‘Violent Night’ Director Tommy Wirkola on Maintaining Heart Among the Chaos: ‘It Should Still Feel Like a Christmas Movie’

The movie is out now for those in a darker Yuletide mood

Violent Night

“Violent Night” is here to make your Christmas season a little more ho-ho-horrific.

Imagine “Die Hard” mixed with “Home Alone” but instead of Bruce Willis, it’s Billy Bob Thornton-as-Santa serving as the hero (only this time it is Santa, played by a gleefully profane David Harbour) and you’ve got an idea of what “Violent Night” is all about. Shootouts, heists and some of the more violent deaths you’ll see in cinemas this year; “Violent Night” has it all.

And who is orchestrating this chaos but Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola, who made a splash overseas with his “Dead Snow” before making the underrated “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” in America. Since then, he’s gone back to Europe to make bizarre and boldly entertaining movies like “The Trip” (which is on Netflix right now and so much fun). Honestly, it’s good to have him back. And it’s impossible to think of somebody better equipped to walk the tonal challenges and stage the big, blustery action sequences better than Wirkola.

What was it that appealed to you about “Violent Night?”

Well, there was quite a few things, but when they sent me the script and they kind of give you the headline, they said, “Yeah, it’s like ‘Die Hard’ with Santa Claus,” which it is in a way. When they said that, it was like, Okay, that sounds cool, but could also end up on the side of cheesy. It’s such a high concept. But when I read the script, I really felt like it had a lot of heart and it felt like a Christmas movie. That was my first meeting. I said, “Listen, I think we can do all the crazy action, the humor and we want to explore and explode all that. But the most important thing for me was that it still should feel like a Christmas movie.”

When you leave a theater, you still walk out with Christmas cheer. Because I had a hunch if we can get that right, if we can get the heart of the movie, we can go as crazy as we want on the rest. And tone is something I really do love to play with. There were all these ingredients that I loved. And this chance of creating something new within the space of Christmas movies, I thought was also very appealing.

Well, you have so many specific nods to different Christmas movies. Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?

“Die Hard,” if we count it as a Christmas movie, which we should. Obviously it’s one. So many people have that. “Home Alone” is a movie I watched so many time when I was a kid. For example, we have a tribute to “Home Alone,” which was always there in the script, but that was the scene we really build out much more after I came on board. I would also mention “Scrooged.” I loved that movie growing up. The retelling that story and Bill Murray’s sense of humor. And in recent times, I did love “Bad Santa.” And actually that was a movie I brought up to the team when I came on board. I was like, “Yeah, you just look at ‘Bad Santa,’ you go really dark and really edgy with the humor, but you still feel good after you watch that film.” It was a big inspiration, actually.

And you had Christmas royalty on the movie with Beverly D’Angelo.

Of course. And “Christmas Vacation” is my favorite of the “Vacation” movies. And that’s a film that for some reason, in Norway, I’m sure every country has different ones, but on Norwegian television, that’s the movie they show on day before Christmas. And I watch it every year because it’s such a perfect Christmas movie. And she’s so great, obviously. You do these casting calls and you get names and lists, and as soon as I saw her name, it was like, Oh yeah, of course. We should definitely try to get her to be part of this.

So much of your career is blood and snow. Why is that? Is it just your Norwegian heritage?

Maybe. Yes, certainly I grew up in the very north of Norway, above the Arctic Circle, so snow was always a big thing for me. I grew up in and around it. And I love movies set in winter environments. I just always did. Yes, some of my movies have some blood in them, and certainly this one too. Honestly, I’m surprised how far we pushed this movie in every aspect, like humor and action and gore. The studio was always so supportive. And I think it’s because we had that beating heart again, and we can get away with all that. But yeah, no, of course, I love snow and winter, and that setting just gives an extra element to a film, I think. It just gives an edge.

For some reason, they somehow managed to find a place that was colder than where I was from to shoot this film, which was Winnipeg, Canada. And so many days was like -25, -30, but they always had this tiny wind always hitting you as well. It was always so cold and miserable outside, but it really added to it. The breath you see is not CGI, it’s real. And the snow crunch you hear on the feet is real. And yes, people are miserable, actors are impatient. The crew is working slower because it’s so cold, but it really gives something. Like final fight in the film is shot in -25 in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. But it really shows that we were there and we were outside and we were shooting in that environment. And I really like that.

Can you talk about working with producer David Leitch and the stunt team?

Leitch and I, we go way back. Actually, he was Second Unit Director on “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” before he exploded and became one of the world’s biggest directors. And we became friends and obviously had this amazing career. We always kept in touch. And he sent me this script, him and his team, and loved it, came on board. And obviously David loves action. And they really want to be involved and part of it. So yeah, David was there. He was on set. He was in Winnipeg with us.

Me and him, and Jojo, the Second Unit Director, we mapped out every action beat we had in the film. Okay, how can we make this different? How can we make that different? And how can we have an arc throughout the whole thing? And also the fun part was, How can we weave Christmas into all this? How can we use Christmas and how can we use Christmas decorations and Christmas trees and presents and Santa’s gifts? In the end, it was almost like a competition with me and Jojo and David where we, oh, yeah, okay, you won’t do that. Well, I think we can do this with his sack. And it was really a fun, creative process of just trying to make the best action possible I guess.

In the movie David Harbour repeatedly says that he doesn’t understand the rules of Christmas magic. Had you worked all of that out?

No, I don’t. If you ask the writers, I don’t think they do either. I think they have an idea, but actually I love that part. That’s one of my favorite lines in the film. Yeah, I don’t really understand the rules because it’s a get out of jail free card in a way. But yeah there was certain gifts and gadgets that he has. He has a nice and naughty list. He has his sack, his endless gift sack, and the ability to go up a chimney. And we tried to use them all in fun ways.

Was there anything that you shot that was too gross to go into the R-rated version?

You know what, no. And this was something that surprised me. I was pretty sure the studio producer would say at one point, “Hey, Tommy, maybe we shouldn’t do this.” But they were always so supportive, yeah, go for it. And I think they, and I’m so glad they have this point of view, if you’re going to make an action movie, and we don’t have the budget of a Marvel movie and that kind of stuff, so we got to bring in people the other way and we got to bring it elsewhere. We bring it with edge and attitude and fun, and how far you push it. And you combine that with humor, and I think that’s what makes it a really fun and cool ride.

Did you have trouble finding the right tone?

I would say, you always adjust it in the edit, yes. But I think they had a pretty good handle on it going in, but you also want to give them freedom to throw ideas and try lines. And a lot of John’s ad-libbing is in the movie because he really got the character and the tone that we were going for. Tone is something I love dearly. I still remember to this day when the first time I saw Evil Dead II, it was like, oh, okay, you can really combine extreme horror and gore and humor. And done right, I think for me, it’s one of the most rewarding things to see in a theater with people. And to experience that laugh where you shouldn’t be laughing is the best laugh I know. And I think, yes, it’s a tricky balance to keep, but hopefully we hit it in the film. That was something we talked about a lot going into it and something that I love.

Have you thought about a “Violent Night” sequel? Will we finally meet Mrs. Claus?

We actually just discussed that. We discussed a mid-credit scene. And there was one point in the script she was there. We played with the idea, but we felt like let’s keep it a mystery. Let’s see what happens. And if people embrace this one, maybe we get lucky enough to do another one. And for sure we can bring Mrs. Claus in a much bigger way. There’s some names being brought up, but I can’t say that. And then the agents would know, and they would just demand so much money.

“Violent Night” is in theaters now.