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How "Shrek" went from being a train wreck to one for the record books

How "Shrek" went from being a train wreck to one for the record books

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As I was getting ready to write this article, I was looking through the "Shrek 2" press materials that Dreamworks was nice enough to send along to me. And I noticed that -- in the sequel's credits -- there's a line that reads:

"In Memory of William Steig: 1907 - 2003"

Now I honestly think that it's great that the studio chose to pay tribute in this way to the original author of "Shrek." After all, without William Steig's acclaimed children's book, there would have never been a "Shrek" (the motion picture).

But -- that said -- I can't but be somewhat sad about the short shrift that Dreamworks seems to have given the late Chris Farley's contribution. After all, there wouldn't have been a "Shrek" (the motion picture) at all if that "Saturday Night Live" vet hadn't initially agreed to do voicework for this Dreamworks Animation feature back in 1996.

Yeah, these days, few people seem to recall that "Shrek" was originally envisioned as a vehicle for Chris Farley. That this Dreamworks project was initially tailor-made for this "SNL" star's oversized talents.

Of course, back then, "Shrek" was supposed to have had a very different storyline. It wasn't a movie about an ogre who just wanted to be left alone in his swamp. But -- rather -- it was about a teenage ogre who wasn't all that eager to go into the family business. You see, young Shrek didn't really want to frighten people. He longed to make friends, help people. This ogre actually dreamed of becoming a knight.

This was the version of "Shrek" that Chris Farley was working on just prior to his untimely death in December 1997. According to folks that I've spoken with who worked on this version of the film, Farley's voice work on the project was nothing short of heroic.

"Shrek" screenwriter Terry Rossio -- in an article over at his & Ted Elliot's excellent website, Wordplayer.com -- describes Chris' vocal performance as the good hearted young orgre as being extraordinary:

" ...What struck me most seeing (Farley) work was his willingness to reveal himself, lay himself out bare, over and again, for the sake of his performance. That's a form of talent, that's a form of comedy. But mostly it showed that this industry rewards other things than talent and practice -- it rewards courage."

And animation industry vet Tom Sito -- in one of his wonderful "Grim Reader" articles -- also talks about how much he enjoyed working with this "Saturday Night Live" vet while the two of them labored on this early version of "Shrek." Tom describes Chris as being:

"I met him while working for Dreamworks and found his wild energy exhausting but really funny. He was constantly flushed, bouncing off the walls , sweating heavily and looking like he was about to burst out of his clothes. We all joked about we hoped he wouldn't just fall over in front of us. A friend of mine who's a Spanish journalist said after an interview, "He's very nice, I just hope he doesn't die young." But we all never expected the joke to become real."

Sadly, the joke did become real on December 18th, 1997. When Farley was found dead in his Chicago apartment. A victim of an apparent accidental drug overdose.

As you might expect, this news threw the "Shrek" production team into a tailspin. Which -- given all the problems that this Dreamworks Animation project had already dealt with -- many studio insiders wondered if this might be the straw that would finally break "Shrek" 's back.

"What other problems?," you ask. What's that? You haven't heard about the very first version of "Shrek" that Dreamworks attempted to produce? Back when Jeffrey Katzenberg & Co. envisioned making this CG animated feature using motion capture technology? After a year and a half of R & D, a test for this version of "Shrek" was finally screened. The result -- or so I hear -- was a disaster.

"It looked terrible, it didn't work, it wasn't funny, and we didn't like it," Katzenberg recalled. So Dreamworks shut down production of this particular version of "Shrek" (Which reportedly layered the motion-capture CG that Dreamworks' artists had produced on top of live action background plates of these miniature fairy tale settings that the studio had filmed. Which -- in theory -- would have given this version of the film a very visual distinct look). The studio then turned to its production partners at PDI (Who were -- at the time -- still buttoning up production of Dreamworks' first CG feature, "Antz") and asked them to come help get the studio's next computer animated film back on track.

Mind you, this was back in the Spring of 1997. So the talented folks at PDI had really only just gotten started on "Shrek" when Chris Farley sadly passed away in December of that same year. Which -- obviously -- left this Dreamworks production in a bit of a lurch.

For a time, I'm told that there was supposedly some very serious discussion of just pushing forward with production of "Shrek." Taking all of the recordings that Farley had already done for the film's title character (Based on estimates that I've heard, Dreamworks had somewhere between 80 - 90% of what they needed to actually finish the film already in the can. Though Chris' brother -- Tom Farley -- insists that Farley had actually already recorded 95% of Shrek's dialogue for the movie just prior to his tragic death) and then hiring some Farley sound-alike to record the rest of the character's dialogue & just finishing the job.

The only problem was ... Chris Farley WAS Shrek. The ogre who wore his heart on his sleeve. The well-meaning if somewhat clumsy brute who just wanted to be loved & accepted. So finishing up this extremely personal picture with a Farley sound-alike just seemed to studio staffers as ... well ... disloyal. An insult to Chris' memory

Still, given all the time & money that Dreamworks had already poured into this project, it was clear that -- after an appropriate period of mourning -- that production of "Shrek" would eventually have to continue. With someone else stepping in to fill Chris Farley's shoes. Sooo ... Among the actors that Dreamworks execs reportedly considered as they began to try & recast the role were Nicholas Cage, Tom Cruise and Leonardo Dicaprio.

