In the second part of our visit to the set of Predators at Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas, we talk to Danny “Machete” Trejo about why Robert Rodriguez is always giving him knives, get the skinny on similarities to the first film from director Nimrod Antal (hey, is that Rodriguez creeping around the sidelines of the shoot?), learn what it’s like to jump off a waterfall from Topher Grace (the next Paul Reiser?), and catch up with buffed-up action hero lead… Adrien Brody? Also, we’re told to expect at least a couple Ahnuld-style one-liners. Get to the choppa!
“I’d like there to be. It’s pretty fun. It would be good to have on a reel…where you’re very serious…and then you have [in Schwarzenegger voice] ‘Stick around!’” – Actor Adrien Brody on whether Predators will have ’80s-style action-movie one-liners
While much of our conversation with Trejo was Machete-oriented, he did take a moment to praise Antal after being asked how hands-on producer Robert Rodriguez had been during the Predators shoot. “He’s kind of behind the scenes on this one. That surprised me, but that purely shows Nimrod’s capability. Because if Robert didn’t like what he was doing, believe me, he would be there”, he told us. “Nimrod is a great director. He really kinda surprised…you know, I’ve worked with a lot of directors, I think I’ve got 180 movies now. So I kinda know who’s good and who’s full of shit, you know. I love directors that know what they want.”
Speaking of Antal, we got a chance to catch up with the young director between takes on one of the studio’s massive soundstages. The scene being shot was a claustrophobic one, involving the movie’s star Adrien Brody crawling through some sort of constricted passageway. Brody, who may seem an odd choice for the lead in a big-budget sci-fi actioner, was described by Antal as being part of he and Rodriguez’s strategy to cast “against the grain”. “We thought casting a physically `Schwarzenegger-esque’ character would have done the original film a disservice and would have done this film a disservice because we are not trying to remake or copy the original film”, Antal opined. “I told everybody early on that I can make anybody look tough. What I can’t do is teach them how to act, so it was great to have very talented actors from the get-go and it makes my job much easier.”
Antal admitted that Predators would exhibit “subtle” nods to the original film in the series, but for the most part would maintain an original feel (for the record, he – as well as Rodriguez when we spoke with him later – was non-committal on the question of a Schwarzenegger cameo). However, he did mention that one major element they were borrowing from the first movie was the use of a longer, more suspenseful build-up. “I think in any monster movie, the more you can hide the monster, and the more you can keep him back from the story, the better”, the director told us. “It’s a science fiction film, but staying true to the first film it was about the build and the suspension and the anticipation of what was to come, and we’ve relied on that.”
Like Nicotero, Antal also made it abundantly clear they were making a point of distancing themselves from the AvP films. “[That decision] was based on the designs [of the Predators in the AvP films]“, he told us. “They kept on getting bigger and bigger, and longer and longer swords and blades, and the weapons became slightly cartoonish by the end there. So we wanted to just bring it back. And I think science fiction – the best science fiction is grounded science fiction. It’s science fiction you can believe and you buy into, and as far as design and everything else that’s what kept us grounded.”
Interestingly, one link Predators does share with the AvP series is editor Dan Zimmerman, who cut the second film in the series, Requiem. When pressed on this interesting contradiction, Antal was short with his answer, which came off (intentionally or not) rather ambiguous: “He’s a talented kid, and you work with what you’re given so I am not concerned about that.” By “work with what you’re given” I’ll just assume he means Zimmerman was working with what he was given on AvP: R and end it there. I’ll leave it up to the rest of you to reach your own conclusions.
On the question of CGI vs. practical f/x, Antal did his best to downplay the amount of digital effects that would make it into the final film. “I don’t know if I am at liberty to get into the actual specifics. There’s minimal CG and 99% of it will just be enhancement of practicals. So for instance, one thing I know I can talk about, a blade extension, you know, where we aren’t actually having the blade fly out as a live prop, things like that would be accentuated with CG…and certain scenes within the dog sequence.”
