When screenwriters Josh Miller and Pat Casey explained the premise of their alt-Christmas action-comedy Violent Night to producers Kelly McCormick and David Leitc, renowned for bold, cutting-edge action films anchored by authentic characters and sincere emotion, they instantly saw potential in the idea of Santa saving the day when a family is held hostage.
“I immediately thought, ‘This is genius’,” says producer David Leitch “It was bold and irreverent, and it ultimately had a good moral tale at the end of it. I don’t think they had all of the small details worked out in that initial pitch, but they had the shell of the idea.”
The producers loved that the concept for the film had swagger and edge while also tapping into the true spirit of the holidays. It also had the potential to be packed with incredible, groundbreaking fight sequences.
“We thought it was such a cool, big idea and an absolute no-brainer for us, so we were able to charm Pat and Josh and they went with us,” McCormick says. “Universal actually greenlit the first draft of the script, so the process of pitch to production was a very short timeframe.”
The next crucial next step was finding someone who could direct such a unique film
The job required experience in both action and story, which the producers found in filmmaker Tommy Wirkola.
Producer Guy Danella, who joined the 87North team in summer 2021, had previously worked closely with Wirkola on various projects at production company Studio 8.
“Violent Night was the first script I read after joining the 87North team, and after I read it, I asked Kelly and David, ‘Would it be too obvious if we brought in Tommy for this?’” Danella says. “The story just seemed like one that Tommy would have come up with and was so on-brand for him. I think a lot of people would have asked ‘How are you going to pull that off?’ after reading the screenplay, but for Tommy, we knew that he would want to push all the boundaries that he could.”
Leitch had also worked with Wirkola on the 2013 film Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. “When I read the script for Hansel & Gretel, I thought it was so fun and ballsy,” Leitch says. “I was so excited about it that I turned down another job. I jumped on with the whole 87North team and we shot some crazy action and fights for that film, and the entire time, Tommy and I got on like gangbusters. We had the same sensibilities, and I loved his bold approach to directing, so when Violent Night came to us, we thought he was perfect for it.”
McCormick sites Wirkola’s Dead Snow films as some of her favorites of his. “They’re more gruesome than Violent Night, but the bold ideas and the action that’s grounded in heart very closely resembles what we knew we wanted for this film,” McCormick says. “And then we saw his film The Trip last year, which really cemented him in our minds as a strong director for this film. It can sometimes be hard to find a director who easily folds into the 87North brand and has the ability to combine hard action with character-based heart, and Tommy’s done that in spades, so I don’t think there could have been a better choice.”
Ever since Wirkola and Leitch had worked together on Hansel & Gretel, they had been talking about working together again once the right project came along. “David and Kelly sent the screenplay for Violent Night to me in summer 2021 and asked if I wanted to direct it,” Wirkola says. “The only thing they said to me when they sent the script was, ‘It’s like Die Hard with Santa Claus.’ I read it and immediately loved it. It was fun and uniquely grounded with great characters and emotion despite all the craziness of the action.”
There were several factors that contributed to Wirkola jumping on board to direct Violent Night.
“First of all, I was intrigued by the general idea of doing a Christmas movie and contributing to creating something that people can watch every Christmas season,” Wirkola says. “Second, I’m a big sucker for things that feel a little bit different and edgy. Things that have a unique tone—I’m a fan of mixing tones, where things can be funny, action-packed and have a big heart at the same time. Violent Night had all of that, plus the characters were interesting and fleshed out.”
He was also excited about the idea of putting a new spin on something that so many people are familiar with. “Christmas is something that everyone knows about, and Christmas movies are something that so many people have experienced,” Wirkola says. “So, when I read this story, I thought, ‘If we can keep the heart of the movie, we can really mess with and have fun with Christmas tropes and Christmas movie cliches.’ It gave us a chance to twist them in our own demented way. And throughout the film, we’ve weaved in a lot of tributes to other Christmas films like Die Hard and Home Alone. It was a lot of fun to play with something that people know and love and give it to them in a way that they’ll still love, but in a different way.”
The filmmakers felt confident about the action and the fun of the film. So, what was important was to next nail down the characters, story, and emotion of it. “It was important to us to balance the story and the action, which requires heart and stakes,” McCormick says. “It still has to feel like there are consequences and if it’s not done properly, it can get really silly, really fast. So, we had a lot of conversations with the team about playing for stakes while allowing for the pageantry to be where the hilarity comes in.”
Wirkola stands out in his ability to balance a variety of tones. “Tommy has extreme confidence while also being a great collaborator,” Danella says. “He’s always bold with his visions and goes against convention, but what really sets him apart is his ability to do that while deeply grounding the story with relatable characters.”
