ABOUT THE STORY
Revealing the bond between these two men almost entirely without words, Friedkin first introduces Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) in 1999, during the bloodiest of the fighting in Kosovo. Serbian soldiers are carrying out scores of atrocities against Albanian civilians while U. S. Special Forces operate covertly nearby. Aaron -- at this time a soldier in good standing -- penetrates a demolished building and slips unseen past guards. As he moves without a sound, there is a tense moment when the path to his target is blocked by a small child praying over her mother's dead body. But Aaron is so skilled at melting into the shadows that the Serbian officer who has ordered all this butchery has no clue anyone is even in the room until Aaron has killed him. Awarded the Silver Star for valor for this murder, Aaron feels no honor as he lies awake, tormented by nightmares.
In 2003, light years from what happened in Kosovo, we meet L. T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) tracking an injured wolf through the bright white snows of northernmost British Columbia. He runs with the rubbery, bandy-legged gait of a professional tracker, not making a sound, soft on the soles of his feet. This, along with his gentle demeanor, allows him to approach the suffering animal. Once he undoes the trap and treats the wolf's wound, the outraged L. T. marches into the nearest tavern and gives a beating to the man who set the trap.
A thousand miles to the south, in the green woods of Silver Falls, Oregon, L. T. 's former student, Aaron Hallam -- now AWOL from the Special Forces -- keeps his own brand of wildlife vigil. Two men in hunter's gear, but using rifles with high-powered military telescopes, suddenly hear ghostly taunts from someone they can't see, someone who blends into the trees like a forest goblin. He asks the two riflemen if they think they're being fair to the deer, hunting with such big scopes, then he swirls a knife into the tree, purposely just missing one of them. This triggers a fusillade of gunfire from the two hunters, who are no match for Aaron's lethal skills. With catlike reflexes, he pounces on them brutally, killing them with animal-like swiftness.
But these are not his only victims. In fact, Aaron has viciously killed two other hunters in the area, and the FBI, led by Special Agent Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen, "Gladiator," "One Hour Photo"), desperate to track down the killer, calls in the one man who can bring him in.
Snug in retirement, L. T. resists the mission every way he can. He's closed off the past and this would only open everything up again. But after studying photos of how the men were gutted like deer, every vital organ severed, L. T. knows the killer is a man he has trained. Accepting the assignment on the condition he works alone, L. T. walks into the woods -- unarmed, as if tracking another wounded wolf. His final words: "If I'm not back in two days, it'll mean I'm dead. "
As Aaron is plagued by bad dreams, L. T. is plagued by bad memories of days spent teaching others to kill. The second he hears Aaron's voice, he remembers his best student very well, and the instant they are eye-to-eye, he is riddled with guilt. L. T. knew that Aaron was slipping over the edge, having received letters from his tortured pupil begging for help. But not wanting to be pulled back into his past, L. T. had ignored Aaron's plea, and now knows he is partially to blame for the horrific result.
Finally taken into custody, Aaron is sent to a facility in Portland, but he's soon released to operatives from the covert branch of Special Forces he has been working for. Privy to far too many highly classified government secrets, Aaron can never stand public trial, and the covert agents bundle him into a van and whisk him away.
Quickly aware that the agents plan on neatly making him "disappear," Aaron causes the van to crash and slips off into the surrounding Oregon countryside. The FBI sends additional agents in pursuit, while L. T. pleads with the authorities to let him chase Aaron alone. But despite their mounting body count, the Bureau remains confident they will get their man.
Still, it is only L. T. who can get close to Aaron, and only because Aaron -- like a cat with a mouse -- allows him to. Furious as he is with his former mentor for not responding to his letters, Aaron knows that he and L. T. share a tragic bond that is unbreakable. And, even as they go into their final combat against each other, neither can say with certainty who is "the hunted" and who is the hunter…and who will ultimately emerge as victor.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Academy Awardâ winners Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro each had quite an experience working on "The Hunted" as they learned everything from knife fighting to how to forge crude weaponry. The two actors also had the experience of working with Academy Award and Golden Globe-winning director Billy Friedkin. Both found it quite rewarding, and Jones, who had previously worked with Friedkin on the military thriller, "Rules of Engagement," particularly appreciated Friedkin's method of working, one he likens to his own.
