"These Are New and Uncertain Times": 'The Hunt' Director Craig Zobel on the Film's VOD Release

Craig Zobel, director of Universal's 'The Hunt,' talks the film's VOD release, its long journey to theaters, and even gets into some spoiler territory.

Director Craig Zobel attends Meet The Filmmaker: "Z for Zachariah"

Image via Noam Galai/WireImage

Director Craig Zobel attends Meet The Filmmaker: "Z for Zachariah"

The Hunt isn't the first violent film to see its release delayed in the wake of a mass shooting, but that, coupled with an indirect but very pointed public condemning from Donald Trump gave the film an infamy its creators couldn't have imagined. It's easy to see why though, given the premise. Directed by Craig Zobel from a script by Damon Lindelof and his frequent collaborator Nick Cuse, The Hunt is a B-movie-inspired thriller featuring yet a fresh spin on "The Most Dangerous Game"—you know, humans hunting humans for sport—only in this instance the hunters are elitist liberals and their prey are a group of conservative, right-wing archetypes. Feel provoked yet?

To hear Zobel tell it, that was hardly the intention, despite Trump's August 2019 tweets condemning "Liberal Hollywood" as "[r]acist at the highest level," and claiming "The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos." With a new theatrical release date set for March 13, Zobel was eager to finally set the record straight—then days later the movie theaters closed amid coronavirus quarantine measures. Fast forward a week later, and audiences can watch The Hunt from the comfort of their socially-distanced abode—the film and a few others were swiftly repositioned as VOD releases with movies like Ben Affleck's comeback vehicle The Way Back set to follow.

It's highly unorthodox, but these are unorthodox times with the future of Hollywood's box office and theater-going up in the air. Complex hopped on the phone with Zobel—who also helmed 2015's Z for Zachariah, numerous episodes of The Leftovers, and the Shogun World episode of Westworldto talk about being among the first wave of films to react to the pandemic, the release contingencies the industry will have to employ, and the real intent behind his bloody tale of Repbulicans versus Liberals.

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So I was lucky enough to screen the movie in a theater before this all went down. So let me first say, congrats on pulling it off, and you, Damon and Nick are maniacs.
Well, thanks. Yeah, I appreciate that. I'm glad that some people got to see it that way. That's great.

How did you arrive at the decision to go with this VOD release? Was it a tough decision to make?
Honestly, it was, up until the last few days—well let me go back quick. During the last week of the release, things were moving so fast that, I don't think on Monday it didn't seem—it seemed like, oh [the pandemic] might affect business, but not that all of the theaters would be shut down by Friday. You know what I mean? Everything was really fast. So when it became a possibility, I mean we were just kind of, everybody was encouraging like "well that'd be great if people could see it that way; that would be an amazing thing to do."

You guys are among the first films to do so. Is this a tactic that you think your peers are going to embrace if Hollywood is going to survive this?
It's great for my film that was coming out the week that all of this stuff happened. For it to be able to have a different life like that. I certainly believe in movie theaters and believe in going to movies. I enjoy going to movies. In fact, I initially made this film to be seen in a movie theater. It's supposed to be a fun midnight movie that you can go watch with other people. So I don't want that experience to go away. However, I think that these are new and uncertain times and my hope is that we can return to that as soon as possible.

For sure. Walk me through the path to the release for the whole movie from it getting pushed back last year to finally setting up the March date, to now.
I mean, it has, you know, and the film did get released in theaters. We certainly were supposed to come out in September of last year. Due to a whole, long scenario of a lot of things, that didn't happen. We were excited for everybody to get to see it last week when it was first released in the theaters. And then who would have ever predicted that that would be the weekend that basically [we'd] truly be facing this global pandemic?

So it's certainly not something that...you know, one part of me is like everyone needs to obey the rules and stay in, stay home and mostly focus on being safe. I really think that that's what all of our primary intentions should be at the moment. I'm excited as people do find themselves bored at home to get to watch this movie. I certainly made it for right now. And I made it for, as truly, like dumb fun, as a thing for people to enjoy. So hopefully some people can.

