The following is an excerpt from Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker, by the director of Get Shorty, Men in Black, and more. In the book, Sonnenfeld reflects on his unique upbringing, his breaking into the film industry by working with the Coen Brothers, and more. In this selection, Sonnenfeld reflects on how he came to direct his first-ever movie: 1991's The Addams Family. Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother publishes Tuesday and is available for pre-order.
My wife Sweetie and I were lying in bed at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny in Los Angeles watching the Indianapolis 500 when our room phone rang.
“Mr. Sonnenfeld. Mr. Scott Rudin has dropped off a script for you. He’s asked that you read it in the next two hours and meet him at Hugo’s Restaurant.”
I would soon discover this was classic Scott. The renowned film and theater producer always left messages, but never wanted to speak to you. I’ve been sitting in hotel rooms when suddenly my message light would glow, at which point I’d call the operator:
“Hi. I’m sitting here and my message light suddenly went on.”
“Yes, Mr. Sonnenfeld. Mr. Rudin left word.”
“I’m sitting right here. Did you try my room?”
“Mr. Rudin did not want to disturb.”
Ninety-nine percent of the time, Rudin had no reason to speak to me nor the other hundred people his assistants left word for that morning. Scott just wanted to remind you he was out there. After trading calls for a week, you’d realize if Rudin really wanted to speak to you, he’d find a way.
The bellman brought up an 8.5 x 11 envelope. In it was the script for The Addams Family, along with a note saying I should direct it. I was in LA working on Misery for Rob Reiner. It was the second time I had been his cinematographer, the first being When Harry Met Sally.
Sweetie and I read the script and agreed it wasn’t very good.
“Rudin wants me to direct this.”
“The script isn’t very good, and I’m not a director.”
“But you could be.”
“Yeah, but the script isn’t very good.”
“You’ll make it better.”
“I don’t know how to talk to actors.”
“Yes you do. You do it all the time. As the cinematographer.”
“So, I should meet Rudin and say…?”
“Hear him out. Then tell him the truth about the script. Maybe he knows it’s no good.”
“I mean, I love Charles Addams. This would be right up my alley if I was ever going to direct, I mean, Addams Family? For sure. But this script…”
“Take the meeting.”
There are two extreme versions of Scott, and nothing in between:
He is compassionate, sweet, lovely, warm, brilliant, a great listener, and wonderful collaborator.
He is ruthless, pathological, lying, mean, a dictator, and a lousy collaborator.
I met Rudin at Hugo’s, on Santa Monica near La Cienega. The nice Rudin showed up.
“Two Pasta Papas and two iced teas,” Rudin told the waiter.
I had met Scott twice in my life and wasn’t sure why I was on his radar as a director, since I had never been one.
“Thanks for sending me the script. And listen, before we talk about it, can you just explain why you think I’m the right director for this, and why you even think of me as a director?”
Years later, when Walter Parkes, Laurie McDonald, and I were having lunch with Tommy Lee Jones at his Polo Club in West Palm Beach, Tommy asked Walter, who was the producer, why Tommy and his character were being basically written out of Men in Black 3. Walter started his response by saying, “Tommy, I’m going to err on the side of honesty.”
“Well, Ba,”—for some strange reason, Rudin was choosing honesty. I guess he wanted to get it out of the way.
“I sent the script to Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam and they both passed. After those two, I had a choice—give it to some safe hack comedy director or take a chance on someone who might do a brilliant job. Someone who was a visual stylist. Don’t forget I was the studio executive on Big and Raising Arizona, both brilliantly shot by you. I know what you can do. This can’t look like a typical comedy. The movie has to create a world and be amazing to look at—like Charles Addams’ drawings.
So that’s why you’re here. All the good directors passed.”
Hachette Books Barry Sonnenfeld Call Your MotherCR: Hachette Books
I gave Rudin my notes on all the things wrong with the script. It was jokey instead of funny, the plot was a mess and the characters were goofy. The genius of Charles Addams’ cartoons is that they are dark and smart. The viewer had to work to find the humor, which was sophisticated and visual, not silly and obvious.
I could be honest with Scott, since I wasn’t looking for the job. I was a successful, nicely paid Director of Photography. Besides, no studio was going to hire me to direct.
“Everything you said about this script, and about Charles Addams is exactly why you should direct this show.”
For five hours a week, Rudin can be the most charming person on the planet. This was Sunday, the start of a new week and since he was using up a lot of his weekly stipend he cut to the chase.
