“It’s so over the top,” laughs Stephen Hopkins, director of sci-fi sequel Predator 2. “I just sort of went for it and made the biggest, boldest, loudest movie I could make. I was only 29 years old – I was like a rampant child, running around Los Angeles, blowing the shit out of everything and making things as bloody as possible.” He’s not wrong. 1990’s follow-up to Die Hard director John McTiernan’s stealthy original has none of the slow-burn patience that made that movie an unexpected classic.
Instead, Hopkins – fresh from helming horror sequel Nightmare On Elm Street: The Dream Child – reintroduced one of Hollywood’s most iconic extraterrestrials with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. “It was a film made in a guerilla style by a bunch of maverick people and it was made so fast that no one really told us what to do,” he says with a smile. “It’s strangely a cult movie.”
Transporting the action from the rainforests of Central America to the concrete-clad jungle of LA, Hopkins’ movie brought us to a sweltering near-future where rival gangs run amok and law enforcement struggles to maintain order. When hardened cop Lieutenant Harrigan (Danny Glover) starts investigating a series of grizzly and seemingly ritualistic turf-war murders, he soon discovers that gun-toting drug dealers are the least of his worries when a familiar foe makes itself known. Packed with all the crass excess viewers had come to expect from late Eighties cinema, the scene was set for Hopkins to expand this budding franchise with an urban take on an increasingly popular character. However, behind the scenes, the film’s journey from page to screen almost fell apart before it even started.
“Originally, the movie featured Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character alongside Danny Glover,” says Hopkins, shedding light on the film’s first script which featured Dutch, the muscle-bound hero of McTiernan’s movie. “It actually started on a golf course. These guys are playing golf, a helicopter lands and a guy with white hair gets out and it’s Arnold Schwarzenneger with a scar across his face. He comes to LA and of course the cops don’t believe his story.” If original screenwriters Jim and John Thomas had their way, Predator 2 would have seen Dutch share shoot-outs with Glover’s Harrigan as a bullet-heavy double act – however just before shooting began, everything changed. “Terminator 2: Judgement Day was going to happen at around the same time and Jim Cameron said to Arnold: ‘Do one or the other – don’t do both,’” reveals Hopkins, setting the record straight regarding rumours surrounding Arnold’s departure. “It’s hard to turn down one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. I was quite close to shooting and Arnold suddenly disappeared from the project.”
Forced to think on his feet amid a writer’s strike that prevented work being carried out on a brand-new script, Hopkins and his team had to pivot: “The script was hastily rejigged,” he tells us. “I thought setting it in a city was a good idea and in 1997, which was then the future. Global warming was happening, the whole place was heating up and LA had become this Latin, Cuban gang-fest. Jim and John Thomas knew what they wanted and producer Joel Silver was clear about what kind of film it was: a mixture of western and science-fiction,” he says. “LA had turned into a tough western town where all hell had broken loose.” To craft his not-so-distant future, Hopkins kept things low-key: “We didn’t have a huge amount of money. I was able to snag Larry Paull who’d been the designer on Blade Runner and Back To The Future. A lot of great future films were kind of retro, so we put Seventies cars in our future for no apparent reason and everyone wore clothes that protected them from the heat. We shot in a way to make it feel like a dirty, industrial town that’d gone wrong.”
When it came to his titular city hunter, Hopkins relied upon the prosthetic wizardry of the creature’s original designer, Stan Winston – with in-suit performer Kevin Peter Hall also returning. “Any sequence with the Predator was complicated,” says Hopkins, recalling the limitations of early Nineties visual effects. “It was at a stage of technology where you could do more but in order to have the time to shoot all these complicated things there was a balance. If the Predator had its mask off, there were two or three different people operating the face and head. Stan Winston was a genius and came up with all these crazy ideas,” says Hopkins, remembering Winston’s subtle redesign of the creature and its armour. “There were a few things that it carried around – we worked together to hone them down and make sure that there weren’t so many that it was silly. The Predator had been seen heavily at the end of the first film so we couldn’t hide it in the shadows. We had to be careful about how to show it and make it bigger and better than it was before.”
That said, with so many action scenes on his shot list, Hopkins’ task was far from easy: “It was a great education in filmmaking,” he says earnestly. “In those days none of the effects were digital. We spent about three weeks at the end of production just shooting the Predator for all the scenes with motion control cameras. Almost every shot was a huge set-up. Apart from the dialogue scenes, everything was action, visual effects or complicated. There was nothing simple about it at all.” One iconic scene featuring the Predator introducing CIA alien hunter Peter Keyes (Gary Busey in a role initially intended for Schwarzenegger) to a grizzly end was particularly difficult to capture. “The slaughter house sequence in UV was unbelievably complicated because not only did it have to be lit in all these different ways – but Kevin, who was amazing as the Predator, had to be on wires, leap and do fight scenes in almost darkness.”
With so much working against him, Hopkins welcomed any simple fixes he could find. While crafting a scene involving his battle-weary baddy cauterising a wounded arm in an old lady’s toilet, in-camera tricks worked wonders. “We made the bathroom smaller than it should have been to make the Predator feel huge,” reveals the director. “Even the glowing stuff he puts on his arm to heal himself – that was really glowing, fluorescent stuff. It wasn’t something we added in afterwards, it was from a Halloween shop.” This knack for thrifty innovation resulted in one of the film’s most memorable moments: “The Predator’s spaceship almost didn’t appear in the film because it was too expensive,” he says. “We came up with a style that could have looked terrible but kind of worked – an organic version of the Predator itself. I made it look gritty rather and chose the location carefully. By doing it in the subway, I chose not to see a lot of it, that way we could afford to do it.” As for that infamous inclusion of the Xenomorph skull on the Predator’s trophy rack? “Stan Winston came up with that idea. It was meant to be a throwaway but I featured it more than I was supposed to,” he laughs. “They were both Fox movies so we were allowed to do it. I thought it was a riot.”
When production wrapped, Hopkins was eager to unleash his movie onto fervent fans. However despite a strong debut, the absence of the original’s leading man caught some viewers off guard. “It had a big initial opening weekend if I remember correctly – but I think many people were disappointed that Arnold wasn’t in it. A lot of people like the film and some prefer it to the original – just because it’s in a city and more contemporary.” For Hopkins however, creating Predator 2 was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: “It was a very exciting time for me. I was in my late twenties and it was a big leap up in Hollywood. It was a demanding and political film – but there’s lots of things in it that you just wouldn’t be able to do now. You wouldn’t be able to shoot explosions in downtown LA or helicopters landing in the middle of the street – we did it all for real.”
Three decades, two canon sequels and a couple of questionable Alien Vs Predator movies later and both the character and Hopkins’ film have forged strong bonds with viewers. “People get more fond of it as they go through life,” suggests Hopkins. “There’s something about it that reminds them of a fun age of filmmaking where movies didn’t take life too seriously. It’s kind of a romp, isn’t it? It’s silly and you’re not supposed to take it to heart. I think people watch Predator 2 and enjoy the big, fabulous last hurrah of Eighties filmmaking where it’s politically incorrect, overtly loud and over the top. It’s a bit camp and at the same time occasionally very frightening. It’s a good combo.”
Predator 2 is available on Blu-ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.