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20 Wild Details Behind The Making Of Elf

Few movies have been able to secure for themselves a place in the holiday film canon as quickly and as successfully as the 2003 family comedy Elf. Starring a truly in-his-prime Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human being who was raised to believe he was one of Santa’s elves in the North Pole, the movie has all the necessary heart and warmth that make a Christmas movie a truly comfy, cozy seasonal treat. It’s also, at the end of the day, just a downright silly film, filled with episodes of childlike humor and wonder that even parents can’t help but snicker at despite themselves. Elf may not be everyone’s cup of tea — or, as Buddy may prefer to say, plate of spaghetti with maple syrup — but a lot of heart and joy went into the making of this movie, which has since gone on to secure for itself the reputation of a beloved Christmas icon. Of course, with as many talented and unpredictable actors and comedians in one cast as this film boasted, in addition to an endless supply of saccharine holiday nostalgia, there’s also an endless supply of hilarious and heartwarming stories of what went on behind the scenes of this Christmas hit.


Updated on August 16th, 2022 by George Chrysostomou: One of the best films of the late James Caan, who recently sadly passed away, was that of Elf. When celebrating the life and career of the talented actor, it’s definitely important to reflect on the behind-the-scenes of Elf, for which so many would know his work. The set was definitely conducive to Caan putting in such a fantastic performance as Buddy’s father.

It took 10 years for the movie to make it from script to screen

It’s basically impossible for a project of any caliber to go directly from the draft script stage to being made into a motion picture. However, what may be surprising to learn is that Elf was first drafted and circulated all the way back in 1993, 10 years before the film finally made it to the big screen in 2003. The original movie was reportedly much different than the one that everyone will know and love — or at least tolerate, if not outright hate.

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Jon Favreau has discussed his rewrites for the movie at length, and studio and casting influences also decidedly changed the film from what it once could have been. Hollywood changed a lot from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, so there’s no way of telling what a 1990s Elf would have looked like.

Jim Carrey was the original choice for Buddy

Regardless of whether they could ever have anticipated it, there’s no way of denying that Buddy the Elf became a career-defining role for the already standout comedic talent Will Ferrell. After all of his years on Saturday Night Live, the movie allowed him to successfully transition to the big screen, launching a career that has spanned movies both wildly successful and others… well, less so. However, back when the movie was in its earliest point of development in the 1990s, it was another stand-up comedy alum who was originally envisioned for the part of Buddy. As hard as it may be to conceive of, Buddy the Elf was once going to be played by Ace Venture: Pet Detective himself, Jim Carrey. Of course, Carrey would go on to play the Grinch, so everyone got their respective piece of the holiday box office here.

The movie would likely have been PG-13 prior to rewrites

As we’ve already discussed, it took ten years for the movie to make it from its initial script form to the big screen. Yet apparently the film that made it to the big screen all those years later is a very different, cleaner, and lighter one than what was originally imagined. It may be hard to picture a darker version of Buddy the Elf, but thanks to Jon Favreau’s work in the rewriting process, we’ll never have to. “I took a look at the script, and I wasn’t particularly interested. It was a much darker version of the film,” Favreau recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone. “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 making of Elf was thus quite a complex process.

Will Ferrell refuses to make an Elf sequel

It’s impressive, really, that Elf 2 has somehow never really been teased or discussed openly in any way. Sequels are essentially par for the course these days for any movie that’s mildly successful, so it’s inevitable that one could wonder whether a sequel isn’t still in the cards for Elf, even after all of these years. If leading man Will Ferrell has anything to say about it, however, that day will never come. In an interview with The Guardian, Ferrell confirmed that he had shot down “the idea of a sequel. $29m does seem a lot of money for a guy to wear tights, but it’s what the marketplace will bear. … I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf.”

Peter Billingsley from A Christmas Story has a fun cameo

Elf is merely one of a large number of feel good holiday movie and comedies that have become considered part of the Christmas movie classic canon. Another one of these films is the decidedly less wholesome and more sarcastic A Christmas Story, released twenty years prior to Elf in 1983. The movie followed the adventures of Ralphie in the 1940s as he tries to ensure that he will be given a BB gun for Christmas.

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The film is filled with biting humor and family satire. However, its connection to Elf happens so suddenly that it’s not unlikely that many fans miss it. Peter Billingsley, the child star of A Christmas Story, has a brief cameo in Elf as one of the elves in Santa’s workshop with whom Buddy interacts.

The elf costumes were designed with a nostalgic favorite in mind

So much of what makes Elf work is its reliance upon the older charms of innocent childhood favorites including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Jon Favreau recalled to Rolling Stone in 2013 that the movie needed to be infused with the world of these classics in order to work: “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.” With additional rewrites, “the world became more of a pastiche of the Rankin/Bass films.” As a result of this added nostalgic quality, the elves soon found themselves decked out to the nines in the exact sort of outfits that Hermie and his friends wore in the Rankin/Bass special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Buddy’s terror at the jack in the box was genuine

Poor Buddy often finds himself put in situations that test his elf-ish cheer and strength, especially when he’s tasked with jobs that other elves are able to perform much more readily and with greater success. For Buddy, this includes the testing of various creepy Jack in the box toys in order to ensure that the little chattering clowns do indeed pop up when they are supposed to do so. Buddy’s trepidation is palpable each time he turns the crank on the brightly colored boxes, but the final time, when the Jack in the box is delayed in its escape from the box, his fear is entirely on display — and for good reason, too, as this was apparently Will Ferrell’s genuine reaction to Jon Favreau remotely controlling the toy from off screen, which is a great hidden detail that elevates the film and shows the imagination that went into the making of Elf.

