Cold comfort, creative fire on Winnipeg winter set Violent Night’s Norwegian director admits ‘I get a little bit of a kick out of it when people are miserable’
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When the movie production team for the Universal Studios release Violent Night showed up in Winnipeg around this time last winter, it brought 42-year-old Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola to the project, and it must be said, rarely has a director been so seemingly perfect for this kind of movie.
Violent Night is the story of Santa Claus (David Harbour) — yes, the actual Santa Claus — obliged to turn action hero when a gang of very naughty thieves break into the compound of a very wealthy family to pull off a bloody heist.
While Winnipeg has gained a reputation as a helpful host to offshore filmmakers, the city’s climate made the shoot especially difficult given record-breaking snowfall and particularly harsh temperatures, cold enough that outdoor shoots scheduled for January had to be moved to March.
Fortunately, Wirkola had significant experience handling winter shoots. Indeed, in his native Norway, he got himself on the filmmaking map with 2009 Nazi zombie thriller, Dead Snow, set in the frozen mountains of Norway.
Sealing the deal, Wirkola was also expert in combining innocent childhood legend with ultraviolent action with his 2013 English-language debut Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
• Starring David Harbour and John Leguizamo
• Now playing at Grant Park, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital
• 112 minutes
“It felt like I was born to make this film,” Wirkola says during the course of a Zoom interview Thursday afternoon from his home in Los Angeles. “It had all the things I loved, all the humour, the action, the craziness, the violence.”
“What I really liked was that it put in a nice fresh spin on the Christmas movie. I thought it should feel like a Christmas movie, despite all the craziness and violence.”
Wirkola acknowledges his own idea of a Christmas movie includes the bruising slapstick of Home Alone and the inevitably referenced seasonal action of Die Hard.
Harbour contributed a lot to achieving that very tricky balancing act, Wirkola says. The actor brought his own unexpected point of reference.
“One of the films that Harbour kept referencing with Miracle on 34th Street and Santa’s journey there,” Wirkola says. “We pulled from a lot of movies, stuff that people had seen and grown up with.
“David’s was one of the first names we thought about. Somebody in that first meeting brought up Harbour and I thought: ‘Oh my God, he is perfect.’ And when he read the script, he got the humour, he got what we were trying to do.
“When you think about it, it’s a frightening thing to do Santa Claus. So many people have done it. So many stories have been told. How do you find that new fresh approach?”
Coming from Alta, Norway, Wirkola was more acclimatized to the brutal Winnipeg winter of 2021-22 than most, but even he found it a challenge, especially since the production required some three weeks of exterior shoots.
“Where I’m from is above the Arctic Circle, “ he says. “The temperatures are about the same in the winter. But Winnipeg has that annoying wind which makes it so much colder.
“And that was tough. The crew is grumpy. The actors are grumpy. It’s a hard place to spend hours outside shooting.
“It’s a real snow, a real crunch under your feet and you can see people’s breath and you can’t get that in the studio.”–Director Tommy Wirkola
“But it also gives the movie an extra edge to be outside. It’s a real snow, a real crunch under your feet and you can see people’s breath and you can’t get that in the studio.
“I actually like being on real locations, being up there and feeling it myself. Personally, as a director, I get a little bit of a kick out of it when people are miserable,” he said.
“I get energy out of it. I try to get people to take that uncomfortable feeling and use it. We had a great time there and the crews were fantastic.
“I’m so proud of the film and what we did there.”
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.