'The Hunt' Director Craig Zobel on How the Chaos Surrounding His Controversial Film Echoes the Movie Itself [Interview]

The road to bringing The Hunt to big screens has been a bumpy one. Scheduled to be released in September 2019, the film was delayed after a series of high-profile gun violence incidents, exacerbated by President Trump tweeting in late Summer that the horror film that involves the murder of right-wing internet trolls was “made in order to inflame and cause chaos”. 

Shifted to an early March release and marketed overtly using the controversy as a selling feature, the film received lukewarm reviews from many, while this writer enjoyed it as a throwback, schlocky bit of exploitation fun that takes the travails of internet discourse to its most appalling limit.

As Covid-19 shifted all of our lives this spring, the film was soon pulled from theatres for the second time. Universal has arranged for the film to stream on VOD, essentially abandoning the theatrical run in favor of allowing audiences to engage from the comfort of their homes during the cloistering due to the pandemic. Strange days, indeed.

Director Craig Zobel is no stranger to controversy – his 2012 film Compliance generated plenty of discussion – yet he’s spent the last decade doing some remarkable work on both big screen (the fantastic, much-overlooked Z for Zachariah) and small (The Leftovers, American Gods, Westworld, One Dollar).  In this exclusive interview, /Film spoke to director Craig Zobel about this journey, including how the film was made, how he personally reacted to the changing fortunes of the project, and how he has witness the narrative surrounding the film echo many of the themes his film reflects. 

The following has been edited for clarity and concision

When did the project first come to you?

After we did The Leftovers it was clear that Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and I were working well together. The experience was a good one for me and I didn’t feel like some “for hire” director but felt like part of the team. We all thought that a feature would be fun after a bunch of TV, and they had been talking about conspiracy theories a bunch. The Leftovers was a show about belief and what happens when belief is shaken. It was natural kind of think to be thinking about in terms of cults and stuff like that, so conspiracy theories became a minor obsession. When all of that Pizzagate stuff was going on and the beginnings of QAnon was starting to happen Nick and Damon were all over that stuff. In that same time period I moved down South, and I was in a scenario where all of a sudden I wasn’t in New York City where I’d been for the last 16 years. I was in Athens, Georgia, a little town outside of Atlanta – a college town, so diverse opinions – but a small town at the same time where it was very easy to go to the gas station and meet someone who had a totally different belief system than me. 

I want to get on the record a couple of key things. First of all, was the film ever called Red State, Blue State?

The film was never, ever, ever, ever, ever called Red State/Blue State. It simply wasn’t. When that kept appearing as a thing that showed up in the press I straight up asked if there there ever was an email heading with that, was there ever a file folder you put it in, was there ever an outline that you put it in before they had a title. Nick and Damon told me, no, because Red State/Blue State is a bad title for a movie! [laughs] That was never a thing. I’ve repeatedly tried to refute that. The indicative thing about our current culture is that when I have a conversation with a reporter where I say, look, that never was a thing, when I read the article later, it says “the film was reportedly called Red State/Blue State (parenthetical, the filmmaker denies this).” Which reads as if it really was called that! It fucking wasn’t. I don’t know what to say, but that’s almost the perfect example of where we are as a culture. 

If that is not indicative of what this entire film is about, I don’t know what is. Even the nature of the title becomes “fake news”, with debates about “alternate facts”.

Even if I go on the record and say this never, ever was the title, it gets written about in a scenario as if I’m probably wrong, or trying to hide something.

…and that you have an agenda in order to say that it is not true.

But why would I have an agenda? It’s just the title of the movie, I mean, who cares? Maybe we had a bad idea, but that isn’t what happened. The fact that I can’t make a very simple declarative statement sound true is totally what the movie is about. 

There are also suggestions that earlier drafts were even more bitingly political before, and it became slightly softened to become more of an action-adventure as opposed to a political screed from original drafts. Is that an unfair characterization?

