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Interview: Terry Zwigoff
Fighting for a 'Santa' Cause
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
December 8, 2006—When Bad Santa opened in theaters in time for the holiday season of 2003, very few people complained. Critics loved it; it turned up on a respectable number of year-end ten-best lists. And audiences loved it; it returned over three times its initial budget. Only the faintest air of discontent from San Francisco director Terry Zwigoff would indicate that anything was wrong.
At the time, he reported that things were just peachy. But the truth was that there had been a few battles, a few threats and more than a little hand-wringing.
Things grew worse when the DVD was released the following summer in two different editions, the 91-minute theatrical cut, and a new 99-minute cut that Miramax dubbed Badder Santa. Many writers and viewers mistook this longer version for Zwigoff's director's cut, containing all the offensive material that the squeamish producers wanted cut out.
Not true, according to Zwigoff. Badder Santa is nothing more than a catch-all for deleted, discarded material, and a way to sell more DVDs. Moreover, this longer version is actually less funny because the extra footage often throws off the film's delicate timing.
Zwigoff's initial contract promised him final cut, and though it took three years and without the benefit of a theatrical release, he finally got the cut he wanted, thanks to Daniel Battsek, the new head of Miramax Films. Newly released on DVD by Buena Vista, the official Bad Santa director's cut actually runs three minutes shorter than the theatrical release, but makes a world of difference.
"There are over a thousand changes," Zwigoff said during a recent telephone conversation from his San Francisco home. "A lot of them are very small, but the cumulative effect is large, and a lot them have to do with shaping the characters."
"Comedy's tricky," he continues. "It's quite difficult to pull off. Even if you're working with great comic actors, it's more than just being a traffic cop. There are a million choices you make and they're all important. You have to make sure the characters are emotionally grounded in some sort of truth. If not, at the end of the day, all you'll be left with is a series of gags instead of a film."
If your friends haven't quoted the entire movie by now, here it is in a nutshell: Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton), a drunken safecracker and his three-foot-plus tall partner Marcus (Tony Cox) pose as a department store Santa and his elf in order to rob the place on Christmas Eve. To his chagrin, Willie picks up a little fan, a kid known as The Kid (Brett Kelly), who follows him around and unwittingly provides a hideout.
The new cut deletes Thornton's opening narration over a scene in which Willie sits in a bar during the holidays. In the new scene, the look on the actor's face, juxtaposed by his jolly surroundings, says more than a thousand words.
"The narration was put in at that point because at every test screening the people didn't know if they were supposed to laugh or not," Zwigoff says. "People need permission to laugh. With the narration, test audiences started laughing earlier, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better film. Now, they're not laughing as early perhaps, but hopefully, the film plays out better."
Other deletions include the sequence in which the Kid learns how to beat up his bullies (including a kick to the groin), a very typical Hollywood chestnut. The famous "advent calendar" sequence also went under the knife, mainly for pacing purposes. Music was changed. The tacked-on ending from the 2003 theatrical release was replaced by a much briefer, punchier and more satisfying ending, as originally written.
The new cut features a few small additions as well, notably the scene in which the store detective, Gin Slagel (Bernie Mac), who has stumbled upon the robbers' scheme and has blackmailed them, meets his untimely end. Willie can now be seen smoking while on the job and even inhaling amyl nitrate at one point, two vices extremely difficult to get away with in movies today.
Zwigoff's changes bring the film back to its original state, before it first unspooled for test audiences. Some directors believe in test screenings, especially for comedies, but Zwigoff would rather trust his own instincts, which served him well on his previous films Crumb (1995) and Ghost World (2001).
"This has been going on since the Thalberg days, and if it worked, every film since then would have been a hit," he says.
Zwigoff goes on to describe, with increasing disgust, the test process. "The typical thing that happens is they show the film and they get maybe 20 people to stick around. They pay 'em each 10 or 20 bucks, and then some guy comes running from the back of the house like in a game show, this chipper, upbeat type. 'Hey how ya doing! Did you like the film? Did you like the ending?' And you're sitting there in the back and it's truly horrifying. It's like somebody took your baby and threw him up on the stage: What do you like about this baby? Do you like his nose? Maybe we should give him some plastic surgery, wouldn't that be fun?!!"
Ironically, the reason Zwigoff took on Bad Santa in the first place was to have some fun. "I did it because I was sick of making personal films -- desperately fussing with every frame and every note of music," he says. "But before I was hired as director I was asked to take a rewrite at the script, which was more of a polish actually. And then after that polish, the film started to become, without me even being conscious of it, a lot more personal."
That's when the battles began. Zwigoff found Tony Cox for the role of Marcus, and faced immediate opposition from the producers, who wanted a white elf. Zwigoff threatened to quit to get him hired and, happily for everyone, his ploy worked (and resulted in one of the movie's best jokes: the fact that the African-American Marcus wears white, rubber pointy elf ears).
Next up was Brett Kelly, then a pudgy, nerdy eight year-old. Again, the producers had something different in mind, specifically more of a "cute Disney kid." Once again, the director threatened to walk off the production to get Kelly hired. Fortunately, Thornton also went to bat for Zwigoff's choices. He agreed to a reading with Kelly and two other, more classically adorable kids, proving that Kelly was the right choice. And the rest is history.
Three years later, cheaper digital technology has allowed Zwigoff to complete his cut; no actual film print exists. For Roger Ebert's 2006 Overlooked Film Festival this past April, the film was shown from an HD cam source, which Zwigoff says "looks great."
Zwigoff describes the screening as a great success. "That was the first time I had seen it with a real crowd. I was laughing harder than anyone!"
Now that the new cut is available, Zwigoff understands if fans are resistant to shelling out for a third DVD, or simply don't like the changes, but he's just pleased that it exists. "Thank God it's out there," he says. "It means a lot to me to get it finally right."
"It was really going through those test screenings for Crumb years ago that made it easier this time for me stick to my convictions," he continues. "Everyone said to take out Charles Crumb, but I felt I was right to keep him in. I drew on that experience. In retrospect I know they were wrong. In any case, you can't please everyone, so you might as well try and please yourself. I was right then and perhaps I'm right now."