In the 1990s, Barry Sonnenfeld became known for two franchises (The Addams Family, Men in Black) and his adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty (1995). These movies made his name as a director. About 20 years ago, he had a producing credit on many of the Elmore Leonard movies that came out after adapting Get Shorty. However, that represents a small portion of Sonnenfeld’s work.
For this article, I will cover the other films of director Barry Sonnenfeld. Although Sonnenfeld became known for the aforementioned films, these films reflect different sides of Sonnenfeld’s personality, life, and craft. If interested, I also encourage readers of this article to look at his interviews and read his memoir Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker because no one article can cover the scope of his career.
Barry Sonnenfeld began his career as the cinematographer of the Coen brothers. From there, he worked on classic movies of the 1980s, such as Throw Momma From the Train (1987) and Big (1988). For Rob Reiner, he shot When Harry Met Sally… (1989) and Misery (1990). He also shot the last two weeks on Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). From his earliest work, he developed a love for wide angle lenses and employed it in his work as a cinematographer and director.
Liking Sonnenfeld’s visual style, producer Scott Rudin decided to hire him to make The Addams Family (1991) after Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam turned down the offer. Rudin felt that Sonnenfeld would at the very least bring an interesting visual style to the film that another director might not. Although Hollywood knew Rudin had a history of abusive behavior, he also gave many people such as Sonnenfeld a chance. In his book, Sonnenfeld says that Rudin is somebody he loves and wishes was dead at the same time.
The Addams Family began at critically acclaimed and hands off studio Orion Pictures. In the past decade, they had produced four best picture winners (Amadeus (1984), Platoon (1986), Dances with Wolves (1990), Silence of the Lambs (1991)). Facing bankruptcy, Orion sold the rights of the film to Paramount. Its financial success launched Sonnenfeld’s directorial career and began a new chapter in his life.
Besides the Addams Family movies, the stories in 1990s Sonnenfeld films tend to focus on protagonists who have no family connections to speak of and find a surrogate family in a bunch of eccentric strangers. In these stories, the protagonists pursue goals larger than themselves.
Although Sonnenfeld has made many films, they do not tend to reinvent the wheel. You probably have seen the premise and character arcs for many Barry Sonnenfeld movies. In at least 3 Sonnenfeld films mentioned here, the protagonist chooses love and family over money.
However, Sonnenfeld will put an original visual spin on this material. In an interview with the Commonwealth Club of California, Sonnenfeld says that he tends to choose movies based on the world he can create. These worlds tend to be unrealistically lit and shot for comedic effect. Sonnenfeld does not use “motivated lighting” that you would see in the real world.
Similarly, Sonnenfeld tends to employ various visual techniques depending on what the moment calls for. For dramatic moments, Sonnenfeld loves to use a slow push in, whereas he will use a faster push in for comedic moments. In the featurette Letting The Cat Out of the Bag: The Making of Nine Lives, Sonnenfeld describes his use of color. Sonnenfeld loves green, but will often dress a sincere character in blue because he theorizes that it makes the actor’s eyes pop.
What Sonnenfeld Likes
Sonnenfeld’s films do not necessarily have some great meaning outside of his interests and experiences. Over the years Sonnenfeld has built up a stock company of crew members (Bo Welch, Graham Place, etc.) and actors (Patrick Warburton, Cheryl Hines, etc.). If Sonnenfeld likes them, they will probably come back to his productions. In many movies, at least one character named Vigushin appeared. These characters are named after an elementary school classmate of his. Sonnenfeld discusses Jan Vigushin in the commentaries for Men in Black II and Big Trouble (both 2002).
Sonnenfeld loves Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). He based the opening of Men in Black (1997) on Strangelove’s opening. Similarly, he also came up with a version of Strangelove’s war room for Wild Wild West (1999). From Strangelove, Sonnenfeld also learned to play comedy as fairly straight. In Sonnenfeld’s films, nobody plays the comedy.
