by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Hunter Hunter is the story of a man and his family living in the wilderness as fur trappers when their way of life, and very existence, become threatened by the return of a rogue wolf. Writer/director Shawn Linden, who has penned scripts for television projects including In Plain Sight and The Fixer, returns to the director’s chair for the project, his third film.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher talked to Linden about fairy tales, the origins of his story, and building a family on screen.
John Bucher: Tell me about how this story came to you.
Shawn Linden: There was a moment in 2007, I think I was at a film festival in Belgium for my first film, and we got laid over in Germany because of a storm. I had to go to a German retreat out in the rural middle of nowhere, and we passed by this forest with a mist hanging over it. That’s what essentially is the spine in the heart of the film I’ve written, in that little hotel room that I spent one day in before going back to my home in Winnipeg. By the time I got home, just that one image had developed into the heart of the story that wound up becoming what we made.
Also, I have always been a fan of Grimm’s fairy tales. This story is very much a fairy tale about predators. That’s what the movie is. I’ve always considered it to be that.
John Bucher: I’m so glad you brought up Grimm’s fairy tales and the image of the forest. It clearly provides the framework for what’s playing out in this story. A lot of your other work has dealt with death in different ways, and this story deals with death, but comes at it from a very different angle than your previous work. Can you talk about that?
Shawn Linden: Yeah, as I said, I see it as a fairy tale about predators. The whole story was to show the scope of what it means to be a predator. That’s also represented by the Hunter family, who essentially uses whatever they kill from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. So, there’s a very holistic way of essentially committing murder. But there’s also the other end of the spectrum, once you get into humans and into civilization — there’s a different kind of predatory instinct altogether that’s not really for food or for defense or for maintaining your survival. There’s a gratuitous nature to it, just satisfying an individual’s needs. I was trying to get those two opposite poles to intersect.
John Bucher: There’s an old adage in the film business about the difficulties of working with children and animals. When you were writing this, knowing you would direct as well, did you find yourself ever asking the question, “How am I going to pull this off, shooting with animals?“
Shawn Linden: It was a constant worry. That’s why every other part of the script is very tight and confined. There aren’t a lot of actors in the movie. There’s a vast space that it takes place across, but everything else is manageable because I knew there would be animals — there’s a dog, there’s a wolf, there’s a child in the lake. I was so thrilled when I met Summer [Howell], who plays Winnie in the movie. That character was originally an eight-year-old boy, so it was even more daunting. When I was trying to cast an eight-year-old boy, it’s really tough to find a good actor at that age. But then I found a 14-year-old girl who just blew me away. What you have to do there is adapt your vision to exploit the good luck that you have.
John Bucher: You’re playing with this idea of predators. It seems timely right now because so many of us feel that our life is being pursued by Covid-19. Did you have any metaphors running through your head as you were trying to tell this story?
Shawn Linden: Well, first and foremost, I was trying to give it a timeless feel, going back to the fairy tale aspect of things. This story is about the world closing in on you. Basically, the hard facts of reality are slowly, incrementally getting closer without any form of stopping. I think that’s what people are getting with this isolation and this sense of being confined that we don’t like. There’s an aversion in Canada, even more so in the States, to making that circle smaller and to recognizing that there is something dangerous afoot. I had no idea how timely that would be.
John Bucher: I want to return to something you mentioned earlier – that this whole idea started with an image of the forest. The woods that they’re in seem like a character in the story. How much do you go into detail about this when writing the script? Do you just believe that as a director you’re going to draw that out from the pages? Are you trying to give a good sense of what the woods are like for anyone who would read the script?
Shawn Linden: There was a sentence in one of my favorite books that had run through my head as I was writing the script. It’s from (Albert) Camus’s The Stranger, and it’s the last sentence in the book, where he opens his heart to the benign indifference of the world. That is what I’ve always equated nature with, a benign indifference that doesn’t really care about what you’re doing. It’s that idea (in this story) — the immovability of nature’s opinion or the lack of opinion that it has and that we’re powerless to change it, but we have to live in this world.
John Bucher: They say that a filmmaker learns something on every project. You’ve obviously had a number of different projects that you’ve been a part of — everything from The Fixer to In Plain Sight to your own films. What would you say you learned through the process of making this particular project?
Shawn Linden: I don’t get as much opportunity to direct my own stuff as I would like to, so with the movies that I have written and directed, you wind up a completely different person at the end of that show. Now, there’s a lot of stuff that’s hardwired into you from those moments on. All three movies I’ve directed changed the course of my life in every possible way — spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. Hunter Hunter had a transformative effect on me because I’ve gone through this birth process from its conception to its existence in the real world. It’s a labor.
John Bucher: You got some incredible performances from the cast. Sometimes it’s difficult to construct a family that feels organic when they get on screen. How were you able to build a family dynamic within the cast?
Shawn Linden: Devon [Sawa] and Camille [Sullivan] had known each other previously, but other than that, they were all just strangers. The biggest factor was the dedication of the actors and their willingness to jump right into a low budget film that was going to be shot under inhospitable conditions. They all went in headfirst. We had a really meaningful dinner once the cast got in and we all got to see and interact with each other for the first time. I was leaning heavily on the fact that they were putting so much dedication into their roles. I was really supported by that. It made my job much, much easier and more enjoyable.
HUNTER HUNTER is available in select theaters, Digital and On Demand December 18th.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.