Forced perspective was used to make Buddy look like a giant

Many of the jokes that take place in the North Pole scenes are purely born out of the visual absurdity of Buddy ever thinking he could be an elf. For example, Will Ferrell would normally tower over the adorable Bob Newhart to begin with, but thanks to a specific technique the production used, the size difference is even more exaggerated. Elf utilized the technique of forced perspective in order to create this optical illusion. As Jon Favreau explained, “One set is raised and closer and smaller, and one is bigger and further away. And if you were to line up those two sets and measure them, you can have one person on one set appear to be much larger than a person on the other set. … And if you look closely, you can see the two sets meet because we didn’t use CG to paint over that or blur it. I wanted it to have the same flaws that it would have had, to make the movie feel more timeless.”

The other elves were originally much meaner

The other elves in the North Pole don’t exactly take to Buddy. He overhears them talking about how different he is, and is clearly hurt by their perceived rejection of him. However, the elves are never outright mean to him over the course of his time in the North Pole. Yet, in the original script, things would have been very different, featuring mean elves who openly bullied the outsider Buddy and made him feel less than even more than anything else.

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Jon Favreau decided to change this in his rewrites because he felt it would provide a better contrast for Buddy to come from a sunshiny North Pole into the harsh reality of New York City: “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

The movie didn’t have much music prior to Zooey Deschanel’s casting

It’s amazing how just casting one character can completely change a project. In the case of Elf, the casting that most drastically changed the movie is undoubtedly the choice to have Zooey Deschanel fill the role of Jovie, the department store Elf who becomes Buddy’s eventual love interest. It was only because of Deschanel’s considerable musical talent that so much singing was added into the script. Jovie and Buddy first meet for real when he overhears her singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in the employee showers, and Jovie’s leading a rousing round of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” at the end of the movie provides Santa’s sleigh with enough Christmas spirit to continue flying. After all, the film itself says it best: the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear. Without the addition of Deschanel, Christmas cheer may have been nowhere to be found and the making of Elf would have been quite different.

The snowball fight scene was primarily CGI

Certain directors to this day will prefer the use of practical effects over CGI effects whenever possible. In the early 2000s, when CGI was hardly of the caliber that it is now, it made even more sense for productions to shy away from over relying upon the method of production. While Jon Favreau emphasized the use of stop motion in particular in the movie, there is one sequence that was all but impossible to film without some serious CGI work. When Buddy engages in a snowball fight with some pesky children, he basically becomes a human canon, throwing snowballs at a rate which would be beyond impossible for any human being. CGI was heavily used in this sequence, and Favreau also chose to highlight the dramatized nature of the moment with the score, choosing something akin to an old western standoff.

Buddy’s journey was inspired by the Tom Hanks movie Big

Buddy the Elf may not be a child in the traditional sense of the word, but his experience of the world of New York City is entirely reminiscent of a child let loose in a candy store. Elf may be 15 years old now, but it was hardly the first movie in the genre of “childlike hero lost in the big city.” In fact, one of the clearest examples of the trope that became a touchstone for this film was Tom Hanks’ 1988 fantasy romantic comedy Big. Will Ferrell confirmed that Big “absolutely was” a major inspiration during production. “We always talked about making a movie close to or reminiscent of a movie like Big, where it’s funny and touching in a way that’s real and not too sappy. That was exactly the specific movie we’d reference.”

Buddy’s burp was performed by a well-known voiceover artist

Elf may be a family movie, but there’s no denying that some of its jokes were really meant for kids and kids alone. The clearest example of this is when Buddy unexpectedly belches for an extremely long time while sitting at the family dinner table to the adults’ disgust and his new half brother’s great amusement. Hard as it may be to believe, this noise was not digitally produced or the result of any prop work.

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This was performed by the legendary voiceover artist, Maurice LaMarche, known for his work as Brain in Pinky and the Brain among many other roles. LaMarche used this odd skill during his time on Animaniacs, and, per his recollection, “somebody working on Elf saw that and said, ‘Get the guy who did the burps for the Great Wakkorotti on Animaniacs.’ So that was one take, one long, sustained 15-second patented Maurice LaMarche belch.”

Buddy’s sugar-heavy diet made Will Ferrell sick

Candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup — those are the four main elf food groups, according to Buddy the Elf, so it goes without saying that Buddy isn’t exactly eating any healthy food over the course of his life. The disgusting meal of spaghetti, candy, and maple syrup he prepares in the movie is merely an example of this disgusting behavioral pattern. Unfortunately for Will Ferrell, it turns out that a lot of Buddy’s dietary restrictions involved some real method acting: “That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn’t get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I’m there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will — if that’s what the job calls for.” Ferrell still managed to deliver a quote-worthy performance though.

