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COVER STORY : Meet the New Addams Family : The weird brood from Charles Addams cartoons and ‘60s TV is back in a big-name, $30-million movie

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In his third week of filming “The Addams Family,” just when he thought he’d finally hit his stride, first-time director Barry Sonnenfeld suddenly felt the room spinning crazily, like a topsy-turvy carnival ride, as he toppled to the ground.

He had fainted.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 14, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 14, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 3 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Concerning “Meet the New Addams Family”: Lady Colyton--the widow of cartoonist Charles Addams, creator of the Addamses--wrote the Times to clear up information supplied to writer Patrick Goldstein by the film’s production company: She is not executor of the late cartoonist’s estate and never has owned the rights to the Addams Family characters. She says that Charles Addams was alive when the Orion deal was made and was the principal in that agreement. She adds that it was never a condition of the Orion deal that Scott Rudin be producer.

“I remember I was talking with Ron Lynch, an Orion executive who was paid to worry about our budget, and rightfully so the way we’d been going,” recalls Sonnenfeld during a lunch break on the set. “I was standing behind a chair when I started to feel this tremendous pressure in my chest, as if someone was blowing up a balloon inside me.

“Before I knew what was happening, I got very dizzy and tried to sit down and-- wham-- I’d passed out. The last thing I remember was one of the camera crew saying, ‘Someone get the guy a blanket.’ ”

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Sonnenfeld offers a sheepish grin. “When I came to, I started weeping copiously. (Producer) Scott Rudin took one look at me and told the crew it was time to wrap for the day. So I started to weep even more.

“I remember begging Scott, ‘Please, let me get up and get going again. If we have to stop every time I faint or start to cry, we’ll never get this movie done!’ ”

Sonnenfeld and Rudin can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel--the “The Addams Family” is scheduled to complete shooting April 12 after a 20-week shoot plagued by a seemingly unending series of crises.

On Feb. 1, not long after Sonnenfeld fainted dead away on the set, Owen Roizman, the movie’s first director of photography, left to do another movie. In late February, the film shut down for several days when Gayl Tattersoll, his replacement, was rushed to be the hospital, seriously ill with a sinus infection.

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The production missed several more days in early March when Sonnenfeld himself left for New York to be with his wife, who was undergoing major surgery.

To make matters worse, Orion Pictures, which bankrolled the film, has been so financially troubled that it sold the picture to Paramount in the midst of shooting.

“This film’s karma hasn’t been very good,” admits Sonnenfeld, who made his name as the Coen Brothers’ resident director of photography. “It’s like there’s this pervasive black cloud hanging over this movie.

“Two weeks ago I felt the end was in sight--just five weeks to go. And then last week I felt, ‘OK, just five weeks to go.’ And now I’m thinking, ‘What’s happening here--we still have five weeks to go.’ ”

Anjelica Huston looks ravishing in black.

It’s a good thing too, because she wears more black in “The Addams Family” than Johnny Cash. Striding onto the set in Los Angeles wearing a raven dress, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, she looks like a tempestuous trickster, an elegant prankster, a black widow spider with a barbed sense of humor.

She looks like . . . Morticia Addams.

You remember Morticia. And Gomez. And Uncle Fester. And Thing and Lurch and Pugsley and the rest of the deliciously odd Charles Addams characters who gained fame in the ‘60s-era TV version of “The Addams Family.” That’s why Huston and Raul Julia, who plays Gomez, are on location at the Wiltern Theatre today, shooting a $30-million movie version of “The Addams Family.” If you’re going to spend the big bucks, why not put them into a movie chock-full of characters everyone knows--and adores?

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With the gifted cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld at its helm, “The Addams Family” has most of the benefits of a sequel, but without the Roman numerals. To use a popular Hollywood expression, it has brand-name recognizability. An Orion Pictures teaser trailer for the film shown in theaters earlier this year didn’t say the name of the film or show its cast--it simply played a few orchestrated bars of the TV show theme.

Today’s scene features Huston and Julia at a charity auction, where they’re selling an Addams family heirloom--a finger-trap encrusted with sparkling diamonds and emerald chips.

The scene is a perfect reminder of the family’s eccentric insularity. When no one in the well-heeled crowd displays any interest in the horrific object, the romantically excitable Morticia and Gomez drive up the bidding themselves, their ardor increasing as the price spirals upward.

Even before Sonnenfeld is ready to shoot, Huston is easing into character. When her hairdresser swoops in to comb her long dark tresses between rehearsals, she starts playfully pinching him. Trying to avoid her long, prying fingers, he yelps, “She’s attacking me!”

When he finally escapes her clutches, he hides behind the camera. “I’m weak,” he sighs. “She grabbed my breasts!”

Once the scene begins, Huston directs her charms at Julia, whose colorful duds give Gomez the air of a sleek, Latin carnival barker. Outfitted in a checkered suit, pencil-thin mustache and a mound of slicked-back hair, Julia takes Huston’s hand as the action begins.

When the auctioneer opens the bidding at $5,000, Julia bellows, “Bah! Not enough. Twenty-five thousand!”

He turns to Huston. He hisses, “Mon sauvage!” as he strokes her wrist.

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As the bidding escalates, Huston turns and faces the auctioneer. “Thirty-five thousand,” she cries, whispering lasciviously in Julia’s ear, “Eres divina!”

Julia bids again. Huston follows, raising the bid to $50,000. Julia begins kissing her arm. “Your turn, my ecstasy,” she coos, sweeping her arms around him.

“It’s yours,” he says, embracing her. “Amore mio!”

