Barry Sonnenfeld on ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ and His Incredible Career

Kim Taylor-Foster

When Barry Sonnenfeld was fired as director on the 2004 film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, he probably didn’t expect his chance to pick up the reins would come again. But Netflix bought the rights to the novels, conceived a series and Sonnenfeld went knocking.

“I worked very hard to get hired to be the film’s director more than a decade ago,” Sonnenfeld tells Fandom. “Years later, both Daniel [Handler, author of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events] and the manager who represents me called and said Netflix had bought the books. I worked really hard to get into Netflix and get a meeting, and they saw the same show I saw. So, I was hired.”

As director of four of the eight initial episodes, and executive producer, Sonnenfeld suddenly found himself with the creative freedom to make the adaptation he always wanted. His vision, in his eyes, better represented the dark tone of the books. And with Handler also on board as writer and executive producer, he had an ally in the Lemony Snicket creator. An ally that had been on side since getting fired alongside Sonnenfeld back in 2004.

“They went in a different direction,” Sonnenfeld offers, explaining their dismissal.

On Neil Patrick Harris’s Magic Trick

Fate then dealt him another ace in the form of Neil Patrick Harris. A magic trick he performed at a Thanksgiving party they met at two years ago convinced Sonnenfeld he’d found his Count Olaf.

“He was charming and funny,” he says. “I had known both his theatrical work and television work and I said to him: ‘Look, I’m in the process of seeing if I can get hired to do a show. I can’t tell you about it but if I get it I’d love for you to be the lead’. And he said, ‘Okay, you can tell me nothing about it but you want me to be the lead? Sounds great’.”

Harris might well have been sceptical but as it happened, it worked out – NPH is a dark, dry-witted and theatrical Olaf. And he didn’t even have to audition. Sonnenfeld and the rest of the team heard all of Harris’s voices for the first time during an early table read of the unfinished scripts.

“He plays Olaf in episodes one and two but then he’s in various disguises,” says Sonnenfeld. “So, he gets to play Olaf pretending to be Stephano, Olaf pretending to be Captain Sham and Olaf pretending to be another character named Shirley, who’s a woman. When we were at the table read and heard his voices we knew just how fantastic he was going to be.”

Neil Patrick Harris Count Olaf A Series of Unfortunate Events

The script is sharp and funny thanks to Handler and the team of writers, but Sonnenfeld says that some of the funniest lines came from Harris improvising. He mentions a specific line that Olaf has in Episode 2 about an hourglass that he bought online.

He’s right. It is funny. Harris’s timing is spot-on and he has a knack of throwing away his funny lines to make them even funnier. But some of the credit should probably go to Sonnenfeld.

“I have a very specific point of view about comedy which is that no one should try to be funny,” he says. “The situation should be funny but everyone has to act based on the scene and not based on trying to be funny. My direction is always faster and flatter.”

He adds, “My feeling is that if the actors talk fast enough it gives them less time to act. And I don’t like to see acting.”

He admits asking the other directors on the series to get the actors to “do one faster” if he was ever on set watching a take, but he insists he isn’t demanding. “I’m very open and accessible. I’m not loud,” he says. “I think I’m fun to be around, but everyone likes to imitate me – they always say: ‘Faster’!”

On Accidentally Directing The Addams Family

Anjelica Huston Raul Julia The Addams Family

Sonnenfeld has helmed a number of successful movies. His first was in 1991, The Addams Family, followed by its 1993 successor Addams Family Values. Then came the acclaimed Get Shorty in 1995 and the Men In Black films. But he became a director by accident.

He explains, “I was in LA finishing [work on] a movie for Rob Reiner called Misery. The producer, Scott Rudin, left a script at the front desk. He told them to send it up to me and that I had two hours to read it and meet him at a local restaurant called Ugo’s. So, I went to Ugo’s and Scott said: ‘I want you to direct The Addams Family’. And I said, ‘You know, I’m not a director. I’ve never directed anything’ and I told him all the things that were wrong with the script. And he said, ‘Those are all the reasons you should direct it’.”

The film was a commercial success, with Anjelica Huston nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as morbid matriarch Morticia Addams. The film also picked up an Oscar nomination for costume design, which Barry Sonnenfeld’s hands were undoubtedly over. He’s quick to point out that he’s also a visual stylist and it’s that talent that first made him a successful cinematographer. He says it’s this and his work with first-time directors that brought him to the fore for Scott Rudin. And the fact that Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam had already turned Rudin down.

Sonnenfeld says, “Penny Marshall hadn’t really directed anything before I shot Big for her and Danny DeVito hadn’t really directed anything before I shot Throw Momma From the Train for him.” Both went on to bigger things as directors.