That is not true either. Nothing changed, upon the controversy surrounding the film. The film was done –  I was on the second to last day of review of the sound mix, which has to be a locked picture, a finished thing in order for you to do it. We were putting footsteps into the beginning of the mom and pop gas station scene when Ike Barinholtz texted me and said I think the President just tweeted about our movie. 

So you learn that the President is commenting on a film that he hasn’t seen, doesn’t really know what it’s about and mischaracterizes, misunderstands what the actual plot is. Is that a fair comment?

That is absolutely a fair comment to make. Look, I wanted it to be sort of a midnight movie. I was making a Jason Blum movie, you know? I wanted it to have the energy of an early Paul Verhoeven movie, or a Sam Raimi movie. I wanted it to be a fun, dumb movie that could actually make everybody laugh about it and still recognize that it was so out there that people would realize at least it’s not as bad as that ridiculousness. That’s what I was hoping, which isn’t the same thing as trying to make something to send my political message out into the world. It also isn’t the same as trying to make the satire to educate the world on how we can fix it all either, because I don’t know how to fix it! [laughs]. I don’t. It was supposed to be this very specific, fun thing. But once the narrative took hold, then it was this or that. If I’d had my druthers, we’d have released it the next day after the Tweets, because I just wanted everybody to see that it’s so not the movie that everybody thinks it is. 

I want to get into them as carefully as we can. Expectations, as you said, were raised by a President who doesn’t care about whether he’s accurate or not. But you said it’s a Jason Blum film – He’s made very different kinds of movies, but one movie that overrides almost all of them in terms of cultural impact is Get Out. Get Out has this notion that it’s not “just” an entertaining Stepford Wives redux, it’s been embraced by many not just a throwback horror film but as a vital and socially important critique.  This speaks to how genre films are able to shine light on society, and can be overtly political in ways that more mainstream films cannot. Romero’s were originally intended to be entertaining, but they of course have a highly political undertone. Could you talk about balancing the “I want it to be fun while drawing on the canvas of politics” rather than for it to be an overtly ideological film?

First of all, I love Get Out. I think that Jordan Peele is super talented. I love Us and I love his work. Get Out was very unique, and it was very specific to what he was trying to say. The lesson I take from watching Get Out is a reminder of what horror movies have always been: horror movies have always been a reflection of our fears and a digestion of our fears, culturally at the moment, put into a fun vessel that can help us absorb them and process them. In the 1950s with Godzilla it was all about the atomic bomb. As you said, George Romero’s stuff is reflective of where he was culturally. Good genre films are a reflection of the times. When I say I want it to be a Jason Blum movie, it’s that whatever the politics he’s adamant about saying that it needs to be scary or gory or fun or have these elements that make it a horror movie. He’s not shy to remind everybody of that if you work with him, and I think that’s awesome, because he instinctively knows that really does work about those sorts of stories. I don’t know if that’s kind of answering your question? 

That’s what I’m getting at – It’s very easy to put then too much baggage, the bullshit notion of “elevated horror”. Many horror movies have always been that, as you note. But when your film comes out it’s being judged on how effective it is ideologically, and there are complaints it’s not really trying to fix the situation, or addressing all of its complexities. It’s just playing with these serious issues.

[People were saying] “The Hunt is not as smart as it thinks it is.” Oh my god, I wanted it to be dumb! I literally just wanted it to be dumb. 

Get Out wants to be entertaining, but it doesn’t want to be dumb. This film, in a good way, wants to be dumb. 

Yeah, in a good way. I think there’s room for a movie like The Hunt in the world, and I had a desire to make it. You don’t make a movie that has some of the silly gore that are in the first 10 minutes of this movie and think that you’re making Citizen Kane. You know where you are. I felt very confident in what kind of movie we were making! [laughs]. Robocop is still a pretty fun movie, if you go back and watch it. The tone of Evil Dead 2, it’s very silly, but it has a cool tone and I feel it’s an important movie. These aren’t chin-scratching important movies, but we need to make movies of different types. 

