10 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Elf’
The Will Ferrell holiday classic ‘Elf’ wasn’t supposed to be a hit. Despite being a heartwarming comedy released around the holiday season, it had several things going against it before the filmmakers had a chance to start shooting.
Ferrell had just found a loyal audience thanks to his memorable performance as Frank the Tank in the frat comedy ‘Old School,’ and playing an ultra-happy elf in a squeaky clean family comedy seemed counterproductive to his career’s trajectory. Director Jon Favreau, who had yet to helm the ‘Iron Man’ blockbusters at this point, had to work hard to convince his producer to let him make a Christmas movie by being as enthusiastic about it as Buddy is about Christmas.
It not only made a deep footprint at the holiday box office — it has also became a staple of Christmas movie viewing. Ferrell’s ridiculous charm shines through as Buddy, a perpetually cheery and unaware “elf” from Santa’s Workshop who learns he’s really an adopted human and ventures to New York to find his real father. Even the little tidbits of trivia on the making of the film are as infectious and inspiring as Buddy’s mantra of spreading Christmas cheer by “singing loud for all to hear.”
1. The lead role was originally offered to Jim Carrey
‘Elf’ might be one of the newer Christmas classics, but it’s actually much older than you think.
The story and script for ‘Elf,’ written by screenwriter David Berenbaum, dates back to 1993. He put the script together with Jim Carrey in mind for the lead role, but he ultimately turned it down to pursue other movie offers that rolled in after ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ made him a star. The project floated around “development hell” for another 10 years before it caught Favreau’s attention and Ferrell signed on for the chance to tackle a different kind of comedy role.
2. The actor who played Ralphie in ‘A Christmas Story’ appears as an elf
Favreau decided to cast some of his favorite television actors for his new project, despite objections from the studio. Thanks to his casting decisions, actors like Ed Asner got to play Santa Claus and Bob Newhart turned up as Buddy’s tiny, adoptive elf father.
Favreau also got to bring another familiar face back to the big screen. Peter Billingsley, best known as the child actor who played Ralphie in another classic holiday film, ‘A Christmas Story,’ had an uncredited cameo as one of the supervising elves in Santa’s Workshop. Billingsley worked as a producer on several of Favreau’s other projects such as his talk show ‘Dinner for Five’ and movies including ‘Made’ and ‘Iron Man.’
3. The voice of the stop-motion polar bear club is legendary animator Ray Harryhausen
Favreau came up with the brilliant idea to make nods to characters from classic Rankin/Bass Christmas specials like ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ Not only did he have to seek permission to use the unique style and characters (like the snowman narrator, voiced in the movie by musician Leon Redbone), but he also wanted to film them in the traditional stop-motion animation mode.
The movie’s use of classic stop-motion animation attracted the attention of legendary filmmaker Ray Harryhausen — who pioneered the technique in everything from ‘Mighty Joe Young’ to the original ‘Clash of the Titans’ — and Favreau signed him up to do a voice cameo in the movie as one of the animals that Buddy says goodbye to just before he jumps on the ice floe headed for New York. According to an interview with Favreau, the director met Harryhausen at a nearby speaking engagement where they signed the contract and recorded his lines for the movie. (The Narwhal is also voiced by Favreau.)
4. The elf costumes are exact replicas of the elf costumes from ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’
Fans of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ might also recognize some of the elves that Favreau brought to the screen.
The costumes for Santa’s elves are replicas of the same ones worn by the animated characters in ‘Rudolph.’ Favreau said in an interview that he wanted to use these and other “cultural touchstones that would make this film feel familiar” to the audience who grew up watching them.
5. Will Ferrell’s reactions to the jack in the boxes were genuine
In a memorable scene, Buddy has trouble fitting in with the other elves making toys in the workshop. So they move him to a testing job where he has to make sure the clowns jump out of their boxes, a job that would fray the nerves of even the strongest elf.
Ferrell’s jumpy reactions to the laughing clowns were genuine. No, he doesn’t have coulrophobia, the clinical term for a fear of clowns. The very last jack-in-the-box was controlled by Favreau off-stage by remote control. According to the DVD commentary, Favreau said he wanted to wait until Ferrell thought it wouldn’t jump out to get the right scare out of him for the scene.
6. The voice of Brain on ‘Animaniacs’ had an uncredited role as Buddy’s 12-second burp
One of the more memorable moments occurs halfway through the film when Buddy finds his father, played by James Caan, and polishes off an entire two-liter Coca-Cola during dinner with his family. The ungodly belch that followed actually came from one of show business’s most famous and recognizable voice actors.
Maurice LaMarche has provided voices for a number of well-known cartoon characters, including Egon on ‘The Real Ghost Busters,’ The Brain on ‘Animaniacs’ and various characters on ‘Futurama.’ He also got paid (and, we hope, residuals as well) to do the ridiculously long burp in ‘Elf.’
LaMarche told The Onion’s AV Club that he has been belching like that since he was a kid and was often called upon to provide Wakko’s musical burps on ‘Animaniacs.’ He said someone from ‘Elf’s’ crew remembered those scenes from the show and asked him to do a long belching take for their movie.
7. Ferrell suffered from headaches and a lack of sleep from eating all the sugar
The elves in the movie have to stick to a steady diet of sugary sweets. So Ferrell spent many scenes eating enough syrup and sugary goodies to give an elephant diabetes.
Some of the scenes required him to actually eat the super-sweet stuff in every take rather than junk them in a spit bucket. The diet didn’t agree with him very well when the cameras weren’t rolling. He suffered from headaches a lot on set. He also didn’t get a lot of sleep because he was so wired all the time. Even the cotton balls in the doctor’s office scene were made from cotton candy. However, he was willing to do it. Will said in an interview, “If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will – if that’s what the job calls for.”
8. The tiny elves weren’t made with CGI
Favreau wanted to rely on as many “old techniques” of filming as possible to preserve its nostalgic feel. One of the simpler tricks involved the elves’ diminutive look.
According to the DVD commentary, Favreau used an old movie trick called “forced perspective” to make the elves appear smaller in the presence of Ferrell, Asner and the other human-sized actors. Some of the workshop sets had to be built twice so Ferrell would appear bigger than the elves while they stood on a separate platform in the larger sets. The right lighting helped blend the two scenes together on film.
9. Will Ferrell turned down a huge chunk of money to do ‘Elf 2′
If you’re hoping that Buddy will go on another adventure, you should probably ask Santa for something else at Christmas.
‘Elf’ did pretty well at the box office, raking in more than $220 million in global ticket sales. Naturally, the studio floated the idea of doing a sequel. Ferrell refused the offer, even though the studio offered him $29 million to put on the tights one more time. He said it wasn’t hard to turn down the offer. According to an interview, all he had to do was think of the bad reviews the movie would get. For die-hard fans, there’s always the musical.
10. Will Ferrell once worked as a department store Santa
Of course, he could always play Santa in another movie since he’s got experience for the part on his resume.
Ferrell said in an interview just before ‘Elf’ was released that he actually played Santa in an outdoor shopping mall during his days with The Groundlings, the legendary Los Angeles improv comedy group that has groomed several ‘SNL’ performers over the years. The truly amazing part is that he took the job with fellow Groundlings member and future ‘SNL’ star Chris Kattan who worked as one of Santa’s elves. It’s safe to say they had kids and parent alike cracking up during the holiday season.
— Written by Danny Gallagher