“Look. If I can get Orion to hire you as the director, will you do it? I promise we will get the script to a place where you and I will both be happy.”
“Scott. If you can get a studio to hire me to direct Addams Family, go with God.”
Then the Pasta Papas arrived. Spaghetti with garlic, parsley, parmesan cheese, bacon, turkey sausage, scallions, and scrambled eggs. I picked around the plate, basically having some breakfast eggs. Rudin never touched his.
Scott and I met the Orion executives. These four individuals were total gentlemen. Orion was known as a filmmaker friendly studio. Scott and I were offered the traditional coffee or water then got down to business.
By the way, Academy Award winning screenwriter Bill Goldman’s single piece of advice to filmmakers was take the offered beverage when having a meeting with a studio since it will probably be the only thing you’ll ever get from them.
“Our first concern,” said one of the executives, “is we recently did a movie, The Hand, with a disembodied hand in the lead and we lost a lot of money on it. The movie cost six and a half million, and we only made two point four at the box office. And that doesn’t include P&A [Prints and Advertising]. It was a disaster.”
Rudin explained we were making a comedy, not a psychological horror film (directed by Oliver Stone) and that Thing, our disembodied hand, was a tangential character, not the motor for the entire movie. In addition, Rudin went on, The Hand’s special effects were all created by the very expensive Stan Winston (four academy awards) and Carlo Rambaldi (only three).
“Barry intends to use no visual effects or animatronic hands. All of his effects will be in camera, with an actor’s real hand. Barry…?”
“Yes. Thank you, Scott. We’ll be doing things like cutting holes in tables and having the Thing actor below frame sticking his hand up through the table, or various tricks like that, but yes, indeed, all the shots will be in camera.”
Scott did most of the talking. I sensed their take-away was they trusted Scott—at least creatively—and I seemed like a nice boy.
They said I was hired and the movie green lit subject to cast and budget. The Orion executives were particularly impressed I figured out a way to get Thing “inside the camera,” since they didn’t think cameras were big enough to fit a hand into it—totally misunderstanding what I meant by filming Thing “in camera” and therefore explaining why Orion would go bankrupt halfway through our movie.
Now that I was hired, I started to chat with the executives about what I intended to do on their behalf, what Charles Addams meant to me…
Scott cut me off.
“Barry. Take yes for an answer. Let’s go.”
HBG Addams FamilyBarry SonnenfeldCR: HBG
Rudin brought his friend Paul Rudnick on to do an uncredited page one rewrite. Paul is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and really understood the tone of Addams’ cartoons. We finally had a script.
Along the way, Scott and I disagreed on many aspects of the cast, sets, props and wardrobe. Rudin, Rudnick, and I would meet in his office and Scott would charmingly lie about everything we had opposing opinions about or he would just yell at me.
Scott’s screaming was fierce. I realized the only way to deal with it was to out-juvenile him. When he would start to scream at me, I would get off the couch and remove all the bolsters and pillows. Using the back and bottom bolsters as building blocks, I would turn them into walls and build a fort on top of the couch. Crawling into the one end I had left open I’d stuff a pillow into the gap and yell:
“I can’t hear you. I’m in the fort.”
“Barry. Get out of there,” Scott would bellow
“I think you may have said something, but I can’t hear you because of how thick the walls are in this fort.”
“I’m serious. Get out of the fort right now, Sonnenfeld. I am busy and this is stupid.”
“Can’t hear you.”
Rudnick would confirm, that indeed, I was in a fort, and if Scott wanted me to hear him he’d have to yell louder.”
“Seriously, Sonnenfeld. GET OUT OF THE FORT. I have work to do.”
“If you say you’re sorry, and promise not to yell, I’ll get out of the fort.”
“Ucchhh. I’m sorry. OK? C’mon. We have work to do.”
The part of this that amazed Rudnick and me was that Rudin would never invade the sanctity of my fort. He’d bend over and scream at me, but he’d never remove a pillow and say,
“Schmuck. There is no fort.
HBG Addams FamilyBarry SonnenfeldCR: HBG
Five months after the start of filming, we were slogging towards a wrap. But we weren’t done yet. After the Addams Family are kicked out of their home by Fester and his mother. The family moves into a crappy motel with a motor court. Gomez is a shiftless lay about receiving cranial massages from Thing.
Morticia has gotten a job as a kindergarten teacher and reads the class of pre-Ks Hansel and Gretel, from the poor witch’s point of view. The evening we filmed this scene, both versions of Rudin reared their ugly heads.
