If you discount TV movies like 2018’s Paterno, and miniseries like 2003’s Angels in America, Al Pacino hasn’t appeared on a TV show proper since guest starring in one episode of N.Y.P.D. over 50 years ago. Yes that’s just N.Y.P.D.…no Blue. So what does it take to get one of America’s finest actors back into the world of television – and this time in a streaming format, no less? One great idea of course! And that idea belongs to David Weil, who conceived of and successfully pitched to Amazon Prime the Nazi-hunting drama Hunters.
Hunters, which is produced by Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, follows a young Jewish man named Jonah (Logan Lerman) living in 1977’s New York City. When Jonah’s Holocaust survivor grandmother is murdered under mysterious circumstances, he is welcomed by Meyer Offerman (Pacino) into a very specific kind of team…the Nazi-killing kind of team. The show is partially inspired by true events, in which high-ranking Nazis embedded themselves in America following World War II.
Like Pacino, Weil is something of a TV neophyte himself, having only previously written several screenplays after graduating from Harvard with a degree in political science. But when he first conjured up this concept, he knew there was only one format that could do it justice.
“There’s so much story to tell that I think the long form nature of series television allows you to really live in the nuances and depths and really explore a diverse group of stories,” Weil says.
Those stories include those of Hunters eclectic band of hunters. The team includes Kate Mulvaney as spy Sister Harriet, Tiffany Boone as lock picker Roxy Jones, Josh Radnor as master of disguise Lonny Flash, Louis Ozawa Changchien as soldier Joe Torrance, and Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek as weapons expert married couple Mindy and Murray Markowtiz.
The combination of an Ocean’s Eleven-esque cast of specialists, a fully untethered Pacino, and Hunters many other stylistic flourishes creates an unusually playful tone for a series with such dark subject matter. But Weil, whose grandmother suffered through the Holocaust, wants to balance the style and substance.
“There’s Inglourious Basterds and then there’s Munich, right? I didn’t feel like people would want to be coming back to watch Munich every week,” Weil says.” With Inglourious, I didn’t find the same kind of depth that one can inject into a two hour film. I wanted to feel both the catharsis in wish fulfillment and also ensure that the respect was paid to the stories of the past which certainly inspired me to write this piece.”
We spoke with Weil and co-showrunner Nikki Toscano (24: Legacy) about striking that tonal balance, scoring Pacino and Peele’s blessings, and why they see Hunters as a superhero story.
DEN OF GEEK: David, how did this idea develop and then evolve in your mind? Did it fall in fully formed or were there elements that were added over time?
David Weil: That’s a great question. For me, the core was always this relationship between this young man Jonah and his grandmother Ruth, which is very much like the relationship between myself and my grandmother. But I knew that I wanted it to be a series. There’s so much story to tell that I think the long form nature of series television allows you to really live in the nuances and depths and really explore a diverse group of stories.
Also, there’s Inglourious Basterds and then there’s Munich, right? I didn’t feel like people would want to be coming back to watch Munich every week. It is so heavy and there’s such darkness, deserved darkness, that I think for a two hour film really captures something special. With Inglourious, I didn’t find the same kind of depth that one can inject into a two hour film. So I wanted to feel both the catharsis in wish fulfillment and also ensure that the respect was paid to the stories of the past which certainly inspired me to write this piece. Having those two very different tones and trying to balance them, they all just began to come together in that way.
Nikki, how did you come aboard this? What was the pitch to you and what appealed to you?
Nikki Toscano: The pitch to me was that someone was going to be coming onboard with David to help guide his beautiful vision. I read the script and the first five pages immediately hooked me. I think from a personal standpoint, what attracted to me to the material was the hunters. I loved the diversity within this group. I think what you expect is that they’re all going to be Jewish Holocaust survivors and they’re just not. These people have been persecuted but not necessarily persecuted at the same way. I thought there was a very interesting sandbox to play in with that.
When I was 25 years old, I fostered and adopted a 12 year old African-American boy from a children’s home. One of the biggest struggles that I had in raising him was my inability to put myself into people’s shoes. And I thought that seeing the hunters on TV might give an audience an opportunity to be able to do that.
If nothing else, it’s certainly a really appealing pitch and idea, and it seems as through that you’re able to get some pretty fascinating folks aboard the project through that. What is it like to find out that Al Pacino, Jordan Peele, and Logan Lerman all want in?
DW: It’s still surreal and bizarre. I finished the script and I asked to meet Jordan (Peele) through my agent. I was just a big fan of Key and Peele. I think Get Out had just come out and then I gave Jordan the script soon thereafter, or soon before. But he loved it, and I think one of the things that Jordan and Monkeypaw really try to do is give platforms to voices and stories that are under utilized. So hearing the story about this young Jewish kid who was trying to seek vengeance for his Holocaust survivor grandmother really appealed to Jordan. Having him on board was massive. It was huge in every way, and his presence and his fingerprints are on every piece of this series, from the music to the shots we got, to the writing.
