By Iain Blair
Director/producer/showrunner Barry Sonnenfeld has a gift for combining killer visuals with off-kilter, broad and often dark comedy, as showcased in such monster hits as the Men in Black and The Addams Family franchises.
He did learn from the modern masters of black comedy, the Coen brothers, beginning his prolific career as their DP on their first feature film, Blood Simple and then shooting such classics as Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing. He continued his comedy training as the DP on such films as Penny Marshall’s Big, Danny Devito’s Throw Momma from the Train and Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally.
So maybe it was just a matter of time before Sonnenfeld — whose directing credits include Get Shorty, Wild Wild West, RV and Nine Lives — gravitated toward helming the acclaimed new Netflix show A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the beloved and best-selling “Lemony Snicket” children’s series by Daniel Handler. After all, with the series’ rat-a-tat dialogue, bizarre humor and dark comedy, it’s a perfect fit for the director’s own strengths and sensibilities.
I spoke with Sonnenfeld, who won a 2007 Primetime Emmy and a DGA Award for his directorial achievement on Pushing Daisies, about making the series, the new golden age of TV, his love of post — and the real story behind why he never directed the film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Weren’t you originally set to direct the 2004 film, and you even hired Handler to write the screenplay?
That’s true. I was working with producer Scott Rudin, who had done the Addams Family films with me, and Paramount decided they needed more money, so they brought in another studio, DreamWorks. But the DreamWorks producer — who had done the Men in Black films with me — and I don’t really get along. So when they came on board, Daniel and I were let go. I’d been very involved with it for a long time. I’d already hired a crew, sets were all designed, and it was very disappointing as I loved the books.
But there’s a happy ending. You are doing Netflix TV series, which seems much closer to the original books than the movie version. How important was finding the right tone?
The single most important job of a director is both finding and maintaining the right tone. Luckily, the tone of the books is exactly in my wheelhouse — creating worlds that are real, but also with some artifice in them, like the Men in Black and Addams Family movies, and Pushing Daisies. I tend to like things that are a bit dark, slightly quirky.
What did you think of the film version?
I thought it was slightly too big and loud, and I wanted to do something more like a children’s book, for adults.
The film version had to stuff Handler’s first three novels into a single movie, but the TV format, with its added length, must work far better for the books?
Far better, and the other great thing is that once Netflix hired me — and it was a long auditioning process — they totally committed. They take a long time finding the right material and pairing it with the right filmmaker but once they do, they really trust their judgment.
I really wanted to shoot it all on stages, so I could control everything. I didn’t want sun or rain. I wanted gloomy overhead. So we shot it all in Vancouver, and Netflix totally bought into that vision. I have an amazing team — the great production designer Bo Welch, who did Men in Black and other films with me, and DP Bernard Couture.
Patrick Warburton’s deadpan delivery as Lemony Snicket, the books’ unreliable narrator, is a great move compared with having just the film’s voiceover. How early on did you make that change?
When I first met with Netflix, I told them that Lemony should be an on-screen character. That was my goal. Patrick’s just perfect for the role. He’s the sort of Rod Serling/Twilight Zone presence — only more so, as he’s involved in the actual visual style of the show.
How early on do you deal with post and CG for each episode?
Even before we’re shooting. You don’t want to wait until you lock picture to start all that work, or you’ll never finish in time. I’m directing most of it — half the first season and over a third of the second. Bo’s doing some episodes, and we bring in the directors at least a month before the shoot, which is long for TV, to do a shot list. These shows, both creatively and in terms of budget, are made in prep. There should be very few decisions being made in the shoot or surprises in post because basically every two episodes equal one book, and they’re like feature films but on one-tenth of the budget and a quarter of the schedule.
We only have 24 days to do two hours worth of feature film. Our goal is to make it look as good as any feature, and I think we’ve done that. So once we have sequences we’re happy with, we show them to Netflix and start post, as we have a lot of greenscreen. We do some CGI, but not as much as we expected.
Do you also post in Vancouver?
No. We began doing post there for the first season, but we discovered that with our TV budget and my feature film demands and standards, it wasn’t working out. So now we work with several post vendors in LA and San Francisco. All the editorial is in LA.
Do you like the post process?
I’ve always loved it. As Truffaut said, the day you finish filming is the worst it’ll ever be, and then in post you get to make it great again, separating the wheat from the chaff, adding all the VFX and sound. I love prep and post — especially post as it’s the least stress and you have the most time to just think. Production is really tough. Things go wrong constantly.
You used two editors?
Yes, Stuart Bass and Skip MacDonald, and each edits two episodes/one book as we go. I’m very involved, but in TV the director gets a very short time to do their cut, and I like to give notes and then leave. My problem is I’m a micro-manager, so it’s best if I leave because I drive everyone crazy! Then the showrunner — which is also me — takes over. I’m very comfortable in post, with all the editing and VFX, and I represent the whole team and end up making all the post decisions.
Where did you mix the sound?
We did all the mixing on the Sony lot with the great Paul Ottosson who won Oscars for Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. We go way back, as he did Men in Black 3 and other shows for me, and what’s so great about him is that he both designs the sound and then also mixes.
The show uses a lot of VFX. Who did them?
We used three main houses — Shade and Digital Sandbox in LA and Tippett in San Francisco. We also used EDI, an Italian company, who came in late to do some wire removal and clean up.
How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
We did it all at Encore LA, and the colorist on the first season was Laura Jans Fazio, who was fantastic. It’s the equivalent to a movie DI, where you do all the final color timing, and getting the right look was crucial. The DP created very good LUTs, and our rough cut was very close to where we wanted it, and then the DP and myself piggy-backed sessions with the colorist. It’s a painful experience for me as it’s so slow, and like editing, I micro-manage. So I set looks for scenes and then leave.
Is it a golden age for TV?
Very much so. The writing’s a very high standard, and now everyone has wide-screen TVs there’s no more protecting the 3:4 image, which is almost square. When I began doing TV, there was no such thing as a wide shot. Executives would look at my cut, and the first thing they’d always say was, “Do you have a close-up of so and so?” Now it’s all changed. But TV is so different from movies. I look back fondly at movie schedules!
How important are the Emmys and other awards?
They’re very important for Netflix and all the new platforms. If you have critical success, then they get more subscribers, more money and then they develop more projects. And it’s great to be acknowledged by your peers.
I’ll finish season two and we’re hopeful about season three, which would keep us busy through fall 2018. And Vancouver’s a perfect place to be as long as you’re shooting on stage and don’t have to deal with the weather.
Will there be a fourth Men in Black?
If there is, I don’t think Will or I will be involved. I suspect there won’t be one, as it might be just too expensive to make now, with all the back-end deals for Spielberg and Amblin and so on. But I hope there’s one.
Images: Joe Lederer/Netflix
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.