When writing partners Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson started work on their script for what would become Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, both only had to think back to their childhoods to imagine the country setting of their story about a pair of good-natured hillbillies who find themselves under assault by a group of college kids who are certain the pair are serial killers. Jurgenson grew up in a cabin in the woods with no TV or running water. Craig, who is the son of actress Sally Field and her first husband Steven Craig, divided his childhood between urban Southern California and his father’s rural Oregon home. Just how much that influenced the pair’s screenplay wasn’t evident to Craig – who makes his feature directing debut with Tucker and Dale – until after the horror comedy that stars Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine as the bemused bumpkins was finished.
“We built this cabin in the middle of nowhere by this lake,” he recalls during a recent phone call. “I remember he was using a chainsaw to clear out brush – I was maybe nine years old, using this bulldozer to clear out this gravel driveway – and I hear this scream.
“I hear my dad going, ‘Bees! Bees!’ He’s running with the chainsaw overhead, down toward the lake, as fast as he could, warning me about the bees. He chucked his chainsaw to the side and dove into the lake. I didn’t think of that until my fifth watching and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s my dad! Alan Tudyk with the chainsaw is my dad.’”
One day six years ago, Craig and Jurgenson were batting around ideas for screenplays when they came up with a simple proposition, what if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre villain Leatherface was really a good guy, just misunderstood? When Craig heard his wife, Sasha, snicker, he knew they were onto something, but at first all they had were a few elements and the basic idea.
“It wasn’t a movie. It was a funny idea to flip the typical presentation, which is the college kids go out to the woods and get slaughtered by backwoods freaks,” he says, adding that the story really began to develop when he and Jurgenson came up with the notion that Dale and one of the coeds, Allison (Katrina Bowden), should fall in love.
“I think I made a new twist on the romantic comedy genre. I even wanted the tag line to be, ‘The perfect romance, aside from the minor woodchipper incident.’ ” chuckles Craig.
“That was the key to this, selling the relationship in a way that was genuine and that the emotional context of it felt real. All this absurdity, all the chaos, comes back to the love story. To me, that was the most important element, whereas I think a lot of people focus on the gore and the horror.”
Starting with its world premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil was a popular draw on the festival circuit. It won the Midnight Audience Award at SXSW, the Best First Feature jury prize at Montreal’s Fant-Asia Film Festival, and Best Film at Spain’s prestigious Sitges International Film Festival. But distributors were slow to catch the growing buzz and for a while Craig despaired that the movie would ever have a chance to widen its reach. Then Magnet Releasing came through with a theatrical and VOD release. In its first weekend in theaters, the film’s positive rating stands at a healthy 88%. It’s the little movie that could, and it’s left Craig feeling like a proud papa.
“It feels a little bit like having a child,” he laughs. “In some ways it’s like parenting where you just try to aid the little guy to grow up and be himself and be himself fully. It’s really exciting to see. This film has had no opportunities. It’s had no help from anybody. It’s had no advertising. It’s had no real promotion and yet it’s found an audience.
“I’m just so proud of it. It has a voice that people have grabbed onto and made it somewhat successful, as least as an underground film. I’m very proud of it, as if it were a person.” – Pam Grady