Buddy’s singing in Santaland was entirely improvised

Method acting isn’t always the common approach for actors these days, but apparently, Will Ferrell got entirely into embracing Buddy’s point of view of the world. In one of the many bizarrely hilarious and oddly adorable moments in the movie, Buddy finds himself in Santaland in Gimbel’s department store, and suddenly bursts into song because what else would an elf do in Santaland? As it turns out much like the other standout moments in the making of Elf, this moment was entirely adlibbed by Will Ferrell: “Singing in the Santaland, where I’m demonstrating how easy it is to sing…the lyrics were improvised, definitely. I just threw Buddy’s mind of what a song would be like, stream of consciousness singing.”

Buddy’s montage of New York adventures was a last-minute idea

One of the most endearing sequences in the entire movie can be found as soon as Buddy arrives in the big city. Left to his own devices, he begins to wander around town, getting caught up in a revolving door, eating subway gum, and celebrating a local coffee shop’s proclamation that they were home to the World’s Best Cup of Coffee. However, these short moments may not have happened at all were it not for a last minute idea from director Jon Favreau. “The last day of shooting in New York, we just took cameras. We didn’t even have the director of photography. We just took a camera man and a film loader and some PAs and went around the city in a van, jumped out and threw people some money and got to use all different locations… with all real people around him [Will Ferrell],” Favreau recalled. “I put him in those situations and he had to improvise and stay in character while dealing with people who, for the most part, didn’t even know they were in a movie.”

Macy’s wouldn’t allow the movie to use its name if it revealed the store Santa to be fake

One of the most iconic moments in the entire movie comes when Buddy is confronted with the fraudulent Gimbel’s store Santa and reveals him to be a fake, which includes the iconic line, “You sit on a throne of lies!” It’s one of the best moments in a film filled to the brim with laughs, but if the production had originally gone as planned, it wouldn’t have happened at all.

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“Macy’s was willing to let us shoot there, use their Santaland, even incorporate us into the parade. That was a big deal for a tiny movie that didn’t have any expectations,” Jon Favreau recalled to Rolling Stone. “However, one of the stipulations was, we would have had to remove the Artie Lange scene, where Santa is revealed to be a fake, because their Santa has to be real. We had to think long and hard about it.” Ultimately, the importance of the scene won out, and Gimbel’s was used instead.

The adorable stop motion critters were voiced by familiar faces

Jon Favreau is a self-proclaimed big fan of stop motion, especially in the vein of the old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials that have become such iconic parts of popular culture. The influence of stop motion icons, however, wasn’t limited to the Rankin/Bass references — although the iconic pair’s reach extends further into the movie than even the most eagle-eyed fans may realize. According to IGN‘s exclusive coverage of the film, “Favreau also acquired permission from Rankin/Bass to use the characters. You’ll see the Burl Ives Snowman appear, renamed Leon the Snowman as he’s voiced by Leon Redbone. (Redbone also duets a version of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ with Deschanel.) And a new animated Polar Bear Cub voiced by stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen.”

Jon Favreau and Will Ferrell worked hard to get James Caan to embrace the comedy of the movie

Arguably best known for his dramatic work in the likes of movies such as The Godfather and Brian’s Song, James Caan sticks out like a sore thumb in the cast of Elf, which is otherwise filled to the brim with familiar comedic talents. Of course, Caan’s role is arguably the least comical of all, as he’s the workaholic father who has forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, so it’s fitting that a dramatic actor was tasked with this role. According to Jon Favreau, he and Ferrell worked hard to get Caan to loosen up and embrace the absurd comedy of the movie: “The thing with Caan is, he’s got a great sense of humor. So if you could make him laugh, all the tension disappears. We kept him laughing, and he kept us laughing. It took him a while to get with the programming.”

Will Ferrell insisted that Buddy’s logic be childlike at all times

If there’s one word that can be used to accurately describe Buddy the Elf, “childlike” would probably be it. However, as hard as it may be to imagine, if it weren’t for the insistence of star Will Ferrell, Buddy likely would have been nowhere near as hopeful and whimsical as the elf we all know and love is. In a 2003 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Ferrell revealed that ensuring Buddy’s worldview be lighter and brighter than most was a necessity before he agreed to the role. “I knew it would be a family movie, but I wanted to make sure it didn’t take itself too seriously,” Ferrell explained. “We tried to focus on the way this guy would view New York City, because he has no preconceived notions. He’s like a kid, how they say things like: [in obnoxious voice] ‘Why is that man so fat?’ They just spit it out. He has those instincts, so we tried to come up with things like, if Buddy sees a sign that says ‘World’s best cup of coffee,’ he takes it literally.” It’s a fun moment that can only be thought-up through a the fun process that went into the making of Elf.

NEXT: 10 Best Holiday Movies Set In New York

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