Damon Lindelof on What Trump Got So Very Wrong About ‘The Hunt’
The “Leftovers” and “Watchmen” creator opens up to Melissa Leon about his controversial/postponed film about rich liberals hunting backwoods conservatives for sport.
With The Hunt, writer Damon Lindelof set out to satirize the outlandish conspiracies that drip into mainstream political discourse in post-2016 America. He thought of a darkly absurd joke: a group of villainous liberals kidnap and kill conservatives for sport. If word of that spread in the real world, would people believe it? And when people believed it, what would they do?
The movie made it a month until release before the joke took on a life of its own. Suddenly, The Hunt—a schlocky, blood-soaked satire about modern political extremes, false outrage, and misinformation—became a target of the very phenomenon it aimed to poke fun at.
The Hunt’s premise sparked conservative backlash—from Fox News all the way to the White House—after The Hollywood Reporter released early details about the film, which had started spooking advertisers after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Lindelof (The Leftovers, Watchmen) barely recognized the film he’d co-written in THR’s description. The report was based on an early version of the script and “had some facts wrong” too, he says; it painted a picture of a more serious film whose satire was mostly one-sided.
But The Hunt is nothing if not equal-opportunity in its skewering of self-righteous, rich liberal “elites” and the gun-worshipping “deplorables” they kidnap and hunt for sport in a twisted update of The Most Dangerous Game. Democrats emerge as thin-skinned sociopaths who subject everyone, including each other, to inane purity tests for which failure is punishable by death. Republicans come off as delusional half-wits, rabid in their antagonism of “snowflakes,” immigrants, pro-choice activists, you name it. Every character is cult-like in their hatred of those who fall outside their political tribe—and easily manipulated because of it.
Except for Crystal (a fantastically ass-kicking Betty Gilpin), one of the hunted. Unlike the brainwashed loons surrounding her, she keeps mum about her own political beliefs, even as she wages a one-woman war on the elites who captured her. Lindelof sees “virtue” in her apoliticism; she’s the heroine of the story, an ordinary working-class Mississippian with a deadly knack for weaponry, hand-to-hand combat, and one-liners delivered with wild-eyed conviction.
But details and context were lost in the maelstrom around the film, culminating in nonstop Fox News coverage and an inevitable tweet from President Trump denouncing Hollywood as “racist.” In the wake of the shootings and with a narrative quickly spinning out of control, Lindelof, co-writer Nick Cuse, director Craig Zobel (who, along with Cuse, worked with Lindelof on HBO’s The Leftovers), and producer Jason Blum came to an agreement with Universal: they would shelve the film indefinitely. (Cue another wave of anguish, this time from lefties concerned that the filmmakers had caved to bad-faith attacks from the right.)
Six months later, The Hunt is finally in theaters. Audiences may decide for themselves whether the film’s broad characters and virtuosically cartoonish violence ever merited the outrage. Lindelof has his own opinions about it. He spoke to The Daily Beast by phone about The Hunt’s stranger-than-fiction journey to the screen, what it says about our own political reality, and more.
I know you all came to the decision together to shelve the film last August—but now that I’ve seen it, I wondered what those initial concerns over how it would be received were, since it is so plainly absurdist and skewers both Democrats and Republicans equally.
You know, that’s a really good question. And it’s so hard to imagine what I was thinking and feeling and experiencing in August when all this was going down. But I do think it is important to contextualize it in the wake of the horrific events in El Paso and Dayton. The first conversation that we had before the quote-unquote controversy was, let’s just talk about whether or not we should advertise this movie, because we were still about four or five weeks out from release. Maybe we should just pull all the commercials that are gonna run on TV. The billboards weren’t going to be going up for another three weeks. And so that conversation happened and it felt like it was appropriate.
