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‘The Hunt’ Director Breaks Silence on Film’s Cancellation (EXCLUSIVE)

Craig Zobel, director of “The Hunt,” hopes that the controversial political thriller will eventually be seen by audiences, and argues that its message has been misrepresented in media reports.

Zobel spoke for the first time since Universal canceled the film’s release on Aug. 10, in the wake of a series of mass shootings and amid a mounting conservative backlash.

The film depicts a group of elites who hunt “deplorables” for sport. Fox News commentators have condemned it as “sick” and “awful.”

In response to a series of emailed questions, Zobel said he had no intention to inflame political conflict, which has led to a series of murderous incidents in recent years.

“If I believed this film could incite violence, I wouldn’t have made it,” he wrote.

He said that the film does not take sides politically, and that his goal was instead to satirize “both sides” of the partisan divide.

“Our ambition was to poke at both sides of the aisle equally,” he wrote. “We seek to entertain and unify, not enrage and divide. It is up to the viewers to decide what their takeaway will be.”

Universal suspended the marketing campaign for the film after the mass shootings in Gilroy, Calif., El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. In the wake of that decision, conservatives blasted the film as a “liberal fantasy.” Even President Trump weighed in, denouncing Hollywood’s “racism” and saying the film aimed “to inflame and cause chaos.”

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Zobel said the film has been misunderstood. He said it was actually about partisanship, and how both sides fail to fully hear their opponents’ views.

“I wanted to make a fun, action thriller that satirized this moment in our culture — where we jump to assume we know someone’s beliefs because of which ‘team’ we think they’re on… and then start shouting at them,” he wrote. “This rush to judgment is one of the most relevant problems of our time.”

The Hunt” has become a rare black eye for Blumhouse, one of the most successful production companies in the movie business. Founder Jason Blum has had a golden touch with genre films like “Get Out” and “The First Purge,” which traffic in edgy political themes.

But with the “The Hunt,” that approach has backfired. Executives appear to have underestimated the risks of political satire in the heightened atmosphere of the Trump administration.

The studio didn’t seem to have a clearly defined marketing plan for “The Hunt,” which was marketed as a straight-up thriller, with little hint of its political overtones.

Zobel praised Universal for taking a “risk on greenlighting a film not based on prior intellectual property.” He said that the script did not change significantly during its production and he said that he faced no pressure to tone down the film’s politics.

He also said he supported the studio’s decision to delay its release in light of the gun massacres on Aug. 3 and 4 that left 31 people dead.

“I was devastated by going to sleep to El Paso and waking up to Dayton,” he wrote. “These types of moments happen far too often. In the wake of these horrific events, we immediately considered what it meant for the timing of our film. Once inaccurate assumptions about the content and intent of the movie began to take hold, I supported the decision to move the film off its release date.”

Universal has not screened the film for critics, so the political content of the final cut is still largely a matter of conjecture. An early draft of the script obtained by Variety makes clear that the original intention was to depict working-class conservatives as the heroes. They are kidnapped and hunted by “liberal elites,” one of whom says “Climate change is real” before blowing his victim away. One of the good guys talks about the “Deep State,” and another fantasizes about going on “Hannity” to expose the conspiracy.

The script was written by Nick Cuse, a 29-year-old Harvard grad, and Damon Lindelof, a veteran TV producer and a prolific donor to Democratic presidential candidates. Cuse is a registered Republican who nevertheless gave to Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2017. He was a writer on Lindelof’s HBO show “The Leftovers,” and is the son of producer Carlton Cuse, who ran “Lost” with Lindelof.

Blum is also a generous supporter of Democrats, and has made no secret of his disdain for the president.

The movie’s extreme gore would have made it controversial anyway in the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, but its political themes — however misunderstood — made it radioactive. According to the Daily Beast, Trump groused at the White House about “the movie” made by “people who hate Trump.”

“When the focus of your film is about killing, hunting people down, you’re going to have to answer hard questions about why you’re releasing a film like that in today’s climate,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “I think Universal just didn’t want to deal with the spin control which would have likely overtaken and overrun their publicity department.”

In a statement to Variety, Universal pushed back on a report that a test audiences had been uncomfortable with the film’s political slant, and also countered claims that the script had originally had a politically explosive title.

“While some outlets have indicated that test screenings for ‘The Hunt’ resulted in negative audience feedback; in fact, the film was very well-received and tallied one of the highest test scores for an original Blumhouse film,” a Universal spokesperson said. “Additionally, no audience members in attendance at the test screening expressed discomfort with any political discussion in the film. While reports also say ‘The Hunt’ was formerly titled ‘Red State vs. Blue State,’ that was never the working title for the film at any point throughout the development process, nor appeared on any status reports under that name.”

As for Zobel, he said he hoped that the film would become a teachable moment, allowing audiences to think about how politics became so polarized.

“My hope would be that people will reflect on why we are in this moment, where we don’t have any desire to listen to each other,” he said. “And if I’m lucky some of us will ask each other: how did we get here? And where do we want to go moving forward?”

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