"Billy is a fine director and he gives actors the freedom to exchange ideas, which is very important to me," says Jones. "I also like that he tries to get it right on the first take. That's always my intention, too: to have the first take be the best take, every time. To use a sports analogy, the best offense is designed to score a touchdown every time you hike the ball," adds Jones, who likens Friedkin's directorial approach to the way Jones and his teammates played football at Harvard. "If you only gain 15 or 20 yards, somebody made a mistake, and it's time to try a new play. That's Billy's way of directing. "
As for L. T. Bonham, the character he portrays, Jones says that what is most interesting and important is that the man teaches something he has never actually done himself: to kill. "He's awfully good at it," remarks the actor, "and he knows everything about it, except the actual experience of doing it. "
Benicio Del Toro, who portrays Aaron Hallam, one of L. T. 's best students in the art of killing, appreciates Friedkin's drive toward realism.
"I'm especially proud of the hand-to-hand combat in the movie," says Del Toro. "We wanted to keep it as real as possible, and although an actual fight between two guys with extraordinary knife skills could easily be over in seconds, ours is very real in terms of how we block and how we react. "
As for Friedkin, who believes that "casting is 80 to 90 percent of the success of the film," Jones and Del Toro brought different, but equally wonderful styles of acting to "The Hunted. "
"Tommy is one of the most brilliant actors ever, and I put him on the list with Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum and Steve McQueen," says Friedkin. "He does what great actors do: He brings a large part of his own inner nature to each frame of the film. That's why I love working with him. He invests every moment with a kind of humanity. And Benicio," adds Friedkin, "brings a really strong sense of inner self to every shot. That's exactly what this film needs because most of it is not told in dialogue, but in images. There's no way to write what Benicio does, it just comes through. Very often, the best acting is not only what is written on the actor's face, but what's written in his soul. "
Having worked with such directors as Sam Raimi on "The Gift and "A Simple Plan" as well as the Coen brothers on "Raising Arizona," producer James Jacks was eager to work with Billy Friedkin.
"It took me a long time to figure Billy out," says Jacks. "He shoots differently than just about anybody. He prepares differently. He doesn't do storyboards; he doesn't do any of the stuff that I'm used to dealing with. And what I realized is, Billy came out of documentary filmmaking and shoots his movies as if they're documentaries. He shoots action as if you're there -- as if you're watching it happen. And what makes working with him such a unique experience is that, like a documentary guy, he discovers the essence of his film as he goes, and in the footage he gets along the way. "
Friedkin had been dreaming of making a film like "The Hunted" ever since he formed a friendship with professional tracker Tom Brown, Jr. , but felt it would turn out too much like a documentary until he read a script by David and Peter Griffiths about a trained, Delta Force-style assassin who becomes a serial killer.
"Assassins have to be trained by somebody. In fact, they're often trained by guys like my friend Tom Brown, who to this day teaches Special Forces, Delta and other teams the art of tracking, survival and killing," says Friedkin. "I felt that in that teacher-student relationship, you had the seeds of an exciting conflict -- especially if the pupil has been driven mad by the number of killings he's had to do, and the teacher suffers from strong feelings of guilt because he instructs others to kill, even though he's never killed anyone himself. "
Friedkin recruited Tom Brown himself, to train the actors and serve as a consultant throughout the shoot.
"Billy's a perfectionist," says Brown. "I've always liked that about him. He's constantly striving to make a story as authentic as humanly possible. "
For two hours a day, three or four days a week during production in Portland, Oregon, Brown worked with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, training them in the art of survival in the wilderness. Brown has published a wide assortment of books, among them The Way of the Scout and The Wilderness Survival Field Guide. These were the works that brought him to the attention of William Friedkin. Brown also runs a tracking school based in northern New Jersey - Tom Brown's Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School.
"Tommy Lee has a ranch down in Texas," recalls Brown. "There wasn't much training I had to do with him because he's already a hunter and good in the outdoors. Benicio was less experienced, but at the same time extremely easy to train. He spends most of the first half of the movie in camouflage, and there's a certain, very difficult way of movement, like a shadow, that you have to master, and he nailed it right away. "
Both Jones and Del Toro were especially grateful to knife specialist Thomas Kier, as well as Rafael Kayanan, another advisor to the film.
