Originally conceived as a phony, all-killer-no-filler trailer to be sandwiched between “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 exploitation tribute double feature “Grindhouse,” Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” was never meant to be a real movie. The gory, gritty clip packs more eye-popping slasher gags into its three minutes than it does plot points — all by Roth’s design, tied together with little more than the connective tissue of the eponymous holiday. Sixteen years later, Roth and his co-writer Jeff Rendell have expanded what was at the time little more than B-movie leftovers into a holiday horror feast.
No longer relying on the ephemera of “Grindhouse’s” bygone era of filmmaking, Roth and Rendell have transformed their cheeky holiday murder-fest into a thoughtful thriller in the vein of the “Scream” films, seasoned with a healthy dose of inspiration from the slashers that they watched growing up in Massachusetts, where “Thanksgiving” is appropriately set. Detailing the project’s journey from an irreverent, go-for-broke short to a bloody cinematic buffet, Roth spoke to Variety about applying two decades of filmmaking knowledge — and a lifelong love for the genre — to create a film he calls a “morality tale” that also “shows the kids how it’s done” while evoking everything from “Halloween” to “Mute Witness” to “E.T..”
I feel like the commercial response to “Grindhouse” nixed the idea of going for an authentic, scratched up, depraved exploitation film. Can you talk about reverse engineering the all-killer-no filler narrative of the trailer into an actual coherent story?
When we were 11 and 12 years old growing up in Massachusetts, Jeff Rendell, my co-writer and I, watched every slasher film, in particular the holiday slashers. “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was one of those seminal movie going experiences for us, seeing it in the theater. And Thanksgiving is the biggest deal in Massachusetts, and every year we would just go, “Why is there no Thanksgiving horror movie?” So when the opportunity to make the trailer came from Quentin and Robert, it was a pure joy. We made a bunch of ridiculous silly kills, as over the top as possible. In the context of “Grindhouse,” those work great, but my feeling was that you can’t stretch that out to 90 minutes. And when I saw “Mute Witness” and “Scream” in the nineties, I said, “That’s the kind of slasher film I want to make.” So the intention was always to make a real movie, albeit a slightly ridiculous one. But we didn’t have a plot until we started seeing those Black Friday trampling viral videos that got us thinking that could be the inciting incident. It’s a perversion of the holiday that we all sit around our dinner table and act thankful, and then run out and kill each other for waffle irons. That’s fertile ground for a horror movie because it can become a true morality tale and it gives the killer a reason to go on the killing spree — and the movie a reason to exist.
The movie opens with this very conspicuous “Halloween” nod — or maybe “The Town that Dreaded Sundown” or a dozen other slasher movies that have that killer’s POV shot. Do you tend to collect references that you want to insert into other projects, or do they come about intuitively in the writing or directing?
It comes intuitively. I don’t think I always wanted to do my POV shot, but there’s certain language of slasher movies, and I love when it starts with the POV of the house the way they did in “Halloween,” the way Mario Bava did it in “Bay of Blood,” the way “The Prowler” starts out, and even when De Palma is doing a parody of it in “Blowout,” he starts with the POV of the sorority house. It says “You’re not just in a horror movie, but a slasher movie.” Now, we quickly change gears in the film, but there are certain things that I want — certain tropes, the final girl has to outsmart the killer, the killer outsmarts the kids — but it’s a post “Scream” world. The kids have to understand what a horror movie is, and they have to make smart decisions thinking that they’re outsmarting the killer, but the killer’s 10 steps ahead of them. So when you’re writing it, we want to have the red herrings so you’re thinking of all those things, and then you’re on location and we saw a pitchfork in this barn. And [the killer] can come in here and poke around there, and suddenly it just became much scarier. So certain things are written and other things you just have to go walk around the house and think about it and imagine yourself in the footsteps of the killer and in the footsteps of the main character.
When John Carver is searching for Jessica in the salon, he turns the light on, which is such an uncharacteristic choice in these movies. How much are we past the cliches and conventions of ’80s slashers?
We’re past it. We have to create new language. [For that scene,] I was in this high school and they had a cosmetology room and there were mannequin heads all over. I thought, “Well, this is a gift.” We have a chase scene in a high school with a killer and a girl that needs to hide in a room full of a hundred heads — so of course we’re going to go in there and have her head hiding like E.T. amongst the dolls. But we thought, the first thing he’d do is turn all the lights on. And I remember someone from the studio was like, “it’s a horror movie. Don’t the lights have to be off?” I go, it’s much scarier when he flips all the lights on — how the hell is she going to hide from him? That is the fun, thinking of all the previous movies and having the characters do smart things and using FaceTime or using social media or using live streaming, using viral videos, incorporating it into the language of slasher films, which I had not yet seen done. I also hadn’t seen the killer take care of the pet of the person they just killed.
