How They Finally Got Their Dream Script Project Made, and Why You Shouldn't Give Up on Your Dream Project Either
[*Note: This interview was conducted prior to the WGA strike. Once the strike began, Pat Casey and Josh Miller have been walking the picket lines, amongst many other writers, union workers and artists, to try to help ensure fair pay for all.]
Is there an idea for a dream project you thought of years ago, whether a book or script idea you thought audiences would want to see? And you tried to pursue getting it made but didn't know how to or maybe you doubted yourself? Violent Night, Sonic The Hedgehog screenwriters, Pat Casey and Josh Miller—who worked for years to get their dream script made—may be an inspiration.
Josh Miller and Pat Casey began writing script ideas while high school friends in Minnesota. Back then, they had a movie idea they thought audiences would want to see that was full of action and fun. They worked on the idea throughout school and after graduation, all the while working day jobs they hated, and later doing production or acting work in low-budget films. Years later, when they got that chance, they believed in themselves and took it.
They nicknamed their dream project “Die Hard Santa," which was this past year's holiday box-office hit Violent Night, an action-packed film with heart, which features a heroic and flawed Santa Claus, portrayed by Critics Choice Award-winning actor David Harbour (“Stranger Things”), who battles mercenaries to save a little girl and her family. The hit movie from Universal Pictures is now available to purchase on Blu-ray DVD Collector's Edition which includes a Digital Copy/Code to stream the film, plus behind-the-scenes videos and more. The film can also be rented or viewed on streaming networks via digital retailers including Prime Video, Apple TV, Roku, etc.
The fantastically written script starts off with a world-weary and cynical Santa Claus who's dismayed at the commercialization of Christmas and the uncaring greedy nature of some people. Santa wonders if he should continue giving presents to those on his “Nice List” and questions whether his work to bring presents and help to people even matters anymore.
So, on this particular Christmas Eve, as he travels along his global journey to deliver presents, Santa takes a break to have some beers at a pub in England. The bartender and patrons think he's just some guy in a Santa costume who's had a tough day.
After chatting with the bartender, Santa reluctantly decides to continue his night's work of Christmas Eve deliveries and gives a wrapped gift to the bartender telling her it's for her family member (that she never mentioned to him), making the bartender wonder if she was just talking with the real, actual jolly St. Nick.
Santa goes to the rooftop, boards his sleigh led by his faithful reindeer friends, and they cross the ocean that chilly holiday eve. They land atop a Connecticut mansion to deliver presents to a family visiting their wealthy grandmother (Beverly D'Angelo) including a mom, dad and their young daughter Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady) who's written to Santa, not for gifts, but to help her separated parents reunite. Trudy is on Santa's “Nice List,” which reports that Trudy is kind to her parents, friends and animals.
Upon arrival inside the large residence via the chimney, as he starts to put presents under a Christmas tree, he discovers he's in the middle of a terrifying situation. A violent, heavily armed group of mercenaries are holding Trudy, her mom, dad, grandmother and other family members hostage. Though scared himself, Santa decides to put himself in harm's way and do whatever he must to rescue the family.
Armed only with Christmas toys and courage, Santa takes on the bad guys, who are being led by a hate-filled man who nicknames himself the Grinch (John Leguizamo).
As events unfold, Trudy discovers Santa is trying to rescue them and sets out to do what she can to help him, and tells Santa she believes in him.
Despite Santa suffering serious injuries at the hands of the terrorists, he won't give up. And with Trudy believing in him, the events just may restore Santa's faith in himself, in people and in the “magic” of Christmas.
I had the opportunity to interview the talented screenwriters of this ingenious film, Pat Casey and Josh Miller, about their years long journey to get their dream script idea of this courageous yet vulnerable, caring and tough “Die Hard Santa” to the big screen. They also provide writing tips and inspiration for writers and artists to pursue their projects.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cassidy McMillan: Let me start by saying Violent Night is a brilliant action-packed film with heart. We initially find Santa in a bar, weary of the commercialism and meanness within society. But when Santa finds himself in a dire situation and sets out to rescue a little girl and her parents being held hostage by mercenaries, Santa rediscovers the power of friendship and believing in goodness. Was that theme something you were aiming for when you wrote the screenplay for the film?
Pat Casey: Of course! The idea was always for Violent Night to not just be an action movie set on Christmas, but for it to be an action movie that’s also a full-on Christmas movie—and its part of the genre of the Christmas movie that your hero is inspired by the magic of Christmas and learns (or re-learns) the true meaning of the holiday. Obviously, Violent Night was influenced by Die Hard, too—and a key element of that movie was that it wasn’t just about a cop killing a bunch of bad guys in a building, it was about how killing all those German bad guys actually fixed his marriage somehow.
Cassidy McMillan: Let's go back to when you were in school. How did you meet, and what was the inspiration for you both in thinking up the story for Violent Night.
