Dan Trachtenberg is a filmmaker and podcast host. He began his career directing commercials before releasing the short film Portal: No Escape in 2011 which is based on the video game Portal. In 2016, he directed the Cloverfield sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane and in 2019, he directed the pilot of the TV series The Boys.
Trachtenberg is best known in the community for directing the fifth Predator film, Prey. He joined us on episode #153 of the AvPGalaxy Podcast to talk about his experiences on directing the film. You can listen to the episode below or continue on for a transcript.
Adam: So, one of our traditions on the show, especially when we talk to people such as yourself who shape the franchises, we spend so many hours talking about, is to ask about the first time you encountered our favorite extra-terrestrials. I know you’ve talked about this a little in the press rounds for Prey, but could you tell our audience about your first-time seeing Predator?
Dan: Yeah, there’s sort of two benchmark moments for me. One was being I think I’ve been saying third grade but doing the math, that’s first grade when Predator came out. I was on my way to a karate tournament and was not allowed to see Predator because it was an R-Rated movie but all the sixth graders that I was in the carpool with, had seen it.
So we spent the entire ride, they spent like detailing the entire movie to me. I had distinctly remembered them describing a scene where Billy the Native American tracker fought the Predator on a bridge over a waterfall. Then of course later when I saw the movie, that scene is not in it and so that was very much like the germ of the idea for this. I will say too like I remember when I eventually did see Predator, it was with a buddy of mine.
We had this tradition of we would rent a movie and then get the Mad Magazine that had the parody for that movie. We would like watch along, pause and then read the parody up to that point of the plot and then watch more, then pause and then read the parody. I remember doing that with Crocodile Dundee 2 and I really feel like I did that with Predator as well. The thing with Predator is it wasn’t like a horror movie that we were afraid to see. It was like a cool movie that had cool action in it and gore especially when it’s when you’re not permitted to legally or more parentally. So yeah, that was my first brush.
Aaron: How long between those carpools?
Dan: I don’t know. It may have been between first and third grade or it may have been between third and fifth grade. I definitely saw Predator before I left Elementary School, so it wasn’t like I was like in college when… especially when I had Mad Magazine in my timeline sync up in a certain way but so I was still young. It was still one of the first R-Rated movies I had seen for sure.
Aaron: With following the other films and stuff like that, what’s the general opinion?
Dan: Yeah, I think a Predator 2, I remember trying to also at a friend’s house. I believe it was like scrambled on a channel and we would listen to it. I remember being very excited to see it and I never flipped for it. I like Predator 2. Now when revisiting it, there’s greats and A) the score is great. I’m a Stephen Hopkins fan in general.
So funny I loved Judgment Night. Judgment Night was one of my favorite movies growing up and when I revisited Predator 2, I was like “This is the score to Judgment that they did.” I love that score. I love his filmmaking and I loved like this transition between when the guy’s screaming and then it cuts to the close-up of him screaming and it’s revealed that we were in a cut, and he had already decapitated him.
There’s a spiritual connection to that concept to when in Prey when the shield comes out and then it cuts in the tree. You don’t see the actual decapitation, but you definitely get the implication of it. That certainly has a link to that cut and Predator 2. I really enjoy Predators when it came out. I think all of them after… the first one is a terrific movie and then all of them afterwards, I don’t think were on the whole great movies, but all had cool parts, AvPs included. That bit was super cool. So yeah, even the last one that had probably the most mixed reaction to, I think there’s super awesome stuff in it.
Adam: Speaking on the actual Predators themselves in these movies other than the very original and yours, the Feral Predator, which of the Predators from the other films including the AvPs would you say is your favorite iteration of the creature?
Dan: I don’t wanna alienate myself from… I know there’s a very common feeling especially on your site and in general in the community that everyone loves the Wolf Predator. I don’t have that affection for that. It’s all cool but nothing is as cool as the first one and to further alienate myself, its return in The Predator. There’s one moment in that movie when it first wakes up from the lab and then it nonchalantly slices, not with its weapon but with its finger.
It’s such a badass move. It’s a second but it’s super cool and recapturing that feeling was a big inspiration for how we handled his physicality in Prey but also part of my interest and changing things up a little bit is because I never really did fall in love with the iterations in in the later movies. I think I’d always preferred what was in the original the Jungle Hunter and even then, I thought there’s some 80s ish-ness.
It’s a product of its time in some ways and we wanted to iterate on that. I know not everyone fell in love with all of its looks Aaron, you included but some people like chocolate, some like vanilla, some people like sprinkles on there but everyone’s got their own kicks and so I’m stoked in what we did.
I will admit it’s not 100%. It could have taken a little bit more love and I think time was of the essence and I think if we had a little bit more time with it, it could have won a few more people over in its unmasked look but that even that said, I think you will admit Aaron that it does still feel like Predator. It still feels related though very quite different which is what I’m sort of most relieved that we were able to find something that could be a surprising look.
