Walking the line between filthy and having heart: Bad Santa 2
Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross on writing a sequel to a modern classic Christmas comedy, knowing when a character shouldn’t develop, and writing without a filter.
Though it was only a moderate box office hit, the raunchy 2003 Christmas comedy Bad Santa has become something of a modern holiday classic. In it, Billy Bob Thornton plays safecracker Willie Stokes, who poses as perhaps the worst-ever department store Santa Claus in order to rob the store during the holiday seasons.
Viewers grew to love Willie’s antisocial, alcohol-fueled behavior and the surprisingly charming relationship he developed with Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a young misfit who believes in Willie’s goodness when nobody else does aside from Sue (Lauren Graham), a woman with a Santa fetish.
Thornton has talked about making a Bad Santa sequel as the popularity of the original film increased over the years since its release. And about five years ago, producers began taking pitches for Bad Santa 2.
The first screenwriter hired was Johnny Rosenthal. Though Bad Santa 2 is the first feature film that Johnny Rosenthal receives on-screen credit for, he has been working in the industry as a screenwriter for some time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Shauna Cross was the last writer to work on the Bad Santa 2 screenplay. Cross has written a variety of films, including the original screenplay Taking 5, Whip It (which she adapted from her novel Derby Girl), What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and If I Stay. One of her major contributions to the script was changing the character that Rosenthal initially developed as Willie’s father into Willie’s mother.
Creative Screenwriting interviewed Rosenthal and Cross separately about writing a sequel to a modern classic Christmas comedy, finding the right tone for the script, and how the roles of Thurman and Sunny changed throughout the development process.
Johnny, can you talk about your background as a screenwriter?
Johnny: I had written a novel and passed it along to a friend at Miramax to get some notes. He thought it was quite cinematic in the way it was written, and he liked the story and dialogue and he asked if he could pass it around. Miramax ended up optioning the book before it went to publishers. It was a blessing and a curse – the curse being that publishers didn’t feel the same way about it that the studio did.
But it got me into that world and sometime around Good Will Hunting they actually went to see if Ben Affleck would write it for producers Jonathan Gordon and Chris Moore. But he was busy being a movie star so it came back to me and I was given a shot at adapting it. The movie was never made, but I ended up writing a number of specs and one thing led to another, and work just kept coming.
Cut to years later and I was contacted by [Bad Santa 2 producer] Geyer Kosinski, who had liked a script I had sold to Paramount called Friendly Skies that he had liked for Billy Bob. So when they were looking for writers to come up with takes for Bad Santa 2, Geyer asked me if I could give it a shot.
Bad Santa 2 has been in the works for some time and has had a few writers attached to it. How did you get involved with it?
Johnny: I got involved in 2010 or 2011 when they first went out to writers to come up with takes for the sequel. They might have had a script, idea, or story written years before, but this seemed to be the first time they were going out to writers and looking for an actual script.
Shauna: I felt like I came on in the last lap of the relay, about five or six months before they started shooting. I came on to help for a few weeks to put it all in order. Billy and I connected pretty well. I think it’s one of those sequels that had a certain expectation of what we want to see in the movie. You’re just trying to echo the template that has already been set.
Shauna, once you became the screenwriter what did you feel the script needed?
Shauna: Probably the biggest aspect was that there were a lot of different elements and pieces that hadn’t quite gelled yet with regard to walking that line between being filthy and still having heart. Kathy’s character was Willie’s father, and we had the idea that making it his mom might be more interesting because that contrast might be more fun.
Also, I don’t think there was an idea of what to do with Thurman yet. We had a meeting about how much we were going to put Thurman in. There was one voice involved that I think was trying to completely get rid of him. But we fought pretty hard to keep him.
Watching the film with test audiences, and watching people react to Thurman, makes me realize that people are excited by him. Plus, he’s just a super sweet kid. It had been a long time since Billy and Bret had seen each other. Their off-screen dynamic is basically what’s happening on screen. Bret drives Billy crazy, but Billy loves him too.
Was there any point where Thurman wasn’t going to appear in the sequel?
Johnny: Thurman was in it from the very beginning. Not only was it important for fans to be able to see who Thurman is now, years later, it was part of the directives of the project. Thurman was definitely something that the producers and executives specifically requested. He had to be in there somewhere.
There were a number of drafts where he was more present, but he was always going to come back because he was such an important part of bringing out those moments and beats in Willie that humanize him to the audience so he’s not just this gross, addicted, depressed mess.
That relationship is just so funny anyway, because it’s such a fucked up relationship to begin with. Not only is he a bad Santa Claus, he’s like the worst father figure ever. But he also imparts some useful advice here and there. It’s at least nice to see Willie care about something other than himself, though he doesn’t even do that well.
