How The Hunt Became the Most Controversial Movie of the Year

Director Craig Zobel tells us how The Hunt skewers both sides of the political spectrum--and why it’s been completely misunderstood.

Photo: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

It was last August when a movie called The Hunt, scheduled to be released by Universal Pictures in the usually arid moviegoing month of September, became a national news story. Word got around that the film, written by Damon Lindelof (Watchmen) and Nick Cuse (The Leftovers), was a liberal screed about a bunch of political lefties hunting and killing right-wingers in a variation on the old The Most Dangerous Game narrative. The outrage machine then went into overdrive.

With recent mass shootings in three states—California, Ohio, and Texas—still fresh, the current occupant of the White House and his allies jumped all over the film sight unseen, with President Donald Trump declaring it a “liberal fantasy” designed to “inflame and cause chaos.” The echo chamber effect of those words, combined with the sensitivity over the shootings, led an uneasy Universal to pull the film from its schedule and possibly consign it to permanent limbo. Almost no one had seen it.

Flash forward seven months, and The Hunt is finally coming out, and it’s a total blast. What didn’t come across during the initial hysteria was that the movie is an often hilarious, razor sharp satire that skewers both the left and the right. The wealthy liberals who transport a clutch of kidnapped conservatives to a secret location for their deadly game are parodied just as viciously as their victims (in fact, I would actually say that the left gets it a little harder in the film, but that could just be me).

From the first moment, with its bonkers tone and over-the-top gore, it’s clear that none of The Hunt is to be taken seriously, except perhaps for its core message that no one is listening to anyone else now. The film is anchored by Betty Gilpin in a knockout performance as the conservative target who seems to be the only person to fully grasp her predicament.

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In a strange way though, The Hunt is as timely as ever while the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, and both clear information and leadership is lacking. But when we spoke with director Craig Zobel, who also made the excellent and thematically related Compliance, he was just glad to see his movie finally coming out and hopeful that audiences would see it for what it is—not for what people assumed it was.

Den of Geek: Did you ever anticipate that this would create such a stir when you were working on it?

Craig Zobel: No, I did not think that it would create such a stir. I felt like we were roasting everyone and that people would see the movie and see how we were trying to have a good time and make everyone laugh. Really the only thing that stopped that from happening was that people made up their minds about the movie before it had come out, before anyone had been able to even see it. So there was no way to have that experience happen that way. But I had not anticipated that at all.

How frustrating is it to have one idea of what the movie was get out there without it really even being seen?

The interesting way to answer that question is to say the film is really about people rushing to judgment and thinking they know what something is. Thinking they know everything about something with complete judgment and assumption. The fact that that happens in the movie was very ironic, in the classic form of the word, in the sense that the movie was about what was happening to the movie.

When I saw the film, I was surprised by just how much I laughed. I sat there thinking to myself like, “There’s no way that anyone could mistake this for a diatribe against the right or a diatribe against the left. Everybody’s being skewered.” With the country so tribalized now, do you think there’s room for a broad satire along those lines anymore?

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I hope so. I think so. Yeah. I certainly think that satire will still exist and I think that people should keep trying to make them. I think that we are in a unique period right now where there’s a lot of sensitivity that is making that more challenging, possibly. If people see this film, I think they will understand what the intention was, that it is just an absurd romp and that it’s supposed to be fun. That’s the goal: to make us all laugh and take it down a notch. So my hope is that this movie helps that.

The ultimate message of the movie is nobody’s listening to anybody.

That’s exactly right. I would say that on set. You know, being a good actor is to listen to your scene partner and react to your scene partner. Oftentimes during the course of making the movie, I’d be like, “Try one where you’re paying less attention to the person you’re talking to. Just talk at them.” That is really what the point of the movie was in a way. That is what I think that we were trying to satirize or may fun of.

Did the cast get it from the start in terms of what you wanted to do and the tone you were going for?

Yeah, I think maybe everybody would ask one or two questions at the very top of an initial meeting and then go, “Oh, okay. This is the version that I hope this would be instead of the other version.” Everybody was on board and wanted to do the same thing, which was great because we were all able to very organically make the movie and add little things here or there, improvisations to everything.

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The script is already really funny and really solid, but we would certainly play in and around the script. Everybody had the same sense, I would say, of what was going to work, what was going to not work, what wasn’t funny and so forth.

Betty just hits it out of the park in this movie. What were your discussions like with her about her character and the direction that the two you took on that?

We talked a lot about where oftentimes the male action star is this silent, brooding person and you never see the female action star who is that. So we started there with our exploration of the character. But as we went along, we also realized that it would be more fun to really make sure that we portrayed Crystal as a three-dimensional person.

We kept pushing her into making sure that she was surprising and doing unexpected things, which help served the narrative of the movie, for sure. But it also helped us make a character that we hadn’t seen before, which was my big thing as well. I remember telling Betty at some point, “I want people to dress up like Crystal for Halloween. That’s what our goal should be here,” and hopefully they will. I think that she really does knock it out of the park. She skyrocketed to the top to become one of my favorite people that I’ve ever worked with.

She has some of the best facial expressions I’ve seen in a movie this year so far.

Right?

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Just amazing. Was there any chance at all that this would never come out or was it more a question of “let’s just let this simmer down and then we’ll revisit?”

I think right after all the events happened and the film got taken off the release schedule, we didn’t know. We didn’t know what was going to happen. But everybody wanted it to come out, so the great victory is that we actually get to show the movie to people now, which I’m just excited to hear. It was certainly made with the intention of it being a fun entertainment of a movie instead of a finger wagging lecture of a movie. My hope is that people get to see it now.

Did you use the delay to tweak it in any way or is this the very same cut that was going to come out last September?

This is the very same cut that was about to come out last September. Nothing was touched at all. Partly because what was so amazing was that we were sitting there looking at parts of the movie and saying like, “Wow, the movie is talking about what’s happening to the movie.” I have a feeling people will think that we tried to address things about this in some sort of way, but it’s not true. It was already doing all of this before everything happened and the film got pulled off the release calendar.

When you did test screenings, did you ask people if their political persuasions affected their viewing of the film?

Yes, we did ask. It was part of the questionnaires and stuff. In truth, I think most people, when they see the movie, get the intent. Whether or not they think it’s funny or agree with it or whatnot, I think that everybody understood the underlying intent if you’ve watched the movie. So I wasn’t worried, because I felt like whether or not they think the movie is good or not, it seems that people understand what we were doing. I still feel that way, ultimately.

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The Hunt is out in theaters Friday, March 13.