The first thing I wanted to ask former "Saturday Night Live" star Will Ferrell when he was in San Francisco to promote his new movie "Elf" was what he does to get into the clueless mindset that is, in one form or another, a trademark of many characters he's played in both comedy sketches and feature films.
I tell Ferrell -- who in his new picture plays an orphan raised at the North Pole without ever figuring out why he's three feet taller than his peers and "the only baritone in the elf choir" -- that I'd spent part of the night before trying to zone out into that kind of dopey innocence. But while I could act silly and I could act dumb, I couldn't completely blank out my adult self-awareness and become what he labels "blissfully unaware."
"I don't know what this says about me personally," the actor laughs with self-mocking apprehension, "but that's not a difficult place for me to go."
A quiet, modest guy who makes such a genuinely friendly first impression that I felt instantly guilty for some of the things I've said about him in movie reviews, Ferrell acknowledges his career hasn't always been illustrious. "People come up to me and say, 'I've seen 'A Night at the Roxbury' like 20 times!' And I'm like (he makes a pained, sympathetic face), 'Really? I'm so sorry.'"
But unlike "Roxbury's" pathetically out-of-step pick-up artist Steve Butabi or the oblivious, over-exuberant cheerleader he often played in another recurring "SNL" sketch (not yet turned into a movie, thankfully), Buddy the elf is a welcome refinement of that blissful unawareness. He's a likable, perpetual kid with a pure soul who has an excuse for his obnoxious behavior: Before leaving Santa's workshop to find his real father (the sardonically deadpan James Caan) in New York, he'd never been around human grown-ups before. So, as Ferrell puts it, "this person has no filters on the way he views the world or interacts with it."
Director Jon Favreau, who visited San Francisco the day before Ferrell, says Buddy may have more soul than the actor's previous characters because they were both aiming for something more than just "a funny Will Ferrell comedy."
"We looked at movies like 'Big' and 'Being There,'" the Favreau says. "(Those were) movies with similar concepts that were played very real and very emotional -- and they were good movies, not just funny movies."
To that end, the director (who is most famous for writing and starring in "Swingers") tried to give the movie an old-fashioned sensibility, hoping to capture the spirit of Christmas classics past, in part by using in-camera techniques instead of special effects to make Ferrell's co-stars like Bob Newhart seem elfin in size and also by paying tongue-in-cheek homage to perennial holiday favorites like "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman" with his own stop-motion-animation sequences.
"You can tell how enthusiastic filmmakers are by how much of that kind of detail they put in their movies," Favreau says, pointing to John Lassiter, president of Pixar Animation Studio as an example. "He loves the movies he's making. He's not putting out crap for kids. He's making movies that he wants to see again and again."
He also surrounded Ferrell not with other comedians, as is the fashion with most movies starring "Saturday Night Live"-ers, but "with people that I liked, that I would cast in any movie," like Ed Asner who was Favreau's unusual but astute choice for Santa Claus.
"Isn't he great?" the director asks, brightening with enthusiasm and sighting the cantankerous role of Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (and later his own spin-off) as his reasons for casting the actor. "Asner was everything I wanted. We wanted to make Santa kind of gruff, because when you're an elf, he's the boss! Yet he also has this big heart."
On the subject of Santa's relationship to his little helpers, Ferrell has a story of his own, which came out when I ask a goofball question about if he'd had any experience that especially qualified him for playing an elf.
"Well, not so much playing an elf, but I have some experience playing Santa Claus," he remembers. "(When) we were in (sketch comedy troupe) The Groundlings together, ("SNL" pal) Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"
In retrospect this gave Ferrell a feeling for an elf's second-banana life, he says. But his relationship with Santa wasn't his first concern in "Elf."
"My objective in this movie was trying to drive James Caan crazy, both on a story level and in just constantly messing with him. It was great -- but then, I was always living in fear of getting punched! I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm looking into the eyes of Sonny Corleone.'"
As we're wrapping up, it seems Ferrell had continued throughout our interview to mull over his ability to get into that blissfully ignorant place and takes a stab at explaining his capacity for numb-mindedness by way of a childhood anecdote:
"You know, in high school I was a field goal kicker for the football team, and that was such an exercise in blocking everything out. My practice was hours and hours of kicking a football through these goal posts. It was just kind of a Zen-like meditative state. It's odd to think about, but whatever skill I developed in terms of that kind of concentration, I constantly rely on in doing this."
Mystery solved. From now on when I see Will Ferrell acting clueless -- especially in a role where I don't like him as much as I did in "Elf" -- I'll remember what a sweet guy he was and think, "I can get through this. It's a Zen thing."