How Bad Santa boozed down the chimney

Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa 2.
Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa 2.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

NEW YORK • When movie producer Bob Weinstein first received the script for Bad Santa, he felt that a gift had been dropped in his lap.

Universal had set the project aside and Weinstein snapped it up for his company at the time, Miramax.

"I asked a Universal executive, 'Why'd you guys pass on it?' And he said, 'It was the most foul, disgusting, misogynistic, anti-Christmas, anti-children thing we could imagine.'" Weinstein recalled. "That's exactly why I bought it."

Bad Santa turned out to be a gift that keeps on giving.

The 2003 comedy, about Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), an alcoholic department-store Santa Claus who teams with foul-mouthed elf Marcus (Tony Cox) to rip off a shopping-mall safe and who becomes an unlikely father figure to a bullied youngster, Thurman (Brett Kelly), was a smash with audiences and critics. Now many of the stars have reunited for Bad Santa 2.

The story of the original film's production may have turned out well, but there was bad blood as it was being made. Now, the major players tell the tale in their own words:

John Requa (writer): The Coen brothers said: "We have this idea for a movie we want you to write. It's about a bad Santa. He drinks beer and stuff."

Glenn Ficarra (writer): They said: "Watch The Bad News Bears. We want something like that."

Requa: They had only one caveat. They said: "It's a story about redemption, but push it to the very end. Not too much redemption too soon." We wrote a really crass script, then the Coen brothers added a bunch of crass jokes.

Ficarra: The Coens cut all our Down syndrome jokes. They thought that was going too far. I'm thankful for that.

Requa: They asked us to write it for James Gandolfini. They had just worked with him on The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). We wrote the character in his rhythm, but Gandolfini didn't work out. Bill Murray was attached, but he stopped returning calls, like Bill does. They were also courting Jack Nicholson.

Weinstein: We went to Robert De Niro, who was going to do it.

Thornton: My manager called and said: "Wait until you read this script. I've never seen anything like this." I'd read maybe a third of it and I called him and said, "We've gotta do this."

Casting the other two leads proved problematic for the director, Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, 1994).

Ficarra: Terry kept saying, "I'm having trouble finding the dwarf." He read everybody from all over the world, including Mickey Rooney.

Tony Cox: When I first read, Terry was laughing real hard. I was feeling good and he said, "I have good news and bad news." I thought, bad news? You just laughed until you cried! He said: "The good news is, that was a great reading. The bad news is, this role wasn't written for an African-American." My heart sank. I thought, well, why did you call me in? He said: "I have to rethink this."

Weinstein: The Coens wanted Danny Woodburn, the short person from Seinfeld. I said: "What are you talking about? Did you see Tony's audition?" They said: "We hate him." (The Coen brothers declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Cox: I read for the role about nine times. Terry told me: "If they don't let me have you, then I'm not going to do it. You make this movie fun."

Zwigoff (via e-mail): The studio wanted a more Disney-like, generic cute kid, but Brett was so great, I had to have him.

Weinstein: Terry can drop dead. That's not how it happened. The Coens wanted Angus T. Jones from Two And A Half Men. Terry, Billy Bob and I said: "Are you kidding?"

Kelly: Soon before shooting started, I got chickenpox. They sent me home to Canada because Billy Bob never had chickenpox. A week went by and they said if I could get a doctor's note saying I wasn't contagious anymore, I could do the movie. I did a little shopping around to get a doctor's note.

Shooting began in Los Angeles in 2002. Thornton took a Method approach to the hard-drinking, bad-tempered Willie and sometimes clashed with Zwigoff.

Thornton: A couple of times, I was drunk, but not every day. I showed up with a hangover a few times. There were times when I'd be with my pals until 3.30am and have to be at work at 7am. I wasn't the most pleasant guy to be around.

A disastrous screening led Weinstein to ask for reshoots, which Zwigoff declined to direct. Weinstein enlisted Todd Phillips (Old School, 2003) to shoot new footage.

Thirteen years later, along comes Bad Santa 2, with new writers, new producers, a new director - and a much more mature Kelly.

Kelly: From the first moment I sat down with Billy Bob again, it just clicked right away.

Thornton: When I saw Brett, he ordered a beer and I was like, "Are you kidding me?" He was talking about graduating from business college and I told him - and we used this in the movie - "To see you all grown up creeps me out."

Weinstein: Nothing can tarnish the original. I haven't seen the sequel. I haven't been invited to the premiere. If I'm not, I'll pay for my ticket.

NYTIMES

•Bad Santa 2 opens in Singapore on Nov 24.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2016, with the headline 'How Bad Santa boozed down the chimney'. Print Edition | Subscribe