by Gill Pringle

In the myriad big screen iterations of Santa Claus – think Tim Allen (The Santa Clause); Ed Asner (Elf); Richard Attenborough (Miracle on 34th Street); Kurt Russell (The Christmas Chronicles) or Lloyd Bridges (In the Nick of Time) – there have been very few Santas that have been quite as troubled as David Harbour’s new Saint Nick.

If Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa and Jim Broadbent’s red-suited role in Get Santa come close, then Violent Night depicts Harbour’s surly Santa as a former Viking who has lost his Christmas spirit.

Indeed, Violent Night’s Santa Claus is the real Santa, but in a way that we’ve never seen him before. He’s a protector and a warrior with some seriously bad-ass skills but, when we meet him in the film, he’s become bitter and tired about the otherwise merry holiday. Even his trusty reindeer sense is disgruntlement.

“He’s lost faith in humanity, and he feels the spirit of Christmas disappearing, which has made him into a shell of a man,” says Violent Night director Tommy Wirkola, a Norwegian who grew up close to the North Pole at the heart of the Santa legends.

“And the story then takes him in a very different direction than how he envisioned his Christmas Eve would turn out. His Christmas magic is tied to the belief in Christmas, so as the spirit of those around him fades, so do his powers. Not to mention, his belief in himself has also faded. So, when we meet him, his powers are not what they used to be,” explains Wirkola.

But a home invasion at the compound of a wealthy family forces Santa to sort the naughty from the nice, confronted by a team of violent mercenaries intent on stealing the millions of dollars they believe is hidden in the family’s vault.

If Harbour – fresh from his success on Black Widow and Stranger Things – was initially reluctant to don the red suit, then he was intrigued by the involvement of legendary stunt guy and director David Leitch whose 87North team produced Violent Night.

“David’s got a real eye for story within the action world,” says Harbour, 47. “One of the things that I like so much about these worlds he creates – from Atomic Blonde to John Wick to Nobody – is that he takes a somewhat ordinary person, at least, on the surface, and allows them to become these crazy action heroes. This genre that he has mastered feels fresh and that’s what really excited me about this project,” he says.

If a hero is only as good as his nemesis, then Leitch immediately enlisted John Leguizamo [both in on-set image below], code-named Scrooge, to play the leader of the gang of blood-thirsty thieves, all with their own seasonal nicknames.

“I couldn’t believe this script when I first got it,” recalls the actor whose long career has seen him portray the good guy, comic foil, pure evil and everything in between.

“I thought, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ This is a crazy movie. It’s so violent. The people are so despicable, and yet you’re laughing your ass off and then at the end you’re like, ‘Oh, I want this family to get together; I want it to work for these despicable people. I want them to be okay and for the parents not to get divorced’.

“It hits all the heartstrings. I was really excited to do this movie and it turned out even better than the script,” says Leguizamo whose co-stars include Beverly D’Angelo and Cam Gigandet.

As the team began shooting in Canada’s frozen Winnipeg, the action and craziness got even bigger. “David [Leitch] is very connected to detail, even to a point where we’d shoot things and then he’d want to go back and pick up little pieces where we could make the story more intense here or there,” recalls Harbour. “It’s like he had a big sandbox in which to play, and instead of being worried about his brand or what he’s doing, he just wants to play.”

Harbour also appreciated his director’s openness. “Tommy was very positive, enthusiastic and supportive,” he says. “He’s so creative and willing to throw things out in a moment’s notice. He was up for changing everything if a better idea comes up. Right from the beginning, he had a real passion for this story.”

That may be OK for Harbour to say – wearing his thick insulated Santa suit – but Leguizamo still shivers at the memory.

Tommy Wirkola and David Harbour on set

“We shot at night, and it was minus 35, and we began shooting every night at 2am until about 6am. It was always at night, and always really bitterly cold, and I was in pain a lot,” says Leguizamo.

“You have to do take after take after take till the punch looks right, because if the camera is in the wrong place, then it looks fake. It takes a lot of effort to make that look real because fake bad fighting in movies is really unacceptable nowadays.”

Ever since Wirkola and Leitch collaborated on Hansel & Gretel, they had been talking about working together again once the right project came along. That project would be Violent Night, Leitch sending Wirkola the script in 2021 with a note saying, ‘It’s like Die Hard with Santa Claus’.

“I read it and immediately loved it,” says Wirkola. “It was fun and uniquely grounded with great characters and emotion despite all the craziness of the action. I was intrigued by the general idea of doing a Christmas movie and contributing to creating something that people can watch every Christmas season.

“Second, I’m a big sucker for things that feel a little bit different and edgy. Things that have a unique tone – I’m a fan of mixing tones, where things can be funny, action-packed and have a big heart at the same time. Violent Night had all of that, plus the characters were interesting and fleshed out,” he says.

Prior to shooting Violent Night, Harbour had never worn a Santa Claus suit before. “The suit I wear in this film isn’t a traditional Santa suit. We found a balance between what we see as the traditional big red jolly suit and also the leather harness, boots and other elements of his long-distant past woven throughout,” says the actor.

The moment that Harbour put on that suit was an ‘a-ha moment’ for Wirkola. “Seeing him dress up as Santa the first time and doing his ‘ho-ho-ho’… I got goosebumps,” says the director.

Violent Night is in cinemas December 1, 2022