From the get-go, Syfy’s new alien drama Hunters promises to be an exceptional heavy-hitter in the genre. Based on the Alien Hunters novel by Whitley Strieber and adapted for television by The Walking Dead’s Gale Anne Hurd and 12 Monkey’s Natalie Chaidez, Hunters appears, on the surface, to be no different than other alien-centered classics such as X-Files and Falling Skies. However, there is much more to this show than meets the eye. True, the society in which these people live is one where aliens and humans are unsuccessfully co-existing, and there is a top-secret government agency who is tasked with monitoring them and tracking them down, but that’s where the similarities end. In this show, the aliens are the ones living under the thumb of humanity—although how they ended up that way is unclear. As a result, a guerilla cell of alien terrorists headed by a devious mastermind named McCarthy arise to strike back in violent and aggressive ways. The only thing standing in their way is humanity’s Exo-Terrorism Unit, a special ops branch designed to dismantle McCarthy’s movement, who find themselves often using questionable tactics of their own.
With this set-up, the show forces the audience to doubt their instinctive sympathy for the human parties involved in the action and question who the true antagonists are. More than anything else, though, Hunters is designed to be applicable and relatable beyond the sci-fi genre; after all, who could watch a show, in this day and age, about domestic terrorists and not find it relevant to real life? This is something that executive producer Natalie Chaidez and stars Britne Oldford (American Horror Story) and Julian McMahon (Charmed, Nip/Tuck) discussed in a recent conference call with reporters, myself included. In response to a question of whether they were consciously thinking about the show’s relevance to the current state of world affairs, Chaidez responded:
Hunters had been in development for three years and the allegory of terrorism and terrorists have been creatively around. And sadly, it has just become more relevant in the last couple of weeks. Our hearts go out to the victims in those recent events. It’s tragic. And look, I mean, those terrorists are the monsters of our time, and science fiction has always been a way to explore relevant social issues in a way that is palatable and to deal with our fears…And the show is really about that fear…
Julian McMahon, who plays terrorist leader McCarthy in the show, expanded on this by saying,
This is a difficult time that we’re in, and terrorism is the new monster. And it—the launch of the show coincides with something that has happened that is horrific…As a television show, I think I’d echo what Natalie has already said, and that is an opportunity to be out to express our fears and to be able to do that through an alien world, I think. As a piece, it’s interesting, and as a statement, it also has many interesting qualities to it.
There’s no doubt that this show is incorporating serious real-world themes into its science-fiction narrative, but that’s not the only remarkable aspect of the show. Its use of special effects is also worthy of note. Regarding the digital, practical effects on the show, Britne Oldford, who plays the ETU’s secret operative Regan, commented as follows:
I think, on this show, we were so fortunate to be working with Justin Dix, the most amazing special effects guy. So we were really working with a lot of practical things—a lot with the guns, a lot with the props that were ready to be used in the green screen. As an actor, I think that was definitely such a treat because a lot of the time when you’re dealing with aliens and other beings of a supernatural nature, you tend to have to work a little harder to kind of pretend and imagine what’s going on, but we had everything like in front of us. It definitely added to the show and was a very important part of it.
Chaidez agreed with Oldford, stating that the practical approach to the effects was a deliberate decision made by her and Hurd.
…Gale Ann Hurd has a long tradition of working with practical effects coming up in the Roger Korman camp. Early discussions between Gale and I were about grounding this really firmly in practical effects and not only creatively helping the show but give it a tactile and a visceral feel that sometimes is lost in the effects. And we hope we provided that…
McMahon added that the location in which they were working, nicknamed “Bloodywood” by Chaidez, also contributed to the show’s realistic feel.
We used this as a location for a lot of stuff. It was really a rundown building that was really applicable to all of the stuff that we were trying to express through our character and script. And a lot of time, you search for these kinds of things and you may be going to find them quite as applicable as what they would be to what you may be desired. And here, we just get this fantastic gift of shooting in the location which suited the show and that grounded the quality of what we were doing because it was real and it was dirty.
In addition to the special effects, Hunters required the actors to flex their physical skills, including kickboxing and wire work. Oldford admitted that she had to do a lot of training for the role and came to rely on the guidance from their coach, Peggy.
