‘You Sit on a Throne of Lies!’: 20 Trivia Tidbits About ‘Elf’ on Its 20th Anniversary

In which Will Ferrell low-key tortured James Caan
‘You Sit on a Throne of Lies!’: 20 Trivia Tidbits About ‘Elf’ on Its 20th Anniversary

That’s right — it’s somehow been two decades since Will Ferrell went from streaking on screen to playing a giant man-child-elf in the very same year, proving that actors get to live their best lives. To mark this historic occasion, we recommend fixing a bowl of spaghetti with some maple syrup as you read on about the making of the 2003 Christmas classic, Elf...

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Ferrell’s Contribution to the Script

When asked by Entertainment Weekly what changes he requested before agreeing to do the movie, Ferrell revealed, “I knew it would be a family movie, but I wanted to make sure it didn’t take itself too seriously. 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: ‘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. Or one of the images I thought of is he would see the revolving door of an office building and think, ‘God, that looks like fun. Why isn’t anyone else doing it?’”

Filmed in an Abandoned Psychiatric Hospital

Some scenes in Elf were filmed in Riverview Hospital, an abandoned mental institution in Vancouver, and the same place where New Line shot Freddy vs. Jason. “We had to repurpose this mental institution, and it worked great for the police station,” set designer Rusty Smith explained in the Netflix special, The Holiday Movies That Made Us. “It’s one of the creepiest places I’ve ever been in my life.” 

Riverview was also used to film baby Buddy’s orphanage, the Greenway Press, where Buddy’s dad works, and the Hobbs’ apartment.

How Jon Favreau Ended Up Directing the Movie

“I had worked with Judd Apatow, who had nothing to do with Elf, when I directed an episode of Undeclared and worked on a pilot that didn’t get picked up,” Favreau told Rolling Stone back on the movie’s 10th anniversary. “When I was working with him, his manager, who also managed Will, sent me a (screenplay) copy of Elf. I had already directed Made, and people knew me from Swingers. I took a look at the script, and I wasn’t particularly interested. It was a much darker version of the film. I liked the notion of being involved with Will in his first solo movie after SNL, but it wasn’t quite there. I was asked to take another look at it. They were looking for somebody to rewrite it and possibly direct it. And 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. So, for a year, I rewrote the script. It turned into more of a PG movie from a PG-13. The studio read it and agreed to make it, and that’s when I was brought on to direct.”

Buddy Appeared in a British Supermarket Commercial

Last year, footage of Buddy was terribly rendered into a commercial for the British supermarket chain Asda, titled “Have Your Elf a Merry Christmas.”

Cutting on Costs

With a budget of just over $30 million to make a movie featuring forced perspective sets (which translates to building double sets, essentially), as well as a pretty big cast and all the fake snow in the world, the filmmakers had to come up with creative ways to cut costs and ended up shooting a lot of sequences on the fly. For the scene where Buddy walks around New York interacting with people, no extras or other cast members were used besides Ferrell.

Locals Were Paranoid

Elf was filmed just after the September 11th attacks, and New Yorkers were weary of people just hanging around in places they wouldn’t normally be. “Having grown up in New York, it was so sad to me that people thought of Manhattan in how it related to 9/11,” Favreau told Rolling Stone. “It was a city in mourning. And to go and make a movie about Christmas where the Empire State Building was something (Buddy) dreamed about from a snow globe and his father worked there — it was almost like reclaiming Manhattan. When we were scouting, we were being photographed. People would approach us at the Lincoln Tunnel or the 59th Street Bridge. Those were sensitive areas. There was a tremendous amount of paranoia at that time in the city. They had to get to know us.”

You’re Fired, Babies

On the film’s commentary, Favreau revealed that before they got triplet girls to play Baby Buddy, they had twin boys with curly hair doing the part. However, the boy babies couldn’t stop crying and “were promptly ejected from the premises.”

Macy’s Throne of Lies

The movie was originally going to film the Santaland scenes in Macy’s. But the store declined after discovering a scene included exposing the store Santa as a giant fraud, stating that Macy’s Santa is supposed to be the real Santa. Which is how the film came to feature a Gimbels store instead.

Inspired by David Sedaris

“I drew a lot of inspiration from the David Sedaris Christmas account of him being a Christmas elf at Macy’s (in Santaland Diaries),” Favreau explained to Rolling Stone. “We have a reference in there to Crumpet, which was his elf handle — Zooey Deschanel says it — and his sister Amy Sedaris, who I had known from Second City in Chicago, is in the movie as the secretary.”

Buddy’s Wardrobe Wasn’t That Easy

“It was less a challenge dressing Will due to his size and more a challenge to make sure nothing seemed off-putting or in bad taste,” costume designer Laura Jean Shannon told Feel Christmassy. “After all, I had to dress a grown man in tights and a cutaway coat. Needless to say, we did have a fair amount of fittings to be sure we struck the right balance between absurd and adorable.”

The Store Fight Scene Had to be Done in One Take

Favreau and Artie Lange (who plays Gimbels’ Santa) told 20/20 that it took two weeks to stage both the Lite-Brite displays and the LEGO cityscape for the fight scene between Store Santa and Buddy. This left Lange and Ferrell with only one take to destroy it all.

Tapping into Personal Experiences

“When we were in The Groundlings together, Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes,” Ferrell told Spliced Wire. “It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (makes a bored face), ‘Santa’s over there, kid.’”

The Deleted Hockey Scene

The reason this scene was ultimately cut from the film has been chalked up to initial pacing problems and not because it kind of looks like Quidditch on ice.

James Caan Corpsed in the Movie

During the hospital scene where Ferrell gets his finger pricked by Favreau (the doctor), Caan turns away from the camera because he couldn’t keep himself from cracking up. The actor, according to Favreau, had a hard time in general not laughing out loud at Ferrell’s antics.

“My objective in this movie was trying to drive James Caan crazy, both on a story level and in just constantly messing with him,” Ferrell told Spiced Wire. “It was great — but then, I was always living in fear of getting punched! I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m looking into the eyes of Sonny Corleone.’”

When Ferrell Met Caan

“The first time I met him, I just put him in a bear hug and yelled, ‘Dad!’” Ferrell said. “I thought that would break the ice. I think he got really uncomfortable ’cause I wouldn’t let go.”

‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ Was a Last-Minute Addition

Favreau and the crew didn’t know that Deschanel could sing that well, and upon finding out, decided to add the song because her “Doris Day-type voice” would help soften her supposedly cold character, who’s not all that into Christmas.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Deschanel explained the evolution of her character, Jovie: “I remember Jon Favreau telling me that they were catering it to whoever played the part. One actress they were looking at was good at skateboarding. But I had a cabaret act at the time, and I was performing a lot. They knew that I was a singer, so they put that in to be my special thing that he could discover I was good at.”

Two Frame Stop-Motion

Favreau explained in the commentary that, to get the old TV show feel of choppy movements, every character’s move was shot twice. 

subtitle]The Only CGI in the Film

Favreau told Rolling Stone that he wanted to avoid CGI as much as possible and use techniques and technology that he grew up with as a kid, like stop-motion. “I had to fight very hard not to do that stuff in CGI,” he remembers. “There’s no CGI in there, except for some snowing.”

The Expanded Jack-in-the-Box Gag

The script simply stated that Buddy tests the numerous Jack-in-the-Box toys, but Favreau wanted to take it further and, thanks to him being able to control the toys via remote control, held out on making them pop to get the hilarious results out of Ferrell in the clip below.


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