Why did you feel that a mother would be more fun than a father in that role?
Shauna: I love writing guys, but the way it worked in the script is that you had Willie, who we already established as Bad Santa, and then you met his dad who was worse. It seemed like it would be two actors competing to be the worst guy. We already have Willie, so you didn’t need another character to be that.
I think the minute we had the idea to make it the mom I only pictured Kathy Bates as that person. It had to be her. I think I kept calling her “Kathy” while I was writing her even before we had her.
I think that while there’s something funny about an absentee father, the terrible father figure is played out. You’re screwed if you have a bad dad, but you’re extra screwed if you have a mother who is that terrible. It almost seemed to thematically show the origins and set the tone of what the original film was about.
Johnny: When Shauna came on she switched the two. I had the character as Earl.
In the original Willie references his father in the opening monologue voiceover when he’s sitting at the bar during the Christmas party and he talks about having an abusive father, saing that the only thing his father ever gave him was a punch in the back of the head.
So the idea of bringing that character to life was fun, too. Who’s more despicable than Willie? There’s only one person in the world that Willie references who is more despicable than he is.
Seeing Earl turn into Sunny didn’t change anything story-wise. You wouldn’t notice much of a difference between the two – they were both chauvinistic, misogynistic, racist, abusive alcoholics.
But I think it was a great choice just to add a little estrogen, no matter how testosterone-fueled it was. I think that switch only added to the humor of the finished product.
In what ways is Willie a different character in Bad Santa 2 than he was in the original?
Johnny: I don’t think he’s changed too much, and that was something that you as a writer needed to be aware of.
There’s a reason why people love the first film, and love Willie for being so misanthropic, self-serving, and flawed, but also he demonstrated a few moments where he exhibits brief images of him being empathetic to someone else’s cause.
In the original there are about three little moments where that save Willie from being one of the most loathsome comedic protagonists to instead being one of the greatest in holiday films. In the end you’re dealing with someone who is so profoundly fucked up that you can’t really inject him full of prescription meds. He is who he is, and that is the character I tried to protect.
I’m thinking in my mind right now what it would be like if he was on lithium or something, and it seems like he could have a brief moment like that but that wouldn’t encapsulate who he is.
This is a guy who is dealing with depression, chemical dependency, and whatever other addictions he has. Just set him free into a debased world of crime, then try and find those one or two moments that will allow the audience to see just a bit of good in him.
Shauna: There’s something funny to resetting him a little bit. Maybe he had a good run for a year not drinking, but his sobriety wasn’t going to last.
If you’re going to be honest to this character, this world, and people who are down on their luck, they might have a five-minute window of goodness. But was he really going to keep Lauren Graham? Was that really going to turn into something great?
As much we imagine movie characters going off into the sunset and loving them, the reality – particularly Willie’s – is that if you check in on him a year later he’s fallen off and back in that world. That felt right. I know the character is older because Billy is older, but I don’t think he’s changed a lot. There’s still that thing in him that he is who is.
There’s also some kind of connection between him and Thurman, and like many of us there’s someone in our lives who we are a little bit beholden to that we’d rather not be.
There’s a certain kind of decency in that when push comes to shove we do the right thing. He’s still stuck with that kid even though he’s spent fifteen years trying to shake him, which I find funny. I think time has moved on, but I don’t think he really has.
There are very few comedy sequels that are considered equal to the original movies. What do you feel are the biggest challenges with writing a comedy sequel?
Johnny: It’s pretty hard – you’re rarely, if ever, are going to outdo the original. That wasn’t the intent at all. I was a big fan of the original, so I was trying to come up with something that seemed like a continuation for the characters that had been created. I tried to keep the elements that are necessary in a sequel that the fans want. You also want to breathe some new life into the situation and plot. It’s more just diving into this and hoping you don’t fuck it up!
It’s hard when it’s something that’s so iconic to yourself. I love the original. I remember when it came out, a friend of mine who worked at Dimension Films told me about it, and I went to go see it at something like ten o’clock in the morning at Battery Park and being one of two people in the theater. [Laughs]
I was just hoping that I could create something that could give someone else a similar experience. I didn’t have any aspirations of surpassing the original, but hopefully it continues what was started.
Shauna: I think you just have to let yourself off the hook, because it’s hard to fall in love for the first time all over again. It’s never going to feel the same as the first time.
I adore the first movie too. In getting to know Billy, I also know that everywhere he goes it’s the movie that people ask for. There’s a certain understanding in his awareness of what fans want. You don’t put out a concept album next. You spit out the thing they fell in love with. Just play the hits, man.