NT: Then we heard that Pacino could potentially have interest. That was a long but fun road. A lot of meetings, and what do you say when you hear that Pacino might be interested? You’re just like, “whooppee!”
You mentioned trying to balance the Inglourious Basterds and Munich approaches, What is it like to try and balance the horror of the real story along with the way that you want to stylize it? Because it’s a fairly stylish show.
DW: A lot of delicacy and a lot of balance. It came from this organic place. For me being Jewish is a lot about humor and heart. That’s the experience that I felt as a Jewish person in this country. And I think the show kind of encapsulates that in many ways. There are bridges between all the different tones, between the superhero tone, between the much more sobering, reverential portrayal, horrific portrayal, of the camps. Themes and motifs of heroism, of light and darkness. So I think we gripped tight to those ideas and also to these characters who were our waypoint and our access point into these different tones.
NT: One of the other things that I’ll say is that David and I, when we were in the writers room, we always wanted to push our writers to do the unexpected. We wanted at all times to push the envelope with everything that we were doing. And I think that while it really was a delicate balance of tonally tackling all of these different things. I think that we pushed them to really go above and beyond and then pulled them back in where it was necessary.
One thing that I always love about this kind of team action genre is how everyone on the team has different jobs and specialties. In Hunters you have spy, and a weapons expert, and so on, that sort of thing. What thought went into selecting those jobs for each character? Were there any jobs left in the cutting room table?
NT: They shifted a little bit. Something that David and I are always trying to do with this show is to upend stereotypes. I think that it was interesting to see the fact that Mindy (Carol Kane) and Murray (Saul Rubinek) were weapons experts. We talked about a number of different things. I think we could say at one point Roxy (Tiffany Boone) was a former cop, but that got thrown away as we were delving deeper into her character.
DW: Much of them were designed. And it was an interesting thing because when I was thinking those characters at first it was like: what’s their history, and then how does that organically kind of come into what their skill set is? And also: what is most extreme? Nikki touches on the Mindy and Murray of it all, having these two kind of, I call them Mr. and Mrs. Potato-Latke-Head. These two Holocaust survivors being these arms dealers and weapons experts was just such an interesting visual. I always kind of knew that and I think we got to play with that once Nikki came on, and the writers came on, even more. Roxy was the one that shifted a bit. She was always sort of a fixer, a crime scene cleaner, a lock picker, or something similar.
Even though this is fictionalized and stylized, did you do any research into what kinds of Nazis made the trip over to the U.S., or anything about the real world aspect of that?
NT: We did tons of research on it. We did a ton of discussing it in the writer’s room too. Without giving away spoilers, a lot of the truth behind what really happened is the foundation of a lot of these episodes.
DW: In creating the show, there are a number of tomes and books that were really important to ensuring the authenticity and the reality of what actually happened.
Nikki: We just don’t want to give it away.
David, correct me if I’m wrong, but is this your first serialized television show that you’ve written?
DW: It is, yes.
What did you learn from your first foray into television? And then Nikki, what did you take away even as a TV vet?
DW: Just how collaborative the process really is and that best idea always wins no matter who it’s from. Our passion for the show, I hope and I believe, trickled down to the rest of the cast and our amazing crew. They all just came to work wanting to create something really important, special and fun, and eccentric and odd and bloody and bold. I think really just the honesty with which we all approached this material was really helpful.
NT: I agree. I’ve been on a lot of shows and I think one of the biggest things that surprised me about my experience on this one is how far a childlike enthusiasm for material goes. From the showrunner, David and myself, to the writers, to the production designers to the directors. Allowing people the freedom to not only access that but to execute it on set every day and giving them the freedom to play around. I think that as a result of that we were able to get some really good shit.
A theme of this show seems to be “be careful tracking down monsters, lest ye become one.” How quickly did that become a part of the proceedings and why do you feel like it’s an important theme for the story?
It was part of the story from day one. I think for me this notion of wanting to see superheroes that we don’t often see represented on screen was so important. It’s also about people reclaiming power. Then I think the question organically becomes, what do you do with that power once you have it, if you haven’t had it for so long? I think in much superhero fare there’s the good guy and the bad guy and anything they do is written away. We’re not in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in this show. We are in the real world. The cost of that violence, the cost of those actions must take hold on our heroes, lest it not be reality. I feel like we would have lost the audience if we were not a show that explored that at the very core and very center of the piece.