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'Holiday Movies' explores origins of 'Elf,' 'Nightmare Before Christmas'

The Holiday Movies That Made Us tells the story of making the film Elf. Photo courtesy of Netflix
"The Holiday Movies That Made Us" tells the story of making the film "Elf." Photo courtesy of Netflix

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Elf could have been a Chris Farley vehicle. The director of The Nightmare Before Christmas wanted a totally different ending. These are some of the stories fans will hear in the Netflix docuseries The Holiday Movies That Made Us.

Creator Brian Volk-Weiss spun off his series The Movies That Made Us with a collection of two holiday episodes, one on the film Elf and the other on Nightmare. Volk-Weiss said he began with 10 possible Christmas movies, including It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, but had to pick two to be the subjects of episodes.

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"The most we could get done for 2020 without hurting quality was two," Volk-Weiss told UPI in a recent phone interview.

Volk-Weiss said Netflix has a say in the movies he selects for the series, too.

"We submit a list of movies to Netflix that we would like to do," Volk-Weiss said. "We go back and forth with Netflix until we and Netflix agree on the movies."

Once a consensus is reached on potential episodes, Volk-Weiss's team narrows down the list further. Volk-Weiss said it takes about a month of research to determine whether a story behind the movie exists and is worth telling.

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The episode on Elf includes stories of producers suggesting Farley to play Will Ferrell's role. After Farley's death in 1997, it still took five years before Elf went into production.

Supporting roles bore interesting stories, too. Wanda Sykes dropped out of the role of Gimbel's manager Wanda. Faizon Love took over, but still wore the name tag they made for Sykes which read Wanda.

Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick shared his original ending idea, in which mad scientist Dr. Finkelstein was the mastermind behind Oogie Boogie's scheme the whole time. However, Volk-Weiss said not all movies reveal an hour's worth of behind-the-scenes stories.

"On a couple of films we had picked, we just realized there wasn't enough going on in the movie to do an episode about," Volk-Weiss said. "It got greenlit, it got made, it came out, it was a hit. There were no problems, no twists, no turns."

One technique that distinguishes The Movies That Made Us from other behind-the-scenes documentaries is that Volk-Weiss takes people back to locations from the film. Reginald Veljohnson visited the building where Die Hard was filmed, while Dan Aykroyd and director Ivan Reitman visited the library where they filmed Ghostbusters.

Because The Nightmare Before Christmas was animated, no real-world locations to visit exist. Volk-Weiss said he considered the warehouse where the animators worked with stop-motion puppets, but felt it lacked remaining signs of the movie. Instead, screenwriter Caroline Thompson visits the house where she wrote the script.

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"The feeling you got from seeing Caroline Thompson go back to the house was very powerful," Volk-Weiss said. "The warehouses, it was not."

Elf was a live-action film, but Volk-Weiss chose not to revisit locations where it was filmed. Instead, screenwriter David Berenbaum and producer Jon Berg visited the coffee shop where they met and made their deal for Elf.

"I'm always very big on origins," Volk-Weiss said. "I always love the theme of big things coming from small places. It was just cool to see these two guys who had very successful careers that, had they not had that coffee, may not have had those careers."

Animation caused some problems for Elf. The film's North Pole sequences were inspired by Rankin/Bass specials like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The animators got so close that the studio worried it would be too expensive to clear all the legal references. The lawyers ultimately cleared the licenses for the material.

Neither Nightmare Before Christmas creator Tim Burton, nor Elf star Will Ferrell and director Jon Favreau appear in the episodes about their films. Volk-Weiss said he reached out to everyone involved with both films, but schedules prohibited some from participating. Others dropped out due to COVID-19 concerns.

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"We had multiple people who confirmed, that as COVID got worse and worse [and] didn't feel comfortable doing interviews," Volk-Weiss said.

The episodes do include Nightmare songwriter Danny Elfman and visual consultant Rick Heinrichs, and Elf production designer Rusty Smith and animators the Chiodo brothers.

For those who could commit to interviews, Volk-Weiss devised a safe way to conduct interviews remotely. He sent each subject a camera, three hard drives, two microphones, lights and cleaning supplies.

Volk-Weiss's team instructed the interview subjects how to set up the remote video kit over Zoom. Volk-Weiss also asked his questions over Zoom, while the hard drives captured high definition video and sound of the subjects' answers.

"Only when we get the hard drives back do we see the footage," Volk-Weiss said.

Once Volk-Weiss conducted all the interviews and gathers all the archival material, editors still had to cut the episode down to under an hour. When he began working with Netflix, Volk-Weiss hoped they would allow episodes to run two hours. Now, he finds their time constraints benefit the show.

"As tough as it is for us to do, I think it raises every episode we make a letter grade," Volk-Weiss said. "It just forces us to be ruthlessly efficient without feeling like we're being ruthlessly efficient."

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Netflix has ordered more seasons of The Movies That Made Us. Volk-Weiss is working on episodes about Halloween, Friday the 13th, Coming to America, Nightmare on Elm Street, Back to the Future, Robocop, Pretty Woman, Jurassic Park, Aliens and Forrest Gump, to begin streaming in 2021.

The Holiday Movies That Made Us premieres Tuesday on Netflix.

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