WTF Happened to Bad Santa?

We look back at one the best R-rated Christmas comedies ever made, Bad Santa starring Billy Bob Thornton.

Last Updated on December 20, 2023


Ho Ho Ho motherf*ckers! Yup, it’s that time of year again…the giving season. As families everywhere come together to celebrate the holidays, bundle up by the fire, and indulge in a parade of sappy Christmas movies, the real adults in the room are going to need something with a bit more kick. Think about it, the all-time best Christmas movies – It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, Home Alone, you name it – all revolve around sentimental family-friendly stories for children and adults to enjoy equally. But f*ck all that, Jack, this year we’re all about honoring a bona fide Christmas classic expressly aimed at adult audiences. While Die Hard and Violent Night are worthy action-packed contenders, it’s time to dish out the edible cookies and spiked eggnog for Bad Santa – easily the most politically incorrect and controversially transgressive Christmas comedy on record. Honestly, do you even think it’s possible for a movie like Bad Santa to be made in Hollywood today?

Well, as Bad Santa celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, it’s only right to unwrap the classic cinematic gift that keeps on giving and discover what went into the production, including the major studios who passed on the project, the Coen Brothers’ story conception and uncredited script work, the casting process, principal photography, Billy Bob Thronton’s drunken on-set antics, Todd Phillips’ uncredited reshoots, and a whole lot more. Sound good? Merry Christmas motherf*ckers, it’s time to unstuff the stockings and find out WTF Happened to Bad Santa!

The first thing to know about Bad Santa is that it was born from an idea by acclaimed filmmaking siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, who served as executive producers on the film. Although they did not officially write a screenplay for the project, the Coen brothers are known for envisioning fictional roles for specific actors. As Joel and Ethan were developing the concept of Bad Santa, they tailored various roles for actors they thought would be ideal for certain characters. For instance, the role of Willie T. Soke – the crass, foul-mouthed alcoholic Santa – was originally imagined with James Gandolfini playing the part. Remember, the Coens worked with Gandolfini on The Man Who Wasn’t There and felt he would be perfect for the role of Bad Santa. How crazy is that to think about? Tony Soprano in a Santa Suit swilling booze, slamming broads in a bathroom, and slinging industrial-strength insults while stealing household items.

Best Christmas Comedies

Likewise, the Coens also envisioned Danny Woodburn as Marcus Skidmore, Willie’s sardonic elven helper, and thought Angus T. Jones would make a good Thurman Merman. Of course, Jones would go on to star in Two and a Half Men the same year Bad Santa was released and Brett Kelly was cast instead. While different actors from the Coens’ vision were ultimately cast, it’s worth noting Jack Nicholson read the script and expressed interest in playing the Bad Santa role. However, he was already committed to Something’s Gotta Give and was forced to decline the role. Bill Murray was reportedly the first actor chosen for the role of Bad Santa and he was in final negotiations to star until he left the project to make Lost in Translation instead. Larry David, Dennis Leary, and Robert De Niro were also considered for the title role, but in the end, it’s impossible to think of anyone other than Billy Bob Thornton, who also starred in The Man Who Wasn’t There, in such a pitch-perfect part. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Tony Cox playing the role of Marcus. However, in one of the most bizarre factoids about the movie, Mickey Rooney of all people auditioned to play Marcus the Elf. Rooney was roughly 72 years old at the time of his audition.

In retrospect, the casting of Bad Santa couldn’t be more perfect. But what fans may not realize is how the Coen brothers detested Cox in the role of Marcus, telling the producers at Dimension Films that they “hated” him. Meanwhile, once Brett Kelly was cast as Thurman, producers disagreed with the decision and wanted “a more Disney-like generic cute kid” to play the character.

Okay, so let’s backtrack a bit. Once the Coens completed their concept for the film, they hired screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to officially flesh out the story and write the screenplay. Joel and Ethan cited the classic 1974 comedy The Bad News Bears as the kind of tone and tenor they were aiming for, telling the writers that the central idea was to base a story around an alcoholic “bad Santa” who is accompanied by an elf that has to keep in line. Once Ficarra and Requa finished what they deemed “a really crass” script, Joel and Ethan polished and punched up the script with even more lewd and crude jokes, sight gags, zingers, and unforgettable one-liners. According to Zwigoff, the Coens even did a complete revision of the screenplay. Soon after, the script was sent to various studious around Hollywood but was roundly rejected by all the big majors due to how wildly inappropriate the content was. According to the New York Times, the script was immediately rejected by Universal Pictures, which deemed the script “The foulest, disgusting, misogynistic, anti-Christmas, anti-children thing we could imagine.” Dimension’s Bob Weinstein took this description as a badge of honor and quickly snatched the rights to the script and green-lighted the project for Miramax/Dimension.

