deep dives

Untangling the Politics of The Hunt With Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse

A talk about wokeness, bubbles, and conspiracy theories. Photo: Universal Pictures

The Hunt was supposed to come out in theaters last fall. But … it didn’t. Then it was set to release this month — which it did, sort of. The Hunt finally hit theaters in the middle of a global pandemic, making it extra difficult for fans to venture to their local cineplex to see the film. Thankfully, days after a dismal opening weekend, Universal announced that as of March 20, the studio would be making a selection of first-run theatrical releases available online for a premium rental price, including The Hunt. Curse broken?

On its long and winding road to release, the Blumhouse-produced, Craig Zobel–directed, Damon Lindelof– and Nick Cuse–co-written movie has been called politically divisive, toxic, racist (credit to the president on that one), and even damaging to America as a whole. And that was before anyone saw it. Contrary to prerelease hand-wringing, however, The Hunt isn’t simply about the left’s hatred of MAGA types. According to the writers, it’s about the judgments people of all political affiliations make about the so-called “other side.” The plot centers on two women: Athena (Hilary Swank), the alpha in a group of hypocritical liberal elites who have decided to kidnap and hunt alt-right Americans, and Crystal (Betty Gilpin), the shockingly combat-proficient member of the hunted, who has little in common with the white nationalists, Fox News fans, and homophobes surrounding her. In a sea of villains, Crystal is our only hope.

Throughout the course of Crystal’s story, Lindelof and Cuse touch on a number of politicized concepts: wokeness, bubbles, cancel culture, bothsideism. In a South Park–style, “everyone’s a mark” satire, it can be hard to parse the message, so we asked the co-writers to help us through it all. In a conversation ahead of their film’s release, they explained their approach to a Most Dangerous Game version of politics, how they characterized their villains, and the conspiracy theories that inspired them along the way.

On Wokeness

There’s a moment in The Hunt, when one of the elites hunting poor Americans for sport says, “Of course I would never blame the victim.” The line is seemingly meant to poke fun at the murderer’s obvious hypocrisy, but was it also meant to make light of language habitually used around the Me Too and Time’s Up movements?

Lindelof: You know, it was said to me while I was writing Watchman, and it has stuck with me in a very profound way: The most dangerous people are the people who identify as woke, because it’s not a permanent state that you achieve, right? It’s a practice. So we immediately decided that every single progressive in this movie felt like they were woke. This guy feels like he’s saying the right thing: “I would never blame the victim.” But he’s literally about to murder someone, and therefore he’s a villain. His usage of that particular phrase, he doesn’t even understand what it means.

I think that is beyond a valid [question] though, and what I would say — and this is not a defense — is I’d never thought about [making light of Me Too language]. But I’m going to be noodling over that one.

Cuse: We tried to just be very thoughtful and have conversations about finding some sort of truth in the idea of a privileged person who can state the sort of cultural company line. That felt like a thing that I had observed in the world, the platitude-ization of much more serious issues, and I think that’s 100 percent a negative thing. But it wasn’t meant to diminish the issue at all. It was meant to be a diminishing of the casualness with which it is treated.

On Bubbles

The Hunt takes an equal opportunity approach to who it sends up with its jokes; every group is a potential target. But how did the writers interrogate their own positions inside or outside these groups, and what sorts of assumptions or ideas went into their characterization as a result?

Lindelof: There’s a certain degree of hubris in telling any story like this, but I think our job, number one, was saying, “We have a problem, and the problem is that we’re in a bubble, and our bubble is basically populated by people who think and feel the same things that we do … I’m a white, cisgendered, hetero male inside this bubble, and I’m curating it to be surrounding myself with other white, cisgendered, hetero males. Let’s be super-duper aware of that. Let’s go as hard on ourselves as we possibly can.” That was basically our process. We have to take the hardest shots at our bubble. I think that it’s essential that if we weren’t making fun of ourselves, then we never would’ve been able to see our way through the movie.

Cuse: The reason that these extremely wealthy elites are the villains — and that was part of the DNA from the start — [is] because it felt like that was something that we’re familiar with in our lives as writers living in L.A. It is a privileged life. It is a very advantaged existence, and it always feels like the best people to make fun of are a version of yourself. So many of the things that Glenn Howerton and [the elites] say are things that I would say, you know? Then, I think the idea of putting these everyday Americans from all sorts of places across the country that me and Damon are not as familiar with sort of in the heroic role, just by nature of the fact that they’re the ones getting hunted, was also appealing for that same reason. Particularly with Crystal, the whole idea was judging a book by its cover when it’s completely the opposite of what you think.

On Bothsidesism

The Hunt works on a foundational assumption that “there are assholes on both sides,” which, for example, means people who are offended by white folks appropriating another culture exist in the same satire stew as people who think there’s a deep state conspiracy to undermine the presidency. Were the writers concerned they were flattening certain arguments, or being flippant with their critiques of certain people?

