Writers Pat Casey & Josh Miller Interview: Violent Night

Writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller became Hollywood hitmakers with their adaptation of Sonic the Hedgehog, and now they’re back again with Violent Night. The film, which they first conceptualized with the simple words “Die Hard Santa,” stars David Harbour as Santa Claus. While delivering presents on Christmas, he comes across a hostage situation involving a group of thieves led by John Leguizamo, or “Mr Scrooge,” as he’s called. Scrooge has taken an entire family hostage, including characters played by Edi Patterson, Alexis Louder, and Beverly D’Angelo.

Unwilling to let evil prevail, especially when a young girl on his nice list (Leah Brady) is in danger, Santa springs into action and begins taking down the criminals one by one in gloriously R-rated fashion. Violent Night comes from the minds of Casey and Miller, who have been working together since their high school days in Minnesota. After creating the short-lived FOX animated series, Golan the Insatiable, they hit it big with 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog and its 2022 sequel.

While promoting the release of Violent Night, Casey and Miller spoke to Screen Rant about their work on the film and their careers at large. They discussed how Violent Night quickly evolved from its initial pitch to a full-fledged film, and how they managed to remain in touch with the production throughout, a rare feat in the Hollywood movie business. Finally, they briefly touched upon some of their upcoming projects, including Sonic the Hedgehog 3, a prospective sequel to Violent Night, and the eagerly anticipated adaptation of It Takes Two.

Screenwriters on Violent Night

Screen Rant: Have you been waiting to take a victory lap, or do you know that you’re sitting on top of a fantastic Christmas action movie?

Josh Miller: This project has always felt so crazy, from day 1. Even to be pitching it, let alone that Universal bought it and hired us to write it, and then it actually got made and that it turned out good. That’s been such a victory on its own!

Pat Casey: It’s a Christmas miracle, ya know?

Josh Miller: Yeah! [Laughs] It’s that rare kind of project where it felt like everything was going, at least mostly right with it. I mean, as you well know, with most movies it’s a miracle that they even get finished, let alone turn out good. And if you’re the writers, that the movie turns out anything like you initially envisioned, especially if’ it’s an original idea. It’s different if you’re getting hired on to an IP or an adaptation or something.

Pat Casey: We’re very happy with the movie and we’re excited that people are going to see it. I don’t think we’re taking a victory lap yet because we don’t want to jinx anything, but hopefully it’s well received by the general public. We’ve had great responses from the screenings we’ve had so far, and that’s good.

Josh Miller: And we’re happy that it’s in theaters only, because when we were initially writing, it was during the height of Covid and the whole WB and HBO Max [thing]. We always thought this seemed like the exact kind of movie, especially knowing it’s a Christmas movie, that studios might go, “Even more people will watch it at home because they’ll be cuddled up with their family and they won’t want to go out to the theaters!”

Pat Casey: But we were thinking the whole time, this is a movie designed to be seen with a crowd, with big laughs and big gasps and big moments where people will cover their eyes. Seeing it with a group is the best way to do it.

Josh Miller: My mom doesn’t like violent movies, so she’s like, “Is it super super violent?” And I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s the kind of violence that you’re meant to applaud after! It’s not supposed to haunt you with how disturbing it is!”

Pat Casey: Yeah, it’s mostly horrible things happening to bad people. Santa’s the hero! It’s alright!

I have some friends who are writers, and they say that you’re usually finished and on to the next thing before the cameras even start rolling. Was it that way with this movie? Were you on hand if you were needed during shooting?

Pat Casey: We stayed on the movie the whole way through, basically. We weren’t on set the whole time, but we were on set for some of it. We certainly made sure to get out of there before they started doing night exteriors in the snow in Winnipeg. We were like, “good luck, everybody!”

Josh Miller: “See ya! We’re going back to sunny California!”

