It’s always difficult to make a large and positive impression to all when you first spring out of the gate with your debut film. Then there are times where you see a filmmaker pull off making their first feature length film effortlessly, and that’s what Eli Craig did with “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.” The USC alumni teamed up with writer Morgan Jurgenson and created what is easily one of the best horror comedies to spring out within the past few years.
We got a chance to talk to the writer-director where he talks about the never-ending learning process when it comes to filmmaking, putting together the perfect cast and his plans for the inevitable sequel.
ShockYa: Was there any sort of previous influence from regular slasher movies or did it also derive from the horror movie spoofs out there?
Eli Craig: Actually it was more of an re-enactment of my life. It was a doc-drama. (Laughs) I didn’t realize it was a comedy. It weirdly had some influence on my life because I grew up between these two worlds. I partially grew up in the remote backwoods in Oregon with my dad where he build a cabin. I was driving bulldozers by the time I was six, using chainsaws and then I grew up on the other side in LA kind of in the Hollywood upbringing. The dicotomy was so huge. I didn’t really think about it, you don’t think about these things when you’re a kid. I watched “Wrong Turn,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” all of these movies about these evil backwoods killers. They’re kind of like my dad. He lives in a crappy cabin, he’s always working with chainsaws and he has a nail gun hanging around the house. I think ‘Why are they always the bad guys?’ My writing partner, Morgan Jurgenson, we were writing about this and he came up with the idea where he’s like ‘What it was just accidents? Like some kid accidentally jumped into the wood chipper?’ and I was like ‘Brilliant!’
What’s funny is that my dad actually did cut into a bees nest with a chainsaw. I was out helping him and he’s warning me by yelling ‘Bees!’ He’s running down with the chainsaw over his head and I was just watching from a distance. He kept yelling bees so he would hope I would get out of his way, but he ran and dove into a lake. It was really weird how much I called upon from my life. (Laughs)
ShockYa: Has your dad seen this film?
Eli Craig: Yeah…
ShockYa: How did he react to it?
Eli Craig: You know I was really nervous because he’s a really super-harsh critic and hates everything. My dad is a really educated red neck. He works with tools all his life but he could quote Nietzsche and he always tries to get me to read The History of Philosophy by Durant Will Durant. He’s like ‘Have you read Durant Will Durant’s History of Philosophy!?’ It’s a twelve-part series on philosophy. I’m like ‘No dad.’ Like Katrina (Bowden) says in the film, there’s a difference between intellect and education. To me it’s just a difference between status and intellect in some ways. This film is a comedic view on elected status that I think is just a fun way to twist things.
ShockYa: Would you say that’s the same with Dale?
Eli Craig: Yeah, that’s it. Dale’s like an artistic savant and he just didn’t have opportunity in his backstory. He was great but he had to quit school in the third grade to help his family and they didn’t give a shit about school because they haven’t been educated. The kid never forgets anything, it’s a little detail that we throw in there. He’s a genius but he’s just never had the information to grow into what could be like an Einstein. In the sequel we’re sending Tucker and Dale to Yale. (Laughs)
ShockYa: (Spoiler) And I was saying that there has to be something “Evil Dead”-like going on with Tucker’s finger at the end. (End Spoiler)
Eli Craig: Oh yeah! Yeah, thank you for that, that’s good. Any other suggestions? I’m all about collaboration so that’s great.
ShockYa: How did the casting process go for this?
Eli Craig: You know what’s funny? They’re (Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine) both from similar sort of worlds in the way. They’re both these sort of under-appreciated heroes in the world. I never thought they were big stars either but we went to Comic-Con recently and they were like attacked by thousands of zombies. All these kids went ‘Ahhh!’ They both come from this sort of niche stars in a way. I wasn’t really thinking about that as much as I thought they were really great actors.
I spent my time looking for Dale first because he had to look menacing in a certain light and he had to have that heart of gold so that even when he’s drenched in blood he had to look amicable and sweet. I saw him in “Reaper” and I got back thinking ‘God this guy’s stealing the scene everytime.’ I went back and looked at him in this show called “Invasion” where he had a little bit more subtlety. We offered him the part and he said hell yeah, I’ll do this, I’ll play the lead in this role. Actually Alan (Tudyk) came on board three days before going on camera. The two only met for two days before we started filming. Our first scene with them was with them acting as really good friends outside the store. In that time in those two days they really — we worked on back story, we worked on defining how these guys have known each other, what kind of things they did together, their world. Because these guys are such great actors and also great guys, they aren’t those kind of actors that went back to their trailer. They worked really hard and they hung out together all the time and I think it really shows on this.
There were a lot of stupid things I probably did on my first film so I got away with doing all the stupid things for the right reasons. It turned out to be the right call because I cast an actor that was more broad and comic, a guy who was usually the one who would come in and steal the scene but usually was the sidekick, I cast him as the lead. I’m tired of seeing him as the sidekick, I want to see him as the lead. And then I cast a guy that would normally be sort of the lead actor into an supporting role, and I found myself having to hold back Tyler (Labine) a lot in saying ‘Tyler, you don’t need to talk all the time. You don’t need to fill up the dead air.’ Sometimes I just wanted Tyler to give a look. I’d come back to him after he made some smart ass comments on the first take and I’d say ‘Think about that but don’t say it.’ And so you see him sometimes struggle for words with his eyes or just hold something back. Then there’s Alan, being an actor that comes fro Juliard so well-trained and so grounded. Somehow the real comic guy who’s holding a line back and the real grounded actor being there to support that fed it into this sort of synergy for these two characters. It really brought it alive.
ShockYa: Did you ever think twice about the amount of gore it has? It’s such a funny movie and suddenly there are these moments of just a lot of gore. Did you ever think about pulling back on the gore-factor?
Eli Craig: Yeah, it’s funny because that both directions… I was concerned I wasn’t going to push it far enough initially because I’m not a big gore fan. So my take was that I wanted to do gore for comedy. If it was funny I was going to do it. If it didn’t feel funny, I think it was gratuitous, I would just pull out. I mean it is gratuitous, it’s a gratuitous comedy. It was funny, after shooting the producers came to me and they said they wanted more gore. I was like ‘Well okay. I don’t think we should do that though. I want to do it for the sake of that.’ There was always this idea that I had where because these other films, like how Tarantino has fairly gory films, that they minimized the gore a little bit. Maybe I could get away with more of it. I just didn’t want to be seen as a person who — I didn’t want to be like ‘God, he made such a nice film that could’ve been great.’ Whenever I felt like I was being kind of a pussy I said ‘Throw more blood on her!’ (Laughs)
ShockYa: Well I mean you can get away with it too because most of the deaths that happen are accidental.
Eli Craig: Yeah, that’s what I thought too. I wonder that’s why we didn’t get a big theatrical release. Maybe I have to go home and do some soul-searching. (Laughs)
ShockYa: Now being your first feature direction, what did you find to be the most challenge part of the process?
Eli Craig: The gore. (Laughs) The most challenging part of it was just making — getting your days, that’s the challenging part of shooting on an indie schedule. Virtually I’ve been doing a lot of producing on the really super ultra indie level like music videos and commercials with no money because I was used working with non-union crews who were used to working seventeen hour days. In this case on the first day everybody started walking away after eleven and a half hours. Everybody said ‘Eh we’ll come back tomorrow’ while I said ‘No, we still have six more hours to shoot!’ You know they deal with what you got, and the hardest thing was sort of really just walking in with 35 shots on the list and walking away with 25, consolidating that and learning to be as concise as I could with the economics of making the film.
“Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” is out on VOD and in limited theaters now.