Barry Sonnenfeld Got His Start in Porn (and Other Memoir Revelations)

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
Barry Sonnenfeld, Scott Rudin, Jimmy Workman and Christina Ricci on the set of 1991’s 'The Addams Family.'

The director traces his rise from nebbish teen and recalls life on every sort of film set in 'Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker.'

In his new memoir, Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker, the cinematographer turned director (The Addams Family, Men in Black) traces his rise from nebbish teen (the title refers to when his mother had him paged during a concert) to the heights of Hollywood.

The book covers his early days shooting XXX movies (he learned “maximum effiiency”) and working with Scott Rudin (“Read [the script] in the next two hours,” the producer once ordered him) and Penny Marshall.

The Telluride-based director, 66, finds home isolation easy: “I don’t do much. I don’t ski or hike. I walk the dog and read.”

What follows is a telephone conversation with Sonnenfeld which occurred on March 13. 

First of all you live in Telluride. What’s up in Telluride?

Well, for 30 years, Sweetie, my wife and I, lived in the Hamptons in various houses over the 30 years and we always used to tell our friends instead of renting houses for Memorial Day to Labor Day, rent them the other 9 months of the year when there aren’t way too many angry Manhattanites in the Hamptons. So that’s the background to the story I’m about to tell you.

The Hamptons are great. We lived there for 30 years, but it was always horrible in the summer because of traffic and just overcrowding. Sweetie and I, two weeks in a row, about 22 years ago, were at dinner parties. The first one was at Brian Grazer’s and the second weekend was at [production designer] Bo Welch's house. And Larry and Meg Kasdan were both dinner guests, and both weekends Sweetie and I were particularly obnoxious. Which is not surprising for me — but Sweetie’s usually very lovely. But she got into a heated discussion with Nancy Short, Marty Short’s wife, about the pope the second weekend at Bo and [his wife] Katherine’s house.

The previous weekend I got into a heated discussion, I think, with Gigi Grazer about something, but anyway, at the end of these two dinner parties, two weeks later, Larry and Meg Kasdan and Sweetie and I were walking to the parking lot at the same time and Larry and Meg invited us to have dinner at their house the following weekend.

We were there filming some movie. That’s why we were in L.A. And that next weekend we came to Larry and Meg’s house. We brought a lovely bottle of champagne, and I said, "Don’t worry. We’ll be on our best behavior," and Larry said, "We weren’t sure you would be so we invited no one else to dinner." Which was pretty funny. In any case, we became friends. A few months later they came and visited us in East Hampton and then they invited us to visit them in Telluride, Colorado.

Actually, I know we were in L.A. because we were in preproduction and production on Wild, Wild West. So because I was directing for Warner Bros., Warner Bros. gave us the Warner Bros. jet and we flew to Telluride with Larry and Meg and James Newton-Howard, the composer, and James' wife at the time. And we all spent the weekend in Telluride.

On the last day, James said he wanted to buy a house in Telluride. Meg said that there was a house just beyond their house on the same road and someone called the real estate agent and we looked at this house for James and Sophie. And James said, "It’s not really what we’re looking for." And I said. "OK, we’ll take it." It was like buying a copy of Us Magazine when you were checking out of Ralphs because Jennifer Aniston was on the cover or something like that.

So we bought this house, and to get from East Hampton to Telluride is a schlep, but we started to spend summers here because, as I said, the Hamptons were just no fun in the summers. And then about six or seven years ago we decided we didn’t need two homes, so we moved out to Telluride year-round.

Here’s our thinking: As you know, I’m in the film business. You’re never going to work where you live. If you live in L.A. you’re going to work in New York; if you live in New York they’ll want you to do a show in Atlanta; if you live in Atlanta you’ll do a show in Toronto. So our thinking is, live in the most beautiful place on the planet and then when you have to work you’ll go somewhere. We spent three years working on a show in Vancouver and loved every second of it. So that’s why we’re in Telluride. It’s beautiful and I don’t do much. I don’t ski. I don’t hike. I walk the dog and I read. And, as it turns out, I write a memoir.

It must be a good place to be right now during the pandemic, remote and sparsely populated.

It would be, except that the last 12 days we were in New York on the book tour and then Monday we’re driving to L.A. for a series of podcasts and stuff. But yes, if I wasn’t previously in New York and about to be in L.A. then there’s nothing better than or more isolated than being in Telluride. I think the town of Telluride has a population of like 2,000 or 2,500 year-round residents.

You sound pretty relaxed. How are you adjusting to this craziness? 

I’m really nervous because I think that it’s going to get very, very out of hand very quickly and we don’t have the sort of leader to help us navigate. I’m nervous — but I’m on the phone with you so what could be better?

What was the impetus to write your memoirs?

