The Wildest Things That Happened While Filming Predator

"Predator" from 1987 is one of the most enduringly scary monster movies of all time. Decades later, 20th Century Studios (formerly Fox) is still cranking out sequels and even made a good one with "Prey" in 2022, but when you break down what went on behind the scenes of the original Arnold Schwarzenegger action-horror classic, it's easy to see how close this film was to being an embarrassment for everyone involved.

Shot on location in a hot-house Mexican jungle, the cast and crew were already battling the elements. They also embarked on this hunter-and-hunted suspense story the same way as the characters — without a glimpse of the Predator. Legendary "Die Hard" director John McTiernan shot a huge portion of this creature feature before he even had his monster on set,  and when it arrived, the crew had to get to the chopper for a redesign.

Schwarzenegger carries this movie on his broad shoulders as the commanding commando, Dutch, in a harrowing battle of brains and brawn with the galaxy's ultimate apex predator. However, not everyone on set was so professional. The man inside the suit, a certain Jean-Claude Van Damme, was allegedly a huge headache as were some of the other players, too. Somehow, some way, as this production ran months behind schedule, a terrifying classic was cobbled together through grit and impromptu jungle jury-rigging — which is exactly how Dutch defeats the creature. These are the wildest things that happened while filming "Predator."

Jean-Claude Van Damme wouldn't stop kickboxing

Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of the most dynamic martial arts stars to ever grace the silver screen, but while filming "Predator," he was still an unknown. His breakout role in "Bloodsport" wouldn't come for another year. Cast as a glorified extra to run around inside the monster suit, he was not happy with his anonymous role and wanted to bring some of his signature high-kicking pizazz to the proceedings. There are actually numerous versions of events explaining why "The Muscles from Brussels" was fired from the film and replaced by the seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall. We'll go over a number of them, but this first one is all about creative differences.

As filming on "Predator" ramped up into action territory, Van Damme decided he was going to make it a kung fu movie. Producer Joel Silver got so exasperated with the actor's improv martial arts moves that he called him into his trailer for a dressing down. According to visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek, the lecture went something like this: "You gotta stop kickboxing! .... Look, the Predator is not a kickboxer!" Still, Van Damme stood his ground and insisted on his own vision. The future star of "Kickboxer" replied, "I must do that; that's how I see the Predator." Silver supposedly shrugged and then fired him on the spot.

The Predator costume was missing in action

"Predator" and "Jaws" are two of the best monster movies ever and both benefited from similar happy accidents. The animatronic shark in "Jaws" was famously malfunctioning. It wasn't properly salt-water tested before Steven Spielberg started shooting in the Atlantic. The shark was never fixed, but Spielberg simply cut around it in the editing room. In the end, less was more because what you don't see creates the suspense in this classic film. 

Filming on "Predator" similarly went on without a functional monster. Almost half of the movie was in the can before the costume arrived, recalls assistant director Beau Marks. There were two suits: one for the invisible camouflage scenes, and one for the big reveal. But when it showed up, it was not exactly ready for its close-up. The crew opened the box, and Marks recalls, "it looks like a giant red rubber chicken. It's pretty hard to have the most deadly alien from outer space coming to hunt man and it looks like a f***ing chicken unless you're doing a comedy. The real suit came shortly thereafter and it wasn't any better ... this was a disaster."

Production was shut down for six months while a creative team put together a new monster. "We don't see the Predator until just about when Arnold is by himself," Marks adds. "Everybody else has basically been killed off. So the third act is what we had to go back and shoot."

The cast was not in military shape

"Predator" is famously one of the most macho movies of all time. It's so testosterone-laden that some scenes have become masculine memes. The moment that Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his CIA frenemy, Dillon (Carl Weathers), clasp hands and have a stare down with their oiled-up biceps fully flexed has been immortalized online as the "epic handshake."

So it's surprising that, according to the on-set military advisor, Gary Goldman, the cast wasn't in a proper state of military readiness. Goldman was an officer in Vietnam, just like many of the characters in "Predator" — though it's more likely they were grunts. Goldman was brought on board by director John McTiernan, who complained that his cast was looking a little soft. "Honestly, these guys look like a bunch of ballerinas. They don't look like soldiers."

Goldman quickly caught a flight to Mexico and ended up seated next to actor-writer Shane Black. When he got to the set, he immediately tested the squad's cardio in the jungle heat. "So I took them out for a run. I was looking at these guys, and most of them were pretty big guys. But in combat, if you can't run, you're f***ed. It doesn't matter how many inches your neck is." Goldman says Schwarzenegger did his best to keep up, but when they got back to the hotel, everyone quietly slinked away to their rooms. Goldman thought to himself, "These guys are finished."

The Predator jungle set was a disaster

Shooting in real locations was a boon for movies like "Predator" and "Jaws," but the elements brought complications. The Mexican jungle for "Predator" was sweltering. Bill Duke, who played Mac, recalls battling the 90-degree plus heat daily. "We're talking about having to wear this gear that is heavy itself, and then the guns and stuff ... and then you're crawling through the jungle on your stomach and there are coral snakes and spiders and scorpions and a lot of different things."

