Barry Sonnenfeld had never before directed a film, but he had three things going for him that convinced producer Scott Rudin that he was the ideal choice to helm The Addams Family, the big screen adaptation of Charles Addams’ creepy, kooky cartoons that had inspired the beloved 1960s TV series. First, he told the fledgling director, he was not a hack comedy director. Second, the film needed a distinctive look, and Sonnenfeld, a cinematographer, was the brilliant visual stylist behind such films as Blood Simple, When Harry Met Sally and Raising Arizona. And third: all the good directors, like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, had already turned it down.
Sonnenfeld tells this and other entertaining stories in his memoir, Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother. The Addams Family, a Paramount Home Entertainment release, is available on demand from Redbox to rent or buy. On the occasion of this altogether ooky comedy classic’s 30th anniversary, we spoke with Sonnenfeld about his remarkable cast, including Raul Julia as Gomez, Angelica Huston as Morticia, Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester (or is he?), Christina Ricci as the dour Wednesday and Christopher Hart’s hands-on performance as Thing.
Redbox: I recently saw a Facebook post that invited readers to submit their choices for greatest movie casts of all time. The Addams Family has to be in that conversation. From top to bottom, this ensemble indelibly brings Charles Addams’ iconic characters to, for want of a better word, life. Let’s play name association with the cast. First: Raul Julia.
Barry Sonnenfeld: Raul was born to play Gomez. Both are so full of joy and of life. No matter what happens, Gomez is just so theatrical. There was a scene where Gomez is throwing darts. He is uncharacteristically upset, and Lurch is moving the dartboard around so the (errant) darts hit the bullseye. After the rehearsal, Raul comes to me and says, “Barry, this makes no sense. Gomez is the greatest dart thrower ever. He would not need Lurch to move the dartboard. He would hit a bullseye every time.” I said to Raul, ‘Here’s the thing, Raul…” and Raul interrupted, “The thing is that’s not funny what I’m suggesting. What’s funny is Lurch moving it around. (Claps hands) Come on, we’re ready.” He needed me to know that it was wrong for Gomez’s character, but once I acknowledged that, he was happy to do it. That’s Raul Julia.
RB: Was he your first choice?
BS: Yes, both Raul and Angelica Huston were mine and Scott Rudin’s first choices for Gomez and Morticia. Orion (the studio originally connected to the project) was very much interested in Cher playing Morticia, but we always felt that the star of the movie was Charles Addams’ world, and we didn’t want to take the audience out of that by having someone overly famous.
RB: The movie was on TV just last night. You just can’t take your eyes off of Angelica’s face. It seems to glow. As a former cinematographer, what were you after here?
BS: It’s funny; I hired Owen Roizman to be the cinematographer because I wanted a cinematographer so good that I would just have to deal with the actors and not have to worry about the camera. When I interviewed him, I said I wanted Morticia to be beautiful, glowing. Owen loved that idea and did a great job creating that look. This is called the Charley Bars, when you darken the top and bottom so you can just see their eyes. Angelica’s Morticia is so saintly; she’s the stable parent when Gomez is out of control and emotional. She did such a perfect job of owning that.
RB: I consider Fester to be an even greater signature role for Christopher Lloyd than Doc Brown in Back to the Future.
BS: I’ll tell you a funny story. As you know, in the Charles Addams drawings, Fester is short and dumpy. Chris Loyd is very tall and rail thin. He doesn’t look anything like Fester. We actually did a full day of prosthetics to make his face look rounder and we gave him a fat suit to make him look dumpier. We shot a scene with Elizabeth Wilson, who plays his mother. It looked terrible. He looked like a character out of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which would be fine if he wasn’t the only one standing out with this obvious prosthetic face.
Chris really wanted the prosthetics because he likes to disappear into a character, but Scott and I watched the dailies and we knew it wasn’t going to work. We called Chris to ask him to come to Paramount so he could look at this test, right? As Chris is coming to the screening room, he passes by another room where Owen Roizman is interviewing stand-ins for Fester. We don’t know this, but Chris sees all these people and he thinks we’ve called him into the screening room to fire him. What’s amazing about Chris is that when we rolled camera, somehow he slumped down his body and made his neck disappear; he looked just like Fester. He’s fantastic.
RB: We come now to the movie’s secret weapon: Christina Ricci.
BS: She was the brightest nine-year-old I ever met. In many ways, she became the star of the movie. She was so articulate, so funny. I tell a story about doing a take with her. I sensed a little smile and after the first take, I went up to her and said, ‘Christina, just look sadder.’ She said, ‘I can’t look sadder. Sadness is an emotion, and Wednesday has no emotions.’ So, I said, ‘Okay, just be more dour.’ Years later, I gave her an award, and I said that I never knew if Christina knew what dour meant. Christina accepted the award and said, ‘Believe me, Barry, I knew what dour meant.’ That was Christina.
RB: When Mary Tyler Moore was first hired for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” no one knew how gifted she was with comedy, and once they discovered how funny she could be, they gave her more to do. Was it like that with Christina?
BS: We knew what we had, but where that played out was in Addams Family Values. We knew we could leave Gomez and Morticia and the audience wouldn’t be mad because they loved Wednesday and Pugsley, which is why we did that whole Camp Chippewa thing. And that’s why people watch Addams Family Values every Thanksgiving.
RB: We come to perhaps the film’s unsung hero: Christopher Hart.
BS: Yes, he was a great Thing. It was my idea to see if we could hire a magician, because I thought it would be funny if Thing would roll quarters and things like that, but the problem with musicians is that they move quickly and are all about sleight of hand. I tried mimes and I realized I didn’t want to spend 12 weeks working with a mime, so I went back to magicians and found Chris Hart. His scenes would be the last thing we would shoot every day. He was so patient.
RB: And it’s all physical effects, no CGI?
BS: We couldn’t afford CGI. We did a lot of cheap camera tricks like cutting a hole in a table and putting Thing’s hand coming out from underneath with Chris lying below frame.
RB: You captured Charles Addams’ world so perfectly, which cannot be said for many of the various Addams Family reboots and remakes. Was there a movie you shared with the crew that you felt best captured the tone you were looking for?
BS: My favorite movie that shares a certain style, although is much better, is Dr. Strangelove. You don’t see them being funny; they’re playing the absurdity and surrealness, and that is what’s funny. That’s Charles Addams; he trusted the audience to find the humor.