Eli Craig has built a reputation as a clever, multi-talented filmmaker by deftly mashing up horror and comedy in smart, subversive ways. His two full-length features thus far, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and the new Netflix release Little Evil, act as both satires and homage to a host of horror subgenres, turning slasher and supernatural tropes on their heads (and often quite violently).
Craig grew up around Hollywood — his mother is Oscar-winning actress Sally Field — but it took him a long time to fully recognize and embrace his storytelling DNA. As he explains in this first-ever SYFY WIRE Survey, Craig's long journey to being a fresh genre voice took many years packed with twists, turns, and unlikely words of wisdom from a legend.
What was the first script you ever wrote?
Eli Craig: Before I went back to film school I was an actor. Even before that, I was a mountain guide and I worked at Outward Bound. I climbed all these mountains, like Denali in Alaska, and I led trips on Aconcagua, which is the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. I was really into that world and there was this book by Joe Simpson called Touching the Void.
I optioned that book and I wrote a screenplay based on it. It was an action climbing movie. That script was actually optioned, with the book, by Tom Cruise's company at the time. This was in my early 20s. It was a crazy moment where I had this screenplay I wrote optioned by Tom Cruise's company. Then I had this small role in this Clint Eastwood film, as well. It was really small.
Both things cratered on me. They didn't make that movie and the role basically got cut out of that Clint Eastwood film. That's when I decided to go back to film school and I just started writing really different stuff after film school. They let the option expire on the book. Then somebody else picked up the option and they did make a pretty damn good movie, Touching the Void.
That was a little heartbreaking because it was like, "Wait a minute, my script's right here." Then you get no credit. Somebody else goes and makes it. That's when I just started really writing my own stuff, because any time you're writing based on a book, you're always writing that thing that might fall apart and somebody else is going to make it.
What was the first short you ever made?
I used to make these little adventure shorts. My brother and I, who is a writer as well, would shoot these comedies, sometimes horror comedy, sketch things. I'd usually be the one running around with the camera and my brother would be acting. We would literally douse ourselves with blood. My brother had this comedy sketch called "The Young and The Breastless."
My mom was almost too encouraging. She was like, "You're a storyteller. You just have to keep doing this. This is what you're meant to do." Once I really got into it professionally, I realized how hard the game was. I really wasn't making money, really struggling to make a living. I was like, "You talked me into this. You told me I was good at this and I'm getting no love from anybody."
I think, in some ways, she was right. I'm one of those people that would never be happy working in a desk job or something. It's just no choice. I either need to be adventuring on some mountain or adventuring on a movie set. Trying to make gold out of shit.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a proper survivalist in the woods. Maybe that comes from my horror movie background. I grew up in Los Angeles, sort of in and around Hollywood. I really had an aversion to it. I think, in part, it's because my father was a contractor who lived in Oregon. I grew up in L.A. with my mom, who was an actress. I was split between these two worlds.
I chose my dad's world, which was going out and building houses, hunting, fishing, and watching horror movies. I went to college in Boulder, Colorado and got really into rock climbing and mountaineering. So that's really all I wanted to do for a long time.
Then, somewhere in my early 20s, I realized I wanted to do a little more than just that. I was like, could I balance rock climbing and adventure with maybe being an actor? Then I moved back to L.A. and kind of played around with both, and realized acting wasn't for me and moved toward the writing and, eventually, directing side.
Who is your artistic hero?
For a long time, I would say point blank it was Sam Raimi. Maybe because I studied his movies more than anything. Then, really, it became Edgar Wright for a long time just because of that combination of humor amidst calamity. That's sort of a lot of the way I view life, humor amidst calamity. Then there are obvious ones like Steven Spielberg, who affected me in such a deep way, growing up with his movies. Then Stephen King. Genius.
What was the hardest scene you ever had to shoot or write?
Little Evil was tricky for me because I wanted this outcome with it and I didn't quite know how to get there. There were two scenes in there that were particularly hard. One is this transition to Gary bonding with Lucas and how I'm going to do that in short amount of time at a water park. I thought I had to do it with some kind of trope. I didn't want it to take a long time because then everybody would see it coming from a mile away. That was the hardest thing I ever wrote.
Also in that movie, the back massage scene where Evangeline Lilly is explaining how she gave birth to the Antichrist. Without saying so much, she is clearly saying, "I was raped in this cult by the Devil." That fine line of darkness and, yet, keeping it light enough.
