After collaborating with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on 2016 animated comedy Sausage Party, Conrad Vernon got a chance to pitch his unique take on The Addams Family, a classic property which he had a strong personal affinity for, ever since childhood.
Reteaming with director Greg Tiernan on the project, Vernon knew going in that The Addams Family had been adapted many times before, for various mediums. Based on characters introduced by American cartoonist Charles Addams in 1938, The Addams Family had been brought to the big screen with three live-action films, beginning in 1991, and had also appeared on television in four separate series.
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Looking to make his own contribution to the Addams Family canon with an animated feature, Vernon took this family of gothic oddballs and introduced them to the modern era—a moment in which people have become consumed with social media and screens of all shapes and sizes. Tackling such timely topics as mob mentality and cancel culture, while “introducing a brand new generation to this family,” Vernon’s goal with the feature was to shine a light on aspects to the Addams’s origins that no prior iteration of their story had explored.
“Mainly, the challenges were, just story-wise, what did we want to see, as far as the origins were concerned, before we got into the actual story of it all,” the director says.
DEADLINE: How did this latest take on The Addams Family come together? Why was this film one you had to make?
CONRAD VERNON: It came together when Gail Berman called me. She had the rights to this property, and had been to a few studios to try and sell it. She was over at MGM and called me to come in and pitch on it, and I went ahead and started developing it with a few artists and a writer, Matt Lieberman—not with the intention of directing but, but just to get it ready, so that MGM and Gail had a package to take to another filmmaker or studio. I didn’t know what my next project was going to be, but as so often happens, once you get involved and stuck in with something, I just kind of fell in love with the [possibilities].
DEADLINE: How would you define the relationship you had to the Addams Family canon prior to coming aboard this feature?
VERNON: I used to watch the TV show when I was a kid. I’d come home from school and it would be on afternoon TV. I was watching Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island and cartoons and stuff, and this was the only TV show [where] it was kind of like Halloween, all year round. That’s the way I looked at it. It was like, “Oh, this is really cool, that there’s scary stuff on TV in the middle of the afternoon, but it’s funny as well.” So, I was a real, huge fan of the TV show. Then later on, when I was in junior high, I got to know the books, and that’s when I got introduced to the Charles Addams cartoons. I really liked those as well, because it was kind of like that MAD Magazine thing, where you couldn’t see the joke immediately. You kind of had to think about it or look harder, and then it would come to you. I really enjoy that type of stuff.
Then, to be honest, when those [Barry] Sonnenfeld movies came out…People always love their version of something, you know what I mean? The one version that reminds them of their childhood. So, when the first movies came out, I was like, “Oh, it’s never going to beat the TV show, and it’s never going to beat the Charles Addams cartoons.” And of course, I saw the movie, and I was like, “Oh, this is actually really good.” I really liked it because it was new, it was different. So, that’s kind of the way I approached making this version of the movie.
I didn’t want to lean on any of the Sonnenfeld stuff. I wanted to let those movies be their own thing, and for us to hopefully make our own mark with this. That being said, you’ve got to stay true to what Charles Addams created.
DEADLINE: Could you flesh out a sense of your visual approach to the film, in terms of that juxtaposition of inventiveness and loyalty to the source material? One interesting facet of your take was to bring a set of classic characters dating back to the ’30s into the age of smartphones and social media.
VERNON: Throughout the history of this property, the Addams’s have always stayed true to who they are. It’s the outside world that’s changed, and then it’s their reaction to it that we love seeing. So, it was like, “Yeah, the outside world is going to have cell phones, computers, Instagram and all that kind of stuff,” and it’s the Addams’ reacting to that, that was the fun of this. That was kind of the idea and the pitch on it.
We had an idea at the very beginning to kind of go back to those Charles Addams cartoons. For the character design, Craig Kellman and I worked closely together, taking those original Charles Addams designs and stylizing them a little bit, to give it a unique feel.
That’s where we started. Then, our production designer, Patricia Atchison, heard we were doing this, and on spec, decided to do these beautiful renderings, based upon those Charles Addams cartoons. She just kind of brought them into a 3D world and really nailed it, and that’s when we were like, “Wow, this is the look we want for this movie. It completely evokes Charles Addams, but it’s an actual, tangible place, not a loose watercolor.”
We had Craig Kellman, our character designer, fly up to Vancouver and work in person with Patricia, to make sure that her idea for the backgrounds matched with his character design, so you weren’t getting these real flat, 2D characters, walking around in a beautiful, lush 3D world. The two of them worked together for shape language and design, and what they eventually came out with was, I think, really cohesive and beautiful.
DEADLINE: Your take on The Addams Family has an interesting villain in reality TV host Margaux Needler, who has designed a neighborhood downhill from the Addams’ estate aptly named ‘Assimilation.’ How did this character and community come into your story?
VERNON: When we first started out, we were talking about, “Okay, well if there’s this perfect, beautiful little neighborhood, and the Addams’s are the sore thumb, so to speak, obviously what they’re going to go up against are people who don’t want them in the neighborhood.” We started talking about our neighborhoods, and I think we’ve all dealt with a busybody in the neighborhood, who deems themself the voice of taste and reason, and runs around sticking their nose into other people’s business, complaining about what other people have on their lawns.
We wanted to make Margaux, at first, one of those busybodies—like a Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched, who constantly just peers in on people, and riles people up against somebody. But then we said, “Well, if we’re going to get this to a place where she actually has major power, how do we give just a random person in the neighborhood that type of major power, without making the rest of the community completely stupid?” Cheri Oteri was in one of our writers’ meetings, and she’s the one who turned to me and said, “What she reminds me of is one of those people who go in and redo people’s house on TV—like a DIY woman, where she just comes in and puts shiplap over everything, and there’s the same rug, and the same couches, and the same color pattern in every single house they do.”
I was like, “That’s a great idea,” and as we started spitballing on that, we said, “Well, maybe she’s not just doing one house. Maybe she’s doing the entire neighborhood, and everyone who lives there is under her thumb because they’re going to be on TV, and they’re a little bit intimidated by her because she’s a big star, she’s a tastemaker.” And I said, “That gives her the power to get a mob behind her. Because everyone in the neighborhood knows they’re going to be put into TV across the United States and be looked at by the rest of the world. So, there’s impetus for them to follow her, wherever she wants them to go.” So, that made her threatening, and that’s when we were like, “Okay, I think we’ve found a good base for our villain.”
DEADLINE: With this character, you tapped into a lot of what we see happening in society today, in terms of mob mentality—and ultimately, someone who is ‘canceled’ by the very mob she worked to create, following the revelation of her misconduct.
VERNON: Yeah, I was just thinking about this the other day. I was like, “We live in this society where we’re giving everything we do stars.” It’s like everyone’s saying, “Your entire life can be whittled down to one to five stars.” Everything is being rated constantly, so it’s like the rating that you strive after could destroy you at some point, and that’s kind of what happens with Margaux. She’s constantly rating other people, and the very rating system that she puts out there turns on her and actually brings her down.
DEADLINE: What was your approach to designing the world of the Addams Family home? This space contains so many fun, little visual details that pay homage to the Addams Family‘s history.
VERNON: That was largely due to Patricia and the art department, all the little things you see. There’s a ton of Easter eggs in the house that are right out of the Charles Addams cartoons, from the little alligator pull toy, to a spiked mask. There’s all these weird things, and toys that we actually made up for Wednesday and Pugsley, that are just lying around the floor.
But the asylum that we designed was basically part of what we wanted to do with the origin story. The reason we wanted to tell the origin story is because it was the only thing that I hadn’t seen any of the Addams Family versions do, is actually show how Morticia and Gomez met, how they met Lurch, how he came to be employed by them, how they found their house. All these things are already in place when we start any of the other iterations of The Addams Family.
Basically, we just came up with this story about how they met Lurch. They hit him with a car, he was an escaped lunatic from an insane asylum. For no reason, he’s in a tuxedo, but they say, “Well, must be the help.” So, they give them the suitcases and say, “Take us to your place,” and he leads them back to where he escaped from. They go in, and he kind of knows the place, so he marches right up to his organ and starts playing. They’re looking around, and they realize that it’s abandoned, and if you look at that first shot, you see wheelchairs and IVs, and people who have been disemboweled. It was definitely a crazy place. And of course, they find out that it’s completely possessed by a spirit, so they decide to turn that into their own place, and that’s kind of the origin of how they found their house. That’s what we wanted to explore in this movie.
Once we go to 13 years later, and we move through the house, I’m sure there’s some things that people won’t immediately pick up on. But right after the house tries to bring the window down on Morticia, she walks past a portrait of Charles Addams in their room. Then, when she goes into the bathroom, we modeled that bathroom after The Shining, the Room 237 bathroom. Then, when we go down to Lurch’s bedroom, we see that he’s reading Little Women, and on his bookshelf, you see that he’s got organ hits of the ’80s, and a Ziggy comic strip, and a couple of other books there, which kind of gives you an insight to what he’s like.
But there’s all these tiny things that we put all over the place that are from the original cartoons, that just give you an insight into some things. Also, in the original Charles Addams cartoons, Thing was never a hand. It was always this shadowy figure that hung out in the corners of his cartoons, and that’s another thing that I loved when I was a kid. I would always look for Thing, and I’d go, “Oh, there he is—up there.” So actually, because Thing is now a hand, we changed Thing’s name to What—and throughout the house, I think five times throughout the movie, we put What in the corner, just kind of staring right at the camera and blinking.
So, that’s kind of how we approached the house, and Patricia and the art department came up with hundreds of different toys, and utensils, and weapons, and all sorts of things that they hung on the walls and put in the background.