In the 2003 comedy “Elf”, Will Ferrell plays Buddy, an ordinary human who was raised at the North Pole as a Christmas elf and works in Santa’s workshop. When he discovers that he is really a human from New York City, Buddy travels to The Big Apple to find his father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan). A timeless winter holiday classic, “Elf” is one of the best Christmas movies ever … which only makes it all the more fun that a large part of the film’s set would have been suitable for a horror movie instead.
In search of his father, Buddy parades around the busy streets of New York City, and it’s obvious that the film’s exterior version of Manhattan is the real deal. Interior shots from New York, on the other hand, are where the film tricks us all. Scenes set inside the elaborate Christmas-decorated Gimbels department store, Walter Hobbs’ work office and apartment, the orphanage where Baby Buddy once lived, and the prison where he is locked up – all of this was filmed inside an old, shuttered mental institution in Vancouver, Canada.
In the “Elf” episode of the Netflix documentary series “The Movies That Made Us,” which features interviews from the major players involved in bringing the film to life, production designer Rusty Smith discusses what it was like to film the Christmas movie in such an un- Christmas-y place. “We had to reuse this draconian mental institution,” he explains. “It worked well for the police station, but it’s one of the scariest places I’ve ever been in my life.” But while working on location was a scary experience for Smith, it was a fun experience for one of the film’s actors: Artie Lange.
Seeing Will Ferrell in costume in a mental institution made Artie Lange laugh
In “Elf,” Artie Lange (who is also known for his roles on “The Howard Stern Show” and “Mad TV”) plays a mall elf employed by Gimbels, where Buddy works as an elf during the holidays. Because Buddy grew up with the real Santa at the North Pole, he knows an impostor when he sees one. More to the point, because he’s not familiar with the way most people celebrate Christmas, he doesn’t know how to shut up and let the kids have fun. Consequently, he destroys everything and reveals the mall Santa as a fake who smells like beef and cheese, resulting in a huge brawl that leaves much of the store in ruins (all while the comically horrified kids and their very confused parents look on).
In a 2017 episode of ABC’s “20/20” [via ABC News]Lange talked about how it was fun to see Will Ferrell walking around in his full “Elf” getup because of the building’s history. Recalling one particular interaction: “Will walks by in his outfit, the elf outfit, which he tried to keep in character. The boots that are crumpled up,” Lange said with a laugh. “I look up. He says, ‘Hey Artie.’ And then he just walked by.”
I imagine that what appeared in Lange’s mind were those scenes from many comedy films and sitcoms that depict mental institutions in a comically stereotypical light. You know the ones: The protagonist visits such a place for the first time and is greeted by a cast of wacky adult inmates dressed as clowns, Peter Pan, etc. I can understand why seeing a 6-foot-3-inch Will Ferrell casually walking by in a Santa costume would get a laugh out of Lange.
How did they end up in a mental institution?
“Elf” was made on a budget of 33 million dollars. It’s not exactly peanuts, especially in the early 2000s. Anyway, the film’s producers couldn’t afford to shoot the entire film in New York, so they packed up the crew and moved them to Vancouver. In fact, many American films are filmed in the Great White North because it is cost-effective; the US dollar is worth more in the county. However, the crew faced one major problem: the soundstages were not large enough to meet their needs.
That’s when they found the mental institution, which turned out to be so versatile that they used it to shoot almost the entire movie. In addition to using an old, abandoned building, the “Elf” production team cleverly converted a public hockey rink into the North Pole and Santa’s workshop, according to the episode “The Movies That Made Us.” Considering they filmed in Canada, I can’t think of any place that would be more fitting or colder.
In another episode of the series focusing on another holiday classic and one of filmmaker John Hughes’ best films, 1990’s “Home Alone,” it is revealed that the inside of the McCallisters’ posh suburban Illinois home where Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) sets up his own home. Sophisticated array of booby traps is actually an abandoned high school, which was also used to film scenes in other Hughes films such as “Uncle Buck” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” All of this goes to show that filmmaking really is an art — one that involves a lot of creative thinking and hands-on craftsmanship.
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