It has, somehow, been 30 years since the release of Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family. What became a massive hit seemed anything but during the production. What started out at Orion was sold to Paramount before filming had even completed, then, according to Sonnenfeld, the person at Paramount who bought the movie was fired later that same day. So here’s this weird movie, based on a quirky television show from 25 years before, that the studio that owned it didn’t even really want, being directed by a guy who had never directed a movie before. The Addams Family would go on to gross just under $200 million worldwide and became one of the highest grossing movies of 1991.
Before The Addams Family, Sonnenfeld had been the cinematographer on some huge films – Big, Misery, When Harry Met Sally – but it’s still a little bit shocking that The Addams Family was his first time as director, and only a few years away from the even more massive success he’d achieve with his Men in Black movies. Ahead (with the release of a new 4K print, which includes an extended cut of the film), Sonnenfeld looks back on his directorial debut, which sounds like a fraught experience. Sonnenfeld also discusses his ill-fated pilot for what supposed to be a Beverly Hills Cop television series. Sonnenfeld says what they shot was good (it’s still never been released), but why did it never make it to air? His best guess sounds like it basically comes down to “spite.”
There are a lot more characters listening to MC Hammer in this movie than I remember…
MC Hammer wrote a great song for us, actually! I really liked it.
“Addams Groove.” That was a big hit.
The other part I forgot about was when Gomez is playing with his toy train, there’s a passenger on the train and I looked it up and that’s you.
I wanted to find places where I could do a filmic version of some of Charles Addams famous cartoons. And one of his cartoons shows a person on a commuter train and he looks out the window and he sees some guy with a Lionel set. And I just love how Charles Addams always played with layers of information. And how surreal his stuff was. So, that was taken right out of a Charles Addams image.
The opening shot with the carolers and we boom up and we see the Addams family on the roof with a cauldron of boiling tar or oil or something? That was also a Charles Addams cartoon. There’s another moment where Fester is on the phone to his mother and Pugsley is in the background and Wednesday is tied to a chair and Pugsley brings Fester some poison to choose…
He chooses the arsenic, I believe.
That’s right! Arsenic. Well, they’re all based on Charles Addams drawings, so there’s that.
It’s surprising this is your directorial debut.
Because it feels like not a freshman director? Or why?
I get that you shot some of the most famous movies made – and Three O’Clock High, one of my favorites – but it’s this big movie with IP involved that made a lot of money.
You know, it’s funny. I was very happy being a cinematographer. As you stated, I shot the first three Coen Brothers movies, Three O’Clock High, Throw Mama From the Train, Big, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, so I was really happy being a cinematographer. I wasn’t looking to be a director. But Scott Rudin, who was a producer of the show, sent me the script. He tried to get Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton to direct Addams Family. And when both of those directors passed, he decided that he’d rather have a visual stylist because he felt The Addams Family, correctly, needed a certain visual style as opposed to just going to a comedy director. Because most comedies, for some reason, and I’m one of the exceptions, tend to have no visual style. They tend to be funny screenplays, but Addams Family really needed a very strong visual style. And that’s why I’m so glad we put all of “The Mamushka,” because it’s such a great song and dance number and Raul Julia is so good in it.
I want to talk about Raul Julia a little bit just because when I first saw this I wasn’t watching Kiss of the Spider Woman or The Morning After when was in 10th grade. Was he always the first choice? Because it seems like a brave choice to put someone who’s not known to maybe the target demographic as the main character?
We started at Orion Pictures and we were able to convince Orion early on because they really wanted Cher to be the female lead, to play Morticia.
That makes sense.
Yeah, you can see it. But in any case, we were able to convince Orion that we didn’t want movie stars. That the IP, the Charles Addams of it all, was the star. And that a real name, a big name, would just get in the way and would bring their own historical baggage with them. So, we really wanted non-stars. We were very quickly able to convince Orion to go with Raul and Angelica because they agreed that The Addams Family was going to be the star, the concept, and that we didn’t need stars or star salaries for that. What happened halfway through the movie, Orion was going bankrupt and we were the most saleable piece of IP they had. So, halfway through the movie we were sold to Paramount. And because Paramount bought something that was in progress, they had much less say. In fact, they bought it Friday morning and that afternoon the person who bought it got fired and the new person came in and hated our dailies.
Wait a second. So the person who bought The Addams Family got fired…
Not because of the movie…
But the same day?
The same day. Yeah. So now we’re at a studio that didn’t want us. So that was hard. That was very, very, very hard. But we got through it. And then after we finished, the marketing and distribution people loved the movie so much. They did a fantastic job. They were the ones that said, “We’ll give you more money if you can get MC Hammer to write that end credit song,’ because they really felt it was going to be value-added in marketing and distributing the song. So, they were great.
That song was everywhere.
No, he was great. A lovely guy. Lovely guy.
With all that going on, how’d you even keep morale up on set?
Well, I think we kept some of that secret from the actors. It’s funny. It started to get word-of-mouth before we came out and the industry had been going through a slump, which they do from time to time. But suddenly people were talking about The Addams Family and that it was going to be a hit. And they were predicting a $12 million opening weekend which, at the time, would have been a very big opening, 30 years ago. And our opening weekend was actually more than double that, so it was shocking how that happened. It was really amazing.
Was the ending a re-shoot? The whole movie Christopher Lloyd’s Fester is an imposter, but then in the last scene it’s explained it was actually Fester all along…
No, there was no re-shoot. Though the original ending had Fester still being an imposter. And Gomez saying, “You know what? You out-Festered Fester. And family is a state of mind and not biology. You’re the new Fester.” And at the table read, the cast rebelled. They hated that ending. And they went off into a corner and made Christina Ricci the spokesperson for them. She was probably nine at the time. And Christina came back and said to Paul Rudnick, the writer, and myself and the producer and said, ”This can’t work. The audience will be emotionally disappointed. They’ll wonder why Gomez worried about Fester for all these decades and then just doesn’t think about him anymore because he likes this guy. It’s an intellectual ending, not an emotional ending.” And she convinced us. We realized, “Oh, jeez. Maybe she’s right.” Paul Rudnick did a re-write. But that was not a re-shoot and when we first started to shoot, that was already in there. It might be slightly abrupt.
Maybe that’s the word I should have used, abrupt.
Right. That whole ending with hurricane Irene and Tully and Fester’s mother being thrown out the window? We were out of time, out of money, and Paramount was out of patience. And all that came together very quickly, so we didn’t have enough money or time to shoot that ending as properly as I would have liked to. So, that might be part of it, what you’re also experiencing.
You directed the pilot for the Beverly Hills Cop television series that wasn’t picked up. I’m curious if it would have had a better shot with the current streaming landscape.
Yes and no. The pilot was really good and I really enjoyed working with Eddie Murphy. There were two issues. The pilot wasn’t really about Eddie Murphy’s character, although he’s in it. And he’s really funny and really good. But it’s about Eddie Murphy’s son. But the other big issue, and I can’t say I know this for a fact, is the head of CBS was, oh, you know. What’s his name?
Les Moonves. And the head of Paramount, which was Tom Preston. But Les and Tom did not get along and Les, I think, wanted that job and Tom got it. Whatever. Somehow Les didn’t pick up that show in part because he didn’t want Tom to have that success. So there were internal politics involved. But the pilot was fantastic and I was really surprised that it didn’t get picked up.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.