The Legacy of Horror Behind Hunters

Showrunners David Weil and Nikki Toscano on creating the wild Hunters out of unspeakable tragedy.

You’ve never seen a TV series quite like Hunters. Created by David Weil, who serves as co-showrunner with Nikki Toscano, and produced by Amazon and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, the 10-episode series is set in 1977 and follows a ragtag, diverse group of clandestine spies, researchers and assassins who are out to find and stop a wave of Nazis who have infiltrated the United States. The Hunters are tracking down potentially hundreds of surviving Nazi monsters, who are here to hatch a diabolical plan and soon begin hunting the Hunters as well.

While running down Nazis in America is neither a new or, sadly, fictional idea, Hunters takes the concept to extremes. The series whipsaws between solemn flashbacks to the horrors of the concentration camps, heightened scenes of action and violence in its 1977 setting, and occasional format-breaking moments of sheer insanity, such as a musical number on a Coney Island boardwalk or the introduction of the Hunters through something resembling an exploitation movie trailer.

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The show stars Logan Lerman as Jonah, a dissolute young Brooklyn man whose beloved grandmother Ruth is murdered in front of him by a Nazi operative for her role in the Hunters, which Jonah knew nothing about. He gets quickly brought up to speed by Meyer (Al Pacino, in his first regular TV series), who like Ruth survived the camps and banded with her and others to get payback years later. The other Hunters include a bickering Jewish couple (Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane), a tightly wound Vietnam vet (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a Cleopatra Jones-type fighter named Roxy (Tiffany Boone), a washed-up actor and “master of disguise” (Josh Radnor) and an MI6 operative posing as a nun (Kate Mulvany).

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The other plotlines follow an FBI agent (Jerrika Hinton) who’s tracking the Nazi conspiracy on her own, and of course, the villains themselves, led by U.S. government embed Biff Simpson (a cadaverous Dylan Baker), sadistic killer Travis (Greg Austin) and the Colonel (Lena Olin), the leader on the ground who is paving the way for the Nazis to launch their scheme.

Weil was inspired to create the show by his own grandmother, Sarah Weil, who used to tell him and his siblings stories about how she survived the German camps during World War II. “She really was an amazing person,” Weil says softly when we sit down at the Los Angeles press day for Hunters. “At a very young age, she would tell my brothers and me her stories. She survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen and Unterluss. At such a young age, those stories felt like the stuff of comic books and superheroes. She felt like a superhero — these stories of great good versus great evil.”

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Like the character of Jonah — who we first meet selling weed and arguing over comic book canon and Star Wars with his two buddies — Weil’s view of history’s atrocities was filtered through pop culture and pulp fiction (small “p,” small “f”). That sensibility found its way into the ping-ponging esthetic of Hunters. “It parallels and mirrors my own evolution of my grandmother’s stories and my experience of those stories,” says Weil. “They began for me at a place of graphic novels and comic books and superheroes. As I grew older and learned more of the degrees of the horror that she really experienced, those colors began to desaturate, and I began to see the stark reality of what she experienced.”

Weil is upfront about the show’s tonal shifts (“To me the experience of being Jewish is one of horror and humor”) and asserts that he wasn’t interested in “teaching a lesson every episode.” But he also admits that the show darkens as it moves further along its 10-segment span. “(The episodes) certainly get darker,” he says. “I think that’s in part the evolution of the first season. Where it begins is really heightened, kind of a stylized, poppy, wish fulfillment, grindhouse mode. The Hunters never really incur the cost of what they’re doing or feel the result of the violence that they’re imparting. As they come to terms with what they’re doing, it becomes a bit more muted in certain ways.”

“When I read the first five pages of the script, I was like, “Whoa!” says Nikki Toscano about her introduction to Hunters. “I thought it was so bold and original and different, and I was a little bit scared of it — which is why I knew I wanted to be a part of it.” Toscano says that it was the diverse nature of the Hunters themselves that was a selling point for her to get involved. “I loved this idea that the Hunters were not just Holocaust survivors or solely Jewish,” she explains. “There was something so interesting to me about the idea of this group of people who have been persecuted, but not necessarily persecuted in the same way or for the same reason, coming together.”

Like Weil, Toscano says that finding the right balance of Hunters’ many tones and settings was of paramount importance. “I think that there were a lot of early discussions about differentiating those different periods,” she says. “It was a conversation that we had a lot with our directors and our production designers about developing a visual style that differentiated those things. In 1977 the violence is more pulpy, where in the Holocaust scenes, the violence is suggested versus shown. There was a great deal of awareness at all times about the fact that we want it to be as authentic as possible when portraying the Holocaust and as reverential to the people that had experienced that.”

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Toscano adds that even setting the show in 1977 was a specific choice both stylistically and narratively. “I think 1977 — there was a lot of crime in New York City. There was a great deal of paranoia,” she says. “And I think that it lent itself to the paranoia of the idea that Nazis could be living in America. It’s just a cool time period and it’s vivid and cinematically interesting as well. (David) also didn’t set the show in, say, 2020 because he didn’t want our Nazi hunters tracking down people that were 98 years old.”

Inflicting the kind of violence that the show’s title heroes impose on their targets definitely becomes more palatable (if that’s the right word) when the villains themselves provide a credible physical threat. “A lot of the violence is stark and horrific, which is important to justify and help understand why our Hunters are doing what they’re doing in the 70s,” says Weil. “The violence of the past is more suggested where the violence of the 70s is much bloodier. It’s much poppier. It’s much more in your face. Sometimes I would labor over a single frame in the past — do we show this or do we not show that? That was really, really, really important.”

Accuracy and melancholy were the goals of the scenes set in the concentration camps, which provide the viewer with the back stories of not just Ruth and Meyer, but their tormentors as well. “That was the thing that I would go to sleep thinking about and wake up thinking about,” Weil admits. “I felt my grandmother’s presence and the responsibility to her and to the millions of other survivors and victims of the Holocaust. We designed every element and every frame specifically, especially with those scenes. We had three full-time researchers on staff and our entire production team went to the museums. We tried to play the truth of those scenes, and I never wanted them to feel heightened or gratuitous.”

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As outrageous as Hunters can get — and it gets pretty crazy over the course of the five episodes we’ve seen before its February 21st premiere — Weil says that the show is ultimately his way of keeping his grandmother’s stories alive. “I really struggled with that birthright, with that idea of legacy,” he says. “How will I continue her story? I think the survivor community today, and each year, gets smaller and smaller. And I think it’s the onus and responsibility of the descendants of those survivors, to continue the truth in the face of so much anti-Semitism and so much Holocaust denial. So Hunters really became a love letter to my grandmother…and just fulfillment of a birthright and a legacy in some small way.”

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All 10 episodes of Hunters are available on Amazon Prime Video now.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye