More than a decade ago, Daniel Handler, better known by his nom de plume Lemony Snicket, was hard at work turning his Series of Unfortunate Events books into a movie with the help of director Barry Sonnenfeld. Until suddenly, they weren’t. The studio replaced Sonnenfeld with Brad Silberling, then hired Robert Gordon to rewrite Handler’s script. Years later, Sonnenfeld and Handler reunited to make the project once again, this time as a streaming television series for Netflix, dubbed Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which premiered its first batch of episodes on the suitably inauspicious date of Friday, the 13th of January.
Before the premiere, Vulture caught up with Handler to discuss his return to the Unfortunate Events series, learning to work with a writers’ room, and why Neil Patrick Harris’s opening number at the 2011 Tony Awards made him the perfect choice to play the sinister Count Olaf.
You were pushed aside from the Series of Unfortunate Events movie. Why come back?
Because they asked me very nicely. Netflix approached me and said, “We think episodic television might be the better way to do this and we can structure it in the following way.” That made a lot of sense to me, so that was attractive to me.
You got to come back and see it through to the end.
It’s a little like getting the old band together. Which is fine, because reading books that I wrote a while ago is like going through old yearbooks. The whole thing began with a glow of nostalgia before we had to move forward.
Were you looking through the old notes you made for the movie?
I had an enormous file, which I read with varying degrees of elation and despair. Then we put most of that aside in order to work on it again. Mr. Sonnenfeld and I have a similar sensibility, not only aesthetically, but in terms of our own work ethics and how we like to bump up against one another, so I was looking forward to that part.
Despite the lighthearted tone of the books, they tell a lot of violent and grim stories. How did you calibrate that darkness for the show?
I guess sometimes we would say, “Oh gosh, no that’s too dark.” And sometimes we would say, “Oh no, that’s too goofy.” I think the balance between the high camp possibilities and the overly grim possibilities, that’s the whole challenge — to make it neither making fun of grief nor an unending parade of despair. I would say that 90 percent of the conversations that we have between each other is working that out.
There are scenes where characters die onscreen, and you need that to be contained within the story.
In literature, it’s very easy to gloss over scenes of violence. You can describe them very abstractly. In film, you either have to show it or not show it, so that was one of the challenges. Narration can flit in and out of action in fiction really easily, sentence by sentence. It can be in the story or in the mind of the narrator. In film, it’s all so literal, so we had to think to ourselves, “When will Patrick Warburton [who plays narrator Lemony Snicket] explaining things be delightful and when will it be a hindrance?”
In your conversations with Netflix, what was the perceived audience for the show? Kids and parents? People who read the books?
I think both. We wanted to make something that satisfied people who remember every word in every volume and also people who have never heard of Lemony Snicket before. Netflix is constantly looking at who is viewing their programming and strategizing accordingly. They have in mind an extended family of people who are all watching it together where nobody is bored or having a hard time. As a parent myself, I know that I get very tired of family entertainment that is only for my child. It’s really tiresome for me and I don’t like to sneak out of the living room when the TV is playing to go mix myself a second Manhattan.
But also there’s a sort of person who likes this kind of thing, someone who understands that you can be sad and laughing at the same time, or that something can be funny and really terrifying. In my experience, that sort of sensibility is not really bound by age. People say to me all the time, “When are you old enough to read a Lemony Snicket book?” Then I’ll meet some humorless 75-year-old who’ll say these books are awful. I’ll think it’s not a matter of old enough. It’s a matter of just having the right-shaped brain. My own son, for years, would read the back of the Snicket books, which would say, “These books are really awful,” and he would say, “Wonderful, thanks for the warning,” and would put them down. Then one day he said, “Oh, it’s funny,” and he picked it up. Some people go their whole lives trapped in a literal mind-set and I don’t know if there’s anything Mr. Sonnenfeld and I could’ve done to attract them.
You just have to cut your losses and hope they heed the warning.
You have to hope there are not too many of them.
Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Count Olaf, does a great job of pretending to be a terrible actor. What were you looking for when you cast him?
