“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”
The above quote, which comes from American poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Maud Muller,” is one of my very favorite lines from classic literature. But, at the risk of sounding like a complete ignoramus, I admit that I’ve never actually read “Maud Muller” and I just googled who Whittier was prior to writing this. I actually heard this quote on an episode of Frasier. Nonetheless, I find that quotation particularly resonant, and it comes to mind whenever I think about my own roads not traveled and, curiously, I think of it whenever I watch the movie Shrek.
Being one of the most successful film franchises of all time, it’s hard to imagine Shrek being anything different than what it was. But, as with most films, the original Shrek had a variety of roads not traveled and the most interesting journey, to me, is the story of Shrek’s voice. Why, exactly, does Shrek speak with a Scottish accent? This is especially curious when you consider that no other character in the film has such an accent, and that the film takes place in a fanciful land named Duloc. So, without any in-canon explanation for this, you have to look behind the scenes to figure out how Shrek became a Scotsman — or, more accurately, a Scotsogre.
Undoubtedly, the story of Shrek’s voice begins with the original children’s book from 1990, by American cartoonist William Steig. Bearing only a passing resemblance to the film, the book makes no mention of any particular accent for Shrek, though its classical storybook setting does suggest that it would be European in some regard. Specifically, there’s a decent case to be made that Shrek would speak with a German accent, as Steig’s parents came from Austria and the title comes from the German word schreck, which means “fright.”
Steven Spielberg purchased the rights to Shrek! in 1991, intending for it to be a traditionally-animated movie, but in 1995, DreamWorks acquired it to create something for the newly-burgeoning market of computer-animated films (the first of which, Toy Story, came out in November of 1995). For the role of Shrek, DreamWorks cast Chris Farley, who, unfortunately, would die before he completed the role.
What Shrek would have been had it starred Farley is something that we’ll never really know and the clues about it are surprisingly scant (especially considering 80 to 90 percent of his scenes were recorded). All the public has heard of Farley’s Shrek is a single scene, which features a heart-to-heart with Eddie Murphy’s Donkey by a campfire. Though not verbatim, the scene is very similar to the one we’d get with Mike Myers.
Further insight into Farley’s Shrek can be found in the biography The Chris Farley Show, as a couple of the Shrek filmmakers offered memories of Farley in the heart-wrenching book. Per screenwriter Terry Rossio, “Chris was the number-one choice, and everyone was thrilled that he agreed to the project. For an animated feature his voice was perfect, very distinctive. Also, you know, Shrek kind of looked like Farley, or Farley looked like Shrek.” Rossio also described how funny Farley was in the recording sessions, but, to me personally, the most interesting part of what’s revealed in the book is how vulnerable Farley’s Shrek was.
If you’ll allow me a slight tangent, I’ve been a fan of Farley for most of my life, and I still count Tommy Boy as one of my favorite movies. I even remember where I was when I heard that Farley had died — it was two days after my birthday in 1997 and I was home sick from school.
Eleven years later, I was an intern on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. While there, I met a writer on the show named Brian Stack, who’d known Farley before his days on SNL. Being an incredibly open and generous guy, Stack was happy to share stories about his late friend — even with an intern — though he also lamented that audiences never really got to see all that Farley had to offer. Despite Farley being known as that loud guy who fell down a lot, Stack told me that the real Farley was this sweet, shy, insecure, vulnerable guy and that he wished that Farley had been able to share that part of himself with the world.
By every indication, Shrek was the beginning of Farley’s pivot in that direction. Although the casual Farley fan might imagine his Shrek as louder and more slapstick, in The Chris Farley Show, Shrek co-director Andrew Adamson said, “The character of Shrek is to some degree rebelling against his own vulnerabilities. And I think that’s probably a reason [Jeffrey] Katzenberg went to Chris, because there was an aspect of that in him [that was] covering vulnerability in humor and keeping people at arm’s length. Within minutes of meeting Chris you saw his vulnerability. Sometimes he would switch on this very gruff persona, and you realized it was because he felt like he was exposing too much. Shrek, in the Chris Farley version of the story, was unhappy at his place in the world, unhappy to be cast as the villain. So for me, Chris’s comedic persona was key to the creation of the Shrek character — a guy who rejected the world because the world rejected him.”
In addition to Shrek, Farley was beginning work on his first dramatic role, a biopic of the silent film actor Fatty Arbuckle. With these two films, Farley was trying to get away from what he described as “fatty falls down” humor, but unfortunately, he’d never get the chance. On December 18, 1997, Farley died of a drug overdose, which cancelled all plans for a film about Arbuckle and put Shrek in serious peril. As mentioned, most of the film was already recorded, but what was left to record was too pivotal to cut. Though the filmmakers briefly considered hiring a Farley impersonator to do the rest, it was ultimately decided that the role needed to be recast. “We spent almost a year banging our heads against the wall until Mike Myers was able to come on board,” Adamson said in the Farley biography.
