Name your favorite thriller of the past year. If The Hunt doesn’t come to mind, it’s not because you’re behind the times. The film, which boasts a top-notch cast and filmmaking pedigree, wasn’t on your best-of-2019 list because you still haven’t seen it—and neither have the people who helped prevent you from seeing it.
Produced by horror master Jason Blum and co-written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (who both worked on Watchmen and The Leftovers), The Hunt was set for theatrical release from Universal on September 27. A trailer that dropped in July sketched out a plot in which Betty Gilpin, Emma Roberts and Justin Hartley band together against a diabolical overlord played by Hilary Swank.
On August 3, a shooting motivated by anti-immigrant hatred left 22 people dead in El Paso. Days later, a story from The Hollywood Reporter stated that networks were pulling ads for the film in light of the tragedy. As reports surfaced that the plot revolved around liberals hunting conservatives for sport, right-wing pundits pounced. Trump, presumably responding to heavy Fox News coverage, tweeted about the film on August 9 without mentioning it by name. “Liberal Hollywood is racist at the highest level,” Trump wrote. “The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos.”
The day after the president’s tweet, Universal announced it was pulling the movie from its schedule. The studio said it stood by the filmmakers, but “now is not the right time to release this film.” At press time, The Hunt remains in limbo, with no updates on whether it will see the light of day.
“There’s no way for that not to be a weird day in your life,” The Hunt director Craig Zobel tells PLAYBOY, reflecting on the Trump tweet. “To have the world aimed at you because the president aimed it at you is a very, very, very strange thing.”
It’s mid-January, five months after the film’s release was canceled, and Zobel has invited me to spend time with him in Philadelphia. He relocated there from Athens, Georgia to take over directing duties on the HBO limited series Mare of Easttown. It’s his first job since the drama with The Hunt led him to take a break from directing. We’ve been friends since I was his student in a screenwriting class back in 2010, and he’s granting me his first press sit-down since the hysteria subsided.
It wasn’t easy scheduling this time with the 44-year-old filmmaker. As the furor surrounding his movie started to build in early August, and just days before it was pulled, I e-mailed him to see if he’d like to address the situation. He didn’t respond until early October, at which point he apologized for the delay and said he’d love to chat at some point. On the day after Christmas he let me know he had just landed the Mare gig and asked if I could fly out to the City of Brotherly Love.
Meeting at a bar around midnight on the night I land, we quickly fall back into a familiar movie-nerd rapport. It’s immediately clear that the past year has been an incredibly trying one for Zobel, one he’s been unsure about discussing with me despite our long history. (He wasn’t the only person reluctant to discuss the film; every one of its leads declined to talk for this piece.) In fact, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that he would accept this current HBO job, and not just because of the Hunt turmoil. While he was in post-production on that film, Zobel and his girlfriend of 16 years split, his work schedule and frequent travel having taken a toll on the relationship.
“The breakup happened, and then I was like, ‘At least the movie’s good,’” he quietly tells me the next day from his office in Sun Center Studios, about half an hour outside downtown Philly. He’s been spending his weekends here, holed up in the show’s edit bay. “Then the movie blew up. I was like, I’m not prepared to actually do anything right now. When HBO called, I didn’t think I was ready at first. Then I reconsidered and thought, Maybe I should work. Maybe that will help. To be honest, it has.”
In early August, when the movie “blew up,” Twitter was awash in hot takes.
Some posited that Universal should have expected this kind of uproar. But Zobel assures me the studio never expressed concern before August and had been supportive throughout the filmmaking process, in part, he maintains, because the movie they made is not what people think it is.
“It’s a fun, satirical action movie about an internet conspiracy theory,” Zobel explains. “The plot is that both sides are dumb. It’s not ‘Shame on MAGA supporters; we liberal elites want to teach them a lesson.’ That was the narrative that truly got created by the rightest of the right-wing media in the wake of the El Paso shooting. Once they needed the message ‘It’s not guns’ fault; it’s movies’ and video games’ and TV’s fault,’ we were a great foil.”
Having read The Hunt’s screenplay, I can attest that the project is not what the pitchfork-wielding mobs would have you believe. This is corroborated by filmmaker Josh Locy, one of the very few people who have actually caught a screening.
“When you see the movie—and there are a lot of interpretations of it—to me, it’s about liberal hypocrisy,” Locy tells me. “The heroes of the movie are the MAGAhat people—they’re who you’re rooting for. It flips the script.”
“The plot is not ‘Shame on MAGA supporters; we liberal elites want to teach them a lesson.’”
As it happens, a key plot point involves an online post getting blown out of proportion. “The movie is about how someone on the internet can say one thing, it can get pulled out of context and then lives and careers are at stake,” adds Locy, a writer on HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. “And that’s exactly what Universal did. They let this internet troll, who happens to be our president, dictate their slate of movies. They had an opportunity to embrace free speech and didn’t, out of fear.”
First and foremost Zobel just wants the damn film to be seen—and clearly he’s not the only person who thinks the public should get to make up its own mind. A source familiar with the negotiations tells PLAYBOY that Blum’s company, Blumhouse Productions, has fielded offers from multiple streaming platforms above the film’s $17 million production costs to acquire distribution rights. At the moment Universal still holds those rights.
According to Zobel, more than the nature of the plot has been distorted. A rumor spread in the media and online that the film was originally called Red State vs. Blue State, which led Universal to issue a denial that the film had ever held this title. Zobel is still uncertain how the notion started.
