Since its release in 2003, Elf has quickly become a new Christmas classic for the 21st century. The charming, hilarious holiday hit, which finds Will Ferrell in the role of Buddy the Elf, is an infectiously gleeful, highly quotable, and joyfully irreverent seasonal comedy with something for everyone in the family to enjoy. It's safe to say that Elf is on constant rotation during the holiday season for a reason. But while a lot of people — both young and old — know the movie by heart, they might not know these behind-the-scenes details that turned Elf into the family favorite it's celebrated as today.
When Elf was gearing up into production, Will Ferrell wasn't quite the household name he is today. The TV actor was a favorite on Saturday Night Live, certainly, but he wasn't a proven movie star yet. He starred in SNL-related movies like A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, and The Ladies Man, but they weren't exactly critical or commercial successes. He played a minor role in the first two Austin Powers films, but they were ultimately Mike Myers' movies. He had a memorable turn in Zoolander, but it wasn't a success upon release. The subsequent back-to-back releases of Old School, Elf and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy cemented Ferrell's status as a box office draw, but that wasn't the case when Elf was in the works.
Therefore, as the filmmakers were casting the Christmas movie, Jim Carrey was originally envisioned to play Buddy the Elf back in the '90s. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. It's unclear why exactly Jim Carrey wasn't picked to play the part. It might have something to do with scheduling or money, but the actor played the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. So, for better or for worse, Jim Carrey got his own Christmas movie in the early '00s.
Something that people outside of the business can forget about moviemaking is that it often takes a very, very long time before a movie makes its way to the screen. When you write a screenplay, there's no guarantee that it'll be ready to shoot anytime soon. There are rewrites, studio notes, and the actual green-light process to take into account, and that's before you even cast and shoot the movie! Suffice to say, for an original high-concept comedy like Elf, it wasn't a quick journey for screenwriter Dave Berenbaum. To be more specific, it took 10 years before his screenplay became a film.
Elf was David Berenbaum's first produced screenplay, and the movie was in the works going back all the way to 1993. The script saw significant changes before it geared up for production, and it was still being rewritten through the filming process (which we'll get into in just a little bit). But it's safe to say that a movie takes a very, very long time to be made. And when you look at the original screenplay to the finished film, you'll probably see a lot of changes made in the decade. Writing is often an ongoing process — especially when many people are involved. Thankfully, it turned out well.
One of the main reasons why people love Will Ferrell's Buddy the Elf is because he's a pure child at heart. Even though he makes a lot of mistakes, and he gets in quite a bit of trouble throughout the film, the character is a good-hearted man-child who only wants the best for those around him during the Christmas season. That's what makes the character so lovable, and Ferrell's performance does a great job of bringing him to life and capturing that child-like glee. But according to director Jon Favreau, the original script for Elf turned Buddy's story into a darker, more PG-13 film. It wasn't until he rewrote the movie and gave it more of a family-friendly tone, inspired by the Christmas specials of yore, that it finally came into place.
Here's how director Jon Favreau described the original screenplay in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2013:
I took a look at the script, and I wasn’t particularly interested. It was a much darker version of the film. I liked the notion of being involved with Will in his first solo movie after SNL, but it wasn’t quite there. I was asked to take another look at it. They were looking for somebody to rewrite it and possibly direct it. And I remember reading it, and it clicked: if I made the world that he was from as though he grew up as an elf in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, one of those Rankin/Bass Christmas specials I grew up with, then everything fell into place tonally. So for a year, I rewrote the script. It turned into more of a PG movie from a PG-13. He was a darker character in the script I had read originally. The character became a bit more innocent, and the world became more of a pastiche of the Rankin/Bass films. The studio [New Line] read it and agreed to make it, and that’s when I was brought on to direct.
Actors can bring a lot to the creative process. Whether it's suggestions for new lines while filming, key changes to the looks and designs of their characters, or changing the meaning of the dialogue through their delivery, there are many additions and changes that an actor can make while bringing a character to life on-screen. In that spirit, it was reported that Zooey Deschanel's casting in Elf played a key part in the movie's musicality.
An accomplished musician in addition to being a talented actress, Zooey Deschanel's casting in the role of Jovie, the sarcastic department store employee who begins to find the Christmas spirit through her relationship with Buddy the Elf, allowed the filmmakers to incorporate more musical moments, including a rendition of "Baby It's Cold Outside" with Buddy and Jovie and, later in the film, a city-wide caroling of "Santa Claus is Coming To Town," which allows Santa to have the Christmas spirit he needs to fuel his sleigh through the night. It's hard to know what the movie would've been without these musical inclusions, but it's clear that casting Zooey Deschanel in this role allowed Elf to be filled with even more Christmas spirit.
