One of the more interesting threads to emerge from The Hollywood Reporter‘s 2017 oral history of Predator was the differing accounts from cast and crew as to how and why, exactly, Jean-Claude Van Damme — who was originally hired to play the alien trophy hunter — left the project.
While the six (!!) conflicting accounts of JCVD’s ouster shared some critical elements — the actor being unhappy with his ungainly costume, clashes with notoriously dyspeptic producer Joel Silver — a few were, literally, mutually exclusive. Actor Bill Duke, who played Mac; second unit director/stunt coordinator Craig Baxley; and visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek each provided his own non-overlapping eyewitness account of the supposed moment Silver sent Van Damme home.
At the time, THR reached out repeatedly to Van Damme’s reps to try and get his version of events but were told he was busy shooting overseas. However, a few weeks ago the man himself visited THR‘s offices to film an episode of Heat Vision Breakdown, and host Patrick Shanley managed to squeeze in a question about the…whole situation.
A bit of background: When Van Damme was cast in Predator, which hit theaters in June 1987, he was still a virtual unknown. His only major credit was as the Russian villain — a sort-of Ivan Drago, but with roundhouse kicking — in the 1986 martial arts film No Retreat, No Surrender.
A bit more: As originally conceived, the Predator was not the imposing, now-iconic mandibled weirdo that appeared in the finished film (designed by four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston and played by seven-foot-three actor Kevin Peter Hall). The initial design was more in line with the Xenomorph from the Alien films — an upright digitigrade with a wiry exoskeleton — but with the head of an insect. It was supposed to be agile and stealthy, stalking Arnold Schwarzenegger et al from its perch in the jungle canopy, and casting director Jackie Burch thought she had just the guy.
“Jean-Claude Van Damme was someone who used to constantly come into my office, jumping up in the air, showing me his moves, begging me for work,” she told THR in 2017. “So finally I said to Joel, ‘He’d be great as the Predator because no one moves like him.’ I mean he really is quite amazing.”
In his new interview, Van Damme recalls coming to Fox to meet with director John McTiernan.
“They made me run around the studio and I jumped like a dancer,” Van Damme says. “[They said], ‘This guy can jump very high.’ (Laughs.) ‘Yes. He’s in.'”
That, it appears, was the high point for JCVD in his Predator ordeal.
Van Damme left the meeting with the impression that, for his upcoming role opposite the biggest action star in the world, the costume and makeup requirements would be minimal.
“They said I would be in a tight leotard with half-[human], half-animal makeup on my face,” Van Damme told Starlog magazine in 1989.
So he was surprised when he showed up at the offices of Boss Film to have his full body cast for the thick rubber suit the effects house would be shipping down to the film set in Puerto Vallarta.
“I like to breathe — and they’re gonna do my head and everything,” Van Damme recalls. “They put in my mouth like a tube [to breathe through]. I was covered in that cast for at least 20 minutes. It was boiling hot. My friend told me, ‘If you cannot breathe, just [wiggle] your finger and I’ll pull that stuff away from you.’ And I did it. I started to panic. And they go, ‘No! Five more minutes!'”
Van Damme managed to get the casting done without incident, but he confirms that he — like pretty much everyone else in the cast and crew, and Fox once McTiernan sent them the first footage — thought the original Predator design looked dumb as hell. But for Van Damme it was also a pain in the ass to wear.
“My head was in the neck. My hands were in the forearms, and there were cables [attached to my fingers to move the creature’s head and jaws]. My feet were in his calves, so I was on [stilts]. It was a disgusting outfit,” he says.
And because his vision and breathing were constricted, it was pretty much impossible for him to do the thing that got him hired in the first place: move like Jean-Claude Van Damme.
It was also a safety issue. He was being asked to move around — in a fashion that would convince audiences that the Predator possessed superhuman levels of agility and stealth — on stilts, on uneven terrain, in a jungle. Also the suit was rubber and it was 100 degrees and humid. In a jungle.
It was these not-ideal conditions which, according to Van Damme, ultimately led to his dismissal. At one point, he says, Silver asked him to make a jump that he thought was too dangerous: “When Joel asked me to jump, I knew it was gonna be a bad one. I said, ‘This is impossible, Joel. I think we’re gonna have a problem.'”
Van Damme refused, and, according to him, “the guy who did my stunt, something bad happened to him. Crack [makes snapping motion]. And then they stopped the film, and they did a new, more safe, outfit.”
But like the others THR spoke with for the oral history, Van Damme’s memories might have partly succumbed to the erosive effects of decades and, also, maybe contemporaneous untreated heat stroke?
When asked about any on-set stuntman injuries, second unit director/stunt coordinator Baxley insists in a new interview with THR that “nobody was ever hurt.” Beau Marks, first assistant director on the film, is more blunt: “Nobody broke their fucking leg.”
Marks, one of the few people who didn’t weigh in on JCVD in the oral history, goes on to back up the accounts of Richard Chaves (Poncho), producer John Davis, and previous comments by McTiernan — who has maintained it was ultimately a studio decision to scrap the original design, and JCVD was, in a very mundanely Hollywood way, collateral damage.
