A 'Bad Santa' that's a bit more Zwigoff

The Baltimore Sun

Terry Zwigoff may be the secret weapon of American cinema in the 21st century. Moving from the devastating documentary Crumb (1994) to the now-classic growing-up-absurd feature, Ghost World (2001), he brought the humor of the American dropout to the screen in pure and profane form.

The instinctive skeptic, the doubting Thomas or Thomasina, and the authenticity freak who can't stand commercialism as a value or sanitized comfort as the measure of a good existence: These are the characters who find their voice in Zwigoff's movies.

This week, two Zwigoff films, a shriveling 2005 satire of art phonies, Art School Confidential, and a pungent, low holiday farce, Bad Santa (2003), appear on new DVDs.

Bad Santa has come out on disc twice before - once as Badder Santa - but only now does it appear in its director's cut. And therein lies its own funky Christmas story, as Zwigoff revealed in an e-mail interview this week.

Zwigoff says the boutique-movie kings the Weinstein brothers, then still running Miramax at Disney, called the director after Ghost World and said they wanted to make "a Terry Zwigoff movie." The director thought Bad Santa would be a perfect fit. An original script by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, rewritten by Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo), it told the unabashedly earthy tale of a Christmas-hating Santa (Billy Bob Thornton) whose dad left him with one inheritance - his skill at cracking safes.

Bad Santa aka Willie Stokes and his super-savvy little-person partner (the brilliantly cantankerous Tony Cox) pool their talents into a Santa-and-elf scam. They invade department stores at the peak yuletide buying season and make away with every last penny of the Christmas cash.

The key to the degenerate male lead is that, unlike the otherworldly characters, he does what he does because he's an alcoholic, semi-suicidal and unable to put up a normal front. Ironically, his desperation allows him to connect with the rare figures in the Zwigoff universe who aren't just out for blood or money. These include a goodhearted barmaid with a Santa fixation (the percolating Lauren Graham) and the Kid, a dim, obese 8-year-old (Brett Kelly) who, against all the evidence, insists on believing in Thornton's Santaness.

"I consciously chose this script partially because I wanted to direct a commercially successful Hollywood film for a change," Zwigoff wrote last week. Audiences did love the collision of Thornton's lower-than-lowdown personality with the manufactured Up-With-People hopefulness of a mall-dominated holiday.

Bad Santa became a surprise Christmas-season smash, grossing more than $60 million on an $18-millon budget. But Zwigoff disavowed the version that played in theaters. (He also dismisses the version that came out on disc as Badder Santa: "'Unrated' versions of DVDs started years ago with films like American Pie, when studios realized that successful comedies could be released in raunchier versions and sell big numbers.")

The Weinsteins, Zwigoff said, "want to have it both ways. They truly love movies and are passionate about them and I think they sincerely loved my films. ... They just want to change them a little."

Zwigoff's lawyer had promised a contract that (wrongly) guaranteed him a "final cut." So he battled to preserve the more elegantly vulgar film he shot. What he ultimately won was the chance to put it out on this DVD.

Zwigoff knew he had to make Bad Santa/Willie Stokes ultimately sympathetic, but to do that he felt "you have to make certain the emotional arc of the character is believable." He didn't want to be left "with nothing but a series of gags at the end of the day." In Zwigoff's version, Bad Santa doesn't bond definitively with the Kid until the boy cuts his hand carving a wooden pickle for him. (The wooden pickle is one of the film's typical homegrown surreal jokes.)

But "test audiences always were, for the most part, uncomfortable with the rather callous way Willie treats the Kid throughout most of the film. They wanted him to 'be nicer to him' right away. ... Well, sorry, but the guy's a ... criminal (he's not Santa Claus!)."

The producers added an opening narration that spelled out everything audiences would learn about Willie anyway in a matter of seconds. They also inserted bits and pieces to indicate that "Willie takes an interest in the Kid almost from the start. And it just is not something that the Willie character would have done there. Once you start to make these mawkish decisions to pander to the lowest-denominator Dane Cook-loving moron in the audience, you lose any sense of there being any rules at all in this world you created," he said, referring to the comedian who's a campus favorite.

Zwigoff said he would have loved to get audience-approval numbers up in test screenings, "but I wasn't about to let some guy in the audience whose idea of a great film is Hostage with Bruce Willis or Firewall with Harrison Ford, tell me how to do it. I don't care if those idiots offer me 6 more points if I'd only cast Dane Cook instead of Billy Bob. Sorry. They're wrong. If they're so talented at giving film advice, perhaps they should be directing instead of stumbling around the mall with their Big Gulps. ... (Yeah, I know, I got a thing against Dane Cook, so sue me!)

"The Weinsteins believe in test screenings, I don't. I don't think good films are made that way. Call me crazy, but I'd like to think you need a singular vision to make good art. I had Crumb test-screened early in my career and the overwhelming consensus was to take Charles Crumb (R. Crumb's reclusive brother) out of that film. [It would have] cut the heart of the film out.

"That experience gave me the strength to withstand being beaten over the head with low numbers and hold my ground. Certain types of films will never test well. My films never seem to test well. A producer who I happen to like told me that my films seem different and odd to most of the test audience, so they assume there must be something wrong with them. ... They generally respond better to variations of movies they've seen before, or movies 'that make you feel good.'"

There's no director's commentary on the Art School Confidential DVD ("I don't like doing commentaries in general"), but Zwigoff "did one for my Bad Santa Director's Cut because there was already this 'Unrated' version out there on DVD that people assumed was my cut of the film, and I wanted to clarify that it was not. There is just so much misinformation about this film out there that I thought this might help set the record straight."


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