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Paramount Pictures brass hated 1991’s The Addams Family and made sure first-time director Barry Sonnenfeld and producer Scott Rudin were well aware of the studio’s disgust amid production. However, when the film opened at No. 1, the execs’ tune quickly changed. At least, that’s how Sonnenfeld vividly recalls it.
The brass disagrees.
The Orion Pictures production was plagued from the beginning. The comedy quickly ran over-budget and over-schedule. But those issues were peanuts compared to the shockwave dealt when then-fledgling Orion unloaded the partially completed picture onto Paramount. It was a perfect storm of disaster, recalls the director. “I fainted. I threw up. I was a nervous wreck,” Sonnenfeld says of the rocky experience.
Ultimately, the film — featuring an all-star cast that included Oscar winner Anjelica Huston, the late Raul Julia and Christopher Lloyd — opened on Nov. 22, 1991, and topped the weekend box office. A surprise hit, the movie raked in a total of $191.5 million worldwide off a $30 million budget. With a winner on its hands, Paramount did not waste much time in greenlighting a sequel, 1993’s The Addams Family Values. While enjoyed by critics, the follow-up was a box office disappointment.
Now, as The Addams Family turns 30 and arrives on 4K Nov. 9, Sonnenfeld revisits the macabre comedy classic that kicked off his successful directorial career, sharing new details about the wild behind-the-scenes struggles, reminiscing about the late, great Julia and explaining why the cast chose wisely when it made 11-year-old Christina Ricci the grievance spokesperson, among much more as The Hollywood Reporter revisits the creepy and kooky, the mysterious and spooky, The Addams Family.
I read the script. It was not very good.
Having already made a name for himself as a gifted cinematographer on such classics as Raising Arizona, Big, When Harry Met Sally … and Misery, the then-37-year-old Sonnenfeld was handpicked by savvy but controversial producer Rudin to helm The Addams Family for Orion. It was not an easy sell to Sonnenfeld.
“I read the script. It was not very good,” recalls the director, who notes the humor was more akin to the 1960s TV show than the New Yorker cartoon created in 1938 by cartoonist Charles Addams, which he grew up adoring. “I tell Scott all the reasons why the script is no good and he says, ‘That’s the reason you should direct. Because you’re right about all those issues.'” Sonnenfeld quickly adds that his ego stayed firmly grounded as Rudin wasted no time mentioning Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam had already passed on the project.
Orion was a quick yes to Sonnenfeld helming its film thanks to the studio’s trust in Rudin, and with that piece in place, casting got underway. The director and producer were in total agreement that the IP would appeal to would-be theatergoers, so performer selection needed to be clever, or as Sonnenfeld puts it: “We wanted the best actors — not the most famous actors.”
Having secured Huston as Morticia, Lloyd as Uncle Fester, and youth star-in-the-making Christina Ricci as Wednesday, Sonnenfeld and Rudin moved to lock down their Addams patriarch, Gomez. There was only one actor the duo wanted for the role: renowned Broadway and film star Raul Julia. They succeeded in getting their man.
He was an amazing man.
“He was born to play Gomez,” Sonnenfeld says of Julia. “The character loves life, loves death, loves pain, loves joy, loves his family. The great thing about Raul as Gomez, you can see the joy whether he is happy or angry or sad, he is still joyfully full of life.”
Sadly, Julia, who suffered stomach cancer, would pass away from complications of a stroke in October 1994. He was 54. But the beloved actor lives on in his many works and through fantastic stories shared by those who knew him, a couple of which Sonnenfeld gifts fans for this feature.
“I remember having dinner with him one night and I said, ‘You’re so smart. You know everything about acting and blocking. Would you ever consider directing?’ He looked at me, totally wounded, and said, ‘Why would I ever want to direct? I’m an actor!’ And he held up his hands in total perfection of being an actor,” Sonnenfeld remembers. “I never worked with anyone who is so full of life, so full of joy, on the set, off the set. He was an amazing man.”
Julia also loved to spin tall tales, waiting to see how long it would take the listener to catch on. “One day we couldn’t shoot because the white of his eye was totally red, and I asked what happened. He said, ‘Here’s the weirdest thing: I was at the hotel bar last night and next to me was Christopher Walken. And I love him! We were talking, and I got so excited, my eyeball popped out of the socket and landed on the bar table! So I picked it up off the bar table and I put it back, but I must have scratched it!’ To this day, I don’t know what happened,” Sonnenfeld says.
Paramount hated the movie because Stanley told them to hate it.
The tremendous amount of joy Sonnenfeld found in his cast and crew was equal to the sickening pressure he felt from the studio. “Shooting was a nightmare — but anytime it is not a nightmare, you should worry about the success of your movie,” he says. Already in a tough spot as a first-time director on a studio picture with budget and schedule issues, Sonnenfeld says his problems were all compounded when Paramount purchased the project from Orion.
“[Paramount head] Frank Mancuso Sr. bought [Addams Family] on a Friday morning, and that Friday afternoon, he was fired. And then Stanley Jaffe came in … looked at the same footage and said, ‘This movie is uncuttable and non-releasable.’ But it was too late. The contract was signed. Paramount hated the movie because Stanley told them to hate it.” (Jaffe could not be reached for comment.)
