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April 02, 2018

Fortunate Son

Celebrating children and creating worlds out of time and place keep Barry Sonnenfeld's creative juices flowing.

David M. Gutiérrez
  • Netflix
  • Netflix
  • Netflix
  • Netflix
  • Netflix

It's not that Barry Sonnenfeld distrusts adults, he's simply aware of their numerous faults.

The Emmy Award-winning master storyteller behind the Men in Black films, Pushing Daisies, and both live-action adaptations of The Tick, returns to direct and executive produce the second season of Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Based on the popular line of novels by Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), the series stars Melina Weissman and Louis Hynes as the Baudelaire twins, Violet and Klaus. Patrick Warburton plays Lemony Snicket, the show's Rod Serling-like narrator. As series antagonist Count Olaf, Neil Patrick Harris routinely dons disguises and adopts accents in deadly efforts to secure the Baudelaire fortune for himself.

Adapting the series along with Sonnenfeld is the book series' author Daniel Handler.

"What I loved about the books," explains Sonnenfeld, "is that they posit that all adults, whether they're villains or well-meaning, are equally ineffectual, and all children are capable and wonderful.

"Whether it's Pushing Daisies, which I produced and directed and was written by Bryan Fuller, or the Men in Black or The Addams Family movies, is that those worlds were kind of real and kind of made up. In the same way, I was also very attracted to these books because they would let me create a world that wasn't specific any time or place."

What did you learn from the first season that you're applying to the second? How have things changed for you?

What makes [the two seasons] similar is the set-up. Olaf continues to have great disguises. Neil Patrick Harris continues to be brilliant in each of those characters he creates.

What's different is I think we have more action over the course of the season. The [Baudelaire] kids are more active because they're a year older. They're taking more responsibility for their plight and starting to feel more conflicted about what's good and what's evil.

We learned when you have certain characters that you like, you add more scenes and episodes for them. Patrick Breen, who plays Larry the Waiter, is in more episodes. His character was designed to only be in one book, The Wide Window. But we loved him so much, we just kept adding him to more and more episodes.

The same with Mr. Poe's secretary Jacqueline, played by Sarah Canning. The second season is also probably a little darker to tell you the truth.

You've added some new cast members this season.

Between Lucy Punch, Sarah Rue, and Nathan Fillion, along with other guest stars we've got in other episodes, it's been a lot of fun to cast those [roles]. We also have Allison Williams appearing this season. She's a great addition to our cast.

How do you pitch a series with such a heightened sense of realism to your actors? Is that challenging?

People react differently. The best and easiest people that deal with that world are theatre actors. Neil Patrick Harris and K. Todd Freeman, who plays Mr. Poe, are theatre actors. They know about heightened reality to a certain extent and know how to vocalize and perform to the back row, while still keeping it real.

What I always tell actors is that the world is real, their character is real, so [they should] just play the reality of the scene and not try to be "funny" or "theatrical" or "hyper-real."

When I was trying to hire Alfre Woodard, whom I had never met, to play Aunt Josephine, she called me up said, "I read the books to my kid. I loved the books, but I don't get what world you're creating. Am I supposed to act funny or what?"

And I said, "No, just act as Aunt Josephine and act as your character would act. I'm occasionally having to tell certain actors, "Now do it without being funny, because then it will be funny."

As Uncle Olaf, Neil Patrick Harris plays a character who disguises himself at least once per episode. How do you work out how he'll approach those different personas? Does he pitch them to you?

That's all Neal. He is just extraordinary. Working with him is like a whole different world. When we had the very first table read, we read the first season over two days. So, we read two books each day, and he came in with those individual voices. He knew the exact voice he wanted for each of those characters. He creates them. He's brilliantly funny.

We work out the disguises together. I would say they're 70 percent Neal and 30 percent me, the costume designer, and Bo Welch, the production designer. Of course, they're based on Daniel Handler's characters from the books.

The show tackles some serious themes such as murder, child abandonment, and the loss of parents. How do you draw a performance out of your show leads, two younger actors (Melina Weissman and Louis Hynes), when addressing such heavy topics?

