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The Hunt Director Craig Zobel Found His Movie’s Cancellation to Be ‘Very Meta’

Craig Zobel
Craig Zobel Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage/Getty Images

After a six-month delay from the date of its original release, the “sick” and “hateful” Blumhouse movie The Hunt finally arrives in theaters this weekend. The Most Dangerous Game–esque story of humans hunting humans polarized America last summer, becoming the target of right-wing commentators who accused the movie of epitomizing everything that’s wrong with liberal Hollywood and its view of “deplorables” — even though those commentators hadn’t yet seen the film. No one was more surprised by the preemptive hand-wringing than The Hunt’s director, Craig Zobel, who recently lamented to Vulture that the wave of outrage turned his movie into “steamed cauliflower” when it was meant to be “cake.”

The Hunt is about a handful of unsympathetic rich people who gather up a group of unsuspecting American citizens and ship them out to a forest in Europe where the wealthy can hunt the poor for sport. But no one in the movie, save for its explosive central character Crystal (played by Betty Gilpin), is meant to look good. In a fictional polarized universe, almost everyone is the bad guy, even if they don’t realize it. That was an intentional move by co-writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, and one supported by Zobel: Take aim at both sides with no demonstrable bias. Now that The Hunt is finally on the threshold of its big debut, and being marketed as a hot commodity thanks to its scandal, Vulture sat down with the director to talk about his experiences with controversial film debuts, the privilege of being the one who gets to make the jokes, and how he hopes people engage with his movie.

You started working with Nick and Damon very early on after they had this script idea, so did you discuss the possibility of controversy when the story was coming together?
You know, I have to say I thought that the whole intention of the movie was to kind of not to make any one side look good, but to make every side look bad, and in that way I thought that we would be fine. What I certainly wasn’t prepared for was that there might become an idea about what the movie was, which wasn’t what the movie was, which then made people feel like it was more scandalous than it was. You know? You can only make the movie that you want to make. You can’t plan for people to assume the wrong thing about it. You wouldn’t get anything done. So, no is the answer. I didn’t think that it was going to do this.

Do you remember the point when you realized your movie might be in some real trouble in terms of actually coming out?
My answer to this might be different than other people’s in that I, possibly naïvely, was always like, Hmm, but the movie talks about all of this stuff! I constantly was like, This is what it’s actually about. This is amazing! [Laughs.] The things happening in the movie are what the movie was trying to talk about, and I thought for sure that there would be a point at which it would simmer down enough for everybody to be like, Wow, that’s crazy. And there wasn’t. So, I was a little behind the curve on kind of understanding when we had crossed some threshold.

I hesitate to say the word amusing because it wasn’t very fun. It was just a unique experience to be like, Wow, no one actually even knows what this movie is. No one had seen it. You know, we had done a couple of test screenings, but genuinely like none of my friends had seen it.

Were you frustrated that you couldn’t really speak up about it? You answered some questions via email for Variety shortly after the release was pulled, but that was it. 
Look, you make a movie, you want people to see it. That’s the point of making a movie. I will say, the other point is — at least for me — I need to kind of know what the movie I’m making is about. At one point Hilary [Swank]’s character says, “You wanted it to be true, so you decided it was.” That was happening to the movie and it was a line inside of the movie. So, as a person that wants people to see their movies it’s frustrating for that to go on, but as for what I wanted the movie to say, it continues to have a reason to say that specific thing because of all of the things that happen to the movie — which is very meta.

How were you hoping people would engage with this movie?
I made the movie just to be fun. The main thing was, when Nick and Damon first approached me with the idea my instinct was always, As long as it can be a fun action movie, because I need a bit of escapism right now. If you’ve seen [Zobel’s 2012 movie] Compliance, you know I’m not opposed to making movies that are strong on theme, but the type of movie I most want to watch right now would be something that would be humorous and fun and have cool action in it and be a genre movie. I actually felt like this is a balance of that. So what was hard in all the events that surrounded the movie was that it really took all the fun out of it. It made the movie into, like, steamed cauliflower — something that it wasn’t. The movie was cake!

