Prey was one of last year’s exceptional examples of spectacle done right. It’s a character-driven, lean and clean piece of storytelling, taking familiar elements from a franchise and creating a fresh vision. One of the main creative forces behind the 20TH CENTURY project is filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg (known for 10 Cloverfield Lane), who’s nominated for both Outstanding Directing and Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie.
Trachtenberg and his crew crafted an old-school yet modern adventure, featuring a dynamite performance from Amber Midthunder, who brought a whole lot of intimacy, strength, and vulnerability to Prey. The studio action movie is a rare case in which an actor gets to truly shine as a performer. Since the day the Predator prequel first hit HULU, all the way up until Emmy season, Prey continues to find fans.
Recently, Trachtenberg spoke to Below-The-Line about his crew members, Midthunder’s performance, and how video games inspire his work.
[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length]
Below-the-Line: Congratulations on the response and the Emmy nominations with Prey. Well-deserved.
Dan Trachtenberg: Thank you so much. Very unexpected and very exciting.
BTL: You say very unexpected, but the movie was immediately embraced. When did you start getting the sense that this is actually really connecting with people?
Trachtenberg: It is hard to say. We never did a big traditional test screening for the movie. We just did several friends and family screenings. We did a screening at one point for Comanche Nation, and that was it. At every screening, there was a lot of really positive feedback. It’s the scariest thing. I remember thinking this on 10 Cloverfield Lane. One day, people have seen the movie and tell me their thoughts. And then I do things to the movie, I continue to work on the movie. And then one day later, the movie is showing and people have thoughts, and I can’t do anything about it. All the difference is a little bit of time. That’s it. That’s incredibly stressful.
I don’t know when movies aren’t well received, if people say the same things at these screenings. So, it felt like it could be good, but also, there’s not a lot of movies like it. There’s not a lot of movies to compare it to, so you don’t know what a reaction is going to be. And then I started getting texts from people at press screenings because I used to do press stuff, and they’re saying nice things. But also these are friends of mine, so I don’t know if that’s… On the day of release, me, and Amber, and Dakota [Beavers], and Jhane [Myers], the producer, we went to Disneyland to celebrate. I barely looked at my phone as we were at the park. On the ride home, I opened up Twitter and it was lovely. It was just great. Barry Jenkins was live tweeting the movie, which I normally would be very upset about.
BTL: But it’s Barry Jenkins.
Trachtenberg: But it’s Barry. And he said good things about the movie. It ended up slowly but surely feeling like, okay, we did a good thing here.
BTL: What really works about the movie is the character, and Amber’s performance being the main spectacle. What qualities of hers did you really want to capture for Prey?
Trachtenberg: It started with our first screen test. She auditioned with a scene between her and her mother. We did it once in English, once in Comanche, and then once non-verbally. Her doing a dialogue scene without words was incredibly moving. Our first instinct was, we need to make sure we capture that. I also had learned on Cloverfield Lane, a big part of our re-shoots was getting closeups of Mary [Elizabeth Winstead]. I remember JJ [Abrams] saying, “I always forget, too. Don’t worry about it, kid. I always forget to get the closeup, the reaction shots.”
We did put a lot of thought into making sure we are checked in with her in these moments. It’s not just we got to get all this choreography, but also her and her experience. Amber just fully embraced everything she had to do. We took time thinking about what we want to think more about, and what we want to surprise with, and have improvisational moments with her.
BTL: Years ago, critics would say, “Oh, it feels like a video game,” as a knock. Now, it’s sometimes more of a compliment. Being a big gamer yourself, did video games influence Prey?
Trachtenberg: Tons. There are literal very close-knit references to the Predator Shield being very inspired by the shield from the 2018 God of War game. Even the mechanics in that game where he throws an ax, and then recalls it, and throws an ax, and recalls it, it was like, “Oh, maybe she can do a thing where she ties herself to the axe…” There are other influences on that weapon as well, but that one stands out.
Just in general, the storytelling where we’re so linked to a protagonist and experiencing everything that she’s experiencing through the movie is much more influenced by video games than it is by other films. Guiding points for me of storytelling, a lot of it comes from the sensations that games have given me in terms of the way that they’ve used crafts to affect me emotionally. I think of those moments in games, as opposed to only looking at movies that have affected me in a certain way. I also often think about the way that light is used and sound is used in video games; it just is part of what’s shaped me.
BTL: Did you and your DP have any games as visceral references?
Trachtenberg: The Last of Us two. There’s a oner sequence in The Last of Us two that was in the marketing for it. I don’t even want to describe it, it’s so awful. It’s people being hung and it’s all tight where it is. You can’t even tell the way the camera movement is, and that was a big reference point.
And there was a commercial made many years ago for Dick’s Sporting Goods directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine). It’s the baseball player on the mound. Similar vibe, that photography in our little fights when Amber takes on the fur trappers, that was somewhat of a reference. My DP is also a big gamer, so that stuff comes quickly to us.
BTL: The action had such a solid flow to it. It’s like, you knew when to let it breathe and when to let it go breathless with the shots and cuts. What’d you hope to achieve with the action?
