It’s nearly time, horror fans! After more than 16 years of anticipation, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving is set to debut in theaters this weekend, based on his memorable trailer entry that was first featured in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature back in 2007.
At a recent press day for Thanksgiving, Roth discussed the pressure he felt once he and writer/longtime collaborator Jeff Rendell set out to finally make the feature film version of this idea and how they approached the story and feel of the film. Eli also chatted about how Thanksgiving examines some of the darker elements of the November holiday, working with his cast, and more.
Check out our conversation with Eli Roth below and look for Thanksgiving in theaters everywhere, beginning tonight!
Great to speak with you today, Eli, and congratulations on the movie. You guys just absolutely killed it. I'm curious, I know that there's always pressure when you're making a movie, but was there a different kind of pressure with Thanksgiving than the other projects that you have done?
Eli Roth: Oh, definitely. With Cabin Fever, we were just trying to survive and make it through the shoot because we had no money, so we were terrified of the whole thing falling apart and going into debt for the rest of our lives. On Hostel, there was no pressure because we were doing it for $3 million in Prague, just having a fun time. No one was even paying attention to us. So when the movie became a hit, it was a complete surprise to all of us—a pleasant one, though. So with Thanksgiving, there was a special pressure because it’s not just that I’ve been wanting to make this since Grindhouse, but Jeff Rendell, my best friend, and I, have been dreaming of making this movie since we were 12 years old. We grew up in Massachusetts where Thanksgiving is a huge, huge deal. It’s where it all happened. There are two different pilgrim recreation villages where they’re like, what's a television? And everyone who grew up in Massachusetts had that experience.
Then, every year all we would do is see these holiday slasher films in the ’80s in the heyday after Black Christmas and Halloween. There was My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day, and Mother’s Day—even “Father’s Day” in Creepshow or Silent Night, Deadly Night. But November was just like a dead zone. There were no horror films, and to us, it was the most obvious one. So when Quentin and Robert asked me if I wanted to do the fake trailer for Grindhouse, we said, “Oh my God, we’ve got it. It’s Thanksgiving.” It’s the slasher film I’ve always wanted to make.
It's got a killer pilgrim. He chops off a turkey’s head at the parade and the person runs around like a turkey with their head dropped off. We roasted a human turkey, and we had the best time making that trailer. We added two days to the shoot of Hostel 2 where we recycled props and had Mike McCarty and Kevin Wasner make the turkey body. We had a great time making that fake trailer. And then people loved it so much that they kept asking, “Well, when are you going to make the film?” And I thought, “Well, I’m only going to make the film if I can beat the trailer.” And I didn’t know what that plot was within the context of that Grindhouse trailer because it just was supposed to feel like a sleazy film from the 1980s. There wasn’t really a story.
But the original intention for the feature was to make a great slasher film and that’s what I wanted to do. So it wasn’t until we started seeing those viral videos of people being trampled on Black Friday that we thought, “Okay, we got it.” I wanted it to have the language of a slasher film, where there’s the inciting incident and then there’s a period of time later where all the people connected to that incident are getting killed, and you’re guessing who the killer is. I wanted the audience to know we are in a slasher film from the first frame of the movie right to the end.
There are certain conventions that I love about the genre, so I thought that we could also push those forward and try new things and twist them in unexpected ways, where we do a modern 2023 version with all kinds of fun kills. Once we had that Black Friday trampling event, then we had the theme, which is that the commercialism from Christmas has bled over into Thanksgiving, this holiday that’s supposed to be about being thankful and being happy to be with our family. But then, they run out and kill each other for flat-screen TVs and deals on electronics. That’s what the film is about. It’s about the perversion of the holiday.
