“I’ve always wanted to do these shows,” Barry Sonnenfeld said about his work on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. “Sometimes a remake of something can be better than the original.” The original, in this case, wasn’t the Lemony Snicket book series, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Handler, but the 2004 film adaptation of those books, which Sonnenfeld was set to direct before he was fired him from the project. Years later, Sonnenfeld, whose filmmaking career spans Men in Black, The Addams Family, and Pushing Daisies, still found himself wanting another crack at the Snicket story. After Netflix bought the rights to the books, he finally got his chance. Vulture caught up with Sonnenfeld to talk about why he’s glad he got fired from the Unfortunate Events movie, how he went about casting the TV series, and why comparisons to Tim Burton and Wes Anderson miss the mark.
You worked with Daniel Handler on the original Series of Unfortunate Events movie, then you both left the project. Why come back now?
I’m going to be long-winded about this. I read the books to my child until she became uninterested and then I read them for myself as they continued to progress. I loved them incredibly, because, basically, the books posit that all children are capable and wonderful and all adults, whether they mean well or are villains, are ineffectual and kind of horrible. That’s kind of the way I felt about my parents.
I remember when I was the director on the movie. I was pretty far along. I had worked with the production, designer and design staff, and shot-listed sequences. Daniel and I and Scott Rudin were working on the script together. Then at some point, Scott left. He’s a powerful producer. Without him, it became problematic and I remember the head of Paramount, Sherry Lansing, saying to me that she needed a partner [to produce the project] because dark comedies never work. She said, “I’ve never made a penny on a dark comedy.” I said, “Actually, Sherry, you made money on two black comedies and I directed both of them. Addams Family and Addams Family Values.” She said, “Oh, they don’t count. Honey, they don’t count.” I was close to getting Sony to put up half the money and that fell through, and I said, “Go to anyone but DreamWorks. If you go to DreamWorks, the head of DreamWorks over there, Walter Parkes, will fire me the next day because he was the producer on the Men in Black movies and we didn’t get along.” She went to DreamWorks and the next day I was fired.
Years went by and a friend of mine, a manager named Jimmy Miller, called me and said, “You know, Netflix just bought the books. You should try to get involved.” I wanted to because I loved the books so much and I loved the material. I felt I was the right guy to direct the material. For the longest time, Netflix didn’t really want to meet with me because I had an executive producer credit on the movie and they didn’t want to have anything to do with the original movie. Eventually I got a meeting, and made them understand that I was not involved in the movie in the end. Daniel was very helpful in convincing Netflix to hire me too, I believe.
You also get to tell the story in a different format on Netflix. You can spend more time with each of the incidents along the way.
I had two thoughts going into the meeting with Netflix. One was that each book could probably be a couple of episodes, which is what we did. The other thing I felt very strongly about was that Lemony Snicket should be an onscreen presence. In the movie, he narrates it and you see him at a typewriter. I felt that we could do much more visually and emotionally with that character.
Did you know that you wanted Patrick Warburton to play Snicket?
I always knew I wanted Warburton. Daniel is a huge fan of Patrick as well. Patrick and I have worked together many times. He was in Men in Black II, he was the lead in The Tick, which I executive produced and directed the pilot of. He was also Puddy in Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld is a friend of mine and we talk about Warburton and we always say, “You can read the script and go, ‘Oh Jesus, look at this terrible line that Warburton has to say,’ and somehow he says it and it’s the most brilliant thing ever written.” Luckily, in the case of our script, that wasn’t a problem, but boy, he has a lot of words to say and a lot of them are verging on non sequiturs. He’s like Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone. There’s certain people, whenever you do a project, you say, “Is there a part for Warburton?”
By the way, I don’t know if Daniel has expressed this — and this sounds like every awards show you’ve ever seen — but boy, there’s no studio like Netflix. It’s truly a magical place.
How so? Do you get more freedom than a traditional studio?
I think their philosophy is hire the right person for the job and then let them do the job. Netflix gave me notes when I finished each episode and they would say, “Well, here are our notes. You can take them or leave them.” And I said, “What do you mean? It’s your money.” They said, “Yeah, but it’s your show.”
Daniel told me that he really wanted Neil Patrick Harris to play Count Olaf. What were you looking for in his performance?
What’s great about Neil and what’s great about K. Todd Freeman, who plays Mr. Poe, is that there’s a wonderful reality and theatricality to their performances. Neil can be very big, very stylized, very funny, very mean. He’s sort of like a chemist or a scientist or physicist. He knows the words, he comes in, he has a plan, and he knows it’s 18 percent this and 42 percent that. It’s all worked out ahead of time. The notes I would give him were very minimal, never because I disagreed with what he was doing, but only so I would have choices in the cutting room.