Lindelof: [We approached the satire] very carefully, and also with the energy of a bull in a china shop. The thing is, if you’re too careful then there’s no fun, and if you’re only there to have fun then you’re not being responsible. Both things had to coexist. So we heightened the reality as much as we could. Some of the people who are being hunted are literally the guy with the tiki torch or a guy posing next to a dead animal; they’re two-dimensional stereotypical representations of what liberals see conservatives as. And then we had to do the same thing with the liberals. But there had to be one character in the movie, the hero who defied the conventions of stereotyping, who when you look at her you basically say, “Oh, she has an accent like this. She wears clothes like this. This is who she is.” And let’s be wrong about her. Let’s let the movie be about the cautionary tale of, here’s what happens when you get it wrong.

I think that the idea the audience wants Athena to be wrong about Crystal is maybe our own interior desire to say, “Maybe I’m wrong about my uncle who I’m screaming at at Thanksgiving. Maybe there’s a little bit more to him than meets the eye. Maybe I’m trying to put him in this specific lane because we have to choose a side, but maybe there’s many sides and there’s a little bit more nuance in the conversation.”

Cuse: I think we found throughout the process of The Hunt, the times where we drifted from what was the best movie were the times where we weren’t actually going extreme enough. It felt like when people were laughing at the absurdity of it we were sort of in our sweet spot for what we wanted the movie to be. The commentary was like a texture and an angle for humor, and it provided a relevance, but storytelling wise, the North Star was subverting expectations, and that’s where I think you really see the DNA of The Leftovers and of Watchman.

On Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theories” generally carries a pejorative connotation, suggesting that the allure of a particular conspiracy is based on biased or inaccurate evidence. But Cuse and Lindelof take a gentler approach to the phenomena. In fact, they were able to find inspiration in the most outrageous of conspiracy theories: Pizzagate.

Lindelof: I think if there’s an overlap in the Venn diagram between The Leftovers and The Hunt, it’s this idea we use belief as a coping mechanism. We were talking a lot about conspiracy theories while we were making The Leftovers, and I believe that conspiracy theory is an emotional coping mechanism for the world. It’s actually more comforting for us to believe that there is an Illuminati controlling everything, because the truth is much more unsettling, which is: it’s chaotic, and sometimes really bad things happen to really good people. Sometimes lone nutters assassinate presidents, but it’s easier for us to believe that they were a pawn in a scheme, because that gives us structure and it makes us feel sort of more comfortable in this weird way.

Cuse: We went through a lot of different iterations of what could motivate someone to do a hunt in the style of The Most Dangerous Game, and the thing that we kept finding most interesting was Pizzagate. It’s really amazing as a story, because the further you get into it, the more amazing details there are to it. So the turns of that, and the idea of what’s the craziest conspiracy theory that people might believe now about another group of people. Then what if it became real? That was what got us excited.

On Cancel Culture

“Cancel culture” is a very divisive term, one that’s often used to conflate bullying with justifiably holding someone accountable for their actions. But what exactly is the duo’s take on the term, given that their movie was, literally and temporarily, canceled?

Lindelof: The idea of basically saying you’re persona non grata, you are canceled — if that happens to Kathy Griffin, I kind of go, “That’s bullshit. She should not be canceled for expressing herself.” At the same time, if you’re going to espouse provocative ideas, you should be wary of what’s coming your way. I think cancel culture exists to protect, right? You have to trust that no one innocent is going to get basically swept up in the system.

But I can’t sit here inside my glass house and throw stones. It does feel naïve for me to say, in hindsight, “What was all the hubbub [around The Hunt] about?” At the same time, we went through this entire process where a hundred people read the script. We shot the movie in Louisiana with a crew of people from all walks of life and political ideologies. I was waiting for someone to come up to me and say, “This movie is problematic. It’s offensive,” and that never happened. Maybe it never happened because I’m me, and who’s going to come up to me and say that? But guess what? There’s no shortage of people out there who have come up to me in my career and said, “Damon, this is problematic. Did it ever occur to you?”

If I can overly simplify something that shouldn’t be overly simplified, and should be completely and totally nuanced, I think when it relates to someone’s behavior outside the realm of their work, cancel culture is probably a good thing. But when cancel culture is targeting something because of the content of the work, then it’s a bad thing. Again, broad generalization, but we still live in a capitalist society. Let the industry decide. If The Hunt came out and it bombed and it was 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, that’s not cancel culture. That’s people saying this is a piece of shit and it shouldn’t exist. But if someone’s saying the movie shouldn’t even be released. What? Why not? Why can’t we trust people to make up their minds for themselves?

Untangling the Politics of The Hunt With Damon Lindelof