Pat Casey: We actually met in junior high, in detention—but then we became friends in ninth grade when we both joined the cast of a local cable TV show run entirely by teenagers, called “YRU-Up,” which was a live show we did every Friday night for years. Every single Friday night—even around the holidays, so we would always do themed holiday episodes. "Die Hard Santa" was actually a "very special" Christmas episode of the show where "terrorists" took over the studio during our live Christmas episode, and then Santa landed on the roof and saved us all. We always just thought it was funny. We liked doing Christmas episodes so much we would sometimes do a new live Christmas episode in the middle of the summer and pretend it was a rerun.
Josh Miller: There are a handful of sketches we made for "YRU-Up" back in the day that we’ve briefly pondered revamping into a feature over the years. Those discussions usually don’t last long, because everything we were making back then was so absurd that they seemed impossible to get a Hollywood studio interested. But the idea of Santa “doing a Die Hard,” as Rick & Morty would say, tickled us so much that it just kept coming back. I suppose it was inevitable that eventually we’d break down and actually try and make it. The fact that it DID get made continues to astonish us.
Cassidy McMillan: One of the unique aspects in regard to how you portray the iconic character of Santa in Violent Night that's different from how other films have portrayed him, is that you wrote the character in a way that humanizes him. You show him as not just being this jolly guy with a beard that gives out presents, but rather this is a man with flaws, emotional depth and a dark history that's shaped his views of societies he's watched change over his 1000+ years on earth. And yet, despite the past trauma Santa went through in his life that you show in flashbacks, he still holds the belief that kindness, caring about others, and doing good in the world matters. How did you think up this dark and intriguing backstory of Santa?
Josh Miller: The idea of Santa’s backstory as a Viking—we first talked about that years ago, and it just made so much sense to us. He’s got the fur collar, he’s got all this northern magic. We were a little nervous that the producers or studio would find it too preposterous, but pretty much every time we mentioned it to anyone, they loved it. In general, in writing, when you find some gold, don’t question it! Just embrace it.
Pat Casey: But we also wanted to treat Santa more like a real character than the treatment he’s usually gotten. He’s our protagonist. He’s got feelings, he’s a real guy. So, he’s complex, but we also knew that even though this was an R-rated Christmas movie, it’s not a movie about an evil Santa. Even though he kills people, he’s not sadistic. He’s a hero! He’s Santa! He’s a little grumpier and a little grittier than the usual Santas we get in the movies, but his heart’s still the same.
Cassidy McMillan: Getting to the business side of screenwriting, many writers face the challenge of getting that first script sold and produced. You both wrote for and produced the animated FOX TV series “Golan the Insatiable.” Was the animated series the stepping stone that led to being hired to write the screenplay for the successful Sonic the Hedgehog films?
Pat Casey: We’d been kicking around Hollywood for years on smaller productions (as well as working other non-writing jobs). So, yes, “Golan” is absolutely what put us on the map. It got us our agents and won us fans among execs—including the producer of Sonic (the Hedgehog) Toby Ascher. He wanted to meet us because he liked "Golan"—he wasn’t even thinking of us for Sonic until we pitched ourselves to him for the project after we saw a picture of Sonic on his office wall.
Josh Miller: And “Golan” itself was the end result of another stepping stone project—Hey Stop Stabbing Me!, a no-budget horror-comedy we made in college. Hardly anyone saw that movie, but a few people in the industry did, and over the years that yielded more small stepping stones. So, when we look back now, as impossible as it seems, this insane movie we made for $500 when we were 20, led directly to Sonic the Hedgehog. It just took a while!
Cassidy McMillan: Was there a time where you thought maybe you wouldn't get the opportunity to write big-budget films? If so, what inspired you to keep writing and believing in yourselves to pursue your goals?
Pat Casey: There were definitely moments when it seemed like we were never going to get the opportunity to make big proper movies like we had always wanted—but I suppose what kept us going was a lack of other marketable skills. We had to succeed, through necessity. Those other jobs we were doing to pay the bills during the lean years were all terrible, and we didn’t want to do them anymore.
Josh Miller: Cluelessness can sometimes work just as well as determination. There was never a Plan B. Frankly we were never driving towards big-budget movies, because most of the time it felt like we weren’t even getting an opportunity to make the SMALL-budget movies we wanted to!
Cassidy McMillan: What advice would you give to writers working toward getting their scripts made and pursuing their dreams?
Pat Casey: Good question! If we knew how to break in, it wouldn’t have taken us so long to do it, so I’m never sure what kind of advice to give on that sort of thing. It’s a lot easier to give actual writing advice.
Josh Miller: There is no one recipe for success, but I suppose there is one surefire recipe for failure—inaction. Finish things you start. And try to get yourself out there. Getting yourself out there can be just as, if not even more important than getting your work out there sometimes.
Cassidy McMillan: As a writing team working on a script, what's your writing process like? Do you throw ideas out to each other for a film's concept? Do you work in the same office or collaborate by phone, video conference?
Josh Miller: We work together, or separately, all possible configurations. Violent Night we actually wrote in the first couple months of the COVID lock-down so we actually didn’t see each other at all—that one was all over the phone. But we like to use a cloud-based program/website called WriterDuet that lets us both type in the same document at the same time.