By January 2002, Variety reported that director Terry Zwigoff was tapped to helm Bad Santa, likely based on his terrific 2001 deadpan comedy Ghost World. Zwigoff was most instrumental in the casting of Marcus and Thurman especially, stating that, despite producorial pushback: “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.”

Bestowed with an estimated $23 million budget, Bad Santa began filming on July 8, 2002, with principal photography wrapping in September. Although the opening alley scene was shot in Montreal, Canada, the two-month film shoot was primarily filmed throughout the greater Los Angeles area. For instance, the early sequence that takes place in Miami Beach, Florida was filmed across the country in Long Beach, California. Meanwhile, the fictitious Saguaro Square Mall that is featured prominently in the film was shot at Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance; the same mall used by Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown. The parking lot of the mall is also featured in both films, a location notorious for Robert De Niro gunning down Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown. As mentioned, De Niro almost played Bad Santa, potentially marking a return to the infamous Louis Gara crime scene.

Similar to the Saguaro Square Mall itself, the Chamberlain’s Department Store that takes center stage in the film is also fictional. The space used for Chamberlain’s was an abandoned Montgomery Ward department store that had been vacant at the time of filming in 2002. The store no longer exists, as the wing of the mall housing the Montgomery Ward lot was demolished in 2006.

Speaking of the mall scenes, one of the most amusing anecdotes from the making of the movie involves Billy Bob Thorton’s intoxicated performance. According to Thornton, he was genuinely inebriated while filming various scenes for the film. In particular, Thornton admitted that following the scene in which he collapses on an escalator, he legitimately passed out in real life. To get into character, Thornton claims he pounded three glasses of red wine for breakfast, which he promptly chased with a few Bud Lights and a couple of vodka cranberries. As you might imagine, Thornton had such a ball making Bad Santa that he admitted in his autobiography, The Billy Bob Tapes, that making Bad Santa ranks among three instances in his entire life that he’d happily return to if he had a chance to go back in time. Oddly enough, the other instances included making The Alamo and his time as a highway road worker in Arkansas before his acting career began.

bad santa tony cox

Now, despite all the rude and crude jokes attributed to the Coen brothers, Zwigoff, and writers Ficarra and Requa, it’s worth noting that certain dialog was improvised on the spot by the actors. For example, Marcus’ classic deadpan line: “You probably shouldn’t be digging in your ass,” while Willie drunkenly entertains children in the mall was ad-libbed by Cox. Zwigoff found the line so hysterical that he couldn’t help but bust up laughing repeatedly on set while filming the scene. Zwigoff even admitted to waking up in the middle of the night at times in a fit of laughter because the line was so damn funny.

Now, Bad Santa wouldn’t be considered the definitive adult Christmas comedy unless it set a record for the highest number of profanities uttered in a Christmas film. In the theatrical version of the film, the F-word is dropped 159 times, while the S-word is heard 73 times. These numbers are increased in the unrated version of Bad Santa, which hikes the number of F-bombs to 170, and the S-word to 74 times. Meanwhile, “Ass” is used 31 times, and “Bitch” is spoken 10 times. Indeed, Bad Santa is the foul-mouthed gift that keeps on giving!

One of the most interesting and lesser-known tidbits about Bad Santa relates to the initial test screening and subsequent reshoots mandated by Dimension and Miramax. After Zwigoff turned in his final cut, the powers that be deemed the film so nasty, vulgar, and irredeemable that the producers refused to release it in theaters. Jeremy Smith of Slash Film was present at the 2003 test screening of Zwigoff’s cut and maintains that it’s a much better version than what was ultimately released in theaters. Here’s how it all went down.

Following a “disastrous screening” of Zwigoff’s original cut in Pasadena, Bob Weinstein hit the panic button and instantly called for reshoots. According to Bruce Fetts in The New York Times oral history of the debacle, Weinstein told Zwigoff: “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.'”

