Q&A: TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL: How To Make A Hillbilly Howler

An archive interview from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · November 25, 2019, 4:42 PM PST
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Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on November 25, 2011 and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Horror and comedy are always a tricky mix, but Tucker and Dale vs. Evil makes it look easy. The hilariously grisly saga of two likable hillbillies (Alan Tudyk as Tucker and Tyler Labine as Dale) encountering a group of naive vacationing college kids who mistake them for backwoods maniacs is the wildly entertaining feature directorial debut of Eli Craig, who discussed its creation in depth with Fango.

The son of Oscar-winning actress Sally Field, Craig began as an onscreen performer himself (with credits including The Rage: Carrie 2) before embarking on Tucker and Dale. The movie won rabid approval when it began playing festivals a couple of years back, but unfortunate circumstances led to its being held up on the way to commercial distribution. Finally, Magnolia Pictures acquired the movie and gave it limited theatrical release under its Magnet Releasing banner, followed by DVD and Blu-ray editions.

After starting as an actor, what led you to venture behind the camera?

It was really my desire to write and direct that led me to step in front of the camera in the first place. I was never very interested in being an actor, but as a 25-year-old who still looked like a teenager, I had a hard time being taken seriously as a director. I knew how hard it was to get to the point where a studio or indie financiers would put millions of dollars behind you on faith that you could make a profitable film, and so I thought acting would be a good education for a wannabe director.

I read a ton of scripts and learned a lot about acting in those few years while I studied with an amazing coach named Larry Moss. He was honest about how hard it was to become a working actor, and encouraged everyone to be involved in all areas of the creative process: writing, directing, shooting, doing craft services, whatever it took. I starting directing plays in class, and found myself going on stage less and less. It was thrilling for me to watch other actors come alive by aiding them with details that they’d left out of their backstory, or just giving them the confidence to let go—to feel like they were in safe hands. It was a way for me to put my B.A. in psychology to use, and I found I was more passionate about working with actors to improve their performances than I was in performing myself.

I enjoyed it so much that I had the hairbrained idea of going back to school and studying directing—I applied and was accepted to USC’s graduate film school in 2001. That’s when my acting career—whatever I had of one—officially ended and I focused all my attention on directing and writing. I didn’t realize how many years would be swept up in school, but it was one of the great times in my life, and I never would have been able to pull off Tucker and Dale as my first feature without those years there.

Did the inspiration to do Tucker and Dale come from being a fan of horror films, or were you and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson just looking for a good comedy concept?

I didn’t want to make this film so much because I loved horror as I just thought the idea was hilarious. We weren’t just poking fun at horror movies, we were making fun of racism in a way, and wrapping the whole thing up in a demented love story—that was just too fun to resist. I joked before we started that we were making a hillbilly-horror/comedy version of Crash.

Even with all the craziness going on, Dale’s feelings for and courtship of college girl Allison (Katrina Bowden) are played straight, and the comedy doesn’t go over the top into spoofery.

I don’t think you can have a spoof with heart; those two terms are contradictory, 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 guys, Tucker and Dale, really belong in a comedy but have somehow found themselves in a horror film, and can’t figure out why. It’s like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stuck in a horror movie. I definitely drew a lot from early absurdist plays I loved: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Waiting for Godot, The Zoo Story. It’s a weird thing to draw on, but I kept thinking that these guys have been sucked into a world they can’t possibly make sense of, and no matter how hard they try, they can’t get off the train; they can’t escape the plot. All they can do is respond to it in equally nonsensical ways, trying to rationalize everything from their limited point of view.

Horror/comedies can be tough sells in today’s marketplace. How did you find the backing for this one?

Yeah, it’s impossible. I didn’t realize how hard it would be, but I loved this film with all my heart and just believed we had something special. I still do. I was introduced through another producer to producers Thomas Augsberger and Deepak Nayar, who told me they liked the script and would help find the financing. I don’t think they realized 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 a ton of money—at least, that’s how I rationalize it from my limited point of view.

How did you work with Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine to bring Tucker and Dale to life on screen?

We spoke a lot about that tone I mentioned: real characters stuck within an unreal world. If a comedic moment didn’t work from the characters’ point of view, we tossed it out. Though we were looking for the jokes, we were really looking for the truth—even though it was absurd. We came up with their backstory—where they were from, how long they’d known each other—and everything else we could to ground them as actors in their roles.

How did you achieve the delicate balance of making Tucker and Dale funny without poking fun at them?

