THE HUNTING PARTY Synopsis “In war what you see, and what really happened, are sometimes two very different things.”
TV News reporter Simon Hunt (RICHARD GERE) and cameraman Duck (TERRENCE HOWARD) have worked in the world's hottest war zones: from Bosnia to Iraq, from Somalia to El Salvador. Together they have dodged bullets, filed incisive reports and collected Emmy awards. Then one terrible day in a Bosnian village everything changes. During a live broadcast on national television, Simon has a meltdown. After that, Duck is promoted and Simon just disappears.
Five years later Duck returns to Sarajevo with rookie reporter Benjamin (JESSE EISENBERG) to cover the fifth anniversary of the end of the war. Simon shows up, a ghost from the past, with the promise of a world exclusive. He convinces Duck that he knows the whereabouts of Bosnia’s most wanted war criminal “The Fox.” Armed with only spurious information Simon, Duck and Benjamin embark on a dark and dangerous mission that takes them deep into hostile territory.
It’s the scoop of a lifetime but will they live to report it?
The film also features DIANE KRUGER and JOY BRYANT. Written and directed by Richard Shepard (THE MATADOR) the movie is based on the Esquire article 'What I Did On My Summer Vacation' by Scott Anderson. Financed by QED International and Intermedia, it is produced by Mark Johnson (CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, RAINMAN) and Scott Kroopf (THE LAST SAMURAI, RUNAWAY BRIDE) and executive produced by Bill Block (VANILLA SKY, SMART PEOPLE) and Adam Merims (THE MATADOR, CASANOVA).
The team also includes Director of Photography David Tattersall (GREEN MILE, THE MATADOR), Production Designer Jan Roelfs (ALEXANDER, WORLD TRADE CENTER), and Costume Designer Beatrix Pasztor (VANITY FAIR, GOOD WILL HUNTING).
The film will be distributed internationally by QED International and released in the United States by The Weinstein Company.
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THE HUNTING PARTY About the Production
“Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true”
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Mark Johnson, a producer at Intermedia, discovered this firsthand when he met his friend Scott Anderson in October, 2000. Anderson, a well-known journalist, had recently returned from Bosnia and wrote of his experiences there for Esquire magazine. “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” was a classic if somewhat bizarre document of war reportage: an adventurous road trip that was black comedy, cautionary tale and trenchant political comment.
It told the story of Anderson and four other journalists who travelled to Bosnia earlier that year. All five had worked as reporters in the Balkans during the war. Five years after the cessation of hostilities, in the summer of 2000, they returned to Sarajevo. Over a night of swapping stories, drinking beer and catching up they had an inspired, if somewhat harebrained, idea. Why not track down and capture the war criminal Radovan Karadicz? With the help of a disaffected Serb police officer, who believed the journalists were a CIA hit squad, the five set about tracking down the most wanted man in Europe. Then the real CIA showed up.
After reading the Esquire article—and absorbing its movie potential—Johnson met with Anderson and the other two US journalists John Falk and Sebastian Junger (Philippe Deprez and Harald Doornbos completed the quintet) in Los Angeles. “They pitched me a story based on their time in Bosnia,” says Johnson. “I loved the story. It had a great deal of humour and at that time it also had elements of THE THIRD MAN. Johnson set the movie up at Intermedia, and hoped to bring it to the screen.
“My brief at Intermedia was to look for more interesting, more independent-oriented movies,” says producer Scott Kroopf. “So when I looked at the article I thought well this is great and it really is a question of finding the right tone and the right film maker. Mark and I decided to look for someone to develop the project.”
An executive at Intermedia, Alex Litvack suggested writer-director Richard Shepard. The New Yorker had recently completed shooting THE MATADOR, a black comedy in which Pierce Brosnan played an ageing hit man. It was a critical and popular hit, a witty combination of drama, comedy and character study. “I had seen THE MATADOR which Richard had both written and directed and felt very confident about what he could do,” says Mark Johnson. “Interestingly enough in the interim he has also directed two very different television pilots—CRIMINAL MINDS and UGLY BETTY—both of which were picked up and gone on to be quite successful.” “We all saw THE MATADOR well before it was released and thought this is perfect,” concurs Kroopf. “Not only is Richard a great writer but he did a fantastic job of directing it and got this unbelievable performance out of Pierce Brosnan.”
After the success of THE MATADOR, writer/director Richard Shepard was already juggling with some new ideas. “I was really interested in making a movie set in a post-war city,” he says. “It was interesting what was going on in Iraq and I was thinking that maybe I could shoot in Baghdad. My wife said absolutely not. I was on the prowl for something like THE THIRD MAN, which is one of my favorite movies. That was set in Vienna after World War II. I was talking with several people about this concept.”
Mark Johnson and Scott Kroopf contacted Shepard, gave him the Scott Anderson article and suggested that he might find it interesting. After all it shared many parallels with THE THIRD MAN especially in its account of goings on in a post-war country. The difference was—this was real and recent. Initially Shepard balked. “At first I was terrified because I did not know enough about the subject or about Bosnia but they urged me to read it,” says Shepard. “That article was so intriguing that I got interested. Then I said to Intermedia “Why don’t you send me to Sarajevo and I’ll see for myself?’”
GOING TO BOSNIA
“There’s an old Bosnian saying that when a bottle of this stuff’s on the table, the devil’s in the corner… laughing” – Duck
In late 2005 Shepard retraced the steps of Scott Anderson and his colleagues. He flew to Sarajevo, stayed at the Holiday Inn (the war-time base for reporters) and journeyed north towards the village of Celebici, hard by the border with Montenegro. This region was sympathetic to Radovan Karadicz and was reputedly the place where the war criminal was holed up in 2000. “In other words I basically went hunting for Karadicz,” says Shepard. “Being in Bosnia and experiencing it in the way that those journalists did, I suddenly saw the movie. I realized the potential of that article and that kicked me off to start writing it.”
The other part of the deal was that Shepard would direct as well as write. “On a movie that is a little bit left of centre and not a straight action movie, it was important that I direct,” he says. “To me writing the script and directing it was all part of the same process. I like to do it that way. The more time I spent in Bosnia, in interviewing the journalists and people from the UN and NATO to see what was really going on here, the movie came to me and I could visualize what it looked like.”
Very quickly Shepard got the lie of the land. He spoke with members of the UN, war journalists and survivors of the conflict in the Balkans. Then, using Scott Anderson’s article as the kick-off point, he started writing his screenplay. This was not going to be a history lesson or a political treatise: this was a story of three characters in search of themselves, a road movie set against the backdrop of a country still reeling from the aftermath of a bloody war.
“What happened in Bosnia was terrible and you cannot gloss over the tragedy of that. But in terms of my writing the movie I took certain liberties,” he says. “I created all new characters and fictionalised some details to tell the story that I wanted to tell. But what happened to those guys is all in there. The injustice done by the International Community who won’t catch these war criminals is in there. In fact almost every element that seems made up in the screenplay is based on fact. I mostly just created the characters because the five journalists in real life are all about the same age and have very similar personalities. I wanted to have three different age groups—an older, a younger and a middle person—with all of them going through their own personal journey through the course of the movie.”
In THE HUNTING PARTY the post-war landscape and situation provides the backdrop and dramatic context for the character-driven story. “A good screenplay for me always comes down to character,” says Mark Johnson. “You can have as much action and chasing around and double-crossing or whatever but if it doesn’t involve characters that you have some sort of empathy with or understanding for, then it all comes to naught. I thought that there were three significantly strong characters in the movie, each one in search of something. Years ago I did GOOD MORNING VIETNAM with Robin Williams which was the first film to deal with Vietnam in that comic way. It was a very funny film and no one, not even the veterans, thought it was disrespectful. I think that is similar to what we have done here. This is a very sly comedy and yet there are moments in this film that are extremely heartbreaking.”
THE JOURNALISTS’ REACTION
“Just laugh at all their jokes and don’t stare at the midget” – Simon
Shepard’s script met with the unanimous approval of those who knew the terrain first-hand: Scott Anderson and his fellow journalists. Anderson, a veteran of conflicts across the planet, realized that the war in Bosnia and Croatia was different. “When we covered the Balkans we recognized this absurdist quality to the whole region and what was going on,” he says. “As awful and ghastly as the war was, there was also something ridiculous about it. As potentially dangerous as it was, we all felt when we were doing it that we were caught up in some boyhood story that we had. Every little boy probably dreams about getting mistaken for a spy and how cool that would be.”
“I thought the script was terrific,” says Anderson. “Whenever you take a magazine article or book or whatever and turn it into a script it’s going to be a very different thing but I think that Richard Shepard captured a lot of the absurdity of what we experienced in real life when we were on that story.
“Shepard also injected a lot of drama into the story and in some way many aspects of the whole Balkan conflict are in there,” says Philippe Deprez. “This screenplay is very well written and imagined.
“When I first read the screenplay I laughed out loud,” says John Falk. “I got that screenplay on the first go and I really enjoyed it. I tried to write a screenplay once so I know what a bad one looks like: as Richard’s screenplay was the direct opposite to mine I reckoned it must be really good.”
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES?
“The UN, NATO, the CIA and every bounty hunter from here to Chuck Norris claim to be looking for him” – Duck
The filmmakers of THE HUNTING PARTY were uniquely concerned about the perception of their movie by the very peoples they were making their movie about.
While the film’s war criminal is Bosnian-Serb, this was not chosen out of an agenda to put down the Serbs. The film is based on an actual event in which war reporters go searching for Radovan Karadzic the most wanted war criminal in Bosnia. “For us to change the ‘ethnicity’ of the Fox, just to be sensitive to the Serb population, would have been ridiculous,” says director Richard Shepard. “If in real life the bad guy that the journalists were after was Croatian, he would have been Croatian in our film.”
Shepard also is quick to point out that the Hague, the governing body on war crimes in the Netherlands, has indictments on people from all of the ethnic classes of Bosnia—Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. “Unfortunately, the war in Bosnia brought out the worst in many people.”
“The moral of THE HUNTING PARTY,” Shepard says “is not to point a finger specifically at the bad guys portrayed in the film, but to look to the International community—the US, The EU, the UN, and ask why they have not caught these wanted fugitives. It is an insult to the memory of the genocide victims of Bosnia that these men have been on the run for over ten years.”
The local cast and crew of THE HUNTING PARTY was made up of members of the Bosnian, Croatian and Serb filmmaking communities. “During the war Sarajevo was a city under siege, but its residents, at least in the beginning did not separate themselves on ethnic lines. They were Sarajevens first and foremost. That spirit continues to live on in the city, and is one of the main reasons the city never fell to the Serbs during the war. It was extremely important to us that the cast and crew of this film represent all of the ethnic arms of the region. It kept us honest, and gave us every insight we could hope for.”
Some have questioned why Radovan Karadzic is not mentioned by name, and instead the main antagonist is a character named Boghanovic, aka The Fox. “The real reporters were after Karadzic,” Shepard says, “But I wanted the war criminal to talk and do things I know Karadzic didn’t do. By making him fictionalized it gave me some wiggle room to make a ‘movie’, instead of just a documentary. But the sad fact is, the things the Fox is accused of doing in my movie, pales in comparison to what Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are accused by the Hague of doing in real life.”
“Watch the land mine” – Duck (and Franklin)
At this stage Adam Merims, executive producer on THE MATADOR, was also on board. He had previously worked with Scott Kroopf on BREACH and Richard Shepard asked him to read the screenplay. He joined the team in May 2006 and was part of the crucial decision as to where THE HUNTING PARTY would be shot.
The filmmakers considered all the logical Eastern European locations including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. But from early on a decision was made that the film would be shot in Bosnia and Croatia. For Shepard and the producers this was vital to preserve the authenticity of the screenplay. Sarajevo bookends the film while the rest of this road movie travels through the countryside of Bosnia but was filmed in Croatia.
“We felt that because the story is set in the former Yugoslav Republic we wanted to shoot the film there,” says Merims. “Obviously the beginning and end of the film had to be shot in Sarajevo, an amazing place that you can’t replicate anywhere else. But the rest of the film is set in rural Bosnia where there is no film infrastructure. So we based ourselves in Zagreb, where there is an existing film community and some support, and from there we sourced our locations which are all within an hour and a half radius of the city.”
After visiting the Balkans, there was no doubt in Richard Shepard’s mind that this was the only place that he could shoot the picture. He was, in the words of Kroopf, “pretty fired up”. Both Kroopf and Johnson considered the options. Michael Winterbottom had shot WELCOME TO SARAJEVO in the city not long after the war so they figured the situation should be very safe in 2006. But there were still some anxious moments.
“We were nervous about shooting in Bosnia,” says Scott Kroopf. “The war was not that long ago and we were aware the people there could still be very sensitive or angry about the conflict. To our surprise it was really easy to shoot there. The people were incredibly polite. Maybe the story of this movie and the idea that it’s bringing this war to light meant something to the people. We got so much cooperation and good spirit from the locals in Sarajevo. The same thing has held true for Croatia. Maybe there’s a little less infrastructure for film making but that didn’t cost us any time at all.”
With Shepard as writer/director and Richard Gere and Terence Howard confirmed as principals, Intermedia struck a deal with QED International to sell the movie internationally. The company had been recently set up by Bill Block, an old friend of Scott Kroopf. "When I read the screenplay I was immediately hooked," says Block. "THE HUNTING PARTY with its mixture of human drama, comedy and adventure was just the type of project that QED International was looking for. With stars of the international calibre of Richard Gere and Terrence Howard attached it would have an immediate international appeal." Thus Bill Block was able to generate the lion’s share of the financing through international sales. Then Intermedia approached the Weinstein Company to be the distributors for the domestic market. "They had distributed THE MATADOR and were gigantic fans of Richard Shepard," says Scott Kroopf. "They had been diligently tracking this project in the hope that it might fall their way. They swooped and we had our movie all put together.”
So the scene was set. A nine week shoot based in Sarajevo and in Zagreb, a cast to die for and a bristling and original screenplay. “I write movies about people and THE HUNTING PARTY is ultimately a movie about redemption,” says Shepard. “Richard Gere plays a character whose career fell apart during the war and he has suffered emotionally and professionally since then. He gets a tip about where this war criminal is hiding and this journey is really a journey of redemption for him. Terrence’s character sold out and went the opposite way so his story is really about finding his true self again. And Jesse is a kid who thinks he knows everything but really knows nothing and eventually he becomes a man. The backdrop is post-war Bosnia but the movie is really about these three people, the journey they go through and their experience.”
THE CASTING STORY
“Well, what the f**k are we doing—writing for Travel & Leisure?” – Simon
“It is a dream situation for me as a filmmaker to have a cast as incredibly talented as Richard Gere, Terrence Howard and Jesse Eisenberg,” says Richard Shepard. “THE HUNTING PARTY is a story about three guys and if the three actors playing them weren’t up to it then the whole movie would fall apart. The thing is that we are essentially spending ninety minutes in a car with these guys so you really have to like them.”
For Shepard and the film producers, the key to casting was that this movie was all about a trio of characters: Simon, Duck and Benjamin. Of this unholy trinity, the most important individual was Hunt. “Richard Gere was our first choice,” says Scott Kroopf. “We sent him the script and he read it. Then he said ‘OK let me meet with Richard Shepard.’ So he met with him and said ‘OK, I’m in’. This doesn’t happen that much so you know you have something special.”
“I’m going to do what any good journalist does when he gets to a new place—I’m
going to find a bar” – Simon
Richard Gere, a major Hollywood star, made his breakthrough in the epic and arresting Terence Malick movie, DAYS OF HEAVEN. In the thirty years since he has appeared in some of Hollywood’s most eye-catching movies including AMERICAN GIGOLO, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, PRETTY WOMAN and the Oscar winning musical, CHICAGO. He has also been darker and more dangerous in INTERNAL AFFAIRS and UNFAITHFUL as well as playing in such issue led movies like RED CORNER. His major box-office clout is matched by his passion for worthwhile projects and with THE HUNTING PARTY his interest was piqued. The actor and humanitarian had spent time in Kosovo and also visited other trouble spots (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Kashmir and Tibet) in recent years.
“When I read THE HUNTING PARTY I thought that it was a terrific screenplay,” he says. “It was beautifully written and conceived. It’s also a world that I know pretty well and although I hadn’t been in Bosnia before, I had been in Kosovo during that crisis in the late 1990s. I was also in Albania and Macedonia. So I knew some what first hand the drama that had been going on in Yugoslavia so it was an area that I wanted to explore more, especially what happened to the Bosnians. Richard wrote a screenplay that was also very exciting and very funny at times—which I think allows you to go even deeper sometimes into the emotions if you can bring a greater sense of humanity to it in that way.”
For Richard Shepard, Gere was to bring the ideal combination of gung-ho adventure and world-weariness to the part of Simon Hunt. He is someone addicted to the adrenaline rush of his job. “There’s something compelling about watching Richard Gere play a character that he hasn’t quite played before,” says Shepard. “Simon Hunt is someone edgier, darker, a person with a bit of fun and warmth but with complications.”
Simon Hunt is also a man in meltdown. This appealed to the actor. “Simon is a burnout,” says Gere. “He is someone who cares deeply, someone who was at the top of his game throughout the Eighties and Nineties at various conflicts throughout the world from El Salvador to Iraq to Honduras to Nicaragua. Wherever it was happening, he was there. He was one of those guys you would have seen on TV covering those spots. He was a TV commentator who was there from the denouement, from the very beginning of the action, under fire for a lot of the time. That’s how he lived and that was what he was. His job fitted his energy and then he had a burn out when he loses it. He can’t quite get his life back together. So in this movie we see him trying to recapture that time in his life when everything was in line, when everything was running smoothly. In a way this is his last chance.”
To research the role of Simon, Gere met with Scott Anderson and a number of the other journalists. He quizzed them about their experiences, looking for clues to his character. His bible though was the screenplay and his main collaborator was the director, Richard Shepard. “The script was so good but it’s the kind of script that is odd enough that the director really has to bring something to it,” says Gere. “In this case the director wrote it as well so he was very clear about what he wanted. It was obvious that Richard wanted a foundation of seriousness in this movie but he also wanted to find the humor, to find the movie-making possibilities. There is a kind of THIRD MAN temperament to this project so that it would be artistic but also entertaining. I came on board and when Terrence came on board that was when I finally said, yes, this will work. The chemistry between me and Terrence has to work or else there is no movie there.”
War reporting can have a strange effect on a man and for Gere to understand Hunt, he had to understand or at least empathize with this attitude: the gallows humor of the war reporter, of people in similar life-or-death professions. “Cops have this certain philosophy and Simon Hunt has that,” he says. “I spent time in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Tibetan areas, Kosovo and Kashmir, in all kinds of situations that were certainly analogous to THE HUNTING PARTY and the only way you can survive is by seeing the irony of your situation and also seeing the humor in it. Otherwise you lose your humanity because you take such a down trip and go into a hole that is almost impossible to get out of.”
Despite such defense mechanisms, Simon Hunt finally cracks. One final horror, one final straw and one of the most feted war reporters in the business blows up on national television. After that he becomes an unstable individual: a powder keg of emotion. “He’s an interesting character to play because it’s all on the surface,” says Gere. “He’s irreverent and out of control and there are very few rules left for this guy. In other words he has fallen about as low as you can fall but you have to keep a thread of possibility in the guy, something that’s lurking there, at the same time that he is totally outrageous. That’s a very fun balance to play for an actor.”
In walking this tightrope, Gere sometimes deferred to Richard Shepard. The director offered a sure and steadying hand. “He is very clear about what he wants but he’s also open to invention and possibility all the time,” says Richard Gere. “It’s a pretty short schedule that we have for a pretty big movie so he has to be absolutely clear on what he wants. Richard has designed the picture with a certain rhythm in mind. Some scenes are a slower rhythm to allow us to speed up; also when we speed up we have to be able to breathe a bit and bring it back down so that we can rev up again and get into another kind of rhythm. So there is a music to THE HUNTING PARTY just as there is in THE MATADOR, a film that showed us someone in command of their material, someone with confidence.”
Gere also hit it off from the beginning with his co-stars, Terrence Howard and Jesse Eisenberg. “We actually started with scenes where the characters were not getting along,” he says. “That was an interesting way to start filming because Terrence and I didn’t know each other that well. But I enjoyed Terrence. Bouncing off his acting we developed a certain male trust between us. We didn’t have to be looking at each other all the time. That happens when people know each other very well - they just let things go. Families do that, they don’t look at each other very much and life passes. As for Jesse, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part of Benjamin. He is very professional, very committed and right there. He has done his homework and inhabits this character completely.”
“Simon gave me balls I never knew I had. Of course, I got shot 4 times and Simon
never got so much as a scratch.” – Duck 2006 was a very good year for Chicago-born actor Terrence Howard. After a long time waiting in the wings with stand-out performances in movies like MR HOLLAND’S OPUS and RAY he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a rapper looking for a break in HUSTLE AND FLOW and his other big movie, CRASH, in which he played a well-heeled film maker, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
“I saw Terrence at the Sundance Film Festival,” says Richard Shepard. “My movie, THE MATADOR, was there the same year of HUSTLE AND FLOW so I met him there and I couldn’t believe it when his name was thrown into the ring for this movie. I thought ‘if we can get him, let’s do it’.”
“Casting Terrence Howard was easy,” says Mark Johnson. “Everybody had seen him in HUSTLE & FLOW and CRASH. Richard Shepard sat down with Terrence and talked about it and he was just sure then that he was the right guy. And there’s something wonderful about Richard, Jesse and Terrence together that goes way beyond the simple math of one plus one plus one equals three.”
Before these readings and the discovery of the innate chemistry between the three leads, Howard sat down and read through Shepard’s script. “When I first read the screenplay I thought, ‘this could be fun’,” he says. “I also thought it could be dangerous because you are dealing with a very sensitive, political subject. We have just gone down the road of truth and that is what I saw in the script—I saw these implications being addressed in what is courageous filmmaking so I thought that I just got to try.”
Howard plays Duck: a gung-ho camera man who has seen action in all the world’s hot spots alongside Simon Hunt but who has, since Hunt’s meltdown, climbed the ladder of the industry in the safety zone of New York. “For nine years he has been running into wars everybody else is running away from and he hasn’t got a weapon in his hand. What he has though is the weapon of truth by having the camera there. Often his back is right where the action is taking place and he has no one protecting him. It takes a lot of courage to do that. To have stepped away from that for five years and then to be thrust right back into it again, having found a safe place, that is strange.
Howard worked to get under the skin of his character and his profession. Richard Shepard provided some invaluable insight as well as the real-life journalists and Howard’s own Croatian bodyguard. “My personal bodyguard fought in the war and was injured,” he says. “Speaking with him and with other local people was very revealing. These people put their passion and their heart into the truth that we are trying to tell, where we ask the questions and hopefully somebody has an answer. But it’s very complex.”
The opening sequences of THE HUNTING PARTY emphasize the ugliness of war but also show how it was addictive for war journalists Simon and Duck. In reality this will never happen to Terrence Howard. He says “I can appreciate the courage those journalists have and the risks they take. But that is what makes acting fun. I’m playing someone that I could never imagine being in real life. The explosions, the machine-gun fire and the bombs going off all make it seem so real. It is certainly real enough for me.”
As for all the actors, shooting on location added its own mystery and inspiration. “Being in Sarajevo you catch a whiff of what took place,” says Howard. “You see the reaction of the people and you still see some of the damage on the buildings. It makes it easier as an actor to believe in what you’re doing when the place you are at is actually the place where it happened. We have been very fortunate as actors on this project because we didn’t have to make-believe.”
Howard was familiar with the outline of the Balkans conflict before starting work on the movie. “We all had heard about it because some of my family is Muslim,” he says. “I had heard that thousands of Muslim men and boys had been lined up and systematically murdered with no one coming to their aid (the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995). What happened was appalling—that the world community would stand by and watch helpless people being systematically attacked and brutalized. I knew a little bit about it that I wanted to be part of telling its story.”
Helping Howard to tell that story was Richard Shepard. “Richard is one of those very special and rare people that have the proverbial gift of the gab,” he says. “He can tell a story from a particular vantage point that only angels may peer from. You cannot predict where his screenplay is going and that is challenging to an actor. He shakes up your very centre and forces you to create something new. Working with Richard Gere has been very similar. Here you have a true icon who has worked his way up through many years and is lending his time and his talent to move us through this process. All of these things make for a great project.”
“You look young enough to be someone important’s son” – Simon
With Gere and Howard agreed, Shepard then set about finding the third and final part of his crew: the callow rookie, Benjamin. Hundreds of auditions were conducted throughout the US and Europe. “Jesse Eisenberg was one of the last people we saw for the part,” says Shepard. “But he just had this character straight away. He found that character’s humor and humanity and naiveté immediately. Jesse is an incredibly smart kid, much smarter than I was at his age. He was able to bring an element to Benjamin that I never saw before and really grounded the character. As much as we are with Simon and Duck on their journey we almost see the movie through Jesse’s eyes because he is us, he is asking the questions that we want to ask - like what happened here? What is going on? These are the things that make the story exciting.”
“Jesse Eisenberg was our unanimous favorite,” says Scott Kroopf. “We had all seen him in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and ROGER DODGER and thought he was a unique talent. Richard Shepard was really specific about wanting to have someone who was actually 21 years old, the real deal so that you saw this kid fresh out of college being taken into the heart of darkness by these two seasoned veteran journalists and Jesse just proved to be the ideal guy.
When Eisenberg, a native New Yorker, heard about THE HUNTING PARTY, he was immediately interested. Coincidentally on the day he read the screenplay he heard a news item on the radio about a war criminal being sent from the Balkans to The Hague. But he reckoned he might have blown his chances early on. “I made a video tape and sent it to the casting director,” he says. “I got a call a week later saying that there was no way she was going to show that tape to the director because it was not appropriate. Luckily they came to New York the week that they were going to make their final decision. I was about 3 hours away filming a movie but I took the train, did the audition and found out that day that I would get the part.”
Eisenberg has travelled extensively across the planet: sometimes to places with a dangerous reputation. When he heard that THE HUNTING PARTY was going to be shot on location, his friends expressed some anxiety. Was the war over? Were there landmines everywhere? “Of course it’s not dangerous at all and I was quite excited to go to a place that is quite unique for some Americans to travel to. My girlfriend was also excited because she knew she might get to visit me.”
He read up on the war, spoke with a journalist friend in New York who has covered conflict zones, read John Falk’s biography and spent time with Philippe Deprez. “I spent a lot of time with him and once again he would also go after these stories, not for fame or finance, but just to expose this story, often at his own expense and often compromising his own safety.’’ Ten days before the shoot he arrived in Sarajevo to spend time with a friend of his who lives in the city. All that knowledge and experience was channelled into the character of Benjamin, the rookie war reporter.
“This is Benjamin’s first job overseas as a TV producer,” says Eisenberg. “He is both naive about the history of the Balkans and the war and naive about producing in general. He is not the kind of reporter that Simon and Duck are, aggressively going after reports and risking their lives. He is the opposite: his father is the network president so he has grown up in a cushy job. But his experiences with Duck and Simon change him although he will probably still end up somewhere in the middle of a cushy office job.”
During the shoot Eisenberg also liaised closely with Richard Shepard, exploring the character of Benjamin. “When I first read the script I could tell that the writer Richard Shepard had a very clear idea of how to execute this story,” he says. “Being on the set, not only confirmed my hopes but exceeded them. I have never met a director as stylised as he is and as able to shoot in such a unique way while maintaining the story that he tells so confidently. He also infuses a sense of humour into subject matter that appears to be resistant to a humorous approach. And he maintains respect for everybody involved. I feel very confident about being in this movie.”
So Shepard had three talented actors but the chemistry between them is what makes THE HUNTING PARTY special. “When you have three people playing interesting parts and doing it so well there’s a really good dynamic,” he says. “You could be the best writer in the world, which I’m not, but if the actors are not making those lines sing, your movie smells. So when really good actors take the material and make it come alive, it’s really impressive and makes for a fun movie.”
The other alpha male is Franklin Harris: the big time anchor man with the news network and the natural enemy of Simon and Duck. He is played by the seasoned character actor, James Brolin (TRAFFIC, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN). In mid 2006 Brolin had an appointment with Richard Shepard. “After I read the screenplay I rushed to a meeting to talk to him about it,” he says. “Even though I am not in a lot of the film I think it is an important film. I think it is going to be successful, it’s exciting, it’s a buddy movie and those are always welcome when they are well done. It is so well written that I just feel lucky to be a part of it and to be here in Sarajevo, a town that is beginning to blossom through its sad history.”
Looking for inspiration and a little insight into playing Franklin Harris was easy. All James Brolin had to do was switch on the TV. “Every night you turn on the television, you see our iconic anchormen,” he says. ”They are all different, but they all in some subtle way have the same flavour about them. In a way it was fun to watch them and see what I could use for Franklin. In these few scenes that I have with Richard Gere and Terrence Howard my character is a threat to both of them. They don’t work for me but I can carve the direction of their future.”
THE HUNTING PARTY appealed to Brolin because it touched on so many bases. “For me this is a great buddy movie,” he says. “It is fun as well as being very real, very dangerous and very possible. This leads us to a terrific ending and also makes us want more of this story. Sometimes after a movie you go home, go to bed and forget about it. But this is one of those movies that provoke thoughts and discussions. I like that.”
Shepard auditioned women throughout Europe for the part of Mirjana, who appears in one of the most critical scenes in the film. Shepard recalls that “months in, and hundreds of actresses later I was watching a bunch of audition tapes sent by our casting people. This one actress popped out of the bunch—she was real, and tough and so very believable, I was blown away that it was Diane Kruger. She was almost unrecognizable from TROY. Diane agreed with me that her character should have no make up, her hair should be dirty and up, and she should wear some sort of ugly eastern European sweatshirt. Diane's goal was the same as mine—to make this character totally believable. It's a credit to her acting that it takes almost half the scene before you even realize it's her. She loses herself so much in the part.”
German-born actress Diane Kruger (TROY, COPYING BEETHOVEN) plays Mirjana the brutalised Serb woman who now makes a living through petty crime and gives insider information to Simon and Duck. “When I first read the script I was immediately intrigued by the story especially as it was based on true events,” says Diane Kruger. “I live in France so I remember quite a bit about that particular war because it is very close to home. I just wanted to be part of the project because it was such an interesting screenplay and the story needed to be told. Mirjana has had a very tough life,” says Kruger. “She is still only in her early twenties and has lived through a brutal war in which she has lost a lot and been abused. So it was a challenge to play this character who had to become tough and has lost that sense of being a woman. She now gets by through criminal activity.”
Croatian actress Kristina Krepela was cast as Marda, the young Muslim Bosnian woman that Simon Hunt falls in love with during war-time. “I had seen THE MATADOR, loved the film and googled the director” says Krepela. “I told my friends then that one day I hoped to work with Richard Shepard. Six months after that he came to Croatia to make THE HUNTING PARTY.”
The character of Marda was someone Krepela could identify with as she too lived through the war. “She is just an ordinary girl trying to make her life as normal as she can during the war,” she says. “I too lived through the war. I was much younger than Marda but I remember that we tried to continue living as if nothing extraordinary was happening. There is a scene in the movie where there is a Hawaiian party in the hotel in Sarajevo and that reminded me very much of what was actually happening in Bosnia at the time when we still went to cafés and discos during the blackouts, playing loud music and partying. But outside the bombs were falling and you could hear the sirens. I had lots of flashbacks about that part of my life while making this movie. Marda is just trying to lead as normal a life as possible when she meets Simon Hunt. It was not her intention to fall in love with him but she does.”
“One would think auditioning actresses to play the beautiful bikini clad girlfriend of Terrence Howard would be a pretty fun job,” says Shepard, “but it was actually a haul—trying to find someone who is both funny and sexy and would do this small, but critical part. I wish I could take credit, but the actual casting idea of Joy was Harvey's (Weinstein) idea. He believed we could get an excellent actress for the part, believed Joy was the one, and he sent me a bunch of Joy's movies to watch to convince me. It didn't take much. For a movie where we spend an inordinate amount of time in car with three sweaty guys, it literally is a breath of fresh air every time we see Joy. She's funny and sexy and takes a small little part and completely runs with it.”
For Shepard it was important to cast many of the other parts, including that of the Fox and his sadistic bodyguard, to many of the smaller local characters from a very talented indigenous acting fraternity. “I wanted to cast local actors, people whose faces were not over-exploited in America and who had not been seen internationally before,” he explains. “That is the great thing about shooting a movie on location because you can take really good actors who are well known in their home country but not well known in the rest of the world. So that was very important in terms of casting the Fox, the Nine-Fingered Man and all those other smaller parts. The important thing was to get really excellent actors but also these local actors bring an authenticity to their roles. That gives the film an extra and more real dimension.”
The other very real aspect was casting the original journalists in the movie. This happens in the early reunion sequence in Sarajevo, four of the original journalists get to play war-time reporters at the Holiday Inn. “I liked them and their characters” says Shepard “and as I was writing the scene I felt that the actual journalists could pull it off. They agreed to do it and I think they had a good time. It certainly gave it an authenticity having them do it. John Falk who has the majority of the lines in that scene is really good and that was fun to capture on film. So he’ll probably get his own TV series and end up getting fat and rich.”
With the casting complete, Shepard set about making his move. A buddy road movie, set against the backdrop of a fraught post-war situation, but riddled with adventure and comic moments. “People have asked “How can you make a movie set in Bosnia after the war about war criminals and have humor in it?” says Shepard. “I think how can you make a movie like that and not have humour in it, especially if the movie is about real people. After all they laugh, they cry and they feel things too. These three guys have a great comic chemistry but it comes from a real place, a dark gallows humour that you will find in a lot of war reporters.”
SHOOTING THE MOVIE
“Let’s go get us some war criminals!” – Duck
To write the screenplay Richard Shepard travelled to Bosnia. To make the movie he ensured that his production designer, Jan Roelfs (GATTACA; WORLD TRADE CENTER) also made the same trip. In terms of number of locations, THE HUNTING PARTY was going to be a big movie. It also had to be real. So like Shepard, Roelfs too had to make the same pilgrimage to Sarajevo and into the wild, mountainous countryside of Bosnia.
“For me that trip was an eye-opening experience,” says Shepard. “It was almost like stepping into a time machine and going back in time to towns that don’t have telephones or running water or other basic services. I wanted Jan to get that sense of realism – the faces, the feelings and the texture of the place. The thing is that THE HUNTING PARTY is a movie in which three characters are travelling throughout the country in a car so each place that they go to has to have a visual look that is different from the place that they have been before. How do we do that? How do we ensure audiences don’t get bored visually on the way? On a real road trip every day brings a new experience and you are seeing something for the first time. That has a real power and is something that we wanted to bring to the whole film.”
Dutch-born Jan Roelfs was very familiar with the reality of the Balkans conflict. “When I read the script I felt an immediate and direct attachment to the story having grown up in Europe in that time,” he says. “As a teenager I went on holidays to the former Yugoslav Republic so I knew the country and the people and was amazed that this brutal war was happening in this country, less than a thousand kilometres from Amsterdam. So when I read the screenplay I was interested in working on the movie.”