Pat Casey: But Tommy kept us in the loop the entire time. When he was like, “We’ve gotta change this,” they would give us a call so we could weigh in and make sure the new stuff fit in with the tone of the whole film. That was nice, to feel like part of the whole team and retain some of the ownership over the movie the whole way through. That is a big unusual in features.

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Winnipeg doesn’t sound so bad. You guys are from Minnesota, right?

Josh: That’s what people kept saying to us! “You’re from Minnesota!” But Minnesota doesn’t get Winnipeg cold.

Pat Casey: Our first week in Winnipeg, the high every day was negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s how warm it was at two in the afternoon and the sun was out. The rest of the time, it was significantly colder than that. It was rough!

Josh Miller: I always like to note that one day, the driver, who would take you from the parking lot to the sound stage, it was almost like he was bragging to us, he said, “A few years ago, it was colder in Winnipeg than it was on Mars!” I’d buy that.

Pat Casey: But certainly, we were better able to deal with that than people from, say, San Diego. We are from Minneapolis, where it is very cold, but there’s a noticeable difference between Minneapolis and Winnipeg.

David Harbour drinking a beer as Santa Claus in Violent Night.

Let’s go all the way back. How did you two meet? How do you know each other?

Josh Miller: We met in detention in eighth grade, like a couple of cool kids. But we didn’t really, like, truly become friends until later. Our town had a public access TV channel that would show schoolboard meetings and video of the school plays. But they had one original program that was basically A/V Club. The idea of it, the way in which it was “educational” was that the variety show was staffed and starring teenagers.

Pat Casey: The show didn’t have to be educational. It was enough that it was educational for the people putting it on. We both joined the cast in our freshman years of high school, and within a few months, we ended up kind of running the show! All through high school, we were co-running a weekly live TV show. That was really our comedy boot camp and production boot camp.

Josh Miller: That was our film school! So when we got to actual film school, it felt like a step backwards. Especially freshman year, they were like, “this is a light! This is a medium shot!”

Pat Casey: “This semester, you’re all going to make two shorts” or whatever. We were used to making three or four shorts a week!

Tell me about your writing process together. Do you sit at a table with the computers facing each other so it looks like you’re playing Battleship?

Josh Miller: I guess it was back when we lived in super tiny apartments and would go to coffee shops and that old writer cliche. But maybe because we were friends when we were teenagers… I assume it’s like this with most writing duos, but it’s like we’re hanging out, shooting the sh*t, talking about stuff, and then it progressively gets more like work, I guess you would say.

Pat Casey: Yeah, you just talk about stuff until you’re like, “No, wait, I know exactly what this scene should be.” And then, as soon as one of us lays a claim to it, “I’ve got this part,” you just go and write it, and then the other one will come through and do an edit. And we both have total faith in each other to edit our work. We work in a program called Writer Duet, where we can both be in a doc at the same time on each of our computers. So, sometimes, if we’re really in a hurry, one of us will be writing while the other is coming along a few lines behind and cleaning it up. And you can see the cursor moving on your screen. We share a philosophy of how movies should be. We both know what we’re going for and we’re going for the same thing.

Did one of you just say, “Action Hero Santa,” and you just looked at each other and go, “That’s it?” Not to be reductive.

Josh Miller: No, that’s how we talked about it! We initially were just calling it, “Die Hard Santa.”

Pat Casey: We were like, “We’re gonna have to change the title at some point or else we’ll get sued.

Josh Miller: That was a really old idea we had, that we would talk about probably around Christmas every year. But then, eventually, we had a separate idea that was more of a Santa origin story, the idea that he was a Viking warrior. I think it was the melding of those two ideas, that’s what solidified what it was going to be.

Pat Casey: Once we had this vision of who Santa really is and how he wound up being Santa and why he has all this magic stuff, `we sort of had this backstory and we thought, “Wait a minute, what if we took that Santa and put him in a Die Hard? Now it’s a real movie!”

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David Harbour looking angry as Santa in Violent Night.

