'Violent Night' Screenwriters Dissect 'Die Hard Santa' and Reveal Why Mrs. Claus Didn't Make the Cut

The action holiday film includes a very special homage to 'Home Alone' and a very unique origin story for its hero.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

David Harbour in 'Violent Night'

Universal Pictures

Warning: This story contains spoilers for Violent Night. Read at your own risk!

If you ask a certain generation of film fans, the best holiday movies are often mentioned to be Die Hard (even though it is merely set on Christmas Eve) and Home Alone, two titles that heavily focus on action and violence, despite taking place at a time of year that is supposed to inspire peace and love and family togetherness. Screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller are of that generation, so it should be no surprise that their holiday film, Violent Night, is in that vein but takes things one hundred times further by making Santa Claus the action hero, thereby truly marrying the genres.

"We never hid the fact that it was very much an idea of, 'What if you did Die Hard, but with Santa Claus?' But I think what we liked about that idea was thinking of all the action movies from the late '80s and '90s we grew up with that were set on Christmas. People forget that the first Lethal Weapon technically takes place during Christmas. So, I think it was the idea of, 'Why has no one made that type of R-rated action movie but that's also just as much a Christmas movie as Miracle on 34th Street?'" Miller tells Metacritic.

Violent Night stars David Harbour as Santa — yes, the Santa. But of course he's not your typical jolly ol' fella. Instead, he is disheartened (to say the least) by the consumerism that has taken over kids in the modern world and he spends Christmas night making pit stops at bars to drink his way through the job. Things change for him when he drops down the chimney at the Lightstone manor, though. Excited by their homemade cookies, top-shelf alcohol, and comforting massage chair, he takes an break there that turns out to be terribly timed because the home gets invaded by a group of thieves led by Jimmy, aka Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo), that plans to steal $300 million from the family vault.

Don't feel too bad for the Lightstones — at least not all of them. The only reason there is $300 million in the manor is because the matriarch, Gertrude (Beverly D'Angelo), lied about where the money was going after making a shady business deal. Her daughter Alva (played by Edi Patterson) and her grandson Bert (played by Alexander Elliot) aren't great either — cautionary pictures of the privileged — and even her son Jason (played by Alex Hassell) put his family business ahead of his actual family and failed to take his daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) to see Santa at the mall.

The real Santa doesn't want to get involved in people's lives, but he can't help but do just that in Violent Night. Sure, you could say he is stuck there anyway because the gunfire scares off his reindeer, but really, it is seeing Trudy held at gunpoint that makes him think twice about just scurrying away. And it becomes essential that he stays because it turns out he has important skills (and yes, of course, a little magic) that are needed to take down the bad guys, but the connection he forms with Trudy helps him feel the magic of who he is and what he does once again, too.

Together, the two make a formidable team. And yes, that means Trudy does get in on the action in a kid-friendly (and familiar) way. Having just recently watched Home Alone, she decides to set booby traps around the area in which she hides.

"I think everyone who rewatches that movie as an adult has the same thought of, 'Oh wow, Kevin McCallister would have murdered the Wet Bandits with every other trap he sets,'" Miller says. So, Violent Night leans into the realism of the danger of such "Wile E. Coyote-style traps."

That is to say, there is a lot of blood and gore in the film. But there is also an important story about bringing (even unexpected) people together for the holidays at the heart of it.

Here, Casey and Miller talk to Metacritic about their inspirations for Violent Night, how they developed Santa's backstory and rules around what he could do with magic or couldn't do at all based on classic depictions of the character, and balancing a family that behaves badly against the bad guys who come to rob them.

With Santa Claus, you have a character whose image many people are extremely protective of. What were the rules you set around what you could and could not do with him because of that image?

Josh Miller: In the early process of pitching the movie people would be like, "Well, how is he dressed?" And we're like, "Like Santa Claus — the Coca-Cola Santa Claus." Maybe if you get really close you realize that his jacket's made of cool leather, but, to us, the the joke was funnier, the more straight we played it — that he wasn't gonna have some cool, weird, different look.

Pat Casey: We wanted to stay true to Santa's essential character, but we figured because it is an action movie, he's like a grizzled old detective. Deep down he loves kids, he loves Christmas, he believes in Christmas values; he's just a little over it because things have gone wrong. It's like how Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit used to be this great detective who loved cartoons, and that's still deep inside him, but now, ever since his brother died, he's drunk and he thinks he's not a hero, but he is when it comes right down to it.

The backstory you gave Santa in this film is well beyond a detective — a warrior. Was that inspired by anything in particular, or did it just fit the need you had to make him very skilled at going up against armed men?

J.M.: That was actually a whole separate movie idea we had where he was a Viking who went journeying North looking for treasure. But then as far as why would fit into this movie, we feel like that's a key part of any of these Rambo, Die Hard, Under Siege movies where the bad guys are just like, "How is this cook so tough?" And then the bad guys find out, oh, he's not just a cook; he's an ex-Navy SEAL just working as a cook on this boat now, or whatever the premise of that movie is. So, what kind of background could we give Santa that would have that same vibe? But also, Santa is secretly a Green Beret wouldn't make any sense because he's been Santa for thousands of years.

P.C.: The idea of that origin was probably 10 Christmases ago. I don't even remember what prompted it other than it sort of came to us as, "Oh, you could do a whole movie about about how this guy becomes Santa" and acquires all the essential elements, almost like how in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, we see how Clint Eastwood gets his poncho and stuff. But then we were also like, "Oh, no one's gonna let us make this insanely expensive movie." That was long before Sonic. But then we realized we could wrap it up in this one.