For the Hunters in particular, we had a lovely coach, Peggy, when we were filming in Melbourne the first couple of weeks. And she really helped us figure out how the hunters move and what their ticks were…and, of course, there was a series of training and so on for Regan, with regard for her kickboxing and just generally being a very strong, very agile creature or person. So it was definitely a challenge.
McMahon, on the other hand, confessed that he didn’t have nearly as much physical work as Oldford.
I didn’t have as much rough work or that kind of physicality stuff. But I did have—when we’re trying to develop a creature that we haven’t seen before, we had to start from scratch regarding who these creatures are, where they are from and what they look like beneath their human guises. How would they walk if they were on their planet? All of those kinds of things were kind of interesting and expected for me to delve into as an actor.
Chaidez chimed in to say that developing the aliens—how they moved and what they looked like—was an extensive process.
I began a relationship with a scientist named Seth Borowitz; he’s a former Brown University neurologist, and he was really fundamental in the development of the creature. We started from the ground up. We started by talking about their planet, what kind of gravity it would have. How that would affect their anatomy, how that anatomy moves through space…We came up with the sort of leaning into the world of sound because I wanted to do an alien world that was different from other alien worlds that we’ve seen…I thought about conspiracy movies of the ‘70s and how important sound was, and that led to creatures that were sound-based and lived in a very auditory world. That led to the development of our sonic weaponry and the idea that the aliens themselves have a language that’s like a dolphin’s or a bat’s. And that their click language, which we spent literally months from the development with our sound designer is embedded inside music, and that they’re using social media much like the bad guys and terrorists of our time. So, really, it was a two-year process.
While this process was challenging and engrossing, there were many light-hearted moments on set. According to Oldford,
We laughed a lot from the set between takes and at lunch and whatnot. For me, there were—for me, it was a boy’s club most of the time, which is great for me because guys grow. And I think there was one time in particular when we’re doing some pickups from something and Derek, who plays Jules, myself and Mark Coles Smith, who plays Briggs, we’re all hanging out at the table in the lunch room, and I just could not stop laughing for the silliest reasons and we started doing tricks…But there were so many laughs. You know, it was a very heavy, very emotionally demanding project so you really had to let off some steam every once in a while or else it can get to you.
Chaidez then stated that there would be an upcoming special effect that the cast and crew found especially amusing. “And I will say that the queens that you see at the end of the episode one or two, which have that huge gaping mouth in their stomach, provided hours of entertainment and laughs for the entire crew.”
So, what else did each of them take away from the experience of working on this show? For Chaidez, working with Gale Ann Hurd was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I was so thrilled when I first met Gale. She is someone who is responsible for some of my favorite movies of all time—Terminator, Terminator 2 and Aliens—and created some of the most iconic female science fiction characters in movie history. So, for me, the opportunity to learn alongside and work alongside a pioneer, not just for women but for science fiction, is something that was an incredible experience and I’ll treasure it for the rest of my life.
For Oldford, however, it was a combination of working with the cast and crew and filming in Australia.
I think what I really take away from this project is the experience of it all. Living in Australia—just traveling to the other side of the world and living there for nearly five months—was quite the experience. It was the most physically demanding project that I’ve ever worked on and one of the most emotionally demanding projects, and working with Julian and Natalie and Gale and all the rest of the cast was amazing. Just being a part of the project was spectacular.
McMahon’s answer coincided with Oldford’s. For him, Hurd might have been the biggest draw but the writing and the location sealed the deal.
It was Gale’s history and track record and the fact that she’s a legend in this business that attracted me to the piece, more so than anything else to begin with. And then Natalie’s writing was another big part once I started getting into the scripts. And then getting to—and this is what Britne was talking about. For me, it was great to head back to Australia for a period of time to be able to work out there. I hadn’t done it for a long time and I’m from there, so that was a wonderful opportunity to kind of reconnect with the country I haven’t spent much time in over the last 20 years. And you’ll see the episodes continue to do wonderful work. Then, I got to play this character who I thought was quite extraordinary. So the takeaway from the whole thing for me is that it really was a wonderful experience. And you don’t always get that.
Altogether, the first season of Hunters sounds like it’s going to be a thrilling, thought-provoking ride, so make sure you catch the premiere on Syfy tonight at 10:00 pm ET/PT!