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Moriarty Visits Vancouver Set Of ELF! First In A Series Of Two Articles!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

Originally, Quint was supposed to go to Vancouver for a visit to the set of ELF, but he found himself embroiled in a spy mission here in LA, so I decided to clear the schedule enough to head north to what’s been called “Canada’s California.” There have been huge films shot there in recent years, including the upcoming X-MEN 2, and I’m hoping I’ll go back up later this year after I’ve freed up some more time. In this case, though, the trip was scheduled for about 28 hours total, and I figured it would be worth it to see Will Ferrell in action.

I’ve been to Montreal before, and I have nothing but good to say about that city. This time out, though, I didn’t have enough time to really get a feel for the city itself. I flew in around 4:00 on Monday afternoon, and on the flight in, I met one of the other people covering the event. Rachel, a freelancer working for AOL, is one of those people who covers the junket circuit, and she seemed surprised that she didn’t recognize me. The junketeers are a fairly close-knit group, and they see the same faces at each thing they attend. I explained to her that AICN is only occasionally invited to this sort of thing, and that in a case like ELF, we ended up on the list because both the studio (New Line) and the director (Jon Favreau) like us. As we were on our way through customs, we bumped into each other again, and ended up sharing a shuttle through Vancouver to our hotel. She talked about how she used to do hard news, covering Whitewater from Arkansas, for example, and how she just decided that she wanted to be in LA, and she didn’t want to live the lifestyle that network news reporters end up living. Neither of us had been to Vancouver before, and it was funny recognizing what has always been portrayed as other cities like New York or even the Bronx. Those snow-covered peaks in the background as Jackie Chan RUMBLEd always make me laugh, and seeing the mountains for myself, I was struck by how lovely the city is. Even when we passed through what we were told was a really terrible part of town, Rachel observed, “I think this is the cleanest, nicest terrible part of town I have ever seen.”

Once we got to the admittedly swank Sutton Place Hotel and got checked in, I took advantage of the hour and a half until dinner to call back some readers who had left messages at the hotel, fielding a few more incoming calls as well. I headed downstairs and around the corner so I could exchange some currency and wander about a bit. I wish I’d checked my e-mail so I could have sprinted over to Golden Age Collectibles or A&B Sound. Thanks for the recommendation anyway, Russell. I shopped a little, then headed back to the hotel to shower before joining the rest of the junketeers in the lobby at 6:30. Aside from the one person I met earlier in the day, the only face I recognized was Wendy Rutherford from New Line, who I’ve been dealing with for at least two years now. The last time I saw her was at Butt-Numb-A-Thon this year, so it was good to have someone along who I knew as we made our way out to the Sand Bar, a seafood restaurant at Granville Island.

All in all, it was a friendly group of people, but I couldn’t help feeling like an observer instead of a participant as I worked on my meal and listened to them kidding with each other. It was like being a temp on a job where everyone already knows each other really well. It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel and met up with various readers (we sort of met in waves over the course of the evening) that I felt like I was more in my element. It’s always a pleasure just to shoot the shit with a hardcore film geek, and I heard some great stories from some long time Vancouver citizens. I learned a long time ago that it’s the union guys who know the best stories, and that held true on this trip. Anyone who took the time to come out and show me a bit of the city, thanks. By the time I made it back to the hotel for the final time around 4:00, I was ready to crash and squeeze every bit of sleep out of the five and a half hours until we had to report to the hospitality suite downstairs.

9:30 felt like it was just a few blinks away, and I was still fairly blearly when I stumbled downstairs. Turns out they were doing people’s make-up in the suite, getting everyone ready for their on-camera segments later in the day. Since I wasn’t planning to appear on camera at all (I figure you already have to wade through my verbiage... no reason to subject you to my giant Macy’s Day parade float of a head at the same time), I headed out to grab some breakfast before we left for the set.

That gave me a chance to read the production notes they gave us. I tried to track down a copy of the script before I left town, but I didn’t give any of my script sources enough notice to be able to deliver. I totally misunderstood the premise of the film originally, thinking it was about a disgruntled elf who quit Santa’s Workshop. Instead, it’s a family film, and Will Ferrell’s been given a role that should endear him with a huge commercial audience, a chance to harness all that high-wattage freak power into a really loveable character. My co-writer, Harry Lime, always wanted someone to make a film for Chris Farley that would convince the world that Chris was E.T. or the Little Tramp. Farley never really found that role, but Ferrell may have, and it’s fitting since there’s a similar fearlessness to the work of these two comics. There are stories told about Farley’s insane, eager-to-please behavior off-camera, but everything I hear about Will suggests that he is reserved when he’s not performing, saving it all for those moments when he cuts loose in character.

Will’s playing Buddy, a human being who mistakenly gets raised as an Elf after crawling into Santa’s bag one Christmas Eve. His real parents, Walter (James Caan) and Emily (Mary Steenburgen), move on with their lives and Buddy is raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and sent to Elf school so that one day, he can work for Santa Claus (Ed Asner) just like his family. When he learns the truth about himself, Buddy heads back to New York to meet his real parents and to find his place in the world, something that proves to be quite tricky.

In the synopsis, they mention that Buddy grows up thinking he’s got a “glandular disorder,” and as soon as we stepped foot on-set, it was obvious that much of the film’s humor at the beginning comes from the enormous disparity between the size of Buddy and everyone around him. The world of Santa’s elves is made for someone who stands under four feet tall. Buddy towers over them, and even the most mundane of tasks, like going to the bathroom, is complicated by his scale. Like LORD OF THE RINGS, much of the visual trickery in ELF is being done with forced perspective, and we were told that the day would start with a demonstration of the process. When we showed up, they were setting up a shot, so they asked us to wait for a moment.

And, as anyone who’s ever visited a film set knows, waiting a moment can actually take several moments. And then several more moments. And then a few more after that. The structure we were in, the PNE Forum, is a hockey arena/”rock palace” where many games and many concerts have taken place over the years. Evidently, Nirvana played there, as did earlier rock icons like Janis Joplin. The place had excellent acoustics, and there were several different partial sets built around the room. Many of them were the same set, duplicated on different scales. For example, all of the visiting reporters were kept standing on an oversized version of the Elf work area, where a number of workstations were set up and where there was a large lectern, on which rested Santa’s book. This was the set where they would shoot normal sized humans to make them look like elves, so everything was just slightly exaggerated. I went over to check out the list and saw that it was open to a page full of “NAUGHTY” names, starting at JC Higgins and running all the way to Adam Hockley. Sorry, guys, but it looks like you get a lump of coal this year. I poked around the “toy testing” area, where it looked like Louisville Sluggers were being stress-checked. Because they were made for a larger scale, the bats looked particularly lethal. Give Al Capone one of these, he could have ruled the world.

Santa’s photo double was walking around in costume, and at first, I thought it was Asner when I saw him from the back. This guy was shaped exactly the same. There were a lot of crew members who had on elf hats, which gave the activity of setting up the next shot a slightly surreal feeling. They set up a monitor for the journalists to watch, and as they were doing so, a friend of Jon’s drifted over and approached me. “Excuse me, but are you from AICN?” It’s always awkward when you’re singled out, since everyone sent on a junket wants to get something special, something unique even as they’re herded through photo ops and five-minute formal interviews, and I took a step away from the group to answer.

”Yeah, I am.” Without a word to the publicists who were doing their best to keep an eye on all of us, this guy (who I'd name, except the publicists would cut my throat since he's making a really great and uncredited cameo in the movie) steered me over to where Jon was sitting.

”Here he is,” he said before taking off again.

Jon stood up and introduced himself. He actually appeared in the long-rumored but seldom-seen AICN pilot for Comedy Central, but he never dealt with me or John Robie or Robogeek. He was part of a discussion group hosted by Harry that featured Favreau, Julia Sweeney, and David Cross. Even though I was at the studio that day, I never met Favreau because I spent the whole shoot strapped into a motion capture suit and isolated on a separate soundstage. I know he’s kept in touch with Quint after the MADE screening in Austin, and as I sat down in the seat next to Jon, he started talking to me about the site. “Funny, though,” he said, “I expected you to be in pink slippers.”

From my new vantage point, I had a much better view of the set. It was a classroom where Buddy and the other elves were going through elf school. Will Farrell was wedged into a desk in the foreground, and the shot was composed so that we only see him as the teacher walks through the room and the camera pans over. The forced perspective was completely convincing, and even before Will opened his mouth, it worked as a sight gag. He and the other children ran through the three rules of the elf code as we watched.

”Treat every day like Christmas. There’s room for everyone on the nice list. And the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

Will’s able to put on the open, guileless smile of a child and convince you that he’s a total innocent, and the only thing that might have marred that impression was the way the shot was framed to emphasize Will’s package, prominently displayed by the yellow tights he was wearing. After one take, someone mentioned this to Jon, and he asked for playback. “I didn’t notice,” he protested. “I’m a guy. I wouldn’t even think to look there.”