One reason to hope that the film will at least serve as a worthy follow-up to the original film is Antal’s obvious affection for the franchise. Nicotero talked about one particular moment during the shoot when Antal showed off his true geek-fan stripes. Between takes of a fight sequence between two of the Predators, during which one of the Predators shatters the blade of the other one, Antal took the tip of the broken weapon for a souvenir. “The idea is that one of the Predators breaks one of the blades and gets a stronghold on the other Predator”, said Nicotero, clearly relishing the tidbit. “And Nimrod yells `cut’ and runs out and…picks up the tip of the broken blade and sticks it in his pocket. I thought it was just a really funny thing to do. I went over there later and he said, `Dude look, there’s mud on it and it’s all scratched up! This was used in an actual Predator versus Predator fight!’ And I said well, I would’ve given it to you. But know he wants to put it in a little shadowbox and frame it.”
“[Prop-master] Tommy Tomlinson…who worked on the original film [too], is already sick of me going, `Uh, what’s gonna happen with that?’”, said Antal. “I have [the broken blade] in my closet right now…I even kept the mud on it.”
With the filming of another take back underway (and with Rodriguez himself creeping around the sidelines), we were hurried along for a little one-on-one time with Topher Grace, who plays the character of Edwin. He himself admitted he felt like the odd man out amongst all the other “action-hero” types in the film, particularly considering the group he’s a part of is supposed to be made up of elite warriors.
“I’ve been singing this song from Schoolhouse Rock, `one of these things is not like the other…’”, Grace joked. I then noted that his character sounded similar to Paul Reiser’s in Aliens. “I had just seen the longer version – which is like an hour longer – of Aliens coincidentally when I read this script”, he answered. “I was dubious because I really liked the first Predator, but all the sequels haven’t been as good. Then when I read this, I thought, `What Aliens was to Alien, this is to Predator‘. Because Predator never really got its due; it never really got that sequel. Nimrod’s such a huge fan of the original. It reminds me of James Cameron. He had everything that was in the original, but he wanted to go in a slightly different direction and create all this new stuff. And this is the same thing.”
So about the Paul Reiser thing…? “Edwin is very different than everyone else in it”, Grace told us. “You’re supposed to wonder why he was chosen when all these other similar types were selected. And there’s a twist. Of course. Actors live to play twists.” Guess we’ll have to wait and see if my Reiser/Aliens comparison pans out – from the sound of it though, this character just might have more “layers” than Reiser’s (Edwin a secret badass? An ally of the Predators? We’ll find out in July I guess.)
Grace, an extremely likable guy who is every inch the kind of person you’d expect him to be, also spoke about Antal’s insistence on keeping the effects and stunts in the movie as “in-camera” as possible (as opposed to that other franchise he recently became a part of). “Everything we’ve done, we’ve done”, he told us. “There’s a big reliance in Spider-Man on green-screen. It’s always easier for actors when it’s there. When you’re really jumping off a waterfall [which Topher's character - and Topher himself - really does at one point in the film] there’s less acting required. You don’t have to pretend what it’d look like to jump off a waterfall. So I love that Nim and Robert made a real effort – I mean, my body doesn’t like it because I’m bruised everywhere – but it’ll add to the realness of the film.”
Next we were shuffled over to speak with lead actor Adrien Brody, the “unlikely choice” who didn’t seem so unlikely anymore once we saw him shooting that last scene back on the soundstage. The actor, who I doubt has the body type necessary (he’s very long and lean) to put on the bulk of someone like Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura, nevertheless did quite a bit of pumping up for his role as Royce, one of the stable of hardened warriors, who Brody vaguely described as “complicated”: “We’re making a very different movie, but there’s always going to be some expectation, especially because of Schwarzenegger making the original Predator and being such a body builder”, he told us. “You know, I’m not trying to do anything like that… the important thing for me, rather than a six pack and being kind of buff, is to put on a little size and you know, both as a look and what that does for me as a person, how I feel. To feel strong enough to handle myself in a situation that this guy would be presented [with]. I’m almost twenty…I’m basically up twenty pounds from my last role. I eat all day. [Laughs]”
Thankfully, the actor doesn’t take himself as seriously as you might expect given his on-screen pedigree, with his history of taking on dramatic roles in films by top-shelf directors including Roman Polanski, Terrence Malick, and Spike Lee. In many way, he hopes this part will be a stepping stone to being considered seriously for roles that don’t have “Oscar bait” stamped all over them. He spoke in particular about the Polanski film The Pianist which, while it was a boon for his career, made it even harder for people to believe he had the capacity to play a lighter role. “Beyond some people who knew my work from some of the films I had done in the past, that was my introduction to the world”, said Brody with palpable frustration. “And the topics I was discussing were very serious. And I take the work seriously, I take all that…but I don’t take myself that seriously. What I guess [The Pianist] conveyed is, ‘Oh, what a serious young man that person is.’ And then it’s impossible to be seen differently.”
