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[This story contains spoilers for The Hunt]
When The Hunt was targeted by conservative media outlets and politicians in August 2019, director Craig Zobel knew it wasn’t personal, especially once another controversial film, Warner Bros.’ Joker, experienced similar treatment just weeks later. Pundits — and even President Donald Trump — painted The Hunt as a dangerous film meant to inspire liberal rage against conservatives in America, and the uproar ultimately saw Universal cancel the film’s release.
Despite the controversy that was led by people who hadn’t even seen his movie, Zobel says he supported Universal’s decision to shelve the film out of respect for the victims of the recent mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas. As much as the film’s principals wanted to defend their movie against the false narrative around it, Zobel and Co. opted to take the high road and not push back.
Zobel tells The Hollywood Reporter: “At the height of the initial controversy around the film, we felt like there were voices that did not need to be aggravated any further … So, we felt that was important, yes.”
Unfortunately, this would not be the last setback for The Hunt, as the novel coronavirus upended its new release date of Mar. 13 and revamped marketing campaign. After spending seven days in theaters and grossing just $5.8 million, Universal has now made The Hunt available to rent on video-on-demand for $19.99. Despite these obstacles, Zobel remains as optimistic as anyone can be right now.
“My hope is that people will still check out the movie and see [the irony] now,” Zobel states. “If all movies are an experiment, this is one where the hypothesis and thesis were close.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Zobel also discusses his collaboration with The Hunt co-screenwriters, Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse; Ann Dowd’s role in introducing him to Lindelof; and his memories from the set of The Leftovers’ acclaimed episode “International Assassin.”
While the circumstances are different, has Z for Zachariah been on your mind these last couple weeks?
Certainly a little bit. I’m trying to be optimistic and hopeful. I think we’ll all get through this crazy situation.
So, I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but many conclusions were drawn about your movie The Hunt before anyone actually saw it. How difficult was it to not be able to say “well, actually” to certain media outlets and politicians?
A lot of conclusions were drawn about the film, and in order to combat the conclusions in a way, there’s been another conversation about it as a satire, which has also made other expectations happen. I truly was trying to make this fun movie that was a midnight movie in a way, and it’s been strange in that it’s been misunderstood in one way and then misunderstood in another. Or, found to be lacking as a deep Dr. Strangelove-esque satire when we were kind of more in the family of an Evil Dead II vibe. (Laughs.) So, it’s been strange. I’m still really proud of the movie, and I hope people check it out. I made a movie I wanted to see at the moment, which is loud, funny and broad. That was the goal. So, yeah, it’s been a ride; that’s for sure.
Did the studio tell you and the principals involved to not post any “well, actually” responses at the time of the controversy?
At the height of the initial controversy around the film, we felt like there were voices that did not need to be aggravated any further at that point. So, we felt that was important, yes.
Do you feel validated in a way since the premature and misinformed blowback proved the very point your movie was making?
I do, but I have to admit that it feels slightly like a Pyrrhic victory. I’d much rather have people see the movie and understand the irony in the moment. My hope is that people will still check out the movie and see that now. If all movies are an experiment, this is one where the hypothesis and thesis were close.
Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse came up with the premise during The Leftovers. Did they raise the idea to you when you were working on the penultimate episode of the series?
Yeah, they were working on it at the end of season three. Because of the nature of The Leftovers … conspiracy was definitely a part of that conversation, and we all had that in our heads. When The Leftovers ended, it was very clear that we were having fun making stuff together and that we should try to do it more — maybe even as a movie. When they came back and said, “We’d like you to read this thing we’ve been kicking around,” it made a lot of sense to me.
If this happened to me, I’d probably think the universe was plotting against me. Once Joker received a fraction of The Hunt’s treatment, did you at least take some comfort in the fact that it wasn’t personal and that it’s just a byproduct of our times?
I would say yes. I came to understand that it wasn’t just what we had made or that we had done something particularly wrong. We were just in the time and place where this kind of thing happens. I always think the world is scheming against me, so it took me a second to get there. (Laughs.) So, I now think that it’s nothing personal.
The film starts off with the demise of some recognizable actors. Were you going for a Drew Barrymore-in-Scream-type intro?
Nick Cuse cites Scream as one of his favorite horror movies of all time. So, that was certainly in there. With something like Game of Thrones, we invest in a character, and all of a sudden, the narrative changes and that character is no longer the main character. So, there was some level of wanting the same. We tried to chase the next level of that.
Did Damon and Nick’s stage direction describe a lot of the action beats? Or did they provide you the minimum so you could run wild?
Yeah, they were very generous. There’s a large fight scene near the end of the film, and in the screenplay I think it says, “What happens next is an epic fight scene that Craig Zobel will figure out.” (Laughs.) So, they gave me a lot of latitude to invest in that stuff.
Your work consistently features great acting, especially amongst your leads. In this case, Betty [Gilpin] delivers a star-making turn that is quietly intense and darkly comedic at times. How much was already there in the audition room, or on a self-tape, and what kind of performance direction did you give her, if any?
Well, I knew Betty’s work from having worked with her previously on a television show [American Gods]. It was very brief, only for a couple days, but I was very eager to have her play the role because I knew she’d give the sensibility of what it was. Once we got on set, by the end of the first or second day, there was a period where both of us asked, “How far can we go with the character?” There’s a version of this film that has a very stoic, quiet and taciturn character, and we were actually shooting that version of the movie. At some point, she did something, and I encouraged her by saying, “Do that more. Let’s get a little weird.” We both started to realize that this could be even more fun and more interesting if we leaned into making her a strange character. It would also reveal more about the character that way.