Sonnenfeld often directs actors to be faster or flatter. Sonnenfeld also often cites the fast talking comedies of people like Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder as his influences more than modern comedy directors.
In the RV production featurette Barry Sonnenfeld: Kosher Cowboy, they describe how Sonnenfeld became enamored with the west and the mythos of it after going to Texas to shoot Blood Simple (1984) for the Coen brothers. The documentary for Nine Lives (2016) describes how Sonnenfeld directs sitting on a saddle rather than a director’s chair.
‘For Love or Money’ (1993)
After meeting a potential investor for his dream hotel on Roosevelt island, lowly concierge Doug Ireland (Michael J. Fox) finds himself torn when he discovers that the woman of his dreams is also his investor’s mistress. Now Doug must choose between love or money.
A Forgotten Film
In Patrick H. Willems’ video Patrick Explains MEN IN BLACK (And Why It’s Great), Willems talks about how Sonnenfeld made classic film after classic film before Wild Wild West (1999) brought his winning streak to an end. However, he misses this movie in that description.
I will not remiss Willems too much for not knowing about this movie. Sonnenfeld himself says nobody has ever seen it after it came out. After The Addams Family, Sonnenfeld chose to make For Love or Money for the money because first time directors only get paid scale and he needed the money for the income he missed working as a cinematographer. In an interview with Goldman Sachs, Sonnenfeld says that he made the wrong decision, but that starving is also bad.
‘Forrest Gump’ Versus ‘The Addams Family’
Film history does not necessarily remember this film that well, but holds a special place in Sonnenfeld’s career. While making this movie, Sonnenfeld had to make a choice between Forrest Gump (1994) and Addams Family Values (1993).
In his interview with Goldman Sachs, Sonnenfeld says that he developed Forrest Gump. For the story, he changed the character from “a fat guy who is really strong” to a fast runner. Since he knew Tom Hanks from Big, he got him involved and decided to hire screenwriter Eric Roth. When Paramount decided to do Addams Family Values, he told Sherry Lansing that he would do the sequel if she would wait for him to do Forrest Gump. Lansing agreed, but Gump producer Wendy Finerman refused to wait for Sonnenfeld because of all the unknown factors around making the movie. Sonnenfeld also says that Finerman made the correct decision.
In a retrospective for The Addams Family, Sonnenfeld says he asked Money star Michael J. Fox what he should do. Fox told him that he set the table with The Addams Family and now he has to have dinner. Sonnenfeld chose to do Addams Family Values. He had some mixed lingering feelings about Forrest Gump until fellow director Martin Brest advised him to see it so the “healing can begin.” Ultimately realizing that he would not have made the film that way, he said the healing process began at that point. In the Sachs interview, he says that his only regret was not asking for credit.
Sherry Lansing and Paramount
Stephen Galloway’s book Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker presents a slightly different version of events. Lansing says that he did not want to let go of the Addams Family characters and his fee would be three times bigger than Gump, so he reluctantly bowed out. She also credits Scott Rudin as pressuring him rather than Wendy Finerman. Such inconsistencies might simply come from people’s memories changing or simply not being as closely related to a certain situation.
Also, the studio largely did not consider the film commercial until it came out and became a big success. At the time, Forrest Gump presented a riskier proposition. The story focuses on a passive character. Forrest Gump did not face a big antagonist or mission. It did not follow the standard Hollywood story rules. The chapter in Galloway’s book described the production as a tenuous process, even though it worked out for the best.
Design of the Movie
With For Love Or Money, Sonnenfeld exhibits some great elements. Characters will walk out of a rustic background into an elegant hotel. It feels like the beginning of the sort of look that he would perfect with Men In Black. Despite this, the film often feels like it never quite sings.
The film really comes alive when Michael J. Fox thinks that gangsters have come to kill a guest (Dan Hedaya) at the hotel, only to discover the gangsters wishing him happy birthday. This sequence allows Sonnenfeld to break free from the visual conventions of romantic comedy and make something more inventive.
