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

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist December 20, 2012 at 1:13PM

This weekend in San Francisco, SF Sketchfest, the people behind the San Francisco Comedy Festival, are producing a day's worth of holiday-themed programming at the historical Castro Theatre. The centerpiece of this day-long event is a director's cut screening of "Bad Santa," the insta-classic by "Ghost World" filmmaker Terry Zwigoff that stars Billy Bob Thornton as a boozing, thieving St. Nick. Zwigoff will be at the screening, along with Tony Cox (who plays Thornton's midget sidekick) and Lauren Tom (who played Cox's wife), to do a post-screening Q&A.
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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.

This article is related to: Terry Zwigoff, Bad Santa 2


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