Also, you add in that with Thanksgiving, people are now very aware of colonialism, something we were never taught as kids, so we address that in the movie as well. To me, that’s fertile ground for a slasher film and for a horror movie where you can have all of these different themes. Then you put John Carver in it. When Jeff was doing the research while writing the script, he was like, “You’re not going to believe this. We never learned this in school, but the first governor of the New Plymouth Colony was named John Carver.” It turns out, he came over on the Mayflower as the governor on the Mayflower, and if that’s not a perfect slasher movie name, I don’t know what is. We found this one painting of him and decided that was what we’d model the mask after.
So we just had so much to work with, and we just were really inspired. But honestly, I’m glad I made it at this point in my career, where it’s been 20 years now that I’ve been directing films. I felt like, in order to pull off that opening scene in four nights, it took all of the skill and past learning of all my films coming together for that one sequence.
That sequence was absolutely bananas—it was awesome and it’s amazing how well it comes together because of just how ambitious it is. I’m so glad that you brought up the ’80s slasher influences because here we are, 40 years removed from most of that decade at this point. So, how do you sort of mash those sensibilities, but also make this story that would resonate with audiences today? I think you guys did a really good job of making something that felt like a throwback, but also felt quintessentially new and totally yours, too.
Eli Roth: Well, I think part of it is incorporating modern technology, using the tagging of viral videos and the way people post online. What would happen if there was a trampling? Someone would film it, they would post it, and the video would go viral. Also, I get really bothered by lazy writing in movies, especially horror movies where you could tell the writers didn’t think it all the way through, and they’re, “Ah, people just don’t matter, so characters make a stupid decision.” I drop out of a movie at that point, as it loses all credibility for me.
So we had very high standards for ourselves. So when Jeff was writing, he was doing all the police work. He went to Plymouth Research, the Cordage Museum, Cordage Park, the underground tunnels, and really learned everything. He worked with the Boston Police Department, Detective Chu and Deputy Bret LaBelle, who we named the characters after them. We wanted to find out: how would you deal with this? How does this all work? When we were writing the kids, the first thing we did even before we went to the actors, is that my friends now have kids that are in high school and in college, so I sat down with the 17-year-olds and we would read through scenes where I’d ask them about how they would respond and things like that. Because there are phrases they use that I would never know. So by the time we got there with the cast, the dialogue felt real. It feels modern, it feels contemporary.
Also, when we were shooting, we shot a lot of it like a holiday movie, so it looked beautiful and festive. Also, for the cast, I wanted them to get out of the mindset of that we’re making a horror movie. I said, “We’re striving for greatness. We want to make a classic.” And then Patrick Dempsey came in and he’s from Maine, so he’s using his natural accent that he’s never used in a film before. That’s the accent he grew up with. And then Gina Gershon came in—she’s never been in a horror movie, so that was cool. There’s Rick Hoffman, who I knew from Hostel, who lived in the area and was like, “Yeah, let’s play. Let’s have a great time. I’ll do this character.” And then after that, Suits became the biggest show on streaming and Patrick’s named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” so all these fantastic things happened.
I was able to take a chance with young actors like Nel Verlaque, who was a discovery. She's an incredible theater actor out of New York. Her father’s an actor and an acting teacher and comes from an acting family, and she's like a young Julia Roberts, but she’s so real and so authentic and so sweet and such a grounded, intelligent actor with so many layers. And you pair her with Addison Rae, who is so famous from social media, but has really been pushing herself as an actor and really training hardcore and really just hits this level here, and I think it’s going to reinvent the perception of what she's able to do. She's so good in the film and so real and authentic. The two of them are such a good match.
Then, I surrounded them with Tomaso Sanelli, Jenna Warren, and Gabriel Davenport, who plays Scuba, and also Jalen Thomas Brooks and Milo Manheim from the Disney Zombies movies. He's never been in an R-rated movie before. So he's coming in and he's bringing his A game. It was the kind of set where even when kids weren’t filming, they weren’t shooting that day, they came to set to cheer on their friends. It was just an amazing, amazing group. We all really loved each other. We got sad when different characters would get killed off because we were going to miss them. I was like, “Oh man, if I knew that person was that cool, I wouldn’t have killed them. I want to shoot with them more (laughs).”