Filmhounds Magazine

All things film – In print and online

Director Tommy Wirkola Talks Violent Night (The FH Interview)

9 min read

Universal Pictures

This article originally appeared in FILMHOUNDS issue 14.

stars as Santa Claus, who, when a violent group of mercenaries attack the estate of a wealthy family, he's the man that has to step in and save the day. Santa Claus is Violent Night's hero and FILMHOUNDS had the chance to speak with the film's director about the film, David Harbour's Santa and all things Christmas.


What were some of your key influences and inspirations for the film? I suspect there might have been some Die Hard and Home Alone.

Oh yeah, obviously those two are big ones. The first thing they said to me when they sent me the script was ‘it's like Die Hard with Santa Claus' which was intriguing but I would also say for me, going into it, a lot of the inspirations are classic action movies of the 80s and 90s where they have edge and attitude and darkness, but also a big sense of humour, fascinating complicated characters and not holding back. I miss those movies and I really wanted to try to make something in that space.


On the topic of these sorts of action films and Die Hard, what's your opinion, is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

I think that's been established by now but yeah, for sure. For me it is.


In the film the cast were all great but in particular David Harbour and John Leguizamo. How did these pieces of casting come about?

 Well obviously, the first one we had to cast was Santa Claus and early on in the process we sat down with the studio and the producers, and we started going through names and David's name came up and we all kind of looked at each other like ‘yeah'. It just made all the sense in the world. And we sent him the script and I Skyped with him two days after, and he loved the script. He loved the tone and the character, and he had some great ideas and that was it.

For John, that came further down the road when we were looking for who was going to be our Scrooge and it was actually David Leitch who suggested him because he'd worked with him on John Wick. The moment his name came up, it was like ‘oh my God of course, if we can get him and should be so lucky' and yeah, he nailed it and had a lot of fun with that role. They were obviously two great actors but also two great human beings and really made those roles special.


Did they make the role their own by any improvisation or did they all stick to the script and what they were given?

We had a really strong script, and we stayed a lot to that script but they're smart actors and they've been around and they have some great instincts and ideas. We went through the script with them and they told us ideas and John, he's a great writer and comedian and he likes to adlib so there was a combination of things and for sure we were open to that and when they tried it and adlibbed and had fun, they nailed it.


Universal Pictures

The film's produced by David Leitch, and the two of you have worked together before, how hands-on were both of you when it came to shooting the action scenes in the film?

 We both have a big love for action, and we also share that feeling that action films should be fun, it should have edge but it should have a sense of humour in there too to really make it stand out. It was one of those instances where me and Dave but also Jojo the second unit director, we came together, and we walked through those scenes and we went through ideas and we tried to top each other.

It's one of those movies where no idea is too crazy so we could really go for it and push it and we had a blast coming up with the different sequences. As we got into it, we realised that we've really got to embrace the Christmas nature of it. We've got to use Christmas for all its worth in all the action sequences, so that was a lot of fun coming up with that.


One aspect of a Christmas film that's really important is the heart and emotion behind it, how did you manage to balance that alongside all the death and violence in the film?

Like you said, it's key. The first thing I said when I talked to the producers and the studio after I read the script was that I loved it. The action obviously is fantastic and the humour and the craziness. All that stuff is great. But for me I really loved the idea of making a Christmas movie and a Christmas movie has to have heart. You should walk out of the theatre after seeing it with a smile on your face and believing in Christmas again. So that was key to me, and I felt that we had to nail that and really make that work.

The key to that is the relationship between Santa and Trudy and I felt like if that works then we can go crazy on the other stuff and we can really have fun and push it because if the beating heart of the movie works it brings a lot with that. It really did and David and Leah, they really nailed that connection and that's where the Christmas magic comes from and that was important for sure.


That's really clear and there's a lot of that Christmas magic in Violent Night. Every country has slightly different culture regarding Christmas and Santa. Being from Norway, how did that influence your version of Santa in the film?

Well, most of us grew up with that iconic Coca-Cola Santa Claus and we had a lot of fun using that as a story point when we meet him in the bar at the beginning and he has those tiny little gold glasses and the famous hat. That was all in the original draft of the script, his big boots which I loved, being from Norway, and I kind of tied that in with his backstory. It was a lot of fun breaking down that classical Santa and putting it into a grinder.

