In Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) two dudes just try to enjoy their newly acquired cabin in the woods. They’re nice guys, simple guys. They want to drink a few beers and go fishing (well, one of them does, anyway). Then the college kids show up, the painfully and ultimately, mortally misguided college students. That’s when the carnage kicks in, and the laughs do, too.
Director and co-writer Eli Craig gave a candid, self-effacing look back on the making of his feature-length debut Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.
Mike Faloon:With Tucker and Dale vs. Evil I was hooked the moment I read the title. The teacher in me geeked out. There are three elements in the title. Two names and one undefined element.
Eli Craig: It’s interesting, the title. It was sold in Russia they’re the one foreign distributor who did really well with it. We beat Narnia in Russia, which is kind of weird but they called it Slaughter Holiday. I thought that was brilliant. I was like, "Guys, why don’t we rename it Slaughter Holiday. I know it will make millions if we call it that." We were used to [Tucker and Dale] and I don’t think anybody wanted to go back. I’m still a fan of the title as it is but I don’t think it’s the most commercial title that it could have been...like Slaughter Holiday. I think if we end up doing a sequel, the name in the front like Harold and Kumar then it could pay off.
MF: One thing I love about the title is that, for a squeamish moviegoer like me, it’s obviously going to be a mix of humor and horror.
EC: That’s great. It’s hard to convince people that it is really gory but not in a way that’s appalling. I wanted the goriest parts of the movie to be the most humorous parts. I think that’s something we accomplished. When there is a lot of blood on screen, you’re usually laughing your ass off. We made the blood sort of hyper real so that you could laugh.
MF: I love the number of times one of the characters explicitly points out one of the clichés they’re headed for, and then they go through with it. My favorite is "Not to be clichéd, but shouldn’t we go to the police?" And then they send someone to get the cops, they pursue that idea, and things backfire anyway.
EC: It’s funny because you do find yourself experiencing the same dilemmas that all these films experience you have to get rid of the cell phone, you have to get them in a place where they’re alone. Are they going to go for help? It gave me a lot of latitude because they (the clichés) are so easy to make fun of. And people buy it because they’ve been done so many times before. I had Chad (Jesse Moss) smash a cell phone with a hatchet. Why would anyone do that? This isn’t something that people really notice, but in my mind I kind of modeled him after Burt Reynolds in Deliverance, where he’s always about survival of the fittest. He wanted to be out there ruggedly alone. He wanted to be pitted against the evil forces out there and prove himself biologically as being more fit. Of course, Chad’s not. He’s half hillbilly. That was fun, playing off these clichés and then having them come back.
MF: You mentioned that the movie is funniest when it’s bloodiest. The first time I saw it I had my hands in front of my face numerous times but I had to keep watching because that’s when everyone was laughing.
EC: I got to see it in festivals all around the world and the audience reaction was inspiring. There’s something when you combine a bit of the squealing with really outrageous laughter. There’s a place in there, basically from the first kid’s death through maybe the sheriff’s death, if I could replicate that another time in my career, and maybe extend it a little longer. Hopefully one thing I’ve learned is to push it more toward the end of the film, rather than having that much hilarity in the first 30-40 minutes, have it toward the last 30-40 minutes and have everyone walk out thinking, "That was great." Instead with my film, the humor is so cooking; we’re so cooking with gas up to the middle of the film and then it kind of changes a little bit. If there is any criticism, it’s always, "Well, the second half isn’t as fall out of your chair hilarious." I’m like, "Dude, you know how hard it is to make it that funny?" You treat it like a learning experience.
MF: I get what you’re saying about where the laughs are concentrated, but the second half is where the heart takes over, where Dale (Tyler Labine) steps to the forefront. He’s such a likeable character.
EC: People watch it for different reasons, but the thing to me is that the core of it there is heart because you’re actually telling a story that means something. This became something that would touch me. The core of it was this guy who doesn’t really believe in himself, didn’t think he was capable of being loved and having a relationship. It’s that core story of a man learning to fight for what he wants and what he believes in. This guy who’s been put down his whole life stands up and fights. It’s archetypal stuff but that moves me in a way. The reason he’s sort of down is because of the prejudice of the college kids, upper class prejudice against lower class, uneducated guys.