Another problem was the original location near Puerta Villarta was scorched by summer. An entire mobile plant nursery and a crew of 30 or 40 to fill sacks with green leaves to make the scenery look lush were needed. In early shots, you can see the brown brush underneath all the green. Eventually, the shoot was moved to greener pastures in Palenque.

The other problem was the original Mexican crew was allegedly part of a "syndicato," or gang, and were complete "schleppers," according to cinematographer Donald McAlpine. He discovered this when he asked the grips to change the lights from glass to ceramics because of the heat. When bulbs started exploding, McAlpine realized his crew had simply ignored him. He spent all night recruiting professional replacements to fly in last minute from Australia.

The Predator cast got a little trigger happy

One criticism of "Predator" is that some of the tactical elements are not exactly by the book. Famously, there's a scene in which Dutch's commandos first spot the camouflaged Predator and open fire. They all line up and empty their magazines into the bush — but hit nothing. It's an eerie reminder that they're dealing with something inhuman. 

Military advisor and Vietnam veteran Gary Goldman did what he could to get this troupe to act like real soldiers, but at the end of the day, actors are gonna go for the theatrical. 

Besides conditioning, Goldman also handled weapons training. He tried to get Bill Duke, who played Mac, to fire his rifle in short, six-shot bursts. That keeps the barrel from overheating and melting, but Duke didn't listen. "So we set it up, and of course, the first thing he does is he squeezes it, holds it, and starts screaming. Fired off, I don't know, 200 rounds in one thing, and Bill is just cackling like a madman. I thought, 'Yeah okay, this is a movie.'"

Schwarzenegger's grueling jungle workout routine

All agree Arnold Schwarzenegger was extremely focused on his performance, but he was equally interested in looking jacked for the film. Despite the jungle heat and long shooting days, the 7-time Mr. Olympia, widely considered the greatest bodybuilder of all time, got up at 5:30 daily to train before the cameras started to roll.

Schwarzenegger had an entire gym shipped to Mexico in gigantic trucks. The ballroom of the hotel, where the cast was lodged, was converted into Arnold's iron cathedral. Producer John Davis got roped into one of these sessions and recalls, "They all would start yelling at me to lift more weights and more reps. And that night, I was in so much pain that the next morning when they came to my door and started banging, I pretended that I slept through it so that I wouldn't have to lift with them anymore."

Screenwriter Jim Thomas remembers Schwarzenegger using the term "manly men" over and over during these intense early-morning workouts. The actors were getting so beefy that, of course, the stuntmen had to join in, or they wouldn't remain good matches as body doubles. "It was kind of comical," Thomas says, "these guys are all trying to outdo each other."

Jean-Claude Van Damme broke the Predator costume

It makes sense that Jean-Claude Van Damme was initially cast to wear the Predator suit. The guy is a physical marvel, and the script called for a fast and agile monster. According to second unit director Craig Baxley, Van Damme once approached "Predator" producer Joel Silver and said, "'Well look at this!' And he jumped up in the air, I swear to God, did the splits with his legs straight out and his crotch was at eye level — and I'm 6 feet tall."

At five-foot-six, Van Damme didn't have the monster's stature, but that could be fudged with movie magic. Casting director Jackie Burch recalls Van Damme coming into her office constantly in those days and "showing me his movies, begging for work." She had to admit that "nobody moves like him," so he got the part.

Van Damme, though, was allegedly a headache on set. The original costume was designed by a company called Boss and cost a whopping $20,0000. It oddly "had the head of an ant," and Van Damme didn't like it. Baxley says he "freaked out," tore off the mask and "threw it on the ground and it shattered." Producer Joel Silver was enraged and exclaimed, "'What the f*** are you doing!' And he told Jean-Claude, 'You'll never work in Hollywood again! Get off my set!' So that was it."

Schwarzenegger left the set to marry a Kennedy

Arnold Schwarzenegger was all business during filming. He absolutely tortured himself. "I took more abuse in 'Predator' than I did in 'Conan the Barbarian,'" he told Cinefantastique. "I fell down that waterfall and swam in this ice-cold water for days and for weeks was covered in mud. It was freezing in the Mexican jungle ... The location was tough. Never on flat ground. Always on a hill. We stood all day long on a hill, one leg down, one leg up. It was terrible."

First assistant director Beau Marks describes the star as a "very, very disciplined actor — especially back them." Schwarzenegger really understood the business and how big this movie could be. This movie star set the example for everyone else on set.

That said, "The Austrian Oak" did take a little vacation during the shoot to get hitched to his wife of over two decades, Maria Shriver, a bonafide niece of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Producer John Davis recalls that after a long day on set "and in the middle of the night when we were finished shooting, we were going to get on the plane and fly to Hyannis for his wedding." The invited guests all arrived Friday morning, with the wedding rehearsal that very night. The wedding was Saturday, and after a two-day honeymoon, Arnold was back battling the Predator again by Wednesday.

