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Terry Zwigoff Talks Battling Over 'Bad Santa,' His Preferred Director's Cut & Much More In Candid Interview

by Drew Taylor
December 20, 2012 1:13 PM
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Bad Santa Terry Zwigoff

Can you talk about working with the Coens?
They were executive producers. They had originally sent me the script and said, "We're interested in you directing this but we think it still needs some work." And the story I had heard was that the original writers, who wrote about 90% of what you see in any of the cuts, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, and they met the Coen brothers and said, "We want to write a script that you guys direct." And they said, "We only direct our own writing but we've always had this crazy idea about this drunken Santa Claus and this little person elf that has to keep him in line."

So John and Glenn wrote this script with the hopes that it would tickle the Coen brothers enough to direct it. And the Coen brothers read it and they told them, "We don't want to direct it. We think it's great but we don't want to do it." So they asked them if they could give them some notes. And when the Coens sat down to try and give them notes over a weekend, eventually they just thought it would be easier if they take a pass on it and rewrite it. Because what they do is they go and tweak the dialogue. That's what they largely do in this case. Like the kid would ask Santa, "Do you and Mrs. Santa ever think of having kids?" And in the original script it was just, "No thank god." And the Coens made that into, "No, thank the fuck Christ." That's their gift. They have a gift for dialogue.

I got that script that still had problems – there were a bunch of flashbacks and the kid would babble endlessly about going to the bathroom on mommy's dishes, it went on for pages. They and I agreed that stuff should go. So I edited that out and worked on maybe four or five other things that I wrote originally, like that scene that was highly inspired by David Sedaris' "The Santaland Diaries," where Billy Bob is on his lunch break and this woman comes up and he starts screaming at her. A bunch of other scenes my wife and I worked on to inject a bit of warmth into them. It was a very cold script when I got it and believe it or not it's much warmer after I took a pass at it.

Bad Santa
Have you kept in touch with the Coens?
I haven't kept in touch with them. We had a very strong disagreement about casting Tony Cox as the black elf. They said that they couldn't see the guy being black. I said I don't see the guy being black, I think the fact of him being three-foot-six is the overriding characteristic of the guy. I don't think it matters. I just think this guy is really funny in the part. And they thought that would ruin the film. They argued with me for a while and finally said, "You're the one who has to direct it, so good luck." They knew the Weinsteins get really heavily involved in editing and they didn't want to be involved in that. At one point the Weinsteins asked them to watch a cut that the Weinsteins had done that made it much more mainstream. They had added a bunch of scenes, some of which I refused to film, and they cut them in and the Coen brothers watched it. They said, "Well, you tried to make this film into 'American Pie.' It's a piece of shit now." That was their response and they got into a heated argument with the Weinsteins that ended with everyone yelling "Fuck you" at each other. They didn't want any part of it after that so I was stuck with it. It got pretty nasty.

Who shot that other stuff? Did you ever want to leave the movie altogether?
I went and had a Director's Guild arbitration about it. Because my lawyer had originally traded off half my salary to get me final cut of the film. When these guys tried to cut it I called her up and she said I would have to hire outside litigators at $35,000 a day to try and fight that, that her office doesn't do that. And I said, "Well the contract you got me was worthless." I felt I was entitled to my cut of the film and I went to a DGA arbitration because I couldn't afford litigation. Under the terms of that arbitration I can't tell you any more than what I've told you. A lot of what they shot they tested and it didn't work so they got rid of it anyway. Then I got to work to push it closer to my original version. It was damage control at that point.

Would you ever work for the Weinsteins again?
I don't know. It depends, I guess. If they had a script I really wanted to do or enough money.

Bad Santa
Are you surprised by the longevity of "Bad Santa?"
I'm more surprised by its cultural impact. Every time I look at the newspaper or online there's some sort of "Bad Santa" happening around town. There's a "Bad Santa" bar craw, there's a "Bad Santa" party, there's "Bad Santa" rap music, there's "Bad Santa" porno DVD…

A couple of years ago the Weinsteins made a commitment to make a bunch of sequels to things.
Right. They wanted to do a "Bad Santa" sequel. I've read about that for years. I don't know if they're ever going to do it or if it's going to go straight to video. The other sequels they're doing is like "Rounders." Who wants to go to a sequel to "Rounders?" Or "Shakespeare in Love?" I think they just got the rights back to a bunch of stuff in their library. I think they will probably do direct-to-video stuff just to make some money. I have no interest in sequels.

