Although it will undoubtedly earn such labels before long, Amazon’s Hunters shoots past timeliness or political relevance to tell a story that’s compelling and cathartic. Set in late ’70s New York, the action-packed drama from David Weil uncovers a secret history of resistance to forge a path toward reclamation. Al Pacino heads up a group of Nazi hunters as Meyer Offerman, who, with his mansion and new ward (Logan Lerman as Jonah), is playfully dubbed the “Jewish Batman.” But vengeance is far from the only thing on the minds of Weil and his co-showrunner, Nikki Toscano; Hunters seeks out heroes as well as villains, balancing humor and violence and rich characterization in this tale of persecution and punishment. The A.V. Club spoke with Weil and Toscano at the Television Critics Association winter press tour about justice, Nazis, and what makes Al Pacino a superhero.
The A.V. Club: For both of you, this is your first time working on a show with this kind of secret history. Can you talk about how you put together your writers room?
Nikki Toscano: It was really important for both David and myself to find writers that were representative of the roles in our series. We were keen on putting together a diverse room.
David Weil: Yes, and diversity of every level, race, experiences, your economic level; also the kind of experiences where people came from; the kind of writer they are—novelists, playwrights, screenwriters. This is an incredibly diverse show about people from very disparate backgrounds who share this feeling of being persecuted in America and around the world.
AVC: Aside from yourself, Nikki, how many women do you have writing on the show?
NT: We have three women total. I’m the co-showrunner, and I also write for the show.
AVC: It’s just important for me to know early on who’s behind the scenes because something like Watchmen has shown us how—I mean, certainly anyone can write this kind of story, but it’s that much more potent and specific when, as you say, you have people who are from those disparate backgrounds informing it.
DW: Yes. Yes.
DW: Half of our room are writers of color, two Jewish writers in the room—
DW: —that representation as well. So, we really made a great effort. It’s such a mandate and rightfully so at Monkeypaw, Jordan Peele’s company, to ensure that there’s great diversity throughout not only the writers room but at every level of this production.
NT: Every level of the show from production to directors and ADs, we wanted to make sure that we were finding people that were representative of the characters in our show and the worlds that they came from.
DW: And it just makes for the best show. Beyond representation being important, it really does make the best show to have so many different people from so many different backgrounds coming together to tell this tale.
AVC: What has Jordan Peele’s influence been on the show? Did you work on the visual language of the show together, and how involved was he in that process?
DW: Jordan was incredibly involved. I think when I first read the script and created the script, on the page it’s incredibly visual, but of course having Jordan’s point of view was wildly important.
NT: It was very important for us, Jordan included, to have a number of conversations about what the look of the show and tone of the show were going to be, which were going to be largely influenced by the look of the show. And our pilot director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon brought his own vision as well, but Jordan was incredibly instrumental in guiding the vision from day one.
DW: We had this fantastic DP, Fred Elmes, who did the pilot. He’s worked with [David] Lynch—I mean, he’s such an auteur. So the team of Alfonso and Fred working together kind of created the cinematic language for the piece, which was really exciting.
NT: And it sort of extended to all departments. I think that there were a lot of early conversations that were had with everybody, from our wardrobe to our production designer, about establishing a language for a show, colors that represented certain things in our world.
AVC: Original music for shows is getting more attention than ever before. How did you decide on a composer for Hunters?
DW: I was a massive fan of Cristobal Tapia de Veer, who did Utopia in the U.K., and I shared his music with Nikki, and she loved him as well. There’s so many different tonal kinds of levels to this piece, and so it was important to get a composer who could really explore and be adept with different kinds of tones and sounds.
NT: Whether it was the more heightened elements or when there was a greater emotional need for a scene. I think that Cristobal was adept at switching between the two and bringing a unique musical sound for our show.
DW: He never let it be sentimental. He never let it feel overwrought. There was always something unexpected and buoyant about his sound that I think really complimented what you’re seeing on screen.
NT: It was very important to us to have a unique sort of musical sound to inform the piece.
AVC: What was behind the decision to make a feature-length pilot? Because it’s right around 90 minutes, and it doesn’t drag at all, but when I saw that number come up I was like, “I don’t think that’s quite right.”
NT: It was a surprise to us, too. [Laughs.] I mean, I feel like we wanted to make sure that we weren’t being too indulgent with the piece, but wanted to make sure that we were telling the story that was necessary to fully encapsulate what the pilot needed to represent, and the foundation and the launch pad for series.
