Continuing our new feature, a fast-paced, quick-read interview, we invited Thanksgiving, Production Designer Peter Mihaichuk to answer some quick questions about his work designing the new Eli Roth horror film based on the traditional American holiday. Peter is a production designer based in Toronto with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working and who specializes in the horror genre. Peter Mihaichuk also recently joined us for Canadian Production Design Week, discussing his work in horror and the many foibles of working in such a gory genre.
“I was given a great amount of freedom to push the boundaries.”
Thanksgiving is an American slasher film directed by Eli Roth based on Roth’s fictitious trailer of the same name from Grindhouse (2007). Starring Patrick Dempsey, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Nell Verlaque, Rick Hoffman, and Gina Gershon, the film was released on November 17th to great reviews, lauding its campiness and sheer genre fun.
The holiday horror film is about a Thanksgiving event in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where a tragic incident unfolds at the RightMart superstore, leading to unforeseen consequences. Additionally, a year later, the town faces a new threat as a mysterious figure, “John Carver,” begins targeting those connected to the past tragedy. Jessica and her friends find themselves caught in a web of terror as the assailant’s actions escalate, forcing them to confront the dark secrets surrounding the events. Furthermore, the suspense builds as the town sheriff, initially an ally, reveals a shocking twist, and Jessica must navigate a dangerous game of survival to unravel the truth behind the masked assailant.
Below, Peter gives a brief look at how he started in the film business, his design perspective, and his process while working on Thanksgiving.'Thanksgiving' Production Designer Peter Mihaichuk Gives a Quick Look at Eli Roth's New Horror Film Click To Tweet
Interview with Thanksgiving Production Designer Peter Mihaichuk
How did you get into the art department?
I had an art exhibit opening in Burbank, California, that happened to coincide with Fangoria’s Weekend of Horror Convention up the street. My exhibit became the stopover before all the afterparties. Dozens of directors and producers came to the show, and I started to get concept work after that. After a couple of years, I was fully in the film industry.
What made you know production design was right for you? How did you start working in horror?
I met an experienced Production Designer named Franco Carbone (Stallone’s go-to designer). After speaking with him, I knew I wanted to eventually be production designing. My own artwork is in the horror genre, so when people saw my portfolio, horror was a natural fit.
The sets of TrickVRTreat
How did you start working for Eli Roth? How did Thanksgiving come about?
I first worked with Eli on a VR short we did for the metaverse called TrickVRTreat. We have mutual friends in the horror genre so I worked with him quite closely on that. After wrapping up TrickVRTreat, Eli took me aside to check my availability at the beginning of 2023. He said he had a special project that he was planning. Come December, I was contacted about designing Thanksgiving.
Tell me a little bit about your early prep phase. What was your prep and shoot like? How did you crew up your art department? Where did you end up shooting Thanksgiving, by the way?
Prep and shoot were early in 2023. I had roughly 8 weeks of prep, and the shoot was roughly 40 days. We had a few reshoots a couple of months later, but it was mostly shooting additional scenes. We shot at Pinewood Studios in Toronto and in Port Perry and Waterdown in Ontario.
As for my art department, I like to pick who’s right for the job and will fill a need, and of course, I rehired those whom I worked with previously as well. I’m always interested in those with talent, speed, and zero drama.
Were you given much creative freedom in your design process? Additionally, how does Eli like to collaborate?
I was given a great amount of freedom to push the boundaries. I usually start by looking up references for potential ideas and sketching preliminary ideas to present to Eli followed by having a lengthy conversation with the director of photography.
Eli likes to have regular meetings to go over my ideas and to present his own. He was a very visual director, often coming forward with samples of the direction that he would like to explore.
I remember we were in a “kill meeting” one time, a meeting where we discussed each kill and the logistics of executing them, and all the parties involved were there: the director, writer, special effects, costume, hair and makeup, along with me representing art. We were discussing a kill during the parade and how it was a little lacklustre.
We brainstormed until I came up with the idea of killing a pilgrim with the Mayflower. The flatbed that the boat was on would come to a sudden stop, sending the boat sliding forward. The bowsprit of the boat would crash through the back window of the truck and impale the pilgrim driver right through the head, much to the horror of his two granddaughters who are sitting beside him. There would be lots of blood.
I later found out that it was the most expensive kill in the movie, and it was well-received by a live audience at the screening.
How did you collaborate with the director of photography and costume designer on this?
I had a close relationship with both, and it really was a true collaboration. The DOP, Milan Chadima, and I would have meetings in my office just about daily in prep to go over the master plan. The costume designer, Leslie Kavanagh was right up the hall from me and was very open to my ideas. I was close with both departments.
What was your location scouting process like? How did you work with Locations to find a solid base for each set?
The Location Manager, Marty Dejczak, and I were on quite early, pre-scouting locations and narrowing the list for Eli and Milan to look at. Then Eli came to scout. Marty and I would visit all of the potential locations researched beforehand, taking into account what the script needed as well as the logistical requirements.
How was your set list? What were your main sets?
We had a lot of sets. Our main sets would have been the High School in Waterdown, the parade set in Port Perry, the diner and parade part 2 that we shot on the Reacher backlot as well as at Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto. We had a few builds, the main being the killer’s dining room.
Was this a graphics-heavy show? Were there any graphics that you particularly paid attention to?
It was a remarkably heavy show for graphics, and they were the largest part of our art department. With locations like high schools, a parade with all its floats, and many suburban homes, you can imagine how busy they were.
How do you work with your key crew, like your set decorator, construction, and paint teams, to create the look and feel? Were the props extensive or difficult? How did you work with your Property Master?
I like to give my set decorator, Kari Measham, in this case, some loose reference of what a location should be dressed as, but let them interpret it themselves. A set decorator can be amazing when not tethered down.
I’m especially close to the construction crew, visiting at least once a day or more to the shop. There are always questions that need to be answered as I walk the shop floor.
We had many key props on the show that had to be custom-made, like the killer’s axe. And then various “safe” versions of the same props made out of rubber or foam. I met with my Property Master on a near-daily basis, going through his finds of the day.
Were there any major prosthetics or special effects that required your extra attention? Also, was this project visual effects heavy? How did you work with visual effects on this?
I had an arm’s length relationship with them, mainly getting updates along the way. The one build that I kept my finger on was the cooked human “turkey” that was the centrepiece for the killer’s table.
There were a fair amount of visual effects, but I mainly made sure that they had everything that was needed from my various departments.
What was your biggest challenge on the film?
The Parade was a pretty big challenge, but it turned out pretty awesome. Logistically, it was almost a nightmare.
What are you most proud of on this project?
If I had to pick one element that I’m most proud of, the oven where he roasts a person alive would be the one. It turned out perfect on camera.
Were you ever worried about taking it too far visually?
No such thing; you always keep pushing.
Thanksgiving Official Trailer
Thank you to Peter Mihaichuk for speaking with us. Have you seen Thanksgiving yet? Likewise, are you looking forward to seeing the film? Last, we love when you let us know your thoughts in the comments below.