William Horberg, the then-Paramount creative executive assigned to Addams Family, pushes back on the “hate” claim, confirming there was a change at the top amid the picture’s acquisition, although he could not recall the exact timing. He also noted Jaffe did have concerns about the film, but the level of animosity, as Sonnenfeld recalled it, was overblown.
“Stanley questioned what he saw,” Horberg explains. “It’s hard to watch dailies that the studio had absolutely nothing to do with, no context of what they represent or what else there is or what the tone of the movie is. So he was questioning, ‘Is there enough coverage here? Is this going to cut together? I don’t really get this.’ Jaffe’s initial reaction to the movie was not positive, but he didn’t turn around and tell us what to think or what to feel. So, I don’t think it is entirely true the executives underneath hated it. And it is not true that everyone was against it until it came out. They did a great job marketing it, so I don’t think the company was looking to dump the movie at all.”
When asked for his recollection of that time and possible friction, Gary Lucchesi, then-Paramount president of production, says he was a fan of the director and his work on The Addams Family. “I thought so highly of him that I offered him Forrest Gump to direct — I had recently purchased the rights from Warner Bros. — which was a pretty big deal at that time.”
He is who he is.
In addition to Sonnenfeld’s feelings of resentment from the studio top, the director acknowledges he had clashes with Rudin. Dubbing him “the best producer,” Sonnenfeld says, “He can be a lovely, concerned, giving person. He can also be a bully and a pathological liar. He is who he is.”
Rudin had a hard fall from grace earlier this year after a THR investigation detailed decades of allegations of severe abuse and bullying. Shortly thereafter, he announced he would “step back” from his multiple projects.
Sonnenfeld says of his own experience with Rudin on Addams Family, “I am not making light of anything or the people who have been injured by him. He would yell at me. But so what? I would get over it because Scott is the best. Yes, he’s a liar — but you know when he’s lying. In preproduction, he would scream at me with [writer Paul] Rudnick in the room, but I knew how to out-juvenile him. I would take all the cushions off of his couch. I would build a fort. I would climb into the cushions and I would say, ‘I can’t hear you. I’m in the fort.’ And Scott, because he’s as juvenile as I am, would never, ever break the sanctity of the fort. He would bend over and scream, ‘Get out of the fort! Barry, I’m not kidding! I have other meetings!’ It was hard. It wasn’t pleasant. But it’s Scott’s MO, and I knew that going in.” (Rudin could not be reached for comment.)
She was the most articulate and intellectually gifted of any castmember.
Naturally, the cast had its own batch of concerns while the sausage was being made. And the ensemble chose the most unlikely leader to vocalize issues to Sonnenfeld and Rudin. “Whenever the cast had a problem they would go to Christina Ricci because she was the most articulate and intellectually gifted of any castmember,” the director says, laughing.
Ricci, who would go on to be a Golden Globe-nominated star, had to test her mettle almost immediately when, at the table read, the cast agreed the ending was awful. As originally scripted, Lloyd’s Fester was not the actual Fester, but the family adopted him as such by the end.
“The cast all gathered in a circle and told all the reasons to Christina why they thought it was a bad idea. She went on for 10 minutes, explaining why it had to be the real Fester,” says Sonnenfeld. “I said, ‘Give us a minute.’ Scott, Rudnick and I went into a corner. I said, ‘I think she’s kind of right.’ And Rudnick and Rudin agreed. I asked Chris [Lloyd], ‘Do you care if he is the real Fester or fake Fester?’ He said, ‘Meh. I don’t care.’ So we rewrote the ending based on the cast disagreement.”
I should have enjoyed it much more.
On its opening weekend, The Addams Family hauled in an impressive $24 million, double its already healthy projection. “There had been months and months of flops,” Sonnenfeld recalls. “And everyone thought Addams Family would do really well and open to $12 million, which in 1991 was a really big opening.”
In addition to the fantastic final product, Sonnenfeld gives a lot of credit to Barry London, the Paramount head of distribution, and Arthur Cohen, who was the head of marketing. In fact, Sonnenfeld doled out credit and kudos to everyone involved — except himself, he admits.
“I should have enjoyed it much more,” he laments. “I remember getting calls from famous people all weekend, mainly about the box office. I remember getting a call from Jeffrey Katzenberg who told me how great the movie was. And I kept saying, ‘Well, it’s not my movie. It’s Paramount’s movie and they did a great job of marketing it and distributing it.’ Then Rudin called me Sunday night and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said Paramount did a great job ….’ And Scott interrupted me and said, ‘Barry, if you can’t be happy this weekend, your mother won.'”
Continues Sonnenfeld, “A good, cultural Jew will never allow themselves to be happy or admit that things are working out well because they fear that God will overhear them and prove you wrong. I was really happy. But again, I loved the movie and the actors, so if it hadn’t done as well, that wouldn’t mean that the movie wasn’t just as good.”
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