A lot of the casting seems to lie in finding people who get the tone of the books intuitively.
When I spoke to Alfre Woodard, who’s in “Wide Window,” she said, “I don’t get the world. What’s the world?” I said, “The world is stylized, but as an actor, just play the reality of the scene. The scene might be absurd, but you’re not absurd.” By hiring people like Alfre and Warburton and Neil Patrick Harris and K. Todd Freeman, it’s almost directing by casting. By casting Neil, you are 80 percent done with directing. By casting K. Todd, you’re 80 percent done.
You worked with Malina Weissman on Nine Lives. How do you decide on her and Louis Hynes to play Violet and Klaus?
During Nine Lives, I already knew Malina was who I wanted. I started to encourage her to read the books even while we were filming Nine Lives. Louis was very, very late in the process. He flew in from London on our last day of callbacks. In this case, a woman named Ronna Kress, who’s the casting director, looked at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of auditions, many done by her, many sent in from Australia, England, New Orleans. Finally, on the last day we were casting, we brought in various people who had auditioned for me before or who had auditioned on tape several times. Louis flew in from England. It’s doubly hard for him because he’s British with a British accent.
I had no idea he was doing an accent.
We got very lucky with both of them. We also took a chance with Presley Smith, who plays Sunny. Normally, you’d shoot with twins in those situations, but Presley was so adorable, more so than the other twins we looked at, that we decided we’d take a chance and go with a singular baby.
Was that hard to shoot around? I imagine you don’t get a ton of time with the baby.
There’s a lot of rules about how often the baby can be on the set. It’s very risky to go with a single baby, but it was the right choice because she’s adorable.
The series feels a little bit like projects you worked on like Addams Family or Pushing Daisies, and a little Wes Anderson–like. Did you have any specific references in mind while you were shooting?
To tell you the truth, every time I read that A Series of Unfortunate Events looks like Wes Anderson and Tim Burton got together and did a show, I keep thinking, “I don’t know … looks like I did a show.” To me, it looks like what I’ve done, whether it’s Raising Arizona or Pushing Daisies or The Addams Family. I have a very specific visual style. We also hired one of the great production designers in the world, Bo Welch, who I did the three Men in Black with and the The Tick and Wild, Wild West. Bo loves to stylize as much as I do. We had a brilliant cinematographer and the only nice person to ever come from Montreal. He has a perfect name for a cinematographer, which is Bernard Couture.
I would say Raising Arizona is as much the influence as anything else. When I started as a cinematographer with the Coen Brothers on Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, I always felt like the camera was another character on the show. The lenses and camera and camera movement can be funny or emotional or scary or banal. I think that a lot of directors don’t necessarily use the camera as a character so much as a recording device.
What were the specific challenges in adapting from the book to the screen?
One, how do you show the violence? And two, in the book, the kids can sort of stand around and not grab his beard and say, “Schmuck! That’s Count Olaf!” But visually, if you see them in the same frame and they’re standing there, they’re passive. One of the things that Netflix and I and Daniel worked very hard on was to make the kids more active than they were in the books so that you didn’t get frustrated with them. The violence thing was really interesting, because there’s this scene where Olaf slaps Klaus at the dinner table. I wanted that to be quite violent, and surprisingly so. Not in a bloody way or a gory way, but because up until then, Olaf is such a buffoon. I think you have to make the audience understand he’s also an actual, real threat, because if there’s no threat then he’s just a comedy character and that doesn’t work.
The show also brings in the parents, played by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders, more often than the books do. Was there any hesitation to change the story structure?
That was very much a Daniel creation. Netflix and I felt strongly that we needed some additional subplots and additional intrigue and mystery. I love that all the book readers are going to be furious and wondering, “What have we done?” I love that because it was Daniel’s idea and Daniel’s execution on the page, no one can say, “Daniel Handler would never have let this happen.” I think also that Will Arnett, who I’ve worked with many times before on RV and on Men in Black III, and Cobie, who I’ve never worked with before but was Neil Patrick Harris’s suggestion, are so perfect tonally. Again, it’s directing through casting. They’re suave and cool and mysterious. We’re trying to do more of that in the second season, which we haven’t been picked up for, but Netflix has paid for the scripts to be written in case it is picked up. So we’re going to do more of that intrigue as well.
Do you think the movie could have been made the right way if Netflix didn’t come along?
Yes, to be honest with you, yes. No one’s as good as Netflix, but I think it could’ve been made as a movie. If it had been successful, we’d be on movie number five now. I felt, tonally, it’s not what I would’ve wanted to do. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad movie, it’s just tonally not what I would have done with it. By the way, I don’t think I ever would have succeeded at that studio at that time, so I’m glad I got fired.
This interview has been edited and condensed.