Making Prey, the latest installment in the ever-expanding Predator series, was not without its challenges. And yet, setting the film apart from its predecessors was not the insurmountable hurdle that director Dan Tractenberg hoped for.
Inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic Park and Jaws, the filmmaker takes things back to basics with the new action movie, setting it 270 years before the events of the 1987 original, and it’s even more refreshing. Prey centers on Naru, a young Comanche warrior who is determined to prove that she is just as good a hunter as her brother and her friends. Having grown tired of her supposedly hampering efforts, the men dismiss Naru when she insists that she noticed something strange killing animals near her camp, leading her on a solitary mission to protect her tribe from the new and formidable threat.
Ahead of the film’s release on Disney Plus (UK) and Hulu (US), Total Film caught up with Trachtenberg to discuss the most difficult aspects of making the film (working with real animals on set and the lack of dialogue of the film) to the casting. Amber Midthunder in the title role, freaking out about designing her own Predator of her own, and remembering the advice JJ Abrams gave her while making 10 Cloverfield Lane. She also mentions the importance of Prey being released on streaming platforms with a Comanche voice and why his creature is “fiercer” than the previous ones. Here are our questions and answers, edited for length and clarity.
TF: I wanted to ask about the design of the Predator and what the process of finding his latest skin, the skull mask, was like. Have you ever had a moment where you were like, “Oh my gosh, I’m designing my own Predator?”
Dan Trachtenberg: 1000%. I’ve worked on other movies with creatures in them, and you often reference other famous movie creatures, but with this, it was like, “Oh, I’m not referencing Predator, I’m not just designing an alien creature, we’re making the Predator. It’s happening”. It was terrifying and amazing at the same time. You mentioned the skull mask… That was one of the first ideas. We wanted to suggest that our creature was much more ferocious. , but it still adopts the code by which we know a Predator to hunt: it’s a trophy hunter. We just thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if he had the trophy on his face instead of just on his hip?” I think we pulled it off. We found something very exciting though, and that is that we kept the jaws exposed, which are so iconic to Predator, and it allowed us to stay engaged with the emotionality of the Predator even when he was masked, which is something the other movies I never got a chance to do it. So yeah, I loved designing this creature.
Prey has been in the works for a while. I read that you first released it right before they started making The Predator (2018)? Can you talk a bit about his journey to the screen and why you wanted to do a Predator movie?
Several things were driving me to do this. I was very inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road to finally throw down the gauntlet and say, “You can make a movie that’s all action and still be a great movie.” I, too, was drawn to that challenge. Could you make a movie that is mostly told through action, but also has some emotion? So I thought, “Well, maybe if I could take the engine of a sports movie and inject it into this movie, I could really have heart.” And instead of seeing another story about someone surviving against the elements, what if he’s up against one of the most formidable opponents? So all of that came together at the core of this movie.
And not only does Naru, the protagonist, face the Predator, but she also faces obstacles within her tribe, because they doubt her until it’s too late.
Absolutely. We were very clear that we wanted the film to feel dramatic and compelling even before the Predator was involved in the story. Then when the Predator shows up, it doesn’t shift gears, it just gets better because the way the Predator hunts really connects to the theme of this movie: It’s a creature that’s looking for the Alpha, looking for who’s on top, and the the fact that she is not counted among them is a big part of that.
10 Cloverfield Lane is technically a sequel to an existing monster movie, whereas this one is a prequel. Was there anything you learned in that movie that directly influenced this? I mean, there are probably more things than you can count, but is there anything specific that comes to mind?
One of the biggest takeaways from that experience was… well, we had to re-shoot a few things for that and most of what we wanted to get was reaction shots. and jj [Abrams] It was like, “I always forget to do reaction shots. You’re so consumed with getting all the elements for a set piece, sometimes you miss the most important thing.” So this time he was obsessed with getting everything we need. It’s so essential to make an action scene not only feel exciting but also frivolous, you have to make it really feel rooted in the characters’ experience. You have to get those reaction shots. It’s such a simple notion and sometimes the most obvious can escape you, so I was comforted that I made the same mistake that JJ makes sometimes, or maybe made early in his career and learned from. That lesson really pushed me to take this movie a little more seriously.
It’s interesting that you say that, because here you’re working with an antagonist who is invisible most of the time. so your kind of to have to focus on the reaction. What were the biggest challenges of having an enemy that you can’t really see?
There’s something funny about that, a lot of people argue that what makes Jaws a great horror movie is that you don’t see the shark. Everybody who makes a thriller or horror movie always says, “It’s about what you don’t see.” I really see it as quite the opposite. I think it’s about what you do watch. What I always thought was remarkable about Jaws was that we get that point of view, that we see the buoy moving and being pulled. In Jurassic Park, it’s not that we don’t see the T-Rex for so long, it’s that do see the cup vibrate. It’s about finding those moments of the things we do see. So that idea really fueled things like our tall grass sequence, where the grass is moving and you know what that entails; you see the trail of blood coming towards them, and you know what that implies. So, I really enjoyed fine-tuning how even the Predator in stealth mode can be very funny and intense for the audience.
Can you talk a little bit about working with Amber and how she came to be part of the cast of the film?
Man, so much of this film is non-verbal and expressed through action, and when she auditioned, we did a version of the scene between her and her mother without words. She could only communicate through her eyes and her behaviors, and it was such a moving experience to see that performance. There was also kind of a physical component to hearing her, and she never failed to delve into the emotional rhythms, even when she was crawling, running and jumping on some stacked mats. She really was an obvious choice.
Working with her was also a lot of fun. She’s good, and it’s so essential to making movies, to have a great experience. Not only is it good to be in a positive work environment, it sparks creativity when people feel comfortable and excited to come up with ideas and make things better. Amber was constantly looking for ways to improve the film, and I think she gives a really incredible emotional and physical performance.
Can you talk a little bit about working with the animals? You have the dog there, and you have some rabbits and a wolf, right? How was that?
The wolf was like a hybrid wolfdog and yes we had a rabbit and we had that dog (laughs). Writer Patrick Aison and I were very inspired by Fury Road, and Road Warrior is also one of my favorite movies, and I love the image of Mad Max and Dog and I love the dog in that movie and I love that idea. We knew that a lot of the film was going to be Amber alone, we wanted to give her a little friend, but we didn’t realize how challenging it would be to work with such a happy and energetic little animal on set. But I think that’s the other part of the movie; that bond, that kinship between them. As we went along, as much as we tried to find a way to get the dog out of the scene because he was so hard to work with, we actually ended up giving him more to do because it started to become so clear that the scenes were getting better with him. Even in some action scenes, the dog participates in a funny way. Ultimately it was a good time, albeit quite challenging for sure.
This will launch with a Comanche dub, which seems to be a benefit of it going straight to broadcast. What does that mean for the movie and what does it mean for you too?
The initial intention was to make the film in Comanche. So, in a sense, it’s like, “Okay, great. There’s a version of this movie that doesn’t have any artifice.” It’s like, “This is what it would sound like and what it would be like.” Not many people speak Comanche and this could be almost like a teaching tool, to encourage people to continue learning that language and that is captured. A lot of Native American history, a lot of Comanche history is oral. So having a tool now that solidifies something and makes it permanent is great. Movies are forever, as long as we have technology, anyway. So I think it’s wonderful to have it and fully represent the culture and people that we’re portraying.
Prey will premiere on Disney Plus on August 5 in the UK and on Hulu in the US on the same day. If you’ve already put its release date on your calendar, check out our list of other upcoming movies coming up in 2022 and beyond.