“I’m an Only Child, I’m Jewish and I Use Wide-Angle Lenses”: Barry Sonnenfeld on The Addams Family
Barry Sonnenfeld was less than ten years into a successful career as a cinematographer—with credits including Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and When Harry Met Sally on his resume—when he sat down in the director’s chair for the first time on 1991’s The Addams Family. It followed what turned out to be his last job (Misery) as director of photography; from that point on Sonnenfeld would work exclusively as a director, and occasional producer, on visually inventive and conceptually ambitious comedies like the Men in Black trilogy and Pushing Daisies, continuing to hone the dynamic style he had established as a DP. That style was and is characterized by aggressive camera movement, wide-angle lenses, symmetrical compositions and far more textured lighting and color than one often finds in comedies, traits that are all fully evident in The Addams Family. The movie’s sumptuous images (photographed by The French Connection and Network cameraman Owen Roizman) have been immaculately preserved in a new 4K UHD edition of The Addams Family, a “more Mamushka” edition which restores an audience-pleasing musical number to its original intended length and comes loaded with extra features. I spoke with Sonnenfeld about that “Mamushka” set piece and his overall approach to comedy via Zoom just before the new disc’s November 9 release.
Filmmaker: How did you first come to direct Addams Family? Were you actively looking to make the transition from cinematographer to director?
Barry Sonnenfeld: I wasn’t looking to become a director. I was really happy as a cinematographer. I was in LA. on the last two weeks of shooting Misery for Rob Reiner and Scott Rudin sent me the script for Addams Family and said, “Meet me in two hours at Hugo’s for lunch. Read the script. I want you to direct it.” Scott wanted a visual stylist to direct Addams Family. He went to Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, and those would’ve been two good choices. When both of them passed, he didn’t want to hire a traditional comedy director, because a lot of comedy directors like things bright and flat and without any visual style—they actually think visual style gets in the way of comedy. I think it enhances it.
The script wasn’t very good. It was much closer to the television show than the Charles Addams drawings. And I told Scott, “Look, I’ve never directed. And also, the script’s no good.” I told him all the reasons it wasn’t good and it’s because it wasn’t like the drawings. In Charles Addams’ drawings, he wants the reader to find the comedy. He doesn’t tell you where it is. He presents you with this hilarious picture, and you say, “Oh, the Addams family are on the roof with a cauldron, and those are carolers down below.” But he’d never cut to different angles. It was just there. I said, “If we could make it more like the cartoons in tone and style, I’d be interested.” And Scott was able to get Orion to hire me as a first-time director. [The movie was ultimately released by Paramount after Orion ran into financial trouble.]
Filmmaker: How did you come to choose Owen Roizman as your director of photography?
Sonnenfeld: When I was asked to direct Addams Family, I went back and looked at examples of other cinematographers who had become directors. Gordon Willis, who’s my favorite cinematographer, directed Windows. William Fraker directed The Legend of the Lone Ranger. And John Alonzo, who had shot Chinatown and Farewell My Lovely, directed FM. And none of them ever directed again. In each case, they moved their camera operator up to DP, which meant they didn’t really want to give up the camera; they still wanted to be in control, so they hired someone they could push around. Now, I believe that you always want to hire people that are better than you. I want the best cameraman, the best production designer. I don’t care how great they are, I’m not threatened because I get all the credit at the end of the day anyway, right? I wanted a cameraman who I thought was so good that I wouldn’t be able to say, “Shouldn’t that 10K move over there?”
I loved Owen’s cinematography, so I met him for lunch and said, “There are three things I want from you. One is, I want to choose the lenses and design the shots.” And he said, “Great, less work for me.” “I also want Morticia to have her own motivated lighting. I don’t care if she’s standing right next to a window. I want her lit like a Hurrell photograph. No matter what else is going on in her room, she has her own motivated lighting.” Owen loved the idea, and I think he did an extraordinary job on it. The third thing I said is, “I also want to use the slowest film stock,” which was 5247 at the time. It had much finer grain and much more color saturation, and the blacks were deep, as opposed to the high-speed 5294, which was grainy and muddy and ugly. And he asked me exactly the question I would’ve asked any other director, because I used to always shoot with the slow film stock. He said, “Will I ever have to pan?” And I said, “Never.” When I was their DP I never let the Coen brothers pan either. People exited shot, then you pick them up in the next shot, or you track. But when you pan…I always find panning to be very lazy. It’s not specific. And when you pan, your lights have to be further and further away, because you’re going to pan past them. So even though I want the light to be close to you, if I start panning, it can’t be, because on the pan, I’ll see it. So I said to Owen, “You’ll never have to pan.” And Owen did a fantastic job, though he was slow and we got very behind schedule. We were only supposed to shoot for 12 weeks, but we ended up shooting for 20, and at one point Owen had to leave. We brought in another cameraman who was good but did not light with the same specificity as Owen. That’s my long answer to Owen Roizman.
