This article contains spoilers for “The Hunt.”
It’s a showdown of pop-culture gladiators: Million Dollar Baby vs. Liberty Belle.
Hilary Swank, who won an Oscar for playing a boxer in “Million Dollar Baby,” and Betty Gilpin, an Emmy nominee for her turn as the wrestler Liberty Belle, or Debbie Eagan, in “GLOW,” square off in an over-the-top fight sequence at the climax of the new satirical action picture “The Hunt.”
The actors’ backgrounds in on-screen combat were a boon to Hank Amos, who along with Heidi Moneymaker served as the film’s stunt coordinator. “Both of them were already so far ahead of the game,” Amos said in a recent phone interview. “Trust me, those ladies can throw down.”
The clash takes place in the high-end kitchen of a mansion owned by Athena (Swank), a wealthy liberal who organizes a hunting party of elitists to track down and kill a dozen so-called “deplorables,” including Crystal (Gilpin).
The finale opens with six minutes of verbal sparring, followed by a seven-minute battle that utilizes such improvised weapons as hanging light fixtures and the chopping blade of a food processor. “I’ve filmed so many scenes in kitchens, but never one quite like this,” Gilpin said in a recent phone interview. “To have some meat-and-potatoes scene work with two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and then beat the crap out of each other was incredible.”
Gilpin trained for seven months in preparation for the fight. “I did all the tire lifting and sled pushing that my weird little Irish body could do,” Gilpin said. “I was eating bison meat, drinking protein shakes and taking insanely good care of myself.”
The director, Craig Zobel (“Compliance”), worked with the stunt coordinators for eight weeks to choreograph the brawl. The script, by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, said “something like, ‘And what follows is an epic fight scene,’” Zobel recalled in a recent phone interview. “So we had to figure out how to make it interesting.”
The set, on a soundstage in New Orleans, “was built specifically for us to destroy,” Amos said. Padding was added to certain walls that the actors would smash into. The scene was shot in chronological order, “which was great because we did so much damage to the environment that it wasn’t like we could pre-damage an area, go and shoot in there, then clean it all up and backtrack,” Amos said.
The stunt doubles Sarah Irwin (for Swank) and Caitlin Dechelle (for Gilpin) “were only put in for stuff that would require them to take some hard hits or crash through something,” Amos said. “We used Betty and Hilary for a major portion of the fight.”
Certain elements came from Zobel. “When I was location scouting for the film, we went to a place with a pass-through fireplace,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that could be useful for a fight scene.’” Hence, Gilpin throws Swank through such a furnace.
When Gilpin swings from a rope sculpture, the move used the macramé work of Zobel’s friend, the Brooklyn artist Maeve Pacheco. “In my mind, these big sculptural pieces felt like they would be in Athena’s house,” Zobel said.
Both Zobel and Amos were particularly amused when Swank breaks open a shotgun to reload it, then closes the weapon on Gilpin’s arm. “That’s my favorite cringe moment in the fight,” Amos said. “Because nobody wants to get pinched. Hit in the face, sure. But pinched? No way.”
The sequence was shot over five 12-hours days last year at the very end of production last year, a rare instance of a finale filmed late in the schedule. “It was invaluable because we knew what the farcical tone of the movie was by then and how far we could go,” Zobel said.
During those grueling days, “the hardest part was to keep up the intensity,” Amos said. “For the first couple of hours, everybody’s into it, but a big part of my job is playing cheerleader and making sure everybody keeps their enthusiasm up. Because we’ve got people crashing through walls and getting stuff broken over their heads, and we all need to be respectful of that.”
It’s the only scene Gilpin and Swank share in the film. “I’m a superfan of her work, so I tried to remain as professional as I could without sobbing in her face when I met her,” Gilpin said. “We knew we were going to have our bodies and safety in each other’s hands, so there was no time for stumbling small talk.”
But the actors still had fun. “We were laughing the whole time,” Gilpin said. “We would run back to the monitor and watch the playback to see if the punches were landing and what we needed to work on.”
Despite the scene’s almost-cartoonish quality, the intention was to “make it look really scary and cool,” Gilpin said. “We didn’t want to be two tiny women poking forks at each other. We wanted it to be just as wild and terrifying as if two men were fighting.”
The release of “The Hunt” was delayed last year over controversies about its plot and its gun violence, then rescheduled for March 13, just as theaters were starting to close over the coronavirus. It’s now set for rental online starting Friday. But Gilpin saw the final cut for the first time only a few weeks ago. “I sat in my apartment and watched it on my computer,” she said. “By the time the fight scene came around, I was standing on my couch screaming. I was like Tom Cruise on ‘Oprah.’”