How cult Christmas comedy ‘Bad Santa’ almost got canned

Ahead of the release of Bad Santa 2, the major players behind the absurdly offensive 2003 original tell the story of the film’s difficult creation

Tis the season... Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox in Bad Santa

When Bob Weinstein first received the script for Bad Santa, he felt that a gift had been dropped in his lap. Universal had set the project aside, and Weinstein snapped it up for his company at the time, Miramax.

“I asked a Universal executive, ‘Why’d you guys pass on it?’ And he said, ‘It was the most foul, disgusting, misogynistic, anti-Christmas, anti-children thing we could imagine.’” Weinstein recalled. “That’s exactly why I bought it.”

Bad Santa turned out to be a gift that keeps on giving. The 2003 comedy, about Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), an alcoholic department-store Kris Kringle who teams with the foulmouthed elf Marcus (Tony Cox) to rip off a shopping-mall safe and becomes an unlikely father figure to a bullied youngster, Thurman (Brett Kelly), was a smash with audiences and critics. Now many of the stars have reunited for Bad Santa 2 due in due in cunemas later this month.

The story of the original film’s production may have turned out well, but there was bad blood as it was being made. Now the major players tell the tale in their own words.


John Requa (writer) The Coen brothers said: "We have this idea for a movie we want you to write. It's about a bad Santa. He drinks beer and stuff."

Glenn Ficarra (writer) They said: "Watch Bad News Bears. We want something like that."

Requa They had only one caveat. They said: "It's a story about redemption, but push it to the very end. Not too much redemption too soon." We wrote a really crass script, then the Coen brothers added a bunch of crass jokes.

Ficarra The Coens cut all our Down Syndrome jokes. They thought that was going too far. I'm thankful for that.

Requa They asked us to write it for James Gandolfini. They had just worked with him on The Man Who Wasn't There. We wrote the character in his rhythm, but Gandolfini didn't work out. Bill Murray was attached, but he stopped returning calls, like Bill does. They were also courting Jack Nicholson.

Weinstein We went to Robert De Niro, who was going to do it.

Thornton I heard Sean Penn was considered, and Nicolas Cage. My manager called and said: "Wait until you read this script. I've never seen anything like this." I'd read maybe a third of it, and I called him and said, "We've gotta do this." It was kind of a no-brainer.

Requa Billy Bob came on, but we never changed the dialogue. He's got this Southern rhythm reading New York dialogue.

Casting the other two leads proved more problematic for director Terry Zwigoff.

Ficarra Terry kept saying, "I'm having trouble finding the dwarf." He read everybody from all over the world, including Mickey Rooney. He said, "I think there's something to this African-American guy."

Tony Cox When I first read, Terry was laughing real hard. I was feeling good, and he said, "I have good news and bad news." I thought, bad news? You just laughed until you cried! He said: "The good news is, that was a great reading. The bad news is, this role wasn't written for an African-American." My heart sank. I thought, well, why did you call me in? He said, "I have to rethink this." All I could do was hope that was true.

Weinstein The Coens wanted Danny Woodburn, the short person from Seinfeld. I said: "What are you talking about? Did you see Tony's audition?" They said, "We hate him." (The Coen brothers declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Cox I read for the role about nine times. Terry told me: "If they don't let me have you, then I'm not going to do it. You make this movie fun."

Thornton I heard the producers didn't want Tony or Brett.

Terry Zwigoff (via email) The studio wanted a more Disney-like generic cute kid, but Brett was so great I had to have him.

Weinstein Terry can drop dead. That's not how it happened. The Coens wanted Angus T Jones from Two and a Half Men. Terry, Billy Bob and I said, "Are you kidding?"

Thornton Terry said to me: "Maybe there are other actors who could do a great job with these parts. But Tony and Brett are just funny. They are these characters." I agreed with him, so I stood with Terry.

Zwigoff I just felt Tony and Brett would be so perfect. I did what I had to do to get them cast.

Brett Kelly Soon before shooting started, I got chickenpox. They sent me home to Canada, because Billy Bob never had chickenpox. A week went by, and they said if I could get a doctor's note saying I wasn't contagious anymore, I could do the movie. I did a little shopping around to get a doctor's note.

Shooting began in summer 2002. Thornton took a Method approach to the hard-drinking, bad-tempered Willie and sometimes clashed with Zwigoff.

Cox I said to Billy Bob: "You really look like you're high. Are you high?" And he said, "Every day." I don't know if he was teasing. He's a hell of an actor.

Thornton A couple of times, I was drunk, but not every day. I showed up with a hangover a few times. There were times when I'd be with my pals until 3.30am and have to be at work at 7am. I wasn't the most pleasant guy to be around.

Zwigoff To quote the late, great Leo McCarey: "I can't say that I bask in the memory of it." Ultimately, I was able to get from Billy Bob what I needed, and I hope that by now he appreciates what I brought to the party.

Thornton I've always thought Terry did an amazing job.

Test audiences didn’t agree. A disastrous screening led Weinstein to ask for reshoots, which Zwigoff declined to direct.

Requa The audience went ape, but they gave it a terrible score. They were like: "This thing needs to be buried in a hole. But I loved it." After those test scores came in, the Weinsteins freaked out and tried to make Willie a super-redeemable character.

Zwigoff I wanted Thurman to win over Willie truthfully, and that doesn't make much sense until later in the story.

Weinstein I said to Terry: "We're not trying to ruin your movie, but there's absolutely no heart in it." So we put in a little heart. We didn't make it vanilla. We weren't trying to make "Not-So-Good Santa".

Weinstein enlisted Todd Phillips (Old School) to shoot new footage, including a scene in which hornton and Cox teach Kelly how to box – with all three getting hit in the crotch – as well as a sentimental sequence about an Advent calendar.

Thornton If a studio spends $15 million and says, "We want a commercial comedy", you kind of owe it to them. I understood adding the broader scenes.

Weinstein Todd Phillips did the greatest job on this movie. Thank God he came in.

Bad Santa became the sleeper hit of Christmas 2003, earning almost €70 million worldwide and rave reviews. It has since attained cult status, with fans watching it every holiday season.

Thornton We knew we made something really good, funny and dark, but that doesn't mean anything. You can't ever tell how the public's going to react.

Zwigoff I always had faith in it. Despite a superficial interpretation that it's a film fueled by vulgarity, it has an important message. Consumerism can destroy us. Plus, it's really funny.

Weinstein It had guts. For every reason Universal passed, that's why it succeeded.

Thirteen years later, along comes Bad Santa 2, with new writers, new producers, a new director – and a much more mature Kelly.

Thornton We always planned on making a sequel. It's just that there were a lot of loose ends to be tied up, because Miramax was sold. We had to get the proper script. It took a few years.

Kelly From the first moment I sat down with Billy Bob again, it just clicked right away.

Thornton When I saw Brett, he ordered a beer, and I was like, "Are you kidding me?" He was talking about graduating from business college, and I told him – and we used this in the movie – "To see you all grown up creeps me out."

Zwigoff I'd like to see the sequel, sure. So far I've only seen the trailer. Tony Cox looks hilarious in it. The rest, not so promising. But I wish them luck.

Weinstein I don't worry about legacies. Nothing can tarnish the original. I haven't seen the sequel. I haven't been invited to the premiere. If I'm not, I'll pay for my ticket.