WTF Happened to The Ref?

We take a look behind the scenes of one of the most profane, and well-loved cult holiday classics, The Ref, starring Denis Leary.

Usually, when we think of holiday movies, we picture feel-good family comedies filled with light-hearted shenanigans and bittersweet life lessons. Okay, and the occasional violent slasher ( ex. Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil). While we love plenty of those movies, they’re often missing crucial elements of the holidays we experience in real life: sordid disagreements, petty bickering, and, in the words of the great Frank Costanza, the airing of grievances. Well, there’s at least one-holiday dramedy that accurately depicts how the most wonderful time of the year can bring out the worst in us: Ted Demme’s 1994 film The Ref, which tells the story of a cynical cat burglar who makes the biggest mistake of his life when he takes the wrong couple as hostages. Because these two would wear down even the most composed of criminals. It’s a snarky, acid-tongued little gem of a movie, although not necessarily one you’d want to watch with grandma and grandpa.

So, how did we get this gift of a holiday sleeper? Pour yourself a good, strong egg nog and join us as we find out WTF Happened to The Ref

As funny as it may sound, The Refwas inspired by actual events. Well, sort of. The idea came to former copywriter Marie Weiss after a fight with her husband, the producer Jeff Weiss. She later admitted the fight prompted an interesting scenario in her mind: when two people in the middle of an argument can’t agree on anything, wouldn’t it be interesting if a third party could come in and mediate? 

Naturally, there are such people and they’re called marriage counselors, but a grueling session with a therapist doesn’t exactly make for entertaining cinema, so Weiss came up with the notion of a street-smart criminal who unwillingly becomes a bickering couple’s voice of reason, the “ref” of the title. 

This was Weiss’ first screenplay, but luckily she had an ace in the hole most novice writers don’t: a relative who’s also an Oscar nominated screenwriter. Her brother-in-law was Richard LaGravenese, who’d nabbed the Best Original Screenplay nomination a few years earlier for The Fisher King, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. Initially, Richard was just a consultant of sorts on The Ref, offering notes and ideas to his sister-in-law until they got the draft in good shape. When it was done, they brought the project to Walt Disney’s live-action division Touchtone Pictures. Evidently, their pitch was so effective that the studio approved the project within 20 minutes, with one caveat: if the studio had serious notes on the script, it would be up to LaGravenese to revise it. 

And revise it he did. According to the writer, he worked on the screenplay for at least a year, with Disney’s notes seemingly unending. Finally, after finishing what he considered the final draft, he washed his hands of it, announcing he was done doing rewrites for executives. The project was set aside for almost another year, until it was unearthed by an unlikely figure: Denis Leary. 

denis leary the ref

If you were a kid growing up in the early 90s, you saw Denis Leary everywhere. His unmistakable persona – that of a chain-smoking misanthrope who talked at a rapid fire pace, seemingly complaining about everything and everyone – was visible any time you turned on the TV. He was featured in commercials for Nike and MTV, his stand-up routines were notorious – and he even had a hit song called “Asshole”, an adjective for himself he wasn’t shying away from. He was America’s favorite foul-mouthed curmudgeon, and though his movie career got off to a rocky start – remember “Gunmen” and “Judgment Night”? – he was seen as the next promising comic-turned-movie star. He used guys like Steve Martin and Albert Brooks as benchmarks, comics who were ultimately taken seriously as real actors.

Thanks to his popularity, Leary signed a three-picture deal with Disney, and at some point he and his collaborator, Ted Demme – who shot all those MTV ads – got their hands on the screenplay for The Ref. They took a liking to it swiftly, and once the wheels were in motion, Richard LaGravanese returned to revise the script. He would, in fact, continue working on the script throughout production, and as the movie was shot mostly in sequence, Richard was able to build upon what the actors were bringing to their roles. In summation, to say he revised the hell out of this screenplay over the years would be an understatement. 

The writer went on to say he thought Leary was attracted to the part because it wasn’t written specifically for him, and while the character certainly felt right for the comic, Leary wanted to tackle a role where he wasn’t doing his same old MTV schtick. Having Demme direct the film was a must for Leary, who felt comfortable with the director whom he’d known and worked with for years. The fact that their previous film – the 1993 comedy Who’s The Man? – was a flop clearly didn’t matter. 

the ref Christmas movie

The film would end up being overseen by two of Hollywood’s most successful producers: Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Of course, at the time best known for blockbusters like Top Gun and the Beverly Hills Cop films, Simpson and Bruckheimer had a deal with Disney and, perhaps surprising everyone in the industry, attached themselves to a low-budget holiday comedy with zero explosions or gun fights. In an interview given at the time, Simpson described the film as “biting and sarcastic,” which he said was just his style. Budgeted at $12 million, The Ref was going to be a low-risk, high-reward prospect for the producers, whose budgets were usually triple The Ref’s”.

