‘Violent Night’ screenwriting duo Pat Casey and Josh Miller have been launched into mainstream Hollywood success over the past few years for their innate ability to create bold, cutting-edge action movies. Their previous collaborations together – the 2020 film adaptation and this year’s sequel of the popular Sega video game series, ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ – established them as reliable scribes whose stories are naturally anchored by authentic characters and sincere emotion.
Casey and Miller’s new bold, cutting-edge action comedy is anchored by authentic characters and their sincere hope that they’ll be accepted by not only society, but also the people closest to them. The film’s distinct characters are supported by stellar, groundbreaking stunts and heartfelt humor that’s anchored in reality and taps into the true spirit of Christmas.
‘Violent Night’ was directed by Tommy Wirkola. The comedy hails from production company 87North, which has also produced such action films as ‘John Wick,’ ‘Atomic Blonde,’ ‘Nobody,’ Bullet Train,’ ‘Deadpool 2’ and ‘Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.’ 87North’s Kelly McCormick, David Leitch and Guy Danella served as producers on ‘Violent Night,’ which Universal Pictures is releasing in theaters this Friday, December 2.
In ‘Violent Night,’ a team of mercenaries breaks into the compound of the wealthy Lightstone family on Christmas Eve. The mercenaries are instructed by their leader, Scrooge (John Leguizamo), to take everyone in the Lightstone family hostage, including Jason (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife, Linda (Alexis Louder), and their young daughter, Trudy (Leah Brady).
While struggling to stay safe and protect her family throughout the night, the latter forms an unexpected, heartfelt bond with Santa Claus (David Harbour). As members of the family and Santa are all struggling to find a way to find purpose in their lives again and reconnect with the people they love, the latter musters up the strength to not only offer vital assistance to his new friend Trudy and her relatives, while also dispatching the intruders.
Casey and Miller generously took the time recently to talk about penning ‘Violent Night’ during an exclusive Interview over Zoom. Among other things, the writers discussed that they appreciate that the producers at Universal Pictures and 87North encouraged them to scribe the action-driven, R-rated Christmas story that’s fueled by an authentic ensemble cast of characters that they were interested in telling.
ShockYa (SY): Together, you co-penned the script for the new action-comedy, ‘Violent Night.’ What was your inspiration in writing the screenplay for the movie, and what the experience of working together to create the story for the feature was like?
Josh Miller (JM): It’s an idea we had for a long time, and that we returned to almost every Christmas. We’d fantasize, it would be great if one day we could somehow trick someone into making this movie. We just thought that the idea might be slightly too weird for anyone to want to do.
But 87North, as producers, brought the idea to Universal Studios. It seemed crazy to us that a big studio like Universal might make our insane little movie. But once that became a reality, our executive at Universal just told us to go crazy with it.
So it was a dream experience to take everything we love about both R-rated action movies and Christmas movies, and figure out how to weave them together in one bizarre thing.
Pat Casey (PC): But we were always afraid that if this movie was going to happen, that we would be told that we would have to make it appropriate for kids, and it should be rated PG. So when we got that last phone call from our executive at Universal right before they bought the pitch and sent us off to write the script, we were afraid that’s what the call was going to be.
But instead, he was like, “Take it as far as you can! Go crazy!” We were like, “Yes!”
JM: Yes, we were worried that he was going to say, “It needs to be PG-13.” That movie still could have turned out good, but it wouldn’t have been as good, and more importantly, it wouldn’t have been what we would have wanted it to be.
PC: The fact that everyone really got on board with our original vision, and it became a shared vision, was amazing. It was just what we imagined it would be, and it’s really a Christmas miracle.
SY: The film’s story thrives on its ability to balance its action sequences with its humor. When did you decide to incorporate comedy into the script, and how did you weave the jokes into the story alongside the stunts?
JM: That was our intention from the beginning; we didn’t want it to have too much humor. In our minds, we were always comparing it to ‘The Ref’ with Denis Leary, which has dark comedy with a family bickering with each other.
We knew that we would get a lot of laughs from that. That would allow us to take the action movie side of things with John Leguizamo’s character and his gang, and treat that a little bit more seriously, as though this was actually a regular action movie that also didn’t star Santa Claus.
PC: We always planned on it being funny, as we always said our concept for it is ‘Die Hard’ with Santa Claus. It’s kind of a joke idea or a fake movie trailer that you’d see on ‘Saturday Night Live.’
So the challenge was really to take this idea, which is really just a big joke, and take the action seriously, which would make the overall film funnier. But overall, we wanted to make this a real movie, and not just a big joke.
SY: With the action sequences being a major driving force in ‘Violent Night’s story, how did you approach creating the physical fighting in the screenplay?
PC: We were very lucky because when we first mentioned this idea to our agents, they called us back the next day and told us, “We mentioned this to Kelly McCormick at 87North, so can you guys go have lunch with David Leitch tomorrow and tell him about it?” We weren’t really ready, but we said, “We’ll be ready by lunchtime.”
