ELF has become one of the world’s favourite Christmas films – but when it was made, there was little sign of hope, peace or joy.
I was there during filming on freezing February days in Vancouver, Canada in 2003 and watched as virtually everyone shook with nerves rather than the cold.
Will Ferrell, who had taken the role after it was turned down by Jim Carrey, was anxiously launching a film career as a lead for the first time.
“There is so much that 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?’”
Farrell was famous for the American TV comedy show Saturday Night Live. But he was told bluntly by Elf co-star James Caan: “I don’t find you funny.”
The late Caan, who died in July aged 82, was fuming about being in a film with the title Elf and referred to the film mockingly as ‘Elk.’
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After winning an Oscar nomination as Mafia man Sonny Corleone in the 1972 film The Godfather, he told me Hollywood had dumped him thanks to his wild reputation.
“There is a huge difference between wanting to work and having to work,” he said. “For this one, I am having to work because I need the money.”
Caan, then married to his fourth wife, didn’t disguise his scorn for Ferrell and even said: “He’s the dullest person I’ve ever met. But he will wear anything, any time, anywhere – as you can tell.”
Big break hopes
Then there was lead actress Zooey Deschanel, aged 23, who had a cabaret act at the time.
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She dyed her dark hair blonde and feared that this was not going to be the breakthrough she’d hoped for.
“And it’s a nightmare dying my hair every week, because my true colour is actually black,” she said. “It’s also a myth that men prefer blondes. They don’t!
“I am banking on the fact that other people love Christmas as much as I do. I even believed in Santa Clause until I was 13. But I haven’t a clue how things will work out.”
Actor Jon Favreau, directing the film, was trying to make the best of things. He had directed just one film, Made, which had been a financial flop.
He was also aware that he was not Ferrell’s choice as director and that there were tight budget restrictions on the film.
He would also hear his star ad-libbing some of the lines.
“This is how movies are,” he shrugged. “There’s been a lot of re-writing and changes in the script and nothing is perfect when you start a film.
“We’ve had some problems on this one, certainly, but that’s nothing new. I had to do a lot of rewriting at one stage, because I needed the film to be lighter and funnier.”
Tight restrictions on Christmas classic
I watched as Ferrell, 6ft 3 inches tall and dressed in an elf’s costume, squeezed himself into tiny chairs in the classroom.
He had to perform the scene by himself.
Even the sight of him seemed funny to me, but there was no laughter from a serious film crew. They seemed more concerned with lighting and sound.
The mood was not helped by the setting – a former mental home on the outskirts of the city. There was a gloomy atmosphere away from the bright lights of the film set.
After a number of takes on the scene, Ferrell sat down to talk, in full costume, of his uncertainties.
Unrest among the cast
“This is a departure for both me and the director,” he said. “I don’t think you’d pick either one of us to be linked to a Christmas movie of this nature.
“The director is known for acting in films in the past, rather than a director, and you don’t think to yourself ‘oh, yes, a Christmas movie guy.’
“So is it scary to be doing it? Yes. But nothing was scarier than being part of Saturday Night Live. To be given that opportunity opened my mind.
“You think, ‘Gosh, if I can do that show, I can hopefully do a lot of other things.’ But I am under no illusions. I am not famous.
“I travelled on the subway on all my journeys across New York for seven years while I was on Saturday Night Live and few people gave me a second glance.
“I’ve also experienced, first hand, how you can have ups and downs in the entertainment business. My dad taught me how there has to be a right place and right time. It’s all luck.”
He talked about how his father, Lee (now aged 81) had for years played piano and saxophone with the successful duo The Righteous Brothers. They’d had number one hits Unchained Melody and You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling in Britain.
“It was a month to month existence,” he said. “You could never be too sure what lay ahead, because he was on the road such a lot.
“The crazy thing is I was watching big stars on stage as a kid, visiting my dad in Las Vegas, for example. Some of them went on to bigger things, others failed."
If his confidence was taking a battering from James Caan, who plays his father in the film, he did not show it.
“Everyone has their own view of who is funny – and who isn’t,” he said.
But Mary Steenburgen, then aged 50, who was playing kindly Emily, married to James Caan’s character Walter, was taking it all in her stride.
She had won an Oscar at just 26 for a best supporting role in the film Melvin and Howard, was married to Cheers star Ted Danson and was already a veteran of 36 films.
“I don’t know what everyone is worried about,” she said.
“This is a funny script and it’s going to be a funny film. Sometimes these things work out and sometimes they don’t. But this will be a big hit.”
The voice of experience won the day.
When it was released at Christmas in 2003 Elf opened to rave reviews.
It was made for just £26million and earned £194million at the box office.
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Will Ferrell became an international star and launched a huge film career. Director Jon Favreau went on to direct blockbusters like the two Iron Men films, The Jungle Book and The Lion King.
Its success lives on in all forms. It is currently a hit West End musical show at the Dominion Theatre and has even been used for Asda’s supermarket Christmas advert.
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