Despite being a film for hire, For Love or Money does have some personal touches. At one point, Doug tells senile doorman Milton to get the Ringos’ luggage up to their room. Sonnenfeld’s wife is named Susan Ringo. Like Sonnenfeld, Doug also is a sympathetic vomiter. Doug also tells guest Harry Wegman (Michael Tucker) that he should give him a tip so big that it feels like he’s passing a kidney stone. In his book, Sonnenfeld shares a story about passing a kidney stone. While this project might not have excited Sonnenfeld the most, he did bring a lot of himself to it.
‘Wild Wild West’ (1999)
After uncovering a former Confederate general’s plot to take over the United States Government, two secret agents (Will Smith and Kevin Kline) race against the clock to foil his plan.
A Western Film
In 1997, Sony Pictures released Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black. The film focused on two top secret agents (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) teaming up to stop a giant bug from outer space. Wild Wild West has a similar story, but sets it in the old west.
Wild Wild West seemed like the perfect choice for Sonnenfeld. In the DVD commentary, Sonnenfeld says that he made the film partially because he wanted to make a western and did not know when he would get another opportunity to do so. Sonnenfeld put many things he loved in the movie. As a kid, The Wild Wild West (1965-1969) was his favorite TV show. Sonnenfeld also loves the work of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan. At one point, they even filmed on the same set Kasdan used for Silverado (1985).
Sonnfeld also wanted to find a way to make the film different from the TV show. Sonnenfeld came up with the idea of casting Men in Black star Will Smith in the lead. With this film and the first two Men in Black films, Smith performs a rap song. In many ways, it seemed like a great idea.
A Messy Production
Wild Wild West had a famously messy production. The DVD featurettes and commentaries have multiple mentions of how the production burned down the Silverado set and had to film the rest of the sequence separately. A 2021 article by Ralph Jones for Mel Magazine detailed the troubled production. In Sonnenfeld’s own commentary, he points out that the lamps in the train could double as gatling guns. They wrote it into the script, but took it out before taking it out. However, the production had already built the piece for the film, so it became an unused detail.
At the time of the film, Sonnenfeld was attached to direct Smith in the Muhammad Ali biopic Ali (2001). The commentary ends with Sonnenfeld joking that he wonders what rap Smith will perform in that movie. Over the next few years, Sonnenfeld’s involvement in the film fell through and Michael Mann became the new director.
Two Bob Hopes
In the behind the scenes footage, Will Smith and Kevin Kline banter over who gets to be Bob Hope. For the readers who do not know, comedian Bob Hope partnered with straight man Bing Crosby in their Road to… movies.
Like Hope and Crosby, Sonnenfeld’s comedic style tends to revolve around a comedic character and a straight man. When he made Men in Black, Sonnenfeld had to convince Tommy Lee Jones not to be the funny one. In Sonnenfeld’s interview with the California Commonwealth, he describes how he sat on Jones for 20 weeks. It got to the point where Jones’ agent called Sonnenfeld asking him to allow Jones to be as funny as Will Smith. Sonnenfeld explained that Jones would eventually be as funny as Smith because of his reactions.
As an example, Sonnenfeld used the famous orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally… (which he shot). In that scene, the funniest moments occur not because of Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm, but because of Billy Crystal’s reaction to it. By reacting to the reality of the situation, Crystal naturally makes it funnier.
The Comedian and The Straight Man
This film began based on the casting of Will Smith as the comedic character and his scene partner as the straight man. Originally Sonnenfeld cast George Clooney in the film alongside Smith, but he left because he felt that the Smith character got all of the good lines.
Kevin Kline came on and brought a more comedic spin to the character. Over the course of the filmmaking process, Kline became more of the comedic character and Will Smith became more of the straight man. In many sources about the movie, many people described Kline as an unhappy presence on the set. In the Mel Magazine piece, co-star Sofia Eng said that Kline might have felt a little threatened by many of the younger actors around him.
However, this conflict is not necessarily specific to Wild Wild West. Throughout Sonnenfeld’s career, he talks about having to convince actors to play the straight man.