It is cake. But since it is cake that’s also making fun of people, was it your intention to offend?
No, not at all. I thought that — well, I was seeking to equal-opportunity offend. Everyone.

That’s something I wanted to ask you about specifically because there are these “cauliflower” aspects to The Hunt. It is not without its social commentary, so I wanted to ask how you engage with something that is going to be making judgments of people when the key people involved with creating it all sit in pretty high positions of privilege compared to most people who will be watching it. There’s a luxury to saying you want to skewer “both sides” knowing you aren’t a stakeholder in some of the concepts you’re satirizing.
For sure. I remember conversations between me and Nick and Damon kind of about exactly what you just said. You know, the best answer that I can give is, you’ve got to just do your best, you know? And the question becomes, Do you still want to tell that story? Do you still feel like there’s enough value in you being the person that can tell that story? And look, this movie is mostly absurd and fun. I’m not shirking the responsibility, and I’m not avoiding the acknowledgment of sort of any privilege that I might have or POV that I might be bringing to it, but it’s also not my job to be without POV in making something, you know?

No, I agree with that. I don’t think art is — for me personally — that it should be neutral, and I want to know where a filmmaker is coming from. But I do think people have a responsibility to interrogate their own perspective while making something that satirizes someone else’s.
Exactly. That’s right, and I think the short answer to all of that was that it became important to make sure that we were laughing at ourselves first, and those seem to be the jokes that we all found funniest, the stuff that kind of was us making fun of ourselves.

So, as you and Damon and Nick are developing this together, who are you talking with to do that kind of interrogation? 
Ourselves. I will say, after living in New York for a very long time I moved back down to where I’m from in Athens, Georgia, and I started to realize that I was making assumptions about people. I was all of a sudden around groups of people that didn’t maybe always have the same belief systems that I did, but that actually we shared a lot more beliefs than it seemed like we did. That it was a lot easier to talk to people on the other side of the aisle, so to speak, than you would think. I sound like some unity candidate or something, and I’m not trying to be, but that’s truly what I started to kind of have perspective on. So, making a film like this was in some ways an attempt to kind of reflect on how we do make assumptions about other people based on what group we think that they’re in without necessarily being correct.

The Hunt was not your first experience with having a movie greeted by controversy. I attended Sundance in 2015 and an organizer introduced a whole other movie by referencing the infamous Q&A that followed the premiere of your movie Compliance in 2012 as an example of how rowdy things could get at the festival. [At the Q&A session, Zobel was accused of being a misogynist who got off on his main character’s nudity and humiliation.] That was eight years ago now, and we have a lot more ways of communicating our thoughts to the public. So, how has being at the center of a film controversy evolved in the past decade?
Well, I think that the controversy that surrounded Compliance largely involved people wanting clarity on the intention of why the movie was made.

With this film, no one had seen the movie. No one had even talked about the movie. They had just decided they knew what it was about, and that they knew what our point of view was. That was what caused the controversy, and with Compliance I was going to, like, Omaha and doing a screening for like 46 people at the local art-house theater, and then standing there and raising my hand being like, “I’m the guy who made this. If you’re mad, let me answer your questions.” And people wanted to hear that, you know?

I didn’t feel like during the course of what was happening with The Hunt, me getting on Twitter and being like, “Let me dust off this soapbox and tell you guys of all of the things that I think.” In a way it actually felt kind of antithetical to what I was trying to say with the movie. It just makes me very happy that we’re able to have these discussions now, and that in a few weeks after the movie’s been out, there’ll be a whole other level of conversation about it. I’m not 100 percent sure what that will be, but I am willing to engage in it. I was not willing to engage with it when nobody had seen it. I think the best thing to do if you’re going to talk about a movie is watch it first.

The Hunt Director: His Movie’s Cancellation Was ‘Very Meta’