Filmmaker: Coming in as a first-time director, what was the learning curve in terms of the politics of dealing with actors and dealing with the studio? Were those things you had to deal with before as a cinematographer or was it all new to you?
Sonnenfeld: I felt comfortable on the set, but I was very nervous about working with actors. It’s part of the reason I hired Owen—not only because I saw all those other DP turned directors fail, but I felt I needed someone who was so good that I would be forced to work with the actors and not hang out at the camera.
I was always very friendly with the actors on the movies I was a DP on. I became good friends with Tom Hanks on Big. John Turturro says he based his performance in Miller’s Crossing on me, just watching me whine all the time as a cameraman. But what I learned pretty quickly was that directing actors is like being a parent, and each one of your kids needs a different kind of parent. Some need more love and attention and hugging, and others just want just little bits of information.
I also learned just how hard it is to direct, because there are a lot of pressures. Every day you’re making compromises. And one of the compromises we made on the theatrical release of Addams Family was we took out half of “The Mamushka,” which is this great song and dance number, because I thought the movie felt too long. But I always felt like I had hacked off one of its arms or something. So when Paramount approached me about re-color timing the movie and supervising the new 4K master, I asked them if there was any way they could find the original negative, and they did. So, we put back the entire Mamushka. And I’ll tell you, I don’t really like director special editions. They’re usually worse than the original. There’ve been 14 versions of Apocalypse Now, and you go, “Wait, which version was that?” I never believed that there should be more than one version of a movie. Whatever is released theatrically should be the only version. But I made an exception with Addams Family. I felt that Raul Julia deserved the full Mamushka.
Filmmaker: Where did that song come from? I saw in the credits that Betty Comden and Adolph Green were involved, and they must have been pretty old by then because they had done all those great MGM musicals like The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain back in the 1950s.
Sonnenfeld: Yeah, they were old. I’m sure they were either retired or close to retired, living off their laurels and their royalties, but they were willing to write this song. Marc Shaiman wrote the music, and he and Comden and Green wrote the lyrics. I remember Shaiman coming back from New York to L.A. where we were shooting, and sitting at an upright piano and playing this song for Scott and myself. We loved it, and Raul did such a great job performing it. I was really proud of the way the choreography worked with the camera to create some really great dynamics in that song. Shaiman did a great job with the whole score, actually.
Filmmaker: Getting back to the visual style, I’ve noticed that as both a director and a cinematographer—because I recently revisited Misery—you have some very definite preferences. Wide-angle lenses, symmetrical compositions…very Kubrickian. Where does that approach come from?
Sonnenfeld: Well, Dr. Strangelove is my favorite movie. One of the reasons it works so well is that no one, except occasionally George C. Scott, acknowledges that they’re in a comedy. That’s what makes it so funny. And also, those scenes that play out in masters—long two-shots with Peter Sellers and Sterling Hayden, Sellers reacting while Hayden is talking about the purity of essence and all that—yes, there are the wide-angle lenses, which I always love, because I think that the audience, in an unconscious way or a subconscious way, understands that the camera is near the actor. And they feel like they’re in the scene and part of the experience.
If you look at what Tony and Ridley Scott do, they use these very, very long telephoto lenses. When Will [Smith] did one of the Men In Blacks, he had just come off of Enemy of the State, which he did with Tony Scott. And he said, “The difference between you and Tony is that with you I can’t see around the camera because it’s so close. On Enemy of the State, I didn’t even know where the cameras were, because he puts on the 300-millimeter, and you’re across the street.” It’s a very beautiful way to photograph, because everything’s out of focus except that layer. But I find it very emotionally distancing.
Wide-angle lenses give you so much energy. Say I’m moving a foot, and I’m going from a closeup to a medium wide shot. If it was with a 300-millimeter, I could walk 30 yards and I wouldn’t change perspective at all. So wide-angle lenses are my, Barry’s, point of view. It’s my way of saying, “Hey, I’m here,” because I think the camera is an important storytelling tool, not just a recording device. Most comedy directors don’t use the camera as a storytelling device, they just use it to record not great improv. But I need to be in control. I need people to pay attention to me. I’m an only child, I’m Jewish and I use wide-angle lenses. And also, with wide-angle lenses, because everything’s in focus, you need to center punch, because you need to tell the audience where to look. That’s why I do a lot of dollying in and out, to help the audience understand where to look. So that’s my long answer to that one.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.