You’ve been around for a while, working on lots of different things, but I’d say Sonic the Hedgehog is the project that put you on the radar.

Josh Miller: For sure. Before that, it was always like, when you go to the dentist, they’re like, “What do you do?” “Well, I’m a writer.” “Have you written anything I’ve seen?” And you kinda want to say, “No.” But you go through the list and the answer is usually, “No.”

To have something we were working on that people knew it was happening before it even came out, that was a huge change for us. Even before people liked the movie! Because, as you well remember, people initially hated the movie! And we were like, “But you haven’t seen it yet! You’ll like it, even if you might not like the design…” But we get why no one was giving the movie the benefit of the doubt at that point.

Pat Casey: We would tell people, “Once you actually see the movie and know the story, we think you’ll like it,” and they were like, “Sure, guys. Good luck with that.”

There’s some insurance with part 2 regarding Jim Carrey and his ambiguous fate at the end of that movie. Can you talk about whether or not you’re writing a part for him if he decides to come back or not? It seems to be up in the air whether he will decide to be in the movie.

Josh Miller: That, we can’t talk about. We’ll plead the fifth on that.

Tell me a little bit about working with an improv comedian and that dynamic.

Josh Miller: It’s always nice. Jim being the ultimate example, where to a certain extent, you don’t have to kill yourself with the dialogue. If they think of something funnier, they’ll say it. And Sonic’s dialogue in particular, because he’s animated, can keep changing even after they shoot the movie. We also know that’s going to happen so there’s a confidence that, even if we can’t figure it out, they will at some point.

Pat Casey: During the first movie, when it was like, “Who should play Sonic?” I feel like there were a lot of suggestions coming from higher up in the studio for people who were maybe bigger names. But the whole time, we were like, “Please let it be Ben Schwartz! He’s perfect for this. We know we can rely on him to make everything a notch funnier than even what we can come up with.” And on that first movie, we spent time in the booth with him, just riffing. Which was fantastically fun!

We had done Golan the Insatiable, our FOX animated show, where we would often be in the booth, and in the flow where you can just yell something at an actor to repeat. [Laughs] And you find really fun material that way! Josh and I have some improv experience as well, we really enjoy that sort of thing. That is the advantage of working with animation.

Josh Miller: You can’t yell stuff at the actors off camera in a live action movie. It disrupts the scene.

When it comes to a movie like Violent Night, what was your script or treatment? How did you get the attention of the studio exec in a pinstripe suit that’s holding a cigar?

Josh Miller: Violent Night was kind of a charmed process for us. The pitching phase was mere weeks, and it was basically just that we told our agents about the idea, and the next day, our agents set up a meeting with 87North. And because they liked it and we had their clout and cache, we basically just brought it directly to Universal. It was one of those things where it was like, “This may never happen again, so…”

Pat Casey: We almost didn’t have time to write a pitch at all. It was sort of like, “We want to see this, this, and this… We’ll wing it!” The idea is so preposterous that… You lead off with, “It’s Die Hard but with Santa!” And either, they’ll laugh and you’ve got ’em and just fill in the details, or they’re gonna say, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” and you’re just like, “Okay, bye then.” And the meeting’s over.

Josh Miller: It helps, too, the reason you want to partner with a company like 87North, they’re the movie star. That’s the equivalent. If we were pitching a comedy with Jim Carrey, then people would be like, “I get why it’s funny: Jim Carrey.” Likewise, if you’re pitching an action movie with 87North, people are like, “Okay, the action is gonna be awesome.”

Pat Casey: Exactly. It’s going to have the best stuntmen in Hollywood, the best action you can have, and all we have to do is make it funny. But you can trust these guys to make sure there’s bone crunching action and it’s as ridiculous as possible. And it is, it turned out great!

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David Harbour and John Leguizamo in Violent Night

Do you come up with the idea of setpieces, like, “Here’s a fight, and it should be kinda like this?” Or do you just leave it to the action guys?

