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Thanksgiving filmmaker Eli Roth has been dreaming of a Thanksgiving-themed slasher movie since he was 12 years old, and he thought he’d forever scratched that itch when he made a fictitious trailer for a movie called Thanksgiving inside of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse (2007) double feature. But much to his surprise, genre fans wouldn’t let go of the idea of seeing a feature-length take on the concept, so Roth and his childhood friend/co-writer, Jeff Rendell, eventually put pen to paper. The duo still took their time to crack the story, using a Black Friday riot at a big box store as their inciting incident, and Roth, at this very moment, now has the best reviews of his career.
“We thought, ‘All right, we’re done. We made the best parts [in the fake trailer]. Now we don’t even have to make the movie,’” Roth tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But for years, people just kept posting that trailer and badgering me and guilt tripping me, and it worked. Shaming the director worked in this case.”
Because the proof of concept originated within Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Planet Terror and Death Proof double feature, Roth first asked his two friends for their blessing, which he quickly received.
“I, of course, wanted them to be excited and supportive. And they are and they have been …” Roth says. “So I gave Robert and Quentin very special thanks in the credits, as they deserve it, but they didn’t want to be involved in the film. They said, ‘This is your thing. Go do it.’”
Roth still had the challenge of securing the rights from Dimension Films, a label that once belonged to The Weinstein Co.
“There were some rights issues that took some time to untangle, but it all worked out and everyone was motivated to do it,” Roth shares. “So everything’s cool. It was never contentious. It just took time because of what their company went through, but eventually, we got through it and we’re really happy that it wound up the way it did.”
The slasher pic features a breakout lead performance from Nell Verlaque, as well as TikTok star turned actor Addison Rae in support as one of Verlaque’s character’s friends. Roth was keenly aware of the perception behind casting a social media star, but Rae was eager to put in the work and dispel any skepticism.
“[Addison Rae] approached me about being in the film and I said, ‘Listen, unless you’re great, it’s going to feel like stunt casting. That’s going to be bad for the movie and it’s going to be bad for you. I only want to cast you as if you’re an actor and you’re terrific in the film,’” Roth recalls. “And she said, ‘No, I want to be in the movie and I want to show my range.’ So I think she’s a fantastic young actor … and the key for me was … pairing her with someone like Nell Verlaque.”
The pandemic caused countless scheduling issues across the film industry, and Roth felt that firsthand when his previous film Borderlands collided with his Thanksgiving commitment. The former needed a couple weeks of reshoots at a time when Roth was unavailable due to Thanksgiving’s preproduction and winter-dependent shoot, so he temporarily handed the keys to Terminator: Dark Fate and Deadpool director Tim Miller.
The situation raised the internet’s eyebrows à la a more recent situation with Nia DaCosta, who had to leave The Marvels during post and work remotely, while also prepping her next film. Overall, schedule overlap is fairly common, as Steven Spielberg famously edited Jurassic Park at night while shooting Schindler’s List during the day. In any event, Roth is unfazed by any chatter, and he’s content with how things have unfolded in both cases.
“Well, people are going to say whatever they’re going to say, but honestly, COVID threw a monkey wrench into everything. Everyone’s schedules went haywire,” Roth says. “This movie is called Thanksgiving, and it’s got to come out at Thanksgiving. So, at a certain point, there’s nothing you can do about that, but I’m so happy with how everything went, and I’m really excited to talk about [Borderlands] when that movie comes out next August.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Roth also discusses his long-running friendship with Tarantino and how honored he is that Thanksgiving is the first film to have a theatrical run at Tarantino’s newly renovated Vista Theatre in Los Angeles.
So, in 2007, a fictitious trailer for a movie known as Thanksgiving played in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double feature. When did you seriously start to consider actually building it out into a full-fledged feature?
The idea has actually been with me and Jeff Rendell, my co-writer, since we were 12 years old and growing up in Massachusetts. As you can imagine, Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday of the year there; it’s where it all took place. So you go to Pilgrim re-creation villages, school plays about Thanksgiving, and the parade. We grew up in the ‘80s with all the slasher films that were hung around holidays, and we kept waiting for someone to make Thanksgiving every year. We were like, “Why is there no Thanksgiving horror movie? It’s the most obvious one.” So we couldn’t believe that no one thought to do it, and we started thinking of all these kills. What if someone got roasted in an oven like a human turkey? What if you’re at the parade and someone in a costume gets decapitated, but they run around like a turkey with their head cut off?
