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.
For a lot of moviegoers—Christians included—Christmas fairy tales are a meaningful and enjoyable part of the holiday tradition. But there are those who think fairy tales cheapen Christmas. The snowmen, the reindeer, Santa. Elf does not make direct references to the real story of Christmas, and some Christian film critics have a problem with that. Do you think Elf and other such Christmas fairy tales are damaging?
Not if they tell the truth! One of the things that is beautiful about a good fairy tale is that it reflects the truth. The truth that Elf reflects is about giving and innocence and learning to live sacrificially—to put others first. That's the story of Christmas. It reflects the truth of Christmas.
We have a savior who was a storyteller, [so] I think there is great value in story. Jesus almost never said exactly what his thought was straight out. He was always couching it in metaphor and simile, so that people would think—to engage them and to engage their imagination, to see the context in which they were living. Story does that. I think it's a very powerful tool. Certainly, like any tool, it can be misused, but I think Elf is a really strong example of a beautiful fairy tale that by its nature ends up reflecting the truth. The writer didn't set out to reflect the gospel. But, in telling a beautiful fairy tale from his own heart and in reflecting a lot of Christmas movies that he had loved, he wound up reflecting the gospel.
Reviewing films, I often hear from believers who view Hollywood and the movie business as "the devil's playground." Is there anything that you wish more Christians would understand about Hollywood or about the whole artistic process of moviemaking? Do you encounter Christians with prejudice toward Hollywood, or people in Hollywood with prejudice toward Christians?
I've never encountered prejudice [toward Christians] … that I'm aware of. I never heard about any of this stuff until I started doing interviews for Elf. I'm not around people that are critical of the arts or the Hollywood machine.
I certainly understand that a lot of movies are just not that good. That to me is less a spiritual issue than it is a corporate issue: one that says, "We're going to sell mass entertainment, we're going to make money back, and we're going to put money into it, so we have to have something that is going to appeal to the broadest audience. Something to go with their Coke and their popcorn." That means you aim something right down the middle, and you try to please everybody. So, the window through which you can sneak something really good as an artist is very narrow. It's much wider with books. I understand that. If I was a studio and I was investing 35 million dollars, I'd be nervous too. You have to answer to a bottom line, to your stockholders. It's capitalism at its heart. So, because it's such a big machine that you have to get pointed in the right direction, and it's so difficult to make a good film, so many things have to come together. It's more a utilitarian problem.
As for those who consider Hollywood the devil's playground, I would encourage them to engage when they want to engage, and not to dismiss anything wholly because they are afraid of things. There is a lot of good stuff out in the culture if you dig for it. I really don't believe that the devil is standing outside the movie theatre luring people in. I think people are very well-served to go to movies like Elf—not to be self-promoting—because it brings families together. I've seen kids all the way from 7 years old to my parents, who are 70 and 75, who were crying at the end and laughing. That's a beautiful experience you can have with the community.
What part of the process did you enjoy the most? What do you love most about moviemaking?
This will sound strange, but one of the things I love about it is it's so hard. It's really rewarding to put so much energy into something and watch it grow, like tending a garden. You start with a script and wind up at the premiere, and that journey is so long, a lot of the gratification comes from having survived it.
I love being on the set, especially when you're around good human beings. Will Ferrell is a genuinely terrific guy. When the cameras aren't rolling, he's over sitting with the crew, making them laugh with stories. It's a very humble approach, and he's really very grateful to get to do what he does. Being around people you respect as artists and then finding out that they're really good people that you want to have in your life as friends is great.
Are there particular themes that draw you to a project?
On the production company side, we hold up a banner that we're putting our imprint on things that we really care about. Even if it's a more intense story, it tends to be about the triumph of the heart, the triumph of the spirit, someone wrestling against impossible odds and coming out in the end. We're big fans of movies like that, classic movies all the way back to It's a Wonderful Life. These are the movies that myself and my producing partner Jon Berg fell in love with when we were kids and we watched every year until our parents forced us to go to bed. If a movie idea breaks our hearts, then we're in.
I've been finding as a writer that the stories I'm constantly drawn to … that I wind up telling … are about someone being offered the chance to live a sacrificial life. And they can choose to or they can choose not to. It's presented to them that "You thought your life was this way—that it's about you. And now you're going to find out that it's not about you at all. The way you'll fully embrace your own identity is by surrendering it." Obviously, that's the gospel.
I find that I can't escape that story, because that's my story. My story is being met at a place and a time where I thought for sure that the one thing that was wrong in life was the whole Jesus/Christianity thing. And then the beautiful irony of the love of God is that he waited patiently for me. I had looked everywhere else and I hadn't found anything. And I came back and found out, "Okay, it's not about me. My job is to live for other people and to do everything in service to the Lord and not do it for myself."
If you have any advice for young artists getting into the movie business, what would you most want to impress on them?
Follow God to where he wants you. I'm not interested in being anywhere that God doesn't want me to be. I just want to walk in his will and let it unfold. One of my biggest frustrations with the language of faith is that everyone wants to explain the reason for everything all the time. So they say, "Clearly God shut this door!" as if he's in the business of running around and slamming doors and opening windows. There is a reason for everything, but I'd say we know that reason 1 percent of the time. "Now we see through a glass darkly." We are not visionaries. Because of that, we have a God who says "Live today sufficient unto the day." [We need to] focus on surrendering daily and not get lost in the abstraction of why things are happening.
The other thing specific to the movie business: Learn to write. Even if you're not going to become a screenwriter and you want to be involved in the movie business in any way, storytelling is what makes the movie business work. If you understand story, and you've done some writing on your own, you are going to be able to bring that to the table on every project, I don't care if you're the hairdresser. You'll still be able to convey that sense of story and the movie will be better because of that.
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CT sister publication Christian Reader also interviewed Komarnicki.
Film Forum reviewedElf last week.
The official Elf web site is here.