“We shot some [footage with the original suit], sent it back to the studio, and the decision came back that we were to shoot everything we could without the creature in the suit, and we were to go back and redesign [the creature],” Marks tells THR. “And when we went back to redesign it, we went to Stan Winston. And Stan decided that the way to do the suit is to start with the tallest, biggest guy he could find, not someone who was the agile mover that Van Damme was.”
He also offered up a fourth, mutually exclusive, eyewitness account of the firing itself, because at this point why not?
“When I was trying to explain what had happened [with the studio] and why we were not going to need him, he kept saying ‘But I am the Predator!’ I said, ‘Well, let’s go talk to Joel.’ Joel has a philosophy: Beg to begin with, and then you kill the person,” says Marks. “Well, he got through begging real quickly. He started off as nice as anybody could possibly start off, and then he just ended where he told Claude that he wanted to take his fucking head, go out there, put it on the concrete and have one of those big fucking trucks run over his head 50-fucking-thousand times. That’s how it ended.” Cool.
Regardless of which, if any, eyewitness account of JCVD’s final day in Mexico is the account, shortly after returning to the States, Van Damme was cast in Bloodsport, the film that would turn him into an international superstar. It was released in February 1988, eight months after Predator, and his aborted role as an extraterrestrial ant ninja became a footnote. Also, evidently he wasn’t the only one initially under the impression that his face would appear in Predator, as he told The A.V. Club in 2008: “It’s a very funny story, because when I met [producer] Menahem Golan,…he heard about me playing the Predator, and he was very excited to sign me for Bloodsport.… He didn’t know I was an alien. He ain’t going to see my face and my body. He thought I was the type of alien with a human face and body, where people would be able to recognize me.”
See the section of the oral history concerning Van Damme below, or read the whole thing here.
Here’s where things start to get weird. Everyone agrees on the general facts that 1) Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast as the Predator; 2) He didn’t like the red suit, either, and clashed with Silver. But when it comes to why, exactly, he got fired, nearly everyone THR spoke with had a different explanation — including three separate first-person accounts of the actual moment he was fired. What follows is every account THR received of JCVD’s brief stay in Puerto Vallarta.
Burch: Jean-Claude Van Damme was someone who used to constantly come into my office, jumping up in the air, showing me his moves, begging me for work. He was nobody. He didn’t have any credits. So finally I said to Joel, “He’d be great as the Predator because no one moves like him.” I mean he really is quite amazing. He even stored his furniture in my garage! And then (laughs) he wasn’t there that long. And I heard he was complaining the whole time and they fired him. And he came back and got his stuff out of my garage. And then the next time I saw him he was getting $5 million a picture. [The “He complained too much” version.]
Baxley: Joel and I were walking down the hallway of the hotel together and Jean-Claude was walking toward us with his assistant. And Jean-Claude walked up and said, “Are you Joel Silver?” And he said yeah. And Jean 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 six feet tall. He was there to play the creature, and a company called Boss had designed a creature. It had the head of an ant. And they spent an absolute fortune on this. And so they brought Jean-Claude out and they put the head on Jean-Claude, and Jean-Claude stood up and freaked out, and took off this $20,000 head and threw it on the ground and it shattered. And Joel said, “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. [The “He broke the creature head” version.]
Davis: He was the original Predator until we realized the Predator couldn’t be five-foot-six; he actually needed to be of greater stature. [The “He was too short” version. (Worth noting that the man who replaced him in the new suit, Kevin Peter Hall, was over seven feet tall.)]
Chaves: I remember getting a phone call in my room from Joel because Jean-Claude, him and I hit it off right away, and I thought that he would’ve been incredible as [the Predator] but he wanted his face to be seen. And I remember [Joel saying], “You go down there and talk to him and convince him that he’s the alien and he’s gotta get into the suit!” And so I went down and I spent a couple of hours trying to convince him that, you know, he’d be in this costume, “But 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. And then I guess something happened, and he capitulated, Jean-Claude, to get into this suit and give it a try. And when they sent some of the first dailies of Jean-Claude in this original suit, the people at Fox hated it, absolutely hated it, and thought it looked like a rat — and it did! As soon as Joel was told about that news, he let him go. [The “Fox hated the original creature and JCVD was collateral damage” version.]
Duke: They were going to, I think, superimpose all of the special effects on the body in postproduction. But in order to do that, the actor had to wear a felt suit that covered his whole body, and with 90 and 100 degree temperatures, [Jean-Claude] had passed out twice from dehydration. And Joel came over and said, “Jean, I know it’s hot, but we’re losing time, man. If you pass out one more time, we gotta fire you.” So Jean says, “I’m not doing it on purpose!” Joel says, “Man, this is production. Don’t take it personally.” So two weeks went by, and he’s flying on these wires in trees and everything and he passes out, and Joel comes and tells him, “You’re fired.” [The “He passed out too many times” version.]
Hynek: I was in Joel Silver’s trailer, and he had called for Jean-Claude to come see him. And he comes in the trailer and Joel starts saying, “You gotta stop kickboxing!” — because [Jean-Claude] wanted to kickbox — and he was telling him, “Look, the Predator is not a kickboxer.” And Van Damme was like (Van Damme voice), “I must do that; that’s how I see the Predator.” And Joel said, “Well, you’re fired. Get out of here.” And Van Damme says, “Kiss my balls!” and walks out, and that was the end of that. [The “Creative differences” version.]
Here’s the full JCVD interview: