'Hunters' Showrunner Nikki Toscano On The Show's Unorthodox Style And Balancing Thrills With Reverence [Interview]

Al Pacino takes on his first streaming television series in Amazon's new series Hunters. He plays Meyer Offerman, a Holocaust survivor leading a team of Nazi hunters in 1977 New York. While David Weil created the series, he shares showrunner duties with Nikki Toscano. Toscano comes from shows like 24: Legacy, Shades of Blue, State of Affairs, Revenge and Bates Motel. Jordan Peele's company Monkeypaw Productions produces Hunters.Toscano spoke with /Film by phone this week about the show's stylistic flair, its provocative themes, and the basics of its production. Hunters premieres Friday, February 21 on Amazon. David Weil created Hunters. Then how did you get involved?After they had set the project up at Amazon, they were looking for a showrunner to come on and to help David execute his vision, someone with a little more experience to aid David along the way. You'd produced and written on a lot of network shows before. Were you ever a showrunner before?No, I was not. I had a couple pilots that did not go to series but the shows that I was on I was more in the number two spot.Is Hunters your first time moving up to co-showrunner?It was, correct. It was extraordinary. I feel like I got a little spoiled being a part of a project that everyone from Amazon to Jordan Peele's company to David were all so behind. I've been in a lot of experiences on different shows that I had been on where that had not been the case so it was a real breath of fresh air. It made the process wildly fun and interesting all along the way. Was it always built into the show that you'd break the fourth wall with things like a movie trailer or a '70s TV show?Yes, that was the case from early on. David and I spoke to the writers and we wanted to create a show that was unexpected in every type of way so we really urged them to push the envelope and that's how a lot of those breaking the fourth wall scenes were born.How judiciously do you use them? You don't want to overdo it, right?Yeah, I think there's a delicate balance about using those scenes as a means of punctuating something that was happening in the episode, whether it was a character who had smoked a lot of weed and was imagining something in his head. Or, a punctuation of a metaphor or theme that we were trying to implement into the episode. There are some episodes that don't have any and then there are others that have more than one. It was really just trying to find that balance along the way.Were there any you ruled out that were pitched in the writers room?Absolutely. I think one of the things that's borne out of the writers room at any time is the ability to have your writers to be taking swings. So there's a lot of material. There's a lot of things that are pitched out that are not used, other things that are. It was really just about finding the ones that were, like I said, were the best at punctuating what was happening dramatically in the episode.Could you share any ideas that got rejected for season one?Oh my God, that's going really far back. We were in the writers room about a year and a half ago so I'm trying to think. Honestly, right now my mind is absolutely blanking but I know that there were things that ultimately did not make the cut or there were things that were shot that were pulled out of episodes because we didn't feel they were punctuating what we intended. You're dealing with a revenge fantasy in a situation where, unfortunately, many of the victims did not get justice for the Holocaust. So how do you walk that line of being satisfying but not cavalier about the real historical tragedy?I think that for David and I, it was walking a very fine line about how to portray violence and how to portray the Holocaust. Those were in some ways two separate things. As you'll notice in the series, the violence in 1977 is far different from the scenes that take place during the Holocaust. Whereas in 1977 have more of a pulpy feel, we went to great pains to make sure that there was a great deal of reverence paid to the scenes that were shot during the Holocaust and the violence that was imparted on those victims was suggested versus shown. At least, that was the balance we were trying to strike. I think that for this show, in particular with regards to the violence, it wasn't about showing violence for violence's sake. It was more about asking the question what is the cost of that violence? Do you become the monster that you're hunting?Is it a constant debate even between these characters? Meyer starts out saying the best revenge is revenge, and only a few episodes later he's backpedalling. Absolutely and I think that that's the show that we set out to make is that central dilemma. Through the course of the season, you see a lot of our different characters asking that question, albeit in different ways. The idea that is this justice or is it vengeance? The idea of do you have to be evil to fight evil? What is the cost of that violence? Do you have to sacrifice your soul for the greater good?Is Meyer hiding some secrets from his own team?I think that all of our hunters have secrets that they're hiding because all of them are informed by completely different backgrounds. I think that that's part of what you'll see evolve in the course of the show, particularly as we get into the latter part of the season.  I don't think it's specific just to Meyer. I think when you have a group of people that come together that are all informed by different backgrounds, they all have things in their history that predate their partnership. I think that we sort of try to pull the thread on some of those secrets as the season progresses.Is Meyer an unreliable narrator when it comes to the flashbacks?That's a great question. No, I don't think so. It's subject to interpretation only so far as our memories are not entirely reliable. The idea when you're suffering something, when you're suffering the kind of torture that Meyer was suffering, I think some of the details come into focus and other ones become more hazy but I wouldn't say that he was unreliable. Were any of the Holocaust scenes based on actual experiences that people shared from the camps?No, they were not. They were fictionalized, in part, because we didn't think that we would have the ability to do those stories justice. We weren't there for that. So they were fictionalized and were based on something that was happening to one of our characters. We flash back to the camps, we obviously see Meyer and Ruth. Meyer and Ruth are both fictional character. They were always going to be fictional. Understanding that characters like Biff Simpson are fictional, is there any possibility in future seasons that the hunters could encounter some real historical war criminals?It's something that we've talked about but haven't yet delved into because we haven't officially gotten our season two. So I think that there were conversations. In the latter part of the season, there's some context paid to some of the people in the American government who were responsible for bringing the Nazis over, but as far as using real life Nazis in season two and three, I think that we're going to cross that bridge when we come to it. Has there been any talk of long term, could 1977 catch up to the '80s?Yes, it could. There has been conversation about that for sure.Are you shooting on location in New York?We shot entirely in New York with the exception of about seven or eight days that were shot in Budapest for some of the concentration camp scenes, but we shot entirely in New York. We started shooting March 18 and we finished around September.How much dressing has to be done to revert New York back to 1977?Oh, a lot. There's a lot. It's not just about the dressing. We had an amazing production designer, Curt Beech, who did BlackKklansman. I think it's just about there's a lot of conversations that go into what are the shots that we're getting? Because you can't just point a camera anywhere. You certainly can't shoot in Times Square because there's too many technological advances between 1977 and 2020. So I think that there was a great deal of preparation that went into not just about how we're going to decorate the different locations to reflect 1977 but what shots are we using so that we know how much of the street needs to be taped off, how much of the different angles can reflect the time period that we're trying to sell.Was the cinematography with lots of long takes and overhead shots dictated by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on the pilot or was it always built into the show's aesthetic?I think that's the intent. I think when you're starting out and you have a person like Jordan Peele backing a project, I think it was always going to be a process where our directors were going to be taking big swings. That being said, there was a great deal of specificity that was brought to that idea by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Fred Elmes who DPed the pilot. I think they came together in multiple discussions with David and myself about creating a visual language for the show and veering away from the more traditional coverage we see in other shows on the air.Was Meyer Offerman written for Al Pacino?I don't believe so. That's more of a David question. He wasn't written for Pacino. We were contacted by his agents and told that he might have an interest playing a role like this. I think that when you're faced with the idea that Al Pacino can be in your show, you're like, "Yeah, yeah, let's do it, let's do it." It was a very long road. Pacino had never done TV before with the exception of HBO movies, but that was a completely different thing. This was a different experience. There's 10 episodes, different directors. That was certainly something that Pacino had never experienced and we had a lot of conversations early on about the character of Meyer Offerman, what he was governed by, where he came from, where he was going. Al is very, very much a student of his craft at all times. He wants to know every detail about a character and David and I spent a lot of time teaching him our interpretation of the character and then he told it through the lens of his own mind. Did he want to meet or speak with the actor who played young Meyer?I know that he did look at his audition tape. He wanted to see how the young Meyer was reacting to different things, what he looked like, trying to pull inspiration from that. They shot entirely at different times because one was taking place obviously in the '40s and Al's was in the '70s but they were both very aware of the other. I know that young Meyer went to great lengths to study Pacino, what he was doing so that he could be believable that he was this person in the past. Did the other characters evolve as you cast them?They evolved when the actor was actually in the role versus in the moment when we were casting. I think that one of the more difficult roles to cast was Lonny Flash because  of the amount of humor and ham he had to carry while simultaneously revealing a deeper side of this character. I think that every actor that came onto this show really took the character that we had envisioned and elevated it and really made it their own. How hands-on was Jordan Peele in Hunters?Jordan was very involved. Monkeypaw was always there as a support system, to challenge us, to challenge the ideas that we had for various episodes, shots that we were taking to the visual language of the show to the music that we were using. I think that the one thing I can say about Jordan is we felt his support all the way through the process. I think that because Jordan had done Get Out which was a very ambitious project in its own right, it allowed us the opportunity to take swings that people may have been scared about us taking without his support.