One of Wirkola’s big influences has been Sam Raimi and seeing Evil Dead 2 for the first time was an eye-opener for the director. “It made me realize, oh, a movie can be scary, violent and funny at the same time,” Wirkola says. “Because there are some shocking moments in our story where we push the envelope, we wanted to see how far we could take the action, violence and the gore, but also combine it with humor. If you can get a laugh at the same time as people look away in shock, there’s no better feeling than that.”
Violent Night’s Santa Claus is the real Santa, but in a way that we’ve never seen him before.
This Santa is a protector and a warrior with some seriously bad-ass skills, but when we meet him in the film, he’s become slightly bitter and tired about the otherwise merry holiday. “He’s lost faith in humanity, and he feels the spirit of Christmas disappearing, which has made him into a shell of a man,” director Tommy Wirkola says. “And the story then takes him in a very different direction than how he envisioned his Christmas Eve would turn out. His Christmas magic is tied to the belief in Christmas, so as the spirit of those around him fades, so do his powers. Not to mention, his belief in himself has also faded. So, when we meet him, his powers are not what they used to be.”
Santa is at a crossroads. “Santa is having a bit of an existential crisis and he’s lost his Christmas spirit,” producer Kelly McCormick says. “Christmas has been overtaken by consumerism and greed, and he’s ready to hang up his boots until he enters the Lightstone home and realizes a little girl Trudy and her family are in danger.”
It turns out, that before Santa donned the jolly red suit and hitched up the reindeer, he had a very different life—a history that’s about to make him the ideal protector for this exact moment.
“Santa was a greedy, violent Norwegian Viking who traveled the Scandinavian countries in search of treasure, killing anyone who got in his way,” Wirkola says. “One day, he heard a rumor about a legendary treasure way up North, so he spent months traveling as far north as he could go and, of course, the treasure wasn’t what he expected. It was the elves and the magic of Christmas that he discovered. This was the moment that he was offered some redemption and he found that in giving back, he could redeem who he was born to be, rather than a violent murderer. So, when we meet him in the film, he hasn’t thought about that life or been close to that life for hundreds of years, but over the course of the events of the film, he’s forced to put some of his skills from the past into practice.”
Finding the ideal actor to play Santa was essential. The role needed someone with a range of qualities—both the warmth and good-nature of Santa Claus, but also the physicality and ability to train for intricate fight sequences. “It needed to be someone with the natural gravitas of Santa Claus and his sense of kindness and generosity, but there also needed to be some mystery in him beneath the surface as well because our Santa is a very complicated, layered man,” Wirkola says.
“When we meet him in the film, Santa is a curmudgeon who doesn’t like Christmas anymore, but underneath that, he’s a broken man,” producer David Leitch says. “It gives the character humanity and makes him relatable, and that came from suggestions from David Harbour.”
For his part, Harbour wasn’t initially sure about the role when the idea of the film was first explained to him. “I first heard the pitch from my agent, who told me, ‘It’s a violent Santa Claus movie,’” Harbour says. “My initial response was, ‘What are you talking about?’ But then, they told me the filmmakers wanted to talk to me about it. So, they called me up and told me the general idea, and it sounded so hilarious, fresh and different. Then they sent me the script, and I got really into it, but in my mind, it was still a big risk because it was like two movies smashed into one. That’s what was so unique about it. So, when I started the script, I didn’t think it could work, but by the end, I was choked up and thought it was really beautiful. It was a great script that we made better as we got into it.”
The tell-tale sign for John Leguizamo that a script is good is if he’s racing through it. “Violent Night was a page-turner, and I was laughing out loud,” Leguizamo says. “I was intrigued and moved by it in so many ways. There was magic in that script. Villains are tricky because you don’t want to overdo it, but you also don’t want to undercook it either. Scrooge was really well-written and intelligent, and an action flick is only as good as how intelligent your villain is. If your villain’s a moron, the movie is moronic. So, we made sure that Scrooge was an intelligent, albeit disgruntled, guy.”
Josh Miller, sometimes credited under the alias Worm Miller, is an American filmmaker, writer, director, and actor. He often collaborates with his high school friend Patrick Casey. He is best known for creating the Fox animated series Golan the Insatiable and writing the Sonic the Hedgehog film, as well as directing the cult horror-comedy Hey, Stop Stabbing Me!. He is the host and co-founder of the long-running Los Angeles-based horror screening series Friday Night Frights.
Patrick Casey is an American writer, actor, director and author. He often collaborates with writer/director/actor Worm Miller. He is best known for his work on the Fox animated series Golan the Insatiable and the Sonic the Hedgehog feature films.