When we were working together, during scenes Billy would say, “Willie wouldn’t do it like that. He would do it more like this.” You’d watch Billy perform his improv version in front of you, and see what a brilliant actor he really is. The geek moviegoer in me says, “Yeah, I’d pay $10 for that.” That’s exciting.
I let myself off the hook for the first one because I don’t feel deep ownership over it. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra [screenwriters of Bad Santa] built the house and I just squatted in it for a little bit. Hopefully I helped maintain the yard. I feel they set the template and I followed it.
Everyone who was around for the original wanted to come back. It’s unfortunate that there are certain people who aren’t still alive, but otherwise you would’ve had everyone else. The saddest thing was that we couldn’t work Lauren’s character into the story. There was no way to make sense of that, and the reality is that Willie would’ve fucked up that relationship pretty quickly!
With writing a screenplay like Bad Santa 2, did you feel like you had no filter on what you could write?
Johnny: That’s kind of a creative dichotomy there. It’s the best part of being hired for a job like this, but also the most difficult. This could turn into broad, madcap, ridiculous gross-out hijinks, or it could remain in the same vein as the original, which there was a method to the madness in its methodical nature.
But you’re dealing with these characters that are so morally and ethically compromised that you could pretty much make them do whatever you want. But if there’s too much of that it can become tiresome for the audience.
You’re trying to juggle the freedom that you have with playing with characters that have no social, ethical, or moral filter except for those few moments here and there. It’s a lot of fun, but it is also important that you need to focus on your endgame while dealing with the characters and storyarcs.
Shauna: There’s no filter, but Billy is a really good gauge. He compares it to a record being in the groove. He knows where the Bad Santa groove is and he gets a sense when a line or two gets out of bounds. He’s a good barometer.
I’m one of those weird people who writes both studio movies and indie movies, so I write all different types of characters, both dramatic and funny.
I feel like I kind of grew up in a locker room because I grew up with all brothers who were foul-mouthed and funny. I think that’s a lot of my humor, too. Just for fun, I’m always writing in the filthiest jokes I can in every script and people say, “This is hilarious! But we will never shoot this.”
I think I had enough of those banked that when Bad Santa 2 came around there were enough people who knew me who were like, “Oh, we know what you are! We know you can get dirty!”
All these terrible jokes that I’ve never been able to put in any other script I was able to plug in here. That was actually incredibly fun. It was very liberating to have no teenage girls in the script that people are worried about saying things around.
Thurman’s attempt to lose his virginity was fun, as was getting to write Sunny because of how filthy she is. I think a lot of actresses don’t get to be that funny, so I was giddy with anticipation of an actresses to play this character when writing her.
I liked the idea that Diane is a good person who does good things, but she has a dirty little whore side. I feel like I know women like that. Women can be good, decent humans and have just as depraved ideas of sexuality and of what turns us on. It’s fun not to be precious about that. There are some places where she pushes it and Willie is a little bit confused by it.
Shauna, you’ve had a pretty eclectic career as a screenwriter – Taking 5 was an original screenplay, you adapted Whip It from your own novel, you adapted What to Expect When You’re Expecting and If I Stay from books not written by you, and Bad Santa 2 is a sequel. Has your approach to screenwriting changed with each project?
Shauna: My interest is usually in what I have not done before. I’m such a character-focused person, and even if something is filthy or whatever the tone is, I want it to be grounded.
For me it’s really about character. Even when I write something dramatic, I always find something really funny in it, and even when something is funny or out-of-bounds I want to find the heart in it, because I genuinely want to like the characters and find their humanity. We’re all complex and layered in that way.
So even though I write all different types of scripts, it’s really all character-based. There’s always going to be something funny and there’s always going to be some heart.
But we all find things we gravitate to, and I always love some version of a misfit outsider. That’s where my heart goes because I love the people in the margins. Anytime those people get dragged to the center of stories I’m extra excited.
And sometimes you pay the bills with the other movies! Unfortunately, if I tried to write indie movies all the time it wouldn’t pay the mortgage. But I earn those jobs.
What are your all-time favorite Christmas movies?
Shauna: I’m a fan of A Christmas Story all the way. I also love It’s a Wonderful Life because I love how dark it is. I like how it’s really about a guy sorting out his pessimism, and I think Jimmy Stewart is the best. I also love Scrooged and Elf. Watching Will Ferrell trying to dunk the star on the Christmas tree is forever funny to me.
Johnny: Christmas Vacation and Home for the Holidays. And Scrooged is right up there with Bad Santa, and both lead characters are similar – egocentric and self-serving. And I loved Elf too!
Featured image: Billy Bob Thornton as Willie in Bad Santa 2. Photo by Jan Thijs – © 2016 Broad Green Pictures / Miramax