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11 Great Facts About Bad Santa

Dimension Films
Dimension Films

If there’s one lesson to be gleaned from Bad Santa, it’s that the holiday season isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for everyone. The non-stop ratchet party of a film stars Billy Bob Thornton as the titular character, a functioning alcoholic and misanthrope who works as a mall Santa in order to rob department stores on Christmas Eve.

Of course, plans go haywire when the con man befriends a troubled kid (Brett Kelly) and falls for a bartender with a Santa fetish (Lauren Graham). It’s the ultimate film for pessimists who shirk at Christmas sentiment but love to throw down, making it the perfect pick-me-up to pull you through December. Get to know more about the cult classic with these 11 great facts about Bad Santa.

1. BILL MURRAY WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE LEAD.

According to The Guardian, Murray was actually in final negotiations to take the lead, until he dropped out to film Lost in Translation. Suffice it to say, it was a win-win for both Murray and Billy Bob Thornton.

2. THE COEN BROTHERS HELPED DEVELOP THE MOVIE.

Raising Arizona, Fargo, and, er, Bad Santa? Believe it. According to director Terry Zwigoff, the Coens were actually the first choice to helm the movie. “The story I had heard was that the original writers, who wrote about 90 percent of what you see in any of the cuts, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, met the Coen brothers and said, ‘We want to write a script that you guys direct.’ And they said, ‘We only direct our own writing but we've always had this crazy idea about this drunken Santa Claus and this little person elf that has to keep him in line,” Zwigoff told IndieWire.

“So John and Glenn wrote this script," Zwigoff continued. "And the Coen brothers read it and they told them, ‘We don't want to direct it. We think it's great but we don't want to do it.’ So they asked them if they could give them some notes. And when the Coens sat down to try and give them notes over a weekend, eventually they just thought it would be easier if they take a pass on it and rewrite it.”

3. IT WAS A SINGLE LINE IN THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT THAT MADE TERRY ZWIGOFF WANT TO DIRECT THE FILM.

“I’m more interested in dialogue,” Zwigoff told The A.V. Club. “Most of the scripts I’ve gone after to direct, there’s generally just something about the dialogue.” For Bad Santa, it was one line of dialogue that hooked him. Continued Zwigoff, “It was something like, ‘Sweet Jews for Jesus!’ One of the most inspired lines I’d ever read.”

4. ZWIGOFF ISN’T A FAN OF THE THEATRICAL CUT OF THE MOVIE.

Following an interview with IndieWire, Zwigoff hosted a public screening in which he presented the director’s cut of the film, which is his preferred version. “That's the filming of the script, basically,” Zwigoff explained. “The studio wanted to mess with it and make it more mainstream and pour some fake sentiment on it for the people that stumble around the mall. Go to Target some day and look at who your target audience is. Look at the people who are out there going to films and you realize you are totally f*cked, you don't want to do anything these people like. But that director's cut is exactly the script I got. I wanted to protect the script. I like writers a lot. It was a lot darker.”

5. BILLY BOB THORNTON WENT METHOD FOR THE MOVIE.

In an interview with Film4, Billy Bob Thornton detailed exactly how he got into his alcoholic character. “I've traditionally played really extreme characters and even in a comedy, if you're going to play a guy like this, you can't be sort of drunk, you know? And I wasn't sort of drunk,” said Thornton. “You have to go completely into it. I love children, I'm crazy about them, but I had to ignore that fact and play the part.”

6. IT WAS JOHN RITTER’S FINAL FILM ROLE.

A still of John Ritter from 'Bad Santa' (2003).
Dimension Films

America wept when news broke that John Ritter, the beloved star of Three’s Company, passed away suddenly on September 11, 2003 of aortic dissection at the age of 54. His hilarious turn as mall manager Bob Chipeska in Bad Santa was his final feature film appearance. The movie was dedicated to his memory.

7. LAUREN GRAHAM HUMPED A CHAIR DURING HER AUDITION TO PLAY SUE THE BARTENDER.

If you’re going up for a character who’s got a fetish for Santa, you’ve really got to sell it. “I had to audition doing the scene where I first straddle Santa,” Graham recalled to Uncut. “So I’m basically in front of a room full of executives humping a chair. I really did love Billy Bob though, even more than the chair. With a character like this you have to make a big decision. I just thought: she loves anything to do with Christmas, she totally doesn’t see what’s disgusting about this particular Santa. He fulfills a strange kinda fantasy for her.”

8. ANGUS T. JONES OF TWO AND A HALF MEN WENT OUT FOR THE ROLE OF THURMAN MERMAN.

In an interview with The Province, Brett Kelly, then a student at the University of British Columbia, recalled his audition to play Thurman Merman. Among those he beat out to play Bad Santa’s sidekick was fellow chubby-cheeked actor Angus T. Jones, who’d go on to star in Two and a Half Men (before infamously trashing the show). Kelly recalled how filming the movie affected his life: “It wasn't like I was in Bad Santa and I came back and everything had changed. It was more like I got to drop in and see like, ‘Oh, that's what making movies is like.’”

9. THORNTON HAD TO DEFEND THE FILM AGAINST THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT.


Dimension Films

Let’s be real: Bad Santa isn’t for the easily offended. Taking a cultural icon and turning him into a sex-crazed alcoholic isn’t exactly going to win over more conservative moviegoers. Which is exactly why Thornton found himself defending the movie. “We did get a few comments," Thornton told Film4, “and my reply was always, 'As far as I know, Santa Claus is not in the Bible. I think you guys are talking about Jesus.””

10. IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC, THE MOVIE IS CALLED SANTA IS A PERVERT.

Films are known to change names to fit foreign markets. That’s nothing new. However, sometimes its nuance gets a little lost in translation. Case in point: the Czech Republic’s extremely literal, albeit accurate, title.

11. IN A DELETED SCENE, SARAH SILVERMAN CAMEOS AS A SANTA TEACHER.

Among the multiple scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor (much to Zwigoff’s chagrin) was a hilarious moment with Sarah Silverman. In the two-minute scene, Silverman acts as a Santa School teacher instructing a classroom of mall Santas on how to coax a smile out of a child and please their parents.

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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


Paramount Pictures

First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


Paramount Pictures

In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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