By Junsui Films | December 2011
Junsui Films catches up with the director of TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL who tells us all about his breakout feature and its journey to the big screen…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your background. You started out as an actor?
Eli Craig: I’m pretty sure I started out as a zygote with a dream to someday reproduce, but when I was born into the world it was in the freakin’ San Fernando Valley so I justifiably wanted to escape. I went to college in Boulder, Colorado, where I became obsessed with climbing and mountaineering. After several accidents where people fell to bloody pulps at my feet I decided acting like a bad ass was far safer than being one. What I found out is… it ain’t.
Anyway, I moved back to LA where someone said, ‘hey – you should be an actor.’ And having no other decent response I said, ‘okay!’ I got a few jobs but the best thing that happened for me was studying with an acting coach named Larry Moss. He was honest about how hard it was to become a successful actor and encouraged everyone to be involved in other areas of the creative process, such as writers, directors, cinematographers.
So I was writing and directing plays just for the class and I found myself getting on stage less as the directing side just seemed so much more compelling to me.
It was thrilling to watch other actors come alive by aiding them with little details that they’d left out of their back-story, or just giving them the confidence to let go, to feel like they were in safe hands. I found that I was more passionate about working with actors to improve their performance than I was in performing myself.
I enjoyed it so much that I had the stupid-ass idea of going back to school and studying directing. I applied and was accepted to USC graduate film school and that’s when my acting ‘career’ officially ended.
JF: You played a small role in the Clint Eastwood film Space Cowboys. How do you feel your experiences as an actor have helped you as a filmmaker?
While I was working on Space Cowboys I actually asked Clint how I should go about working as a director. I remember him looking over at me slowly as if he just noticed I were there, squinting like he was about to ask me if I felt lucky, and saying; ’Just go do it, kid!’ So I did.
JF: You produced a few short films before making your writing/directing debut with The Tao of Pong. Was the transition into writer/director a smooth one?
The Tao of Pong was actually my USC student thesis film. It was great because it was just me and a bunch of friends doing to all for free and trying to get away with whatever we could. It was good training for Tucker and Dale, which was basically the same thing.
What people don’t see on IMDB is that I worked for 3 years producing, ADing, shooting and editing low budget commercials and music videos. I had logged a lot of hours on different sets. I had worked as an actor, an AD, producer, editor and I was ready.
It’s funny how everyone always talks about the “first feature” as if it’s some kind of rocket science we’re doing. There are people who have never directed a feature and yet are more prepared and more capable than people who have directed ten.
It’s a matter of trusting your gut but being completely open. I have no problem transitioning into the directing role. The hard part is transitioning back to the unemployment role.
JF: Let’s move onto Tucker and Dale VS Evil. Where did the idea come from?
Morgan Jurgenson, my co-writer, and I thought it would be hilarious if Leatherface, or the freaks in Hills Have Eyes, or Wrong Turn were really just sadly misunderstood. Some critic was trying to be pejorative when he called it a Three’s Company episode meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then I realised that I watched Three’s Company when I was a kid and loved it! So there!
We knew we were onto something when we started coming up with the hilarious ideas about how the college kids would accidentally kill themselves. Simply by dying on their property implicates Tucker and Dale in a crime they didn’t commit.
Then the overall theme grew a bit deeper for me. The film became what one reviewer called, “A dazzling mockery of prejudice”. As one of my characters, Allison, says in the movie ‘I just think so many problems in the world come from judgement or a lack of understanding’. I thought that was a pretty cool challenge to take on.
JF: What were your biggest influences when making the film, and did you find it difficult balancing the gore with comedy?
Shaun of the Dead, Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, Deliverance, Wrong Turn, Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ghostbusters, The Jerk, and Three’s Company. But I wasn’t interested in making a ton of pop culture references or “spoofing” other movies the way the Scary Movie franchise does where half of the fun is figuring out what movie one particular skit is from.
