By Ali Moosavi.
I knew that it was a story that could be done with very little resources, so the punch that it would have to pack would be thematic and content wise.”
Like cigarettes, some movies ought to come with a health warning. Hunter Hunter, written and directed by Shawn Linden is such a film. It starts off routinely enough. A family are spending time in a cabin in the forest and they see signs which indicate a nasty, hungry wolf may be around. The husband goes looking for the wolf and a fairly suspenseful story ensues. There are a few twists until the ending which I feel will be called anything from shocking and disturbing to sick and revolting. A forerunner of this type of film is Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), which a New York Times critic had likened it to “sickening tripe” and had walked out after 50 minutes while Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times had described it as “a tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie that’s about four times as good as you’d expect.” The Last House on the Left has become some kind of a cult film. Time will tell how Hunter Hunter will be judged. Meanwhile, I talked to its creator, Shawn Linden.
I’m still suffering the aftereffects of watching Hunter Hunter!
Oh really? I’m glad! you could be recovering from the effects of worse things right now!
This genre of film goes back to The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972). Was that an inspiration for you?
No, but I’ve seen that movie on multiple occasions. It’s only been in interviews and talking to people that I suddenly realized that they both share a lot of qualities. The Last House on the Left has always stuck in my mind as just an ultra aggressive “family violating slasher movie”, but with a hard revenge bent. There’s a lot of stuff in there that I can see being quite similar to the elements in Hunter Hunter for sure.
I have to say Hunter Hunter makes The Last House on the Left look like Pinocchio!
I don’t think I’ve heard of a better compliment about the movie ever, that’s fantastic! To me, I’ve never considered Hunter Hunter a particularly gory movie or gratuitously bloody, but it does have moments of horrific violence or showing the results of that; sober depictions of horrific scenes as opposed to bumping up scenes to become gory or gratuitous.
The central theme of the film seems to be that every human being, even the kindest and gentlest ones, under certain conditions are capable of performing acts that you could never conceive them doing. Examples include Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971).
Yeah, one of the purposes of the movie was to show that deep down under in everybody there’s a very primal beast that doesn’t follow social rules that are dictated by the natural laws and finding a way to draw that out of a good person and then what exactly it would take for a person to do something horrific. I’m trying to tiptoe around the story points without giving anything away but yeah that’s basically the idea. When something horrific happens, there is the audience reaction and there is an element of catharsis to some kinds of violence that you see in films and it makes you take a step back and think about your own views of violence and revenge and what a moral response to something is. So, it really examines that kind of stuff from the character’s perspective and ultimately hopefully poses that kind of same question to the audience about themselves.
Your movie changes directions at different points along the way. I try not to give anything away but in the beginning you think that it’s a horror movie featuring a wolf or something like that, then it changes to something totally different. Since you wrote the script, did you have the ending in mind when you were writing or it changed with rewrites?
Well the script was written way back in 2007. The spine of the story had been written over a plane ride home from Germany and it had undergone a whole bunch of revisions as it passed through people who had optioned the screenplay and it had gone through many changes but hopefully kept all of the things that I loved about the story. It was just burned down to the elements that make it unique and so I tried to preserve that. It’s been hard for me to discuss the movie because the first main twist is in the first 20 minutes and after that it goes off in different directions.
But yeah, the ending had always been around once I knew what the movie was about and again I’m trying to be careful here because the conclusion of the movie viscerally is nothing that people haven’t seen before, it’s just that the horror element is in the characters and what brought them to that point. So the ending couldn’t have been anything different, considering the lead up into the film. The film is all about how human beings pass along the information and traditions from one generation to the next or in the case of this movie it’s passed on to the previous one. I’ve always thought of it as a fairy tale about predators, so all of those kinds of Grimms’ fairy tales elements are in there with the woodsman and the big bad Wolf in the enchanted forest and the so called damsel in distress and it really plays with those kinds of popular archetypes and dumps it on its head nearing the end.
There are certain things, especially in Hollywood movies, concerning children and animals that are taboo, and it seems you’ve broken every taboo there is. I’m not going to go into details to avoid a spoiler, but was that also an intension to cross all the red lights?
Yeah absolutely, I knew that it was a story that could be done with very little resources, so the punch that it would have to pack would be thematic and content wise, so that was always in the back of my mind and you know that also extended to the practical taboos like filming with animals and children, I had both of those! It made shooting exponentially more difficult but that’s the fun of filmmaking and creating in general, or at least for me is getting close to those limits and examine fun and creative ways of a busting through them.
The punch that you mentioned in this film comes quite hard and I think the reason is that in most films of this nature there is some background and a motivation is clearly established whereas here it comes really out of nowhere and you suddenly land a very heavy punch. Was that also an intention to catch the viewer off guard?
Yes absolutely. The movie plays a lot with the restriction of perspective. There are some elements that the audience will find out that the characters don’t know. So there’s a bit of that playing on but also trying to upend people’s expectations. That’s the whole part about mysteries and thrillers trying to set something up to be expected and then jumping that on its head.
How did the actors react to their roles?
They loved it. From the very start they were super enthusiastic. We were a low budget production and we couldn’t have gotten the talented actors that we did if we had to sell the movie to them. They came back with really positive responses and they all got it, like they all understood what the trajectory of the movie was going to be and what their roles would be. So that part of it didn’t require much coaxing at all on my part, they were they were all in and from the very start they were really eager to see how the ending was going to be done. Camille Sullivan and company were really excited to be there on those days.
Did you have much rehearsal?
No very little. We had a very tight 20-day schedule and it was at a time when the local industry was really busy and so we had a tough time finding crew while we were rushing to secure things with cast. They also didn’t really need it. I got the chance to work with everybody except Nick Stahl who came in mid shoot and I got to speak with him while we were on set. There weren’t any rehearsals or read throughs. I would just sit down with the actors and they already had tons of questions about the characters, particularly Camille and Devon Sawa who were really focused on maintaining a sense of authenticity. So they came at it looking for details and one of the advantages of being a writer and director is that you’re an excellent reference for the source material because all of those ideas have been with you since they were conceived. So it provides a good starting point for discussion and they all have these questions that needed to be answered so that they were comfortable within their roles. Those were the conversations that we had as opposed to actual running through lines and I’m not sure if I’ve really ever done that in any of the three movies that have done.
Was the film made before the Corona crisis?
It was made just before the Corona crisis but in post-production we ran into a bunch of problems when coronavirus started. Luckily for us we were able to lock the picture before coronavirus set in. Because that would have been tough to do. It really helps to be in the editing room and be solving things in real time and it’s the same thing with sound mixing and color correction which we had to do remotely and wound up being really complicated and never exact because it’s very difficult to do such work remotely. I really feel for people who are in any form of production right now because safety measures and things like that make it really a lot more complicated and costly.
Where was the main shooting location?
The majority of the harsh sweeping vistas riches and things like that were shot in Tulabi Falls which is around Manitoba on the border of Ontario which is my home province. The main forestry areas were in a very small provincial area called Libau Manitoba and the cabin was is in a provincial park. It’s a heritage cabin which means more than hundred and something years old and has a little plaque in front of it and we were lucky enough to be allowed to use it.
What are the screening plans for the film?
It’s out on VOD and theaters in the States on December the 18th and out on VOD in Canada the same time and I’m just starting to get some information on other international releases.
This is a movie far more suited to Halloween than Christmas but it’s opening around Christmas time. It’s not your typical Christmas family movie, is it?
No but I’m the kind of guy who after four or five days of Christmassy stuff, will be looking to see somebody get really afraid and maybe to see some blood and guts and I’m OK with having that kind of balance.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).