Now that the movie's out and more people are going to get to see it, what is it that you don't want misconstrued about the movie, or you Damon and Nick's intentions with it?
I think there's possibly some—because of all of the things that happened around the movie—there's possibly some people that might go into the film thinking that it's going to be a high-minded kind of dissection of polarization in America. But it is not that movie. It was not actually ever made to be that movie. I don't want to watch that movie right now. I certainly would not have enough of an opinion to like know what the cures to what ails us right now.

I wanted to make something that was fun, that made me laugh at myself about sort of how polarized things were. And hopefully made everyone kind of reflect on polarization simply in the way that it's like, well, maybe we're taking everything a little too seriously and we should all just chill out a bit. That was kind of the intention of the film. I would hate for people to go in with an assumption that the film is some specific like intellectual dissection of polarization in America. That's not the movie. It's supposed to be a midnight movie that makes you laugh and jump and have a good time.

For what it's worth, the screening that I attended yielded that reaction.
That's great to hear. I was able to go last weekend on Saturday to the movie theaters before they all shutdown. Got to sneak in and watch the movie with some people, which was really my goal and dream. Because it was made as like a group exercise, you know? And even though the theater was really not filled, the people that were there all seemed to be having fun which made me happy.

Had it been scheduled for release like one week later, it might not even be out at all.
Right. Yeah. It'd be again delayed or something. So it's great that it's coming out now because I feel like it's of the moment and that it's a good time for it.

[Ed. note: Spoiler for The Hunt follow.]

The Hunt

What was the most fun sequence to film and which was the most challenging?
That's kind of both the same answer. I would say that there's a fight scene at the end of the film that was both the most fun thing that I filmed in a really, really, really long time, and certainly the most challenging in a lot of different ways. It was fun. It was one of those rare times where you can feel all of the departments of a film. And there's so many people that make up making a film, so many different types of technicians that it takes to make a movie. Not only the cameraman and the actor, but like the person that makes the breakaway glasses that shatter and the stunt player, and the wardrobe people trying to make sure that the blood is in the right place from the last scene. And you could just tell how focused everyone was on getting that scene right and how much fun everyone was having every day on set while making that part of the film.

There's certainly a lot of glass breaking in that scene.
So much glass continuity.

The first 20 minutes are especially fun. You guys have a lot of fun killing off some of the more recognizable faces that people might be expecting to stay alive. Either on set or even writing it, what was the most fun kill to come up with and which actor had like the most fun doing that part out of Justin Hartley, Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz and the rest?
I'd like to say, my instincts would be to say that I think all of the actors had a blast dying. That was certainly like part of the fun of taking the role and figuring out how to kind of punctuate each of those differently. It certainly was quite fun working with Emma because she so kind of intuitively understood like what we were trying to do as far as making sure that she felt like the lead that we were going to follow, the protagonist of the movie. And we had a lot of discussions, the hair was her idea, which I thought was brilliant. Trying to dial in things to make her memorable and feeling like somebody that you're definitely going to keep following in order to kind of dispense with her very fast. She was definitely one of the most fun parts for sure.

By the time we get to the end of the movie, you guys very pointedly don't reveal Betty Gilpin's character's like party or political stance. What was the intention behind that?
Well, you know, most people don't read politics every day or aren't obsessed with that. I tried to remember that while making the movie, that 70% of Americans aren't thinking about politics every day. It's just the 30% of us sort of closer to the edges of it, of either side of political belief are the ones that are more and more concentrated on that stuff. And even though I have, certainly have political opinions. And I don't think it's possible to make a movie without like having some political opinions in your head, the kind of the fun of this movie was to be able to be in this sort of neutral space with the film.

And it was really important to me that we have a representative of that, and I feel like that's really kind of what Betty's role is, is being a representative of that neutral space in the middle, in a way. So it was important that you didn't know what her belief system was. And that you got to know her as a character without that being something that colored your thoughts on her.

Right. Now, you've directed some great episodes of television, including one of my personal favorites, "International Assassin" from The Leftovers. Do you have any upcoming TV work?
I do have upcoming TV work, I'm directing the entirety of a miniseries for HBO, called Mayor of East Town, starring Kate Winslet as the police detective. It's a murder mystery. And we're in the middle of shooting it now, but we're, we've taken a little break, as the world has. But yeah, it's going to, I'm excited, it's going to be good.

Zobel's film The Hunt is out now via VOD.

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