The Christmas season is upon us, and that means curling up in front of the TV with our loved ones to watch all our favorite Christmas films. Some of which we’ve seen as many times as we can remember. Regardless, you probably have yet to come across these unexpected facts about your festive favorites. Elf, Home Alone or Love Actually, we’re covering all the bases!
As you and your family settle down into your favorite Christmas classic, surprise them with these little-known details. Which character did director, Richard Curtis, base on himself? What childhood classic had an R-rated script? And who was ordered to leave a filming set? Read on to find out.
Three Years of Incremental Changes
The Nightmare Before Christmas was a stop-motion production starring Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloweentown, who plots to kidnap Santa Claus. The entire film was shot using a technique that physically manipulated a miniature set in tiny increments, in between photographed frames.
This stop-motion musical had 24 frames a second, which meant posing the characters 24 times for each second of the film. This meant it took an entire week to capture one minute’s worth of footage! This time-consuming technique meant that all in all, it took over three years to shoot the whole thing.
Keira Knightley Was Almost a Minor
Romantic-comedy staple Love Actually is revisited by millions each holiday season. So it might come as a shock to you that Keira Knightley was barely 18 years old when she played Juliet, fiance-turned-wife to Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor.) It’s especially disconcerting when you find out that the actor for Sam, Liam Neeson’s character’s son, was only 5 years younger than Knightley!
Sam was supposed to be eight years old and acknowledging his feelings for his first crush, whereas Juliet was a fully grown married woman embroiled in a love triangle! It explains her hormonal skin during filming, as she was forced to wear a large hat during one memorable scene to cover up a huge forehead pimple!
Enduring Full-Body Prosthetics for Three Months
How the Grinch Stole Christmas goes down in history as a holiday family classic, but it wasn’t achieved easily. Jim Carrey’s Grinch getup was almost unbearably uncomfortable for him to wear through a whole day of shooting. In total, he had to endure 92 days of Grinch makeup and prosthetic dressing; two and a half hours putting it on in the morning and one hour in the evening to remove.
The prosthetic burden became so much that Carrey even took counseling from a Navy SEAL on torture-resistance techniques. Even the yellow contact lenses he had to wear were incredibly painful – there were times when he couldn’t bear them at all and took them out, with post-production digitally coloring them in.
They Settled for Bruce Willis
The Die Hard movie franchise is synonymous with Bruce Willis, but he wasn’t the studio’s first pick for the lead role. He wasn’t even their second or third, with a long list of accomplished actors reportedly having been preferred for the part of John McClane. If they had it their way, the Christmas classic might have had a very different reception.
The long list of actors who were considered (and possibly turned down) for the role include Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Don Johnson, Burt Reynolds, Richard Dean Anderson, and Clint Eastwood. The latter of which owned the rights to the book initially.
Maybe Jim Carrey Would Have Made an Elf Sequel
It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part of the lovable elf, Buddy in the 2003 film, Elf, but Will Ferrell almost wasn’t the lead. Jim Carey was initially put forward and remained the favorite for a long time. In the end, it took a decade to get things rolling, by which time Will Ferrell came to fit the bill.
Arguably his most celebrated film, Ferrell has made it clear on multiple occasions that he wasn’t interested in filming a sequel. He was even offered $29 million to get back in the elf suit but rejected it all the same. “I remember asking myself: Could I withstand the criticism when it’s bad and they say, ‘He did the sequel for the money?'” Ferrell explained. “I decided I wouldn’t be able to. I didn’t want to wander into an area that could erase all the good work I’ve done.”
No Crocodile Tears Here
1944s classic musical-comedy Meet Me in St. Louis starred six-year-old Margaret O’Brien opposite Judy Garland, for which the child actress received an Academy Award for outstanding child actress that same year. This is largely due to her more emotional scenes where O’Brien was brought to tears on screen
The young actress’ mother would incite tears from her daughter during the sad scenes by telling her that her rival actor was better at crying on cue than her. It’s an interesting strategy, but it seemed to work as it did result in the child star crying on command!
