Growing up Jewish on Long Island, “Hunters” creator David Weil would often sit cross-legged between his three older brothers, listening as their grandmother told stories of her life during the Holocaust.
To Weil’s 6-year-old ears, such stories of Auschwitz and atrocity, endurance and faith, “felt like the stuff of comic books and superheroes,” he says. “That was the only way I could try to understand her stories — her heroism, her boldness, her defiance.”
Later in life, Weil still grappled with his grandmother’s legacy, studying political science at Harvard and moving to Los Angeles in order to become a storyteller himself. “She had implanted within me this lens through which to see the world as a place of great good and grand evil,” says Weil, 30. He felt conflicted about how to best continue telling the story of the Holocaust, with so few survivors left alive today.
“We face incredible advents of Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia throughout the world today,” he says. Crafting “a love letter” to his grandmother, which would honor her struggle while exploring the righteous anger many Jews felt toward Nazis who escaped justice after World War II, started to feel increasingly urgent and timely.
Struck one day by the concept of flooding such a story with the pulpy, propulsive colors of his favorite comics, Weil created “Hunters,” starring Logan Lerman and Al Pacino. The series debuts on Amazon Feb. 21, with 10 episodes.
Set in ’70s New York, it follows a ragtag group of vigilantes who uncover hundreds of Nazi officials living in secret around the United States, plotting to architect a Fourth Reich on American soil. They embark on a dangerous, bloody mission to thwart the Nazis’ genocidal scheme.
“It really comes from the notion of a Jewish superhero,” he says of “Hunters," which is hyperviolent and stylized. Before the pilot’s end, characters have been stabbed, gassed, bludgeoned, and dispatched in much nastier ways; crucially, the Jewish characters carry out this violence more than they’re on the receiving end of it.
“I wanted to showcase Jews not as intellectual, nebbishy, victimized, or emasculated, but to show them with might and strength,” explains Weil. "Wanting to gain vengeance can be Jewish, too. It’s the idea of people who’ve been so otherized and persecuted for so long reclaiming power that is so political.”
In searching for an actor to play Jonah Heidelbaum, who becomes a hunter after his grandmother is murdered by an intruder, Weil had long pictured Lerman. Best known for starring in the young-adult “Percy Jackson” franchise, Lerman has carved out a niche for himself playing sensitive, soft-spoken young men in coming-of-age dramas like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), “Stuck in Love” (2013), and “Indignation” (2016).
“There’s this great world-weariness about him so few young actors can achieve,” Weil says. “Logan can do that in spades. It’s the quietude about his performances. He has such heart and soul, and it’s simply there, within him.”
For Lerman, the comic-book framing of “Hunters” at first felt like a “tonal mishmash,” given its subject matter. But as he read the scripts, the actor grew to understand Jonah as someone with a strict moral code, informed by his worship of virtuous superheroes like Captain America.
When Jonah is confronted with the ugliness of the hunters’ mission, “it’s a clash of ideals,” says Lerman, 27, speaking by phone. “That comic-book lens also plays against the question at the center of the series, which is, ‘Does it take evil to fight evil? Do you have to become a bad guy in order to fight the bad guy?’ ”
Another draw for Lerman was the chance to act opposite Hollywood great Pacino, in his first TV series. Pacino — currently Oscar-nominated for playing Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s organized-crime opus “The Irishman” — costars as Meyer Offerman, the mysterious founder of the hunters who co-created the group with Jonah’s grandmother.
“It’s been the greatest honor of my career so far,” Lerman says of working with Pacino. “I adore him as an actor, and getting to fall in love with him as a human being was truly something special.”
Even more effusive about Pacino’s involvement is Weil, who remains stunned that the actor signed on in the first place. It took four meetings between the pair for Pacino to make his mind up to do so, during which time Weil felt himself challenged to craft the richest-possible version of Offerman’s back story and future arc. (At least two more seasons of “Hunters” are planned.)
“You think you’re a great writer until you meet a great actor,” says Weil. “There’s so much Al intuits about characters, from the decisions they make, to the clothes they wear, a look, a glance, the music they love. I would watch him build this character in his mind, brick by brick, memory by memory, just sitting there. It was magical.”
Starring: Al Pacino, Logan Lerman, Jeannie Berlin, Dylan Baker, Carol Kane, Lena Olin, Josh Radnor, James Le Gros
On: Amazon. First season streams on Feb. 21.