Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Will Ferrell

'Elf' Help Classes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Will Ferrell Movies on DVD

Ads for the new Christmas film Elf have turned up on billboards, TV and all over the place, and, truth to tell, it doesn't look so hot. But in this case, rest assured that looks are deceiving. It's actually a hysterically funny comedy enmeshed within a heartwarming, if minor, Christmas classic.

Director Jon Favreau (Made) already knew that with Will Ferrell playing the title character -- a human named Buddy who is raised by Santa's elves and must venture out into the real world to find his human father -- that the picture would be funny. But it was up to him to make sure that it had something extra, something that would make it worth watching again and again on television during holidays to come.

During a recent visit to San Francisco, Favreau talked about the wrong kinds of "family" movies, calling them "parent punishers."

"I have kids now and I'm watching all this stuff, and I can tell the difference," Favreau says. "With Finding Nemo, you can tell how enthusiastic the filmmakers are. John Lasseter loves the movies he's making. He's not putting crap out for kids to eat up. He's making movies that he wants to see."

The problem, Favreau says, is that you're trying to reach two different audiences at once. "Kids will like whatever," he says. "Kids will like Will in an elf suit banging his head. So the kids are going to dig it, but how do you make the parents like it?"

For inspiration, Favreau and Ferrell looked at movies like Being There (1980) and Big (1988).

"Those were movies with similar concepts, where it played very real and very emotional," he says. "And they were good movies, not just funny movies. This really could have been one long sketch if Will hadn't really treated the character in a way that it changes over the course of the movie."

Ferrell, who also visited San Francisco to discuss the new movie, explains that -- unlike Robin Williams and other manic comedians -- he's not funny all the time. But when the camera rolls, he visits a special place that only he knows how to get to.

"It just makes me laugh to no end: people who are not self-aware," Ferrell says. "It's very easy to submerge myself in that kind of mindset. There are no filters on the way Buddy views the world. I knew that that's the way this character had to be. All the characters I've done on SNL are blissfully unaware of how unhip they are."

Ferrell credits his concentration on a very unlikely source. "In high school I was a field goal kicker for the football team. And it was such an exercise in blocking everything out. My practice was hours and hours of kicking a football through the goal posts. It's such a zen-like state."

But the downside to such concentration is that Ferrell often can't remember some of the comic moments he's created. "You try to shoot the scenes the way they're written a couple times, and then you naturally begin straying from the script. I'm bad at remembering the things I came up with as opposed to what's written. I just try to stay in the moment and whatever happens, happens. But I'm constantly being plagued by people who are like, 'that was great when you did that thing.' And I sound disingenuous, but I really can't remember."

Ferrell was attached to the Elf project before Favreau came on board, and before Ferrell proved himself a box-office asset with Old School. Surprisingly, the studio was long reluctant to even greenlight the film. But Favreau eventually sold them on some good ideas.

In order to appeal to older viewers, Favreau pitched a kind of post-modern story, complete with stop-motion animation characters similar to the old Rankin & Bass television specials (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). He also wanted to use forced perspective, rather than computer effects, to make Farrell appear larger than his co-stars.

"There's a way to do this at a price," Favreau says. "You don't have to do CGI wall-to-wall. I want everything in the beginning to be using the same technology as they used 30 years ago. There was a lot of pressure to do the stop-motion with CGI, and I said, maybe it will look good now, but in 5 years or 10 years, it will look wrong. But if you do it the real way, it'll look great. And it'll be cheaper."

From there, Favreau continued casting the film using some of his favorite veteran actors, namely Bob Newhart as Ferrell's adoptive elf father and Ed Asner as Santa Claus.

"You want to make Santa kinda rough because when you're an elf, he's the boss," Favreau says.

Best of all was the casting of James Caan as Ferrell's birth father, the man he leaves the North Pole and ventures into Manhattan to find.

"I was trying to drive James Caan crazy in this movie," Ferrell says. "It was great, but I was living in fear of getting punched. He obviously did this kind of slow simmer all through the movie. He didn't want to fly off the handle right from the beginning because where do you go from there? He kept everything close to the vest."

Fortunately, Ferrell saw Caan's true wrath only once. "When Buddy gets out of jail and he throws me up against the wall, there was no acting involved in that moment. I was looking into his eyes and he was pissed! I thought: I'm looking into the eyes of Sonny Corleone!"

October 24, 2003

Selected Will Ferrell Filmography:
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
A Night at the Roxbury (1998)
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)
Dick (1999)
Superstar (1999)
Drowning Mona (2000)
The Ladies Man (2000)
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
Zoolander (2001)
Boat Trip (2002)
Old School (2003)
Elf (2003)
Starsky & Hutch (2004)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Melinda and Melinda (2005)
Kicking & Screaming (2005)
Bewitched (2005)
Wedding Crashers (2005)
Winter Passing (2006)
The Producers (2005)
The Wendell Baker Story (2005)
Curious George (2006) [voice]
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Blades of Glory (2007)
Semi-Pro (2008)
Step Brothers (2008)

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