19 Behind-The-Scenes Facts You Never Knew About The Will Ferrell Classic Elf

The beloved film celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2023.
Elf was released back in 2003
Elf was released back in 2003
Alan Markfield/New Line Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

After debuting a whopping 20 years ago, Elf has become a Christmas staple that fans enjoy year after year.

But no amount of repeat viewing will tell you the story behind the beloved Will Ferrell movie – hence why we’ve uncovered 19 behind-the-scenes facts you probably didn’t know about it...

1. Another actor was originally lined-up to lead the film

The first script for Elf was written way back in 1993 with Jim Carrey in mind to play Buddy. However, as the project took years to get off the ground, The Mask star never ended up taking on the role. He did end up starring in another festive classic, though, appearing as the titular character in 2000’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

Jim Carrey was originally in line to play Buddy
Jim Carrey was originally in line to play Buddy
Rich Fury via Getty Images

2. The film was also darker in tone when it was first written

Filmmaker Jon Favreau originally turned down the chance to work on Elf as he was not a fan of the script, which was darker than the film that eventually got made.

When he was asked to take another look at it, he agreed to rewrite it and turned it into “more of a PG movie from a PG-13”.

Jon said in a 2013 Rolling Stone interview: “[Buddy] was a darker character in the script I had read originally. The character became a bit more innocent, and the world became more of a pastiche of the Rankin/Bass films.”

3. In fact, the 1964 film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer inspired a lot of the film

Jon cited the Rankin/Bass film as a source of inspiration, saying he wanted to make “the world that [Buddy] was from as though he grew up as an elf in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.

As such, the elves’ costumes were similar to those worn by Hermey, while the workshops in Elf were also based on those in the animated film.

4. But while there was a reference point, it still took a long time to get the costume right

Costume designer Laura Jean Shannon told Feel Christmassy: “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.

“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.”

5. The similarities don’t end there

Leon The Snowman, who is seen talking to Buddy after he learns that he is human, was based on Sam The Snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Sam The Snowman (left) and Leon The Snowman
Sam The Snowman (left) and Leon The Snowman

6. There’s actually hardly any GCI in Elf

While you might think that there was a lot of computer trickery to make Will Ferrell look bigger than his fellow actors in the North Pole, Jon Favreau favoured camera techniques and trickery to create the illusion.

He used the concept of “forced perspective”, which he explained to Rolling Stone is “where you build two sets, one smaller than the other”.

Elf employed the 'forced perspective' technique to film scenes like this
Elf employed the 'forced perspective' technique to film scenes like this
Michael Ginsberg/New Line Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

He said: “One set is raised and closer and smaller, and one is bigger and further away. And if you line up those two sets and measure them, you can have one person on one set appear to be much larger than a person on the other set. We did that for all the shots at the North Pole.”

He added that there is no GCI in the film, “except for some snowing”.

7. Will Ferrell indirectly caused some traffic accidents while filming scenes in New York

When the movie filmed scenes in the city’s Lincoln Tunnel and on the 59th Street Bridge, they were both still open to the public, leaving many motorists confused at the sight of Will in costume as Buddy.

Jon revealed to Rolling Stone: “Whenever he was out there in his suit, we’d hear screeches and fender-benders and lights smashing. People would be looking at him walking on the side and that would cause a few minor traffic accidents.”

Will Ferrell in a scene from Elf
Will Ferrell in a scene from Elf

8. Macy’s doubles as the film’s department store, Gimbel’s

Anyone who has been to New York would immediately recognise Macy’s, but the iconic department store was renamed Gimbel’s in Elf.

Gimbel’s is a now-defunct rival to Macy’s and the store actually featured in the original Miracle On 34th Street film, back in 1947.

A view outside Macy's in New York City
A view outside Macy's in New York City
Noam Galai via Getty Images

9. The crew could have filmed there too, but Macy’s had one condition

Elf could have actually used the Macy’s name and the real interior of their department store had bosses agreed to change one particular scene.

Jon recalled: “Macy’s was willing to let us shoot there, use their Santaland, even incorporate us into the parade. However, one of the stipulations was, we would have had to remove the Artie Lange scene, where Santa is revealed to be a fake, because their Santa has to be real. We had to think long and hard about it.”

