular publicists were very good at their jobs. Given the frazzled nerves on display, I couldn’t help but wonder about the life expectancies of those in their chosen profession – I’m sure it must be below the national average.
Anyway, next up was Russian UFC Champion/blowhard Oleg Taktarov, the self-professed most popular man in Russia or some such nonsense. On this basis, I’d venture he’s the closest we’ll get to our favorite Austrian in this one (unless, as has been conjectured, the Governator makes that hoped-for cameo), right down to the thick accent and sturdy, considerable build. Taktarov, who was actually very congenial despite a sense of (admittedly knowing and entertaining) self-absorption as massive as his brawny frame, plays Nikolai, another in the group of elite warriors deposited on the alien planet. When asked if his character was similar to Jesse Ventura’s from the first film, Taktarov described his role this way: “My character kind of got like everything from everyone but mostly from Arnold. Like I got lines I say like, `What an ugly face you got. What an ugly motherfucker you are.’ I’ll say that in Russian and in English. So some Jesse Ventura stuff and also Bill Duke…so [my character has elements of] those three characters.”
“He is a very heroic type guy in the movie”, Taktarov went on. “It’s the first time you get a really, really, positive, good Russian character in an American [film], I must say.” According to the Russian thesp/meathead, the shoot (in which he indeed uses some of his extensive mixed-martial arts training) was also nothing if not physically grueling. He went on to impart an injury he suffered during filming: “You can see a mark here that has healed up, I hit the steady-cam and I was bleeding. My face was bleeding and I didn’t want to stop, we continued because I had blood all over so we kept filming. It was a really great moment. When I get this moment, ugly motherfucker with a Predator, honestly I would probably choke him in real life. Because I could reach for his neck and it would be over. Predator or human it doesn’t matter.” Oh, Oleg!
Thankfully, we also had the opportunity to speak with fast-talking practical effects whiz Greg Nicotero, who gave us all the dirt on the shit we really wanted to know about – the Predators themselves. True to its title, Predators features not one but several of the alien hunters, of both the “classic” variety and a new breed called “Super Predators”, or “Berserkers”. Nicotero went on to explain that there are three different Super Predators in the film, each of which serves a particular function. The first, known as the “Dog Handler”, possesses all of the usual Predator accoutrements but also insanely cool “Predator dogs” (sort of bulked-up hyenas with rows of horns) that can he unleashed on the human characters. Luckily for us, nearby actor Carey Jones was suited up in the attire of just one of these Predators, and Nicotero referred to his costume when describing the Dog Handlers. “There are these alien hunting dogs that they used to flush out our heroes and track them”, Nicotero told us. “So with this guy, you can notice the armor on his legs and the armor on his arms is there, because the dogs have these big horns and spikes.”
Jones himself, an amiable giant of a man (6’7″ out of costume, 6’10 1/2″ in costume), had been engaged in some sort of photography session, in full mask and armor, when Nicotero called him over. Up close, the suit (made of latex and very soft to the touch) appears quite rubbery, but it’s painted to look “hard”. Indeed, from far away it looks just like a suit of bone-crunching armor. Mirroring Tarkatov’s experience, Jones described a bloody accident that occurred during filming when he and another actor in a Predator costume collided (intentionally) during an action scene. “I had to jump through a tree and then run full speed and tackle him”, he told us. “And basically, the impact [caused] the mask [to] hit me in the face, and cut me around the eye and the nose.”,
“They were moving so fast that the first take we did when they collided both of the masks flew off”, said Nicotero. “Carey had to run, jump on a log and land in a puddle. And then keep running at full speed…[so] he’s running and he lowers his head like a football player, and [they] just collided. And I watched the playback and I went, `Oh my God; that was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life.’”
The other two “Super Predators” (there are three in total) described by Nicotero sounded equally cool, including one dubbed a “Falconer”, which has “UAV falcons” that can be launched from his shoulders in order to track his prey aerially. Last but not least is Black, who in addition to being the “leader” and most fearsome of the Super Predator characters, will also be the only one in the film to boast an unmasked, fully articulated visage. As for the differences between the look of the “classic” Predator model and the “new-and-improved” Predators in this film, Nicotero gave us an idea of what to expect.
“Robert Rodriguez and Nimrod, when we first started the project, they used a really great analogy”, said Nicotero. “[They] said the classic Predator is a cassette tape and the new Predators are the iPod version. So that kind of triggered a lot of visual things in my head, in terms of making them taller, making them sleek and keeping the armor really close to the body. So that they are not bulky, because we wanted to get the idea that they are fast, and that they’re elegant and that they are efficient. Even in terms of like the dreadlocks and stuff…[for the Super Predators] we swept all the dreadlocks back. We made the face a lot longer. We just wanted everything about him to look more elegant, like a black widow. We wanted it to just be really deadly looking.”
Despite the fact that Predators is a “re-imagining” of the franchise, Nicotero was also quick to point out that capturing the spirit of the iconic first film in the series is a major goal of theirs, and that they are intentionally attempting to stray from the look and feel of the AvP series. “You know, when you watch the last AvP movie it’s like a Freddy vs. Jason movie”, he said. “So it’s really going back to the spirit of what the film was originally intended to be…it was really the first time that we had seen this classic Predator look since the first movie, because the designs had changed [in the AvP movies]. And everyone put their fingerprints on it here and there. So it kind of went back to the beginning.”
Of course, with respect to modern sci-fi/action films there always seems to be one big question on everyone’s minds: is there CG in the movie, and if so, how much? With Predators the answer seems to be mixed, although it would appear to fall much heavier on the practical effects side (fingers crossed). “No CG in the Predators”, Nicotero stated, while hastening to add: “Only when they cloak and de-cloak. When they’re cloaked and they’re running and jumping and leaping, those will be digital, because you’re only going to be able to see the outline of them.” Notice, though, that Nicotero said no CG in the Predators. As far as the visual landscape of the planet, he indicated that there would be some digital effects on display.
“I’m sure when I see the movie still be some weird things slithering through, where I’ll think `Hey, I don’t remember that’”, said Nicotero. “Once we wrap [physical production], we go away. And then the visual effects guys take over. And then they add all those little bits and pieces.”
Truthfully, after speaking with Nicotero – a man of boundless energy and with a showman’s flair – I very nearly forgot that we still had a few more people to talk to. One of these people included genre favorite Danny Trejo (aka “Machete”), who made an unexpected visit to the set that day. We cornered the actor out in the studio’s parking lot to talk about his role as Cuchillo, an assassin/drug dealer who is forced to team up with the other “hunted” characters in order to survive the onslaught of the alien beasts.
Be sure to check out Part 2 of our set visit, where we continue our behind the scenes tour of the production, including interviews with Danny Trejo and Nimrod Antal!