As the star, Myers didn’t want to just step into a role that had been written for his friend and SNL co-star — he, understandably, wanted to make Shrek his own. Without the original script — which, as far as I can discern, has never been made public — it’s difficult to say exactly how Farley’s and Myers’ Shreks differed, though Rossio did say, “They’re both great in their own way. Mike created a very interesting character, a Shrek who has a sense of humor that’s not that good, but it makes him happy. Chris’ Shrek was born of frustration and self-doubt, an internal struggle between the certainty of a good heart and the insecurity of not understanding things.”
Along the way, the filmmakers also discovered that the story wasn’t ambitious enough. As Adamson recalled in the book Shrek: From the Swamp to the Screen, “There was a period of time when we were trying to re-find the movie without Chris, and we ended up making a movie that was just too conservative, too traditional.” So, when Myers came on board, they not only geared it toward his sensibilities, they also overhauled the story. At this point, they began populating Shrek’s world with fairytale characters and, along with that, Shrek developed a certain cynicism about being in this fairytale world. So if Farley’s Shrek may have been something of an open wound, Myers covered up his insecurities and loneliness with a somewhat cruel sense of humor, which comes to play in hilarious ways in the final film.
Although the character of Shrek was now closer to what we’d end up seeing in the final product, the voice wasn’t quite there yet, as Myers did an entire version of the film in his regular voice. In the DVD director’s commentary, Adamson explained, “Our characters are already very caricatured and somewhat cartoonish, and you don’t want the voices not to seem real. That’s what we did with Mike — we got him to use his real voice.” Little of this version has been seen, yet you can hear bits of it in certain “error” scenes that occurred early in the movie’s production.
When Myers saw a rough cut of the film, however, he thought something was missing from Shrek’s voice and asked to go back and rework the character. This change reportedly cost DreamWorks about $4 million, as a third of the movie was already completed by then. But Myers, who was extremely committed to the character, was insistent that Shrek needed something more.
At this point, it seems that some trial and error took place, as Vicky Jenson, the film’s co-director, states in the commentary that Shrek went from Scottish to Canadian — Myers’ nationality — then back to Scottish. Adamson also revealed, “We previously had a scene of [Shrek] reading a letter to his father and Mike had automatically done that in a Scottish voice and we’d responded to it very well at the time, so we went back to that.”
But the accent didn’t just sound better, it added another onion-like layer to the character. As Myers once explained in an interview, “I realized Shrek needed to sound vulnerable, hurt, angry and dismissive. A Scottish accent somehow captures all that.” Myers also explained that a Scottish accent “sounds working-class and I think ogres would be working-class.” Being the only character with such an accent, it not only further isolated Shrek, it allowed him to contrast specifically with the movie’s villain, the aristocratic-sounding Lord Farquaad.
Like several of his SNL co-stars, it seems that Myers is the type to be more comfortable with doing a character than he is with himself and, paradoxically, by giving Shrek a broader accent, he was able to connect to him more. Additionally, Shrek fan and YouTuber Isaac Carlson explains that Myers specifically associated that accent with his mother. Though Myers grew up in Canada, and his parents are English immigrants from Liverpool, his mother used to affect a Scottish accent while telling Myers stories at night. In his acting career, Myers would bring that accent to characters in So I Married an Axe Murderer, the Austin Powers films and Shrek. Eventually, the directors even worked out a behind-the-scenes backstory for Shrek, saying that his parents hailed from Scotland and had moved to Duloc.
The result, of course, would bring us the Shrek that we all know and love. It gave the character a voice as distinct as his look, all while keeping his vulnerability — his humanity — intact. Shrek producer Jeffrey Katzenberg credited the accent with turning “junk” into “gold” and Myers even claims that he got a letter from Spielberg on the matter, which praised his dedication to the character and specifically credited the accent with improving the film. All of which, to be sure, is completely true. Myers was extraordinary in the role of Shrek and there’s no doubt that he is a big part — if not the biggest part — of what made Shrek into a wildly successful franchise.
That said, there’s still a part of me that wonders what Farley could have done with the role. And, since so much of his dialogue was recorded, I do hold out a tiny bit of hope that we might still get to see it someday. If Zack Snyder can make his five-hour version of Justice League, surely we can get another version of Shrek, no?
It’s a pipe dream, I’m sure, but — as a fan of Farley’s who laughed at his movies, who reveled at firsthand stories of him and who wept when I first read The Chris Farley Show — I’d like to still hold out hope for Chris Farley’s Shrek. If only, perhaps, to get a glimpse of what might have been.