That was all about giving them more depth than they even know they have, trying to make them “real” people. We tried to give each character a fault, and also a skill. For instance, Dale is highly insecure, but he’s actually kind of a savant. He says in the film, “I got this weird brain; I’m dumb as a stump, but I remember everything I ever heard.” That’s a key point for the character. He has never had the opportunity to realize his own abilities because he was raised in severe poverty, and because of that he doesn’t think very highly of himself. Still, if you gave him a Rubik’s Cube, he might figure it out in 30 seconds. So there’s this combination—they’re both uneducated but they’re not really stupid, while the college kids are educated but they are really stupid. Other than that, it was just important that Alan and Tyler never judged their own characters, and that the emotions they felt were real.

How were the other characters conceived and cast?

When we were writing [alpha-male collegian] Chad, I was thinking of a preppy, frat-boy version of Burt Reynolds in Deliverance. Chad’s actually thrilled that they’re stuck out there in the woods with what he thinks are psychopathic killers. It kind of fulfills that archetype of the city dweller who craves the challenges of the wild to prove that he’s worthy: survival of the fittest. Of course, he gets stuck within his own narrow-minded perception of good vs. evil, and never realizes that he’s on the wrong side of that equation.

Not to get too off-topic, but everyone always asks me about the title, and that’s what it’s really about. Morgan wisely prodded me to leave politics out of the script, but I kept thinking of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” and about terrorism and how we call people we are fighting against “terrorists” and those we’re fighting with “freedom fighters.” People never consider that they might be the ones doing evil; they’re fighting for justice, or freedom, or self-defense. This film was written during that era of extreme hypocrisy—as if it ever ends—and though I never tried to hammer this home, I felt the film in some ways deals with the dynamics of war and how both sides feel from their perspective that they are the victims.

Oops…you were asking about the characters… Allison was conceived as a farm girl who could split the difference between both worlds and see the truth—even though no one will listen to her. I thought it would be funny if she was one of those young, idealistic students who thinks the whole world could get along if only they were able to express themselves fully. She obviously fails utterly in being the peace broker, and blames it on herself. But she never really has a chance. The fog of war has already set in, and there’s little hope of peace.

The rest of the college kids are a bit clichéd, because we were poking fun at the clichéd college kids in horror films. I especially like the first kid to die, as he’s the only one smart enough to doubt what’s going on and the only one who could stop all the nonsense. Of course he gets killed first, and so the bloodshed to come is fait accompli.

Was the relationship between Dale and Allison as important while shooting the film as the comedy and gore?

I’m glad you asked that. I always felt the comedy and gore were going to work, but it was the relationship with Dale and Ally that would make or break the film. [SPOILER ALERT] Tyler came up to me a week into shooting and said, “I’m afraid the whole audience is just going to laugh and boo when I kiss her at the end.” I was worried too, because we weren’t going for a joke there; I really wanted it to be heartfelt. I knew the two actors could pull it off, but there was very little time to see their relationship build, and after all this bloodshed, wasn’t it just too ridiculous to make that leap of faith? It is too much. It’s impossible. It’s silly. But we never let that get in our way. That was my biggest fear during all of production, and I still don’t know how we pulled it off, or if we did. It was just a daring leap of faith that if we played it honestly and made the characters real and genuine, that people would embrace the ending. Of course, the film is my own twisted version of a romantic comedy, so there’s really no other way for it to end except with the guy getting the girl of his dreams. Besides, it’s just fun to watch a lovable, dimwitted hillbilly make out with Esquire’s sexiest woman alive!

Who did your special makeup FX, and what were the trickiest such scenes to shoot?

Dave Trainor did the prosthetics and Sharron Toohey did the special makeup. They’re both from Alberta, Canada, as was the whole crew. Fortunately, they were both used to working on low-budget horror films, and when this came along, I think they were both really excited. But Sharron had to deal with the most complicated part of the shoot: Alan’s bee stings. When we wrote them into the script, it seemed simple enough to put in, “He gets stung by bees,” but then we had to deal with them throughout the rest of the film. We came up with five different stages of stings, and sometimes they’d think we were shooting a scene where he was in stage five and it was really stage two. Alan took this very seriously and almost melted down. It might have driven some actors nuts, but I loved that about him; “If the goddamn bee stings don’t look right, we might as well just burn down the set, call the insurance company and quit! This shit matters!”

That was the toughest, because we had to deal with it every day, and then the shots that look like they might be the most difficult turned out to be the easiest. We spent hours dealing with the bee stings, then we turned the camera around and our stuntman, Jodi Stecyk, just ran and dove right into a woodchipper. I thought I might have to comp something together and have him dive into a green beanbag or something, but nope—Jodi said, “How about I just jump into a padded woodchipper and have blood spray out?” “Can you do that without killing yourself??” “Sure!” Done and done. I love shooting like that.