The Nine Days of Writing That Kept Poland Hooked for Years
Did you know that Home Alone was written in less than two weeks? Nine days to be exact, by John Hughes, after he experienced travel anxiety during a family vacation in Europe. Having also written The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Sixteen Candles, he was experienced with successful screenplay writing and obviously didn’t need long.
In a bizarre twist of fate, the Home Alone films turned out to be an enormous success in Poland! The films are aired every Christmas on national television, and it has been that way since the ’90s. Its popularity isn’t dwindling either, having garnered an audience of five million people during 2011’s high holidays, making it the most-watched program during Christmas in Poland.
Up to 30 Lights per Set
The lighting for The Nightmare Before Christmas had to be perfect. The sets were miniature-sized but needed lighting that made it look scaled to real life. In the end, the production ended up using 20 to 30 lights per set to create the desired dramatic effect.
In total, there were 203 sets created for the entire film and 19 sound stages. With over 100 specially trained camera operators, puppet makers, set builders, and prop makers, this film had a hugely talented team creating a holiday fantasy that lived up to Disney’s name.
Submerging the Puppet Handlers in Baby Oil
We’re probably all aware that the fantasy-musical The Muppet Christmas Carol is made up of talented hand puppeteers that hover beneath the set. But you might not have realized the lengths they went for the Ghost of Christmas Past character. They wanted the spirit to appear floaty and dream-like, which required thinking outside the box.
They devised a plan to submerge the puppeteers in a tank of baby oil, along with the Ghost puppet, accompanied by a green screen in the background. While they started filming this way, the cost of baby oil started to amount to too much. They switched the oil for water, which ate away at the paint and glue on the puppet. Luckily, they got the footage they needed while it was still holding together.
Hugh Grant’s Lack of Confidence
Richard Curtis wrote the Prime Minister character in Love Actually with Hugh Grant in mind for the role. He happily joined the cast for the most part but disagreed with Curtis about a particular scene. The famous dance segment where we see Grant prancing around the fake Number 10 Downing Street was very opposed by the actor!
He even refused to do any rehearsals of the scene, agreeing only to do it on the day, when the cameras were rolling, and as little as possible. Curtis recalls: “He kept on putting it off, and he didn’t like the song – it was originally a Jackson 5 song, but we couldn’t get it – so he was hugely unhappy about it.” It ended up being shot on the last day of filming.
Bill Murray Is a Natural-Born Improviser
Comedy movie Scrooged, the modern take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, has us in stitches during the festive season. But you may not have realized that a lot of Bill Murray’s lines were ad-libbed. “You don’t direct [Murray], you pull him back,” Director Richard Donner said of his first experience with an improvisational comedian.
Donner spoke about Murray’s unstoppable ad-libbing and constant “working mindset on set.” He described the experience: “It’s like standing on 42nd Street and Broadway, and the lights are out, and you’re the traffic cop.” He went on to describe Murray as “superbly creative but occasionally difficult – as difficult as any actor.”
The Dark Side of Gremlins
The movie Gremlins was partly responsible for the introduction of the PG-13 rating. The film was initially released with the PG rating but soon after received criticism for not being child-friendly enough. Spielberg was the executive producer on Gremlins, and in a bid to stop the film from receiving an R-rating, he suggested PG-13, which stuck.
It could have been a lot more R-rated, however. The original script written by Chris Columbus continued far more gruesome plot points. Some of the removed scenes were so gruesome, they’d wouldn’t have looked out of place in a horror film…
Tim Burton Didn’t Direct The Nightmare Before Christmas
Because of Tim Burton’s association with the holiday film, it is assumed by many that he was the director of the stop-motion picture. They even considered naming the film Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas so, understandably, there’s some confusion. The truth is that his old Disney Animation colleague Henry Selick took on the task, with Burton serving as the film’s producer.
The film idea first came to Burton as a poem of the same title, during his time working as an animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation. He also originally imagined the film as a television special. He failed to get it picked up, so he tried at book publishers, who also rejected it. Burton estimates that 20 years passed since having the idea before finally seeing the film in theaters.
