Since its release two decades ago, Elf has secured its place as a bonafide Christmas classic. The image of Will Ferrell cheerfully gallivanting around Manhattan in his yellow tights has become iconic, as has the declaration that the "best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear."


Given its incredible success, you wouldn't necessarily think it was all the idea of a novice screenwriter – but that was very much the case. The film's origins trace back to the mid-1990s, when young writer David Berenbaum had just moved to LA from America's East Coast. Nineteen years on, he speaks exclusively to about the film and its lasting legacy.

"I was kind of really missing East Coast winters," he recalls over the phone. "I was not used to LA winters at all. I sort of missed the family and everything like that and so I essentially surrounded myself with all sorts of Christmas movies. And then I started writing one."

Interestingly, the initial idea he had for a Christmas movie was not Elf but an entirely separate film titled Christmas in New Jersey – a rom-com that never went on to be produced. But although that script didn't go anywhere itself, it did open all sorts of doors that would later make Elf possible.

"It got me in the door with all sorts of people and they said, 'What's next?'" he explains. "And then I thought of the idea for Elf because I was surrounded by all this Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin/Bass stuff. And I sort of thought it would be amusing to put a human into that sort of environment. Buddy is sort of a misfit, he doesn't fit in – Rudolph is sort of a misfit, he doesn't fit in. And they both go off on quests. So that was sort of the beginning of that – Rudolph mixed with a healthy dose of Big, the Tom Hanks movie."

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Will Ferrell as Buddy in Elf
Will Ferrell as Buddy in Elf SEAC

It was Big which ended up serving as "a bit of a template" for Elf's script in the early stages of development, with Berenbaum using Hanks' character Josh Baskin as a "guidepost" for the character of Buddy the Elf, well before Will Ferrell first got involved. Indeed, in those first days of putting pen to paper, Ferrell was hardly on Berenbaum's radar at all – he was only just getting started on Saturday Night Live – but fast forward a few years and it was the star himself who played a key role in getting the film the green light following a number of false starts.

As Berenbaum explains: "It had gone out and was optioned once and they put an actor on it and were looking at directors, and nothing sort of materialised from that. And then right after that the option expired, it was picked up by another company for another year and went down a development road, and nothing happened with that."

It was then that Bernabaum's manager had the idea that Ferrell would be perfect for the lead role, and after he'd attached himself things quickly began to gather pace – with Jon Favreau signing on as director and working on a couple of rewrites with Berenbaum (including a change to the ending that brought in the famous Christmas cheer scene). Favreau himself has previously stated that he initially wasn't interested in the script, explaining in a 2020 interview with Rolling Stone that the original version was "much darker" – but this isn't how Berenbaum remembers it.

"I think it was always sort of lighter in tone," he says. "I don't know about that. It was, you know, it was always sort of light on its feet – it was very much something that Disney was considering making for a while because I was employed at Disney at the time. So it was, I thought, always a very sweet story."

Regardless of what the original version of the film might have looked like, it can't be denied that Ferrell put his own distinctive stamp on the script as soon as he got his hands on it. Berenbaum was kept involved by the producers throughout the process – spending a couple of weeks on set – and watching the star take his script and run with it was something he got a great deal of enjoyment out of.

"I can't quite frankly think of another actor who would be better playing the role than Will," he says. "I mean, realistically the movie doesn't work at all without Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf. So to see him inhabit that role and really bring it to life was amazing, I mean he would do an ad lib and he would go here and there – he would take it in unexpected directions and he has such an infectious energy that really just brought the entire thing to life."

Amy Sedaris as Deb, James Caan as Walter Hobbs and Will Ferrell as Buddy in Elf SEAC

Of course, Ferrell wasn't the only big name in the cast, and Berenbaum was especially delighted about another actor who was brought in to play a key supporting role: the late James Caan, who plays Buddy's biological father Walter.

"When I heard that James Caan was going to be playing Walter I thought that was a stroke of genius," he explains. "To have Sonny Corleone playing against this sweet, innocent Elf? I just thought would be incredible. I had grown up watching The Godfather, and to think that James Caan was going to be in this movie was kind of insane to me. And, you know, it could not have worked better!"

And there were other actors that he was equally happy to see bringing his characters to life.

"I just thought that literally every casting decision was spectacular," he continues. "Bob Newhart as Papa Elf, Ed Asner as a sort of a grumpy but sweet, crusty Santa, and then Zooey Deschanel – it just sort of went straight down the line. And they had character actors filling out the universe of this movie, real sort of independent actors. It made it feel real, these actors really grounded the movie in a way that let Will just kind of run wild. And I think that was sort of the secret sauce that made the movie work."

Berenbaum was already "over the moon" when he found out the movie was getting made, and watching the process of it being put together was something he was deeply proud of too – but it wasn't until he watched it in front of an audience for the first time that he realised quite how big a hit he had on his hands.

"I mean, clearly, there was an energy and electricity there that you can feel," he recalls. "And you know going through all that was Will's performance and Favreau's direction. It retained its heart – people could really feel the movie from the beginning."

Zooey Deschanel as Jovie
Zooey Deschanel as Jovie in Elf SEAC

From that point onwards, the film hasn't looked back: it's watched more times every December than just about any other 21st-century film, and recently finished fourth in our poll to crown the greatest Christmas film ever made. So how often does Berenbaum revisit it?

"When it played in theatres out here for the years, I would take my kids to go see it and that was fun to share with them," he responds. "And, you know as we're decorating the tree, we'll sort of put it on and it's a great thing to have Buddy come back into your life every year, this time of year. It's really quite amazing."

The film has also taken on a life of its own when it comes to reimaginings and parodies – from a 2022 Asda Christmas advert to a musical theatre version that opened on Broadway in 2010 – and Berenbaum is very happy to see the film's legacy live on in this way. He's less sure, however, when it comes to talk of a potential sequel. There were reports at one point that Ferrell had turned down a huge offer to reprise the title role in a follow-up, and for now, Berenbaum feels that might just have been the correct decision.

"I mean, there have been discussions over the years," he says. "I think Buddy's story had a good beginning, middle and end and I think there are other ways to look into that world and that universe and see if there are other things that can spring out of it.

"But I'm very satisfied with the way it is and the way that people have embraced it into their homes – that is something that's rare and special. And I don't know if Will getting back into the tights would be perhaps the best idea at this point!"

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