The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump weighed in on a movie, then the studio canceled it. Now the director has something to say.

The entrance to Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif. (Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Director Craig Zobel spoke out Monday for the first time since Universal Studios canceled the release of his controversial film “The Hunt” in the wake of three mass shootings and veiled criticism from President Trump. Zobel told Variety that the media warped his film’s message.

This month, Universal pulled advertising of the Blumhouse movie, which centers on a group of elites who hunt “deplorables” with the intention of killing them, after mass shootings in El Paso; Gilroy, Calif.; and Dayton, Ohio. But as political outrage surrounding the movie grew, Universal pushed the film’s release date back and then canceled it altogether.

Zobel, however, said the movie wasn’t meant to support either side of the political spectrum.

“If I believed this film could incite violence, I wouldn’t have made it,” he told Variety. “Our ambition was to poke at both sides of the aisle equally. We seek to entertain and unify, not enrage and divide. It is up to the viewers to decide what their takeaway will be.”

When advertising for the film was originally pulled, most seemed to support the decision.

“To have a movie, even though it’s satire, that depicts Americans hunting and killing Americans, I think that’s maybe not an image people want to see at the moment,” Guy Benson, political editor of conservative website, said on Fox News on Aug. 8.

But a more partisan controversy began to erupt as two lines from the script that had appeared in a Hollywood Reporter story, suggesting the movie was mocking conservatives, began making the rounds online.

One character says, “Did anyone see what our [expletive] in chief just did?” A second responds, “At least the Hunt’s coming up. Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables.”

Meanwhile, many outlets reported the movie was originally titled “Red State vs. Blue State,” but Universal said in a statement that it was “never the working title for the film at any point throughout the development process, nor appeared on any status reports under that name.”

Despite the trailer seemingly making it clear that Betty Gilpin’s character, one of the “deplorables,” was the movie’s hero, many conservative outlets deemed the unseen film offensive and irresponsible.

Universal decided to move the release date, which Zobel supported.

“I was devastated by going to sleep to El Paso and waking up to Dayton,” he said. “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.”

Then, in tweets on Aug. 9, Trump wrote, “Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate! They like to call themselves ‘Elite,’ but they are not Elite. In fact, it is often the people that they so strongly oppose that are actually the Elite. The movie coming out is made in order … to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!”

The next day, Universal announced its cancellation of the film’s release.

“While Universal Pictures had already paused the marketing campaign for ‘The Hunt,’ after thoughtful consideration, the studio has decided to cancel our plans to release the film,” according to a Universal statement on Aug. 10. “We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film.”

It’s unclear if the movie will ever be released in theaters, hit streaming services or simply disappear completely. Zobel, though, seems to think movies like his would spark conversations that are beneficial in today’s political climate.

“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?”