MF: The college kids who seem as afraid of nature as they are of poor people.
EC: Yeah, yeah. There’s a line of Katrina Bowden’s (Allison) that gets to the core of that: "There’s a difference between education and intellect." If you put a blank canvas in front of him he may be Van Gogh. If he had the education these other kids have, he might be splitting the atom. He just wasn’t fortunate enough. He had to quit school after third grade. He’s stupid in many ways, but he says, "I never forget anything I ever hear." And that comes back. He has these sort of autistic almost talents that he hasn’t been able to develop.
MF: There are so many one-liners in this movie. My favorite of Dale’s is when he confesses, "I don’t even like fishing."
EC: I love that you picked out that line. These guys have this relationship that I kind of have with this friend of mine. We’re kind of outdoorsman. He hates mountaineering, hates steep rock climbing stuff, which I used to do a lot and so he would do it with me. He liked to go fishing. I don’t care for fishing. You sit there. You have your lure in the water. It’s boring for me someone else catches a fish. These guys grew up in an environment where it would be embarrassing to not to like fishing. You would never talk about it. It only comes out in that moment because they’re biting at each other. "None of this would have happened if we hadn’t gone fishing. I don’t even like fishing." He reveals more than he intended to. Then it comes across Tucker’s mind, "Why are you doing this?" He gets his feelings hurt. It’s this bro-ed out moment that reveals their inner character.
MF: I love that in the middle of this carnage and all this evil that’s raining down on them, Dale is still sincere enough to care about hurting his friend’s feelings he had reservations about telling his buddy he doesn’t like fishing.
EC: Exactly. In most movies you have the good looking, slimmer, trimmer guy who is, of course, the lead. And then you have the overweight, funny one-lining buddy who is the sidekick. I was like, "Why is it always this way?" The big guy is more the underdog, so I wanted to invert that as well. I think through the first and second act you feel that the film is Alan Tudyck’s (Tucker) film but it’s not. It’s Dale’s film. He’s the one who goes through the character arc and saves Katrina and all of that. Part of that is that Dale doesn’t stick up for himself. His character is the kind of person who doesn’t tell his friend that he doesn’t like fishing for 30 years. He never sticks up for himself and even Tucker always tells him that. But then Tucker doesn’t let him stick up for himself because he’s the boss.
MF: Right, he swats Dale’s hand away when he’s reaches for the last can of beer in the rowboat. In Roger Ebert’s review he compared them to Laurel and Hardy. Did you have, maybe not those guys, but did you have any of those classic comedy teams in mind?
EC: Not really, no. Not in that way. When I was writing it there’s a lot of classic comedy that comes to mind. One of my favorite movies is The Jerk. I really like misdirection where the lead character doesn’t understand what’s happening to them so they make assumptions that are just so blatantly wrong. One of the scenes that was written after I had watched The Jerk again was when they’re in the cabin and they think it must be a suicide pact (among the college students). There’s that moment (in The Jerk) where [M. Emmet Walsh] is shooting at Steve Martin and he thinks they’re shooting at the cans "The cans! The cans! Stay away from the cans!" In this case, Alan [Tudyck] says, "We gotta hide all the sharp objects!" I don’t consider myself a comedic talent but there were some areas where I was able to write the scenes to work and then Alan and Tyler took it and ran with it. They really felt terrified and if they didn’t feel that terror, then it would just be light, broad comedy, and I think it brings it to a place where it’s a lot funnier.
MF: I remember thinking of The Jerk when I saw it for the first time.
EC: Did you really? No way. That’s amazing. Sometimes you borrow things and you think nobody ever notices.
MF: When I watched it the second time I thought of that again when he comes in to offer her breakfast the next morning. She freaks out and Dale says, "It the pancakes, you must hate the pancakes!" I thought of The Jerk again.
EC: Really? Okay, you got me. You nailed it. I’ve never heard anybody catch that. That’s cool. I used to like all of that Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman stuff, the buddy comedies from the ’80s. Some of that’s really carried over to me as well. I try to bring in the slapstick, Steve Martin with the horror but then adding that real sweetness that [Judd] Apatow has. But all that stuff, you think of it as an afterthought. It’s a rollercoaster. You try to keep people surprised with the emotions they’re going to feel. That was my goal.
