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'Elf' for the holidays

Director Jon Favreau wants to see his new movie with Will Ferrell become an enduring Christmas classic.

November 02, 2003|Robert Abele | 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.

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