The Spider Myth
Today, Wild Wild West might be best known for the climactic sequence. In that sequence, the lead villain attacks Ulysses S. Grant and the United States Government on a railroad in a giant mechanical spider.
In An Evening with Kevin Smith, screenwriter/director Kevin Smith says that eccentric Wild Wild West product Jon Peters asked him to put a giant spider in his unproduced Superman screenplay. After the screenplay went nowhere, Kevin Smith went to see the Peters produced Wild Wild West in theaters. When he saw the giant spider, he assumed Peters had finally figured out a way to put the spider in the movie.
However, Peters did not come up with the spider in this film. Screenwriters Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson came up with the mechanical spider, but Peters’ office rejected the idea. However, when the duo pitched it to Sonnenfeld and executives in the room, Sonnenfeld agreed to it. Interestingly enough, Sonnenfeld describes the Spider as hurting the movie because of its size and how it changed the tone of the film. Peters did get his spider, but not in the way he thought he would.
Although Jon Peters did not come up with the spider, he did insist on other creative choices. Artemus Gordon’s motorcycle partially came out of Peters thinking that “horses are stupid.” The most prominent example attributed to Peters is Will Smith doing a belly dance in drag. In multiple sources, Sonnenfeld cites this as the most embarrassing scene in the movie.
That being said, a lot of this movie comes from Sonnenfeld. Sonnenfeld talks about liking the phallic imagery and characters falling in muck. Some of these visual and story choices even appear in his later movies. Sonnenfeld has never had full control over his movies. Peters did have influence, but many of these choices do come from Sonnenfeld.
At the beginning of Men in Black II, a little girl with pigtails walks up to postmaster Kevin Brown (Tommy Lee Jones) and asks him for some Rugrats stamps. This detail might seem negligible, but Chloe Sonnenfeld played the part.
From this point on, the stories focused more on a patriarch trying to keep his family together. The stakes of the story often involved the father having to earn the respect of his child. The self-involved and repulsive antagonists often inadvertently threatened to tear the family apart.
With each of these stories, the story tended to begin with a personal and/or professional crisis for the father. From there, the father would come into contact with a fantastical premise that transformed him and strengthened his relationship with his family. At the end of the story, he would gain the respect of his child and solve his work-related problems.
‘Big Trouble’ (2002)
After a series of misunderstandings, former columnist Elliot Arnold (Tim Allen) must outwit a group of criminals who have kidnapped his possible love interest’s daughter before they inadvertently blow up the greater Miami area.
A Farcical Film
Unlike Sonnenfeld’s other films, this film focuses on Sonnenfeld at his most farcical. Sonnenfeld and the filmmakers pack a lot of story into an under 90 minute film.
In the commentary, Sonnenfeld describes it as a film about couples. Tim Allen and Rene Russo’s characters become a romantic couple. A couple of hitmen played by Dennis Farina and Jack Kehler come to kill Russo’s husband (Stanley Tucci). Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville play a couple of dimwitted criminals who steal a nuclear bomb. Andy Ritchter even plays twin brothers who both work in security personnel. Comedic duos show up all over the movie that make the situation more complicated.
The film’s climax also features a Strangelovian moment. In this film, the climax’s stakes come from a ticking nuclear bomb. The main villain (Sizemore) rides a bomb down to the ocean floor and has it explode, creating a mushroom cloud.
The Film’s Production and Release
According to Sonnenfeld, he did the film partially because he wanted to make a small comedy and loved Dave Barry’s book. Sonnenfeld simplified the book to create a more streamlined storyline and changed an Elizabeth Dole cameo to Martha Stewart.
The film was originally set up with Sonnenfeld hero Lawrence Kasdan. Sonnenfeld called him and told him that he would like to do the movie if he passed. Kasdan agreed to allow Sonnenfeld to make the film. Kasdan’s son Jon appears as a security guard here.
