True stories of dark times told by a grandmother to her grandson led decades later to Hunters, an Amazon series that sheds new light on an old scourge — and the rightness of revenge.
The opening moments of Hunters seem innocent enough.
It's the summer of 1977 in suburban Washington, D.C., and a dad is working the grill in his expansive backyard. A couple of neighbors are laughing at his stories, his wife is by his side and his three beautiful children are playing in the pool.
But then another couple shows up, and what began as a picture-perfect snapshot of suburban life quickly turns into something… else. To describe it would be to spoil it. Let's just say: Hunters has one of the most astounding, shocking and electrifying opening scenes of any pilot in recent memory.
Considering that it's a show about a group of Nazi-hunters bringing escaped war criminals and murderers to justice — often violently and with great finality — that's more than a tad appropriate.
But, hey, don't take our word for it.
"I was sent the script, and when I read it, it was unlike anything I'd come across," executive producer and co-showrunner Nikki Toscano says. "The first five pages — it was the most bold, original thing I'd ever read."
Hunters, which premieres on Amazon Prime on February 21, is the brainchild of David Weil, also an executive producer and co-showrunner.
He grew up hearing Holocaust stories from his grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor who instilled in him and his three older brothers a deep appreciation for history and a pride in Judaism. Growing up on New York's Long Island, Weil was six when his grandmother first started telling the stories that would eventually lead him to write a series that offered some form of justice, however fictional.
"At the time," he recalls, "It felt like the stuff of comic books and superheroes, grand good and great evil. Stories where there is great suffering, but also immense hope, where love and triumph and strength were possible — if you just believed, and if you were lucky enough. As I got older, as a writer I struggled with that birthright and that legacy and the responsibility, and how to communicate her story.
"How, in the face of growing anti-Semitism, and growing Holocaust denial, with so many survivors dying off, how to tell this story for a new generation and keep it alive in that way."
Weil has been a working screenwriter for years (he recently did rewrite work on the Netflix feature Bird Box), but nothing he'd created had ever been produced, and he had no TV experience.
Still, this idea of a ragtag band of justice-seekers in the 1970s hunting down escaped Nazis and unleashing some form of vengeance gnawed at him for a long time. Over several years, he crafted the pilot for what was initially called The Hunt and an 80-page story bible that covered tone, world creation and inspiration, as well as a reverent approach to Holocaust flashbacks.
"I wanted to honor victims," he explains. "Showing triumph by Jews who are so often portrayed as victims. I mapped everything out, knowing there would be so many questions, that it's not an easy pitch, and is in fact bold and daring." That bold approach attracted Jordan Peele and his Monkeypaw production company. When the project came across the desk of the Emmy winner, he immediately saw its potential.
"I got word that this script about Nazi hunters was going around and was intrigued," Peele says. "When I finally got it in my hands, I was immediately drawn in by the first scene. The story just built and built from there. It was an incredible script.
"Then when I met David, he told me about his personal connection with the subject and the inspiration for the story, and I was blown away. It's exactly the type of story Monkeypaw wanted to make."
The involvement of Peele and Monkeypaw "was a total game-changer," Weil says. "They protected the creative vision of the piece and allowed it to be what it is, even while offering brilliant ideas to help it evolve."
Soon, the project had a home at Amazon. Weil was still a TV rookie, so he needed a creative partner to help him shepherd the show — a production of Amazon Studios, Monkeypaw Productions and Sonar Entertainment — through its first season of 10 episodes.
Enter Toscano. She had writing and producing credits on series as varied as Detroit 1-8-7, Bates Motel and 24: Legacy, but it was perhaps her work on the ABC series Revenge that helped make her a perfect fit.
"What attracted me was the story of a Jewish kid struggling with his birthright," she explains. "When I met David, I realized that the kid in the story was not Jonah Heidelbaum — it was David Weil, and I was hooked. Because it's informed by David's story, there's always something interesting that pulls you in, in a way that other stories that aren't as personal just don't."
Toscano brought an objective eye that helped Weil fill out the world he had worked so hard to create. For instance, "Not all the hunters are survivors," she points out, "but they all come from a group that is oppressed in some way. There was a lot of humor that came out of that, a lot of unique perspectives about what it means to be 'other.' That part was really important to me to get right."
In assembling the team of hunters, they started with Jonah, Weil's fictional stand-in. A 19-year-old pot dealer in 1977 Brooklyn, raised by his Holocaust survivor grandmother, Jonah is the heart and soul of the show, and it's through his eyes that the action unfolds.
After his grandmother is murdered in their home, shot right in front of him, his desperation for vengeance sets the central story in motion. The producers' first choice for the role was Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Fury), and it wasn't long before the actor was on board.
"The pilot [directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, also an executive producer] was so beautifully executed," Lerman says, "and there was a character [Jonah] who had a clear and meaningful conflict at his core. I loved that he was Jewish, that I could represent my people as a Jewish character in a Jewish show. It's a really cool thing for me. I don't play Jews often."
Alongside Jonah are Holocaust survivors Murray and Mindy Markowitz (Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane), a frustrated actor (Josh Radnor), a British nun who happens to be a former MI6 agent (Kate Mulvany), a young Black Panther (Tiffany Boone) and a Vietnam vet (Louis Ozawa Changchien).
But the team leader had to carry weight. Gravitas. The actor playing Holocaust survivor Meyer Offerman — who brings a grieving Jonah into the unit — had to be a star. Someone big. Huge, even.
Which is where Al Pacino came in.
"Al is a dream," Weil says. "The privilege of working with him was never lost on any of us. Every single day, it was a privilege to come to work, to hear his thoughts. He works at such an instinctual level — his body knows if the words are right or not, if they're honest enough or right for the character. He's just otherworldly."
For Lerman, the casting of Pacino "was settling. It made me comforted to know I would be in such good company. Being able to collaborate with him was the chance of a lifetime."
Jerrika Hinton (Grey's Anatomy), who plays FBI Special Agent Millie Malone, recalls the day on set when her character meets Jonah and Offerman. "The air on set was different, and I wondered, 'What the hell is this?' It took me a bit to realize, 'Oh, this is what it's like to have a huge movie star here.'
"Now, having worked lots of hours and several episodes with him, [I know] he wants to be treated like a normal person, and, honestly, not everyone is able to do that." Lerman calls Pacino his hero, and that's more than a little appropriate, given the themes of valor and identity (secret and otherwise), as well as the allusions to comic-book heroes and villains, that Weil weaves through the narrative.
While integral to the story, they also point to the multi-layered meaning of the title, which applies not only to Offerman's Nazi-hunting team, but also to agent Malone (who hunts the Hunters) and to the show's breakout star, Greg Austin, whose fanatical Nazi assassin Travis Leich is the creepiest new character on television.
He's hunting everyone in an effort to protect an insidious operation to establish a Fourth Reich, run by Lena Olin (Alias) as The Colonel. ...
For the rest of this story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine, on newsstands now.
For more on Hunters co-stars Saul and Hannah Reid Rubinek, click here.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2020
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