How a Jewish kid from Northeast Philly grew up to create a Christmas classic

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Talking to 'Elf' creator David Berenbaum about growing up in the Northeast, being Jewish and loving Christmas and working on the Michael Bay Ouija board movie.

OMNI PRESENTS: "My kids celebrate Hanukkah, but ... I loved [having a] Christmas tree and the lights, so we do the same thing for my kids," say David Berenbaum, screenwriter of Elf.

CAREFUL, NOW: "It was pretty surreal to see it on Broadway," says David Berenbaum of the musical adaptation of Elf, now starring Christopher Sutton and Kate Fahrner at the Walnut.
Mark Garvin

A decade after its release, the massive Will Ferrell comedy film Elf has entered the modern holiday canon, a viewing tradition for countless families. It’s the story of Buddy, played by Ferrell, a would-be elf who finds out after 30 years at the North Pole that he’s actually human. Elf was adapted into a musical that opened on Broadway in 2010, and is now running at the Walnut Street Theatre through Jan. 5. Elf was the brainchild of screenwriter David Berenbaum, who grew up Jewish in Philly; we talked to Berenbaum about the Northeast, seeing his movie adapted into a musical, writing a Ouija board movie for Director Michael Bay and more.

City Paper: What was your upbringing in Philly like? You lived in the Northeast?

David Berenbaum: Yeah, I lived in the Northeast. I went to George Washington High. I was raised in a Jewish family and we celebrated Hanukkah, but also had a Christmas tree every now and again. I got to do a little bit of both. Hanukkah is great, and my kids celebrate Hanukkah, but there’s kind of nothing like rushing down on Christmas morning and opening up presents. It’s the best of the best when you’re a kid. I loved the Christmas tree and the lights and the way it feels, so we do the same thing for my kids. We’re right in the middle of Hanukkah, so they’re getting one gift a night, but I like having the Christmas tree in the house. It’s not really a religious thing; it’s more of a feeling that I like to have around. 

CP: Is that what inspired Elf? Old Christmas movies and that feeling.

DB: Definitely, definitely the old Christmas movies. I remember when CBS, every year, they would do the special presentation and you’d see the swirling CBS logo come on and you’d watch Rudolph. One of my favorite films of all time is It’s a Wonderful Life

CP: At one point in Elf, Buddy is on a bridge looking over the side, like an homage to It’s a Wonderful Life.

DB: I was watching a lot of Frank Capra at the time [of writing Elf]. It’s a Wonderful Life definitely was in there; Meet John Doe was definitely in there. I guess in a lot of Frank Capra films, people are gonna be jumping off of things? 

CP: So what happened between when you wrote the movie in 1996 and when it came out in 2003?

DB: Like all things in Hollywood, things do not move very quickly. [Elf] was even kind of fast — it was written, it went out, it got optioned a couple of times. One thing or another didn’t come together. It absolutely served a great purpose as a writing sample — it got me into certain jobs. I worked for Disney for a while based off of that script. Then my manager at the time got it to Will Ferrell and his managers … and things took off from there. I don’t think we’d be talking about the movie now if Will didn’t commit to play Buddy the elf, ’cause I can’t really imagine anyone else on the planet playing that role at this point.

CP: It seems like screenwriters have a hard job — everybody sees this thing you wrote, but people rarely think about who wrote it. 

DB: Well, I think it’s a great job. … I’ve never wanted to do anything else in my life except be a part of making movies. So the fact that I’m getting to do it … it’s a dream, really. Whether people appreciate it or not, I appreciate it. I didn’t have a plan B going into this thing. I went to NYU to study film, then came out here to L.A. I was hell-bent on finding a way in, so I just started writing these screenplays — Elf was my second screenplay. Oddly, the first script I wrote was also a Christmas film. … I was on a Christmas bent at the time. 

CP: Was Christmas in New Jersey the first script?

DB: Yeah! How’d you know that one?

CP: IMDB Trivia. [Laughs.]

DB: Oh, wow! Maybe I should look at that thing. Yes, it was called Christmas in New Jersey. It’s a romantic comedy that I haven’t looked at for years, but maybe I should re-read it. Maybe it’s got some Christmas magic in it as well.

CP: So, Elf is a musical now; how did that come about?