Sure enough, the playback of the shot revealed just how front-and-center the bait-and-tackle was, and several people pushed in around Will to solve the problem of the protruding package. It never fails to make me laugh when you see what kind of bizarre problems people are called on to solve when making a film. Where else would you see six people standing around, staring at Will Ferrell’s crotch and discussing it seriously?

As they worked, Jon showed me the chart that was sitting on top of the monitors that showed the day’s shots, each marked with a “BIG SET” or a “SMALL SET” so as to keep it clear, and he talked about how difficult the lighting of each set was. Finally, Will’s unit hidden away through an adjustment in costume and posture, everyone prepared for the next take. Jon shook his head and smiled at me. “Let your article reflect that we just spent ten minutes covering Will Ferrell’s balls.”

”Those are some big balls,” said someone behind me, and Jon introduced me to the other Jon on the set, Jon Berg, one of the film’s producers. Berg is part of A Guy Walks Into A Bar, a combination management firm/production company where he’s partnered with Todd Komarnicki. Todd’s a screenwriter who wrote THE PROFESSOR & THE MADMAN for Paramount, which John Boorman was attached to direct for a while. Todd just finished directing his own film, RESISTANCE, starring Bill Paxton and Julia Ormond, and was evidently in Los Angeles working to set the film up with distributors. It’s a shame. I’ve met Komarnicki many times in the past, and he’s a hoot, a big shambling Ernie Kovacs look-alike circa BELL BOOK & CANDLE. I chatted with Berg all the way up to the moment they were ready to roll film, then watched a few more takes. Ferrell forgot one of the rules of the elf code on one take, but for the most part, he was right on the money, giving Favreau something slightly different each time. Berg pointed out a new problem, thanks to the forced perspective and the position of the kids behind Will.

”That kid’s foot looks like a turd.” Sure enough, there appeared to be something long and black hanging from Will’s ass, and another team was sent in to figure out how to position the offending leg. As they worked on that issue, the New Line publicists came and stole me back from Jon so they could walk me around the rest of the building and show me some other features of the sets. I particularly enjoyed the stacks of toys, some actual toys and some oversized reproductions or partial pieces to be used in the workshops. Boxes of Etch-A-Sketch parts and extra-large board games and doll parts lined long tables that we walked by en route to the elf holding pen at the far end of things, and we had a chance to peek in at a 2/3 scale bathroom that would cripple a normal man if he tried to use it.

All the elves were lounging around, reading newspapers and smoking and playing chess, one of those showbiz-meets-fantasy images that called to mind some of the more surreal moments from UNDER THE RAINBOW. Even the adult elves were being played by the shortest actors possible, and we were led back to where the make-up people had trays of elf ears ready to be applied. Only lead actors like Newhart had custom-fitted ears made for them each day. For everyone else, there were generic ears made and modified as they were being put on.

Walking back through a few other sets, I was struck by something familiar in the design... and not like a reproduction, but more like a suggestion, a general nod in the stylization of things. Favreau explained to me that the whole first part of the film has an intentionally low-tech look, a deliberate nod to the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials that so many of us grew up on. He’s even chosen to have all the animals at the North Pole portrayed as stop-motion animation characters, a job that has been given to the Chiodo Brothers. “When they first came up here to see the sets of the exterior of Santa’s workshop, they told us it looked like a giant-sized table-top set. That’s exactly what we were going for. We took that as a compliment.” It’s only once the scene changes to New York in the second half of the movie that more high-tech digital effects will be used, in particular during a sled chase through Central Park.

There’s a partial sled off to one side of things, and Mary Steenburgen is on-set, ready to talk to all of the reporters. Cameras have been set up, and everyone’s told they’ve got five minutes in the chair with Mary. At the same time, there’s another shot already set up for Will, and the crew has managed to switch over to this other set quickly. They’re filming Will as he leaves the North Pole, saying goodbye to each of the elves he’s come to know and love. It’s a shot of Will by himself, a dramatic low angle looking up at him, and he seems enormous as he moves through the miniature set, ducking his head and stooping as he looks at nothing, trying his best to give real emotion to his goodbyes. After the first take I observe, the script supervisor stops things and steps in to have a word with him, showing him a script page before stepping back off the set.

As she walked by me, she shook her head and muttered in disbelief, “I just had to tell a grown man that he flipped ‘Sunshine’ and “Twinkle Winkle.’ Boy, my job is strange.”

There were no elves in the shot, although playback of an earlier shot showed where the elves would be in the final composite, so there was a fair amount of effort spent getting Will’s eyeline just right. Three or four takes were enough, though, and they finally released Will for lunch as I headed back over to the line for Steenburgen, the last of the reporters to speak with her.