“That title became one of the reasons it was seen as such an incendiary, bad movie,” the director says. “I remember calling Nick and Damon and asking, ‘Was it ever called Red State vs. Blue State?’ Nick’s like, ‘No, that’s a terrible name for a movie.’ So that was just made up, and then I have people tweeting at me, ‘You want to make a movie about red state vs. blue state? We’ll show you red state vs. blue state.’ ”
Zobel says he received death threats after Trump’s tweet, though he didn’t take them too seriously, and they didn’t change his mind about the film. “There were Twitter accounts that had been open for three days that had nothing but anti–Craig Zobel tweets,” he says. “Still, I absolutely don’t want to change anything, and no one has asked me to. It will be even more interesting when people see it.”
When Seth Rogen says, “It sucks when an evil world leader gets your movie canceled,” it would be fair to assume he’s talking about his own film The Interview. After all, the comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un was pulled from Sony’s release calendar in 2014 amid an internal hack on the studio credited to North Korea. But no, the quote is actually something Rogen said in August about The Hunt—and a grim reminder of history’s tendency to repeat itself.
The Hunt is hardly the first film to face external obstacles impacting its release. The Interview was kept out of major theater chains; Collateral Damage, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was delayed after 9/11 because of its terrorism theme; Dr. Strangelove’s release date was pushed after the JFK assassination; A Clockwork Orange was pulled from theaters in the U.K. after the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, expressed concern about copycat crimes.
Among the people I spoke with, including free-speech lawyers and film historians, the comparison that kept coming up was the fearmongering that gripped the U.S. during the Mc-Carthyism period of the 1950s. We’re not there yet, but the notion that a filmmaker today could get blacklisted for running afoul of government narratives doesn’t seem farfetched. As it is, this era in cinema is focused almost entirely on intellectualproperty franchises, and projects that take creative risks tend to be relegated to streaming.
“When companies start banning or dropping films because they’re afraid of their social content, that’s a bad sign,” says Joseph McBride, who worked as a Hollywood screenwriter for 18 years, on Rock ’n’ Roll High School and other films. “Hollywood is terribly afraid of social issues, even today. I wanted to do a Fidel Castro biopic and had a very fun idea for it. You can imagine what kind of reaction I got.”
These days, Trump’s wrath can be aimed not only at political foes but at any element of the media that has irked him. In March 2019 the president doubled down on his criticism of Saturday Night Live by branding the show “one-sided media coverage” and asking, “Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this?” In December, Amazon claimed it had lost out on a multibillion-dollar cloud contract due to Trump’s attacks on the company and its founder, Jeff Bezos. (Bezos owns The Washington Post, a frequent target of Trump’s vitriol.) And Trump has been a vocal critic of former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who remains unemployed by the league after kneeling during the national anthem to protest police injustice.
A key difference between today’s era and previous ones is the sense that Twitter, Trump’s weapon of choice, can amplify the concerns of a fringe group or give a false read of the national temperature. Take, for example, Warner Bros.’ villain-origin tale Joker, which stirred up prerelease panic on social media that the gritty movie could lead to real-world violence. Warner stood its ground and released the film in October as planned; it went on to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time and the recipient of more Oscar nominations than any other 2019 title. Of course Warner would have known a movie like Joker, with its built-in audience, would likely be a high earner, something that’s less certain with an original concept à la The Hunt.
“When the studios confront this kind of resistance, if they see it operating not in their financial interest, they’ll fold like a cheap suit,” says Thomas Doherty, cultural historian and author of Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist. “We’re in another time right now where producers, distributors and exhibitors feel that same blacklist-like sense of fear.”
For Zobel, there’s a hint of familiarity to all this. After his 2007 film Great World of Sound earned the breakthrough director prize at the Gotham Awards, he went on to make 2012’s Compliance. (I have an IMDb credit for helping out on the set.) It’s based on a true story of a fast-food manager, played by Ann Dowd in a breakout role, ordering a strip search of a young female employee at the behest of a police impersonator. Dubbed by the Daily Beast “the year’s most controversial film,” Compliance would serve as Zobel’s introduction to polarizing reactions to his work.
When I reconnect with Dowd to tell her I’m writing about The Hunt, she couldn’t be more encouraging. The Emmy-winning actress—known for playing the Handmaid’s Tale monster Aunt Lydia, a character Michelle Wolf famously compared to then White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner—is quick to point out the hypocrisy of Trump condemning a movie about gun violence when he’s unwilling to stand up to the NRA.
“The fact that Trump has anything to say on the matter is so ridiculous,” says Dowd, who reunited with Zobel when he directed episodes of The Leftovers. “What Craig would support, I would support without taking a beat, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s place to censor what is to be released and what isn’t. People have a choice to go or not to go—that’s up to them. You have to be courageous, and if you’re trusting a director enough to hire him, then fulfill your obligation. It’s unacceptable.”
A telling difference between the two films is that Zobel traveled the country with Compliance and held Q&As to promote discourse about its challenging themes. That wasn’t possible just seven years later with The Hunt, both because of the Twitter threats and, well, because there was no film to promote. “As a culture, something got darker,” he says.
Kathy Griffin said as much when she sat for the Playboy Interview in 2018. The boundary-pushing comedian saw her career path change irrevocably when she posted an image in 2017 of herself holding a facsimile of Trump’s severed head. “I was not a George W. Bush fan, but it was nothing like this during W.’s presidency,” Griffin said. “During W. you could still make jokes about the president.”
Zobel’s most introspective moment comes when I ask whether the uproar that led to the film being shelved would have happened under a different commander in chief. “I think about this question all the time,” he replies. “I live in Georgia, I made a TV show in Pittsburgh, I’m making one now in Philly—and Pennsylvania isn’t Hollywood. I find it enlightening how much similarity I have with people who hold different political views from mine. That was part of the spirit of the movie: In reality, we’re not that far apart.”
He sighs heavily. “But now I don’t have high hopes, to be honest. Changing the president isn’t going to fix that. As a culture, we have to make a choice that we don’t want to be like that.” ■