The Tragic Love Story Richard Curtis Cut Out
There were, actually, other unfeatured storylines in Love Actually., including one particularly heartbreaking plot. It told the complicated love story between an older lesbian couple, the hard-nosed headmistress of the featured school, played by Anna Reid, and her terminally ill partner, played by Frances de la Tour.
Curtis has admitted his regret over not including the storyline in the final edit. He explained, “The idea was meant to be you just casually met this very sort of stern headmistress and the idea was meant to be that later on in the film we suddenly fell in with the headmistress and you realize that no matter how unlikely it seems, that any character you come across in life has their own complicated tale of love.”
Jim Carrey Does Stunts for a Christmas Animation
2009s A Christmas Carol was a marvel of 3D computer animation, but most of the film was, in fact, filmed by the actors. The facial expressions you see Ebenezer Scrooge pulling were acted out by Jim Carey himself, before being translated into animation. With help of stunt coordinator Garrett Warren, Carrey even filmed his own stunts. In the scenes where Scrooge is flying over rooftops, falling down the stairs, and sliding off a giant icicle, they were filmed with the actor.
This film is also unique in having not employed a costume designer. Authentic Victorian clothes were shipped from England and placed in the conference room. They ended up being used as a reference point by the filmmakers for the unique costume creations that were created on a computer.
Going Against Disney’s Instructions
Pumpkin King Jack has a signature look that Disney wasn’t too pleased about. They didn’t like that The Nightmare Before Christmas’ main character didn’t have eyes, thinking it was off-brand to have such a design element under their name. In their studio notes, they sternly direct the designers to give Halloween Jack eyes to make him more relatable and friendly.
Eyes are commonly an important feature in any animation, as it is thought to help the audience connect to the character more. But Selick and Burton were determined to keep Halloween Jack’s eye sockets empty, and in the end, prevailed. The Pumpkin King didn’t need them after all!
Tricks of the Trade
Director Jon Favreau favored “old techniques” over CGI whenever possible. Forced perspective was the technique he opted for in Elf to create the illusion that Will Ferrell was a giant next to the other elves. For the scenes where Buddy is in the North Pole, two stages were built. Santa and Buddy would act on a raised platform while the other actors stood on the main set.
To create this illusion, other factors had to be considered. Lighting was an important feature to get correct – it was manipulated for a seamless effect. Scenes were then overlaid by the camera to make two distinct perspectives appear as one complete whole.
Jack Nicholson Was Set to Star
As one of our holiday film favorites, we can’t imagine anyone else as the cast of A Christmas Story. But it wasn’t Darrin McGavin who was initially set to play the role of Ralphie’s dad, it was Jack Nicholson. Nicholson wanted to be his old man but that would have meant doubling the budget, so they opted for McGavin instead.
In the DVD commentary of the film, director Bob Clark expresses gratitude at casting McGavin for the role. The actor even went on to star in many other Clark films, with the director stating that he was born to play the role of Ralphie’s dad.
The Love Actually Character That’s Based on Richard Curtis
The memorable scene where Andrew Lincoln uses cards to declare his love for Keira Knightley was inspired by Bob Dylan’s music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Curtis wrote five different versions of the scene, asking the women who worked in his office which of them they found the least cringy.
Curtis’s wife, Emma Freud, revealed an interesting tidbit to Lincoln on the film set. Halfway through the shoot, she whispered to the actor, “You know, you’re playing Richard.” According to her, the character of Mark was the closest thing to himself he had ever written in a film. Mark is a slightly creepy voyeur, so that’s an interesting insight…
Secret Set Passages
On all the 230 model sets made for The Nightmare Before Christmas, trap doors were hidden for the animators. They had these secrets entrances for the crew to easily reach inside the set and manipulate the figures. It allowed them greater access to reshape faces and expressions or swap out heads. Halloween Jack himself had around 400 different heads for them to interchange.