Two things happened. My neighbor here in Telluride, the house between the Kasdans' house and our house is owned by Jerry Seinfeld. The Seinfelds come out during the holidays, and over the years, Jerry’s heard my stories about how hard it is to work in Hollywood and how there’s all this input from producers and studios and various other entities. One day a bunch of years ago Jerry came up to our house — I think it was Christmas day — and said, "You know, you should really do stand-up." He said, "You’re totally on your own, you write your own material, no one can tell you to change this or change that. You go out on stage and you totally succeed or fail based on your own work without any interference from anyone else."

And I said, "Aren’t I, like, way too old to start my career in standup?"

And he said, "Oh yeah, you’re way too old. You won’t make any money doing it but you might have fun. "

I said, "OK, thanks Jerry."

What I took away from that is how much fun it might be to do something without, maybe call it interference, maybe call it help, from other entities within your creative endeavor. Then a couple years ago David Granger, who is the editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine, called me up to have lunch. For 10 years I had a column in Esquire. It was called "The Digital Man," and every month I would write reviews of cellphones, point-and-shoot cameras, GPS navigation systems. In fact, I used to be in the bathtub and my phone would ring and it would be, "Please hold for Jeffrey Katzenberg," and I'd go, "Wow this is exciting," and then I get on the phone with him and he’d say, "You know — I want to buy a camera for my assistant. What should I get her?"

So anyway I had this column for many year and then I stopped doing it because at some point you just don’t want to write a review of another cellphone. And David Granger left Esquire and we went to lunch and he said, "Do you have book in you?" Years earlier I had written, just for myself, for my own edification, I had written this one chapter about the nine feature-length pornos I was a cinematographer on in nine days when I just got out of film school.

And so I said, "You know, I wrote this one chapter years ago just for fun, why don’t you read it?" I gave him the chapter and he said, write me two more chapters and we can sell this. So I wrote the title chapter, which is “Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother,” about how I was paged by my mother at Madison Square Garden at 2:20 in the morning during an Earth Day concert with 19,600 people listening. And I wrote a chapter called “Fear of Flying," which was about both my first experience on an airplane — where my mother convinced the pilots they had to drop the oxygen masks because she was having an angina attack — and it also included my plane crash in February of 1999 at Van Nuys airport where we totaled the Gulf Steam Jet.

So we went out with those three chapters and six book publishers in New York all wanted to publish the book. So that’s what happened. I sort of accidentally wrote this book, but I loved every day of doing it. I could sit down at the computer and write 35 or 40 pages in a day. In fact my first draft was 80 percent longer than what we published. In the same way I don’t think any movie should be longer than 90 minutes, I feel the same way about my book — and I cut out eight chapters from the final book.

There might be a sequel.

If this sells well enough, believe me, I’m a third of way there already.

What did the porn industry teach you that you could apply to mainstream filmmaking?

It taught me that you should never release a movie with Smell-O-Vision because if anyone ever smelled a porn it would destroy the entire porn industry.

You know what, I had gone to NYU graduate film school and because there was no video back then, and because every roll of 16mm film — 400 feet got you 11 minutes of filming — was so expensive, between the cost of the raw stock, developing, coding the soundtrack and the picture track to edit it. So at film school you really learned how to pre-visualize your movie. We would never shoot full masters. If we had a three-page scene we’d shoot the beginning of the scene where everyone walks in and then you’d say, "OK guys, now go to where you say, 'Wait you killed my mother,' and we’ll just do the last bit there." Because you knew you would never cut back to the master at any other time. So what film school taught me was how to edit movies before you ever shot them for maximum efficiency.

If I ran a film school in 2020 I would say, "Here’s your SD card and you’ve got 30 minutes of shooting on this SD card and you have to shoot your whole movie and all angles and everything within that amount of space" because now with video you can shoot endless masters. You can shoot what Gordon Willis used to call "shotgun coverage" — instead of really pre-visualizing what you wanted your film to look like.

Which is why I loved working with the Coen brothers so much at the beginning of my career. Joel also went to undergraduate NYU film school. I was in the graduate school; we didn’t know each other. But we both had the same philosophy that movies are made in preproduction and postproduction and the only thing that actual shooting does is make all your joys and hopes and dreams sort of shatter when you needed a sunset and it was an overcast day or you only had that location for one day but the fire alarms went off and now you’ve lost four hours or whatever.

I actually taught the porn guys something which was, all the sets were built in a loft on 17th Street and Fifth Avenue, and I convinced the producer-director to shoot out all the sets so that once we lit, let’s say the bedroom, we would shoot scene three from movie one, scene five from movie two, scene nine from movie seven, so that we shot out our sets. Basically, I brought block shooting to the porn industry.

How did you start as a cinematographer as opposed to just directing out of the gate?