Pat Casey: We always spend a lot of time talking about a movie and brainstorming, and then either of us can write any section of a movie if we have an idea of how it goes—then we rewrite each other and ultimately go over it all together. We don’t write scripts in order. In general we know what the ending is and key scenes throughout and then sort of fill in the holes in the script as we go—and then we almost always write the beginning last!
Cassidy McMillan: Can you talk a little about the film's journey from when you pitched it—as there was no script yet, to getting greenlit by Universal Studios to write the screenplay, which is a huge accomplishment!
Pat Casey: It was a group session with our whole team of agents and managers, where we were pitching them a bunch of ideas. “Die Hard Santa” was the last one on the list, and it was a big hit in the room. Lots of laughs all around and Josh and I sort of looked at each other like, “Oh wait, maybe this is really something.” I think it was the very next day we got a call that Kelly McCormick at 87North had heard the logline and loved it—and could we possibly pitch it to David Leitch and Annie Marter over lunch tomorrow morning? We weren’t really ready to pitch, but we got ourselves ready, and David and Annie thought it was great, and very soon we went out and pitched it to all the studios with Kelly and Annie riding shotgun.
Matt Reilly at Universal, where 87North had a deal, loved it—so we made our deal basically just as the world was shutting down for COVID. We locked ourselves in our houses and cranked through a draft really fast because everyone was afraid a writer’s strike was about to happen on top of all that. The draft went over really well, but everything sort of went on pause anyway because the 87 team got pulled into making Bullet Train. So, it was about a year later that Guy Danella joined 87North and read all the scripts they were attached to—and he was like, “Why aren’t we doing this Santa thing? It’s great!” So, he sort of reinvigorated the process, and had the idea to bring in Tommy Wirkola, who David had worked with before, and everything really came together immediately once that happened.
Cassidy McMillan: With so many things that have to happen for a film to get made and then be a success, starting with a great script, casting is crucial. David Harbour brought an amazing combination of emotional depth, strong physicality blended with vulnerability, humor (Santa hates skim milk!), anger, kindness, fun and a childlike belief in the magic of Christmas to this role. Not to mention the incredible stunt work in the spectacular fight scenes. And awesome work by the film's director Tommy Wirkola. For some films, the writers aren't always included in the process beyond creating the idea, writing the screenplay and revisions. With this film, did Tommy Wirkola, David Harbour or any of the production team continue to collaborate with you at all during production. There seemed to be wonderful teamwork on this film.
Pat Casey: On this one, we really stayed pretty closely involved the whole way through. We did a new draft when Tommy came on to incorporate his notes (he really wanted a snowmobile chase), and continued to make revisions throughout production, often making tweaks or adding things based on notes from (David) Harbour or (John) Leguizamo or other cast members, which were generally really great, thoughtful, creative notes.
Josh Miller: You never want to jinx things by getting too optimistic, but Violent Night had a great sense of creative synergy from moment one. Everyone seemed on the same page in a way that made things move quickly and smoothly. It always felt like the movie was getting better with each step.
Cassidy McMillan: I've got to talk about the creativity of objects used by Santa in fighting back against the heavily armed mercenaries. Santa uses only Christmas ornaments, toys, his strength, candy and tools (the hammer!) to defeat the villains. Was that something you decided early on for the character? It worked great within the story and added to Santa's magic. Audiences were cheering for him!
Pat Casey: Absolutely. Santa using Christmas objects to kill the bad guys was always a key part of the pitch—sharpening the candy cane into a shiv was basically the whole idea for the movie! The story sort of came after that stuff. And the hammer, it’s funny—we just decided early on that Santa’s trademark weapon was a giant hammer, but we never really had a reason for it—but no one even questioned it. Everyone embraced the hammer. Tommy was always saying he wanted more hammer kills. He loved the hammer.
Cassidy McMillan: This action-packed, fun and heartwarming Christmas movie definitely leaves audiences wanting to see this Santa again and go on another adventure with him. And to see his best friends, the reindeer, again—who are like family to Santa and care about him. (I love the reindeer!) And possibly see ... Mrs. Claus, who, although not seen in Violent Night helps Santa. While film studios keep sequel news under wraps, considering the film's director Tommy Wirkola recently said in the media that a Violent Night 2 is in the works. I'll just ask if you'd both like to write a sequel for this awesome, fun and heart-filled holiday film?
Pat Casey: We can’t say too much, but yeah, it looks like there may indeed be some more adventures ahead for Jolly Old Saint Nick. We had a blast on this first one, and we love Tommy, David and the whole 87 team, so of course it would be great if it all comes together.
Josh Miller: Not all movies easily lend themselves to sequels, but right from the start we viewed Violent Night as a potential franchise. After all, Santa delivers presents every year!
Cassidy McMillan: Exactly! Thank you again Pat and Josh for taking the time to do this interview to help inspire others to pursue their dream projects!
*Feature Photo: Screenwriters of VIOLENT NIGHT Josh Miller, Pat Casey and “Santa” himself, actor David Harbour, at the Los Angeles movie premiere of their box-office hit film. (Photo courtesy of Pat Casey)