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Director Tommy Wirkola on combining Die Hard with Santa Claus in Violent Night

Besides being one of the greatest action films of all time, 1988’s Die Hard became a template for pitching movies with a similar concept. Die Hard on a boat? Under Siege. Die Hard on a plane? Air Force One. Die Hard on a mountain? Cliffhanger. These films worked by taking an easily adaptable concept and making it their own. More times than not, however, the films pitched as “Die Hard on a” fail to capture the essence of Die Hard (we don’t need to cover Die Hard at a beauty pageant, also known as No Contest).Three decades later, the concept works again with Violent Night, which is Die Hard with Santa Claus.

Directed by Tommy Wirkola (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), Violent Night stars David Harbour (Stranger Things) as Santa Claus, depicted here as a depressed drunk who’s lost hope in humanity because of people’s consumerism and greed. On Christmas Eve, a group of highly skilled mercenaries breaks into the Lightstone estate, murdering the staff and holding the family hostage. Unbeknownst to them, Santa is stranded on the property. When one of the young prisoners, Trudy (Leah Brady), reaches out to Santa for help, Kris Kringle channels his inner warrior and hunts down the mercenaries, one at a time, in violent and bloody fashion.

David Harbour, dressed as Santa Claus, leans against a sleigh.
Universal Pictures

In an interview with Digital Trends, Wirkola discusses why he made an action movie with a Christmas twist, explains the Home Alone homage in the attic, and shares his ideas for a sequel.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Digital Trends: Congratulations on the success of the film. It’s now grossed over $75 million worldwide. It will soon grow in popularity on streaming, digital, Blu-ray, and DVD. What has the feedback been like from the studio?

Tommy Wirkola: It’s been very positive. It sounds cliché, but it’s been a joyful experience. Doing this film with 87North and Universal, it’s one of those moments where everybody was making the same movie. Having come from Norway and done my crazy movies over there, you always worry they’re going to pull back and say, “You can’t do this, and you can’t do that.”

But Universal never did that on this one, and they always pushed us further. I think the movie works because of it. I’m very happy with it. I’m happy that they are happy with it, and obviously, it’s been fun to be online and read the feedback from the audience.

Why do you believe this movie broke through with both critics and audiences?

Wirkola: Well, I mean Pat [Casey] and Josh [Miller] wrote a great script. They just had a pure, great, fun idea. It was Die Hard with Santa Claus. As we all know, there are so many “Die Hard with a…” ideas floating around, so it takes a little bit to make it special, but I really think they did it. Obviously, with the fun aspect to the idea, but also grounding the idea with Santa Claus. The way they brought in the Viking heritage and all that stuff.

Also, the tone. If I had to point to one thing, it’s the tone. Like when I read the script, I loved the idea of doing a crazy action, gory, funny movie mixed with a beating heart of a Christmas movie. And that was what kind of made my path clear into it. Like, Ok, I can see that. I want to really try that. That, to me, is an interesting combination, and hopefully, we hit that balance right. I think that’s why it worked.

I definitely think you did. David is clearly the front and center of this movie. Because of his background, he seems to really balance action with comedy. Going into filming, did you feel right away that you had the right guy?

Oh, yeah. It’s probably normal to say this in interviews, but he truly was our first choice. We went to him super early, and he responded. It was one of those moments where if he said yes, we were all hoping for it. Obviously, we knew he would be amazing because of his previous work, who he is, and the combination of what he can do.

We know he’s funny. We know he has a big heart, but he loved that physical element when we talked to him for the first time. 87North loves training its actors. They always do that and really take pride in showcasing the hero, and he was really involved with that. He was the ultimate professional on it. We talked to him about it a lot, [and] he took the role extremely seriously. There was no joy in playing that character. That was what made it funny. He put everything into it, and that’s why it works.

David Harbour dressed as Santa Claus, holding a sledgehammer.
Universal

I was very intrigued by Santa’s past as an elite warrior. The film briefly touches on his backstory. I actually read that you shot more scenes with David to explain his character’s backstory. I know they didn’t make the final cut, but what were those scenes like?

It was a lot of dialogue. It was in the middle part of the movie, which is already kind of long. When we were putting it together, we knew we had to trim down that part, but we also realized it would be great to leave some mystery. It was actually one of the best acting moments in the film, when he was telling Leah (Trudy) through the walkie about his past and how he used to be this warrior, which we have in the movie.

Then he ventures into how the elves found him and how he wanted to do something good. It had this whole story that Josh and Pat had written, which was great. But we kind of said it would be great to save this. Let the audience fill out the blanks. Let’s just put it in pieces, and then they will do the rest. If we’re lucky enough to do a sequel, we could dwell into that even further and not just do it through dialogue.

It has to be tough, especially if you’re calling it the best acting and you had to leave it on the cutting room floor. 

Yeah, it was. It was one of the last things that got cut. It was all those things I mentioned. But it was also a pacing issue. In the middle part of the film, there are a lot of big dialogue scenes before the action kicks in. There were all these things we considered. But after talking with the writers and the producers, if the movie works, and if we can get into another one, imagine going back and actually showing some of this. It could be really fun.

