Interview – ‘Violent Night’ director Tommy Wirkola on keeping the Christmas spirit alive in his new action-comedy

When a team of mercenaries breaks into a wealthy family compound on Christmas Eve, taking everyone inside hostage, the team isn’t prepared for a surprise combatant: Santa Claus (David Harbour, Black Widow, Stranger Things series) is on the grounds, and he’s about to show why this Nick is no saint.

The film also stars Emmy winner John Leguizamo (John Wick), Cam Gigandet (Without Remorse), and Beverly D’Angelo (National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise). Violent Night is directed by razor-edged Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), and thanks to Universal Pictures, I had the chance to chat with Tommy about balancing violence and comedy, keeping the Christmas spirit alive in a brutal action movie, and who he thinks should be the next fairy tale character to get the action-movie treatment!

Nick: Tommy! It’s a pleasure to meet you!

Tommy Wirkola: Thank you. Where in Australia are you?

Nick: I’m in Brisbane, Queensland.

Tommy Wirkola: I actually studied film on the Gold Coast! I spent two and a half years there!

Nick: That’s amazing! It’s funny you mention starting your film career here, and before we jump into Violent NIght, I have to thank you for something. Because the  first review I ever wrote at 16 years old for the Blockbuster Video Magazine, was for your film Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters! So, I have to thank you for being somewhat a part of the reason I am here talking to you today! I also loved the movie and gave it a glowing review!

Tommy Wirkola: [laughs] Thank you for the glowing review! There weren’t that many of them when it came out, so I’m glad you were one of them.

Nick: But, let’s jump into Violent Night! I’d love to find out more about your relationship with David Leitch, Kelly McCormack and the production team at 87North. You’re no stranger to action, and these guys are reinventing the action film with each movie they make – so what was that collaboration like and how did it influence your direction on this film?

Tommy Wirkola: Well, they’re all friends! David [Leitch] (Deadpool 2, Bullet Train) actually directed the second unit on Hansel and Gretel. That’s how we became friends. Then he became one of the biggest directors in the world after that, and obviously he and Kelly started their company.

I think what separates them is truly their love for R-rated action. They really have a beating heart to try and make great action films, and not just run of the mill kind of films. It’s about getting people into the cinema again through these films.

It was an amazing collaboration. They were there on set everyday in Winnipeg, where we shot the film. They have so much knowledge about action and fights. They also brought in a second unit director called Joe Eusebio, who is amazing and just before this he just finished working on the Obi-Wan series (Obi-Wan Kenobi). So, we had an amazing team on this one, and it was a lot of fun designing the action with them. It was one of those instances where everyone was on the same page with what movie we wanted to make.

(from left) David Harbour and John Leguizamo on the set of Violent Night.

Nick: The action in this film is so exciting, fun and yet brutal! But, you do a fantastic job of balancing the action and the comedy and using both elements to compliment each other in some outlandish scenes. What is the key to making brutal violence funny?

Tommy Wirkola: With Violent Night, it was truly about finding the heart of the film. I said to the producers and studio early on that if we get the relationship between Santa (David Harbour) and Trudy (Leah Brady) right, and make that the beating heart of the film, then we can get away with anything!

In all my films, I try to put in my sense of humour and I love to see how far I can push it to get people to laugh at things they should not normally laugh at. Personally, when I go to the theatre, I love watching movies where it’s more of a complete experience, where you can get emotions weaved in. But it’s definitely a balancing act.

And we always wanted to make sure it felt like a Christmas movie, and that we should use Christmas in some way, in every single fight. We used Christmas decorations, the tree, the lights – I mean we even used Santa’s gift bag and the sleigh! It was always like myself, David [Leitch] and Joe [Eusebio] trying to top each other by coming up with crazy ideas.

I talked with all the actors, and we all agreed to never play the action to be funny. The situation is crazy enough and the world is so fantastical that they’ve got to play it straight and serous, and that’s why it becomes funny!

Nick: You mentioned the importance of having the Christmas spirit in the film, and a big part of that is using Christmas carols within the score. How did your composer Dominic Lewis become involved and what was the process of reinvigorating the carols to work in an intense action score?

Tommy Wirkola: Dom had already done a few of David and Kelly’s films, and he’s an amazing composer. When we first talked, we were discussing some wild ideas, like do we do an edgy, cool score to modernise the Christmas feel? But when we began watching it, we realised we had to go very classical with the score. We had to get a big orchestra to pay tribute to the movies that we love, but we wanted to put our own spin on it and weave Christmas songs and famous themes into it. That also led to having some original songs in the film, too!

Nick: Without giving too much away, we get to see a bit of Saint NIck’s backstory teased throughout the film. Is that ever something would want to explore further – the Saint Nick origin story?

Tommy Wirkola: I mean, knock on wood! If we’re lucky enough to do another one, for sure! It feels like we definitely have to explore that more and go back to see what kind of man Santa used to be.

There’s a lot of things we don’t see in this film. We don’t see the North Pole, or Santa’s Workshop and the elves. Or even Mrs. Claus! There’s still plenty of stuff left on the table that we could play with in future instalments if we’re lucky.

Nick: You’ve now tackled Hansel & Gretel, and Santa. Who’s the next mythological or fairy tale character who needs the action-movie treatment?

Tommy Wirkola: Mm, that’s a good question! There’s so many who haven’t been done yet…

Nick: Pinocchio’s had a couple of movies this year, maybe we just make his nose a machine gun and give him another movie!

Tommy Wirkola: [laughs] Maybe as nasty version of the Easter Bunny!

Nick: Right?! Grenades instead of Easter eggs?!

Tommy Wirkola: Exactly! There’s still plenty of places and characters to visit here, I’m sure!

Nick: Tommy, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it. Congratulations on the film. I really hope audiences love it as much as I did, because it’s a hell of a lot of fun!

Tommy Wirkola: Thank you so much. Have a great day.

Thank you to Tommy Wirkola for his time, and to Universal Pictures for setting up our chat. Violent Night is in cinemas December 1. Look out for Nick’s review, here on Novastream Network, coming soon.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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