40 Things We Learned from Jon Favreau's 'Elf' Commentary

Who knows Santa? I mean personally? I bet you don't. I don't either, but we're talking about you right now. Buddy the Elf knows Santa.


Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Neil Miller celebrates Christmas with a new holiday favorite by listening to Jon Favreau’s commentary on Elf.

Who knows Santa? I mean personally? I bet you don’t. I don’t either, but we’re talking about you right now. Buddy the Elf knows Santa. He makes sure to tell everyone he sees when he ventures to New York City to meet his real father. Another question. Who doesn’t like Elf? You can walk away now if you said, “I don’t”, because this Commentary Commentary is not for you.

The Christmas season is upon us, and we felt it was time to hear what director Jon Favreau had to say about this ginormous Christmas gem. There are two commentary tracks on Elf – thanks, Infinifilm – but we’re rolling the dice on Favreau over the film’s star. As a wise man once said to me over Twitter, “Glean his insights so we don’t have to listen; let us hear the entertaining actor ourselves. So sit back with your eggnog or your mini candy cane or your Christmas fudge – I’m rocking all three as I write this, the first indication I should get myself to a dentist pronto – and delve into all the glorious bits of information we gathered while listening to the Elf commentary track. Oh, eggnog. No one understands me like you.

Elf (2003)

