by Chris Monroe
Also see our REVIEW of “Elf”
Perhaps due to the “Christmas spirit” and the result of working on a funny, family film, the cast and crew seemed delighted to sit down in New York and discuss their experience of creating the new Christmas entertainment of “Elf”. Among those joining the interviews were actors Mary Steenburgen, Zooey Deschanel, Will Ferrell, Ed Asner, and Bob Newhart; including Producers Todd Komarnicki and Jon Berg, Screenwriter David Berenbaum, and Director Jon Favreau.
Getting down to real serious matters with Mary Steenburgen, I made sure I asked a question of utmost importance: Was that real syrup you poured on your spaghetti, and how many times did you have to eat it for the shot? Of course, this helped lighten the mood and open her up to her views of the film.
Steenburgen says, for her, making this film was “hilarious, innocent, magical.” Her character and her performance support this. In a simple, well-put statement she says that what this film does is hand you two hours of being a kid. Consequently, it was real syrup on the spaghetti she ate.
Meeting the producers Todd Komarnicki and Jon Berg, and screenwriter David Berenbaum was like chatting with a three man comedy team, but they also did not fail to include meaningful insight into the production as well as into their backgrounds.
To start with, I was interested in finding out how the production was affected by bringing in Will Ferrell. Berenbaum explained that he had originally written the script in 1996 before he even knew who Will Ferrell was. The character, he says, was written for a very innocent guy. He was watching the Penny Marshall hit film “Big” while he was writing and trying to capture some of the same ideas. The reason he chose New York City for the setting was because he felt this would be the most challenging place for a character with such an innocent soul.
Berenbaum admits that today, he doesn’t know of any other comedian that could capture this kind of innocence for the role like Will Ferrell. He was their choice to play the role once the script was finished and the production was underway. (By the way, writing the script and bringing it through production was a seven-year journey.) Once Ferrell was on board, they had complete confidence in his comedic talent and gave him freedom to explore the humor of the piece. Ferrell has done a lot of improvisation, so during the filming some of the little touches added to scenes were his own creation.
Fellow believer, Todd Komarnicki was the most humorous of this group, but sincerely had the most interesting comments to make about the film. For example, Komarnicki believes that this film is a good demonstration that innocence triumphs over evil. Even in a world where this seems so preposterous, he believes it still holds true.
When challenged about his views, Komarnicki enlightened me about a group called “Film Aid” whose mission is to take films, such as It’s A Wonderful Life, and show them in Third World countries to people who have never seen films before. The purpose is to bring hope and inspire people—even those who might seem to be disadvantaged. Furthermore, Komarnicki states that those who might be down-and-out can have more hope than those who seem to “have it all together.” To him, hope never goes away, no matter what state you are in. “That’s the light inside of us.”
Zooey Deschanel explained that Christmas is her favorite holiday. Along with being a talented singer (she played Little Red Riding Hood in “Into the Woods” in Interact’s Theatre Company), one of the things she loves most is to go caroling during the Christmas season. A friend of hers in Los Angeles has a Christmas party every year, and part of their tradition is to go singing through the neighborhood. Somehow she finds the courage to do this, even in a place that can seem as jaded as New York City.
In the same spirit of Christmas, Deschanel returned home last year to Los Angeles after working on “Elf” here in New York to find that no one at her house had decorated. Sincerely disappointed and perhaps inspired by her character in the movie that helps to save Christmas, Deschanel went out that night and found a Christmas tree and brought it home. She then decorated the tree, as well as the house, with snowflakes and various other decorations. Her family had been busy with so many other things going on that they did not get a chance to do it, but she did not want to miss out on celebrating and enjoying the holiday.
Someone else who shares this same care for this holiday is director Jon Favreau, who claims to have never missed one trip home to New York for Christmas. With a repertoire of more gritty films like Made and Swingers, Favreau is more sensitive to things, such as foul language, now that he has kids of his own. (He has a son and a new 5-month-old daughter.) For this reason, most of the humor in “Elf” was designed for what was appropriate for kids. Favreau even helped to tone down the movie to avoid its original PG-13 rating.