On Teaching the Coen Brothers Everything They Know

Ahead of working with Sonnenfeld, Marshall had Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin’ Jack Flash under her belt. This was alongside a handful of episodes of TV’s ‘Laverne & Shirley’, which she also starred in. Danny Devito, meanwhile, had directed a batch of TV movies, shorts and some episodes of TV show ‘Taxi’. But it’s Sonnenfeld’s work with the Coen Brothers that is arguably most impressive.

“I taught them everything they know,” he says. I think he’s joking, and he laughs. But when he goes on to explain just how green they were back when they first started working together – how green they all were – there’s a ring of truth to it.

“When Joel, Ethan and I started to do the movie Blood Simple, neither Joel nor Ethan had ever been on a movie set before,” says Sonnenfeld. “I [hadn’t yet] worked my way up as a cinematographer, Joel [wasn’t yet] a director, Ethan [wasn’t yet] a producer. Together, we learned about pre-production and how important it was.”

He continues, “We designed every shot together. I think I helped them learn that the camera can be a character in a movie. To this day, my camera is very self-conscious – it does things that most cameras don’t do. But together we really learned about how movies are made in pre-production and we had a great time together. We’re still very good friends and I would still be their cinematographer if I didn’t accidentally become a director. I loved working with them.”

On His Favourite Coen Brothers Films

Barry Sonnenfeld loved working with Albert Finney in the Coen Brothers

So what’s his favourite Coen Brothers film? “Probably Miller’s Crossing,” he says. “A lot of people [would] say Raising Arizona [is the Coens’ best film] but I loved Miller’s Crossing. I think it was my best work as a cinematographer. I loved being in New Orleans, I loved the experience of working on that film, I loved the actors.”

Sonnenfeld’s fond memories are magnified because he also got married at the wrap party: “We rented a ferry. We had both the wrap party and a marriage. And I loved working with Albert Finney. Miller’s Crossing is so different to a lot of the Coens’ earlier movies. It feels very accomplished.”

Of the films he hasn’t worked on, he cites A Serious Man as his favourite – because of his indirect involvement.

“I told them I liked it because for the first time in many years they didn’t pan the camera,” he explains. “I never let them pan. They could track or they could push in but they weren’t allowed to pan. They didn’t pan on A Serious Man so that’s why I liked that movie so much!”

On That Vomiting Scene in Blood Simple

Sonnenfeld is clearly a gifted filmmaker and he talks confidently – the result of his vast accomplishments and experience. He’s very obviously chuffed at finally getting the chance to tackle the Lemony Snicket books he read to his child. Plus, it’s glaringly apparent his enthusiasm for his work is undimmed. He’ll even tackle acting if there’s a call for it, albeit in very minor roles.

“I’m a very terrible actor,” he says.

Dan Hedaya Blood Simple Coen Brothers
Dan Hedaya in the Coen Brothers

I take Barry Sonnenfeld back to that first film he made with the Coens and the ‘acting’ he contributed to Blood Simple.  

“It was the first movie I ever worked on and I had to film a scene of Danny Hedaya vomiting on camera,” he remembers. The vomiting sounds you hear are actually coming from Sonnenfeld: “The only reason is because I was actually vomiting. I had a nervous stomach.”

It’s interesting to think of a man like Sonnenfeld – with all that he’s achieved – as feeling nervous; lacking confidence. I wanted to know the story behind his recent turn at providing cat voices for last year’s body swap comedy Nine Lives – but the phone went dead before I could get a response. We can only speculate.

On the Future of A Series of Unfortunate Events

Neil Patrick Harris in A Series of Unfortunate Events as Count Olaf

When you pay close attention to A Series of Unfortunate Events, you’ll notice the absence of panning, and a visual flair that is recogniseably Sonnenfeld. He cites Richard Lester’s Beatles movies as having influenced his shooting style. At various moments, he’s made use of multiple angles and jump cuts, for example.

The plan for the show is to run for three seasons – and on the evidence of the first few episodes, it should have no problem getting picked up for its second and third seasons.

“Each book would be two episodes and there are thirteen books so it would [run for] 26 episodes over three seasons,” explains Sonnenfeld. “We’re already having Daniel supervise and write some of the scripts for the second season in preparation of possibly being picked up if we’re successful.”

And beyond that? What if the show exceeds expectations?

“The books have a specific ending,” says Sonnenfeld. “What we would need to do is abandon the last book, or even two books. And we would need to figure that out pretty quickly because we already have a blueprint for the series.”

He adds, “I think that three seasons feels about right, and then we can try something different.”

Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes as Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, with Presley Smith as baby Sunny

A Series of Unfortunate Events stars Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, Supergirl‘s Malina Weissman as Violet Baudelaire and newcomer Louis Hynes as Klaus Baudelaire. It also features Usman Ally, Matty Cardarople, John DeSantis and Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket. All eight episodes of A Series of Unfortunate Events are available on Netflix from January 13, 2017.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.