'Elf' for the holidays

Special to The Times

Mel BROOKS may not have made the raunchy western sendup "Blazing Saddles" -- with that notorious campfire scene -- intending to bring parents and their children together. But Jon Favreau holds dearly to the memory of seeing the comedy classic as a Queens, N.Y., youth with his dad, Charles. And yes, flatulence begat closeness.

"Seeing them eating beans around a fireplace, and my dad laughing to the point where he's turning red and can't breathe, that was a very influential thing for me," says Favreau, a new father who has already noticed in test screenings of his Christmas comedy "Elf" a similar connection taking place between the fathers and sons in the audience. "If you have a kid and his dad sitting next to each other, both sincerely laughing at the same moment in a movie, a bond occurs. I've grown to really appreciate that."

For a guy who's made something of a career of projects that treasure camaraderie -- the blustery male clique in his "Swingers" screenplay, the shoptalk nature of his IFC chat-and-eat show "Dinner for Five" -- it's not surprising Favreau viewed "Elf" as more than just his first studio-budgeted directorial effort. (His behind-the-camera debut was the $4-million indie "Made.")

This was his shot at making a memorable Christmas movie, one that blended small tributes to beloved yuletide classics, honest humor and the warmth he unabashedly revels in during the season.

"You have an added responsibility," Favreau says of Christmas films, which he believes have become too big and noisy. "It's one of the few genres where people have come to expect to feel a certain way. You could embrace it, or see it as a burden, and I chose to embrace it."

That said, when your movie stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a big man raised by North Pole elves who blasts into New York on a mission to find his real father (James Caan) armed with an inexhaustible supply of childlike Christmas cheer, big laughs top any studio's wish list.

New Line wanted a Will Ferrell comedy as much as a holiday flick, and Favreau understood that. Neither director nor star, though, wanted a drawn-out, empty skit of a movie or something robotically mushy.

"The pitfall is to condescend to an audience by not making it smart enough," Favreau says. "Another is to shy away from emotional truth, which is a tendency with broad comedies. The feeling is, if you chamber another bullet every 15 seconds and keep them laughing, it'll have good word of mouth and business will spread."

But Favreau knew that if he worked at it, the laughs and the sentiment could coexist like carolers in a choir, and then you might just get an ageless entertainment like "Big" or "Tootsie." Favreau admits, "My goal was to have something that could potentially play every year on television."

It was a Christmas TV perennial, in fact -- Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass' animated "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," with its misfit elf Hermie, disdainful of toy-making but eager to learn dentistry -- that partly inspired the fish-out-of-water story that became David Berenbaum's first produced screenplay, "Elf." (He also wrote the coming "Haunted Mansion" for Disney.) The script garnered attention in the late '90s, but it was producer Jon Berg's brainstorm to attach Ferrell in 2000 -- at the time, the actor was still on "Saturday Night Live" -- that sold New Line.

Favreau came in the following year, winning over studio Scrooges with a vision that helped temper the script's irreverence with a genuine celebration of Christmas spirit. So while Ferrell worked on tailoring the script to his child-inside-a-man sense of humor with writers Adam McKay and Scot Armstrong, Favreau worked on ironing out the story so that it had dramatic resonance. Says Berg, "Jon's sense of humor is incredibly sharp, because of 'Swingers,' but he really became the right guy because he wanted this movie to be about heart."

Not to mention a willful nostalgia. For the movie's opening North Pole scenes, Favreau sought charmingly quaint effects work. It was a notion that satisfied his own reverential agenda and the financial limitations of a modestly budgeted movie. The scenes that put outsized Buddy with his wee, toy-making brethren were shot using forced perspective (simple visual tricks with depth of field and outsize sets and props), while the talking snowmen and critters were right out of Rankin-Bass' choppy stop-motion animation playbook, not to mention the childhood memories of Berenbaum, Favreau, Ferrell, Berg and New Line executives Kent Alterman and Toby Emmerich.

"We created for Buddy a frame of reference that everybody our age would get," the 36-year-old Favreau says. "It's all analog, all old stuff so it would feel timeless." The emphasis on familiarity extended to the casting of TV icons Ed Asner and Bob Newhart as Santa and Papa Elf, respectively. Favreau even convinced his friend and "Dinner for Five" producing partner Peter Billingsley, once a child actor who starred in the wry "A Christmas Story" 20 years ago, to portray one of Santa's helpers. "He did it in a classy way," Favreau says, "because he's not a guy who's capitalized on ["A Christmas Story"]. So only after knowing him several years, I said, 'Could you please come and just be one extra layer of detail in this movie?' I was trying to evoke every Christmas classic."

New York moments

The other stylistic desire was to film New York -- where Buddy's primary journey takes place -- in all its snowy, shop-happy, tinseled glory, a decision that necessitated rushing into production to capture Manhattan in December. (Vancouver was used for interiors and some outdoor scenes.) That way, Favreau could frame Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel (as Buddy's love interest) ice skating in the same shot as Rockefeller Center's iconic, fully lighted tree. "I didn't want some art director to put up lights and try to make our own Christmas," Favreau says. "I wanted what's really there."

Location shooting jazzed up the comedy too. A standout sequence where Buddy first strolls Midtown in green-and-shocking-yellow elf garb interacting with New Yorkers was grabbed on the fly, with Ferrell improvising. "It was a day of guerrilla filmmaking at its best," Ferrell says. "The avoidance was most fun, people who didn't want to come near me or look at me as I walked close to them. But it completely put me into the character of having to deal with people looking differently to me." Ferrell says that Buddy's innocent, nonjudgmental outlook had to be played straight, but then, he says, laughing, "that's the only way I know how to play things, is to fully commit."

Favreau agrees but thinks Ferrell's lack of self-consciousness has a weight to it, a weight that satisfies what is ultimately the story of a cynical father moved to embrace the world again through his admittedly bizarre but good-natured grown son. "Will [has] a complete fearlessness when it comes to doing physical comedy, but then he also has a warmth and humanity, a truthfulness, in the way he presents his characters."

Of course, the irony of Will Ferrell playing a lowly elf is that since the R-rated DreamWorks comedy "Old School" opened to big business last spring, the giraffe-like actor is now seen by New Line as its very own gift-giving Santa this season (that little Tolkien trilogy notwithstanding). In effect, New Line is in the same position it was with Jim Carrey in 1994, having cast Carrey for "The Mask" when he was an untested movie actor known mostly as "the white guy from 'In Living Color', " then watched as another company's movie -- Morgan Creek's "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective" -- opened first and primed the pump for breakout stardom. Ferrell, who is now being snapped up for projects practically every week, is in a similar position as the presciently scheduled "Elf" nears release. "It's the right concept with the right star at the right time," New Line production chief Emmerich says, "and by 'time' I mean time in terms of the pop-culture universe, where Will is in the popular consciousness."

At the test screening before the one Favreau noted positive family reaction, Emmerich was more nervous about the demographic. "These guys looked like extras from the set of 'Old School,' " Emmerich says. "Guys who didn't look like they wanted to see a feel-good Christmas movie. They wanted to see Will Ferrell. But they rated it very highly. That's when you say, 'OK, we've got a real four-quadrant movie,' " studio jargon for something that appeals to males and females, under and over 18.

When New Line executives saw the movie and the survey results, Favreau says, the budget was increased for music, an ambitious Rankin Bass-style storybook credit sequence and marketing. Says Emmerich, "We're committing to make sure not only that the movie opens well but that we have enough dollars behind it to give it the legs it deserves. If you're a poker player, and you get dealt a hand like this, you don't pass, you raise."

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