In the end, the film shot the department store scenes in the cafeteria of a mental health facility in Vancouver.

“We had to build our own version of it because we were unwilling to change the content,” Jon said.

10. The fight scene in the department store had to be done in one take

Chaos ensues when Buddy unmasks the fake Santa in Gimbels, but the fight that broke out had to be filmed all in one take because it took art department weeks to decorate the set.

Comedian Artie Lange, who played the department store Santa, told ABC News: “We had one take to destroy it. So Favreau said, ‘Just go nuts!’”

11. James Caan wasn’t a fan of the film’s title

The Godfather actor, who played Buddy’s biological father Walter, would give Jon “a hard time” about the name of the movie being Elf.

“I think he was embarrassed,” Jon admitted.

12. He also struggled with Will’s OTT performance on set

James Caan (centre) played Buddy's dad
James Caan (centre) played Buddy's dad

During an appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden in 2018, Will admitted that James had concerns with the level that he was playing Buddy at.

″[James is] like, ’Hey, I’ve gotta tell you something. Every day on set, I thought you were way too over-the-top. But now I see what you’re doing. Great job.

“I just love the thought that there we were, working every day and he was going back to his hotel room going, ‘Please get me outta this one.’”

13. Jon Favreau had more than one cameo in the film

The filmmaker decided to insert himself into his own film with a number of cameo roles.

He appeared as the pediatrician who confirms Buddy is Walter’s son, and also voices the animated Narwhal who delivers the line “Bye Buddy, hope you find your dad!” as the Elf leaves the North Pole.

Jon Favreau (R) with Will Ferrell on the set of Elf
Jon Favreau (R) with Will Ferrell on the set of Elf
Alan Markfield/New Line Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

14. The Baby It’s Cold Outside scene was written after Zooey Deschanel was cast

One particular scene in the film sees Buddy entering the women’s bathroom as Jovie is showering, as they then sing a duet on the controversial Christmas song, Baby It’s Cold Outside.

Zooey Deschanel, who played Jovie, revealed the scene was only written after filmmakers discovered she could sing.

She told Entertainment Weekly: “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.”

15. Zooey was surprised she’d have to lip sync while filming the scene, though

Zooey Deschanel played Jovie
Zooey Deschanel played Jovie

The actor was still a relative newcomer when she filmed Elf, and was surprised she had to pre-record some vocals for the shower duet.

She told EW: “They recorded some live vocals as an option, but they almost never use those just because you just can’t make it right. I’m in a shower, there’s nowhere to hide a microphone, and then they wouldn’t have a clean vocal at all. It would be completely mixed with the sounds of the shower.”

16. That scene wasn’t the only late addition to the film

The whole storyline of Buddy helping to save Christmas at the film’s climax came “pretty later in the game”, according to Jon.

“That wasn’t in the original script,” he told Rolling Stone. “It gave it that magical feeling, that spirit-redeeming. Buddy changing a lot of people in small ways and overall changing the personality of the city, that’s something I think gives the movie heart.”

17. That burp? Yep, it’s real

It wasn’t actually Will who let out that epic burp though – while it was real, it was performed (if that’s the right word?) by voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who is better known as the voice of Brain in Pinky and the Brain.

He previously shared with The A.V. Club: “I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp.”

18. A sequel was written but Will Ferrell turned down a $29 million offer to reprise his role

Will told The Hollywood Reporter that he didn’t like the premise of the planned sequel.

“I would have had to promote the movie from an honest place, which would’ve been, like, ‘Oh no, it’s not good. I just couldn’t turn down that much money,’” he told the magazine. “And I thought, ‘Can I actually say those words? I don’t think I can, so I guess I can’t do the movie.’”

19. James Caan previously said there was more to the story

According to the star, Will didn’t get along with filmmaker Jon Favreau.

Will Ferrell and Jon Favreau during filming
Will Ferrell and Jon Favreau during filming

“We were gonna do it, and I thought ‘Oh my God, I finally have a franchise movie. I can make some money, let my kids do what the hell they want to do,’” James told 92.3 The Fan in 2020.

“The director and Will didn’t get along very well. Will wanted to do it, and he didn’t want the director. He had it in his contract. It was one of those things.”


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