Trachtenberg: I love how you phrased that because that is what I enjoy is something not being all one thing. There are so many action movies that are like, every scene has the same identity where it’s all just super cutty, and intense, and visceral. And there are some movies that are like, let’s watch the ballet. Let’s watch the dance unfold. I loved embracing both techniques. For me, clarity is a huge part of action choreography. Rhythmically, editorially, and visually, just being able to fully understand.
I love the visual rhythm of the Predator catching a thing and throwing it, and I want to really enjoy the visual dance of it all. So, that comes with the way it’s staged, the way it’s photographed, and also the way it’s cut. But then also you need things to have an impact, and feel propulsive, so it really is just modulating the rhythm of it instinctually. I luckily had fantastic editors that had their own great instincts, and great sound team, and composer. All of it is what made it function as well as it did.
BTL: I imagine there’s a lot of pressure with a final battle in a Predator movie. Like you said, you really wanted perspective in the action, so what choices did you make to really reinforce Naru’s point-of-view in the last fight?
Trachtenberg: Yeah, there was a lot of perspectivism sound-wise, from aggressive things where sound gets muffled and we hear a thing, the score gets muffled. Also, subtle things that you would pick up on instead of just playing that noise the loudest as possible because it’s badass and cool. No, no, no, no, no. Because Naru’s over here, let’s feel like she’s hearing it. And obvious things like we’re in the tall grass, and playing up the sound of the bugs, and feeling the wind blow, and really embracing everything slows down for a moment. We switched genre a little bit from action. Now, we’re in suspense, but we’re suspenseful in beauty.
I just remembered, I was trying to put my daughter in the movie orally. There are kids playing in the background in one of the opening scenes when Naru walks through her camp on the way to her teepee and we put it in there. But Chris Terhune, our sound designer, also snuck it into… My daughter started laughing very gutterly at one point, so one of the Predator growls at the end has my daughter’s laugh in it. So, there are obvious things that one puts into a creature growl, which is taking the growls of all sorts of other lions, and elephants, and whatever. So, there’s the gurgle in the back of one’s throat, of Chris’s throat, and then also my daughter laughing, makes that very specific cool sound.
BTL: That’s great. Also, that laugh will live forever in a movie now.
Trachtenberg: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. It’s pretty buried, pretty baked in there. But when you hear the source and you hear that, you can put two and two together.
BTL: It is a beautiful action movie. You linger on these environments. How’d you and your cinematographer, Jeff Cutter, want these gorgeous locations to contrast with the action and violence?
Trachtenberg: Yeah, that was the interest for me. When I was doing a commercial, I would always say, “Gritty, yet pretty.” I love finding the beauty in the action. I’ve misspoken saying the beauty in violence. I don’t know if that’s the right thing, but the opposite can be true. And so, Jeff, our DP, came up with the burnt blade referencing Macbeth, having it be this smokescreen that absorbs color and light in a very specific way. It’s not just fog and that’s all. There is detail in the backgrounds and very specific color choices, so that it can have a bit of a beauty to it.
The tall grass sequence, part of the exciting thing about this movie is that we have this other side to it, this bear with me, this Terrence Malick vibe that I wanted to have in the film. Me and the previs team, we devised this other half of the sequence where she’d be hiding the tall grass. That still was a genre moment, but there’s also the softer side. We’re still in the genre trappings, yet doing it in a way that appreciates the beauty, and the grandeur, and the environment that our character is living through.
BTL: You kind of have your cake and eat it too. I mean, you reference Malick, but you also have some real bombast and modern touches as well. The score is a good example of that.
Trachtenberg: Yeah. The score was very similar. I was talking a lot to [composer] Sarah [Schachner] about it being very modern. We did not want the typical thing we hear when we see this time period and this culture. We temped the movie with a lot of Sicario, and brooding, droney stuff that we don’t often hear when we’re looking at the things we’re looking at in this movie.
There was the one moment when Naru sets out on her journey and we have all these landscape vistas. We temped in this sweeping fantasy music that nobody liked but me, because it’s so different from the rest of the movie. It was so different, but it actually worked for that moment. I was like, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Can we have music like this in a movie? Could I have made a movie that gets to have music like this? This is incredible.”
Sarah found a way to write a theme for this character that I think is beautiful, epic, and grand. It does harken back to classic more traditional score, yet also have that fit with other moments of this movie sonically that are very modern, and not traditional, and very aggressive, or very brooding. I’m a big movie music geek, so I was just so thrilled that we got to have great music in the movie.
BTL: After two very positive experiences, artistically and commercially, what would you say you’ve learned as a filmmaker from your two films thus far?
Trachtenberg: I think two things happen. On the one hand, there’s an “attaboy” to it. Okay, don’t freak out. So far what you’ve done is okay, so keep going. Certainly, my process is leaning on people all the time, and trying to empower people, and embrace what they bring so that we can all benefit from it. And so, everyone can feel stoked about what they’re doing and not just clocking in, clocking out. And so, this reaffirms that method because I’m not a, “All right, everyone, here’s how it’s going to be.”
I don’t have that ability. I’m not that way, where I’ve got the whole thing figured out from the first thought. That can create self-doubt because along the way, and I’m constantly professing my doubt and going, “I think it’s this, what do you think?” It’s engaging and letting that either reaffirm what I thought or realizing, “Oh, my God. I had it wrong. Let’s do that instead.” The warm reception to these movies is definitely a confirmation that is a fine path to take.
The Emmy-nominated Prey is now available on Hulu.