It's funny. I don't know how they do it. I talk to them the way I talk to all the other actors. I think of them as actors more than I think of them as children. I just help them remember where they are in a scene.

Most of my direction to any actor is saying, "Faster and flatter." I really don't like to see acting. If the actors talk fast enough they don't have time to act. Louis and Melina, I guess you'd call them teenagers or children, but I never feel like I'm watching kids. They're characters, and their place in this world is so dreary and so adult-like, that if you treat them like adults they'll perform like adults.

Do you have a favorite episode from season two?



I really like all of them. I love "The Ersatz Elevator" which introduces both Tony Hale and Lucy Punch. They're both hilarious and it's one of the few episodes in our show that have rich, ornate, beautiful surroundings. So often the kids are in a dreary place. I love that one. I really liked "Hostile Hospital," our homage to horror movies. It was well directed.

We shoot all these episodes entirely on a stage. In the case of the "Vile Village," we are literally in a dusty town. There was a giant crow fountain, a saloon, the town hall, and we never left the stage. What I love that about our show is that we can create this world that you don't know where it is or when it is. Is it modern or is it now? It's not period, but it's not now. I loved that we were able to pull it off.

This series and The Tick are your first shows that have been created when someone can binge watch an entire season in sitting. Has the way you've received show feedback affected how you approached the second season?

It's funny because that's one of the things about Netflix is that they keep everything they learned about their shows top secret and I have no idea what they learned or didn't learn about the first season. I love working with them and they're so supportive.

All I know is the great thing about doing these shows for a streaming service is that you don't have to write four acts. There are no commercials. You don't have to write to a set time frame. You can have an episode that's 52 minutes or an hour or 48 minutes. But I didn't learn anything from any data.

I also don't read reviews, because you'll have to give credence to all reviews, whether they're good or bad. I directed Get Shorty. When it came out, I said to my wife, "Listen to this review." It was a very good review, and she said, "You know, if you accept that good review, you have to accept all your bad reviews, too." And that was the last time I ever read a review.

What about how you approached things creatively for a streaming service? For example, for a network series, you know there is a break between shows every week for the viewer. Now you can write a 10-hour movie set over 10 hour long episodes.

Truthfully, it didn't. What it did creatively affect is things you probably wouldn't think about. You know, for decades, even though more and more people were buying plasma screens and LCD screen, the networks would still make you frame for a square television.

You brought up movies. You only think about these episodes in terms of making movies, framing and designing it as if it's a movie. Television used to be a close-up medium, and the first question when I would do anything for network television was always, "Will you have a close-up in scene 23?" I used to start every session by saying, "By the way, we have no close-ups."

That was then, and now you frame, shoot, and design as if it's a movie. Each book [we adapt for the series] is two episodes, and what we do in a quarter of the time and a tenth of the budget is make feature films out of these books. I think we've been successful because we have a great art department and designers.

After working on a show in this format, do you feel you can get rid of the idea that you are a TV producer/film producer/director, and just consider yourself a storyteller because the creative lines have blurred so much now?

Absolutely. There's no question about it. You could literally just take a projector, project these episodes, and release them as theatrical films. We wouldn't do a single thing differently. We wouldn't change the sets. We wouldn't change the actors. We wouldn't change the composer or the sound mixer.

Our sound mixer, Paul Ottoson, who has mixed every episode we've done, has won three Academy Awards. He doesn't mix the show any differently than if it was a feature film.

I think that sort of bifurcation is no longer valid at all because I literally would not have done a single thing differently. Except it probably wouldn't be as good because it wouldn't be for Netflix.

If we were at a film studio, they would say things like, "We never had a successful movie where one of the characters was black, had a mustache, and wore a bowler hat. Can he lose a mustache?" [A studio is] just going to make up these weird rules.

The great thing about Netflix is they trusted us- Bo Welsh, myself, and Daniel Handler - to create this world and run with it. So, it's actually better than if we had done it at a feature studio, and that's totally honest.


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