MF: Speaking of Harold Ramis, there’s a tagline for Caddyshack, maybe it’s on a poster I saw: the slobs versus the snobs. It’s that class element in a Marx Brothers kind of way. There’s some of that in Tucker and Dale, too.
EC: Right, and you’re with the slobs, right? It’s nice to have those intonations of classism. It’s funny. The first screening we ever had was at Sundance. It was freaking me out. I had just finished the film a week before, got all of the music in. We were really hard pressed for time and we had no money. Just before we played it at the library for 800 people I was pacing around in the snow going, "How am I going to do this?" I’d spent the whole day watching these deep, thoughtful, artistic films that were ultimately really boring. And I’m stomping through the snow I’m like, "This film is about something. It’s about racism and it’s about classism!" I made this speech: "You know what? This is my hillbilly horror/comedy version of Paul Haggis’s Crash. So there, Sundance!" Some people bought it. Some didn’t.
MF: Going back to certain lines from certain characters. My favorite Tucker line, just after he’s cut down from the rope, is, "This vacation sucks."
EC: That was a line I added in ADR. As I was editing I thought, There’s a punchline in here that I missed. I had written down some options but "This vacation sucks" nailed what the whole film was. And it reminded people that these guys were just out to have a good time.
MF: As an actor Labine’s got a white-knuckled grip on that character’s reality. How could he be that far into that experience and still consider it a vacation on any level?
EC: That’s what’s so funny. He never quite grasps what’s going on. Even when they’re just sitting in the room talking to [Chad]. The therapy scene was the hardest to pull off. Some people think I shouldn’t have done it, but to me it’s the most poignant scene. It was like putting the Israelis and the Palestinians together. They’re never going to relate to each other. Plus, you have a 21-year-old therapist, who’s getting her BA in psychology, trying to run it. It was her moment to make her training. I started studying medicine first. I got my wilderness first responder and somebody said to me, "Now you know just enough to get yourself in trouble try to help somebody and accidentally make things worse." That’s sort of what I think about therapists all the time now you know just enough to make someone want to kill themselves by saying the wrong thing. She has aspirations to save the world. Sweet, sweet girl, but kind of like someone you’ll hear on Ms. America she wants world peace and everybody just get along and it ain’t that easy and she has a little more to learn before she can be the peace negotiator in the Palestinian crisis. She’s probably going to have to find a new major.
MF: I love that she serves tea.
EC: It was fun that we could pay that off in the end, the chamomile tea.
MF: My favorite line of Chad’s is just after another one of his friends has died he says, "A few tiny murders and everyone freaks out."
EC: I liked Jesse Moss because he reminded me of a younger, kind of agro Tom Cruise/Burt Reynolds hybrid. I think he had the hardest role to play in a way. He had to be a little bit arch. He’s had some funny lines but he can’t play the humor at all. That line is the Deliverance/Burt Reynolds moment "you guys are pussies, I’m going to outlive everybody."
MF: So it’s a little bit Deliverance, it’s a little bit The Jerk.
MF: I watchedFargo recently and in the interview one of the cast members pointed out that the Coen Brothers included the scenes with Marge and her husband as refuge or safe haven from this otherwise gruesome, cruel world. I felt like the safe haven in Tucker and Dale was right there amidst the carnage, it’s not like one follows the other, it’s all mixed together.
EC: That’s sort of true. In this one there’s a lightness to it where I think you trust that Tucker and Dale are going to be okay. When Tucker gets his fingers cut off there’s kind of a moan there don’t you betray me on this; if the director betrays me on this...! I think it works because it allows there to be a little underlying tension about what’s going to happen with these characters, but don’t you dare harm them. With Fargo I really truly fully believe they’re going to kill these people off.
MF: Tucker and Dale blends the comedy and the horror so well.