So when Grindhouse happened, it was an opportunity for us to just try out the different kills with no risk, and it was so much fun. We were so satisfied. We thought, “All right, we’re done. We made the best parts. Now we don’t even have to make the movie.” But for years, people just kept posting that trailer and badgering me and guilt tripping me, and it worked. Shaming the director worked in this case. But Jeff and I were like, “Well, there’s absolutely no story.” Every time we tried to write it, we were just stringing together the trailer moments, and that’s not a real movie. The trailer was a joke. It’s a parody of a 1980s grindhouse slasher film. So it really wasn’t until we started watching all those viral videos of Black Friday sale tramplings that we thought, “This is something interesting.”
And this is what Thanksgiving has now become. Thanksgiving used to be about being thankful and just being happy to have your health and your family, but now, people are trying to kill each other for a flat-screen television. So we thought that there’s something really interesting there with the commercialization of Christmas and Thanksgiving, and the mix of greed and this desperation to get your kids’ Christmas gifts, because the people at the top are paying you so little. The middle class is gone. So there are a lot of interesting themes there. And we thought it was not only a great inciting incident for the film, but it would also give us a lot of material to build the film around.
Yeah, those berserk Black Friday videos are quite horrific in a way, so I thought it was pretty ingenious that you guys leaned into that tone.
Thank you. Making movies is a faith-based business. You just have to have faith that it’s going to get pulled off. I’ve been directing for 20 years now, and that’s the type of sequence I only could have pulled off with 20 years of directing under my belt and all the films I’ve made. It required so much planning from so many different departments, aside from stunts and special effects and special makeup effects. I had a terrific second unit director named Justin Harding with me, and he used a [previs] program called FrameForge for how we were going to smash the barricades and then break the glass, and follow all the different subplots of all the different characters and all the chaos. It kept it micro in a way, so that we could really see it through the eyes of our characters, and feel the pain and the terror of what’s happening as this riot spins out of control. We shot it in four nights. It was two nights outside and two nights inside, so we just went for it. We had an amazing stunt team, and there were 600 extras at first. And then 200 were inside the store, rioting, and everyone was incredible. No one got hurt, and we did it all practical. There’s no CGI anything. It’s people really running and smashing into each other and fighting. It was like being in the center of some incredible WWE match.
Since the fake trailer was a part of Quentin and Robert’s double feature, did you first have to get their blessing?
The deal they made with me originally was, “We’ll do a fake trailer, but you’ll own it.” So part of the fun of doing Thanksgiving was that I was always going to go and make this as a movie, but I, of course, wanted them to be excited and supportive. And they are and they have been, but this was an idea that I’ve had since I was 12 years old. So I gave Robert and Quentin very special thanks in the credits, as they deserve it, but they didn’t want to be involved in the film. They said, “This is your thing. Go do it.” This movie isn’t Grindhouse. Grindhouse is the experience of Planet Terror, the trailers and Death Proof. That is the Grindhouse experience. When you take it out of that and extrapolate it, it doesn’t quite work. It works as a three-minute joke, but the idea was always to do a movie like Scream or Mute Witness or a straightforward slasher film.
Did it take a while to untangle the rights since Grindhouse was tied to Dimension?
There were some rights issues that took some time to untangle, but it all worked out and everyone was motivated to do it. So everything’s cool. It was never contentious. It just took time because of what their company went through, but eventually, we got through it and we’re really happy that it wound up the way it did. Things work out in general the way they’re supposed to.
The movie is called Thanksgiving, so we had to make it in a certain window. It had to take place at Thanksgiving and be released at Thanksgiving, so we had to shoot it in the winter. So if we missed our window, I would go and do another film, but it’s not the type of movie you can shoot any time of year. So that’s another thing that took so long. If you missed the window, you’d have to wait another year to do it.
You touched on this earlier, but there were elements from the 2007 trailer that you did not revisit, such as the lover’s lane business. Did you try to include everything, only to realize that certain scenes felt forced?