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More: Terry Zwigoff, Bad Santa 2

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  • Gabe | December 30, 2012 5:10 PMReply

    Ghost World and Art School Confidential are both terrific films. But I attribute that to Daniel Clowes, who is a great writer and artist.

    Zwigoff, on the other hand, sounds like a bitter old fuck.

  • Joe | December 27, 2012 5:47 PMReply

    ZWIGOFF took the job for the money and because he liked the script. There was no trade off of money for final cut, and getting him final cut after one film was a struggle. He was told by everyone that, despite the best contract, the Weinsteins would find a way to mess with his cut, and they did. There was no such conversation about litigators, since the dga had jurisdiction. Terry lives in his own, marvelous world.

  • Alan | December 23, 2012 8:39 AMReply

    You guys got an interview with Terry Zwigoff, one of the most underrated directors of our time, and you ask him about doing a fucking Fantastic Four movie?

  • honest rob | December 26, 2012 11:24 AM


  • Eagleeye | December 22, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    I did rather see the choen brothers direct a sequel to Bad Santa than Steve Pink enough said!

  • Claude Riban | December 22, 2012 12:08 PMReply

    I'm shocked to learn the Coens didn't grasp the oddball potential of Tony Cox. He made the movie for me, and I figured him for a Coen Bros discovery. guess not.

  • Anonymous | December 22, 2012 11:49 AMReply

    I've always been a big fan of Bad Santa, but as the sequel goes in a slightly different direction with Steve Pink in the chair, do not have too high expectations it will never be the same without Zwigoff.

  • Alan | December 20, 2012 11:07 PMReply

    "I thought that was one of the worst scripts I had ever read. But everyone said, "Ooh it's on the Black List." Yeah, well, good for it." This is the greatest piece of film criticism. Ever. More broadly, I admire a lot of what he has to say in this interview. He's got a no-bullshit attitude to filmmakers and studios, and it's quite clear that he isn't willing to play the Hollywood game. First of all, it impresses me that he was willing to go out on a limb to cast Tony Cox. Then again, it also depresses me that it isn't just dumb fanboys who can be so limited in their thinking about casting. What the hell is so white about that character? 'Hey, we're not racist, OK. We're the least racist people in the world. Our best friend is a quarter Chinese, OK, so we can't be racist, but we really can't see ... blah, blah, blah'. He's also right about 'Art School Confidential': it's a disappointment in comparison to his previous work (the central plot about a serial killer on campus is pretty dumb), but all the details about that world are amusing and interesting like the student who refuses to do his homework because his "work has nothing to with form or light or color, but with questioning the nature of aesthetic experience." As a whole, it probably doesn't work, but it's a lot more interesting than some lesser filmmakers' successes.

  • rotch | December 20, 2012 3:26 PMReply

    nice interview, but suggesting him that it would be cool if they asked him to direct a silver age Fantastic Four movie came off awfully amateurish.

  • David Klein | December 20, 2012 3:00 PMReply

    Love this film, but I think Zwigoff's version saps too much humor when he swings the pendulum away from Badder Santa. The theatrical release is sadly still the best I think. Great read, but I was a bit repulsed at Zwigoff vilifying everyone else other than himself in the creative process.

  • Stephen B | December 20, 2012 2:42 PMReply

    I love this man and I love Bad Santa. I think I read that Bob Weinstein hired Todd Phillips to shoot a lot of the extra footage that they ended up cutting, but I could be wrong. Interesting stuff about the Coens. I can't see anyone other than Tony Cox playing Marcus. He's perfect.

  • Benjamin | December 20, 2012 2:24 PMReply

    Fascinating interview. Thank you!

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