found in translation

The Historic Power of Prey Is in Your Ears

Jhane Myers (left) with Amber Midthunder on the set of Prey, the first film to be released entirely in the Comanche language. Photo: David Bukach/Disney+

The first words spoken in Prey, the latest film in the Predator franchise, are in the Comanche language by the film’s Native American characters — and in a first for cinema overall, viewers on Hulu can choose to watch the rest of Prey in Comanche, too.

Set among the Comanche tribe in 1719 and featuring a predominantly Indigenous cast, Prey takes place more than 200 years before the events of 1987’s Predator, which kicked off a franchise by setting an array of macho action stars, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Jesse Ventura, against a bloodthirsty alien creature looking to conquer the best fighter the Earth had to offer. This time around, the focus is on teenage aspiring warrior Naru (Amber Midthunder), whose desire to prove herself to her respected older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) and her fellow Comanche tribespeople draws her into a battle against both the Predator and the destructive French fur traders who are infringing upon Comanche land.

According to Hulu, the film from director Dan Trachtenberg is the most-watched premiere on the streaming service to date, including all film and TV series debuts. (More precise numbers remain, for now, elusive.) Prey was produced by Jhane Myers, who is Comanche and Blackfeet and whose previous work includes documentaries and short films. Aside from providing a wealth of Comanche cultural and historical knowledge, Myers oversaw the film’s language efforts, working with Trachtenberg and writer Patrick Aison on the Comanche dialogue heard in the film’s English-language version and shepherding the Comanche dub that is the first of its kind.

“The language component is hot off the press,” says Myers with a laugh, explaining that the dubbing process came together in a whirlwind of work between April and July 2022, when it was due to Hulu. “The fact that this comes out on a streaming platform gives us that option. Had it been a film that was in the theaters and not streaming, you wouldn’t have that option of watching in English, watching in Comanche, watching in Spanish.

“We have a traditional thing that we do that you see at the end of the movie, and it’s called a lu-lu, Northern Plains calls it a le-le, and you’re like, ‘Lu-lu-lu-lu,’” Myers adds, trilling her syllables as she demonstrates. “But now Indian people are calling Hulu ‘Hulu-lu-lu-lu’ for doing this, which I think is so cool.”

Myers spoke with Vulture about being drawn in by Trachtenberg’s original all-Comanche vision for the film, the help she received from several Comanche language experts, and the frenzied four months they worked to turn around the dub in time for Prey’s August release date.

The film has been in development for a few years. Can you talk about joining as a producer? I read that you mentioned the importance of including the Comanche language in one of your first conversations with Dan after reading the script. 
The studio reached out to me through 20th Century executive Scott Aversano because they were looking for a Native producer. This film has Comanche content, so he reached out to me, and then I met Dan. When Dan sent me the script, oh my God, I was so excited because, across the top of the script, it said, “All dialogue in Comanche” — and that never happens. When you get pulled in as a Native producer to work creatively on Native content, usually the project is, like, 25 percent Native content, maybe 30 percent. But this one was like 100 percent. I always tease Dan and I say, “You had me at Comanche,” because he originally pitched the film to be all in Comanche.

I don’t know what other people they interviewed for the job, and I don’t think they interviewed a producer that was Comanche because I don’t know of other Comanche producers. When Dan interviewed me, he asked me all kinds of questions about my background. I am an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation. I was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, which is the seat of the Comanche Nation. To this day, that’s where the majority of our tribe lives. We’re like 16,000 Comanches, and probably 14,000 of them live in that area in Oklahoma. I’m Comanche and Blackfeet, and he talked to me about my upbringing. I was raised by my grandparents, and they taught me our Comanche ways and our heritage from their grandparents. I was raised with knowledge four generations away from myself, which is really unusual in today’s society.

After I joined, Dan, Patrick, and I started working with the script. Naru means “fight” in Comanche, but originally her name was Kee, and “kee” means “no.” They were really open to letting me infuse it more and to change it because after I read the script and read that she’s a fighter, she’s fighting for the ability to hunt, she’s fighting other people in her hunting party and everything, I was like, “You know, that name suits her better than ‘no.’” When we get our names, it’s for something that you do rather than a command. We tried to create a backstory for her. It was great that we were able to change those things.