The film experienced some changes before its scheduled release date. Sonnenfeld and the filmmakers opted to scrap the original smaller ending in favor of an ending that would focus more on tying up the loose ends with Tim Allen and the supporting cast. The film also was set to be released on September 21, 2001. 9/11 pushed back the release. A lot of the junket interviews (including ones from Dennis Farina and Johnny Knoxville) focused on this delay.
Throughout the film, Sonnenfeld chose to make decisions on the fly that do not necessarily mean that much outside of being a funny image. For a Russian Arms dealers’ bar, Sonnenfeld always had gymnastics playing on TV. According to Sonnenfeld, this serves no purpose outside of being an amusing image.
Some character moments came out of on set inspiration. Sonnenfeld also made a Hispanic maid (Sofia Vergara) mistake a homeless man (Jason Lee) for Jesus by backlighting him and asking him to call her Jesus before the take. To add to the effect, he added a blacklit intro with Jason Lee’s Puggy later on in the production. In the commentary, Sonnenfeld describes the audience being ahead of him as a good thing. The fact that they recognize what the filmmakers’ intent with making Puggy look like Jesus is what they aimed for.
In his films, Sonnenfeld creates an unrealistic creative world designed to get maximum effect out of the characters. If you see a niggly unrealistic detail in a Sonnenfeld film, he has often chosen this heightened detail to emphasize a character’s plight.
In the film, every single visual choice with Dennis Farina’s out of town hitman character suggests how much he hates Miami. Barry Sonnenfeld had a special payphone built so Farina had to bend over instead of standing up. Similarly, Sonnenfeld also gave Farina’s character a rental car that rental car companies no longer used at the time of the film. In this particular model, the seat belt would brush against the driver’s cheek as it went on or came off. None of these visual choices act in a realistic way, but I do not know if anybody would necessarily notice them unless they knew about such details or searched for them. Sonnenfeld creates a world where such details make sense as visual and creative choices.
The story centers around Bob Munro (Robin Williams) trying to keep his job after his daughter’s friend throws a vat of Schmaltz on his sleazy unethical boss Todd (Will Arnett). Now Bob must take the family on an RV trip to Colorado to make sure he can ensure their financial stability.
A Personal Film
Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick of Red Wagon Entertainment came up with the original concept. According to his book, Sonnenfeld knew Fisher when she was president of production at Columbia and employed him on Men In Black.
In the commentary, Sonnenfeld describes RV as one of his most personal films. Even little scenes like a moment where the characters all sing on their musical devices comes from a real trip Sonnenfeld took to Japan years earlier. Sonnenfeld chose to make the film because he wanted to tell a story about a father and a daughter before she went through a hormonal change. He describes it as his little love letter to his daughter Chloe.
While Sonnenfeld describes it as a personal film, the film exists very much as a family road trip comedy. Roger Ebert titled his review of the film “National Buffoon’s Vacation.” Coincidentally, Sonnenfeld also said in an interview with Chud that he wanted to make an adaptation of Don Delillo’s White Noise, which also follows a family on a road trip. An adaptation would eventually make it to the big screen as a Noah Baumbauch film in 2022.
The Characters in the film
At times, RV plays almost like a big budget stand up act where an affable comedian tells you about the various frustrations in his life.
The Munros represent a version of Sonnenfeld and his family. Bob acts most explicitly a version of Sonnenfeld. Sonnenfeld says many times throughout the commentary that Bob would do the ridiculous, stupid, or cowardly things he would do. Sonnenfeld includes details from his own life. Early on, Bob and his wife toast to true love. Sonnenfeld and his wife also did this at the time. Characters also tend to instant message each other while sitting in the same room, much like Sonnenfeld’s own family at the time.
While the Munros represent the Sonnenfelds to a certain extent, the Gornicke family represents a more idealized family from Texas. The film introduces Travis Gornicke (Jeff Daniels) by showing his cowboy boots. Unlike the Munro family, the Gornickes act as a united loving family in their travels across the country. These characters act almost as Ned Flanders-like foils to the Munros.