I wanted this movie to stand alone and work with people who haven’t seen any horror films at all and just wanted a good laugh. Of course, I also wanted to add details that would make horrorphiles grin. I also don’t think you can really have a “spoof” with heart – those two terms are contradicting – so I called the film a satire and a farce and worked hard to ground the characters in some sense of reality.
I wanted the film to feel like a fish out of water movie where these two characters, Tucker and Dale, really belonged in a comedy but somehow found themselves in a horror film and can’t figure out why.
It’s a weird thing to draw on but I kept thinking that these guys are sucked into a world they can’t possibly make sense of, and they can’t get off the train. All they can do is respond to it in equally nonsensical ways.
JF: Tell us a little bit about the funding process and the challenges you faced getting the film financed…
It was awful, but I’ve heard a lot worse. It took three years, and each summer we almost went into production and then it fell apart. I didn’t realise just how hard it would be but I loved this film with all my heart and I just believed we had something special. I still do.
I was introduced through another producer to Thomas Augsberger and Deepak Nayar, two producers who told me they liked the script and would help get it made. I don’t think they realised how hard it would be either and in retrospect I think both of them wish they’d never heard the term “horror-comedy”.
Regardless of how hard it was to get made and to get a distributor on board, the film really means something to me and that’s far more important than making money… says the guy with holes in his shoes…
JF: Tucker and Dale VS Evil features great performances from its central leads Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine. How did you go about casting the film?
I went after Tyler Labine pretty early. I had seen some of his earlier work (Reaper and Invasion) and I thought he could play this innocent, mean looking idiot with a heart of gold, like Lenny from Steinbeck’s Mice and Men.
Alan Tudyk came along later in the game. In fact, he was our saving grace as another actor dropped out of the film three days before shooting. So we had only one day of rehearsal, after which it seemed like Tucker and Dale were lifelong friends, which I now think they are.
JF: What were some of the biggest difficulties during the shoot that you encountered?
They kept cutting the budget on us. I started with 36 days, then 30, 28, then 25, and they were literally taking props away as we were shooting because we couldn’t afford it and we lost our end set piece three days before going there because we couldn’t afford that.
Basically we were on the run, being attacked by mosquitoes while it rained and hailed – lightning even struck a tree right next to us once. We could only afford one piece of junk truck. Literally, we were so broke, we couldn’t crash the truck. So when we had to crash it, I had to come up with a way to fake it. I’d understand if it was a Ferrari, or even a Honda Civic, but this was an ’88 Dodge pick-up!
JF: Tell us about your experiences on the festival circuit and the first time you watched the film with an audience?
It was awesome. Sundance was the fist time and it was one of the most exciting and terrifying experiences of my life, and I’ve slept on the side of El Capitan, fell into crevasses on Denali, and almost died climbing some of the highest mountains in the world. This was by far more terrifying.
JF: Was it difficult securing distribution for the film, and how important was it for you to see it released theatrically?
We could do a whole interview about this alone. There’s a lot of indecision in Hollywood and I think the producers really believed this film could perform on a wide to semi-wide release. One of our producers, Deepak Nayar, had convinced the studios to release Bend it Like Beckham years ago and it became the biggest indie success ever at the time. When the producers saw the audience response they thought this could be the same kind of success.
We spent 18 months testing and re-testing the film with different studios and I think they were always surprised how well it tested. It repeated a 92% positive and none of the studio suits could freaking believe it. Then the film opened theatrically in Russia, and it did better than anyone could have imagined.
The opening weekend it actually beat Narnia on a per screen average. It was the most successful film the Russian distributor had ever released, so that encouraged the producers to try and get a US distributor to take a chance on it theatrically. But alas, they all decided to pass at the end of the day probably because we had no one from Twilight in it.
We finally ended up with Magnet Releasing in the US, doing a small theatrical release alongside a VOD and DVD release. I still think the film could have done well in a wider release, but I’m pretty stoked it’s finally out there for people to see now.
JF: Any future plans you can tell us about?
Que sera sera. I’ll get some more work going here some day… hopefully something that makes people smile.