Todd Komarnicki: Producer, Director, Writer—and Believer
There is an interesting issue dividing Christian film critics' reviews over the new holiday comedy Elf. Some go so far as to call it a "perfect holiday movie" that "promot[es] biblical concepts." Others are frustrated that "spirituality is notably absent." It all comes down to whether or not the critic thinks Santa Claus is a meaningful metaphor, or if Jolly Old Saint Nick needs to surrender his throne and change his theme song to "Baby Jesus is Coming to Town." (See Film Forum's review roundups from this week and last week.)
But Elf's producer argues that the gospel message is reflected in this whimsical world of make-believe. The movie has been a labor of love for Todd Komarnicki, one of the founding members of the production company Guy Walks Into a Bar. The script came to him in 2001, but writer David Berenbaum had been developing it since 1996.
Elf is a fairy tale aimed at both the funny bone and the heart. It's about a boy named Buddy (Will Ferrell) who grows to manhood in Santa's workshop at the North Pole without realizing that he is a human being not an elf. When the truth is finally revealed, Buddy heads off to Manhattan to find his real family. In the big city, his childlike innocence and clear apprehension of the difference between "naughty" and "nice" has a transforming effect on everyone around him. For Komarnicki, that childlike innocence reflects virtues central to the Christmas tradition.
Komarnicki's interests in filmmaking run far and wide. The films most meaningful to him, the titles that draw him back again and again, are Wim Wenders' meditative Paris, Texas and Alan Parker's unsettling drama Birdy, about a Vietnam vet's fractured psyche. His current projects further reflect this diversity of interests: He is writing episodes of the upcoming television series The Flash even as he develops a film he describes as "Braveheart with Vikings" for the esteemed action director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element). Komarnicki's directorial debut Resistance, a World War 2 film that stars Bill Paxton and Julia Ormond, is currently in search of a distributor. That's quite an agenda. But rather than talk about his achievements and endeavors, he's far more interested in sharing his faith and describing how it informs his work.
How did Elf make it to the big screen?
It had success being optioned a couple of times, but it had never been made. My producing partner had a very prescient thought: This movie needed to be in Will Ferrell's hands. And he felt that Will was able to carry this movie and be a movie star and get this movie made long before anybody else agreed. It took a while convincing everyone, and fortunately it paid off. Sometimes you have to be slightly ahead of the curve to hit a home run, and fortunately this was the case.
Two years ago [studios would say] 'We're not going to spend $30 million dollars to make a Will Ferrell movie.' Now everyone says, 'Yes! Will Ferrell as an elf! It makes so much sense! We love Will Ferrell!' I think it's timing and patience that wins out in the movie game. So seven years after our dear writer wrote the script he gets to go to his premiere.
Did the script change much in the course of this development? A good deal of Ferrell's performance feels improvised.
It's not. There's actually minimal improv in the film. It really didn't change too much, because the story was always about the victory of innocence over darkness. It was always about Buddy transforming everyone around him. You think that he's going to be taken advantage of in New York or beaten down or misunderstood. But also because there is so much purity in him, having been raised as an elf, he's just a person who gives. That's his raison d'etre — the impact he has on the world is all for the good. That's what makes great Christmas movies. That part of it always remained the same.