Maybe some of the surprise was “Ah I don’t want to see that” but to others, it could function like the first movie did. All the others were sort of waiting to see it look exactly how we remembered it. That’s not our experience of that first movie. Our experience of that first movie was surprise upon surprise upon surprise. So that was the attempt here.
Aaron: Which to be fair is often spoiled for us in the marketing and they actually did a pretty good job of keeping Feral’s stages pretty well hidden.
Dan: We tried. We tried. It was challenging to show enough to get people excited but to still keep things at bay and fully aware that the images would be captured, and the brightness would be cranked up and all those things. I think a lot of people after the first trailer because the mask was an unknown so there’s a lot of like “Wow its head is really big.” Like people didn’t first realize that that bone mask was not just the face, it was another mask.
Aaron: Obviously, we understand that Prey was very much a passion project for you. I think out of everybody other than the original, you were the only one that’s gone “Guys I’ve got this idea. Let me make this film” and so in it being something you’ve pitched to them, in it being your passion project, I’m really curious as to how those sorts of early days and early experiences of pitching it to Fox. What were those early discussions like going in there with this thing that you wanted to do, and it wasn’t them coming to you going “We’ve got this idea from a dude. Do you want to do it?”
Dan: It was very far from an open assignment because they were amidst already making a Predator movie that was sure to be giant with an awesome filmmaker. So that’s a part of why this is called Prey was because either they were they were prepping, or they were shooting the 2018 movie and my reps were like “Don’t waste your time pitching because they’re making it.” I fell in love.
I felt like “No this is great, and this is a great movie to happen now for so many reasons” and I just couldn’t be patient. So I thought maybe if we call it Prey and part of the pitch to them, I just went back and looked at my… it was an email to one of the execs that I’d had good meetings with and I said “I know you guys in the middle of making this thing but wouldn’t it be cool if just like they’re doing with Star Wars.”
They’re doing the main franchise which is surely the Shane thing will be but then they’re doing these other stories in different chronological moments of Star Wars history. So what if the same thing happens here is that while you guys are making that, we make this and this could be made for a price and can feed into whatever you guys are doing. It was all a way of just getting them to say “Yes we’ll make this movie” without waiting for this one to come out and ironic to what actually happened.
It went over quite well. I mean the guy I wrote to loved it. Brought it right to the top. They loved it. They asked what writer I would like. It was a very smooth process which I attribute to the purity of the story. It’s very elemental. I’ve been involved in projects that are very complicated to articulate which for me is exciting. When something’s easy to pitch, it’s because there’s pre-existing reference and everyone can see it immediately because it’s maybe a little bit redundant and this had this great element to it where the story was so pure and mythological, just in terms of Naru’s story.
The journey she would be on and the way it connects to the franchise, the code of the Yautja. There was a moment just to jump ahead when it went away because of the merger and then it got really close to the 2018 movie coming out and they said, “Well let’s just wait and see how this does” and so my reps once again were like “this is such a great script. Everyone loved it. Maybe there’s a way to like make it not a Predator so you can take it somewhere else and make it” and I just was so reluctant because it being Predator makes the movie better.
It’s not like it’s a cool movie and the alien is the thing from the franchise. The themes of the movie become so much more powerful because it is the Predator monster specifically. So, I just waited and worked on other things and then thankfully after the merger and the dust had settled, some of the folks over at 20th looked at what they had and then showed it to Disney, and they loved it, and we were off to the races.
Aaron: So that’s you’re pitching in 2017-ish?
Dan: It was 2017. I wrote the email in February of 2017.
Aaron: Okay and then you shoot in May, June last year? 2021?
Dan: Yeah, it May 2021.
Aaron: How significantly do you think the project changed from that period? I remember there’s a mention of a good few drafts with Patrick Aison?
Dan: No abnormal amount of drafts of a screenplay for a movie. The biggest change I will admit to you guys came from my pitch to the very first draft of the script that I pitched them something and then in talking it over with Patrick, when we first met, I realized “oh no.” The pitch that I wrote to them was that it would be a younger Predator and Naru. It would team up against fur Trappers and I quickly realized I think even before I met Patrick, I was like wait before we get started that the fun of the movie is David versus Goliath.
The fun of the movie isn’t… by the way I’m sure in that there would have been it’s the antagonist that then becomes a protagonist or whatever I was thinking of. But I didn’t want to make it weaker I thought and that carries through even to the final iteration in the final fight. In the final fight in the ‘87 movie in the original movie, the Predator disarms itself and evens the playing field for Arnold which does good in establishing the code of it and all that but it also gives honorable fighting chance. I was really anxious to take these two adversaries and if we’re gonna see someone defeated, can she level the playing field for herself because it’s all an exercise. I don’t know about you guys, but I feel like Naru, more than I feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger in life.