87North Productions has breathed new life into modern action cinema. Founded by Kelly McCormick and producing partner/husband David Leitch, the studio has built a viable name for itself by putting star power and spectacle at the forefront. 87North productions came to be after Leitch, coming from an extensive background in stuntwork and the second unit, found enough success in the director’s chair – first starting alongside long-time partner Chad Stahelksi on John Wick and then moving on to helm Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Now under their 87North banner, David Leitch and Kelly McCormick have spent their luck launching Bob Odenkick’s own action-comedy franchise with Nobody and David Harbour’s own Christmas-themed action romp with Violent Night.
From its conception, Violent Night was always destined to be a hit. After Universal bought the original pitch from Sonic the Hedgehog writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller, 87North brought together a dream team to execute this gonzo holiday tale. From director Tommy Wirkola, known for Dead Snow and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, to lead star David Harbour, who is still riding high on the success of Stranger Things and his debut as the Red Guardian in Marvel’s Black Widow, all the right pieces fell into pace to make this wild concept not just a great action piece, but also a fantastic Christmas story. Violent Night follows a wealthy family taken hostage by mercenaries on Christmas Eve, their only hope being a broken Santa Claus who must reclaim his ancient battle skills and former glory if he is to keep yuletide peace for those on his nice list.
87North Productions saw great success with their last two films, Kate and Bullet Train. The latter quickly reached the number one slot on Netflix’s top 10 list upon its debut on the streaming service this December. The jam-packed action extravaganza brought together the likes of Brad Pitt, Brian Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Sandra Bullock, Zazie Beetz, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Joey King, and the popstar turned actor Bad Bunny. Although not exactly on the same level, Violent Night flaunts that special 87North blend of star power and spectacle. This flavorful combination has proven to resonate with audiences and has given 87North films an edge over the competition. In celebration of Violent Night, we were lucky enough to sit down with producer Kelly McCormick and dissect her and David Leitch’s unique strategies for an exclusive interview.
Together with Kelly McCormick, we discuss how Violent Night came to defy all expectations, making the perfect action hero and villain with David Harbour and John Leguizamo, and the current debates around the death of the movie star. The producer was kind enough to join us while in the middle of production on The Fall Guy, David Leitch’s next film based on the action/adventure TV series of the same name from the 80s. The Fall Guy is gearing up to be a huge action spectacular with Ryan Gosling, Emily Blunt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Hannah Waddingham, Winston duke, and Everything Everywhere All at Once breakout Stephanie Hsu forming the main ensemble. Additionally, McCormick reveals to us why 87North Productions is no longer working on the film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Division, and the reason isn’t surprising given the video game follows a viral epidemic that overruns America.
Exclusive Interview with Producer Kelly McCormick for Violent Night
So given a few years ago, people across Hollywood would have scoffed at the idea of Violet Night. But the film has actually now turned into this viral sensation. Can you speak on how Violent Night proved the doubters wrong?
Kelly McCormick: You know, we have incredible partners with Universal in the sense that there probably were a lot of studios questioning whether or not Nobody could become what it became as well. With Violent Night, Universal bought it as a pitch and saw that it could become something that breaks through and has this special moment. Obviously, Universal is still investing in the theatrical and we too really believe in the theatrical experience. What we’re seeing is that it actually has a lot of weight still, which is really exciting for us because we feel like Violent Night and many of the films we do are experiential and are better with an audience.
To be honest, it’s pretty magical that [Universal] decided to take the risk. I think some of it’s about the budget and that it’s a little bit less risky than some others, just in case everyone wasn’t ready for a bombastic Christmas, you know, Gonzo tale. But I also think they saw the heart, which is what actually takes the film past the action standards. There’s so much heart to the story that I think it won them over in that this could be more than just a one-demographic kind of play.
How familiar are you with the recent debates around the “death” of the movie star? As in people aren’t paying to go see movie stars anymore, they’re paying to see characters related to IP like comic books and so forth. 87North, however, has put great effort into putting star power front and center, from Bob Odenkirk to now David Harbour. How do you find that perfect balance of star power and why was Harbour the perfect choice to play your gonzo Santa Claus?
Kelly McCormick: When David [Leitch] and I set out many years ago, he was still second unit directing, we always wanted to believe that we could create the new action stars of today with what we do: putting the character front and center, really thinking thoughtfully about how the action relates to what the character is going through, and what works best with regards to the physicality of the actor, himself or herself. Arguably, we are doing that in Bob Odenkirk and now David harbor where they’re both stars in their own right, but this is an opportunity for them to really lead something specifically that’s action-based and will probably give them a platform to do it time and time again.
