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Sonnenfeld talks on Addams Family

by DAN LYBARGER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | October 22, 2021 at 1:32 a.m.

Having read his memoir, "Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother," it's easy for me to believe Sonnenfeld directed the 1991 movie of "The Addams Family" and its even funnier sequel "Addams Family Values." Growing up, Charles Addams' cartoons in The New Yorker were always in his family's New York apartment.

It is, however, amazing the filmmaker lived long enough to work as a cinematographer for Joel and Ethan Coen ("Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing") and Rob Reiner ("When Harry Met Sally...," "Misery"), much less direct movies and TV series of his own.

The dishes his mother served made the squirming meals the Addams clan ate seem appetizing. Mrs. Sonnenfeld felt that preheating an oven was a waste of time.

Thankfully, Sonnenfeld is not only still with us, but he's just helped prepare some extras for the new HD 4K Blu-ray of his directorial debut.

Over a Zoom interview, Sonnenfeld recalls the cuisine the Sonnenfeld and Addams families ate.

"I grew up entirely on Swanson TV dinners, so I think the Addams family had it better off than I did," he admits. As for the fictional clan's, um, active entrees, he adds, "Those are probably recipes my mother would have come up with if she lived in that (Addams) household."

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While the director pokes fun at his real family in his book, he's quick to defend them and the one he put on the big screen. Nathan Sonnenfeld may have been an uneven reputation as an entrepreneur, but having a lighting salesman for a father is a boon for a budding director of photography (they supervise lighting on sets).

"I wouldn't have gotten into a cinematography and then directing, if my father hadn't said, 'Don't find a career, find something that will bring you joy, and you'll figure out a way to make a living doing it,'" Barry Sonnenfeld recalls.

"I also never moved my way up. I bought a used camera so I could call myself a camera man. And then I meet Joel Coen at a party. He's going to shoot a trailer for 'Blood Simple.' I say, I own a camera. He says you're hired. I just became a cameraman."

Similarly, while Morticia (Anjelica Huston) and Gomez (Raul Julia) live in a dreary home with all sorts of lethal implements and are proudly descended from the folks who would have been killed in the Salem Witch Trials, Sonnenfeld explains their morbid sensibilities are only part of their appeal.

"I always thought it was the most functional family, the husband and wife loved each other. The parents gave unconditional love to their children, no matter what they were doing," he explains "I wish I grew up in that environment, you know?"


Keeping that balance may explain why Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday (Christina Ricci), Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), Lurch (Carel Stuycken), Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) and Granny (Judith Malina) can get away with the film's opening sequence, where they dump boiling oil on Christmas carolers at their door.

The gag worked in one of Addams' original cartoons, but Sonnenfeld says unlike the family's idea of mischief, setting the right tone on the big screen required careful planning,

"We made sure that the carolers all kind of felt like Hitler Youth. They're all blond and perky and happy and cheerful. I only cast open-faced blond people," he says.

Having watched a Blu-ray of the film before talking with the director, I noticed that he did more than simply incorporate individual Addams cartoons into the story. With the cauldron scene, we don't see the carolers actually experiencing what would be an unpleasant shower. The cartoonist usually showed the prequel or aftermath of an act of violence -- so did the director, except in a scene where the Addams children bring their unique interpretation to a Shakespeare duel.

That may have enabled him to juggle humor and dread as he did in the mob comedy "Get Shorty."

"You'll never see a blood splatter in any movie I've ever worked on. If someone gets shot, I'm not the guy that shows brains on the wall behind him," he says.


In addition, from "The Addams Family" to the Apple+ series "Schmigadoon!," Sonnenfeld rarely advertises where a joke is hiding in the frame. In the first film, careful viewers can spot a plant wilting in the sunlight when the shades are drawn. It wasn't until last Saturday that I spotted that gag, and I own a Blu-ray of the film.

"The other thing that I sort of learned from Charles Addams' drawings is he let the audience find the joke. There's no like insert or punchline. Sometimes you have to look at some of those drawings for 20, 30 seconds until you find out where the joke is," Sonnenfeld explains.

While I could spot the matte lines around the disembodied hand that played family member Thing, having a expressive human hand playing the role is a step up from a computer generated facsimile. The casting process landed magician Christopher Hart, but Hart had to beat out competition from at least two professions.

"I thought it would be interesting to cast a magician to play Thing, because I could then ask a magician to like roll a quarter between his knuckles because they're good with their hands," he remembers.

"I realized how wrong I was because the problem was they're all about you not seeing their hands cause (they) have to move quickly and disguise (it or) they never could slow down. Then I said, I never thought in my life I would say this, and I know it's a huge mistake, but let's bring in some mimes. But if any mime comes in and is either walking against the wind or can't get out of the glass box, I'm going to cut the interview off right away."

Sonnenfeld won a Primetime Emmy for directing an episode of "Pushing Daisies" but says in some ways his career involves one thing.

"The only job a director has is answering questions. And it's through answering thousands of questions a week that you create tone. And what a director has to do is be the arbiter of consistency of tone."

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