Roelfs travelled to Sarajevo, checked into the Holiday Inn and then travelled into the countryside towards the border with Montenegro. “That was my first real sense of the story in terms of where it was set and what the area was like,” he says. “That trip gave me a very good starting point.”
Shepard briefed Roelfs on his priorities. Number one was realism. The story happens five years after the war but there are flashbacks to the conflict itself and to other war zones. The story, told from the perspective of the journalists, had to be imbued with a sense of danger and immediacy. People are being shot, buildings are being destroyed and atrocities are being carried out. There is no fantasy element at play here: this is a harsh and brutal war. It is the very real backdrop to the interaction—sometimes comic, sometimes edgy—between the three main characters.
SHOOT TO THRILL
“The agency, I’m afraid to say, is completely humorless about these things” – Benjamin
“The city of Sarajevo is a real character in the movie so we had to shoot there and the rest of the movie being in Croatia was equally important,” says Shepard. “Shooting in a real place makes such a difference. Being away from home infuses everything: the way we shoot the movie and the way the actors work. The actors can focus on what they are here to do and experience the journey because they are going on a journey themselves.”
“When you are doing a road trip movie, which in a sense this is, the journeys along the way are the movie in a way,” says Shepard. “If these places don’t feel unique and weird and scary, like you are travelling to some place that you have never been before, then the movie doesn’t work. We are on a journey with these guys and we are seeing it through their eyes. The look of the film, working with Jan and David Tattersall, the Director of Photography, was to try and give a sense of being really there. These are dark and mysterious and interesting places: but they are real.”
“We have a very international production team,” says Mark Johnson. “Jan Roelfs our production designer is Dutch and I worked with him once. He understands the world of THE HUNTING PARTY and is very good at recreating it. In this case we were not imagining a world and building it: we did the research, found out what it was like at that time and then found a way to recreate it. He did that in a very no-nonsense, non-decorative way so there is a very functional, almost utilitarian design to the movie. David Tattersall, our director of photography is British and our costume designer, Beatrix Pasztor is from Hungary. So we are the United Nations of film production.”
The accomplished Director of Photography, David Tattersall (STAR WARS: EPISODES I, II AND III; DIE ANOTHER DAY) had also shot Shepard’s last movie, THE MATADOR. “He is a great collaborator and partner in crime,” says Shepard. “He is far more experienced than I am. He’s also a genuine artist and a gentleman and we had a lot of fun. On THE HUNTING PARTY we had been trying to do things differently from anything we have ever done before. We shot handheld a lot of the time, moving at a very quick pace and doing things in a new way to give it a more documentary style. We wanted a more lived-in feel, to make the movie seem as real as we could. That was also why we were in the actual locations because we want to make the audience feel that way too. That distinctive visual look, the mood you get from being in a place that you have never been before, owes so much to David’s eye in THE HUNTING PARTY.”
Apart from Sarajevo, the movie was to be shot in Croatia (doubling for Bosnia) for logistical reasons. That was not a problem. “The landscape, the surroundings, the details are very similar because before the war it was just one country,” says Roelfs. “The difficult thing was that there were specific requirements in the script for certain locations and also we had a very tight shooting schedule and budget. So in statistical terms it all had to be found very close to Zagreb where we were basing ourselves. There was no real big set build but there were lots of tiny sets being built.”
This huge variety of little sets included New York City, Washington DC, Gaza, Sierra Leone and Somalia. “There are interiors, there are exteriors, there are explosions, there is fighting, there are tanks and there are burning buildings,” says Roelfs. “We even had to build a Muslim town in Croatia because there are no Muslim towns in the country. We see towns in flashback sequences that we had to build first and then destroy.”
Fortunately the locals were very supportive and cooperative: this was a movie they believed in and wanted to be made. “We shut down villages, we closed off highways and we took over towns,” says Roelfs. “We put bullet holes everywhere and tore up the tarmac. The army was very helpful as they gave us tanks and jeeps and other vehicles so it has been a good experience in that way.’’
STUNTS AND SPECIAL FX
“Putting your life in danger is living. The rest is just television.” – Simon
Some of the most complicated sequences involved recreating the early battle montage that sums up the hectic and dangerous careers of Simon and Duck. They are seen dodging bullets and filing bulletins from such bloody war zones as Somalia, Sierra Leone, Baghdad and Gaza. Shepard shot each scene from the perspective of the war reporters - in other words the action is seen from the point of view of Simon and Duck. In this way the action is secondary to their reactions, just as the war story is a backdrop to the relationships of the characters.
For Roelfs recreating these locations required all the smoke, magic and suggestion of his craft. “It’s about coming up with ideas of what represents Sierra Leone or what is the Gaza Strip or Iraq” he says. “So we came up with ideas to tell that very quickly: it’s not complicated there are always ways to find it. So, for example, we used a train yard in Zagreb to double up for the conflict in Somalia.’’
He was supported by an expert Special Effects crew for what are technically the most complex scenes of the movie. In particular there is a battle in a Bosnian village that took two days to rehearse and prepare. “There are explosions, bullet hits, rifle fire and a myriad other things that all had to work on cues and exact timing,” says Garth Inns, SFX co-ordinator. “In one scene Duck gets up from behind a wall, goes to run down the street and we get a rocket hurtling through the air and targeting a car that then explodes. This is all done on cue as Duck hits his final mark which is a freeze frame. I had a conversation with Richard Gere about that scene. He asked me, since he was in the front line, whether he would survive it. I promised him that he would and he did. But the actors did not have stunt doubles: you see them doing their own thing.”
Richard Gere and Terrence Howard did all their own stunts, under the direction of Richard Shepard and the expert eye of stunt co-ordinator, Tom Delmar. “We had to design safety measures around our leading men because in this film they are not doubled at all,” says Delmar. “That in itself was quite a challenge but we managed to make it happen. Richard Shepard was absolutely focused on what he wanted. He presented me with a number of storyboards and said put your action into this which was rather new for me. But it was a very good way to work.”