And then The Hollywood Reporter story ran. They had gotten an early copy of the script and published the most incendiary elements and had some facts wrong, like that the movie was originally called [Red State vs. Blue State], which it never was. Most importantly, they excluded the fundamental idea that the movie was very, as you said, over the top and absurdist and even comedic at times. If we actually made the movie that was being reported, this very serious thriller about liberal elites hunting conservatives for sport, we should have gotten all the criticism that came our way. But that’s not the movie that we made. And once that narrative took hold, the only position that we could take was a defensive position, which is like, wait, wait, guys, that’s not our movie. But at the same time, it actually felt like we couldn’t say the movie is not about those things. It’s just when you actually see it [in context], we kind of feel like we’re being misunderstood.
Once that train left the station, there was no going back, particularly because we were in the wake of processing what had happened the previous weekend. And for us to be talking about “No, our movie should come out”—it felt really petty given the grander circumstance. It just felt like the appropriate move to make was to cancel the release and wait it out and see if enough time passed to reevaluate.
There were also concerns that shelving the film after the conservative backlash amounted to an unnecessary surrender, since no one—including the president, who seemed to allude to the movie in a Twitter screed—had actually seen it yet. Do you share those concerns at all?
I don’t. I mean, I’m a staunch advocate against anybody who attempts to censor anything, even if that censorship involves ideologies or writings that I don’t like or I deem dangerous. I feel like this is one of the beautiful things about our democracy for as long as we’re able to retain it. For me, it was more about how there was a mischaracterization and a confusion surrounding the movie that was no longer separable from the ideas that catalyzed it. It didn’t feel to me like we were caving to those pressures, but more that we were making a really reasonable, mature choice about the timing. I think more than anything else reflective of your question, the idea that the movie was being canceled, that was the only thing that I took issue with. Like, do we have to use that word, “cancel?” Can we say, you know, we’re pulling the movie from the schedule and we’ll reevaluate at a later date? But the conventional thinking, which turned out to be accurate at the time, was the only way to proceed is to say that this movie isn’t ever going to come out, and let’s see how people respond to that.
And lo and behold, when that happened, people started saying what you’re saying now: “Was it appropriate to cancel the movie, given the circumstance?” And then we started showing the movie to people. And the people who saw the movie were sort of like, “Oh, this is not at all controversial, it isn’t dangerous. Sure, it may offend some people, but you know, it’s certainly not designed to do that. It’s about as fair and even-handed a version of this movie can be, given what the subject matter is. Everything happens so fast in our culture that that scenario happened in August and by time we got to Valentine’s Day, the movie was back on the schedule.
Only six months, somehow!
I feel like time is both collapsing in on itself and also endless. It’s very confusing.
Did anything about the film change between then and its release now, or is it the exact same film that would have released last September?
It is exactly the same movie. So on Saturday and Sunday of that week [in August], those horrible shootings occurred. On Tuesday, we had the test screening, which we decided not to cancel because we’re like, if the test audience tells us this movie is not appropriate to release then we’re going to kill it ourselves. But it tested quite well. And then that Friday was when it got canceled. From that version of the movie that screened, we didn’t change anything other than the fact that some of the music was temp. We hadn’t brought in our composer to finish the score yet, but we did not change a single scene in the movie.
The movie itself also deals with conspiracy theories and misinformation. So it’s sort of darkly funny that it became part of its own conspiracy cycle.
Could you speak to how conspiracies inform the politics of the characters in the movie, and how that played out in the meta narrative around the film?
Yeah, I mean, look, the movie is a satire. And what it is trying to satirize is the idea that we’ll sort of believe anything about the quote-unquote other side if that supports our own ideology, no matter how ridiculous it is. And that is not specific to any one side. But also conspiracy theory is this way that we have of explaining the world, because sometimes it’s more comforting to believe that there’s a group of powerful elites who are running things than it is to believe what is probably the truth, which is, there are these chaotic events that we do not have control over. And that’s scary. It’s almost less scary to believe that somebody is pulling the strings.
So we began to imagine what the confluence of those events are. It’s like, what if someone got accused of being the puppeteer, but they weren’t the puppeteer? Could they then become the puppeteer? This idea of the chicken and the egg writ large became sort of intoxicating for Nick and I. And that was like the jumping-off point for the story. The reality is when we started thinking about this movie, the idea of a conspiracy theory where liberal elites were hunting normal Americans was completely and totally absurd. And then it became an actual thing, where the day after the movie got canceled, I was talking to my wife, and I was like, “It was a joke!” She said, “Doesn’t Hilary [Swank] say that in the movie?” And I was like, “Oh, my God, what’s happening right now?” (Laughs)
Belief is a major theme of the movie—how people choose to believe in what they do, how it defines them, and what they do in the name of those beliefs. So it’s fitting that you, Nick Cuse, and Craig Zobel all worked on this movie together after The Leftovers.