I also watched a deleted scene with the Lightstone family where they resolve their issues at the end in a conversation between Jason and Gertrude. Why did you choose to omit that scene from the film?

That was also one of the last things that went. It’s something I thought was funny and nice and heartwarming. I thought Beverly D’Angelo was great in that scene, finally being a little bit human again. But I also thought we actually get that earlier when they resuscitated Santa. We see her changing a bit and believing.

The movie is about Santa and his relationship with the girl [Trudy] and finding himself again. In that moment, we just want to finish the movie and feel that energy. Feel the happiness as he flies to the moon with his reindeer. It felt like one moment too many with the family where we didn’t need it.

Violent Night - Official Trailer

Excuse my pun here, but this film is truly a violent night with all the violence and gore. Was there ever a point where you thought it was crossing the line and you had to scale back on some of the violence, or did you have free rein and thought it all worked?

We did have free rein. Like I said, we never got a “no” from the studio. They were so supportive. And yes, of course, there’s always a discussion. There was some stuff that we left, moments here and there. What I said to my team and producers and the studio early on [is] if we get the relationship between Trudy and Santa right, [and] if we can make that the beating heart of the film, we can get away with anything else.

We can go as far as we want. We can push it as much as we possibly can as long as we keep it sweet. It’s also how you shoot the action. We always try to do it with a sense of humor and fun and not be too gratuitous. But of course, at times it’s fun to shock the audience. We liked the final kill with Santa and Scrooge. It’s fun to really push it a few times, but it’s always done with heart, I think.

The Home Alone sequence with Trudy stole the show. Did you think that sequence would be a huge hit?

The scene was a lot smaller when I came on board, and we expanded upon it greatly. That was one of the first things I said to the producers. I do think this could be the showstopper of the film if done right. We wanted to shoot so much more, but never had the time. It’s fun doing a scene like that, paying tribute to a movie that everybody knows and loves, but doing it in a funny way.

Basically, our approach was to shoot and show what really would happen if those traps existed. I think it’s something everybody’s wondered about, especially when you’re a little bit older. You think people would be horrifically mauled by those traps. It’s going back to that point of view and shooting it that way. We always had a good feeling about it.

David Harbour dressed as Santa Claus and tied up with Christmaslights, while John Leguizamo screams at him.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There’s an online debate as to if Kevin [from Home Alone] was a psychopath.

Yeah. That’s what also works in our film. She [Trudy] sees in the film [Home Alone] that they don’t get that hurt. We just thought it was funny that she doesn’t realize how badly she injured these people. She said to Santa, “Yeah, it was just like in the movie. It was so funny.” She doesn’t realize that she’s basically killed two of the people [laughs].

You’ve worked with [producer] David Leitch before. You go back to Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. How did it feel having a familiar collaborator on the film? 

Great. We knew each other. We trust each other. We have the same sense of humor and approach to action. We want people to have fun and laugh and be surprised with humor. It was fun because he and his partner, Kelly [McCormick] were there and a lot of fun during the shoot. Me, David, and the stunt coordinator, Jojo [Eusebio], would try to top each other with the set pieces like, “Alright, what if you do that? What if we do that?”

We had a lot of fun with that. Doing action with those guys is obviously a pleasure. They’re so good and so fun, and they take it so seriously. They really, really, really believe in R-rated action and really push for and put it out there. That’s refreshing to me, who grew up with these movies.

Every week, there’s always a debate over theatrical versus streaming. What type of movie can play in a theater? Can midbudget films survive? Violent Night is a win for this type of movie. As a filmmaker, it has to feel good to prove that it can turn a profit and be a hit with critics and audiences.

Wirkola: Oh, yes, for sure. 100%. Obviously, we were extremely nervous before it opened, and you don’t know. In the back of your head, there’s still COVID, and the effect it had on the cinema. Kudos to Universal for really believing and trying to put movies out there. With M3GAN just now, they had a big hit there. People go to the movies if it’s interesting, fun stuff and feel like they’re getting something new and fun and original. I honestly believe that, and I’m so happy that it did.

Hopefully, this movie has time to spread. The next Christmas coming up, we can spread even further and become a thing. Hopefully, we get to do a sequel and continue this crazy Christmas movie franchise. Fingers crossed. I feel that people embraced it. Looking at the audience’s feedback online and on Twitter, it’s been really fun. People seem to really respond to that mix of sweetness but craziness.

David Harbour, dressed as Santa Claus, lifts a sledgehammer from a sleigh.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Can you share some updates or ideas for the sequel? I read you wanted to focus on Mrs. Claus with the elves in the North Pole.

You know it’s super early still, but yes, all those things you mentioned we haven’t seen yet. We definitely want to go back and see Santa more in his Viking state. We have an idea for a story, a rough story. It’s going to be bigger. This one was just one location, one building. We want to expand on that and bring in more characters. Just try to open up the world, basically, but still keep the same tone going that we all love.

Violent Night has made references to Die Hard and Christmas Vacation. For the elves in the sequel, maybe bring in Will Ferrell.

Macaulay Culkin, maybe.

Violent Night is streaming on Peacock. It’s also available for purchase on digital, 4K, and Blu-ray. 

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