'The Hunt' Is Back On: Universal Sets Release for Controversial Elites vs. "Deplorables" Satire (Exclusive)

In an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter, producer Jason Blum and screenwriter Damon Lindelof defend the film as a satirical take on a divided country: "None of us were interested in taking sides with this movie."

The Hunt, a satirical thriller that depicts "elites" kidnapping and then hunting "deplorables," is now set for a March 13 release (see the new trailer above), six months after Universal pulled the film from its slated September opening in the wake of a spate of mass shootings that shook the nation.

Following those attacks, Universal and producer Jason Blum decided to pause the ad campaign for the film. But after The Hollywood Reporter and other outlets reported on the pic's premise, it generated instant controversy. Fox News pilloried the concept and the movie was attacked (though not by name) in a tweet by President Donald Trump.

Universal is now going to release and market the film with attitude: A one-sheet, set to debut Tuesday, reads, "The most talked-about movie of the year is one that no one's actually seen," with the movie's original release date crossed out and blurbs highlighting news coverage of the scrapped release. A new trailer features the same pitch.

In an exclusive interview with THR, Blum and screenwriter Damon Lindelof — who shares credit on The Hunt with Lindelof's Watchmen collaborator Nick Cuse — defend the pic as an over-the-top, satirical take on the divided state of the union that is even-handed in its sendup of the opposing factions. "None of us were interested in taking sides with this movie," Blum says.

Directed by Craig Zobel, The Hunt casts Hilary Swank as the ringleader of a gang of wealthy snobs who try to wipe out a group of assorted individuals who have posted right-wing views online. Though the "elites" supply their prey with guns, the playing field is not level. But one woman, played by Betty Gilpin, turns the tables on the killers.

Characters in the film, which THR has seen, are graphically dispatched in a variety of ways: shot with a bullet to the head or a bow and arrow, impaled on metal spikes, pulverized with a grenade in the pants, poisoned and — perhaps most memorably — done in with a stiletto heel plunged into an eyeball.

Given the intense violence on the screen, The Hunt is certain to earn an R rating. Universal plans to open it on 3,000 screens.

Universal and Blumhouse pulled ads for the film in August in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings in Texas, California and Ohio. Publicity around that decision prompted Fox News and Fox Business to devote several days of airtime to the movie. Calling it "sick" and "twisted," host Lou Dobbs said the idea of elites hunting deplorables sounded "a little too real." Trump tweeted: "Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate! They like to call themselves 'Elite,' but they are not Elite. In fact, it is often the people that they so strongly oppose that are actually the Elite. The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!"

As the controversy intensified, the pic's release was canceled. "It's probably the most judged movie that's ever existed that everyone who judged it hadn't seen," says Blum, who was receiving threats. "We weren't going to win the conversation around that and so it was our decision, in holding hands with Universal, to take the movie off the schedule."

Adds Lindelof: "For us, there was just a fundamental frustration that nobody was talking about the movie. They were all talking about what their perception of the movie was — a perception that was largely formed based on all the events in the aftermath of the horrific weekend before. [But] we really don't want to be pointing fingers, and more importantly, we don't want to be wagging fingers at anyone for overreacting or reacting incorrectly. We just felt like the movie was being misunderstood."

Blum and Lindelof say that after a test screening just a couple of days after the shootings, the audience did not draw any connection to the tragedies. "No one who has seen the movie has described the movie as provocative," Lindelof says.

Lindelof says he and Cuse wrote the script on spec and CAA, his agency at the time, shopped it as a package with Zobel attached and a budget of $18 million. (With tax credits, Universal's net budget was $14 million.) While Lindelof says he was told that other studios were interested, he and Cuse wanted to make the film with Blum because their inspiration was Jordan Peele's Get Out, which Blum produced.

"Nick and I saw Get Out and we were like, 'This is elevated genre. It's amazing how good this movie is, and it's also a horror movie and it's also comedic,'" he says. "It was only fair for it to end up with the guy who inspired the tone of it all."

Asked whether there was any pushback from Universal about the pic's intense violence, coupled with its political themes, Blum says, "It was read as a satire, no different from The Joker or other movies that are violent. It was read as a movie that didn't take sides." He analogized The Hunt with his successful Purge franchise, saying, "The audience is smart enough to know that what they're seeing is a satire and it's preposterous."

Adds Lindelof: "We think that people who see it are going to enjoy it and this may be a way to shine a light on a very serious problem in the country, which is that we're divided. And we think the movie may actually, ironically, bring people together."

Borys Kit contributed to this report.