Difficulties making the film
Above all else, RV represents a film about Sonnenfeld and his family. In the audio commentary, Sonnenfeld says that he liked having his wife and his daughter with him due to the difficulties of the production. The various featurettes for the film show Sonnenfeld wearing braces. In his book, he describes getting braces at the time with his daughter.
Although he likes Robin Williams’ performance in the movie, Sonnenfeld credits it as one of the most difficult parts of the filmmaking process. In a later interview, Sonnenfeld says that he loved Williams’ improvisation, Sonnenfeld did not want it in the film due to the fact that his aesthetic relies on a controlled environment and there were too many kids performing with Williams for manic improv. Although Sonnenfeld likes the end result, he feels that Williams did not necessarily have the best time making the film.
‘Nine Lives’ (2016)
After having his consciousness to the cat he bought for his daughter, wealthy businessman Tom Brand (Kevin Spacey) must figure out a way to save his business and family or be trapped in the body of a cat forever.
When it came out, critics saw Nine Lives as an oddity of some sorts. It existed as a family oriented body switch comedy starring the star of House of Cards and directed by the director of Men In Black. If you go back and look at the reviews from the time, they look upon Nine Lives with incredulity while still admitting that they laughed at some jokes. Film critic Christy Lemire described the film as mind boggling, but found herself unable to hate it and felt the filmmakers had some awareness.
Origins of Film
Nine Lives began as an idea from EuropaCorp executive Christophe Lambert. He hired screenwriter Matt Allen and his writing partner Caleb Wilson. Allen and Wilson had originally made a decent living selling spec scripts, but had fallen on hard times when that market did not yield new results. Needing to hold onto their health insurance through the WGA, they took the job.
Originally Lambert saw the movie as a more adult Woody Allen movie where you did not hear the thoughts of the cat. Although flustered by the stipulations, Matt Allen related to the story of a person inhabiting a person’s consciousness. He felt like a cat he had gotten seemed like it was inhabited by the spirit of his dead father in 2006. Allen and Wilson wrote a few drafts of the screenplay before stepping aside.
Although the film made it to production, the people who started the ball rolling had different outcomes. After writing the film, Matt Allen learned that he had a brain tumor. The renewed insurance paid for the procedure and Allen’s recovery. Lambert himself died before his pet project made it to the big screen.
Sonnenfeld decided to take the film on, even though he has a cat hair allergy. For the movie, they decided to get a hypoallergenic cat, so Sonnenfeld would not have to wear a mask when communicating with the animal.
Sonnenfeld and his team make a lot of interesting visual choices due to the cat. The cat has blue eyes partially because Sonnenfeld wants to make them pop. Since the production also spends so much time looking down at the cat, the floors became an integral part of the production design. Every floor became interesting to look at because of this decision.
For this article, I think I will end by talking about what it means to have control in art. In many interviews and commentaries, Sonnenfeld talks about control in making film and television. As a director, Sonnenfeld’s aesthetic comes a lot for an ability to control a certain world.
In recent years, Sonnenfeld transitioned from theatrical films to streaming television series because of the amount of control he experienced there. On both of his TV shows (A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017-2019), Schmigadoon (2021 -)), he filmed them almost entirely on sound stages where he had control over the environment. He attributes this decision to having creative control over his projects at places like Netflix and Apple TV. He also did not have to make back a 40 million dollar theatrical marketing budget. On top of this, he says that he prefers viewing movies at home because he has control over the projection and sound that he does not have in a movie theater. In many ways, Sonnenfeld’s preferences in visual storytelling shifted away from theatrical filmmaking and more towards home viewing.
With filmmaking, the audience chooses to give itself over to a director’s world for multiple hours. Barry Sonnenfeld as a filmmaker does not interest me because he always makes choices I agree with, but because he gets to make choices that interest him and then hopefully find an audience. Admittedly not every one of these movies interests me (in fairness, not all of them are made for me). I do not know if I will have a rooting interest in every one of his projects, but I will be interested to see what he does next.
Last revised on January 12th, 2023.