We tried to include everything, but if you’re writing toward a scene just because we did it in the fake trailer, it’s not real drama. You’re not really propelling a story toward anything. You’re just creating excuses and avenues to get to a place you don’t really need to be, and then you’re not writing a good film. So we just said, “Fuck it. What if Thanksgiving (1980) was a movie that was really made? And the day it was released in cinemas, it was so shocking that every print was pulled and burned, and the only thing that survived was that trailer, and that was all we had to go on? There was no script, the director went into hiding and this is the 2023 reboot of that.” So that allowed us to say, “We’re going to make the movie we want to make. If there are certain things in the trailer we like, we’ll use it, but we’re not going to be re-creating it. That movie was part of another movie. We’re going to use elements from it, but it is not the trailer for this movie.”
Back in the day, when athletes or musicians made the jump to acting, there would inevitably be a few cynics who’d call it stunt casting, and I suppose the 2023 version of that cynicism now extends to social media stars. But I’ve got to say that Addison Rae held her own. Were you pleasantly surprised as well?
I’m really happy to hear you say that, because I think Addison is a terrific actor and she’s very serious about it. She was catapulted to fame in this new thing that no one understood, and I think she made [another] movie before she really understood the process of acting. And good for her for trying, but I don’t think it’s reflective of who she is as an actor. I don’t have TikTok, so I hadn’t seen her TikToks, but I just knew who she was. So she approached me about being in the film and I said, “Listen, unless you’re great, it’s going to feel like stunt casting. That’s going to be bad for the movie and it’s going to be bad for you. I only want to cast you as if you’re an actor and you’re terrific in the film.” And she said, “No, I want to be in the movie and I want to show my range,” because it is a role where she can be natural. She can be the friend, and show the fear and the terror. So I think she’s a fantastic young actor.
The key for me was giving her that opportunity to show that range, but pairing her with someone like Nell Verlaque, who I think is a discovery. She’s like a young Julia Roberts. She’s truly a movie star. She’s a theater actor out of New York. Her father is an actor and an acting coach, and she has the vulnerability and the likability of a final girl. And I also didn’t want to see recognizable faces. So I said, “If I’m going to put Addison in, I have to pair her with Nell.” It was about setting Addison up to succeed with amazing actors, and everyone is leveling each other up and supporting each other. So that all went away really fast. All of those concerns were gone, not just after I saw her audition, but during the chemistry reads. And once we did a camera test where we put the kids together in their costumes, they felt so real. I said, “What’s going to make the movie work is if everybody believes you’re all real friends,” and they all made such an effort. They all hung out and did everything together. Addison is an incredibly generous person, and when she posted on social, she’d tag everyone to make sure that everyone was part of the group. There was no separation in star level, and everybody worked together to bring out the best. So I’m really happy for Addison. I think she’s going to have an amazing career, and she’s a superb young actor.
You also picked a great time to be in the Patrick Dempsey business.
I mean, who knew?
I think this is the first time that a new slasher movie has been able to boast having the reigning “sexiest man alive.”
It’s true. It’s very sexy. And then the runner-up, [Thanksgiving co-star] Rick Hoffman, let’s not forget about him. Those two were neck and neck, but yes, the heat just got turned up in the oven for Thanksgiving.
Are you and your marketing team working overtime to try and have fun with that?
They already put out some stuff on social media today, I believe, and the great thing is that we can roast Patrick about it for the rest of our lives. Yeah, it’s very funny. None of us had any idea, and then all of a sudden, at 9:30 at night, our group chat just blew up with all these “sexiest man alive” messages. So I’m very happy for Patrick because he deserves it. We were shooting in Canada and it was the coldest shoot of my life, but if you needed to warm up, you could just put your hands near Patrick and radiate from his heat. He’s an amazing actor and such a great guy, and he grew up in Lewiston, Maine. He’s from small-town New England, so he had this fantastic accent that he grew up with, but this is the first time in his career he’s been able to use his natural accent in a movie. He had to lose it for Can’t Buy Me Love and all those films. He worked really hard to lose his accent. So it was a pleasure to work with him and I’m very happy for him, but I’m also really happy that I get to make jokes about it forever.
I often have battles with my phone’s Face ID in fast-paced situations, and so I loved that you used that as a gag in this movie.