DW: When I first wrote the pilot, it was 90 pages. So I think there were some trims and cuts that that kind of came down. But for me, in writing it, the length was necessary to tell that story. It was really like this prologue. Episode one is really a prologue before kind of the larger events of the piece unfold. And I think just to get Jonah from his grandmother’s death into the fold of this group of Nazi hunters just required that kind of space. It allowed us this great kind of cinematic approach. We could live in the nuances and the textures and the silence and really breathe.
NT: It was so helpful that Amazon supported the length of this pilot because we could live in those nuances. Because we could take our time with the characters, we could take our time with the visual language of the show. Instead of doing and using traditional coverage, if anything, we’ve always been sort of bucking that norm at all times to do something different.
DW: Yeah. And I remember Jen Salke [head of Amazon Studios] in the room when she bought it, she was like, “I don’t want to cut a page. Let’s make this.” I think that was really brave to do.
NT: And I think that Alfonso was so bold in his filmmaking choices that some of them required us to be living in those scenes for a little bit longer because of the visual in which he chose.
AVC: The show is set in 1977 New York—at the beginning anyway, who knows where it’s going after this? But what were the real-life events that inspired that setting? In the background, we hear a couple things about sanctions and various countries. But why 1977?
DW: In locating this piece in ’77, it was important that the Nazi war criminals that our team were going after were not in their nineties and nearing a hundred. You know what I mean? To ensure that there was still kind of a virility and a terror about these people, that they were still agents of something and could be kind of trying to create this Fourth Reich in America was really important. And then I think the ’70s especially, it’s Fear City, it’s Summer of Sam in ’77, there’s this claustrophobia, there’s this chaos. It feels like society’s just on the brink of a certain kind of terror and coming undone, which, to us and to me, really parallels our climate today—political, social, and economic climate.
AVC: Part of what helps the hunting premise go over at all is, you have people who are unequivocally bad. But there’s also a nuanced discussion of just how people get there. The pilot starts off with your lead character pointing out that even someone like Darth Vader wasn’t born Darth Vader. What were you trying to communicate with that?
DW: I think the power of a piece like this, to continue the story of the Holocaust and the survivors and the victims, is to prevent it from ever happening again. And I think the only way that we’ll be able to do that is if we ensure that there’s a nuance and a depth to all characters. It’s really [about] understanding how Germany and these Nazi actors and Hitler rose, how [Hitler] was able to brainwash people or how people were recruited to that cause. These are human beings; we don’t want to make them caricatures, or then we do a disservice to the efforts of so many who combat fascism and Nazis. We wanted to be able to show that nuance and that depth. And most importantly for our characters, this is really a piece where the central thesis and question of it is, if we hunt monsters in the dark, do we risk becoming monsters ourselves? And that is the thing that they struggle with. What is the cost of violence, the cost of vengeance?
NT: What is justice, what is vengeance? And I think that our main characters are struggling with that throughout the course of the series. Asking that very question: Do you become the evil that you’re hunting?
AVC: Your lead character’s named Jonah. In the story of Jonah and the whale, he doesn’t want to be a prophet, he kind of declines that calling, but he’s eventually brought around to it. Early on the season, it looks like your Jonah is going to have a similar conflict.
DW: You’re absolutely right. There’s certainly that rejection of the hero’s call that we’ll see and then coming into this hunter’s fold on revised terms, on his own terms, and what he brings, how he changes the code of these hunters.
NT: There’s a real point in the series where there is a turn for Jonah where he’s taking up the torch by himself. He’s taking up the torch for his own cause, his own reasons.
AVC: We’ve talked a bit about the diversity in the writers room, but it’s just as important to see that in the cast, too. It sends this message of how dealing with this is everyone’s responsibility—you’ve got somebody very young inheriting this mission and you’ve got the torch holders, who are all different ages and backgrounds. But I’m very curious about how Lonny Flash fits into this, and how you ended up with this characterization for Josh Radnor. Obviously, the character came first, but it’s just so far from what we know of that actor. It’s also just some of the funniest stuff in the show.
DW: [Laughs.] Yeah, he’s awesome.
NT: Lonny Flash, who David created, was one of the more difficult roles to cast because he was carrying so much on his shoulders along with the humor. It was about finding an actor that was able to deliver part of the ham but part of the heart, and so it was challenging throughout the process. And Josh came in and read and just embodied this character. I was familiar with How I Met Your Mother and Rise, of course. But there was something so unique that he brought to Lonny that it was undeniable. And I think that Amazon clearly agreed.
DW: I think in many roles, it was always trying to find that unexpected person to play the part, like “Who have we never seen do that before?” And Josh was one of those people.
AVC: I don’t suppose that was the case with Al Pacino?
DW: Oh my gosh, no, because Al can do anything. [Laughs.]
