By MICHAEL GINGOLD
The very darkest sides of human nature come out in the midst of actual nature in HUNTER HUNTER, in select theaters and on VOD/digital platforms today from IFC Midnight. At the center of the horrific drama is a fully committed performance by Camille Sullivan, who spoke to RUE MORGUE about the movie’s meaning and menace, her co-stars and more.
In HUNTER HUNTER, written and directed by Shawn Linden, Devon Sawa (IDLE HANDS, FINAL DESTINATION) and Sullivan play Joseph and Anne, who live deep in a forest with their 12-year-old daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell from CURSE and CULT OF CHUCKY). Surviving as fur trappers, their livelihood becomes threatened by the apparent presence of a marauding wolf, which Joseph sets out to kill. While he’s gone, a wounded stranger (Nick Stahl) turns up outside the family’s cabin, and it turns out they face a much more frightening threat. Sullivan excels as a woman attempting to defend and protect her family, and ultimately forced into extreme decisions and behavior.
In a way, HUNTER HUNTER is accidentally relevant to current times, as it’s about a family in isolation.
Yeah, absolutely. At the time we made it, the themes I was thinking about had to do with the individual vs. the tribe. Where our safety and security are concerned, are we better off looking after just our own one tiny bubble, our own family, or are we looking at the larger human family, and does our safety depend on that? For me, that was a debate going on throughout the movie that I found very interesting. And now it has become especially relevant, given what’s going on.
Did you do any research into people who live this kind of isolated lifestyle?
I did a little. I did not have a lot of time; I had, like, five days or something before we started. But I did what I could on-line, looking into what motivates people, and figuring out in my own mind what would motivate me. What I came up with for Anne was that–and I don’t know if this is what Shawn had in mind–in my backstory, she was someone who, when she was younger, encountered some kind of physical danger in her life. Then when she met Joseph, she found love, and also security and safety, in a way she hadn’t experienced. So retreating from the world became that safety for her for a long time–but danger can still come find you. You can’t get far enough away.
Given that you only had five days to prepare, did you have time to work with Devon Sawa and Summer Howell to establish your family bond before you started shooting?
We met and discussed some of the scenes beforehand, talked them through, and we had a dinner, but then we just got right to it. But the great thing about working on a film like this is that you’re on set all the time. You’re not in your room, you’re not by yourself; we were always getting to know each other, and it was a great atmosphere Shawn created where ideas were welcome, so we worked together to create the relationships and create a kind of shorthand, and to do it quickly while we were filming.
Devon and Summer were both great. I didn’t know either of them before, and they were such pros, and like I was saying, came into it with the idea that there were no egos involved. Everyone was there to do a job and figure out the best way to tell this story. And we laughed all the time; for such a dark movie, it was really fun, and we had a ridiculously good time making it.
One of the themes I found intriguing was how Joseph and Anne are so protective of Renee, to the point of shielding her from awful truths about what’s going on around them.
Well, Summer’s older than she’s playing, so she’s really experienced, and creating that was equal parts her. As much as we are protective of her, Renee is allowing herself to be protected, or fighting against it, you know what I mean? She was very much an equal partner in all the scenes, and such a pleasure to work with. She’s a fantastic actress and has a huge future, I’m sure.
How was it working with Nick Stahl, given your tense relationship in the film?
It was great. Again, it was so funny, because we had all this stuff to do that was so dark, but it was really a good time. Even working out the fight sequence between the two of us was fun, and felt safe. We were very well-connected in terms of making sure we weren’t accidentally going to hurt each other.
Do you have a family yourself, and if so, how did that feed into how you approached the role?
I’m married, but no children; I do have a niece and two nephews. In my career, I’ve played a lot of mothers, and a lot of mothers with children who go missing, and in a way I think it might be easier for me. For someone who has a child, it might be too difficult to imagine. Maybe the tragedy would be too deep.
When you were shooting on location, were you as isolated and out of communication with the rest of the world as it plays in the movie?
Not all the locations. We spent a week or so somewhere that was quite remote, and there was no cell service there. And then everywhere else, we were in a national park, so we could get service. But I’m not someone who brings my phone with me; I just put it in my trailer and try to leave all that behind. But it was remote; it was certainly dark, it was certainly cold, and we certainly heard animals at night when we were shooting!
What would you say were the most physically and emotionally difficult parts of the shoot?
The last third of the film was certainly the most difficult emotionally, and maybe physically as well, though the whole movie was pretty physically taxing, just in terms of running and jumping and carrying stuff. Certainly there was a lot of heavy lifting, and it required me to go to a very dark place at the end. I’ll tell you, the last day we worked, it was a very, very long day, and I was still so jacked up at the end of it, it took me a couple of sleeping pills to knock out, and I still didn’t go out for a couple of hours [laughs]. I’ve worked with guns a little bit, but never a rifle like that; I’ve played cops, so I’ve worked with handguns. So that was new, and our propmaster helped me with that enormously. It’s fun to run with a gun; it’s a great prop, and you never have to worry about what you’re doing with your hands. You can play great power with it, but also great fear; if you’re holding a gun, it’s probably because you’re scared something bad is going to happen to you.
Without giving too much away, the movie takes a very dark, even nihilistic turn toward the end. How did you approach that portion of the movie, and what kinds of discussions were there about it?
What Shawn and I discussed a lot was Anne’s overall journey, starting as this person who is obviously very physically capable, but meek in her way, and afraid of so many things and so reliant on Joseph and his guidance and strength. But she’s someone who finds the strength that is needed, and that comes up over and over again in the movie: She finds the strength to do what needs doing. And then as that goes on and on, the theme I began to work with was, if you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you. For me, that’s what’s going on at the end. I’ll say I think it’s justified, but what I mean is that it’s human and it’s understandable, and I get it.
What do you have in the works right now?
I’ve been doing BIG SKY, for ABC. I play the mother of the girls who go missing. I think there’s an appetite in the world to examine these dark themes, especially when we’re seeing, in the larger world, these very nefarious people, certainly in the American government, and we’re asking ourselves, what does it mean to have no empathy?