Just like Antal, Brody remembers the excitement of seeing the first film in theaters when he was a kid, making him somewhat of a kindred spirit with the director (they are also the same age). “This really means a lot to him and I think his excitement helps motivate everyone else”, he said of his director. “We’re pretty motivated to bring something. And the look of the film – I don’t know if you can get a sense of it from the monitors – but this looks like you’re stepping out of a Geiger painting. It’s reminiscent of Alien and all these kinds of movies that I love, and the feel is very kind of foreboding and spooky.” The actor also gave us a bit more insight into the outdoor set serving as the “Predator camp” that we’d seen at the beginning of our visit – which from what he said sounds like it may serve as the setting of the final battle between man and beast.
“Once it’s done up and things are burning and carcasses are hanging, it is Hell”, he said enthusiastically. “I looked around, and I was like, wow, this is Hell. This is what Hell would look like. And I’m interacting with the Predator, you know. It was a dream-like moment, because it was so surreal that I was in this situation with something that I grew up with, you know? It had such a significance. And yet, in between shots, he [the actor portraying the Predator - I assume the leader "Black"] was like, ‘Are you alright, brother? Did I hurt you?’ [Laughs] He was choking me out and it’s just funny, chit chatting with this monster with an articulating jaw.”
As for the final confrontation, one can only hope it’s as cool as the third-act, “mano-a-mano” fight between Schwarzenegger and the Predator, where we learn of the alien hunter’s true motives and get a sense of a mutual respect between the two characters. Interestingly, Brody was somewhat ambiguous as to how much of that element will be present in this installment. In one breath: “There was another draft that had even more of that which I really liked, but I don’t think…we’re not going to go that route.” And in the next: “I do think that will be present. That was a really cool part of the original.” Alrighty then.
But hey, we can at least expect some good one-liners, right? “I have a few that I’ve asked to put in and some that we’re working on, and well, we have yet to do the couple that I’ve thought of”, he told us. “And then I’ve done a couple that were scripted that I think can be deemed one-liners. So…I’d like there to be. It’s pretty fun. It would be good to have on a reel, at least, somewhere, where you’re very serious and you have all these kinds of movies [laughs] and then you have [in the Schwarzenegger voice] ‘Stick around!’” That would be awesome – although somehow I doubt Brody has much of a need for an audition reel these days.
Oh, and as for working with Morpheus (aka Laurence Fishburne), Brody had this to say: “Fish is amazing. He’s so cool. Telling war stories from Apocalypse now, it’s great. I mean, he brought such a wonderful energy to the movie and it comes in the right spot, and I think people will get a kick out of that, but I don’t think they’ll be taken out of the picture. It will be fun. We came up with a funny exchange, and you’ll have to see the movie. Hopefully they’ll put it in, but some choices that Fish had made gave me an opportunity for something I improvised and they were cracking up. So we’ll see. If I can get them to let me play a little bit, it will be in there.”
Time for a breather? Nah, not really. Next we were herded (moo!) inside the Troublemaker facilities to be given a tour (at one point by Predators producer/Rodriguez ex-wife Elizabeth Avellan), through room after room of concept art, props and prop masters, costumes and costume designers, and every other niche of the Troublemaker enterprise you could possibly imagine. It truly is impressive, if slightly overwhelming. The enormous prop warehouse alone houses items from all past Rodriguez/Troublemaker productions – guns from Desperado, wooden stakes from From Dusk Till Dawn, knives from Sin City, gadgets from the Spy Kids movies. It was an embarrassment of riches, really, and at a certain point I began to feel like I’d been caught up in a whirlwind of curiosities, so many that it became impossible to process it all. That being said, the studio has a refreshing air of independence about it, a sense of freedom (perhaps due to physical distance alone) that makes it feel worlds away from Hollywood. In other words, they’ve earned that “Troublemaker” moniker.