What I love about Evil Dead 2 is that it’s made by people who realize how shitty Evil Dead was. 

Exactly! That’s why it’s always Evil Dead 2 that I want to talk about.

This is dumb, why are you opening the fucking book? Anyway, that’s a whole other conversation.

Maybe there will be another bunch of movies that are as good as Get Out, or maybe that’s just Jordan Peele, and we should all just say he’s amazing. I don’t know that that’s indicative of the entire genre, and you can’t move forward if you’re just trying to chase another’s idea.

The delay resulted in not only pent up expectation about the “danger” of the narrative, but also leaning heavily into it being a politically charged satire.

In order to inoculate the movie from a certain amount of right wing political trolls there was a new spin put on the film. In some ways it is a satire, but what happened is that that created a new set of expectations about the movie. People went into it saying well, if it’s such a good satire, it’s not Dr. Strangelove. Well, we weren’t trying to do that at all. We were much more trying to be Robocop than that. The result was a whole other level of false expectations about the film.

There’s the obvious baggage from people who haven’t seen the film on the both left and right that are making assumptions of the film without seeing it. At the same time, there are people who suggest that it’s irresponsible for you to wade into these waters without having something to say about to fix the issue. 

Any of the responses that have claimed that it’s irresponsible for me to make the movie are the ones that I’m like, aaauugghhh so boring, such a boring read of this movie! That is not what I was trying to do, I was trying to have fun! was not talking about the most tender subject in the world, I’m talking about how we treat each other, mostly online, and how insane that is getting. The commentary about the movie was the commentary we were addressing 

We have these two poles: we have those that believe this is not something that should be talked about because to talk about this very stuff is to somehow engender it, to allow it to perpetuate. And then we have some people who are asking who are you Mr. Lefty McHollywood to make fun of hunting right-wing “deplorables”, and what you’re doing is advocating for this violence. That’s an interesting contradiction to be in.

There’s a third camp. I believe there are people who are smart enough to know the difference and are able to meet this movie where it is, and recognize that it’s actually not trying to dismiss anything, nor is it trying to incite chaos. It is literally trying to entertain.

So it may be nihilistic but it’s not anarchistic. Is that a fair point?

Yeah, that’s fair enough! [laughs]. I’m happy to say that. This movie may come off nihilistic, but it’s certainly not meant to be anarchistic at all. That’s true. 

So you got the call that the film’s delayed, what did you feel? What did it feel like for this thing that you knew people hadn’t seen and therefore didn’t understand and therefore shouldn’t have had anything to say about, and yet, the effect doesn’t matter, it’s still messing with your livelihood and delaying the release of this film?

I existed for a long time with a feeling that people were all taking this way too seriously. I felt confident in the movie, I’m proud of this movie, and believe it achieved the broad outlines of the goals of what I wanted this to do. It’s hard to kind of mea culpa something I didn’t ultimately agree with. I didn’t think that the movie was going to break the world or I wouldn’t have made it. That just wasn’t in me. There was a level of wondering who can I talk to and explain this to, to make this all go away. Then I just realized that actually, this is what the movie’s about. There is no one to talk to. It’s still in some people’s minds was called Red State/Blue State. It occurred to me that we had crossed some kind of threshold where it was like ok, now it’s just in this new realm. And it didn’t feel good.

Did you get a call from the studio, did you get a call from Blumhouse? 

I got a call from Jason on a Saturday morning at like 8:30 in the morning. 

That’s a horror film right there, man. That’s too early.

Yeah, I know. Who calls me at 8:30 in the morning?

How’d the conversation go? Straight ahead? Admonishing you to shut up and don’t talk to the media?

No. I can’t remember word for word what happened because it just turns into this wash of information received, oh my god, that actually happened? But he was saying this is the situation on the ground. 30 minutes later, there was an announcement. So it was quite crazy.