It’s a great moment.
When I’m watching a movie and someone has a pet, I’m not in the movie anymore. If someone gets killed, I’m just like, “But who’s going to take care of the cat or who’s going to feed the dog?” I can’t enjoy the rest of the film. So I wanted to answer that question once and for all. And for the killer to have a code, the killer is only going after people connected with the killing. It’s not just carnage, killing anyone else.
You’ve gone off and done a lot of eclectic projects between when “Thanksgiving” was first discussed and now. How much, if at all, is this a career throat-clearing for you to do this now, and how much is it a film that you only could make now?
Well, there’s a side of you that wants to say, “Step aside kids, let me show you how it’s done.” You have that competitive nature as a director where you’re trying to outdo yourself, but you really want to change pop culture and be the first time there’s ever been a November horror movie. Remember after Halloween, it’s all family movies and Christmas movies. But also when you stage a sequence like that riot scene, that’s something that you can only do after 20 years of directing. I believe in the Malcolm Gladwell “10,000 hours” theory, which is it takes eight hours a day for 10 years of concentrated work in mastering a skill. And now I’m 20 years in directing, so I feel like I’m getting to that 10,000 hours — I’ve done nine feature films and a documentary — where you’re just approaching it with a certain amount of mastery. I’ve worked with the best actors in the world. I’ve gotten to work as an actor for Quentin Tarantino and Sam Levinson. I’ve gotten to work as a producer with amazing directors. So I feel like it is only the kind of film I could have made at this point in my career. At any other time, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with the stress of making it — it just wouldn’t have been possible.
You’ve had a lot of projects come and go over the years. “Thanksgiving” came back, but what lessons have you learned from those that went as you’re developing new ones?
Well, first of all, always being open to suggestions no matter where they come from, not being defensive when you get studio notes, embracing the testing process. Shout out to Kevin Goetz, who runs the testing at NRG. Kevin is so good at interpreting the data and he can say, “Eli, they want to like it. This is what’s holding them back.” When someone speaks to you in those terms, they’re not going, “Your movie’s bad.” And the way Kevin explains it to me, that is information we can take into our edit to make the movie better. I used to think, “This is the movie I want. I have final cut.” But Sony and Spyglass, they all saw me go through it where I was like, “We can’t take another minute out of the movie.” We showed it to an audience and I was like, “I’ll be right back,” and I took 15 minutes out. They couldn’t believe it. I’m not precious with anything. I don’t take things personal. The experience for me is making the movie, going home and being in bed by 8:45, waking up at five in the morning, working out, being on set with lots of energy by 6:30 and making a classic. I look at it as this gift that I’m alive and that I get to make movies and it’s with someone else’s money — and I better damn well be responsible with it. I want to be known as the director people have an amazing experience with and one of the hardest-working, most professional directors working today.
Your films have vacillated between exploitation films that you glossed up and then these glossy films that you’ve injected with this exploitation impulse. Have you gotten to a place where you’ve said as much as you want to with either horror, or are you still full of ideas?
You can replace the word exploitation with popcorn because I always believed in making movies entertaining and fun and being true to the genre that you’re in. “A House With the Clock in Its Walls,” I wanted to make a great scary movie for kids. “Death Wish,” I wanted an awesome vigilante movie. With “Borderlands,” I want to make a really, really fun, big action video game adaptation. You have to be true to those genres. I think when I was young and I was making a name for myself in “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel,” I wanted to say, “I’m the new kid in town and I’m going to make the baddest, scariest, most insane horror movies you’ve ever seen.” And I felt like I did, and I proved myself, but I want to do a lot more. There’s a whole other side of me that I haven’t expressed. So as you grow and as you mature and your interests change and develop, you want to expand into other things. You want to make “Knock Knock,” which is much more of a chamber piece with a chess move, with acting with Keanu Reeves, another brilliant actor I’ve gotten to work with. So for me, the fun is discovering new talent, new ideas, pushing myself, challenging myself in new sequences and in new ways. I feel like the first 20 years were a warmup, and now I can hit the gas and go. I look at Ridley Scott, I look at Clint Eastwood, I look at Martin Scorsese, and those are the directors I admire. They’re still so full of life and energy. I just want to keep going as long as I’m making great films with lots of ideas.