Of course, now that Chris was gone, other changes would have to be made to this motion picture. First and foremost, the film's original Fiona -- "Saturday Night Live" vet Janeane Garafalo -- would have to be replaced. (Why for? Well, Janeane originally got this role in "Shrek" because it was thought that her somewhat abrasive, sarcastic comic persona would provide a perfect counterpoint to Chris Farley's sweet if somewhat dim take on Shrek. But -- with Chris dead & gone -- Garafalo's version of Fiona was now thought to be just too downbeat for the film. Which is why "Shrek" 's producers eventually cut Janeane loose and then offered this role to a much sunnier performer, Cameron Diaz).

And -- since Princess Fiona was now supposed to be sweet -- it only stood to reason that Shrek should become somewhat sour. Still funny, mind you. But a tougher sort of character. Someone who wasn't interested in doing anything noble -- like becoming a knight. But -- rather -- this new version of Shrek would be a sadder, older & wiser ogre. One that just wanted to be left alone. Who was comfortable with his home in the swamp and the solitary life that he lived there.

Given that this was obviously a fundamental change in the way the film's title character would be portrayed to the movie's audience, it was clear to Dreamworks execs that they now needed a performer with considerable comedy chops if the studio was going to make this decidedly unlovable character lovable. Which was why the studio was thrilled when Mike Myers finally agreed to become Shrek's new voice.

However, one of the conditions of Myers coming on board this motion picture is that Mike really didn't want to be seen as Chris Farley's replacement. So he asked that the script of this animated feature be completely reworked. So that there'd be little if any carry-over from the Chris Farley version of "Shrek" to the Mike Myers version of the film.

Mind you, this wouldn't be the last time that Myers would make a seemingly outrageous demand of the "Shrek" production team. Dreamworks executives still shudder when anyone brings up the story about how Mike -- after he'd already put several years worth of work into the film -- suddenly decided that he disliked Shrek's voice. That the "SNL" vet now felt that the ogre would be a much more entertaining character if Myers could just be allowed to re-record all of Shrek's dialogue while using a Scottish accent.

That one seemingly innocuous change wound up costing Dreamworks $4 - $5 million in additional production costs. As PDI's crew had to go back in and re-animate already finished sequences in order to properly readjust Shrek's lip sync.

So -- given all of these production problems -- is it any wonder that many entertainment industry vets wrote off "Shrek" long before the film finally bowed in theaters back in May 18th, 2001? Given all the bad buzz swirling around the film, one industry wag (In January of 2001, mind you. Just prior to the launch for "Shrek" 's official promotional campaign) actually went on record as saying that he thought that this Dreamworks release would be lucky if it eventually managed to pull in $21 million during its domestic run.

Well, as it turns out, that alleged animation expert turned out to be wrong. "Shrek" didn't earn only$21 million. The film actually earned $42 million ... over its opening weekend! After that, this Dreamworks animated film would eventually go on to earn $267 million during its domestic run. Making "Shrek" the third highest grossing film of 2001, right behind "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" ($317 million) and "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings" ($313 million) and just ahead of "Monsters, Inc." ($255 million).

Yeah, that Pixar release would find itself coming in second to "Shrek" a lot over the next few months. Many animation fans still find it hard to believe that "Monsters, Inc." wound up losing the very first "Best Animated Feature" Oscar to this Dreamworks production. To this day, they complain loudly that "Shrek" snagged the Academy Award NOT because it was the better movie. But -- rather -- because Dreamworks mounted a much more effective Oscar campaign for their animated film.

Me personally? I don't particularly like to get sucked into discussions like that. Why for? Well ... Because I actually enjoy both "Monsters, Inc." and "Shrek." I think they're both fine films with plenty of humor & heart. Both (to my way of thinking, anyway) were worthy of winning that award back in March of 2002. But -- this time around -- the voters evidently went with "Shrek."

Still, I can't help but wonder if I might have enjoyed "Shrek" a little bit more if the folks at Dreamworks had just done for Chris Farley what they wound up doing for William Steig in "Shrek 2." Which is just taking a brief moment out of the film's seven minute long credit sequence to pay tribute to Chris.

After all, if Chris hadn't have said "Yes" back in 1996, there probably wouldn't have been a "Shrek I" for all of us to enjoy today. Let alone a "Shrek II."

Your thoughts?

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  • We miss Chris Farley I REALLY want to hear his voice with Shrek that wold be cool

  • This was a really well written article. I enyoyed reading it and found it very informative. Thanks!

  • This is the best article I think I have found on Shrek so far.

  • Thanks for writing that up, was a really touching and compelling account. All I want now is to see the elusive behind-the-scenes documentary that was made in tandem with 'The Emperor's New Groove'.

  • Shrek still looks an awful lot like Farley, so Myer's clearly didn't get to change everything.

  • They should release some of the footage with Farley doing the voice-overs in the original, that would be very interesting.

  • This is one of the best and most informative writeups I've ever read, period. Thank you.

  • Very informative article, but very very poorly written.

  • Chris Farley's great voice would have been SO much better than that annoying dip wad Myers.  Shrek is at least the only thing he made that was not ruined by his being there but still - we can only imagine it with Chris.   he had finished almost everything and it would have been so easy to complete the film.... WHY

  • Think about this if they had put this movie out the 1 wit chris farley in it there would only b the 1 shreck movie instead of the 3 that we have now. But if they really wanted 2 they could release that movie wit chris farley weather its in the theaters or on DVD

  • I like this article...it's interesting to think about what Shrek would've been like had Chris never passed away. It seems Shrek's success does owe much to Chris.

  • Shrek is love. Shrek is life.

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