David had a lot of fun doing that too. And I didn't think about this until a little later, but it could be intimidating for an actor doing a role like Santa Claus. It's obviously an iconic figure which is one thing, but there have been so many movies and so many different variations of the character so you have to make sure that you use the chance to make something original and fresh and cool and I was blown away. It's an iconic performance.

Universal Pictures

What was it like filming a Christmas film with Santa and snow everywhere in February/ March time and being all Christmassy when it's not Christmas?

 Well, that was fine because the surroundings are still so Christmassy. We shot it in Winnipeg and being from Norway I'm used to cold and that kind of stuff, but Winnipeg, that was a different type of cold so that really added to the feel of shooting outside in those kinds of conditions. It was actually kind of nice, Christmas suddenly lasted two months extra and being on those Christmas sets and being outside with Santa Claus riding snowmobiles, it was a weird experience but a fun one.

It was important to us, whenever they're in the big room or the lounge or outside, you should always feel that cosy Christmas feeling. This movie should always feel so Christmassy so that it would juxtaposition the crazy action and the blood and the violence that comes with the story.


It definitely had that Christmas feeling to it all. Particularly through the soundtrack and the music which is always something important to a Christmas film. What was it like putting together the soundtrack and picking the songs that would be in Violent Night?

The score of the movie was by Dom Lewis, he was the composer, and we talked, and he had some ideas early on, but we realised as we started discussing it that we really wanted a classical score. We really wanted that John Williams Home Alone feel of the score, again, to play against what's happening on screen, but also to embrace the heart of the movie. There's that Santa theme and Santa and Trudy's theme that really pulls on the heartstrings and we wanted that classical feel.

But there was also a lot of fun picking the songs of the movie and we knew we wanted good variations of Christmas songs to play with certain sequences and action bits and fights so that was a lot of fun. There's a couple of favourite Christmas songs of mine in there, like Bryan Adams ‘Christmas Time' so that was fun coming up with that playlist.


 What was one of the biggest challenges of making the film?

One thing is to make sure the tone is right. Doing a film like this, it's very delicate when it comes to tone and what is too far and what is too much when it comes to the action or the humour or the heart. It's keeping that balance and always watching over that and making sure you don't go too far in one direction is one thing. But also just generally shooting in Winnipeg in the dead of winter was really hard and cold and we had a tight schedule. We didn't have hundreds of millions, it's not a Marvel movie so we had to shoot it in a certain amount of days and we had to shoot fast and be efficient and that's sometimes hard, and cameras would freeze up and there were problems with the blood and the cast and crew would be cold. The cold really added an extra element.

Universal Pictures

 When it came to mixing these different tones, was there anything you did in particular to make sure you had the right balance?

 It's hard to say specifically but we just had to make sure that the heart of the movie was intact and I do feel like if people believe in that, and if people aren't bored with that then you can get away with so much of the other stuff. We had to make sure we always went back to that and kept that thread alive with Santa and Trudy and embracing that because if people are on board with that and that aspect of it and they feel it, then you're good to go with the other stuff.


You've done before a darker take on Hansel and Gretel and now a darker version of Santa. Are there any other fairy tales of or other characters that you'd like to take on next?

[chuckles] umm… no… not for now. But it feels like there should be a third thing. I guess… well dead Nazi zombies doesn't count. We've got to do one more mythical figure for sure but I'm not quite sure what it is yet.


What are you most proud of about this film?

I'm proud that I feel like we've made a Christmas movie and a different type of Christmas movie. I really think we succeeded in the things we set out to do which was make a Christmas movie with a big heart and big emotions but at the same time that's extreme in a lot of ways with edge, attitude and is fun.

The first time I saw it with a crowd was at [New York] Comic Con, and it worked in the sense the audience were really into it and laughing at the right places and that was great to see and feel. I really can't wait for it to play out there in theatres across the world just because it was such a thrill seeing it with a crowd and feeling that energy so I'm really proud of that.

Violent Night is out now. Read our review here.