It feels like it could be an origin story sequel because even he says he doesn't fully understand how Christmas magic works. In some ways, Santa feels like the kind of figure who should be able to snap his fingers and freeze or disappear someone, if he needed to. Yet, your Santa goes hand-to-hand in combat, with a few choice weapons. How did you determine how much his magic should aid his fighting ability?

P.C.: We just wanted to base what he could do off of the stuff that he can canonically do, which is go up and down chimneys, pull stuff out of his sack. We did talk about how in certain movies Santa can freeze time so that he can visit everyone else in the world, but we also figured what allowed him to live in our real world is that Santa doesn't go to every single house every Christmas: He only goes where he's most needed. So parents give you stuff and say it's from Santa, and that's real — that's something we experience — but maybe there's something that shows up that each parent thought the other one got, and that's Santa. He goes where he's needed, but if he could move like The Flash, then it's not a challenge to beat up 10 terrorists.

J.M.: Yeah, we figure he's maybe a little stronger than the average person, but it's no fun if he's Captain America strong. We wanted it feel more like a John Wick. Obviously David Harbour is a large person; he doesn't need special powers to be huge.

I know David trained a lot for the film, which may have affected how his Santa fought on screen, compared to how you envisioned it on the page.

J.M.: We were very impressed when they revealed to us that his first big fight scene in the movie was all going to be one shot, basically. And we were in Winnipeg when they were shooting that stuff, so it was pretty cool to see. I think that was something that probably initially came from the stunt team, who worked in conjunction with Tommy [Wirkola], our director.

You really have two sets of bad people in this film, with the problematic family and then the team that comes for them. How did you walk the line in terms of how far to take each set? Were there versions of the script where more family members died?

J.M.: We initially had more family members and that got trimmed down purely for budgetary reasons, but I don't think any more of them actually died. It was just because, Succession we're using as a model for the family, but what if instead of Brian Cox, it was a cool older woman like Beverly D'Angelo? 

The Ref was another movie we were using as inspiration, and that movie is about all these people are being sh---y to each other and then by the end, they get a happy ending where the family's coming together. But obviously that family is nowhere near as rich as the Lightstone family.

P.C.: We did play with the idea early on of, what if one of the family members was actually in on it — like they had like leaked the info to Leguizamo? But then we also realized that if that was the case, then by the rules of movie morality, that family member has to get killed; you can't come back from that.

J.M.: I'm curious about how audiences will react to the ending because for us writing the movie, it was always more the idea of Jason and Linda, the main main couple with the kid, coming together and the rest of the jerk family didn't necessarily need to be redeemed.

P.C.: But we also didn't want to necessarily kill them all because they're Trudy's family.

J.M.: She'd be disturbed if grandma got murdered. But it's funny because at some point, we got a note being like, "Shouldn't the family have a real happy ending?" But we assumed the audience would be like, "F--- these rich assholes."

Were there any parameters put upon you after you turned in the scripts about how much violence to actually show or the amount of times people should use guns versus other weapons? Obviously with a title like Violent Night, the audience knows what they're getting into, but there are still sensitivities around certain things.

J.M.: And as far as what we could show, it's funny how completely subjective that is. Universal was always in support. It's a movie called Violet Night, it's made by the company that did John Wick and Nobody, so I think they were like, "Audiences will want it to live up to its title." But then beyond that, it was always funny like what did or didn't gross people out too much. To us, it seemed kind of arbitrary: This guy gets his head cut off, that's totally cool, but then we had a part where somebody got sprayed in the face with blood and gore and that was too much. That is? All right, can't win them all!

P.C.: But we mostly got away with what we wanted, and Tommy had some ideas as well. We were encouraged by the studio to really to go big with the violence and almost all of it made it into the movie.

I brought up the idea of a sequel earlier because of how you mentioned Santa's backstory was originally an idea for a separate film, but where do you want to see this world go?

J.M.: We definitely want to do it is like a proper franchise, like James Bond, Indiana Jones, John McClane — any of that kind of franchise of the further bone-crunching adventures of Santa. Nothing specific to report, but we've also, from the day one, said you can do spin-offs; there's a lot of different holidays!

Part of why I asked was because Mrs. Claus is discussed but not seen in Violent Night, and if you did a sequel with Santa, that could be a way to bring her in, versus an expanded franchise with another holiday and therefore other icons. Do you see her as an interesting part of this world going forward, and is she just as action-forward as Santa in your imagination?

J.M.: The short answer is yes. Mrs. Claus was in the original script for Violent Night, but it was part of a whole — we were told — super expensive climax that we couldn't do. So once we lost all the real crazy, expensive stuff that was going on, it almost felt like we're like wasting Mrs. Claus. The cheaper, affordable version we had of her showing up was definitely pretty unspectacular. So we were like, "Let's just save her." Hopefully we get a sequel — multiple sequels.

P.C.: When we can do Mrs. Claus, we want to make it a nice, juicy part and a lot of fun and make her a worthy companion to Santa — that she's not just back at the North Pole baking cookies. There's going to be some interesting twists to her, as well.

It's interesting that you said that there was something so expensive you had to scrap it because everything in this movie looks expensive, from the stunt sequences to the set design of the manor itself.

J.M.: Let's just say it involved a helicopter and a bazooka. 

Get to know Pat Casey and Josh Miller:
As a writing duo, Casey and Miller are best known for the 2020 Sonic the Hedgehog film (Metascore: 47) and its 2022 sequel (also 47). However, they previously collaborated on films including National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze and its sequel, Shotgun WeddingInto the Dark: School Spirit, and Hey Stop Stabbing Me. Their TV credits include Golan the Insatiable, which Miller created and on which Casey served as writer and co-producer; Powerless (57), and 12 Deadly Days