But partnering with them was amazing. The films they’ve made, like ‘Atomic Blonde,’ ‘Bullet Train’ and ‘Nobody,’ are such great action films. David’s one of the best stuntmen in the business.
That’s become their whole brand; they do action better than anybody. They have the best stuntmen and fight coordinators.
So by partnering with them, we knew all along what the style of the action should be to play to their skills and take advantage of the things their whole team is incredible at. So we just tried to set them up for situations, and suggest all the ways you can use Christmas stuff as weapons.
So by doing that, we could just focus on the story part of the film, and then rely on them to make the action sequences. They came through on that in spades.
SY: The comedy features an ensemble cast, but all of the characters still have their own unique motivations. How did you create the different personalities for each character?
JM: (Scenes with a big group of characters) are some of my favorite ones to write. But they can also be tough, especially on lower budget movies. Even if you pay them on scale and they’re not a big movie star, one actor adds a lot to the budget.
But I always love writing scenes with a big group of characters and trying to find the rhythm of them as they’re all squabbling with each other, like in ‘The Ref’ or ‘Christmas Vacation.’ There’s something extra Christmasy about it, but there’s also a lot of action in it. So we found that middle ground in this movie.
PC: Including a big extended family in movies always gives you good opportunities because in every family, even happy ones, there are all these long-running resentments and feuds going on that can come to the surface in moments of stress. So it just seemed funny to play into that.
There have also been a number of films and shows with wealthy families, like ‘Knives Out’ and ‘Succession,’ in recent years, so we were just making our entry into that same cannon with this film.
SY: Speaking of the fact that ‘Violent Night’ has an ensemble cast that’s led by David Harbour as Santa Claus, were you able to speak to him about the character during the production?
JM: We pictured David Harbour while we were writing Santa. That was an odd moment during our fantasy process manifesting itself as reality.
We did get to talk to him a little bit once production started. We were only on set for two weeks, and he was the star. We specifically wanted to go up there (to Winnipeg, where the film was shot) to see the fight scenes because that seemed like it would be the most fun to watch.
But the downside of that was that he wasn’t really hanging around a lot, as he was either prepping for, or shooting, the scene. Since he was shooting big action scenes, he went back to his trailer to rest in between the scenes, so we didn’t want to bug him.
JM: He was also in a lot of hair and make-up, as his beard and hair required a lot of upkeep.
But he’s exactly who we imagined for the role. When we talked to him about the character, he was very cool. He was very on board with what we were talking about, and wanted to take certain elements of the character even further.
Santa starts off not wanting to fight in the beginning of the film, and then it takes him awhile to find his fighting roots. David wanted to take that even further, and make Santa even more of a dork in the beginning of the movie, which was fine by us. It was funny, and offers an even greater contrast.
But the way that he handles comedy and drama is amazing. You can also believe he kicks ass. He also has that little twinkle in his eye. (Miller laughs.)
SY: ‘Violent Night’ was directed by Tommy Wirkola. What was your experience like of working with him throughout the movie’s production?
JM: It was great to work with him. He’s said in interviews that he felt that when he read the script, he was like, “Wow, I feel like I wrote this.”
From his other movies, I could tell that he loves Sam Raimi movies, which we also love. So we felt like we were cut from the same cloth.
We’ve been pretty lucky in our careers to be working with people and directors, like Tommy, who elevate the material. So there was something very specific that we all felt as though we were almost the same person.
PC: Yes, it was shocking to me how creatively attuned we were with Tommy; we have very similar senses of humor. While we were watching Tommy’s other movies, it almost felt like we made them
SY: John Leguizamo has mentioned that the cast improvised throughout the shoot. What was the experience like of working with the actors as they came up with their own ideas for their characters within the story?
PC: You don’t want an actor who hates all your dialogue and wants to change it. But, at the same time, we do want an actor who’s good at improv; I guess we should clarify that! You want them to add funnier things.
Sometimes the funniest jokes are contextual, and the actors are playing off of how the scene ends up being slightly changed by another actor’s performance.
JM: Yes, there are things like what a character’s costume looks like or what’s on the set, which are things we don’t know are going to look like when we write the script. But when the actors are looking at these things on the set, they think, I have to say something about this.
PC: We were so happy they cast Leguizamo. We were always saying when they were casting that we didn’t want to get a stand-up comedian to play the villain.
The movie’s funny, so you want someone who can help sell the humor. But we also wanted someone that we could cast in the non-comedy version of this.
I think Leguizamo is that type of guy. You can imagine the non-comedy version of this where he’s the scarier version of this. He ad-libbed some of his best little quips, which gave his character an ’80s/’90s action movie vibe that we were drawing from.
JM: Yes, sometimes John would add one or two extra words in the middle of a line that would kick it up a notch, which is great.
In general, the rules for ad-libbing we like to follow is, do it at least once the way it is in the script. But then you want the actors to bring their ideas because these people are smart and creative, and this is a team sport. You want to benefit from their creativity. Then if they ad-lib a great line that everyone loves, our names are still on the script! We get all the credit and the glory! (Miller and Casey laugh.)