The long process it took to film the stop-motion meant that filming had to begin before the script was even completed. Once the composer, Danny Elfman, had finished most of the musical score, animators, set-builders, and a camera crew were set to work. As one minute’s worth of footage took a week to shoot they needed as much of a headstart as possible, even without the final screenplay.
Will Ferrell’s Stint as a Mall Santa
Perhaps Elf director Jon Favreau opted for Will Ferrell over Jim Carrey due to his previous Santa experience… As the actor once worked as Father Christmas in his pre-Saturday Night Live days. Ferrell revealed: “I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes.”
He continues: “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.'”
Tim Burton Refused to Make a Sequal
To the aggravation of Disney, Tim Burton stood by his gut feeling once more. The studio had a successful formula for creating straight-to-DVD sequels of popular films and wanted to CGI a Nightmare Before Christmas 2. But Burton wasn’t on board with it, fearing it would cheapen the original.
Burton explained: “I was always very protective of [The Nightmare Before Christmas,] not to do sequels or things of that kind. You know, ‘Jack visits Thanksgiving world’ or other kinds of things, just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it. Because it’s not a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it. I try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible.”
Emma Thompson’s Body Padding
We’re sure you didn’t notice this one. Emma Thompson, who plays Harry’s put upon wife Karen, was required to wear a fat suit! According to Richard Curtis, she needed the extra padding because she was too thin to play the character in mind. Curtis was set on Thompson for the role, however, so the production team came up with a solution.
It’s a near-impossible detail to spot as a casual viewer, as Karen spends most of the film well covered (it is, after all, winter.) She also refers to David, played by Hugh Grant, as her big brother. In reality, she is 17 months older than the actor. Thompson and Grant also once played lovers in 1995s Sense and Sensibility!
Author of A Christmas Story Was Ordered off the Set
Based on Jean Shepherd’s ’66 book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, the author went on the narrate the film and even make a brief cameo in the department store. While he was meant to be on set initially throughout shooting, he was asked to leave as he wouldn’t stop telling actors how to do their scenes.
In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash has an interesting back story. The book was inspired by some of the most popular stories that Sheperd presented on the radio. His stories initially appeared in Playboy Magazine before becoming a full-length novel. They were described by critics as nostalgic, but Shepherd refuted such claims; he argued that they were fictional stories about childhood.
Cruise > Depp
For Tim Burton’s 1990 cult film Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp plays an artificial man whos construction never made it to completion. He is left with scissors for hands, and the quirky concept succeeded in putting a young Depp on the map. However, studio executives at the time preferred Tom Cruise to star, as he was a big name following his performance in Rain Man.
Burton explained that “he was interesting, but I think it worked out for the best.” He elaborates: “At the end of the meeting I did feel like, and I probably even said this to him, ‘It’s nice to have a lot of questions about the character, but you either do it or you don’t do it.'” Obviously, Burton felt Cruise didn’t get the character too well.
The Deceased Creator Came to Him in a Dream
1992s The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet movie made without Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppet’s and puppeteer behind Kermit the Frog. Steve Whitmire took on the role for the film, claiming that he received the creator’s blessing in a dream. The night before his first shoot, Whitmire recalls seeing Henson in a white hotel lobby and spoke to him about his anxieties.
Whitmire revealed: “He stopped… and thought and he said, ‘It will pass’. Which is exactly what Jim would have said. You would have to really know Jim to know this, but that’s exactly what he would have said. I woke up and I felt great. I remembered this dream and I went in the next day, I did the work, and it was smooth, it worked fine, and I felt great. Just that little bit of encouragement. I really think he showed up for me.”
A Surprising Role to Method Act
It might come as quite a surprise, but Billy Bob Thornton opted for a method acting performance for his role in 2003s Bad Santa. He revealed in an interview: “I’ve traditionally played really extreme characters and even in a comedy, if you’re going to play a guy like this, you can’t be sort of drunk, you know? And I wasn’t sort of drunk.”