That’s one of those gags where you’re thinking, “OK, if someone’s face is dunked in water and frozen on the refrigerator and then ripped off while getting away from the killer, what’s the first thing they would do? They’d go to use their phone.” Well, if someone’s fingers are wet, or their fingertips are ripped off and they can’t open their phone to call for help, then they have to use their Face ID, which, in this case, doesn’t work. So it’s a gag I’ve always wanted to do in a movie.
The float with the gun dealer, Joe Delfin’s McCarty, playing metal riffs, was that your nod to Mad Max: Fury Road? Or am I seeing what I want to see?
That’s seeing what you want to see. We thought, “What would McCarty have?” and he would have a rock that says Plymouth Rocks. We knew we were going to use all the stuff from the parade later in the warehouse, and I wanted Plymouth Rocks. It’s a very Massachusetts, heavy-metal thing. And I love this band Sorcery who are part of a movie called Stunt Rock. I used them in the Grindhouse trailer. I used them in Knock Knock. I use Sorcery in all my movies. I love those guys, and I’m a big fan of their music. It’s from 1980 and it’s wizard rock, heavy metal, hard rock. They have an unreleased song called “The Bats Are Flying” that’s now being heard for the first time ever, and it’s played by McCarty, who’s shredding on guitar. I asked Joe, “Can you play?” And he’s like, “Oh yeah.” So he rehearsed it and played it in the freezing cold, but I just like that there’s these obnoxious guys blasting heavy metal in the middle of this nice parade.
When some films depict graphic violence and gore, it can come across as bleak and hard to watch, but in your film’s case, it’s highly entertaining and amusing. What’s the key to pulling off that tone?
It’s interesting. Like any ingredient, if you have too much of it, it crosses a line into cruelty and it’s not fun anymore. I shoot everything, but the audience tells you when it’s too much. Imagine you’re at Thanksgiving dinner and you have the most delicious plate of food you’ve ever had, and you’re like, “I’ve got to have seconds.” So then you have seconds, but then you look at the pie and you’re like, “I just need one more slice.” And then you eat it and you go, “Why did I do that? Now I feel sick. I can’t even look at the food anymore.” So you don’t want that. You want everyone going, “That was amazing. What’s the next course? I’m hungry for more.” And then at the end of dessert, you want them going, “That’s the best meal I’ve ever had.”
When an audience cheers at the end of a death, that’s where I want them. When the audience is pummeled into submission, going, “I’m not having a good time anymore,” then they’ve disconnected from the movie. They’ve disengaged, and that’s when you know you’ve gone too far. And it’s a slasher film. It’s not a grueling, endurance-test horror movie. It’s a roller-coaster ride. I want people to have a great time. I want them to get scared, but I want them to leave with a smile on their face. And having just 5 percent of absurdity in the deaths allows you to enjoy it and say, “We’re still in a slasher movie, and we can have a great time. It’s just magic tricks.”
Your Borderlands schedule collided with your commitment to this film, and such overlap is a fairly common occurrence. It happened recently to Nia DaCosta, and the most famous example is when Steven Spielberg shot Schindler’s List while in post on Jurassic Park. So, in your case, was it frustrating when people blew that situation out of proportion considering how often it happens?
People are going to say whatever they’re going to say, but honestly, COVID threw a monkey wrench into everything. Everyone’s schedules went haywire. This movie is called Thanksgiving, and it’s got to come out at Thanksgiving. So, at a certain point, there’s nothing you can do about that, but I’m so happy with how everything went, and I’m really excited to talk about [Borderlands] when that movie comes out next August.
I enjoyed your Video Archives Podcast episodes with Quentin and Roger Avary. With Quentin splitting time between the States and overseas, while also being a family man now, are those opportunities to hang out and talk about movies less frequent than they used to be?
There’s still FaceTime, and so whether we’re in the same room or we’re talking on phones, our process of nerding out about movies has never stopped. We’ll talk about different scenes and things we’ve seen, so we’re in constant communication no matter where we are in the world. But even when he was right down the street from me — if I was going off to make the Hostel movies or when I was shooting my films in Chile, and he was shooting Django Unchained — we’d talk all the time. I love Quentin. He’s a brother and an amazing friend, and I’m so excited that we’re opening Thanksgiving on 35mm at the Vista. It’s so poetic that the first movie that’s going to have its run at the Vista is Thanksgiving. It’s kind of beautiful.
Thanksgiving is now playing in movie theaters.