How The Hunt Became the Year's Most Controversial Movie Before Anyone Ever Saw It

Nearly six months after The Hunt was originally set to premiere, it's finally ready to see the light of day. Here's how it got branded the year's most controversial flick.

By Billy Nilles Mar 13, 2020 12:00 PMTags
Betty Gilpin, The Hunt, MovieBlumhouse Productions / Universal Pictures

The Hunt is on. Again.

Nearly six months after the satirical thriller from writer Damon Lindelof (Watchmen) and producer Jason Blum (The Purge, Get Out) was initially set to premiere, the film is finally seeing the light of day. And it arrives on the heels of a media campaign that drives home just what a strange life this film has had before anyone outside of a small handful ever even saw it.

"The most talked about movie of the year," the film's new poster reads," is one that no one's actually ever seen." Surrounding that new tagline are pull quotes from all the places who, indeed, chimed in on The Hunt without ever laying eyes on it. 

"A disturbance to our country," the one at the very top reads, while words like "dangerous," "sick" and "demented and evil" jump off the page, set apart in a different font.

No one involved set out to create the sort of film that would ignite such a firestorm. At least, not entirely.

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Sure, the plot, which follows a group of men and women labeled "deplorables" after they wake up in a field, bound and gagged, only to learn they are being hunted for sport by a group of wealthy liberal "elites" until one, Crystal (GLOW's Betty Gilpin), begins to fight back, seems purposefully provocative at face value. And when the rather straight-forward first round of promotion began airing on TV, that's all the information any of us had to go on. So, it's not such a leap that some might find the film's existence questionable at best.

But Lindelof and his co-writer Nick Cuse, deep in the thick of wrapping up the critically-acclaimed and heady HBO drama The Leftovers when the idea for the film came to them, just wanted to make a movie that would fit well into the Blumhouse wheelhouse.

Blumhouse Productions / Universal Pictures

"I was sort of watching Damon edit the penultimate episode that we'd written together and that Craig Zobel had directed," Cuse told Vulture this month. "We were just talking at lunch about like what we might want to do next, and then Damon was like, 'I've always thought it'd be great to write a Blumhouse movie.' I said, 'That's great. We should just do it, and Zobel can direct it.' That was literally the very first three sentences: Blumhouse movie, Zobel can direct it, and Damon said yes. Then he said, 'I've always thought The Most Dangerous Game would be a cool thing to adapt.' So I was like, 'Let's do it.'"

As Lindelof told TIME, he and Cuse had been discussing Pizzagate—the thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that claimed Hillary and Bill Clinton were running a pedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant basement—when he asked, "Is there anything we wouldn't believe about the quote-unquote other side, or that they wouldn't believe about us? What's the most ridiculous conspiracy theory that could possibly manifest?"

They got to work on a script that was outrageous and gory and full of caricatures of folks on both sides of the political aisle and brought Zobel aboard. "I wanted to try to make a film I would want to see at the moment, which is not necessarily one that would lecture me," the director told TIME. "I wanted to see a movie that would help me laugh at myself."

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When the script was brought to Blum, he immediately found himself on board. "It felt very similar to The Purge, and equally outlandish," the producer told TIME. "The most important part was that it was a super fun action movie."

With Blumhouse Productions and their venture with Universal Studios backing the film, Lindelof asserts that there were never requests made to tone down any of the political satire. "Nobody at any point in the process said, 'this is controversial,'" he told TIME. "We shot in New Orleans, and on the crew, there was an incredible blend of political ideologies. Everybody seemed amused by the movie."

After production began in February 2019, the first look at the film, slated for a September 27 release, arrived in the last days of July. The rather straightforward trailer, hinting at none of the film's satirical edge, posed as a standard thriller, but generated no controversy. At least not at first.

Blumhouse Productions / Universal Pictures

Then came the dark day of August 3, 2019, where the nation watched in horror as not one, but two mass shootings unfolded—one at a Walmart in El Paso, Tx. that left 22 dead and another at a bar in Dayton, Oh. that killed nine. Right away, ESPN was said to have pulled an ad for the film that began like an emergency broadcast set to air that weekend, prompting Universal to begin to rethink its promo strategy.

As trade publications like The Hollywood Reporter began to assert that test screenings weren't going well and the film had originally been titled Red State vs. Blue State, both of which everyone involved with the film vociferously deny, Fox News began to pay the film attention as well. The right-leaning news organization published a story on The Hunt with the headline: "Hollywood blockbuster that satirizes killing of 'deplorables' causes outrage: 'Demented and evil.'" Fox Business host Lou Dobbs called it a "sick, twisted new movie" and that the thought of "globalist elites hunting deplorables sounds a little too real."

Two days later, President Donald Trump weighed in, albeit without ever naming the film directly. "Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate!" he tweeted. "They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!

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As both the filmmakers and executives at Universal began receiving death threats on social media, the swift decision was made to pull the film. 

"The first thing that went through my mind when I heard the film was pulled was shock at the irony," Zobel told Playboy recently. "I felt like if I could talk to someone and remind them that the film was primarily concerned with internet trolls—that the things happening to the film were also happening in the film—that someone would laugh and go, 'Okay, yeah, we shouldn't pull it.' Then I realized that we'd crossed a threshold where that wasn't gonna help."

Lindelof told TIME, "As soon as I saw [Trump's tweet], I thought, 'this movie is not coming out.' My naiveté was exposed by this entire scenario. I felt kind of dumb and sad."

Blumhouse Productions / Universal Pictures

While Blum and Zobel defended the film in the immediate wake of its cancellation, the question over whether it would ever see the light of day remained. As the producer told Vulture, he spent the time between the film getting shelved and its eventual return to the schedule trying to get "everyone to see the forest through the trees and not get wrapped up in the near future."

"It's not about getting the movie out now … or acting rashly. Not that anyone did act rashly," he continued. "But you take that nervous energy and try to convert that into, 'Hey guys, let's just keep our eye on the prize here,' which is getting the movie back on the schedule at any time. I think that was my biggest role in the last six months once the movie was taken off the schedule."

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While a straight-to-VOD release was considered and competitors came out of the woodwork, interested in buying the film off Universal's hands to release as their own, Blum never strayed from the course. "I love the movie. I'm really proud of the movie, and you can't have a bigger impact on the culture with a movie than with a theatrical release," he said.

So, with enough time between the original uproar to have dulled much of the memory of it, the film landed a new release date and a new marketing campaign that played up the controversial nature of the film, daring audiences to judge it for themselves. What didn't change, though, was the movie itself. And everyone involved is just happy that people will finally be able to see it.

"We think that people who see it are going to enjoy it and this may be a way to shine a light on a very serious problem in the country, which is that we're divided," Lindelof told THR when the new trailer dropped earlier this year. "And we think the movie may actually, ironically, bring people together."

As Zobel told TIME, the wait to release his film has only made it that much more timely in his eyes. "We're going into a period this fall where we'll be in a torrent of media aimed at dividing us during this election season," he says. "I hope people can laugh at how we divide ourselves into groups—there's a lot to be laughed at in what's happening right now."

The Hunt is in theaters now.

(Universal Pictures and E! are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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