Kier and Kayanan, who normally train Navy SEALS, spent an average of two hours a day, five days a week working with Jones, Del Toro and their respective stunt doubles. "Both Tommy Lee and Benicio were really into it," recalls Kier. "If there was a conflict, if the day had a heavy shooting schedule, they would often make up for lost time after hours. "
According to Kayanan, the primal, unrehearsed quality of the Sayoc Kali combat style was what Friedkin was after. "He didn't want anything where there's, like, three beats of some person attacking and the other guy's just looking at him, or where there's taunting, or anything playful. He wanted it to look as real as possible. "
"Kali is the term that's used here in the west," says Kayanan. "In the Philippines it's usually by the tribe, or the family, which is where the Sayoc-Kali comes in that Tom refers to. It also goes by Arnis-Skrima. "
Kayanan , who is himself Filipino, explains its history: "It's a fighting style which evolved across hundreds of years, and is drawn from all the cultures that were trading in the region. From about 1550 on you had the influence of English, French and Italian styles of combat, but the Arabs and the Chinese had been visiting the Philippines for many centuries before that. All those sword and knife-styles, west and east, molded together with indigenous methods to form Kali. "
"I now know a lot more about fighting with knives than I want to know," muses Jones. "But I have to admit it was fun to come to an understanding of the fighting techniques used in the film. "
As for Del Toro, the fact that Aaron never uses a gun gave his character a certain kind of dignity. "Aaron is a knife guy all the way, which I think is noble," Del Toro points out. "Even in Kosovo, with guns all around him, he only fought with a knife. "
Because Brown developed his own survival weaponry, he also consulted in the building of props for the film. Here again, Friedkin's exacting nature drove the effort.
"If you tell Billy about a device or a trap that might be useful to the story, the first words out of his mouth are, 'I want to see how it's made,'" says Brown. "He wants to know for his own sense of authenticity. So, I would build something and show him how it kills. Then the props and effects people took over and made it actor-friendly. "
The flint and steel knives used in the film were cast in hard rubber from originals Brown manufactured for Friedkin for use in the sequence in which L. T. and Aaron each forge combat-ready knives -- one from raw stone and the other from a shank of rusted steel. In fact, by the time Brown was through training the actors, they were capable of making the crude weaponry by themselves.
Still other experts were brought in -- including Mark Stefanich of Navy SEAL Team 6 -- to teach Jones and Del Toro other aspects of military combat.
"Billy was adamant that we show a style of knife-fighting nobody had ever seen in a movie before," recalls producer James Jacks. "At one point, when Tommy and Benicio were training, it went a little too much in the wrong direction and became like a Chuck Norris type of fight. But one of our experts was on hand to set us straight, explaining that if someone were to try a high kick like those Norris does his opponent would cut his Achilles tendon, and the fight would be over. "
According to members of the SEAL team, everybody bleeds in a knife fight. The question is how to make your opponent's cuts more debilitating and your own wounds merely painful. That's the reason why Benicio Del Toro's costume in the wild is covered with a small network of ropes -- ready-to-wear tourniquets -- allowing his character Aaron to stanch a blood-flow at any point on his body and keep fighting.
One of the most spectacular stunts in the film is the jump Aaron makes from Portland's Interstate Bridge to the waters of the Williamette River below. Recalls producer James Jacks: "We had to shut down an entire bridge, which is one of the major points of access to Portland, four weekends running. In fact, we arranged for a fifth weekend just as a precaution, and we ended up using that, too. The big problem of course was matching one shot to the next, because weeks would go by, and the weather would change. It was like shooting on a boat. "
There was also a mixture of actual police with actors, by way of maintaining authenticity. Adds Jacks: "Most of the FBI guys were actual FBI agents from the west coast, who are friends of Billy's. They were always there to make sure we were doing things that were at least in the realm of what would really happen. Some spectacular things are necessary for action and surprise, such as when Benicio dives off the top of the bridge, but even there, you're trying to make it as authentic as possible. It might not happen, but could it happen? In reality, a man might hit terminal velocity and splatter against the water's surface, jumping from that height. But we talked to enough people who said, if he was really skilled, and he hit the water just right, he could make it. "
The jump itself was done in two stages. A stuntman wearing a decelerator leapt from the top to the base of the bridge, then, on the following weekend, completed the arc from the base into the water. Del Toro was relieved to climb back down when his part was done, recalls Jacks. "Benicio doesn't like heights -- look close, and you'll notice his hand seldom strays from the railing -- but he's such a good actor that he looks calm and comfortable up there. "
Costume designer Gloria Gresham says that the quest for authenticity made her job a lot less complicated. "Both Tommy and Benicio had their set 'looks,' whether it was Tommy in his checked flannel shirts, or Benicio in either camouflage or all black. "
Gresham had previously worked with Friedkin on "The Brinks Job" and "Rules of Engagement," and on a number of films with director of photography Caleb Deschanel. From her standpoint, it was an exciting marriage of two talents.