It was an incredibly tough day for me personally. Sweetie was home in New York City, in the hospital. Several times while filming, I feared Sweetie was dying, and this was one of them. The doctors were going to operate the next morning to see if she had cancer or was totally fine. I was booked on the redeye that night, scheduled to get to NYC the next morning during her surgery. The good Rudin had somehow convinced the studio we needed to shut down on Friday so I could be in New York for my wife’s surgery. The bad Rudin almost made me miss the plane.
Anjelica did a great job reading the story to the kindergarteners. We had two cameras so we could shoot various angles of kids at once. I had the five year olds stare in rapt silence as they listened to the story.
Morticia tells the kids that Hansel and Gretel threw the wicked witch into the oven, and asks, “How do you think that would feel?”
Obviously, the kids should be freaked out. We rolled cameras and I said to the kindergarteners, “Look sad. Look worried. Look surprised. Look shocked.”
I looked at my watch and thought, “Time to go.”
“OK. I think we got it. Thanks guys.”
Rudin, sitting in his chair watching the video monitor frantically motioned me over.
“You don’t have this.”
“It’s fine. We don’t need a lot of stuff. We can go out on Morticia,” I lied.
“You don’t have this. Those kids have to cry.”
“Scott. Come on, man. How am I going to make a bunch of five-year-old kids cry?”
“You’re the director. Figure it out.”
“Scott. I don’t have a lot of time…. I mean, Sweetie. She might be dying.”
Rudin countered, “The teamster has the car running and is at the exit right down that corridor. It takes fifteen minutes this time of night to get to the airport [lie]. Right now, your job is to make those kids cry.”
“On cue. Just like that. Tell them to cry?”
“Whatever it takes, Barry. Those kids have to cry. You’re the director. Go direct.”
I went back and told the camera crews to put zoom lenses on their cameras and to start filming once the kids start to cry, finding different sized close ups of each wailing child.
“You’re going to make them cry?” asked one of the camera operators.
“Good luck,” he silently schmucked. [see Chapter 18, “Kidney Stones”]
Just roll the damn camera, I thought.
“OK, kids. You guys did great. We’re done filming, and all we have to do now, so stay where you’re sitting, is to give you your measles vaccination.”
A smart ass adorable blonde curly haired boy said, “He’s just kidding.”
“No. No. Didn’t your parents tell you? It’s a rule. Whenever you work on a movie set you have to get a measles shot. It’s a rule. I’m surprised your parents didn’t mention it.”
Man, this was a horrible, horrible thing I was doing.
And then, the adorable smart ass curly blonde haired kid crumples up his face, and then…wait for it…starts to cry. To bawl. Which makes all the other adorable blonde haired kids start to cry, since he was their de facto leader. Every child in the classroom is sobbing. I see the camera teams panning from one kid to the next. I know we have the shot.
“Cut,” I yell.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a burley red-faced, red-necked dad barreling towards me. Luckily the classroom has two exits. I race out the back one and run down the long corridor where I see, through the glass door at the end of the hallway, my station wagon.
The dad is now also in the corridor moving in a singular deadly daddy stampede, furiously chasing me—and really, who can blame him.
“I’m going to kill you.”
My driver, sees what’s happening and, opens the rear driver’s side door. I run past him and dive into the car. He pulls the school door shut, shoves my door closed (I’m laying across the back bench), and jumps into the driver’s seat.
As we pull away, the out of control—and again, who can blame him—dad is banging on the back window of the Ford Wagon like Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate, although instead of yelling, “Elaine,” the ruby-faced father is screaming, “I am going to kill you!”
I made my flight and spent the five hours of red-eyeing deeply worried about Sweetie. There was no other explanation for her blood levels than cancer. She was going to die.
I arrived at the hospital the next morning as Sweetie was being wheeled back into her room having had her exploratory surgery. The doctor came in and explained why they thought she might have had cancer, and why, in fact, she was totally fine and cancer free. I asked Sweetie how she was feeling.
“A little groggy, but fine.”
“Well, I feel pretty horrible. If you’re ok, can you sit in the chair and let me lie down?”
The nurse came in to give Sweetie some pain killers. Lying in the hospital bed with the worst headache of his life, a towel over his face, was me.
“I think he needs those more than I do,” Sweetie said.
Excerpted from BARRY SONNENFELD CALL YOUR MOTHER: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker by Barry Sonnenfeld. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.