Commentators: Jon Favreau (director), lots of talk about Middle Earth

  • The tree on fire in the early moments of the film was done using forced perspective. The top half of the tree is a miniature in the foreground. The bottom is roughly 40 feet away from the camera. The edges were then blended to make it appear as if it’s all one tree. Favreau felt it important to us the “old techniques” rather than CGI. felt these techniques gave the film a feeling of nostalgia, like the old Christmas TV programs the director grew up on. One of the films he compares the technique to is Lord of the Rings, which, like Elf, is a New Line Film, so touche, Mr. Favreau.
  • “The only element in here that is CG are the snowflakes blowing by, and I still think they kind of stick out a little bit.” – Favreau discussing the opening credits. Right. A little bit. It’s like Christmastime in Tron, but I’m not complaining. I love Daft Punk.
  • All the stop motion animated characters in the opening credits use Favreau’s voice. He also provided the voice for the rabid raccoon Buddy runs into in Canada. Clearly the voice had effects added to make the characters sound higher. Either that or they used helium. Lots and lots of helium.
  • Baby Buddy in the orphanage scene was played by triplet girls. The director credits their performance to editor Dan Lebental, who was able to make it appear they were doing everything Baby Buddy is seen doing. Favreau notes they had twin boys for the part, and the boys looked just like Will Ferrell with curly blonde hair. However, they wouldn’t stop crying and were promptly ejected from the premises, probably out into a cold Vancouver night.
  • Favreau mentions bringing up the forced perspective technique again. Many of the sets were built twice, once much larger for the actors playing elves and once slightly smaller for the normal sized actors. In the scene where Ed Asner as Santa addresses his elves, he is standing on a platform on a smaller version of the set. The elves were standing on another platform far behind him. Lighting was used to blend the two images together. You know, kind of like that tree. I think we get the idea of forced perspective. If you’re wondering, “How did they do that?” while watching Elf, the answer is probably forced perspective. Kid’s legs in the front. Bob Newhart in the background. Got it?
  • Here is when Favreau begins pointing out where the seams are in the shot to achieve forced perspective. When Buddy is sitting in the classroom, it’s down where the bag is laying on the ground next to him. When Buddy enters the sleigh room, it’s next to the light switch.
  • Peter Billingsley has an unbilled cameo as an elf when Buddy is working on the toy line. Thankfully, he still has both of his eyes and has moved on from the Dirt Bike Kid stench that traveled close behind him for 15 years. It’s like Pig-Pen, that stench.
  • In an early draft of the script, the other elves made fun of Buddy for being different and unable to work as fast as they could. Favreau felt it better to keep the characters good-spirited and optimistic even though he’s different from them. “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”
  • For the jack in the box gag, it was written in the script that he was just testing them. Favreau had a remote control to trigger the last one Buddy tests, and the director waited a split second longer than he would have normally before setting it off in order to get the appropriate reaction from Ferrell. Likewise, Favreau felt that, as the director, it was his job to put Ferrell in various situations and see how the actor would react. Favreau notes the more awkward the situation the funnier Ferrell made it.
  • The stop motion characters were done using two-frame stop motion. Every time the puppet would be moved, the character would be shot twice giving it a choppy movement and the feeling of how they looked in the old TV shows. Favreau mentions all the stop motion was done by the Chiodo brother, three brothers who still do stop motion animation. He also notes all of these characters would have been done with CGI today.
  • There was evidently an elf hockey game that was shot and lost before the film was completed. Favreau felt the momentum had to be sustained, but, seriously, who doesn’t want to see a hockey fight between two elves? Elf blood! Elf blood! Throw the miniature squid!
  • “And there’s a freezing stunt man,” says Favreau in the overhead shot of Buddy traveling across the snow. Luckily, Farrell was in his warm trailer sipping a cup of hot cocoa. I’m just spit-balling on that one, but where would you be if your double was out freezing his toes off in the wilderness?
  • Favreau included a lot of New York based locations in the script, locations like the Empire State Building he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get at the time. However, his locations manager was able to secure them. All off the exteriors were shot in NYC, something Favreau takes great pride in.
  • The gum Will chews off the fence was not actual gum they found. It was planted there by the production. Not everyone in the immediate area was aware of this. Likewise, there is no elevator in the Empire State Building that has buttons to all the floors. This was fabricated for the film. Before making Elf, Favreau would observe his 1-year-old son, Max, to get ideas for what Buddy might do. As Favreau notes, Max was his barometer for how believable Buddy’s antics were. Favreau also mentions when he feels Buddy knows he’s doing bad or believes he’s doing good, which makes a fun, little game throughout the film.
  • For the role of Buddy’s dad, Favreau wanted an actor who could play the comedic side up but who was also much more grounded than Will Farrell’s Buddy. This was the director’s approach to casting many of the secondary characters in Elf. Favreau feels including actors like James Caan in the film helped Ferrell’s performance both in terms of comedy and as an actor.
  • When Farrell yells, “SANTAAAAA!” I believe Favreau cracks up quite a bit. I’m not sure, though, because I couldn’t hear him over my own laughter. That’s just a little insight into what makes Jeremy Kirk LOL.
  • Favreau notes much of the music in Elf was added only after hearing Zooey Deschanel’s singing voice. The director likes how quirky but dry she is in her performance, something else that Will Farrell was able to bounce off of for his performance.
  • Some of the sets for Elf, Walter’s apartment, Gimbals’ toy department, and the jail cell among them, were built in an abandoned mental hospital in Vancouver, the same hospital where New Line shot Freddy Vs. Jason. And now I’m never watching that Christmas special the same way again.
  • “When you walk through a room full of elephants, it’s funnier if you act like you’re not really noticing the elephants.” – Favreau quoting James Caan about his comedic timing. Favreau also notes Caan wanted to play the part more like George Burns than Sonny Corleone. In the scene in the jail, the actor held back on his chastising of Buddy. The director also notes Farrell made Caan crack up several times on set. If you pay attention in the scene in the hospital, when Buddy’s finger is pricked, Caan cracked up and turns his back to the camera. It was Greg Gardiner’s idea to have Buddy scream, but Caan didn’t know that was going to happen.
  • Favreau mentions Farrell’s line about the fake Santa sitting on a “throne of lies” is from Lord of the Rings. Okay, Jon, we get it. You love New Line. Now I’m imagining he has a checklist while he watches this of all the movies New Line put out in the past 15 years. He’s gonna be mentioning all of them, too. The Notebook can’t be too far off, right?
  • Favreau, when he wasn’t making up a list of all of New Line’s films, drew the “To dad” card Buddy gives to his father.
  • The director notes he went on the Atkins diet and lost around 40 lbs after filming his scene as the doctor in Elf. He said at the time that he “looked like a tall ship with a big sail” in his white coat. Because of this, Farrell gave Favreau a tall ship in a bottle as a wrap present.
  • The idea of Buddy putting maple syrup on his spaghetti came late in the screenwriting stage. Favreau tried to think of all the unhealthy stuff elves might eat. Fortunately, elves have an incredibly high metabolism. Just look at Legolas. Dude is fit. It should be noted that is my Lord of the Rings reference, not Favreau’s. I’m working off my own list now, and I love The Notebook.