What happened then? The film was pulled, but is it true that the film was actually released online?

No. That’s a new one. I hadn’t heard that one.

I had heard rumors that a torrent file leaked briefly after it was pulled. Was that ever a conversation or a concern? If we don’t release this, other people will find ways of releasing it?

There was some level of concern about that. It had all happened in a time period where the movie was really in the hands of Universal. All of this kind of happened in this weird window of film post-production in which it would have been a very challenging thing to do. We would have known who it was if that had ever happened. 

Was it specifically tied to the reaction of the President? To the gun violence that was taking place at the time? Was it presented as a delay or a cancellation?

It was presented as this news story hasn’t gone away, and it’s only getting more reactionary. People were starting call Universal’s home number, and there was threatening behaviour starting with a group of people, and that was concerning to everyone, including me of course. That led to the acknowledgement that clearly this has gone to a place where we need to calm it down. The conversation about what was going to happen next wasn’t a conversation yet. That was only later. At first, it was only this needs to just be stopped. 

You wait a few months, a decision’s made on a release date, and it comes in theatres. I think it’s fair to say that the reaction was mixed. It’s out in theatres for a few weeks in the midst of a virus and then all of the theatres shut down.

No, it was only in theatres for a week! It was supposed to come out March 12th. On March 14th I was going to have a big Q&A at Alamo Drafthouse in New York that was going to be broadcast to all of the other Drafthouses. By then that movie theatre shut down. Everything shut down immediately upon release of the movie! [laughs]

Was there a part of you that just had to laugh at the insanity that a goddamned global plague affected the film after a Presidential tweet delayed it?

What this experience has taught me is that I have some level of optimism that is probably not good for myself. When the President tweeted about the movie and things were looking bad, I was thinking that this will all turn out OK, and that there’s no way they’re not going to cancel the movie. That would be crazy. On Monday March 9th, everybody was like, oh my gosh, look at Coronavirus! I was thinking, well, certainly they’re not going to close down movie theatres. I was just hopelessly optimistic about all of it. But at that time that I was also working on a production and dealing with the safety concerns of working with a lot of people. It’s very hard to maintain 6 feet distance on a movie set. I’m trying to navigate that, so by the time that Friday the 13th had come around, the world had just changed a lot.

This film has this third story, of one of these major studio releases that is trying to sidestep the theatrical model. You’re pretty public on social media – How have people responded to the film in this third bubble? Do people in the midst of quarantine have time for a film like this?

It’s an unprecedented thing. I saw a commercial for my movie on TV that said “watch The Hunt home premiere”, which I had never heard that term used before. In the last few days I’ve gotten an overwhelmingly positive and supportive response both from people that I do know and overall online. There have been a lot saying this movie’s great, people got it wrong! We’re having conversations about it. It feels good,  and I’m personally glad it got the chance to have this experience. There’s another conversation to be had about movie theatres and the theatrical model. I recognize that is a precarious thing and my hope would be that we are in a unique time and that this doesn’t just get used all the time. I love movie theatres and I made this movie to go see it in a movie theatre, but I’m happy that people are going to see it all the same. 

Let’s talk about getting the cast together for this. 

It’s interesting – When you’re presented the screenplay for this and you’re like we want you to be this character, actors flip though the see all the pages that this character is in and after page 3 the character dies. Either people were into it and wanted to do that, or not.

You’re working with musicians, you’re working with friends, how did that actually work to bring this ensemble together? 

It was a bit of a mix. 

Did Sturgill audition?

No, I’ve worked with Sturgill on my TV show One Dollar that I made for CBS All Access. And had so much fun with him on that. In the original the name for his character was “Kid Rock” and then for a while it was “Florida Man” [in the credits he’s listed as “Vanilla Nice”]. I knew that Sturgill was down to do something crazy like that. He was the one that actually thought up the tear drop tattoo – when you look in closer, it’s actually a little state of Florida, which I thought was brilliant. With Macon Blair, who plays the envoy, I just saw see if Macon is available. Certainly for other roles, we auditioned or targeted people.