And it was pitched in Comanche? 
Originally, we pitched it to the studio in all Comanche. And when we had the actors audition, they auditioned in English and Comanche. That way we could see their ability with language — if it would be hard for them to learn this or not. Like Dakota Beavers, this is his first thing ever, so for him, it was a little difficult — but he’s a singer. He came from Nashville. I said, “This is the same thing. You’re not performing onstage, playing your guitar and singing, but you’re performing in front of a camera, and you just gotta bring it.” And he was having trouble with the Comanche, and I said, “When you look at it, sing it to yourself first.” So then he started singing to himself, and when he delivered the lines, it was like he was born speaking Comanche. When you deal with language, everybody has a different key that helps them learn something because it’s kind of scary. If I had to learn French, I would be scared to death — let alone if I had to learn French and speak it all in a movie? That’s a scary thought! You just have to find that medium for someone in order to get them to click.

So the script began with “All dialogue in Comanche” written across the top. What was the process of actually making that happen? Some conversations take place in Comanche in the English-language version, and then the Comanche dub is its own separate thing. I’m curious how you tackled both.
We initially started infusing some Comanche words and some phrases into the regular script. So when the dailies were getting sent back to the studio and our execs were looking at it, they were liking it. They were like, “The Comanche plays really well, that’s really good!” And when they started liking that, close to the very end, they were like, “Jhane, we want you to do a whole Comanche dub.”

That was a suggestion from the studio?
Yes, in March 2022. Finally, the light came on, and they were like, “We talked to Hulu, and Hulu thinks we should do it. Let’s just try it. Let’s do a whole Comanche dub.” And Dan and I were like, “Yes!” And you know, when you say yes, you realize, I have to do it! I’ve never done this before. How am I going to pull this off?

The Comanche Nation has a really good language program: the Comanche Nation Language Department. I had contacted them when I was in Canada, and they weren’t in a hurry to get back to me because they were like, “First of all, is this real? You want me to translate our language into a movie?” It’s kind of unbelievable, right? We also have really good linguists. I reached out to Guy Narcomey and said, “Guy, I need your help!” In our Comanche way, if you reach out to another person and you ask for their help and it’s within your realm and you can do it, you’re supposed to just help if the other person asks. And he’s younger than me, so I’m his elder, so I played that elder card. He’s our No. 1 conversationalist, plus he also wrote the Comanche dictionary. He’s got a master’s degree and he’s a linguist, and he’s like, “Yes, I can do this.” So then he jumped on it and started helping me with the conversation.

When we took the film back in April 2022, we had a rough cut. The CG takes a while, and they were still working on all of the VFX and everything. We took a rough cut back and showed it to just a small focus group, 80 Comanches, and we showed it to the Comanche Language Department, we showed it to Cultural Preservation, the Tribal Council, the Comanche National Museum, just so people could see: “If there was something glaringly wrong, tell me now. If there’s something that offends you or something that I put in there that you don’t agree with, let us know.” But they were blown away. They loved it. And that’s when the Language Department came marching down afterward and said, “So, if you need some help, we’d like to help you,” and I’m like, “Ah! Great! We’ll take the help.” It was good that we had the conversational expert and we also had the Language Department, but Guy had already laid all the groundwork because it wasn’t like we were translating from the script at that point because we were in post. We were translating from the final, what’s going to show up.

There’s not a template to say, “This is how you do it: steps A, B, C.” Even when I worked with the whole arm of Disney that puts in other languages from around the world, it was new to them, too. They were like, “So how are you going to do this?” And I was kind of making things up because I personally didn’t know. It was going to get done, but I didn’t have a formula. Now I have a formula. But it’s like, I fought for this for so long, and now here it is. I cannot fail. I cannot fail Dan. I cannot fail this beautiful movie.

Can you walk me through the process a bit? What did translating the rough-cut film for the dub entail?
Dan and I went to Canada. We had to do a 14-day quarantine, and we were in Canada on April Fools’ Day, April 1, 2021, and we left in mid-September. Then we started post, and we worked on the dub from April through July 2022. We had a deadline to turn it into Hulu, and when we turned it into Hulu, it had to be language complete.

We got hooked up with Pixelogic, who works with Disney and does all these languages. They did the Navajo translation of Star Wars and Finding Nemo, but that’s a whole different language, and plus, they were already finished movies and they had a long timeline. We had a very short timeline. Because those films had already been done and were older, they had to go in and cast Navajo speakers for those roles. We didn’t do it that way because nowadays, in the contract, the actors have the first right of refusal in order to reprise their role if it’s dubbed in another language. And all of our actors, because it’s a predominantly Native cast, they were like, “No, I want to do this in Comanche.” I told Pixelogic, “I just want to tell you one thing. This is the first time that I’m doing this, but I do not want it to look like a Godzilla movie, where people are running and their mouths are moving and there’s no words that fit it.”