DB: Literally, at the premiere of the film in New York, we were at Rockefeller Center and Mark Kaufman, who was an executive at New Line, came up to me and said, “Hey, I love the movie. I think it’d make a great musical.” So, I was, like, “Great! Let’s make it into a musical!” I thought he was kidding. And he was not kidding. … Me and my wife went to see the dress rehearsal and the next thing I knew, it was on Broadway. It was pretty surreal to see it on Broadway.

CP: Were you involved with the musical adaptation?

DB: No, I don’t pretend to really know the first thing about theater. Movies and TV are where I live and breathe. I gave my very, very few thoughts at the dress rehearsal. I think they did a great job adapting it to the stage. 

CP: A lot of your movies are for kids. How did you end up in that niche?

DB: Elf got me into this thing called the Disney [Writers in Residence] Program, which is like an old-school Hollywood system where they hire a couple people a year and you’re on the lot writing movies for them. So, that’s how I got into that genre. It wasn’t intentional. I just thought Elf was a funny idea and … a story that was classical and timeless, and has roots in everything from Rudolph to Moses floating down the Nile. 

CP: I hear you worked on the Michael Bay Ouija board movie.

DB: [Laughs.] Yes, I did. I wrote one draft a while ago. I might have been the first writer on that, I’m not sure. But that has since gone through many, many different incarnations. I think now they’re making it a very low-budget Paranormal Activity kind of film, or that it’s actually completed.

CP: I think they might have learned their lesson with Battleship.

DB: Uh … yeah. I think Hasbro — they did Transformers, which is obviously incredibly lucrative for them, so they wanna do that again. But they can also lose a lot of money. It’s a big gamble, so I think they’re doing it in the smart way. 

CP: So how does one end up working on Ouija? Do they come to you and say, “So, we have this property …”

DB: It was Hasbro. And it was Michael Bay. Yes, I sat with Michael Bay and he had an idea for what he wanted the movie to be — his original intention was, like, a Goonies, Gremlins, old-school Amblin [Entertainment] way into the story. Based on that, I went off and wrote a movie that was very effects-driven, massive budget; I believe later writers also wrote things in the nature of a very high-budget movie. But I think Universal just didn’t want to spend that kind of money on it, so they eventually decided to do it very low-budget, like, under $5 million. I think that’s the smart way to do it, for the Ouija film.

CP: Your brother Michael is a film editor. When you were growing up in Philly, was that all you guys thought about? One day, we’re gonna do this?

DB: It was sort of in our blood. Mike bought a Super 8 camera and was always making movies. (Mike’s eight years older than I am, and my other brother Jeff’s five years older.) When Mike went to NYU, I borrowed his camera and started making Super 8 movies, and eventually also went to NYU; Mike definitely paved the way for thinking about those things. Jeff went the more sensible way; he’s now running a department at Citigroup, so he’s sort of the smart one of the family, I would say.

CP: A fair number of movies are filming in Philly now. Do you think Philly could ever be, not like Hollywood, but maybe a Vancouver or something?

DB: I would love to see that, ’cause I’d love to come back and shoot in Philly. I was just talking about Christmas films, and somebody was talking about John Landis and how he shot Trading Places there, and I’ve written something recently that takes place in Philly, so that would be great. People shoot in Canada because of the tax incentive — Elf was shot in Vancouver. A lot of Hollywood productions go up there because they save a huge amount of money; if Philadelphia could do something to draw filmmakers, I think that would be amazing. There’s so many iconic films that take place there. 

CP: One of the Transformers movies filmed here for a little while. I think somehow they made it look like Paris.

DB: Michael Bay can do anything.

CP: Why hasn’t there been a Hanukkah kids’ movie? There’s only like a handful of Hanukkah movies that I can even think of.

DB: Adam Sandler made that one, Eight Crazy Nights, which I think is based on “The Chanukah Song”? I think a Hanukkah film is just kind of tough. There’s something in Christmas that is slightly more friendly to storytelling than the Maccabees and the candle and the oil. While I tell my kids those stories, there’s just something that does not translate well to movies. … I don’t know what that movie could be. It could be a short film, though? It could be a short, comedic film with eight different parts? I don’t know. Get on that.

CP: Please do.

DB: No, you do it. I’m not doing it. [Laughs.]

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