Mr. Harris was my idea and my first choice, for sure. I noticed in performances of his that he manages to be arch and sincere often, nearly simultaneously. I don’t want to sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but he’s almost always the best thing to watch onscreen when he’s in something, but he’s not often the absolute lead role. I thought that was important for Count Olaf. The heroes of the story are the Baudelaires and we weren’t writing a TV show to be a vehicle for just one actor, even though obviously it’s a huge part. I hoped and sensed that he’s very interested in figuring out good ways to tell the right story, not necessarily doing as much as possible and being onscreen. Then, as you say, he’s really good at being a good actor pretending to be a bad actor, or oftentimes a good actor pretending to be a bad actor pretending to be a good actor, which is a lot.
Which projects had you seen him in? Dr. Horrible? How I Met Your Mother?
Dr. Horrible, for sure. I think the best of How I Met Your Mother. I think he’s a lot of fun in Gone Girl. Then when I saw him, I don’t know, a few years ago, perform “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore” as the opening of the Tonys. It’s such a beautiful tribute to musical theater while mocking it with some of the cheapest jokes imaginable. I thought, “This is exactly what we want to do. This would be perfect.”
The Baudelaire children deliver arch performances, too, which must be hard for a child actor to pull off.
My hat is off to them. We looked at a gazillion auditions and performances. Oftentimes, with a young actor, if they’re not looking directly at the camera that’s the best performance you can get. We’re talking about a much more layered performance here. I hope they’re not too exhausted. When I was 14, I wasn’t doing anything like this. They also auditioned a bunch of babies. I didn’t see too many of the babies, by the way.
Is it hard to transition from writing novels to writing for the screen?
The biggest challenge, frankly, in writing for the screen is the collaborative aspect of it, which I think is exciting and good for me, but an adjustment for sure. I’m used to being alone all day. We’re working on season two now. The writers’ room meets in my dining room, so day in and day out, I’m sitting with a group of writers, which is great, but I’m just really used to playing the same song five times in a row if I want to, lying on the floor, otherwise behaving the way one does when one is alone.
What was it like to assemble the writers’ room?
For the first season, it was really challenging because it wasn’t assembled by me. I had to walk into a room basically full of people I didn’t know. But I think that was necessary for everybody to find their wings. I’ve hardly ever had a real job and so this was my first real job. Days go by in my fiction-writing life where I talk to my wife and my son and maybe one person on the phone and maybe a barista or a bartender. This is talking to a bunch of people all day long.
Have you found more of a rhythm for season two?
In the same way of the books finding an audience of a certain sensibility, you also look for writers with a certain sensibility. They can be harder to spot because they’re writers.
The books and the show clearly come from a kid’s perspective. What’s interesting to you about that viewpoint?
It’s the only vision of the world that I’m able to maintain. I mean, I’m asked one version of this question or another pretty often. I think the large confounding questions of childhood never vanish in adulthood. When you’re a child, if you begin to sense that the entire world is a strange performative sham, you don’t lose that sense when you’re an adult.
How did you come up with the visual sensibility of the show? The aesthetic choices feel a little like Wes Anderson, and a little like Pushing Daisies or The Addams Family movies, which Barry Sonnenfeld directed.
Certainly those references that you mention are relevant. Mr. Sonnenfeld and then Bo Welch, who’s the production designer, did all the real nuts and bolts of how things looked. It is again that child’s perspective. The bank looks like what you picture people working at when they work at a bank. Count Olaf’s house looks like a child’s drawing of a creepy house. The logic that Justice Strauss could live across the street in a beautifully maintained adorable cottage that does not match between its interior and exterior at all makes perfect sense when you’re a child. The idea that Uncle Monty can live in the middle of nowhere with an enormous collection of reptiles because he’s a member of the herpetological society is a story logic and a visual logic that happens in childhood.
Have you thought about doing more screenwriting, or would you prefer to focus on novels?
The thing I learned from my meager experience in these collaborative media is that it really depends on who you collaborate with. So the idea of holing up and writing a screenplay all by myself doesn’t appeal to me, but the idea of working with other artists I respect and admire who seem to have something of a shared sensibility — that attracts me. But frankly, I’m speaking to you from a desk that is literally covered in drafts of scripts for season two. So the idea that I would sit here talking about what I’m going to write for television next is … [Laughs] I would have to find my pen, which is somewhere underneath all these things.
The show is the immediate thing right now, literally in front of you.
It is literally in front of me, yes.