So we went to Oklahoma and we took our Pixelogic crew, and Guy met us — Guy’s from Oklahoma — and Kathryn Briner from the Language Department, and we tailored the language to fit what they were saying. Sometimes we maybe had to shorten a sentence or sometimes we had to add more labials. When we were in Oklahoma, Guy recorded all the male parts and Kathryn recorded Amber’s parts, and we did these language tracks of them actually speaking it. The actors got those, got to listen to them, and when they went into the regular dubbing studio, they had the scenes and everything and they had to put the emotion to redo that and listen to the Comanche part and then say it. We would do several takes — maybe five to six takes — so Dan had the right things to choose from.

Was everyone recording separately for the dub, or did you bring people back at the same time? 
We had to systematically include everybody in the dubbing process. Even the French characters, like Raphael — Bennett Taylor wanted to do his part in Comanche. He’s an amazing actor, and he did phenomenal speaking Comanche. In the movie, he is supposed to be speaking Comanche because he’s a translator. Everybody came in separately so we were stretched out, booking all the different studio times, but they all did a phenomenal job.

This industry doesn’t really cater to Native people and Native audiences, and they don’t think there is an audience for Native content overall because we’re like one percent of the population of the world. But now with Hulu, we’re able to click and see how many people watched this in Comanche. Did they watch it all the way through? Did they watch it partially? Because it’s on Hulu, we have access to some amazing numbers that help prove a point so Auntie Jhane doesn’t have to just make something up. [Laughs.]

The world has access to hear what the Comanche language sounds like, and that’s never been done. In my tribe, we’ve never had a movie, ever, in our language in its entirety, and if our language was used in some other production, guess who did it? I’m the one who did that component. But even for Native people, we’ve never had a new movie released with an option to hear it in that language. I think for future projects when filmmakers are depending on our culture as Native people to tell their story — whether it’s 100 percent, 50 percent, 25 percent — they need to go the whole way and they need to add that language component.

“I’m smarter than a beaver.” — Amber Midthunder to Dakota Beavers in Prey. Photo: David Bukach/Disney+

When you look back over the film, were there any scenes that were particularly challenging to translate? And on the flip side, any scenes you’re proud of that now exist in Comanche?
The fact that it was all getting done in Comanche, I was proud of all of that. At first when they said, “Okay, we need to do this, and we need to do this now,” I was like, Ooh, what am I going to do? But it just had to get done. Guy lived out in California for three weeks at one time because we had to get it done. I know now what the timeline would look like. Thank God that this is an action film because there’s not a lot of dialogue, but yet there’s still dialogue, right? I would have liked a little more time, but for the time that we had, we pulled it off. I had the two best translators and the two best linguists in our tribe, and between the two of them, they were able to translate everything. My favorite personally is the scene when Naru and Taabe are tied to the tree before the major fight scene. It’s kind of funny because we always tease Dakota because his last name is Beavers, and Naru says, “I’m smarter than a beaver.” And on set, we would say, “You’re smarter than a Beavers.”

Predator has a huge fan base. And in that fan base, you have people who are looking for those Easter eggs. So we gave that good line to Dakota: “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” And I’m a big Predator fan because I grew up on the first Predator, the second Predator, so when I saw that in the script, I called Dan immediately and I was like, “That pistol! That pistol’s the one that Danny Glover got!” I grew up as a tomboy, and he was just like, “Oh my God, she totally gets it.” I already knew the history.

When we showed it at Comic-Con, people were clapping their hands when they heard Dakota. Never, when I was a teenager seeing Predator and Predator 2, did I ever think, Oh, a Native person could be a lead in this let alone a woman. Our new Arnie is a woman, and she’s not even just any kind of woman, she’s a Native woman. Seeing that? That thought never went through my head. How cool would it be if Natives were in this position? And then also speaking our real language? I think it really helps future films because people will be like, “Hey, let the Sioux speak their language. Let the Lakota speak their language. Let the Iowa speak their language.” That language component is now going to be a real possibility. To me, it’s history-making.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Myers means “conversationalist” in the linguistic sense here: One who studies interactional dialogue, or how people talk to each other in casual, formal, cultural, or task-centered conversations — like strategizing how to take down an alien warrior. This fancy linguistics term more or less means “consonants.” They can be delivered using both lips (bilabial) or with the lower lip and the upper teeth (labiodental).
The Historic Power of Prey Is in Your Ears