‘Violent Night’ Director Tommy Wirkola Explains How ‘Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’ Paved the Way for His Second Studio Movie

[This story contains spoilers for Violent Night.]

Violent Night director Tommy Wirkola is enjoying his second bite of the studio apple.

In 2013, the Norwegian director made his major studio debut with the Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton-led Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which went on to gross $226 million on a $50-million budget. But despite the financial win and cult following that later emerged, the film didn’t land with most critics and audiences. From there, Wirkola continued to work overseas and with Netflix until a key Hansel & Gretel collaborator opened the door for his return to studio filmmaking nearly a decade later.

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“I had just made a movie last year called The Trip … and I gave an early cut to David Leitch, Kelly McCormick and Guy Danella at 87North because I’d known them from way back,” Wirkola tells The Hollywood Reporter. “David Leitch actually directed second unit on Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters before he became one of the biggest directors in the world. So I sent them the film, they loved it, and they sent me the [Violent Night] script.”

With Violent Night garnering positive reviews and a better-than-expected opening weekend of $13.4 million, there’s already a clamoring for more of David Harbour’s warrior-like Santa Claus, however, Wirkola is still keeping his fingers crossed.

“It sounds stupid, but I’m a big believer in not jinxing anything. I’m like, ‘Can we just wait a little bit?’” Wirkola explains. “But, of course the writers have talked about it, and I have thrown some ideas out there. We don’t see the North Pole, we don’t see Mrs. Claus and we don’t see the elves. There were also a few ideas that we loved in the script, but we had to cut them because we couldn’t afford to shoot them.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Wirkola elaborates on some of those story points that were cut due to time or budget.

So for a few weeks now, people have been throwing around the phrase “Christmas classic.” Are you pretty stunned by the overall response?

Yes, of course. When you join the company of a specific type of film that people love in a big way, you obviously hope to be a part of that discussion. But now that we’re seeing the audience reaction come in, it’s heartwarming, for sure.

Beverly D’Angelo is already in a Christmas classic, that being Christmas Vacation, so she’s good luck, I suppose.

Yeah, that’s why she’s in the film. Everyone has a movie that they watch every year, and that was mine. Norwegian television shows certain films at specific times every year, and [Christmas Vacation] is always shown at night on the 23rd. So every Christmas, I watch that movie in sweatpants, and I just love that film. So it was so good to have Beverly on board.

Tommy Wirkola and David Harbour on the Set of Violent Night

Universal Pictures

Violent Night is your first major studio film since 2013. What made this the right time and situation for you to return to studio filmmaking? 

Well, there’s many things. There’s luck and chance, and then there’s other films that I’ve made and films that have been close to being made. But most of all, it’s two things. One, I had just made a movie last year in Norway called The Trip [the English-language title]. It was released in cinemas in Norway, but Netflix bought it for the rest of the world. And I gave an early cut to David Leitch, Kelly McCormick and Guy Danella at 87North because I’d known them from way back. David Leitch actually directed second unit on Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters before he became one of the biggest directors in the world. So I sent them the film, they loved it, and they sent me the [Violent Night] script.

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And when I read that script, the first thing I said was, “I was born to make this film.” It was just so up my alley, and I knew I could do the tone, the crazy action, the humor and all that stuff. But what was really appealing to me was the Christmas movie nature of it. So all these things came together at the right time, and then Universal brought me on board, officially, after they saw The Trip. So that was it.

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87North Producer Kelly McCormick and Tommy Wirkola on the Set of Violent Night

Universal Pictures

Since John Wick in 2014, 87eleven and now 87North have influenced the way action is shot throughout the industry. Their approach brought back long choreographed takes that are often shot wide in order to see the action. So when you agreed to work with 87North, was it understood in advance that Violent Night had to follow suit?