This weekend, I’ll bring you more of my set visit, including the full interviews with the lovely and charming Mary Steenburgen, Will Ferrell in full elf gear, and the director himself. Right now, I’m going to go finish a few other pieces for you for this morning. I’m desperately behind, and there’s so much I want to talk with you about!

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback
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  • Feb. 27, 2003, 5:57 a.m. CST

    Gary Glitter, Jonathan King, PeteTownsend and now.....

    by KID AB

    3D FROM MASSIVE ATTACK!!!! JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!!!!

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 6 a.m. CST

    sounds like a fun movie...

    by kicker_of_elves

    and for future first posters, u go to hell, u go to hell and die!

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 7:29 a.m. CST

    A Golden Age for Bob Newhart fanatics

    by Smilin'Jack Ruby

    He's in this AND he's in "Legally Blonde 2???" What happened to Newhart retiring - with all his tons and tons and tons of money from producing two of the biggest hit shows in TV history - to simply sit on his ass and play golf all the time with Kelsey Grammer? Thank God Bob is back. Newhart's a fucking genius of subtlety and it's about damn time modern filmmakers realize what he's got going for him. Anybody else get that Nick at Nite recording of his 1998 live benefit concert where he re-did all his "Button Down Mind" stuff? Brilliant.

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 9:40 a.m. CST

    Bob Newhart? Ed Asner?

    by rev_skarekroe

    It's like watching prim-time reruns circa 1972! sk

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 9:46 a.m. CST

    Ferrell you da bomb in jay and silent bob yo!

    by DavidCamp

    the legend that is

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 11:31 a.m. CST

    FUCKING HILARIOUS!!!

    by Batutta

    Go watch THE DREW MCWEENY SHOW...I bet even he would think its funny, and if he doesn't, then he truly has no sense of humor.

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 12:03 p.m. CST

    Dude, I think we've got our Superman!!!!

    by Terry_1978

    Guy from Guiding Light named Matthew Bomer. I saw him online and he might have the look, I swear to god almighty.

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 12:39 p.m. CST

    The Bronx IS New York City!!!

    by bobleeswagger

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 1:22 p.m. CST

    Children of the living dead meets will ferrell

    by DavidCamp

    Ferrell is cool, but not as cool as somethings in life... Words do not describe the epic genius that is "Children of the living dead (2001)". The makers clearly went in with the intention and belief they were making one of the best horror films ever, and their amazing pretention and lack of any ability or skill in just about every single field shows on every level. They have created the most inadvertently hilarious movie I have ever seen. I saw it in MVC for

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 3:05 p.m. CST

    Is Moriarty in LOVE????

    by Lolthien

    From the first several paragraphs it sounds like Moriarty's smitten with the AOL lady! After all, we now know all her aspirations and reasons for not going the network route and how the whole community is so close knit. Isn't it CUTE?

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 3:07 p.m. CST

    Hoke...

    by Lolthien

    That has to be one of the worst constructed paragraphs I've ever seen... "I HAVE PROOF! nuff said."... no.. it is not enough that you SAY you have proof, normal people provide such proof before considering it 'enough'... or 'nuff..

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 3:08 p.m. CST

    Thanks NHC1583

    by I'm a banned man

    for the link to that Mori clip. That was classic. I can't wait for the next episode. As Homer Simpson would say, "It's funny cause it's true". Sad, but true.

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 3:23 p.m. CST

    i think

    by ZO

    mcweeny and harry switched roles

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 3:43 p.m. CST

    That Facer Animation is Hilarious!

    by KONG33

    seriously. good cartoon for a webpic.

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 4:11 p.m. CST

    Moriarty cartoon was dumb.

    by rev_skarekroe

    The whole site was a waste of time, though it's always a sort of bizarre amusement to see someone so pathetic they have to devote an entire website to hating someone who obviously couldn't give a rat's ass about them. This was the worst I've seen since the site by the guy who hates Paul Barker from Ministry. sk

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 4:55 p.m. CST

    I love daredevil!

    by fat ugly harry

    yes This movie is the bomb!

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 4:55 p.m. CST

    Will Ferrell is a sucking chest-wound of comedy and has not been

    by Cash Bailey

    He's a half-assed Chevy Chase wannabe come off like your dorky brother-in-law getting drunk at a barbeque and trying to be funny. Favs should be ashamed of himself, as should Kevin Smith for destroying JAY AND SILENT BOB with this half-wit, like he almost ruined DOGMA with Chris Rock, another staggeringly unfunny person who is just a notch or two above Martin Lawrence.