The hardest thing for me ever to film was this end sequence in the nunnery with Gary saving the child. We shot this whole nunnery sequence, including this monster truck stuff, in three days. We had something like 120 set-ups in three days. Because we were so low budget, and we had visual effects and a big crowd of people, and stunts all happening on a very, very, very tight budget. We just had to know, always, exactly where we were going without any room for error.
What was your best day on a set, and what happened?
One of the most fun days I had, because I have such a gleeful eight-year-old part of me, was when we got the monster truck on Little Evil. I had this idea of them smashing through a police roadblock. Everybody was telling me, "You'll save money if you don't do that. What if they just have a minivan and they race down there?" Why have this thing that's gonna be so difficult to shoot, and take time, and everything?
I was like, "Because it's gonna be awesome! You have to trust me. We need to get the monster truck, we need to smash it through a police roadblock, because it's a fantasy of mine and it's gonna be awesome."
So we have one take. This woman, Shelley, comes up with her ShellCamino monster truck from North Carolina and smashes into these two police cars we have set up and just airs 20 feet high, and lands there. Nobody's hurt. It was like the greatest shot I ever got. I was so stoked.
What was your worst day on a set?
Fortunately, I've never had anybody get hurt. That's always the scariest thing with any stunt. I'm lucky in that I haven't had a really horrible day on set. I would say probably the worst day I've had, which isn't that bad, was just our first day of shooting Little Evil. Everybody was out of sync. The cameras were malfunctioning.
There's another one though. My most difficult day was on my short film at USC where we had to build a room. I did this film called the Tao of Pong. A Taoist ping pong romantic comedy. We had to build a set, and it's just a student film, so we build the set on the USC stage. When we get there, my production designer and her team of three people have been working all night but nothing is done. So we're having to shoot close-ups, and then backing out as we go.
We didn't have the room done when we needed to, so we all had to stop in the middle of shooting, including our camera department and finish building the set. Then get back to shooting it. So we had a day that was like 23 hours of shooting. Everybody felt like they were gonna die and everybody hated me. That was probably the hardest. One of those no-budget shoot days where everything goes wrong.
What’s the best creative tip or advice you’ve ever received?
I had this small role in this Clint Eastwood film called Space Cowboys. It was right when I was trying to figure out — I knew I was a decent writer but I really wanted to be directing my own stuff. I just didn't know what the next step was. I really wanted to just be hired to direct my script, but nobody would do that because I didn't have enough stuff behind it to show, other than my little short horror comedies made when I was nine years old.
I would always watch what Clint Eastwood was doing. I had this moment to be on set with this legend. I was sitting next to him at video village. I don't think he even noticed I was there. I was watching when they were shooting something else in the monitors and just watching him.
Finally, he looked over at me and I just had this moment. He started talking to me and he said, "What do you really want to do?" I said, "You know what I really want to do? I want to figure out how to direct my own stuff." Clint looks at me and he kind of pulls his shades down, he goes, "You want to be a director?" I was like, "Uh huh." He was like, "Then go be a director." Then he put his shades back on and called "Action."
I went off and did this documentary. I directed that, which kind of went nowhere, but it propelled me to apply to graduate film school at USC. I was like, okay, at least then I'll have the opportunity to have a lot of debt and to play around and direct stuff. I think it was the "just do it" moment. Just go do it, if that's what you want to do. And I followed his advice.
If you could change one thing on one of your projects, what would it be?
I try not to look back once something's done. I really try to do everything I can to make the film right. I don't think I'd change anything, though I know both my films are flawed, and I can point to 100 things that I'd say I'd want to go back and change. But in reality, I think that I learned from those areas that are flawed. At the same time, I think sometimes they're more lovable to be slightly imperfect. If you make Citizen Kane, I don't know where you go from there.
What’s your dream project?
I have this sort of love-hate thing with big, fun action movies. Sort of sci-fi, CGI action movies. There's a part of me that, someday, would like a chance to do a fun, buddy, sci-fi action movie that has comedic elements to it. I don't know what that is yet. Not necessarily Marvel, but something in that big, action universe.
The other side of that would be just to do more stuff that is subversive in its expectations. I guess if it's able to connect with people and lead them to a place that is a little bit more accepting of others. I'm a little sick of how polarized our time is.
What’s are you working on next?
I'm working right now with Blumhouse. It's actually a funny one because it's Blumhouse and Red Hour. Red Hour is Ben Stiller's company and everybody knows who Blumhouse is. It really is a comedy giant and a horror giant mushed together to do a corporate retreat disaster. I think it's time to skewer the corporate world a bit. It’s basically a corporate retreat gone wrong.