Realism and subtlety ensured that the action was low-key but effective. “We didn’t want to turn it into this silly Hollywood movie with humungous battle scenes and lots of computer-generated extras,” says Shepard. “We wanted to keep it real even to those who actually experienced this war. The first day we were shooting, we shot in ‘sniper alley’ in Sarajevo where people would literally get shot trying to get water. While we were shooting that scene one of the production assistants had to leave the set because it was so realistic to her, it was almost like a flashback, and she couldn’t handle it. I took that as a compliment to Jan and everybody’s work that it seemed that realistic.”
Although based in Zagreb for much of the shoot, the film studio in the city was not used except in case of weather cover. For one scene a hotel in the middle of the city was converted into an apartment in mid-town Manhattan. “With this movie I really want the audience to feel that they are there, whether “there” is a New York apartment or Gaza or Somalia or Sierra Leone or Bosnia,” says Roelfs. “I think the movie has a huge variety of looks and they all look real. I’m very happy with that.”
The shoot may have been epic in the number of sets and logistical details but for Shepard this was going to reflect his epic ambitions. THE HUNTING PARTY mixes genres: it is a drama, it is a black comedy, it is a thriller, there is action, there’s sorrow, there’s light and there’s dark. “I think people are desperately hungry for different movies that are not just one thing with a predictable outcome,” says Shepard. “Hopefully you will not know how this movie ends and you’ll be kept a little on edge. As a director you are shooting in difficult locations, sometimes several hours to get there, and dealing with inclement weather. At the same time you’re trying to keep the performances focused and ensure that the humour is not so broad that it hurts the movie. It is a serious topic but hopefully it is a fun ride.”
DRESSED TO IMPRESS
“Simon, you’re the only guy I know who would borrow money to repay a debt that you took to repay a debt” – Duck
“The script intrigued me because it was written with a dark, cynical humour and as a costume designer I was interested in doing a special costume for the three journalists, Simon, Duck and Benjamin,” says costume designer Beatrix Pasztor.
Together with her assistant, Blanka Budak, Pasztor visited the Central Library in New York. “We researched the war in the Balkans and also looked at the various images of war reporters,” she says. “Then I researched wars from other countries like Sierra Leone and Somalia for the montage sequence.”
To determine the journalists’ wardrobe they spoke with Philippe Deprez and the other reporters. “Talking to the actual war reporters was very useful as it helped us to achieve in some respects a semi-documentary style,” she says. “But also because there is a black humour going through the movie there is this tension between the images – a contrast between the documentary style reality and the characters themselves who have a sort of hyper reality. That is reflected in the movie and particularly in the three main characters. They have a colour scheme that suggests their traits and individuality.”
The fitting for the three lead actors took place in a single day in New York. It was a buzz of activity, suggestion and innovation with Richard Shepard heavily involved. “We went through each costume a number of times,” says Pasztor. “Richard ensured that it was historically accurate and also he was involved in terms of the artistic elements, suggesting various colour schemes that would reflect the moods of the movie as well as the principal characters.”
“We went for simple when dressing Simon. In the beginning he has a favourite shirt and a favourite jacket. This jacket is an unusual color—a sort of turquoise blue that was suggested by Richard Shepard. He wears the same pair of pants essentially throughout the film. For Simon clothes are really functional. Khaki shirt, grey trousers but a distinctive jacket. He stayed very simple in dress which is probably very true to war reporters because they don’t change clothes that much as they are moving from place to place. Plus they also want to blend into the places that they are working – for them their attire is a sort of camouflage.”
“Richard Shepard saw Duck as a more rock & roll character but Terrence came to the fitting and started pulling out all these interesting pieces. In other words he started doing his own costume design and styling. He had great ideas and wanted to wear a bandana. In the beginning of the movie, where Duck is just starting out in his character, his look is very distinctive and gung ho and later on he becomes much more business-like and corporate. When he arrives in Sarajevo five years on he embarks on the trip wearing a ridiculous white outfit. Shepard liked that look and it added to the comedy of the scenes.”
“Richard Shepard didn’t want Benjamin to look too nerdy. In the beginning he wears a skinny tie and a striped shirt just like a college student. Later on he loses that image and wears a green polo and blue corduroys so he is not so preppy any more.”
The gangsters were dressed in standard issue costume, what Pasztor calls “the tracksuit look.” But the main baddies, including The Fox, stand out from the pack. “I saw the Fox as a composite of all these bad guys, part Radovan Karadicz but also other war criminals,” she says. “At first we thought that he might have a bit of the Robin Hood character about him, someone who dressed poorly even though he had a lot of money but we decided that he would dress well because he is a peacock type of person, someone who likes to show off. That’s the man who ended up in the movie in the end.”
“For his lieutenant, the Nine-Fingered Man, Shepard suggested an actor with red hair. So you have this couple in the forest—the red-haired man and the Fox—so that was visually interesting. Also the midget was unusual. It took a long time to get his outfit right. We tried a number of things but we ended up with a salmon pink colour for him somehow. Richard Shepard always pushed the envelope which was very good.”
Creating a unique look for the various scenes in the battle montage was closely allied to costume and fitting the various warring factions whether Somali, Iraqi or Palestinian in a defining wardrobe. “Those scenes were from different countries so Richard Shepard wanted each look to be very distinctive,” says Pasztor. “Even if it isn’t the precise and correct uniform at least it looks like it is from a different country. For example with the Somali forces we showed him various photographs and he decided that the dominant colour was going to be red and orange. In another country the rebels were in rain ponchos so they were dressed in blue. We wanted to differentiate the factions using colors.”
For Pasztor, shooting the film on location in Croatia and Sarajevo had a profound impact on her understanding and therefore her work. “Our assistant’s little sister was injured and her father was killed in the war,” she says. “For her it was living through the whole experience again. But she also knew that this was an important movie to make. Shooting it in Sarajevo really helped us to get a sense of the reality of what the war was really like.”