‘Hunters’: David Weil on Hunting Nazis as Collective Catharsis
LOS ANGELES — Over the past few years, David Weil has worked with an array of gifted actors, including Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Anne Hathaway, Sam Neill and Morgan Freeman — did we miss any?
“Anthony Mackie, Uzo Aduba, Constance Wu,” Weil said in an interview here last week, with a laugh.
Weil’s good fortune isn’t lost on him. With no previous writing credits to his name, Weil, just 33, has created and overseen two star-filled series for Amazon Prime Video, starting with the revisionist spy thriller “Hunters,” which stars Pacino in his first regular TV role. The monologue-based “Solos,” starring Hathaway, Mirren, Freeman and others, soon followed — a quarantine-era series that signaled his directorial debut. (He also co-created the 2021 Apple TV+ sci-fi series “Invasion.”)
On Friday, “Hunters” returns for a second and final season, set again in the gritty 1970s, where we see how Pacino’s character assembled his diverse band of superhero-like Nazi hunters.
“I had a lot of luck,” Weil said.
Luck, maybe. But in those early days of his career, nearly a decade ago, after graduating from Harvard University with a political science degree, Weil also managed to land two spec scripts on Hollywood’s venerable Black List — a survey of the year’s best unproduced screenplays — so he clearly had some writing chops, too. The first script got him an agent, which led to a meeting a few years later with Jordan Peele, still white hot from the success of his 2017 film “Get Out.”
Weil showed him his pilot script for “Hunters,” and Peele loved it, signing on as an executive producer. And away Weil went.
When the series premiered in early 2020, Weil, who is Jewish and whose grandparents survived the Nazi camps, took heat from several sides. Some Jewish groups criticized the creative liberties the series took with Holocaust history, including its depiction of a fictional chess game in which the pieces were prisoners in a concentration camp. But many neo-Nazis and antisemites didn’t like the show either, Weil noted.
“I think they hated the show because it showcased Jewish characters, Black characters, Japanese American characters rising up,” he said. “I wear that kind of criticism as a source of pride.”
The new season of “Hunters” seems sure to prompt its own stir, offering, among other strange delights, a search for Adolf Hitler, who, in the show, hadn’t actually died in that bunker in Berlin. Instead, Hitler is plotting all sorts of nastiness alongside his wife, Eva Braun — nastiness the Nazi hunters are determined to prevent.
Weil spoke about the coming season in his Studio City home, where he lives with his wife and producing partner, Natalie Laine Williams (the two are expecting their first child next month), and an enormous golden statue of Astro Boy. He also spoke about the origin story of “Hunters,” that chess scene and how he got Pacino to sign on for the series. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What were you doing before “Hunters”?
When I moved out to L.A. in 2011, I was tutoring kids in Beverly Hills and the Palisades and Santa Monica from about 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., then I would drive home to my little apartment in West Hollywood and write from 10 p.m. until 4 in the morning. I did that every single day for years. I didn’t know anybody here, so I just wrote and wrote and wrote.
You came out here to write?
Yes. I auditioned as well, but I’m a terrible actor, and auditioning was brutal. I give actors so much credit.
How did you get your first two scripts on the Black List?
I had some friends who had come out from college and were working as assistants. And they would pass it to another assistant that they knew, and they would pass it to another assistant they knew. That’s how scripts make the Black List. It’s word of mouth.
So you weren’t chasing producers into bathrooms.
What’s wild is, when I was still tutoring, one of the families I tutored for was very friendly with Aaron Sorkin’s ex-wife, and with Sorkin and his daughter. So I met him a couple of times, but I didn’t have the chutzpah to give him my script and say, “Would you ever read this?” I mean, he’s one of my favorite writers of all time, and I was the lowly tutor.
How did “Hunters” come about?
“Hunters” was really a story that started when I was 5 or 6 years old, and my grandmother, Sara Weil, who’s a Holocaust survivor, would tell me and my brothers the stories of her experiences during the war. Even though Hitler had been defeated, even though the Nazis were, you know, beat, antisemitism is still around, and prejudice and bigotry and fascism. I think she realized that her story could be a weapon in the face of rising Holocaust denial.
So in the ’80s, she really started to tell her story. And one of the beneficiaries was me, as a young kid, sitting at her kitchen table over a bowl of chicken soup. Her stories weren’t filled with all the horrors and all the realities; they were couched in a way that I could understand. And so for me, her stories really did feel like the stuff of comic books and superheroes.
Al Pacino had never done a regular series before. How did you get him for “Hunters”?
The first coup was getting Jordan Peele on board. I was just such a fan of “Key & Peele,” and I asked my agent if I could meet Jordan. So when I finished writing “Hunters,” I sent Jordan the script, and he and his production company, Monkeypaw, and Win [Rosenfeld], his producing partner, they came on board.
So we were at Amazon, and one of Al’s agents, who I work with often, called and said, “What do you think about Al Pacino for the role of Meyer?” And I was like, “Come on, man. That’s insane. I mean, yes, of course.”
Do you give notes to Al Pacino?
Do I give notes to Al Pacino? No. But he gives me the most incredible notes, you know, on scripts and in the edit, like, “If you tried this shot for this many seconds longer, it may have more emotional resonance for the audience.” He’s always thinking about the audience and their experience of the show.
You’ve gotten to work with a lot of other top stars, too. How does that happen?
Having great representatives helps, like my agents at C.A.A., really great people who advocate and have fought for me with their clients. But I’m also a student and a fan of these great actors. I’ll watch Ellen Burstyn’s red dress monologue from “Requiem for a Dream” once a month. Anything Meryl Streep does, anything Viola Davis does.
You took a lot of creative liberties with the Holocaust in the series.
I grew up as a student of the Holocaust because of my grandmother, and because of the incredible work of Claude Lanzmann and “Shoah,” and Spielberg and “Schindler’s List.” And then there’s Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” which takes great creative license. Even “Schindler’s List,” there are scenes that are invented. Then there’s “Inglourious Basterds,” which is so much invention.
“Hunters” was particularly criticized for the chess game scene.
I put out a statement when the show came out, which I still stand behind. For me, moving into Season 2 and hearing the excitement and enthusiasm from so many people, and specifically in the Jewish community, and Holocaust educators among them, was exciting. But as a writer, as a showrunner, I’m also very conscious of critique. But I stand behind that scene.
In the coming season, you’re bringing Hitler into the story. How did you come up with that idea?
Growing up, the idea that Hitler was able to evade justice and choose his own fate [by committing suicide] infuriated me. It felt so unjust. So I’ve always wanted this show to not only continue my grandmother’s story, but be a source of catharsis for people like me, for survivors like my grandmother and grandfather. And so this season, our heroes are hunting Hitler, and we’ll see if they bring him to justice.
What are the pros and cons, dramatically, of having Hitler in the show?
If you’re going to showcase the most evil individual in history, it comes with incredible responsibility. And so I wanted to ensure that we captured his abilities: the anger, the power, the bloodlust — why he was such a formidable and terrible foe. Some works [depicting Hitler] are more comedy or satire, and that works great for those series, but for this one, it was incredibly vital that he was pure evil incarnate. The other key responsibility was to offer resolution — if we’re going to invoke him in this fictionalized way, we had to offer catharsis by the end of the series.
We always hear that actors who play villains say that they can’t think of their characters as villains because then they couldn’t play them. They have to find the humanity inside. Was that an issue for you, or Udo Kier, who plays Hitler in the series?
Look, Hitler was a human being, as these neo-Nazis and antisemites are today, and racists are. But I don’t know how much humanity, you know, in the colloquial sense of the word, there was to mine, honestly.