He explains that he believed his role as a downbeat mall Santa required more thorough characterization. “You have to go completely into it. I love children, I’m crazy about them, but I had to ignore that fact and play the part,” he confessed.
The Unprecedented Polar Express
2004 fantasy animation The Polar Express was the first movie to be filmed entirely with motion-capture. Using actors to animate the characters with live-action movements, it was still very much in its early life when the studio opted for this technique.
Director Robert Zemeckis wanted to go all out for his film and feature the technology in every character. As the first all-motion capture film, it even made it into the Guinness World Records for achieving this feat. So that explains how the conductor nailed all of Tom Hanks’s expressions!
Michael Caine Will Never Do Anything Muppety
When Sir Michael Caine starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol, it became the first Muppets movie where Kermit the Frog wasn’t in the lead role. And Caine brought a large degree of prestige to the film not only because he was a well-established actor at that point, but also because of how seriously he took his role.
The two-time Academy Award winner told the producer and director Brian Henson: “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role, and there are no puppets around me.” Caine claimed Henson’s response was “Yes, bang on!”
A Sequel Has Been Released
Yes – a sequel was made by Director Richard Curtis. It’s actually been out for a while. In 2017, a bunch of the actors came together to film a “where are they now” on the lives of their characters. It was created for Red Nose Day and fills us in with what some of our favorites have been up to for the last 15 years.
Interestingly, the US and the UK had slightly different versions shown to them. Actress Laura Linney recalled: “I’d kept in touch with Richard Curtis. And then he sent me an email, explaining this short film reunion. I said yes, obviously. How could I say no? And right away we were figuring out our schedules.”
The Design Lead Took Things Literally
For Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, makeup and special effects lead Stan Winston opted to create actual scissors for Edward’s fingers. Known for his work on the Terminator series, Jurassic Park, and Aliens, Winston’s decision wasn’t expected by the team, least of all by Burton.
But Burton was impressed with Winston’s interpretation. He admitted: “I didn’t think he’d actually have scissors for fingers. I thought they’d just be long sharp pieces of metal that weren’t finished – but this is much better!” This movie was just the beginning of their relationship – they would go on to work together in the films Batman Returns and Big Fish.
Casting Room Drama
Christmas classic The Santa Clause was originally written for actor and comedian Bill Murray. He impressed higher up’s with his performance in Scrooged, and so won over the hearts of the studio executives. The only problem was he didn’t want the role, claiming the character didn’t share his sense of humor.
Disney has a particular rule about not hiring ex-convicts, however, actor Tim Allen has a record. He wouldn’t have been allowed to star in the film as Santa if Disney hadn’t made an exception for him. He was convicted of possessing drugs in ’78, serving two years in jail for failing to snitch on his dealer.
The Decision to Cast Whitney Houston
1996 film The Preacher’s Wife is a heartwarming Christmas movie about an angel who restores faith. Starring Denzel Washington opposite Whitney Houston, she interestingly wasn’t Washington’s first choice. He preferred Julia Roberts for the role of Julia Biggs, before realizing that Houston was the way to go. She declined him, however, and it took him a further year of asking for her to agree.
Houston didn’t come at a small price, and she earned a whopping $10 million for her performance. Her paycheck made her one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses, and the highest-paid African-American actress of the day. Not bad at 33 years old!
Bill Murray Sure Is Particular
Bill Murray didn’t save his criticism only in choosing which movies to act in, he also required that the script for Scrooged be reworked upon his joining. “We tore up the script so badly that we had parts all over the lawn. There was a lot I didn’t like. To remake the story, we took the romantic element and built that up a little more. It existed in the script’s original version, but we had to make more out of it. The family scenes were kind of off, so we worked on that.”
Murray also explains that a lot didn’t even make it in the final cut. He continues: “We shot a big, long sloppy movie, so there’s a great deal of material that didn’t even end up in the film. It just didn’t work. You tend to forget what was wrong. It’s hard. It’s sort of a wicked character. The idea of making a funny Scrooge was an inspired touch. That’s what was appealing to me about it.” He sounds like a true perfectionist.