"Billy is the smartest person I know -- so charming, so talented and somewhat eccentric," says Gresham. "He definitely challenges people. And Caleb is a strong personality, too. I had a strong hunch they would get along beautifully, and in fact, I think they brought out the best in each other. The harmony certainly shows onscreen. "
As for Deschanel, working with Friedkin was definitely an enjoyable experience. "Billy has such a strong point of view that it's fun to work with him and you really know where you stand, all the time," says Deschanel. "Also, because he creates an environment where you often do only one take, you have to be ready and at your best, right from the very beginning. That creates energy on the set for the actors and everybody else. You can't be lackadaisical and save it for the third take; you've got to be on the ball for Billy. "
Jones agrees: "If everyone is prepared, no one has to labor and labor over a single moment. You can take advantage of however fresh a moment might be and create a meticulously planned spontaneity. "
Emmy-nominated film editor Augie Hess, who worked with Friedkin on "The Exorcist" and, more recently, on "Rules of Engagement," says that "a studied roughness" is integral to the director's style. "Billy likes to set the stage and let the actors go, and if they get it right on the first take, there's a natural sort of impromptu imperfection to it. He definitely likes to keep the spontaneity alive. "
As Hess learned, Friedkin's drive for capturing the moment also extended to technical details. "During a flashback in which L. T. is instructing Aaron how to fight, Deschanel used a light hand-held camera, but it made a chattering noise that got all over the dialogue," Hess remembers. "So I asked Billy if he wanted to loop it, and he said to leave it as it is. We did do some noise reduction to soften the effect, but you can still hear the chattering, and the funny thing is, it actually enhances the scene, giving it a documentary feel. "
According to Deschanel, Friedkin's directorial style also includes the ability to listen if someone doesn't feel something is right. "Billy wants your best instincts, and that has an exciting effect on everybody, especially the actors. In fact, Tommy and Benicio were inspired to keep trying things that would ultimately inspire all of us. "
The only time such enthusiasm backfired was during the staging of the first major fight between L. T. and Aaron. In that moment, both men are diving toward the forest floor, lunging for a single knife.
"Perhaps we could've used stunt people," recalls producer Jacks. "But the actors were there, their blood was up, and they wanted to do it. Unfortunately, Benicio leapt high and came down hard on his wrist, jamming it. Had that been all, we might've been okay, or shut down for a shorter period. But then Tommy came crashing down on him with his full weight, Benicio broke a bone and dislocated seven others. He had to be operated on, with pins put in, and we were shut down for seven months. "
The forest floor, according to Jacks, had been padded just like the dojo that the actors practiced in, but the ground was uneven and filled with other unpredictable elements. In fact, it was a small plant that caught Del Toro's hand and bent it underneath him a split second before he fell.
"I've played it over in my mind many times," says Jones. "We'd certainly practiced it enough in the gym. In fact, we even called the move our 'Double Pete Rose,' because we were both diving the way Rose would dive for second base. "
A good sport, Del Toro shrugs off the whole incident. "It was a stunt that went wrong, is all," he says. "Everybody landed on my wrist, including me. But it's completely fine now. "
"The worst was learning how terrible the injury was for Benicio," recalls Friedkin, who used the seven-month block of time to look at the film and find ways to improve it once the star was strong enough to resume shooting. "I spent a lot of time contemplating the film, and I began to ponder the story's parallels to Abraham and Isaac," says the director. "Then I met with Johnny Cash, who wrote us an original song for the film, and I asked him to recite the opening lyrics to Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. We got permission from Dylan, and that became our scene setter. "
Del Toro's injury occurred with only seven days of shooting left. The second half of the first fight between Aaron and L. T. , and their climactic battle beside an enormous waterfall outside Portland, remained to be shot. Happily, everything proceeded without a hitch, despite the risks of moving a cast and crew along such vast expanses of wet rock.
"Billy filmed it with great care, choreographing every move very precisely, with an eye to bringing you inside the action. " says Jacks. "The combination of his eye and Caleb's camerawork made the scene more immediate than ever. "