Think of Jean-Claude Van Damme and movies like Timecop, Kickboxer, Universal Soldier and Bloodsport immediately spring to mind.
Predator doesn’t even enter the conversation. Mainly because it’s not a Van Damme movie. Or, at least, it didn’t end up being one.
Yet the fact of the matter is that, for a time at least, Van Damme was set to star alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in John McTiernan’s sci-fi horror story about a crack team of commandoes facing an unseen alien force in the South American jungle. Then it all went wrong. Very wrong.
In order to fully understand why Van Damme came and went from the project, it’s important to appreciate that Predator was a forever-evolving entity. Originally titled Hunter, brothers Jim and John Thomas penned the original screenplay after hearing jokes about a potential fifth Rocky Balboa movie pitting the Italian Stallion against an extra-terrestrial being.
Picking up on the idea of a musclebound hero going toe-to-toe with an alien fighter, the result was a pulpy science fiction tale that was eventually picked up by Joel Silver over at 20th Century Fox in 1985. Quickly seeing the script’s potential as a big budget action effort, Silver switched things up, casting Schwarzenegger in the starring role, while the name was changed to Predator.
His version of movie required a special kind of actor to play the film’s alien foe though. Someone with the necessary acrobatic athleticism and physicality the script called for. Fortunately, Silver knew someone that fit the bill.
Van Damme was a jobbing actor around the time he met Silver. Already highly skilled in karate, kickboxing and ballet, the Muscles from Brussels had arrived in Hollywood in 1982 with ambitions of making it big.
It hadn’t quite happened yet though, with Van Damme restricted to small roles, stunt works and menial jobs in between. Van Damme hadn’t lost sight of his dream though and was still willing to do anything to ensure the important people took notice – especially high kicks.
Seasoned stunt coordinator Craig Baxley remembered Van Damme’s introduction to Silver well, telling Complex:
“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 6 feet tall.”
It may have been a little on the nose, but when it came time to cast Predator’s stealthy, ninja-like alien, Silver immediately thought of the Belgian. Van Damme took the role with relish, viewing it as the perfect chance to showcase his talents, with the script calling for an agile alien capable of jumping and kicking his way out of trouble.
Speaking in a 1989 interview with Starlog Magazine, he even outlined how the part had been sold to him: “They said I would be in a tight leotard with half-human, half-animal makeup on my face.”
Like so much behind the scenes on Predator, however, the look and design of the film’s central alien adversary were subject to change. When makeup effects supervisor Steve Johnson joined the film, the Predator was an altogether different beast, combining insect and reptile anatomy on a noticeably slimmer frame. This posed problems for the production.
“What they needed was a character with backward bent reptilian legs, extended arms, and a head that was out here,” Johnson told Stan Winston Film School. “They wanted to shoot on the muddy slopes of Mexico in the real jungles. It was virtually physically impossible to do. I told them it wouldn’t work.”
The Relentless Complainer
To make matters worse, it soon became apparent that the part had been grossly miss-sold to Van Damme. During a costume fitting for the red suit that helped bring the Predator’s cloaking scenes to life, the Belgian’s mistake became apparent to Johnson.
“Jean-Claude comes in and we’re fitting him in this red suit and just assuming, like the slaves that we are, that the higher-ups have told him exactly what’s going on,” Johnson said. “But he thought this was actually the real look of the monster in the movie, and he was, ‘I hate this. I hate this. I hate it. I look like a superhero.’ He was so angry.”
When Johnson explained to Van Damme that he would be invisible for much of the movie, the Belgian’s mood worsened. Robbed of the chance to show his skills off in a combat scene against Schwarzenegger that could have been the launch pad to bigger and better things, the Belgian was far from happy. He wasn’t the only one though.
Difficult filming conditions with cast and crew members suffering bouts of illness were further compounded when, try as they might, the suit just didn’t look right on camera. As Schwarzenegger put it, the Predator “looked like guy in a lizard suit with the head of a duck” and he wasn’t wrong, with test shots from those early days on set backing up his claims.
Van Damme, already unhappy with the reduced visibility of his role in the film, didn’t do much to appease the situation either, with Schwarzenegger branding him a “relentless complainer”. With production shut down while McTiernan, Silver, and Co. sought a solution to their alien predicament, producer Lawrence Gordon successfully lobbied for more money from the studio.
The extra funding allowed them to hire the much sought after practical special effects guru Stan Winston. Out went the previous Predator suit in favour of a new design inspired by Winston’s friend James Cameron, who had sketched ideas for an alien with mandible jaws.
Van Damme Van Done
What happened to Van Damme next is subject to debate. The Belgian, for his part, has always suggested he decided to leave the production over health concerns.
“The costume took about 20 minutes to put on,” he once told Starlog. “It was thick rubber and I couldn’t see anything, there was just a small piece to breathe through. I needed cables to move my jaw and head, and it was hard to keep my balance. They wanted me to make a big jump, and I told them, ‘It’s impossible [from that height]. I know my limitations, and I’ll break my legs.’”
Special effects supervisor Joel Hynek relayed a slightly more colourful version of events to The Hollywood Reporter though:
“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.”
In any case, Van Damme was out with the 7ft 2in tall Kevin Peter Hall brought in for a new look Predator, who brought a more oppressive physical presence to the screen. The Belgian spent a total of just two days on the set.
He bounced back soon enough though, eventually securing a life-changing meeting with Menahem Golan, the head honcho at low budget movie production powerhouse Cannon Films. Captivated by the same high-kick routine the Belgian had once snared Silver with, Golan either didn’t know about Van Damme’s difficulties on Predator or simply didn’t care.
A year later, the Belgian hit the big time with Cannon Films’ Bloodsport in a breakthrough that helped establish Van Damme as a star. Predator, meanwhile, debuted to rave reviews with the film’s alien design earning particular plaudits.
Van Damme’s exit ending up being a blessing in disguise for everyone involved. In the cutthroat world of Hollywood, there ended up being a happy ending for everyone involved. Now how often can you say that?
The Predator is in cinemas from September 12th.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.