Jesse Ventura left for a wrestling match

Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't the only cast member who had other things going on while making "Predator." Long before Jesse Ventura became the Governor of Minnesota in 1999, he had a long and illustrious professional wrestling career. Known as Jesse "The Body" Ventura, he performed from 1975 through the "Predator" shoot in 1986 and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. Later, he would move to the play-by-play booth. Producers, though, mainly wanted Ventura in the film because he is a real-life Vietnam War veteran, just like his character Blain. 

Maybe Ventura's mini-gun wielding badass Blain "ain't got time to bleed" in the movie, but according to cinematographer Don McAlpine, the actor made time to fly out for a pro-wrestling match during production. "When he came back, I said to him, 'How'd it go?' He says, 'I won.' And I said, 'It was your turn, wasn't it?' And he was outraged, sort of picked me up and lifted me above his head as though he was gonna throw me down on the ground. Jesse put me down afterward but, uh, I didn't argue with him anymore about wrestling."

Shane Black got killed off because he wouldn't write

Shane Black was the hot screenwriter in 1987. His first ever screenplay to get a green light was the genre-defining buddy-cop action-comedy "Lethal Weapon." Since Black was also an actor and "Predator" was going to be months on location in a relatively remote jungle, the producers wanted a scribe on set for a big rewrite. Black only had one uncredited role before "Predator," but that was enough to qualify him for the part of Hawkins, one of Dutch's canon-fodder commandos.

"Predator" producer John Davis also had his hands on the Shane Black-directed 2018 dud, "The Predator," but met the screenwriter on the 1987 original. He claims once Black got to Mexico, he refused to fix the screenplay because he saw himself as a performer first. Davis says he dealt with that this way: "So he was the first person we killed. He got killed seven minutes into the movie."

Maybe Davis isn't being literal, but the seven minutes part is worth correcting. One of the best things about "Predator" is the methodical build-up. Black's Hawkins is the first to go, but he isn't gutted until around the 42-minute mark.

Sonny Landham's partying got out of control

Billy, played by Sonny Landham, is one of the best "Predator" characters. He's a tracker of Native American descent, whom Dutch can always trust to pick up the trail. He's also the only commando in the opening act who is suspicious that something extraordinary is going on. His ability to put together a crime scene from footprints and shell casings tells him nothing on this Earth could do the things they are seeing.

Billy is also a stoic who never shows his emotions, but that's not how the cast and crew describe Landham, whose hard partying on set became a problem for the production. "Sonny ... was crazy," assistant director Beau Marks recalled. "We ended up having to hire a bodyguard to protect the world from Sonny and to keep him in check. Because if he started drinking, all bets were off."

Bill Duke remembers partying with Landham at local Mexican clubs on weekends. At one point, things got so out of hand that Sonny was "crawling around the floor, and either he was touching or kissing women's legs on the dance floor." Duke claims that after that incident, the production had a security officer babysitting Landham.

Richard Chaves got eaten alive by ants

The conditions in Mexico during the "Predator" shoot in 1986 were wild. The sweltering jungle was also home to some aggressive anthropods. Richard Chaves played the somewhat minor role of Poncho. He and Shane Black's Hawkins are slightly hard to distinguish, but suffice it to say Poncho is an early Predator victim, too. However, the first set of mandibles to eat him alive wasn't from outer space. 

During the shoot, the cast had a momentary break, and Chaves decided to take a seat. He says he "checked the area" and plopped himself down in the bush. "The next thing I know, I am covered in red ants. I was bitten almost 100 times down both my arms and went into a little bit of shock, was running through the jungle ripping my clothes off, butt naked. They had a water tank, and I went into the water tank and just doused myself."

Chaves' welts were so bad that the Mexican doctor who tended to him had never seen anything like it. Hilariously, the actor admits the worst part was not being able to show off his guns. Arnold Schwarzenegger had gotten the cast, Chaves included, into the best shape of their lives. "My arms were really buff and everything, but then this happened," he recalls. Tragically, Poncho had to cover up.

Jean-Claude Van Damme kept passing out on set

Jean-Claude Van Damme's antics during the "Predator" production are so legendary that no one can agree exactly on why he was fired.

Producer John Davis claims Van Damme was simply too short, and that's why they brought in seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall. Much funnier are the details of Van Damme's diva demands. Richard Chaves, who played Poncho, recalls hitting it off with Van Damme but also that things went sideways when the martial artist kept ripping off the Predator mask so his face could be on camera. Producer Joel Silver tried to get Chaves to intervene. "You go down there and talk to him and convince him that he's the alien and he's gotta get into the suit!" Chaves attempted to reassure Van Damme, telling him, "Everybody's gonna know it's you, Jean-Claude because nobody can move like [you]!' I tried my best to convince him, but it didn't work."

Van Damme did finally suit up, but 20th Century Fox "absolutely hated" the footage. The other issue was that the suit was incredibly hot and Van Damme kept fainting. He says he was suffocating inside the costume. According to Bill Duke, Silver still had no mercy and allegedly warned Van Damme, "Jean, I know it's hot, but we're losing time, man. If you pass out one more time, we gotta fire you." Van Damme noted he wasn't passing out on purpose, but it didn't save his job.