NT: Al’s a superhero!
DW: He’s a supernatural being. When his agent read the script and called us and was, “I think Al might like this. I think there’s something in this that Al really will respond to.” It was incredibly surreal. And then to meeting with him and we had multiple, four, five meetings with him—
NT: We took four or five meetings before he had officially signed on, and I think the first meeting was just, he was just making sure that we were down-to-earth people because he’s very, very much down-to-earth himself. He is an incredibly lovely and generous man of spirit, of his time, of his craft. And it was just so unique to see him come in and do what he did with this role, and in a way that I could’ve never imagined.
DW: He lived the role for the eight months that we shot this. He keeps the accent off-camera, he devotes all of his time and being to ensuring the authenticity of this person and exploring depths and dimensions about him that we couldn’t even imagine. So it was great.
NT: He also asked a ton of questions about the character and had a lot of observations that he brought to it himself that we hadn’t thought of before as well.
DW: Or that we didn’t even know about. There were things... just how he moves, what meal he likes, what his scent is. What his favorite memory is. You know, things like that which are so personal to his process that we didn’t really ask. But he does so much work. So much work.
AVC: You said “superhero,” and obviously that’s part of the vernacular of the show. In the history of superheroes, Superman can be viewed as both the first superhero and the first Jewish superhero, right?
DW: For sure. For sure.
AVC: There are others who are canonically Jewish, and then you also have different takes on crimefighters, guys like the Hebrew Hammer. It creates the sense that Jewish superheroes are both established but still rare. How did that history play into your story?
DW: It just came from a very natural place—when I was young, 5, 6 years old, my grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor, started to tell me about her experiences during the war, her stories as a prisoner in Auschwitz. At the time, the closest thing that I could try and relate it to or understand it with were the comic books and superheroes that I really loved. So these stories, my way in was always through that lens of great, good, and grand evil kind of fighting, and this notion that hope was always possible. Later in life, learning about the great history of so many Jewish victims and survivors of the war and also soldiers who came home, many of them were Jewish who ended up creating this golden age of comic books and superheroes. It just kind of all clicked, you know? And so in a way, this piece honors that history.
AVC: It’s certainly a very cathartic show at moments. But I don’t think the violence is ever glamorized in any way.
AVC: But the timing of the show is also just fortuitous or interesting, because as a culture, we’re having this discussion about how to deal with people who are that openly hateful. Part of that is debating “Is it okay to punch a Nazi when you’re confronted?” And then this show comes out and...
DW: For sure.
NT: Well, I think the biggest things that I will say about violence, and speaking to what David said earlier, is this idea that, throughout the course of the first season and hopefully beyond, this is a show that is asking those questions. It’s not just perpetrating violence for violence’s sake. It’s asking the question, what is the cost of that violence? All the time in the writer’s room, a lot of what we were discussing was the idea that, do you become the monster that you’re hunting? Do you have to be evil to fight it?
AVC: There are much more positive ways that people fight back in the show. The scenes with the matchmaker come to mind.
DW: Another great kind of emblem of that idea is Millie Morris, who Jerrika Hinton plays, and she’s on this quest for justice. And she does things the legal route. Simon Wiesenthal, a famous Nazi hunter, shows up in episode eight, and we begin to see the difference between his code and between Meyer Offerman’s code. So we really tried to explore all the facets and ask all the questions and allow the audience to engage and say, “What would I do? What path would I go down?”
NT: Sometimes, the question is, “Is this justice, or do I believe that this is vengeance?” And that depends on the person.
DW: And what’s the difference between the two.
NT: I think that the biggest thing is that David and I, by no means, advocate violence, but I think that the bigger thing that’s in the piece is this idea of finding your voice and letting the world feel the weight of who you are. And I feel like this is a story of empowerment for a number of marginalized groups.
DW: You used a great word: catharsis. For me as a Jewish person who wants to reclaim power, to have a voice, to feel mighty in some kind of way, I think this show allows for that catharsis, that wish fulfillment, so to speak.
AVC: You mentioned Meyer Offerman’s code, his background. There’s a moment in the pilot where he tell Jonah, “The past is all there is.” That one line says so much, not just about the message of the show, but what’s going on in TV and film right now. There are more projects that are engaging with dark times in history, and the reality is that all of this has happened before. It’s almost cyclical. Which is why you can have some shows that are period pieces, and some that are contemporary and some that are set in the future.
DW: Absolutely right.
NT: Only when we understand what’s happened in the past are we able to prevent it from happening in the future.
DW: That line is rooted in Meyer. The past is so inescapable for him. He says, “New players, new times. It’s the same game, though.” It’s always the same game.