Whether you have a secular or religious background, Favreau believes that this film honors the Christmas holiday. He says that during Christmas everyone, no matter their religion, revolve around the philosophy of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (This colloquial idea, of course, is what Jesus taught.) Furthermore, Favreau sees this holiday as a time of giving and generosity, and even as a time of self-sacrifice in a lot of ways.
One fun thing to find out from Favreau was the inspiration he found from his son. While shooting the film, he would experiment with different ideas that he saw or remembered that his son would do. These gags (such as picking gum off of the subway rail and eating it) were things Favreau wanted to include because, again, it was the innocence—and the humor—that he wanted to capture for the character of Buddy and for the film.
One of the most appreciative aspects to Will Ferrell’s work on this film (as well as with his recent work in Old School) was his approach to the comedy. In “Elf” Ferrell says he didn’t try to “be funny.” Instead he just tried to be real, and then hope that his character and the situation would come across as funny. I commented to Ferrell about how his humor isn’t as “hammy” or over-the-top as we might find on a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Ferrell has played in other films, too, such as “Zoolander”, where you can’t help but laugh at the eccentricity of his character. But when director Todd Philips worked with Ferrell on “Old School,” he told Ferrell that this would be the first time audiences would see him portraying someone who is more like himself. The advantage of this approach for Old School, as well as in “Elf”, is that when his character does go over the top, it works. The moment when Buddy is ecstatic, for example, when he finds out Santa is arriving, is even more entertaining because of this.
After making Old School, someone told Ferrell he was like the “Belushi character” for the film. Because of that, he was sent a lot of scripts where people wanted him to be generic characters like “party-guy Jones,” but Ferrell wasn’t interested in them. Ferrell is glad to do this film because he says it couldn’t be more different from his last role in Old School. Wisely, it seems Ferrell wants to avoid being stereotyped and keep himself versatile for his film career.
Ed Asner was the prime choice for Santa Claus in the minds of the writers and producers. They wanted someone who had been around the block a few times. They wanted to have someone with some grit, an Earthy guy who could tell it like it is. After working with Favreau on his television show Dinner For Five and enjoying the experience, Asner agreed to do this project.
Asner also had something to say about Ferrell’s acting in this film. He says that Ferrell is not a “shtick” actor. “He does what he is supposed to do.” Asner makes a distinction from just calling him a comedian and says, “He’s an actor.” Although Ferrell is very humorous in this film, Asner claims he did not find himself laughing at Ferrell. Instead, Asner pays Ferrell a high compliment by saying that he found himself drawing from him during the shoot.
In light of Christmas, Ed Asner says that his favorite Christmas film used to be “It’s A Wonderful Life”, but that the sentimentality began to eat into him. His favorite film later became “The Best Years of Our Lives”, but in terms of Christmas it is now “The Gathering”.
Bob Newhart brings his classic, humorous, dry sense of humor to “Elf”, but also shared good doses during the interview. Everyday he looks through publications searching for new comedy material and recently found an article about a one-eyed bullfighter reapplying for his license. Realizing the humor in this, Newhart explains that if there is one profession where you need two really good eyes, this would be the one.
When Newhart’s career first began, he says he could not afford a writer, so he wrote all of his own material. Today, although people send him material from time to time, Newhart still writes about 95% of his jokes. Although “Elf” is not his own work, Newhart does not fail to bring his own touch to the film and make it that much more special.
When asked how he has managed to keep himself grounded all of these years, Newhart refers to his wife. “She never lets me get full of myself.” He explains that on Tuesdays his wife asks him to take out the recyclable trash for the Wednesday pick up. Tired of this one day, Newhart asked his wife if Joanne Woodward would ask Paul Newman to take out the recyclables, to which his wife retorted, “If you were Paul Newman, I wouldn’t ask you to take them out.” That ended the argument.
“Elf” is a fun film with a definite positive message. Director Jon Favreau told me he hopes this film will be as successful as other films that play on television year after year around Christmas. Expectantly, Newhart says that “Elf” is a film that will be around for a long time.
Read our review of “Elf” (the movie).