Elf has become one of the world’s most beloved Christmas movies, but when it was made, there was not a hint of hope, peace, or joy in it. The sun reports.
I was there during the filming on freezing February days in Vancouver, Canada in 2003 and saw almost everyone shaking with nerves, not cold.
Will Ferrell, who took over the role after Jim Carrey turned it down, embarked on a film career as a lead with trepidation.
“So many things can go wrong,” he said. “I’ve known about this for about five years and you can’t help but think, ‘Am I making a big mistake?’
Ferrell rose to fame with the American comedy television show Saturday Night Live. But Elf co-star James Caan bluntly told him, “I don’t find you funny.”
The late Kaan, who passed away in July at the age of 82, was angry about being in a movie called “Elf” and derisively called the movie “Moose.”
After he received an Oscar nomination for playing mobster Sonny Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather, he told me Hollywood dumped him because of his wild reputation.
“There is a huge difference between wanting to work and having to work,” he said. “For this, I have to work because I need money.”
Caan, then married to his fourth wife, made no secret of his disdain for Ferrell and even said, “He is the most boring person I have ever met. But he will wear anything, anytime, anywhere – you know.”
Hope for a big breakthrough
Then there was lead actress Zooey Deschanel, 23, who was performing in a cabaret at the time.
She dyed her dark hair blonde and feared it wouldn’t be the breakthrough she was hoping for.
“And it’s a nightmare to dye my hair every week because my real color is actually black,” she said. “It’s also a myth that men prefer blondes. They don’t!
“I’m betting that other people love Christmas as much as I do. I even believed in Santa Claus until I was 13 years old. But I have no idea how things will turn out.”
Actor Jon Favreau, who directed the film, tried to make everything as good as possible. He made only one film, Made, which was a financial failure.
He also knew that Ferrell had not chosen him to direct and that the film was under tight budget constraints.
He also heard his star ad-lib some lines.
“Movies are like that,” he shrugged. “There have been a lot of rewrites and script changes and nothing is perfect when you start a movie.
“Of course, we had some problems with it, but this is nothing new. At one point, I had to do a lot of rewriting because I needed the film to be lighter and funnier.”
Hard limits on Christmas classics
I watched Ferrell, 6ft 3in, dressed in an elf costume, squeeze into the tiny chairs in the classroom.
He had to perform the scene himself.
Even his appearance seemed funny to me, but there was no laughter from a serious film crew. They seemed to care more about light and sound.
The atmosphere was not conducive to the mood – a former psychiatric house on the outskirts of the city. Away from the bright lights of the set, there was a gloomy atmosphere.
After several takes of the scene, Ferrell, in full costume, sat down to talk about his doubts.
Unrest among actors
“This is a departure for both me and the director,” he said. “I don’t think you would choose any of us to be in this kind of Christmas movie.
“The director is known for having acted in films in the past, not as a director, and you don’t think to yourself, ‘Oh yeah, Christmas movie guy.’
“Is it so scary to do it? Yes. But nothing was scarier than being on Saturday Night Live. This opportunity opened my eyes.
“You think, ‘God, if I can do this show, I hopefully can do a lot of other things.’ But I have no illusions. I’m not famous.
“I traveled on the subway on all my New York trips for the seven years I was on Saturday Night Live and few people gave me a second look.
“I also experienced firsthand how you can have ups and downs in the entertainment business. My dad taught me that there has to be the right place and the right time. It’s all luck.”
He talked about how his father Lee (now 81) played piano and saxophone for years with the successful duo The Righteous Brothers. They had number one hits Unchained Melody and You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling in the UK.
“It was month after month of existence,” he said. “You can never be too sure of what lies ahead because he has been on the road so much.
“The crazy thing is that as a kid I was looking at the big stars on stage, like visiting my dad in Las Vegas. Some of them have achieved more, others have failed.”
If his confidence was hurt by James Caan, who plays his father in the film, he didn’t show it.
“Everyone has their own opinion about who is funny and who is not,” he said.
But Mary Steenbergen, then 50, who played the kindly Emily married to James Caan’s character Walter, took it all in stride.
She won an Oscar at just 26 for Best Supporting Actress in Melvin & Howard, was married to Cheers star Ted Danson, and has already starred in 36 films.
“I don’t know what everyone is worried about,” she said.
“It’s a funny script and it’s going to be a funny movie. Sometimes these things work and sometimes they don’t. But it will be a great success.”
The voice of experience won.
When it was released on Christmas Day 2003, Elf drew rave reviews.
It was made for just $47 million and earned $350 million at the box office.
This story was originally published The sun and reproduced with permission
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