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'Addams Family' director Barry Sonnenfeld reveals why MC Hammer is on the film's soundtrack
Way back in 1991, when MC Hammer was still “2 Legit 2 Quit,” Barry Sonnenfeld was making the transition from A-list cinematographer (particularly for the Cohen brothers) to A-list director — beginning with the November release of The Addams Family, a creepy and kooky sendup of the original Charles Addams New Yorker cartoons from 1938, which were later adapted into a popular '60s TV series on ABC.
Sonnenfeld’s hit film, which is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary with a brand new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray (which he remastered himself, now with “more Mamushka!”), features Raul Julia as Gomez and Anjelica Huston as Morticia, the beating (and lusting) hearts of the macabre titular family. The movie also stars a scene-stealing Christina Ricci as Wednesday, Jimmy Workman as her poor brother Pugsley, and the normally tall and thin Christopher Lloyd as a convincingly short and squat Uncle Fester (without the use of prosthetics).
While the film would see its fair share of troubles, including original studio Orion Pictures being replaced mid-shooting by Paramount, it turned out to be a blockbuster hit. It proved to be the perfect movie to kick off the director's stellar genre career, which led to him helming the 1993 sequel, Addams Family Values, as well as the entire Men in Black trilogy.
In celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary, Sonnenfeld spoke with SYFY WIRE about the reported “troubles” on The Addams Family, why it was the perfect movie to kick off his directing career (even though he was more of a Munsters TV show guy), and how he baited MC Hammer with a 1962 Lincoln Continental in order to get one of the biggest singers on the planet at the time to craft the "Addams Groove" for the film.
This was your first directing gig, why was this the right movie to kick off your illustrious directing career?
Mainly because I grew up reading the Charles Addams drawings in the New Yorker magazine, so I was a huge fan of his drawings, much more so than the television show; I was more of a Munsters fan than an Addams Family fan on television.
If there was ever going to be a time that I was going to direct… the fact that it was something that was A) worldbuilding and world creating, and second of all that it was kind of quirky, and a little bit dark, a little bit subversive… but mainly I was just a huge, huge Charles Addams fan. So it was perfect for me.
What was that trick in getting that balance between subversive and dark and family-friendly? How did you strike that?
It’s just what I do. Tonally, whether it’s Pushing Daisies, or the Men in Black movies, or Addams Family, or A Series of Unfortunate Events, I like a certain amount of darkness, and a certain amount of lightness. I’m not a director who likes really big action scenes or gunfire… you know, so a lot of the sort of slightly darker stuff in The Addams Family, like the opening scene where the Addams Family dumps the cauldron of boiling oil on this group of overly saccharine carolers, or Wednesday electrocuting Pugsley, it all happens off-camera. You don’t see the punchline to those jokes, you don’t see the carolers getting dumped with the hot oil, you don’t see Pugsley’s hair catching on fire or anything like that.
That’s just who I am, and for me, directing is all about tone, and it’s the only job a director has: maintaining consistency of tone. I don’t know, everyone has a different point of view and looks at the world a little differently, and that’s my style, I guess.
Do you think the Charles Addams cartoons helped you develop that style?
Yeah, I really do. Because I loved those cartoons so much. And they were off center, quirky, sometimes dark, always very visual, always had different layers of information within the frame. So yeah, I think I learned a lot from those drawings.
What was something you weren’t warned about by the directors you had worked with previously as a cinematographer?
I kind of knew it would be tough, I just didn’t realize how tough it is, that everyone is looking to you for answers for everything. And what happens, and it happens to this day, not only as a first time director, but now as a... whatever I’m doing: Around Thursday lunch, you’ve run out of answers. Every week you start out being able to give 3,000 answers to questions and you use up those 3,000 — I’m making this up — around Thursday at lunch. So the second half of Thursday and Friday, you’re running on fumes. You know, I’d get home every night, and my wife would say, “What do you want for dinner?” And I’d say, “Don’t make me answer another question, just put something in front of me.” So I think what they didn’t warn me about is just how many questions you have to answer and how every question needs an answer.
You mentioned that your only job was to make sure that the tone was right, but it sounds like there’s a lot more involved.
Well, every decision you make goes back to tone. Should she be in a dress or a pantsuit? Should the explosion be this big or that big? Should the rain be this heavy or that heavy? They seem like disparate questions, but they all get back, ultimately, to tone.
I love my job, and Addams Family was my first movie as a director, but it was very consistent in tone, and very specific. And very visual, and that’s very unusual for a comedy to be so visual.
Wikipedia says the film is noted for its ‘troubled’ production. Did you find it troubling?
I don’t know that I’ve worked on a movie that wasn’t a troubled production, and that doesn’t make for a good movie or a bad movie. All the Men in Black’s were troubled productions. Addams Family was trouble only because Orion [Pictures] was going bankrupt; they sold the film halfway through it to someone at Paramount, that person later that same day was fired for other reasons. And the person that replaced them didn’t like our movie and we were still only halfway done shooting. So that was a problem because you’re working for a studio who didn’t like your movie.
Once we finished it and Barry London and Arthur Cohen, who were the marketing and distribution guys [at Paramount], saw the movie… they loved it. And they did a fantastic job distributing it, the ad campaign was great. They were the ones who said, “We’ll give you more money if you can get us MC Hammer to write a song for us.” So Paramount was a great partner once we finished the film, but while we were making it, it was difficult… and I was a first-time director.
So you had a hand in getting MC Hammer to work on “Addams Groove”?
At the time, I knew he was a car collector, so I parked my 1962 Lincoln Continental in front of the entrance where we were meeting MC Hammer. And when the meeting was over, I walked him to the elevator downstairs, and I said, “How many cars do you have?” He said, “Eleven.” And I said, “I think it’s gonna be 12.” And he said, “Wait, that’s not your Lincoln, is it?” And I said, “Yeah.” And I sold him my Lincoln in the elevator. And the next day he came and paid cash for it.
You don’t just give that away for a song on your movie?
[Laughs.] Uh, no. I guess I could have made Paramount pay for it, but… no.
Which of the performances really stand out to you?
Chris Lloyd did an amazing job. Bbetween the time we would slate and say ‘roll camera,’ and be ready to shoot, which was four seconds, he’d come out and lose two feet of height and gain 50 pounds of body weight and his face went from narrow and thin to round just instantly. I don’t know how he did it, I guess he scrunched his head into his shoulders, but Chris did an amazing job playing Fester, cause he doesn’t look anything like that. And there were no prosthetics, we tried prosthetics and they didn’t work, so in pre-production we gave up on that idea. But Fester's whole visual characterization based on the Charles Addams cartoons is short and dumpy and round, and that’s not Chris at all. So that was an amazing transformation, that he did purely through acting.
But they were all pretty much dialed in. Raul Julia was perfection as Gomez, Christina was extraordinary as Wednesday; those were the big standouts for me. Anjelica was perfect as Morticia. So it was almost directing via casting; there was very little I had to do with those guys.
The Addams Family haunts again on Digital 4K Ultra HD on Oct. 19, and will be available as a remastered Blu-ray on Nov. 9.