  • The exterior shot of Caan taking Buddy’s phone call was the first shot for James Caan. Favreau notes how lucky they were to get the actor but admits they didn’t know what they were going to be getting hiring an actor of his caliber. There were concerns that he would be cracking up far more than he actually did, but the way Caan underplays every scene works perfectly against Farrell’s child-like attitude.
  • Many of the snowballs in the snowballs fight scene were CG. Favreau likens the scene to something out of The Magnificent Seven and even points out John Debney’s score gives the scene an old Western vibe. Favreau also mentions anyone who grew up on the East coast knows how brutal snowball fights can be. Yeah, I know. I saw Where the Wild Things Are, too.
  • Favreau also likens Elf to Big, a film about a kid who is forced to grow up too quickly and learn his way around the big city. The director likes the comedy Farrell brings to the film. “But if you don’t have a good story and an emotional aspect to the story people grow weary of just one comic bit after the next. I think they want to see a story that engages them on an emotional level.” Favreau brings up the bonding moments between Buddy and Walter like when Walter tells his son he doesn’t have to drink the coffee. He also mentions the different ways Buddy changes throughout the film, how he learns from the city and the people in it. Buddy reading Pigmalion is kind of a reference to that.
  • Along the lines of Walter and Buddy bonding, the scene in Walter’s office was originally cut from the film. The studio kept wanting it shorter and shorter until it was finally trimmed altogether. It was executive producer Kent Alterman’s idea to put the scene back in to show the importance of Walter and Buddy getting to know one another.
  • The mail room was a set piece that was added late in production and was the last scene shot before production wrapped. It had bounced in and out of the film throughout Elf‘s production, but Favreau decided they needed one more set piece.
  • Mark Acheson, who plays the guy Buddy is talking to and laying down with in the mail room, had auditioned for the role of a trucker. That part was cut from the film, but, because of his audition tape, Favreau cast him in this role in the mail room. Favreau got notes from the studio pointing out that Acheson was clearly not 26. Favreau responded that, yes, this was clearly why it was funny that he says he’s 26 in the movie. Probably not the most ridiculous studio note ever, but it’s gotta be up there.
  • Favreau mentions he first knew of Peter Dinklage from Living in Oblivion and that the actor was in The Station Agent at Sundance while Elf was filming in January of 2003. Likewise, Zooey Deschanel was in All the Real Girls, Mary Steenburgen was in Casa de los babys at the time, and James Caan had just finished shooting Dogville with Lars von Trier. “If you just look at the cast of this movie, it doesn’t really say ‘Broad Christmas Comedy’ but they certainly were funny.”
  • To shoot the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, production had to wait until after midnight and only then got four hours to get the scene, because a professional skater was performing the next day. On the other side of things, the premier party for Elf was held there. They got to hang out a lot longer than that then. Reports that Caan tried to take the professional skater’s knees out with a crowbar are grossly exaggerated.
  • A little timeline house cleaning here: According to Favreau, David Berenbaum wrote Elf as a spec script, meaning no one paid him to write it before doing so. Will Farrell became attached to the project while still at “Saturday Night Live”. Years later, the script was sent to Favreau who rewrote certain elements of the film. Production on the film began before Old School came out making Farrell a huge commodity. Favreau recognizes the chance the studio took on green lighting Elf and notes how well New Line promoted Farrell and Elf after Old School came out in February of 2003. It’s rare for a film maker to delve into how well their film does financially on these commentary tracks, so it should be noted Favreau brings up Elf‘s success. It debuted 2nd behind The Matrix Revolutions but came in 1st place its second weekend out. It was going up against The Matrix Revolutions in its second weekend, so, really, it wasn’t that fair. I’m getting into Reject Report territory here, so back to the commentary.
  • Favreau mentions it looks fake when you use too much CGI. Still, the reindeer were clearly computer generated as they’re flying through the sky. The real reindeer Buddy runs into in Central Park were scared by Farrell.
  • “And so he has his mission for act 3.” Favreau brings up that, like so many Christmas stories, Elf is about an outcast who becomes necessary. It’s like Rudolph or Frosty. Maybe not so much Frosty. I mean, he had a corncob pipe, but that’s not really all that necessary when you think about it. Button nose maybe, but not a corncob pipe.
  • Originally the news reports near the end of the film were going to be on a much larger scale. Favreau mentions it was going to be a CNN report and there were supposed to be a dozen cop cars surrounding Central Park. Also the cops were supposed to be chasing Buddy down Fifth Avenue, shooting at him as he shot back at them. He also jumps off the Empire State Building and onto a helicopter in Berenbaum’s original script. Favreau felt the “slice of life” news story played better into the reality of the situation. He says helicopters circling and cop cars swarming would have looked too much like The Blues Brothers.
  • Favreau likes the idea that Elf might be watched year after year by people who have already seen it once before. He wanted to include several Easter Eggs throughout the film for people to pick up on in subsequent viewings. The shot of Buddy trampling through Central Park like Bigfoot is one of these moments.
  • 1:19:25 – Favreau brings up Lord of the Rings again. Favreau – 3. Commentary Commentary – 1. When he first read the script, it plays up that the cops are chasing Buddy near the end of the film. Favreau didn’t like this idea, so the Central Park Rangers, who Favreau compares to Ring Wraiths, were invented to replace New York City cops. The costumes were designed to reference Lord of the Rings, and the Rangers were always shot in silhouette to hide their real appearance.
  • The shot of Mary Steenburgen singing along with Zooey Deschanel was a reshoot. It had originally been shot with Steenburgen too gleeful for the moment. Favreau felt it would work better as a dramatic moment, so it was done over between other scenes were being shot.
  • James Caan really is playing the piano in the film’s final moments. He was messing around on the piano between shots, and Favreau decided they needed to keep it as part of the scene. As the director indicates, Auld Lang Syne is a song in the public domain, so the New Line legal team can rest easy tonight. It’s not like we’re talking about Jingle All the Way, am I right?
  • The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.

Best in Commentary

“It’s sort of romantic, but it’s sort of weird, too.” – Favreau on the shower/duet scene between Deschanel and Farrell.

“Christmas movies are about spirit winning out over cynicism.”

“Burps are funny.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Final Thoughts

Much of Jon Favreau’s Elf commentary falls into the “See that? I’m going to describe what’s going on” attitude so many commentators take. That’s not always a bad thing, especially when it plays over a film as entertaining as watchable as Elf is. Favreau still finds time in there to bring up stories from the set, techniques used in the effects-heavy film, and the approach actors like Farrell and Deschanel took to bring their characters to life. It’s still an entertaining and insightful commentary, probably not quite as entertaining as what Farrell delivers in his but definitely more focused. Farrell probably wouldn’t have mentioned Freddy Vs. Jason, but that’s just conjecture on my part.

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