In a city that is always hustling-and-bustling like New York City, it's hard to, say, shut down the Lincoln Tunnel in order to film a shot or two. That means that, while filming his scene in the Lincoln Tunnel in Elf, Will Ferrell was actually walking around near real traffic around the Big Apple. With that, it is safe to say that you don't often see a 6'3" man walking around dressed in elf tights. As a result, several minor traffic accidents apparently occurred.
Evidently, the drivers were reportedly so fixated on a man walking around the tunnels in an elf costume that they wound up not paying attention to the road and getting into minor fender benders and other accidents. Thankfully, there were seemingly no serious and/or life-threatening traffic accidents during the process of filming, so it is amusing to imagine random drivers caught off-guard by the sight of a giant elf man and having to explain that to either the other driver or to their car insurance people when they make their claims. But there have probably been weirder car accidents in New York.
In comedy, especially these days, there is a lot of improvisation. Oftentimes, comedy needs to feel natural, part of the moment, to feel authentic and fully well-realized. And while some movies rely too much on improvisation, without naming names, Elf is a movie that uses improvisation flawlessly in the story. In the scene where Buddy the Elf is interrogating the department store Santa (played by Artie Lange), Will Ferrell rattled off a few memorable lines straight from his noggin, many of which made their way into the film and became quotable, beloved Christmas movie favorites.
As it was revealed by director Jon Favreau in an interview with ABC News, the famous line "You sit on a throne of lies," as well as the quotable "You smell like beef and cheese; you don't smell like Santa," were all improvised in the moment. When Will Ferrell uttered these lines on set, it was the director's first time hearing them, as well as the cast and crew too. Suffice to say, it was likely pretty hard to stifle your laughter on this set.
It's hard to know what people feel about their own movies. Their experiences with the film will be entirely different from our own. This can either heighten or dwindle the emotional impact people feel during select scenes. In any case, there was one moment in Elf where even Will Ferrell fought back tears during the movie's premiere. It was the climatic moment when the citizens of New York City come together to sing, "Santa Claus is Coming To Town," which gives the man in the red set the Christmas spirit he needs to fly his sleigh into the night. At the time, as noted in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, it was only a few years after the tragedy of 9/11. Seeing NYC brought together in this tender moment became very emotional.
[At the L.A. premiere] I knew it was working at that moment where Buddy is in the back of the sleigh and everyone’s singing in Central Park and there’s enough Christmas spirit to get it lifted off, and he’s waving goodbye. I’m like, 'Oh, I can’t let everyone see me cry here at my own movie.' I was like, 'Oh gosh, this is working on a level that I didn’t anticipate,' and that was pretty cool. I remember getting a call from Nora Ephron, because we were just starting the sit down to get to do Bewitched. And during that opening weekend, she was like, ‘You really should enjoy this because this doesn’t happen a lot, where you have a movie that everyone is talking about.’ And she’s like, ‘I hope you enjoy it. Just really.’ So I remember her words, I was like, ‘OK, yeah. You’re right. This is crazy.'
I don't know about you, but it's not every day that I get a chance to turn down nearly $30 million. I think it's safe to say that most people haven't had that opportunity in their lifetimes. Nevertheless, this is a luxury that Will Ferrell was able to find in 2013, when the comedic actor turned down $29 million for the chance to reprise his role as Buddy the Elf in a purposed Elf sequel. He confirmed in an interview with The Guardian that the studio was prepared to give him a high sum for the sequel if he agreed, but he ultimately chose to pass:
That's what was on offer for it. But I killed the idea of a sequel. I never liked it — $29 [million] does seem a lot of money for a guy to wear tights, but it's what the marketplace will bear. It's insane, but it's not my call. The studios perpetuate it and they make it hard to say no... It wasn't difficult at all. I remember asking myself: could I withstand the criticism when it's bad and they say, 'He did the sequel for the money?' I decided I wouldn't be able to. I didn't want to wander into an area that could erase all the good work I've done - but you watch, I'll do some sequel in the future that's crap.
Maybe it's for the best. Comedy sequels are rarely ever as good — let alone better — than their predecessors. Especially for a comedy as beloved and well-quoted as Elf, it would be a mighty hard act to follow up, and it sounds like it took a lot of Christmas magic to make the movie as good as it was in the first place. It's hard to recreate that magic a second time. Maybe Will Ferrell knew better than anyone that it wasn't meant to be. It's interesting, though, that this came around the time he front-lined Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which was enjoyable but it wasn't quite as good as the first one. He also did a sequel to Zoolander not long after, and that one ... well, maybe Will Ferrell saw the writing on the wall with that.
There's a good chance that, as the holiday season draws near, you'll find yourself re-watching Elf with your family — assuming, of course, you haven't done so already. If you get the chance to revisit this Christmas comedy classic, you will hopefully keep these fun behind-the-scenes details in mind.