The film was shot during the fall of 1993 in and around Toronto which was standing in for Connecticut. Playing the quarrelsome couple were Kevin Spacey, best known for supporting roles in prestige films and work in the theater, and Judy Davis, a year removed from her Best Supporting Actress nomination in Husbands and Wives

Making his big-screen debut in the film was JK Simmons, who at that point was more at home on the Broadway stage. Simmons is playing a weak-willed philanderer who is blackmailed by the teenage son of the married couple at the center of the plot. Incidentally, his character’s name is “Siskel,” a clear dig at the film critic Gene Siskel, who’d given Richard LaGravanese’s Fisher King screenplay a big thumbs down when the film was released in 1991. To his credit, the real Siskel took the name-check in stride, but admitted he thought it was a “strange form of revenge” and wondered if his name being said over and over wasn’t ultimately a distraction for audiences. 

While Disney apparently let the filmmakers do whatever they wanted to, there was one odd point of contention if the rumors are to be believed: The character of Gus’ facial hair in the movie was supposedly controversial. The reason? Said a source on the set of the film, then-Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg allegedly hated facial hair. Just any facial hair rubbed him the wrong way. If that is indeed true, Leary and Demme got away with one, because Gus’s particular goatee ends up being rather memorable. 

Ted Demme was determined not to make The Ref your typical lighthearted Christmas movie. He wanted to go in the opposite direction of movies like Home Alone and keep the tone dark and realistic, while not swerving too far away from the bitter comedy that made the script crackle. The film allows several dramatic scenes to play out with nary a wisecrack or sight gag, which would ultimately present Disney with a dilemma: how to market a Christmas movie that doesn’t play along with the usual Christmas movie tropes? 

the ref 1994

The studio had another problem on their hands regarding the film’s ending. Spoilers here if you’ve never seen it. In the film, Gus escapes the authorities thanks to the help of Jesse, the young son who is drifting toward a life of crime thanks to his parents’ endless animosity toward one another. Gus gets away clean, and the married couple is grateful for their brief kidnapping because it has presumably saved their marriage. But that’s not how the film originally ended. In the original ending, Gus allows himself to be caught by the police in order to send a message to Jesse, to whom he’s taken a liking. The message is, “This is the life you’re headed toward,” so in a way, it’s Gus’ gift to Jesse and his family. But test audiences hated that ending and wanted to see Gus escape. So the studio quickly shot the ending we see in the film, where Gus goes free, and everyone lives happily ever after. 

Some time later, Demme and Leary would express disappointment that they went with the happier ending, having preferred the original one conceived. But that’s Hollywood for you. 

Even though the execs at Disney had always had faith in The Ref it soon became clear they didn’t know what to do with it. So, naturally, they marketed it as a vehicle for the “MTV Guy,” as Leary used to call his persona. They even created a teaser with Leary doing his angry pacing-around schtick and yet another trailer, including Leary talking to unseen cops complaining about the film’s characters. Not long after, Leary would lament that Disney went in this direction, feeling it shortchanged the movie. Not that he wasn’t happy with the final product: When he saw the film, he mentioned to a reporter how much time he spent laughing at the antics of Spacey and Davis while thinking about what he could have done to be better in it. Most of us would agree he did exactly what he was supposed to do. 

Disney strangely decided not to save The Ref for the holiday season, instead opening it in the middle of March in 1994. An even clearer indication of the studio’s inability to figure out their own movie was their decision to release it only in 700 theaters instead of giving it a genuine wide release. During its box office run,The Ref‘s largest theater count was 861 theaters. It made a little over $11 million at the domestic box office when all was said and done. 

But critics rather warmly received The Ref, who noted Leary’s charismatic turn and the wealth of good acting coming from the supporting stars. One notable critic who was not a fan? Gene Siskel, though to his credit he did not mention the personal poke at him during his television review.

While it didn’t make a big splash upon its initial release, The Ref has gone on to become something of a cult classic; a Christmas movie for people who don’t like Christmas movies, if you will. And while the happy ending feels a bit tacked on, the bitter, sardonic nature of the picture is enjoyable for those of us who like a little spice to counteract the sugar during the holidays. The next time you want to show your family a Christmas movie made by Disney, show them this one. Gus would no doubt respect you for it. 

About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.