To their credit, they never said anything like that, and that just shows what great collaborators they are. But having worked with David before and knowing his sensibilities, I knew what he liked, and 87North knew what kind of action I liked, too. I grew up loving ‘80s and ‘90s action movies, which share a similarity to what they’ve been doing with John Wick, Atomic Blonde and all their films. So we all agreed on the type of action, and we knew that going into it. 

On Hansel & Gretel, because I came from Norway, I wasn’t used to having the big machinery around me at that time, and I still remember the first time I met with David Leitch. They do previs, and normally, you do them as CGI or in a very crude way. But when I saw the previs that David had made for a couple of those [Hansel & Gretel] action sequences, I was blown away by it. And they still do them; that’s what they do. So [87North] previs’d every action sequence on Violent Night, and [second unit director/stunt director] Jojo [Eusebio] created every set piece beforehand, so we could see it and shape it together. So we knew what we wanted to do going into it.

Which action sequence are you most proud of in the film? My guess would be Santa versus the Kill Squad in the shed.

For sure, that one. A few people have asked if it’s our tribute to Commando when Schwarzeneggar was trapped in the shed, but I never thought about that even though I loved that movie as a kid. Our shed sequence was the hardest and longest one to shoot. I covered a lot of it, but Jojo, the second-unit director, really had fun in that scene. The guys had masks and helmets on, so he basically just reused all his stunt people. So we were shooting other stuff while Jojo was still shooting the shed, and I’m really proud of that one.

I would also say the Home Alone scene because it was so fun to shoot and play around with those traps. When I got the script, it was a much smaller scene, and then we expanded on it, so we ended up somewhere in the middle. I also love the final fight, which we shot in very harsh conditions. It was minus 25 to 30 degrees at night in Winnipeg, and John [Leguizamo] and David did so much of their own stuff outdoors. It also has my favorite kill, which involves the chimney.

Overall, what’s your favorite shot in the film?

I’ll give you one that’s surprising because of the audience reaction to it. It’s just a simple moment that I shot at 48 frames [per second]. I had a hunch it could be a cool moment, and when we cut it, we realized again that it could be a really cool moment. And now, when I watch it with an audience, it really works. It’s when Santa Claus takes off the shirt for the first time, revealing his tattoos. At every screening I’ve been to, that’s been a big audience moment. Seeing Santa with those tattoos, at 48 frames per second, with moody lighting, I just really like that moment.

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If money was no object, would you have shown more of Santa’s backstory?

Yes, we actually shot a lot more of him just talking and telling the story, and it was some of the best acting in the film. David was so good in those scenes, as is Leia Brady as Trudy. But in the end, it was just too long, and we had too much dialogue and heavy exposition in the middle part of the movie. So we decided to trim down the details of the backstory, but if we’re lucky enough in the future to do another movie, maybe we can explore that again. Or we can just let the audience fill in the blanks. But [co-writers] Josh [Miller] and Pat [Casey] wrote a very detailed backstory of how we found the North Pole, the Elves and how Santa discovered giving gifts gave joy. So David shot all of that storytelling.

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David Harbour in Violent Night

Universal Pictures

You just touched on it, but there’s already sequel talk. So have you guys thrown any ideas around yet?

A little bit. It sounds stupid, but I’m a big believer in not jinxing anything. I’m like, “Can we just wait a little bit?” But, of course the writers have talked about it, and I have thrown some ideas out there. We don’t see the North Pole, we don’t see Mrs. Claus and we don’t see the elves. There were also a few ideas that we loved in the script, but we had to cut them because we couldn’t afford to shoot them. It’s such a cliché to say, but we all had a blast doing this film. So I really hope we get to explore it more.

Noomi Rapace as Mrs. Claus? [Writer’s Note: Wirkola and Rapace have collaborated twice already with The Trip and What Happened to Monday. She was also his first choice for Gretel in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.]

(Laughs.) She would make an amazing Mrs. Claus. Crazily enough, I haven’t thought about casting that role yet, but she would be great.

Did you cast Alexis Louder before her breakout performance in Copshop? Or did that movie point you in her direction? 