Unwilling to compromise his vision, Zwigoff stuck to his guns and flat-out refused to participate in the reshoots. He felt his version played well and the howling laughter in the audience during that so-called ill-fated test screening proved as much. As such, Weinstein promptly hired Todd Phillips to helm the reshoots, who was on the verge of his own directorial stardom with the release of Old School a few months earlier in 2003. Phillips agreed and most of his reshot sequences are now part of the theatrical cut.

bad santa billy bob

The scenes Phillips directed during the reshoots include Willie ransacking a poolside bar, Willie and Marcus giving Thurman a nard-punching training exercise, and Sarah Silverman giving a Mall Santa tutorial. While the Silverman scene was deleted from the theatrical release, the other scenes were included as a means of making Willie more likable and redeemable at the end of the film. Zwigoff’s original cut has never been seen again after that 2003 test screening, which is perhaps why Zwigoff only made one movie since, 2006’s Art School Confidential, and has largely left Hollywood ever since. Although there’s no denying what a rowdy and rambunctious crowd-pleaser the theatrical release of Bad Santa proved to be, it’s hard not to wonder what it would have been like if Zwigoff’s original vision wasn’t as compromised.

With Phillips’ reshoots inserted in the film, Bad Santa ultimately slid into theaters on November 26, 2003. In the Czech Republic, the movie was hilariously released under the title Santa is a Pervert. Even so, the film became an instant commercial and critical hit, earning $76 million globally against a $23 million budget. The film currently boasts a 70 Metascore and 78% Rotten Tomatoes score. As such, the movie endured long enough to spawn a sequel 13 years later, Bad Santa 2, which, although it has its fair share of defenders and detractors, featured many return characters like Willie, Marcus, and Thurman.

Speaking of Thurman, actor Brett Kelly has stated that he still gets recognized for the role he originated 20 years ago, especially when he grows out his curly hair. Fans often approach him and utter lines from the film such as “Fix you some sandwiches,” a refrain uttered by his spry granny in the film. And for all the bullying Thurman endures in the film, Kelly admitted in real life during a retrospective of the movie, that Thornton and Zwigoff were extremely protective of the child actor while making the movie, hinting that the brutal subject matter made them go out of their way to ensure Kelly was not bullied but taken care of on set.

Sticking with the retrospective theme, we’d be remiss not to mention the late great John Ritter, who plays Bob Chipeska with hysterical results in Bad Santa. Ritter and Thornton were close friends in real life after meeting and starring together in the ‘90s sitcom Hearts Afire. Thornton also cast Ritter in his directorial debut, Sling Blade, in which both actors give all-time great performances. During a HuffPo interview for Bad Santa 2, Thornton paid touching tribute to Ritter and fellow Bad Santa co-star Bernie Mac, both of whom passed away before the making of Bad Santa 2. According to Thornton:

“The thing that people don’t talk about a lot is the fact that there are two dear souls that are not with us … John was one of my best friends. We miss them. But even if they had still been here, once again, you would have to make up some stupid thing for them to be in the movie anyway. But we all kind of did it with that in mind ― that this is kind of dedicated to those two guys.”

Bad Santa was dedicated to John Ritter, who passed away two months before the film was released. Bad Santa 2 was dedicated to Ritter and Bernie Mac. 

Not for nothing, one of the best parts about Bad Santa, with its jaunty 92-minute runtime, is that it never overstays its welcome. We’ll do the same and let you get back to the family holiday festivities by stopping and declaring…that’s What The F*ck Happened to Bad Santa! The idea was born from Joel and Ethan Coen, who handpicked Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to write a screenplay. After revising the script and adding a bunch of outrageous jokes, Terry Zigoff did his best to honor the transgressive spirit of the alcoholic, thieving Santa Claus. Alas, after a poor test screening, the studio ordered reshoots that Zwigoff was firmly against and refused to direct. This gave way to Todd Phillips’ uncredited contributions to the film, which made Bad Santa a bit more sympathetic by the end of the film. Meanwhile, in one of his greatest screen performances, Billy Bob Thornton went full method actor and genuinely performed certain scenes while intoxicated. Despite the ups and downs that went into the making of the movie, it’s hard to argue against the lasting results. As the film celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Bad Santa remains among the absolute Christmas movies for adults to revel in. Now stuff that in your motherf*cking chimney!

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.