Kelly McCormick: When we chose David Harbour, it was a big conversation with Universal’s marketing department about who’s maybe not the biggest sort of name, almost so the personality can overcome the character, but who also has a lot of love and buzz, and things going on that lead up to people wanting to see that person do more. David was on a very short list of that and, in fact, the first on that list for Universal and ourselves. So we felt really lucky when he saw how special the script was, he really saw himself as Santa! It’s incredibly surprising considering he’s such an extraordinary star with his personality and body of work, but he can also embody and become Santa, it’s pretty amazing.
So 2022 was a huge year for 87North Productions with both Bullet Train and Violent Night, and you’re currently in the middle of shooting The Fall Guy. What did you learn from the success of these last two films that you plan on taking into your upcoming projects?
Kelly McCormick: We are the type of people who like to keep our heads down and continue to do the hard work. We look for the original in the characters and in the setting, and hopefully in the big ideas as well as the messaging and themes that we’re trying to really evoke. Arguably, we have the tendency to entertain to the point where you don’t even know what the themes or messages are underneath (laughs). But I think that’s what actually gives our films those extra layers of why people are responding loudly.
Some people may not articulate it or care about some of the themes we’re trying to infuse, which is like, “let’s find hope again” even though it’s through this epic action ride. However, there is still stuff present in the film to believe in. You know, there’s still a lot of hope in the world in Violent Night. And, to me, that is actually what our unique sauce is made up of. Despite all the wild and fun entertainment that we’re providing, we never lose sight of that and it tethers back to the audience. I just think we need to continue to do that every time, whether it be for Nobody 2 or Violent Night 2 or an original that we get to make as well.
I have to ask, do you and David Leitch have a dream list of actors that you either want to make into action stars or who are already established?
Kelly McCormick: I mean, we’re lovers of actors and actresses. We’ve been really fortunate to work with the best of the best and even some up-and-comers too. Going back to Violent Night, I’m really proud of that ensemble. I’m super proud of the Bullet Train ensemble too but that’s just another level. Having this main family in Violent Night with Beverly D’Angelo, Alex Hassell, and we have Leah Brady as this discovery, you know, that sort of combination is so fun to put together. There are so many new people we would love to work with and there are so many others we would love to work with again. I just hope to keep making these movies so that we have all the opportunities to do so.
Speaking of the Violent Night ensemble, it’s not surprising to me that plenty of people are also talking about John Leguizamo. He’s got such a brilliant career but we haven’t seen him take on an action role like this in a while, and people have clearly responded to that in a way that I’m surprised didn’t happen sooner.
Kelly McCormick: John is such an incredible talent, and David [Leitch] worked with him before on John Wick. He has that role but it’s not super huge, and yet you remember it just like everything else he does. He’s such a phenom. In this case, it was a matter of finding our villain when you have David Harbor, who is like a six-foot, big-fit guy and wants to do his own action and stunts. So who makes for the most interesting combination that way as well as who has the chops to dive into a wild performance? And John Leguizamo is perfect in the sense that he’s actually the antithesis, like physically, and it allows for them to play in this way.
We really had to think about how to put stakes in for these two different shapes, the ways that they function physically, as well as the different energies they bring to this world. I think that’s one of the things that makes it really special. We obviously gave John the advantage at the end with the ice picks and the clap skates, but he’s still so vicious and determined that you actually believe he could take down this giant Santa. And one of the things we wanted to do with Santa is that we wanted everybody to feel dwarfed by him. Santa’s larger than life and that’s part of his mythos. So there’s something cool about that duality and John absolutely delivered.
I don’t think a lot of other people could have delivered those cheesy Christmas one-liners and still have them sound so sinister and badass every time.
Kelly McCormick: It’s hysterical! Like, he’s so funny in it but also knows how to play face. So that’s why he can throw out those cheesy puns and make them actually feel perfect.
So now looking ahead into the future, I have to finally ask about one project in particular. What’s going on with The Division? Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain were cast in the Tom Clancy video game adaptation and director Rawson Marshall Thurber talked about re-writing the script last year, but no news has come since.
Kelly McCormick: To be honest, when COVID hit, we left The Division because it felt like it was a documentary. You know, in the sense that the story deals with this outbreak that happens in real-time, the dangers that occur, and the anxiety that it creates. It was like, “Whoa, this is no longer fun.” Like, we literally all just had to go through this in real life. I think we could find love for it again. It’s such a cool property and what you could do with the imagery of a team of agents coming in with that kind of post-apocalyptic prospect is really amazing, but we actually did end up letting it go because we got moved away by COVID.
Is someone else coming in to take over?
Kelly McCormick: I heard that it was sort of on the back burner, but I don’t know for sure.