I didn’t know Betty Gilpin before – alas, I haven’t seen Glow. Could you talk about bringing her in and the challenge of getting that role right? 

I can tell you something that actually hasn’t been in any other press. I immediately really wanted Betty to play the role. I had worked with her on American Gods and thought this woman is amazing and needs to be a movie star. I was watching anything that she was doing and knew her role on Glow. When the script came to me I immediately thought this would be a great thing for her and reached out, but she had conflicts with Glow. From the very beginning of the process of making this movie there was quite a bit of consternation about whether or not we should push the production in order to be able to shoot with Betty or if we could avoid Netflix’s schedule. That was quite a bit of drama at the beginning, and if it had been any other movie than this particular movie, it might have been the biggest drama of production. But I was really adamant, I really did feel like she was the right person for the delicate mission as it were.

The entire film shifted for her contribution, basically?

It’s funny – some of the critical takes on the film suggest this movie’s wrong and a mess, but Betty Gilpin saves it. I’m thinking, well, we all were kind of like doing that on purpose! It’s not like she was just whomever. We were trying to make Betty Gilpin into an action movie star! That was the goal of the movie in a sense.

She’s up against the Oscar-winning Hilary Swank.

Yeah, then we had to decide who should Athena be. How about we get someone who has two Oscars, one for being a boxer? She was very down and great to do it. I think she added so much to the physicality and the designing of the fight scenes. Hilary can kick above her head like a superhero! We thought, OK, I guess that’s going in the movie.

Where was that building? Where did you actually shoot all of this?

That’s a sound stage, the whole kitchen and living room set was a sound stage that we built specifically to have a fight in. 

Which makes sense. I kept thinking, that poor kitchen. 

We tried to design something that would be the best Pinterested kitchen that you could fuck up. 

And all of the Croatian stuff, where did you end up shooting that?

All of that is in New Orleans, believe it or not. The big refugee camp in the film is in an area near a levee that you can actually see in the back of the thing we put armed guards on the top of it and made it look like a big wall. It was part of a damaged portion from Katrina of the city that nobody had come and fixed, so we just decided well, like, we can work with this.

Do you remember where it was specifically? 

Chalmette I think is the area, I don’t remember exactly the name of the area that that was.

There’s your other subtle metaphor for what’s wrong or not fixed in the United States is that in order to find something that is destroyed enough.

That irony’s not lost on me. Go to where Katrina was. It wasn’t lost on anyone that that was going to be easy to find. That was one of the easy locations to find. Finding that hill where we have the field at the very beginning was harder than finding a bunch of bombed out buildings. 

How do you think this film affected you emotionally?

Emotionally it has been a roller coaster. It certainly made me more adaptable to unexpected change. That is how it’s helped me emotionally. It’s actually helped me emotionally be more adaptable to unexpected change. Things happen in life and you have to kind of absorb them and move on. 

Like global pandemics for example.

Yeah. Exactly.

How do you think it will affect what you do next in terms of dealing with subjects that very well may push people’s buttons in this direction?

It doesn’t really do much. I’m just looking for the next new thing. I feel like I wouldn’t do this kind of thing again, but not because of any other reason than that I already did this. I’m not trying to make movies that are controversial, but I’m also not afraid of making something that feels new and that’s what I was trying to do. Like it or not, agree with the take on this movie or not, it was me trying to talk about what’s happening right now. I feel like I still want to do that. I don’t know that I have anything to say about partisanship or about internet conspiracy theories, unless it was a totally different POV into that. So right now, those are more the reasons I wouldn’t pursue something like this again, rather than, it hasn’t scared me away from the concept of making something that is new.

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