Barry Sonnenfeld on the 30th Anniversary of ‘The Addams Family’ and Turning Down ‘Forrest Gump’

·8-min read

The Addams Family,” the big-screen adaptation of Charles Addams’ comic stories of an aristocratic family with a taste for the macabre, became a box office sensation when it opened in theaters in 1991. The film, which had built-in interest thanks to the popularity of the 1960s television show that was also spawned by Addams’ cartoons, defied the odds to become one of the year’s biggest commercial hits.

A lot of things could have gone wrong or proved fatal before it got to that point. Orion, the studio that had greenlighted the picture and entrusted first-time filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld to strike the right darkly silly tone, went bankrupt, and Paramount, which bought the project from the failing studio, had its own internal power shift. Plus, the track record of turning TV properties into watchable films is spotty at best. For every “The Fugitive” or “Mission: Impossible,” there are scores of duds like “Baywatch,” “McHale’s Navy,” and “Dark Shadows.” Somehow the untested Sonnenfeld managed the impossible, aided by an unforgettable cast that included the late Raul Julia as the suave Gomez Addams, Anjelica Huston as his icy bride Morticia, and Christopher Lloyd as the dim-witted Uncle Fester. They were all studies in deadpan brilliance.

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The film launched Sonnenfeld onto the A-list. He would go onto the oversee hits like “Men in Black” and “Get Shorty.” In honor of his first film’s 30th anniversary, which Paramount is recognizing with a new 4K edition of “The Addams Family,” Sonnenfeld described the film’s tortured production, his approach to comedy, and the Oscar-winning sensation he turned down in order to make “Addams Family Values.”

Was the studio confident that “The Addams Family” would be a hit?

When I got hired to direct this movie it started at Orion Pictures, which was very director friendly and very first-time director friendly, this was the first movie I’d ever directed. Orion was going through a lot of financial struggles and half way through filming they realized we were the last remaining asset worth selling to stave off bankruptcy. Half way through our shoot we were sold to Paramount. Dede Allen, our editor, put together a ten-minute show reel and we went to various studios. Frank Mancuso Jr. bought it and then shortly after he was fired. [Paramount President] Stanley Jaffe came in and looked at the same ten minutes of footage and announced that “This movie is uncuttable and unreleasable.” The whole second half of the shoot we were working for a studio that thought we were uncuttable and unreleasable, so things got more difficult. They stopped letting us have bottled water on the set. Not for environmental reasons but to cut down on the costs of the show. It was not a well-loved project while I was making it, which made it that much harder as a first-time director.

I showed my director’s cut to executives in the Paramount Theatre and there was not a single laugh. Then I was called into the office about 20 minutes later after they had discussed everything, and everyone was there except Stanley and they were hugging me and clapping. I said, “What are you doing? I was in that screening room. There was not a single laugh.” They told me that since Stanley wasn’t laughing, they couldn’t.

Why did you cast Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia?

I felt the IP, which was Charles Addams’ drawings, was going to be our sales’ point. For awhile, Orion really wanted Cher to play Morticia. I don’t remember who they wanted for Gomez. But I felt that we really needed two really good actors. Both Gomez and Raul had a real love of life and nothing could make them sad. And Anjelica was perfect for that part. Because it was Orion they let us make those choices.

In the trivia section of IMDB it claims that Kim Basinger was eyed for Morticia and Anthony Hopkins was approached to play Fester. Is that true?

Not to my knowledge, and I was on before there was a greenlight. I will tell you that there were two other directors approached — Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam — and they’re both really good choices. But they both turned it down, so that’s how I ended up getting it. [Producer] Scott Rudin thought he wanted a visual stylist, not just a comedy director. He thought if I can’t get Tim or I can’t get Terry, I’ll get someone with a strong visual sense.

Did you draw more from the TV show or Charles Addams’ cartoons?

I was very happy as a cinematographer. I shot the first three Coen brothers movies plus “Big” and “When Harry Met Sally.” But I read the initial script, and it was too jokey and too much like a sitcom. I grew up with those cartoons in the New Yorker. I liked those better than the show. In fact, I was more of a “Munsters” kid than an “Addams Family” kid.

What attracted you to the project?

One of the things I love about this movie is how romantic it is. It’s also very pro-family. Every reviewer would write “It’s the most dysfunctional family.” Actually, no. It’s a very functional family. The parents love their children. The children love their parents. The parents leave the children alone so they can grow and learn.

How did you approach the humor?

It’s played straight. That’s the tone of everything I do. I always say if anyone knows they’re working on a comedy, your comedy is ruined. If the cameraman knows they’re working on a comedy the footage will be bright. If the wardrobe knows they’re in a comedy, the costumes will be too funny. Worst of all is if the actors know they’re in a comedy and they try to be funny. I always say, play the reality of the scene. If the scene is absurd or surreal or weird or wacky, the scene will be funny, but don’t play into the comedy. That started with “The Addams Family” but it continued on “Men in Black,” “Get Shorty,” and even in “Schmigadoon!”

How quickly did Paramount want a sequel to go into production?

“Addams Family” was a big success for Paramount, but they didn’t announce a sequel for a while. In the meantime [producer] Gary Lucchesi had sent me this book called “Forrest Gump” and he said read it and tell me we need to do it because I have eight scripts and they’re all terrible. I said, ‘”Let’s change the main character from a big fat guy that’s a really big running back to a thin guy that runs all the time and I’ll send it to Hanks because I had shot ‘Big’ with him.” I said, “You’ll probably not want to do it because it’s similar to ‘Big’ in that it’s another man-child kind of thing.” Hanks loved it. He signed on, I was signed on to direct it. And then, a year and a half later, Paramount decides to make “Addams Family Values,” so I had a choice between staying with “Forrest Gump” or going back to the very first thing I’d ever directed. I was working on [“For Love or Money”] with Michael J. Fox, and I said, “what should I do?” Michael said, “you set the table with ‘Addams Family,’ now you need to go have dinner.” I loved directing “Addams Family Values.” Christina Ricci and Christine Baranski and Peter MacNicol and Joan Cusack are particularly funny in that film.

Did you ever think about making a third ‘Addams Family’?

It was never really discussed. The second one didn’t do well financially at the box office. I think a big problem was the ad campaign. The ad campaign was so identical to the first one that I think people didn’t know what they’d be getting. We didn’t lean into the Pubert of it all, the new baby. Those were the days when sequels didn’t do as well. They usually brought in half or two-thirds of what the originals made.

Did you regret turning down ‘Forrest Gump’?

It took a long time to make my peace with that. For a long time I couldn’t see it, I just couldn’t see it. Then I was at a Christmas party at Danny DeVito’s house and [“Midnight Run” director] Marty Brest was there and Marty kept getting fired off shows before they were successful or quitting right before they were going into production. I figured Marty would know about this thing that happened. I went to him and he looked at the time like a rabbi and in a rabbinical way he said, “have you seen the movie?” I said, “no I can’t.” He said, “see the movie. Only then can the healing begin.” So I rented it. It was not the movie I would have made. Maybe mine would have been worse. Maybe it would have been better. It definitely would have been shorter. But I then felt clear of it. I was okay after that. So I owe Marty a debt of thanks.

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