[Copshop] pointed us in her direction. Guy Danella, the producer, saw it first, and then I watched it and was just blown away. I thought she was fantastic.

So was Cam Gigandet’s character inspired a little bit by Mark Wahlberg? There’s one line in particular that raises the comparison.

You would have to ask the writers who they drew on while writing it, but I do know that that line is a reference to something he said once. I also think Cam had a lot of fun playing on certain tropes of that action star character type. So it was funny. I’ve watched the movie now with several audiences across the country, and the biggest reaction by far was from a screening here in L.A. It was the joke where he brings up the pitch deck, which is such a thing here. He just played the pitch deck moment so well, but yes, that line was directly influenced by Wahlberg.

When we met Al the security guard, I was convinced that he was a tribute to Al [Reginald VelJohnson] from Die Hard and that he’d have a similar role in helping our hero. But then you swiftly killed him. Were you knowingly playing with this idea? 

You’re definitely onto that, yes. That was the intention when writing him. And to be honest, the character of Security Guard, not Al, had a bigger role because one of the bad guys was supposed to take his uniform. And when Santa comes to him and asks for help, there’s a whole tense scene, but because of timing, we had to cut it. But when you see the movie with a crowd, people really react when Al gets killed. It really plays as a big shock. Like you said, I think people thought he was going to have a bigger part in the movie.

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I brought this up to David Harbour who was into it, but there needs to be a battle royal with all the 87eleven and 87North action stars, including Keanu, Charlize Theron, David, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jamie Foxx.

Well, I would for sure watch that. I know David has been asked who would win between Santa and John Wick, and he always says that Santa would win. But I would for sure love to see that. It feels like it could all somehow be in the same universe. (Laughs.)

Your films mostly involve snow or cold weather. Are you ready for a beach movie at this point?

I actually made that joke the other day. If we’re lucky enough to do a sequel, let’s do an L.A. Christmas. Let’s not go back to the cold. But yeah, I’ve now done a few in the cold. That’s obviously what I grew up in, so I’m used to it. But I can really imagine a movie that’s shot on the beach, with shorts, t-shirts and flip flops, instead of darkness and cold.

Every movie has a series of compromises, so which one turned out to be the most beneficial? 

I would say the final fight. It was supposed to have big visual effects, and even Mrs. Claus was involved in the third act at one point. That would’ve been fun. She came back with the sleigh and the reindeer, and then Scrooge [John Leguizamo] took off in a helicopter. And then there was a big chase with a bazooka, but we realized pretty quickly we couldn’t do that with our budget.

So we changed things around and brought in snowmobiles, which I love, personally. I always wanted to do a snowmobile bit in a movie. Except for James Bond and Die Hard 2, there’s very few snowmobiles in movies. I also really wanted that final fight to be more of a personal thing between Santa and Scrooge. So, in the end, scaling it down really worked to our advantage because it made it more personal.

Aside from Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, you’re most known around the world for the Dead Snow movies. Is there still a future for that franchise?

Well, we really wanted there to be, but it’s a sad story. The lead actor, Vegar Hoel, who was also the co-writer, passed away last year from leukemia.

I’m so sorry, Tommy.

He was one of my favorite people. He was one of the funniest and smartest guys, and I always felt that he was the heart and soul of the Dead Snow movies. So it would be strange to do another one without him, but we have discussed maybe exploring it on TV at some point. Wherever I go, I always get a lot of questions about Dead Snow, and so it feels like it’s still spreading and being watched by people. But I don’t think there will be another movie.

Lastly, in 2007, you made a Kill Bill parody called Kill Buljo. Do you know if Quentin [Tarantino] ever saw it?

A Norwegian journalist gave him the DVD once, but I don’t know if he ever saw it. This reporter kept the DVD with him all the time, and he met Tarantino in the elevator at an event somewhere. So he gave it to him, but I don’t know if he watched it or chucked it in the [trash] right after.

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Violent Night is currently playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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