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 5:09 p.m. CST

    Oh hell, I think I figured it out

    by Trav McGee

    These "facer" kids who come to AICN to complain about AICN and advertise "facer" which appears to be largely devoted to complaining about AICN--I think I've got it now. They're not movie geeks, or movie fans, or movie snobs. Per se. They're movie website geeks, and movie website fans, and movie website snobs. Well shit, that's one layer removed from reality more than I could possibly give a fart in the wind about. Hey, whatever keeps them from shootng up their schools. But I'd rather talk movies than movie websites. ...ELF, now. Favreau, you had me at Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation homages. I'm there. These Chiodo Bros. (sp?) any good? What's their resume?

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 5:13 p.m. CST

    Vancouver's mean streets

    by mtoast

    I assume that the "terrible" part of town would be the Downtown Eastside. I can't really think of another one. But how the hell did you pass through there on your way from the airport to the Sutton Place at Burrard and Robson? I mean, shit, you cross the bridge out of Richmond and you just take Granville all the way north, hop over the Granville Bridge and then hang a left. Bang, you're there. If you saw the "really terrible" part of Vancouver, your shuttle driver would have to be ingesting some of the substances that plague that area. Who knows, maybe it was the next day when you were heading out to the PNE. That would make sense. Heading east along Hastings to the fairgrounds would certainly give you a front row seat. Nonetheless, I suspect no one cares. It's really a moot point. Oh god, I'm wasting my life!

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 5:25 p.m. CST

    another pointless fact

    by mtoast

    There was no mention that the PNE Forum, former home to the Vancouver Canucks, was also the location for all of the dog show scenes in Best in Show. It's true. I saw the movie before I even realized that it had been shot in Van. My girlfriend thought the airport looked like Vancouver International -- so I was on the lookout throughout the rest of the film. When I saw the ugly concrete contours of the stadium, I knew it was the good ol' Forum and the ads for "Old Dutch" potato chips in the background clinched it. In Canada, they make ketchup chips and people love 'em. Holy fuck, do they! AND they put vinegar on their french fries. I shit you not! Sometimes, even gravy. But there are no gravy potato chips. They tried it for a while and nobody bought it. So, what can you do? Potato chip companies gotta make a buck -- just like everybody else. Holy cow, this is a LOT of pointless facts. You are all so welcome!

  • Feb. 27, 2003, 8:30 p.m. CST

    IT's NOT MONTREAL! IT's VANCOUVER! GET IT RIGHT!

    by T-MACK 1.01

  • Feb. 28, 2003, 11:48 a.m. CST

    Yeah, well it's AMATEUR, not AMATUEUR, you retard...

    by Moe Syzslak

    pot and the fucking kettle.

  • Feb. 28, 2003, 2:38 p.m. CST

    Hey.......MToast.......

    by Doc Cock

    .....we Brits/Scots put vinegar on our chips (not french fries)...chips as in chipped potatoes.....sheesh, is life really that bad out in the colonies that this is the best you can do, perhaps we should re-start the British Empire, or perhaps I should get out more....send your answers on the back of a postcard, to.."get a life you scottish twat".......thanks

  • Feb. 28, 2003, 4:30 p.m. CST

    Hoke Mosely, you numbnuts.

    by Moe Syzslak

    Almost perfect definition of irony - criticizing someone's writing, yet spelling "writer " incorrectly while doing so. You, sir, are a fucking jackass.

  • Feb. 28, 2003, 5:04 p.m. CST

    facers flash movie

    by SuperTooth

    That is the dumbest piece of shit ever. I cant believe anyone said they found it funny. Maybe if you're in middle school. Its just an angry pile of garbage making fun of people. Theres no wit or talent in comedy present. The most entertaining part was that the first customer in the video store looked like Sam the Griffin from the Muppets. It sucked, biggest waste of time ever.

  • Feb. 28, 2003, 9:12 p.m. CST

    Home of the Canucks???

    by Joe Cool

    I think mtoast is getting the Forum mixed up with the Pacific Coliseum, which is right next to it, and is where the Canucks played until they moved into GM Place in the latter '90s. The Forum is way too small to have ever accommodated an NHL team. I agree with the earlier comment though, that it would be just about impossible for a shuttle to cruise through the Downtown Eastside coming from the airport to downtown without getting lost. Unless of course it was just coming straight up Granville Street, which is not the worst part of town but isn't great either... oh shit, I'm wasting my life too aren't I? Right. I'm going to go waste it over a nice Guinness.

  • March 1, 2003, 9:15 p.m. CST

    Favreau just bought himself a good review

    by greetingsearthli

    New Line likes us? That's probably because every one of their movies they advertise on this site gets a good review.

  • What did the actors say in their interviews? All I can tell from your article is that you ate well and whacked off to the AOL lady.