Yeah, I mean, I think that the systems that we choose to believe in are really coping mechanisms for us. We’re all dealing with trauma—there’s no way to move through your life without experiencing some sense of devastating loss through a loved one or, God forbid, you get sick. You want to believe that there’s a purpose and a reason behind that. And so conspiracy theory is another way that we actually ascribe purpose. It’s sort of like, “Oh, no, you have this disease because some government unleashed it upon you” is actually in some bizarre way more comforting than just, “Hey, some people get sick and other people don’t.” And, “This person assassinated the president of the United States because they were part of a grand conspiracy to have a political coup,” versus, “Oh, it was just a nut job who worked at the Texas Schools Book Depository.”
But then our paranoia is sometimes justified. The more we learn about the world, the more that it’s like, sometimes these conspiracy theories actually have to have a nugget of truth to them in order to be believed. I think there’s this idea right now that you have to pick a side, and you have to be on a team. And even on your own team, there are sub-teams. Are you team this candidate, or are you team that candidate? And there are these purity tests. There’s no denying that that’s happening in our culture right now. And it feels like the way that you process this is to get as absurdist as you possibly can.
And make fun of yourself a bit too, right? The hunted in the movie would probably pin you as an “elite.”
To me, the best experience that I’ve had watching The Hunt play with an audience is [seeing] people’s ability to laugh at ourselves. Nick and I had a really great time making fun of ourselves. Sometimes, Nick would make a joke because I’m, you know, 20 years older than he is. There was a little bit of, “Do I actually say that?” And he was like, “All the time.” And I was like, “OK, all right, touché.” But the best kind of satire actually stings a little bit, and hopefully the movie doesn’t pull its punches. It gives us an opportunity to look at a reality that is not ours. But it’s a cautionary tale for the direction that we’re headed in.
I was also curious why it felt important to make sure that Betty Gilpin's character, Crystal, had no explicit politics, and whether that’s construed as a virtue in the film.
I think it is a virtue. I mean, if there’s one accurate statement that I believe to be true—and again, this is just one person’s opinion—it’s that inside the bubble, everybody cares intensely about politics and everybody’s screaming and yelling about politics. But I think that the vast majority of Americans are sort of like, “You know what, I really don’t want to talk about this. I care about getting a job or being able to send my kids to a great school.” Or, “God, I have to go to the DMV and stand in the line and renew my registration.” They’re not screaming and yelling about these same things that we are. And I think Crystal represents that ideology, which is: I don’t have an ideology, and I don’t want to be on a team. I have much bigger fish to fry than to get into these pedantic arguments about who’s on what side.
The really cool thing to see, whether you love this movie or hate this movie, is that where people are finding, like, unanimous assent is that Betty Gilpin is awesome. The fact that she can be a hero for anybody independent of their ideology, but that she is representative and she is misunderstood because of a specific ideology, that’s saying something. I’m not smart enough to know what that something is yet but it actually does give me some odd, some weird, twisted hope about where we’re headed. “Betty Gilpin for President” is I think what I’m trying to say. (Laughs)
OK, that I can get onboard with. Now, say that Trump does get the chance to actually see the movie himself. What do you hope he takes away from it?
Ah, I mean, in a perfect world... I can’t ascribe to say that I hope that the president loves the movie or that I hope that the president hates the movie. More importantly, it’s just shifting away from “the president was talking about a movie that doesn’t exist,” a movie that was about something that this movie isn’t about. He’s obviously got his hands full right now, the last thing that I want him to do is watch The Hunt. I want him to run the country. (Laughs) It is not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination. But if he eventually gets around to it, it’ll just be a relief to me to know that he saw what we made versus what he thought we made.