Third-act flashbacks can be a source of contention for a lot of studios. I can think of some examples where studios actually passed on a film because the filmmakers wouldn’t scrap or relocate their third-act flashback. Did anyone at Blumhouse or Universal give you a similar note?
Whenever you have a third-act flashback, someone will give you the note, “Why don’t you put it at the beginning?” We were certainly prepared for that and defended that from the very beginning. No one seriously pressured us because everybody recognized what we were attempting to do…
Ethan Suplee’s character finally caught the train in this movie, something his character wasn’t able to do in Tony Scott’s final film, Unstoppable. Were there any jokes about this on set?
(Laughs.) You just made the joke better than we could’ve on set. I’m sorry to say we were just caught up in making the movie. I’m sure he thought about that and just didn’t want to say anything.
It sure was nice to see Amy Madigan again. I kept juxtaposing the violent “Ma” with Field of Dreams’ Annie Kinsella, a former ‘60s hippie and pacifist.
Oh my gosh, Amy is such a good actor. She so quickly understood the tongue-and-cheek nature of the story. It was a real delight to work with her. Within moments, she had me cackling.
Was Betty Gilpin and Hilary Swank’s kitchen fight the most choreographed scene you’ve ever done?
Absolutely. One of the truly exciting and interesting things about making this film was making a cool one-on-one action scene. Literally, one of the reasons to do the film was to get to do that action scene. So, I had a blast doing it, and I spent a long time on it. We were working on that prior to even knowing where we were going to shoot the film. It was fun to encourage the collaboration of Hank Amos, the stunt coordinator, and Heidi Moneymaker, the fight choreographer and co-stunt coordinator. Along with the production designer, Matthew Munn, the four of us tried to design a set that would be able to hold a fight scene like this and would have a flow and design to it. Between Heidi and the stunt players, we created beats that were further augmented once Betty and Hilary came on set and showed us their capabilities. Everybody was very excited to tell more story by virtue of their different fighting styles. Hilary Swank can kick above her head like it’s no big deal; it’s quite a superhero thing to do. Once you saw it, you definitely had to put that in the movie. So, it was a giant collaboration and one of the most fun parts of making the movie.
Shifting gears, did Ann Dowd play matchmaker between you and Damon on The Leftovers?
You’d have to check with Damon about this, but I think Damon was interested in Ann Dowd after he saw Compliance. After talking with Ann about it, Ann kind of introduced us. So, yes is the answer.
Speaking of Compliance, was Bill Camp’s “International Assassin” casting your idea since directors tend to have a major say in the casting of their episodes’ guest actors?
I believe that someone had been cast in that role, only to have a scheduling conflict. So, I reached out and encouraged Bill Camp’s name. I even called him and said, “Are you available? You should come and do this thing.” So, that’s how that got started.
When you first read the “International Assassin” script, did you immediately have ideas about what you would do, or did you scratch your head for a little bit since it’s such an insane episode?
Well, I had been working on another prior episode of The Leftovers, “Lens,” which was my first episode of TV. Damon approached me while I was in the edit room for that and said, “Hey, we want to do this other episode.” At the time, they were still cracking the episode, and he encouraged me to go back down to Austin where we were shooting the show. He was like, “We think we want to do something that all takes place inside a hotel.” So, I went and looked at every hotel in Austin, Texas. Then, I was like, “What about this one? It has some international design vibes and feels kind of dated … It’s got a big staircase in it, and it has a lot of things that might work for the story you’re trying to tell.” So, we were kicking it back and forth from the get-go. I was reading it in an outline form and was trying to help put it together while on the ground.
The famous well scene with Justin Theroux and Darby Camp is considered by many to be one of the finest scenes of the decade. What do you remember about shooting that scene?
What I remember the most is Justin and I having conversations about how to play the beats of the scene. We kept thinking, “Okay, that’s gonna work. That’s cool.” Literally, as we stepped up onto the well to work it out with Darby, we then realized what we were actually doing in the scene, which is pushing a little kid into a well. (Laughs.) I don’t think it had really landed for myself or Justin until we were in it. Darby was amazing; she immediately was like, “Should I just keep saying stuff until he pushes me?” (Laughs.) She intuitively knew that it was a crazy and hard thing to do, and at her age, she was a wise enough actor to ask if she could improv there. It was more challenging than originally expected, but it elevated the scene a lot.
Since the scene is meant to take place in the early-morning hours, was the blue light natural for the most part, or did they enhance it in post?
We shot the scene very fast as the sun was going down; we shot dusk for dawn. All of that is pretty real.
You’re currently block-shooting Mare of Easttown for HBO, much like you did on One Dollar. At this point, would you rather shoot an entire season yourself — versus being a hired gun for an episode or two where you have to adapt to an existing look and feel?
I’m certainly enjoying doing this. It’s an interesting marathon-esque way to tell a story and make a movie of sorts. It lends itself to certain creative freedom that I don’t think you have when you only do one episode. On the other side, there’s still a lot of creative freedom in focusing on one episode; it’s obviously not quite the same. So, there are benefits to both. In the future, my hope would be to have one other person or friend and do something together. Doing an entire season — while creatively fulfilling — is also incredibly tiring. There might be a more sustainable way of doing it in the sense of having a small team. But, I’m enjoying this a lot, and I could see myself doing it again. I block-shot One Dollar two episodes at a time, and with Mare of Easttown, I’m block-shooting the whole thing at once. So, they’re slightly different from each other.
The Hunt is now available to rent on VOD.
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Jon M. Chu