EC: The one place I decided that I would allow it to be horrific was in the flashbacks. I thought, I’m going to sepia tone the flashbacks and let them get pretty bad, especially the early flashbacks, and even then, it was a bit comedic with "Bust a Move" playing. That was the one point where Chad was retelling the story. The retelling of the story was all in Chad’s mind. The reality of what happened is his world. You’re entering into his dark, demented mind about what he believes happened. That felt like a place that I could go dark. The rest of it, to me, really isn’t horror, it’s comedy. It’s just that I’ve set these two dudes within the horror world.
MF: That reminds me of The Big Lebowski, a central character moving through a world he’s ill equipped to handle.
EC: Yeah, I’m so interested in that stuff. It’s sort of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. How did we get here? We are not supposed to be in this movie. We’re supposed to be in this bright, light-hearted comedy, but instead we’re covered in blood.
MF: We’re supposed to be in our vacation home.
EC: Right, exactly. To me it was always a romantic comedy but with a very high body count. It’s a twisted love story more than a horror film. Once we were into it, I didn’t question it until we had a rough cut and then I thought, "Oh god, I’ve made the worst film ever."
EC: When you get into the editing bay before it’s fine-tuned and all, but I’m pretty used to it. Basically, my writing and everything I think it’s going to suck and you just stick it out.
MF: Was it an adrenalin rush that kept you moving while you were on set?
EC: Yeah, production is adrenalin. That’s all you got. We didn’t have any time. I’d have to get 25 shots in 11-hour days. It was a union shoot, which almost made it harder because we had no overtime. And then there’s the trust with the actors. When you’re in the mode of directing, there’s no time to doubt anything. You just go with your gut, which is what I like about it. You’ve done the preparation and then you go with what you think is right. You have fun and you work with your collaborators. It’s really in the process of preconceiving and doing the post that you have a lot of time to doubt yourself.
MF: It comes across in the movie and even more so in the extras, you seemed to have developed a really cohesive sense.
EC: I think so. My production designer and DP, those are the core guys. The producers hardly ever came to set. We were basically on our own. I loved the camera crew. David Geddes, who was the DP, and John Blackie, the production designer, they just got it. We were always in synch, none of us ever fought. Even my AD, Jason Furukawa, we were all on the same page; it was a fairly smooth production other than the fact that we had no time. Sometimes the hair and make-up people got carried away with Katrina I don’t fucking care if she has five curls, she needs to be on set! By and large, people loved working on this film; people were having the time of their lives working on this film. It was great.
MF: When did it feel complete to you?
EC: It wasn’t complete, really, until we screened it. We kept working on it until five days before Sundance. Once the picture was locked I started to get a pretty good idea. Towards the end of shooting I will never do this again I totally let my guard down. I was tired. I remember letting the stunt guys have way too much to do in crafting this fight sequence between Chad and Dale. It’s one of the weakest parts of the films and it drives me nuts. I remember sitting back and thinking, I’ve made an awesome film. It was the worst thing to think. You should not stop to think you’re doing something good while you’re doing it. It causes nothing but for you to drop the ball. It’s so much better for you to be in fear the whole time. I remember thinking; "This is an awesome fucking film." I remember when he (Dale) starts up the chainsaw and he says (to Chad), "Bring it, frat bitch!" I was like, "Yeah, that’s going to be the line. Put that on the t-shirts!" Tyler and I high-fived each other. I reflect on that and think, I shouldn’t have, but you have moments like that. And you have moments when you think your mom and your grandmother and maybe your dog will see the film, and that’s it. I’m proud of it. I think it could have done better but I’m proud that people continue to watch it and are really surprised by and enjoy what it has to offer.
MF: Earlier you’d mentioned a sequel. If that came to fruition, do you have one idea that you’d like to pursue?
EC: The one that we think is really funny is Tucker and Dale Go to Yale. I also like the idea of spinning different horror movies in different ways. There’s always The Hills Have Eyes series. I also like Tucker and Dale Go Nuclear. These guys end up in a nuclear wasteland with a vacation cabin and a bunch of mutants around them and they’re mistaken for mutants and a family in an RV tries to kill them. You can send Tucker and Dale anywhere. The film itself is still recouping money and I’m not sure if they’re going to want to do a sequel or not. Hopefully the next film I do will hit this sort of target as well. I feel like there’s a need for this. I feel that people want to see more films like this.