Hunt-ing season is open: Inside Hunters, Amazon's brutal, bloody, Nazi-fighting series
Now that the show has premiered on Amazon, viewers don’t have to wait long to find out what he’s talking about. In the world of Hunters, set in 1977 New York City, Nazis have been living in the United States in secret since the fall of Hitler, quietly infiltrating even the highest levels of government to set up a Fourth Reich. Travis is their enforcer. In the first episode, to intimidate a politician into changing his vote on a bill that’s of particular interest to the Nazis, Travis interrupts the man’s bowling hangout, bashes the skulls of his friends with said bowling ball, and then threatens his family, calling himself the monster under his daughter’s bed — all with a grin on his face.
The violence on Hunters only gets more hostile. The show bounces between the ’70s, when a group of vigilantes known as the Hunters are exterminating Nazis (like when they turn a Nazi’s shower into her own gas chamber), and the past, where we see scenes of Holocaust concentration camps and nightmarish visions of human chessboards. These moments teeter towards disturbing at times, but the architects of Hunters found them necessary.
“The violence is an arc on the show,” series creator David Weil explains. “In the beginning, it feels poppy-er, it feels more fun. Slowly our characters begin to feel, ‘What? It shouldn’t feel fun, it shouldn’t feel right,’ and it begins to tear at their souls. And so, we need that poppy-ness, we need that sometimes gratuity so it can slowly desaturate and become darker, more real, more urgent.” It’s a constant balancing act, adds Nikki Toscano, an executive producer and co-showrunner opposite Weil. “I feel like any of the scenes that take place in the concentration camps are handled with a great deal of reverence. Obviously, we know violence existed during that period of time, but in those cases, we prefer to suggest it than to show it,” she says. “It’s also more powerful. Then, I think that there’s a lot of fun that we have with some of the violence that we dole out in 1977 New York. With every scene, there’s a careful amount of attention to what kind of violence we’re allowing that scene to employ based on who the target is.”
Having observed the cast during production, Hunters often feels like a depiction of rage, of the lifecycle of rage. The show begins with a Jewish woman arriving at a backyard barbecue thrown by her husband’s new boss. The idyllic image of suburban Americana is shattered when she realizes her host is “The Butcher,” a Nazi who slaughtered her entire family. Shock turns to fear, which turns to fury as The Butcher reveals himself and guns down everyone at the party, including his own poster wife and children. Having suffered through the Holocaust, what is a Jewish person to do now when they witness the re-emergence of Nazism? That anger, in turn, bleeds onto the viewer, who may soon cheer on the Hunters as they exact violence against their tormenters.
It’s a concept Logan Lerman, the star of Hunters, ponders with weary eyes over a cup of coffee at a cafe close to set. He fights through exhaustion, though not because of the cast’s wrap party that happened the prior night. “My guy’s supposed to be pretty sleep-deprived so I try to keep that up,” Lerman says of Jonah, who’s recruited by Al Pacino‘s Meyer Offerman to join the fight in the wake of his grandmother’s murder. “The only way you’re gonna see it is if I don’t sleep.” Taking another sip from his cup, he unpacks this philosophical conflict at the center of Hunters, one that he found compelling enough to break a decade-long hiatus from television roles since featuring on the WB’s Jack & Bobby at age 13.
“It’s hard to put someone in a box,” Lerman, 28, says. “[Jonah’s] definition of morality is clean cut: right and wrong, good and bad. What we explore in the show is, what is right? What is wrong? Do you have to be bad to preserve what you think is good in this world? Does it take the extremist version of justice? I don’t have an answer for it, but I like playing around with that moral dilemma.”
It’s a dilemma with which Weil has been grappling since he first heard stories about Hitler around the age of 6 from his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. “That was such a strange and jarring thing to hear as a kid,” he recalls. “So, I saw those stories as comic book stories — stories of grand good versus grand evil, stories of comic books and superheroes and what not. That became the lens through which I saw the Holocaust and saw her story about war and debt and revenge and vengeance and reparations.” When he wrote Hunters, formerly titled The Hunt, as a spec script, he sought to stay true to that experience. “It is a story about grand good and grand evil, but very slowly the colors begin to desaturate, and it becomes this story that lives not in black and white, but in the grey and that murky morality. If we hunt these monsters, do we risk becoming them ourselves? This story is really about the cost of what happens to our heroes when they do take up that mantle and hold that dagger and go after these Nazis. Do they sacrifice their souls to make the world a better place, to rid evil from the world?”
Because of the level of violence and the clear present-day parallels, Weil says “people were really afraid of it” during the pitching process, even with someone like Jordan Peele, the director of Get Out and now Us, on board as a producer through his Monkeypaw Productions. Weil wrote an 80-page “Bible” for networks, mapping out “where the show would go.” TNT and HBO, he mentions, raised their hands but neither ended up making the series. At one point, it looked like EPIX would take the reins, but they, too, dropped out when, as Weil remembers, the network head was fired approximately five months into development. The new leadership came in and didn’t latch onto the material. “I think he just didn’t understand it,” Weil says. “I think he came from the Amblin world — another word for Spielberg — so it was all very wondrous and clean.”
Weil also has memories from within the rooms where he pitched the show to executives, and the process was as confounding as it was frustrating at times. “It was amazing sitting in those rooms, listening to the questions that came up, a lot of which were, ‘How do we show the other side? How do we give voice to…?'”
“The Nazis?” I ask.
“The Nazis! It was so bizarre. Very strange.” Weil didn’t mention which executives or networks specifically gave this feedback. He says he couldn’t come up with an answer for them out of a stupor at the time. “I said, ‘I just think we see the show differently… and the world differently.”
It wasn’t until Jennifer Salke, an NBC veteran, came on to lead Amazon Studios in 2018 that Hunters found a home. “It was the first thing she bought,” Weil says. “She thought it was a bold and dangerous piece and she loved it. She saw what the piece was about and how timely it was and how confrontational it was in all the right ways.”
Even as Hunters now premieres at the tail end of Donald Trump‘s first term as U.S. president, in the thick of the modern public resurgence of neo-Nazism, Weil doesn’t believe the show needs to actively address the current climate. He feels it happens naturally on its own. Lerman, however, says our own reality better informs what the show needs to be, including how the violence is depicted. “I think it informs the direction we need to go in in terms of the storytelling,” he says. “It informs the choices we make in terms of the message we’re trying to put out there. There were a lot of conversations internally about, How can we best compliment the conversation that’s happening right now? What are we adding to it?”
Weil, still a comic book lover, is adding the superhero stories he didn’t often hear about. Simon Wiesenthal, a real-life Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, becomes a more fictionalized character on the show. Yellow, the color of the Jewish Star of David, is also more of a heroic color to adorn the Hunters. In the first episode, you may notice Jonah’s jacket is yellow. It’s also the color of the daggers each of them wields. Red, meanwhile, is routinely used to highlight Nazis.
“As a Jewish person, I felt like antisemitism was always around,” Weil says. “It always hid behind closed doors and white picket fences and state rooms. I think it’s just much more out in the open [now]. To evoke or express what antisemitism feels like or what racism feels like or any kind of ‘other-ization,’ this show was just more bold and vocal about it. I almost feel like we live in a time when people are more bold and vocal about it, so it’s almost caught up to what the show really is.” And, yes, sometimes that show involves blowtorching off a Nazi’s genitals. They are Nazis, after all. As the Hunters frequently realize, you can’t negotiate with Nazis.