Eli Roth Talks Thanksgiving … and his Love of Cate Blanchett

November 15, 2023
Horror fans have described Thanksgiving as the best horror movie never made. Until now. 

Eli Roth’s ode to ‘80s slasher-horror began in 2006, when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were working on their double feature Grindhouse. To add to the double-feature experience, Tarantino invited his friends, including Roth, to create fake trailers. And Roth knew exactly what he wanted to do.

But the fake trailer became almost too popular, and stymied Roth and his writing partner Jeff Rendell from coming up with an idea that would actually live up to the Thanksgiving trailer’s promise.

“We were so thrilled with how the trailer turned out, we continually found ourselves reverse engineering the story to fit in the gags. How would we decapitate a turkey at the parade? How can we roast a human turkey? We knew we had to make Thanksgiving a real slasher film, one that could exist whether you had seen the trailer or not,” says Roth.

But 16 years later – once the pair finally figured out how to approach a feature film length version of their original tailer – there was no stopping them.

And you don’t need to come from the land of turkey and pumpkin pie to feel a sense of foreboding at the ominous tagline: ‘There will be No Leftovers’.

“Every kill had to meet our standards of scare and gore; if the movie didn’t deliver on its promise, we’d be dead. I found myself not just trying to match what I did in the trailer, but trying to top it in every way possible,” says the slasher maestro whose films include Cabin Fever, Hostel and The Green Inferno.

“We look at the kills and say, ‘okay, how can we outdo ourselves?’ And not just ourselves, but every other movie! It’s a badge of honour for us to get the best kill. Every time you make a horror movie, you have a chance to enter into the pantheon of horror greats. The opportunity is there if you take it. So, with every death, we try to truly make it a classic,” he says.

Gina Gershon and Patrick Dempsey in Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving mixes veteran talent like Patrick Dempsey as the town sheriff and Gina Gershon, with newbies like Nell Verlaque as teenager Jessica, who is the movie’s protagonist.

Roth, 51, is intensely involved in the casting of all his films, comparing Dempsey to Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise. “Obviously, he’s been famous since the ‘80s and there’s very few people that have been legitimate stars as long as Patrick,” he argues.

“He’s such a romantic comedy star and Patrick wanted to do something completely out of the zone of those types of films. He really wants to expand and he’s an amazing actor.

“Nell Verlaque [above], who narrates the trailer, is such a discovery. She’s an incredible theatre trained actor out of New York, who was on a TV show called Big Shots and she is just so natural. She’s like a young Julia Roberts. She has this incredible sophistication about her and vulnerability,” he says of the young actress who is at the centre of a group of teen friends, and the glue that holds everyone together, as people are gruesomely picked off by a mysterious killer.

“So, I paired her with Addison Rae, who plays a supporting role as her best friend. Addison is by far the most famous of the kids, and is this endless burst of energy and positivity,” he says of the TikTok star.

“We had this fantastic young cast including Milo Manheim, who’s known for the Disney Zombie movies and all these other Disney projects and was so happy to finally do something that’s for adults and for people his age, like for college-age kids.”

Gabriel Davenport, Jenna Warren, Tomaso Sanelli, and Addison Rae in Thanksgiving

If directors are not supposed to name their favourite stars, then we are quite shocked to learn that Roth’s all-time favourite collaborator is our very own Cate Blanchett.

“Cate is the greatest. She’s the queen. I absolutely, absolutely adore her,” he says of the actress with whom he bonded over their mutual love of horror films.

Their unlikely friendship blossomed over the course of Roth directing her, first in family fantasy flick The House with a Clock in Its Walls and later in upcoming adventure comedy, Borderlands, set for release early next year.

“I also interviewed Cate for my show History of Horror, and she told me that Escape from New York was her favourite movie and also Evil Dead. There’s a whole side to Cate, where she’s so knowledgeable about horror movies that no one had ever tapped into.

“And, as you probably know, she is wickedly, wickedly, wickedly funny. It was a pleasure to make House with the Clock in its Walls, where she’s being hilarious and Jack Black is doing the serious acting, and then they trade off, and Jack and her are such a magnificent onscreen duo. They’re like Tracy and Hepburn – they have this classic, old Hollywood vibe about them in the best possible way,” he says, warming to the topic.

“Cate is such a wonderful human being and such a gracious person. And she really makes me want to be my best – and then when we did Borderlands together I said to myself: ‘I want to see Cate Blanchett in one of these crazy wild video game movies, blasting the psychos’. Like, who doesn’t want to see that? So that’s what we did.

“And I loved Cate in Tar. Tar could be six hours – I’d watch every minute of it. I think she’s the greatest. I could watch her all day. But I also love watching her roll over barrels, shoot things that are exploding, she’s incredible at it. She can do no wrong. In Borderlands, she’s playing it like Snake Pliskin – like Kurt Russell in Escape from New York. And also, what I love about Cate is that, with me, it’s almost like she gives me permission to do other types of characters. It doesn’t have to be the serious Oscar worthy performance. She can just go and have fun – and I paired her up with Jamie Lee Curtis. Legend. They had never worked together before. And, I mean, you think they grew up together, the way these two relate to each other,” he says.

After a ten-minute Cate-fest, we return to Roth’s first love – horror – and the bloody feast that is Thanksgiving.

For him, every horror film is an opportunity to out-do the gore of his previous movies, and his favourite kill in Thanksgiving might just be what he describes as the “Pinocchio death” – Grandpa getting impaled by the bowsprit of the Mayflower ship during the Thanksgiving Day parade.

“We engineered a track that would ram the wood through the rear window of the car and into the fake head, which was rigged with tubes that would spray blood and brains on the kids playing his grandkids. Easier said than done.

“I’m always most excited on a day when we’re filming a kill scene, I have this nervous pit in my stomach, and I can’t relax until I know we have the kill on camera. The timing of the head falling off, the swing of the axe, the way the blood pumps – a million things can go wrong. But when they go right, there’s nothing like it,” says the director who was so consumed with that particular scene he was unable to make his planned cameo.

“I was gonna do something in the parade. And I just was like: ‘if I go and film this one thing, it’s going to screw up the whole day. I got to just focus on the scene’. So, I didn’t get to, but that’s OK because I’m so proud of the movie. I feel like it’s my best film.”

Thanksgiving is in cinemas 16 November 2023