Josh Miller: For one thing, we think it’s fun. And for a movie like Violent Night, where the action sequences are supposed to be influenced by Christmas, there’s a joke element to them. We always knew, regardless of what action we write, if they have better ideas — which they will — the 87 stunt team are going to do that. But we don’t want it to feel like each fight scene is interchangeable and could come at any point in the movie. The best version of a movie like this is like, this fight is going to happen in this room, and Santa is at this point in getting his groove back.

Pat Casey: At first, he’s not as ready to fight. He’s sort of barely getting by, and he’s powering-up during the movie. But yeah, giving those guys a lot of ideas about how you can use Christmas stuff to kill people, and then, once the stunt team gets in there and starts choreographing, maybe they move this gag from here to there, and they come up with their own stuff, like, “Oh, but you can also kill somebody with this!” We give them something to work with, but we certainly don’t write, like, “Then he throws a right hand punch and it gets blocked.” You don’t need to get that deep in the weeds. That’s what they do, let them do their thing.

I talked to David Harbour, and he seemed positively giddy about the hammer. He really liked that hammer.

Josh Miller: That was there from the pitch. It’s nice when people run with something. Part of me always thought that, at some point, they would take the hammer out. I don’t know why, I just kind of thought, there’s not a specific reason it has to be a hammer.

Pat Casey: We just said, Santa’s trademark weapon is a giant hammer, and everyone just accepted it.

Josh Miller: And they added so much more. That’s something Tommy Wirkola definitely was like, he was like, “I love that Santa’s signature weapon is a hammer, I want to see him use it even more!” And we were like, “Yes! Please! All the hammer!” And the fact he’s got it in the poster, I’m just like, “Wow, I can’t believe the hammer was so embraced by everyone.” I think we were just always bummed out by, if you read the Game of Thrones novels, you can imagine things that aren’t on the screen, but in Game of Thrones, there was Robert Baratheon’s weapon, it was a war hammer. But if you watch the show, he’s never even admiring it up on the wall or anything!

Pat Casey: They didn’t do anything with the hammer! The whole time, we were like, “When is he gonna use his hammer?!

Josh Miller: If I know anything about that type of dude, he’d get drunk at night and pull his old war hammer off the shelf and stare at it wistfully.

Pat Casey: Swinging it around, scaring the hell out of the servants!

The world is your oyster right now. You’ve got a successful franchise, you’ve got this movie, which is going to be a holiday classic for generations to come… But what’s next?

Josh Miller: We have a couple of other things that we’re supposed to start working on after It Takes Two, a video game adaptation we’re doing for Amazon, which has been announced. That, we can talk about. A couple of things we can’t talk about… Hopefully a Violent Night 2. I don’t think we’ll get in trouble for saying we want to do a sequel.

Pat Casey: Ideally, we’d do a trilogy and then see where to go from there. But Sonic 3 is looking good. That’s the one spoiler-iffic thing I’ll say: “It’s gonna be great. Look forward to it.”

Josh Miller: “Spoiler alert: It’s gonna be crazy.”

Thank you guys so much! Thanks for all of your work. I’m so excited for It Takes Two. That was such a special game.

Josh Miller: It’s so good.

Pat Casey: It’s a fantastic game, and we’re having a lot of fun just playing it over and over again while we’re working on it! Like, “How did that work? Let’s go back and play it again!” Any excuse.

I don’t know how you’re gonna handle that poor little elephant sacrifice…

Josh Miller: Oh, that’s been a big talking point. [Laughs]

About Violent Night

David Harbour's Santa in Violent Night

An elite team of mercenaries breaks into a family compound on Christmas Eve, taking everyone hostage inside. However, they aren’t prepared for a surprise combatant: Santa Claus is on the grounds, and he’s about to show why this Nick is no saint.

Check out our other Violent Night interviews here:

Violent Night releases on December 2, only in theaters.

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