The reason I got the porn job and took the job is during film school I realized that I had the ability to be a cinematographer or to shoot movies and that I was one of the sought-after DPs at film school. The other one, who lived in my building, was Bill Pope, who went on to shoot all the Matrix movies and the first several Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. He shot Men in Black III. I felt that when I got out of film school, if I bought a used 16mm camera I could call myself a cameraman without feeling like a dilettante. So I bought this used 16mm camera with this other guy at film school, and he knew Dick, the producer of these pornos, and we were able to rent out our camera for nine days to shoot these films, which paid for about 60 percent of our entire cost of buying the camera. So it was worth it in the end.

How did you land Blood Simple?

What happened was I was at a Christmas party in New York City. I knew this Hillary Nay, and Joel knew her as well. There seemed to be two Jews at the party, me and Joel Coen. And so we started to talk, and Joel and I started to talk about the movie by Wim Wenders called The American Friend and how beautifully Robby Mueller had shot it, and Joel explained that he and his brother Ethan were going to shoot a trailer for their script Blood Simple and use that trailer to get at dentists investing groups and doctors investing groups, and Joel had a list of the richest Hadassah women in Minneapolis.

So they were going to show this trailer to these investing people because Joel and Ethan couldn’t just show them the script and the people would say, "Oh, I’ve never read script before but this seems good. And even though you’ve never directed anything before you seem like a nice boy." So that wasn’t going to work, but by shooting a trailer, A., everyone can look at a trailer and say, "Well that looks great. I’d go see that," and B., it showed that Joel knew how to direct a trailer.

So Joel said they were going to shoot this trailer as if it were a finished movie and use that as an investment tool and I said, "I own a 16mm camera," and Joel said, "You’re hired to shoot the trailer." So I shot the trailer. It looked great. We didn’t have any actors. We had bodies but not actors. We shot on people’s backs and shoes and had gun inserts and bullet holes and stuff like that. Cars on a dotted yellow line, that kind of stuff. It took us a year but we raised the 750 grand to make Blood Simple, and the first day of shooting Blood Simple is the first day that Joel, Ethan or I had ever been on a movie set.

I love your two Addams Family movies. Like, really love them. I was disappointed the new one was animated and not another of yours.

It would have been a problem because Raul Julia died. With those, I had been a successful cameraman, you know, I shot the first three Coen movies [as well as] Throw Momma From the Train, Big, When Harry Met Sally, and I was near the end of shooting Misery when I was in L.A. with my wife when Scott Rudin sent me the script for The Addams Family and said, "You should be a director and you should direct this."

I was very happy as a cameraman. I read the script, which wasn’t very good, but I had always loved the Charles Addams cartoons. I met Scott and I said, "Why me?" And he said, "Well I went to Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton and they both passed. So then I thought, rather than hire some comedy director, I’d rather hire someone with a very strong visual comedy sense." It's very hard to find a director who also has a visual style in comedy. Most comedies are shot multiple cameras and more and more there’s ad-libs and improv and it’s just not my thing. Rudin convinced [production company] Orion that they should hire me to direct it. I had Dede Allen as the editor, one of the greats. I had Owen Roizman as the cinematographer. And so the first movie I ever directed was Addams Family and we brought Paul Rudnick in to do an uncredited rewrite. And he did a fantastic job and made it much more like the cartoons which is, you know, the Charles Addams drawings, because that what I wanted. For me it wasn’t about the television show, it was about the original Charles Addams cartoons.

I love Morticia's lighting. 

When I was offered the chance to direct Addams Family I very specifically went after a cameraman who was so good I would never have to talk to him about lighting, so that I’d be pushed away from the camera and be forced to deal with actors. But I had lunch with Owen and I asked him if he would agree to a couple of things. One was, I asked him if he would agree to letting me design all the shots — because, again, from film school on I always had a very specific lens selection; I liked very wide lenses — and where to put the camera, and Owen was fine with me designing the shots. He would just deal with the lighting.

And then the other thing I said to Owen was, "Morticia should have her own motivated lighting. Even if she stood right next to a window on a sunny day and the light should come from the left side, don’t do that. I want her to look like she just came out of a [George] Hurrell photograph." Owen said, "I love it. Let’s do that."

Finally, I have a memory of this video of you where someone was popping a blackhead. A really big blackhead. Is this right?

Yes. I remember working with Johnny Knoxville and he had that show. What was it called?

Jackass.

He had Jackass and I said, "You know, every five years I save up this one blackhead and I can squeeze it and get, like, insane amounts of squiggly puss coming out it." And Johnny said, "Well, let’s do it." I said, "Let’s give it another four months." And at some point I was ready, and I was at Rick Baker’s studio in Glendale and Johnny sent the crew out and I squeezed this blackhead and Johnny claimed at the time, he said, "It’s the single most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen on Jackass." Which I’m very proud of. How can you not be?

Was it always the same pore?

Yes. That’s the genius of it. 

I’ll never forget it.

You’re welcome. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.