As the auctioneer pounds his gavel, the pair kiss. They grope. They clutch. They grapple. They lean so far back in their chairs that they slowly topple back into the next row of seats.

When Sonnenfeld has seen enough of this playful passion, he finally concludes: “Cut. That’s very good.”

Julia’s makeup man watches his leading man graciously help Huston up off the floor. He smiles. “I think we better check his mustache.”

It’s hard to find many people under 35--in other words, the most ardent moviegoers--who remember the original Addams Family, the deliriously ghoulish characters created by fabled New Yorker magazine cartoonist Charles Addams. So it seemed a bit odd reading “The Addams Family’s” publicity material, which insists that the movie was based on Addams’ cartoons, not the ‘60s TV sitcom.

Now that shooting is nearly over, even producer Scott Rudin isn’t trying to disguise the film’s true roots. Sitting in his trailer--a command module equipped with TV sets, cellular phones, typewriters and a Rolodex the size of a small windmill--he recounts the initial inspiration for the film.

As Rudin tells it, he was returning from a screening with a van full of 20th Century Fox execs when he was the studio’s head of production several years ago.

“Everyone was there--(studio chiefs) Barry Diller and Leonard Goldberg and (marketing chief) Tom Sherak--when Tom’s kid started singing ‘The Addams Family’ theme,” Rudin recalls. “And suddenly everyone in the van was singing the theme, letter perfect, note for note.”

A producer with a shrewd commercial sensibility (as Fox production chief he was involved with such films as “Working Girl,” “Big,” “Broadcast News” and “Wall Street”), Rudin had lunch with Diller and Goldberg the next day and proposed making an “Addams Family” film.

“There really wasn’t a lot of debate,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

Many complications ensued. As it turns out, in the summer of 1989, Marc Platt, now Orion’s president of production, was huddling with then-studio chief Mike Medavoy, considering possible film adaptations of various TV shows whose titles were owned by Orion. Thanks to its ownership of the Filmways library, which had made “The Addams Family,” the studio owned the TV series--and had also acquired the theatrical rights to any film based on the show.

According to Rudin, there was one more key player--Lady Barbara Colyton, Charles Addams’ second wife and executor of his estate, who owned the rights to the Addams Family characters.

“When I was still at Fox we tried to buy the rights from the estate but we couldn’t make a deal with Orion because they wanted to make an ‘Addams’ TV show,” says Rudin. “But when Lady Barbara finally sold her rights to Orion (for a movie version), she did it under the condition that I would be the producer.”

Platt insists it was Orion’s idea to bring in Rudin as producer of the film, though he acknowledges that Rudin had a “relationship” with the Addams estate. “The key thing,” says Platt, “is that Scott and I saw eye to eye on the project’s creative vision. He’s done a great job and we hated to have to give up a film we’ve always believed in. It’s like having someone else adopt your child and raise it without you.”

Although the film’s script occasionally pays homage to the TV show, it has also staked out fresh comic turf. “This movie is more ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ than ‘Beetlejuice,’ ” says Rudin. “It’s not just gags. This isn’t a ‘Dragnet’ version of the Addams Family. It’s more Michael Powell than Ivan Reitman.”

Sonnenfeld agrees: “If anything, I’m worried that it may end up being too sophisticated. We certainly don’t have any talking moose in the movie.”

It’s no secret that Sonnenfeld wasn’t Rudin’s first choice as director. In fact, each day a reporter visited the set, the back of Sonnenfeld’s director’s chair had the name of a different director who had been considered for the job. A lot of famous names popped up, some more fanciful than others, including Tim Burton, Joe Dante, Terry Gilliam, Richard Benjamin, David Lynch and Arthur Hiller. Having been born on April Fool’s Day, Sonnenfeld has learned to take Rudin’s kidding in stride.

One day a new name surfaces--Rob Reiner, whom Sonnenfeld worked with as director of photography on “Misery” and “When Harry Met Sally . . . .” Sonnenfeld looks askance when he notices the chair. “Rob would have never done this movie,” he says. “He’s not that crazy.”

You’ll have to excuse Sonnenfeld for assuming you’d have to be nuts to direct “The Addams Family.”

“It’s a pretty extraordinary situation to be working with a studio that has to sell the movie three-quarters of the way through the film,” Rudin says. “When we started, we were at close to $25 million. But we’ve added new scenes that probably constitute about 15% of the script. So I suspect we’ll end up in the high 20s--we might even hit $30 million. But Orion approved everything all along the way.”

Sonnenfeld has learned to ignore all the tumult and focus on shooting the film. “I’ve just tried to put it all out of my mind,” he says. “When things were at their worst, Scott had the best idea of all. When we were showing our teaser trailer in the theaters, he said we should just pass a hat down the aisle, asking for contributions.

“We could say, ‘If you like the trailer, help us raise the money to finish the movie.’ ”

A bearded, bearlike bundle of energy who looks like a hyperactive rabbinical student, Rudin also seems unruffled by all the uproar. “I just take every battle as it comes,” says the producer, who is a constant presence on the set. “You have to keep your eye on the prize. So I just try to remember two things. One--how good the movie is.”

Rudin flashes a quick grin. “And two--that it’s almost over.”

The producer says events unfolded so fast that he first learned of Orion’s plans to sell the film from a reporter. “I first heard the rumor from (Hollywood Reporter writer) Andrea King, and I told her she was crazy,” Rudin recalls. “After all, I was working with the Orion guys every day. They’d certainly tell me. And I had a great relationship at Paramount, where I have another movie. So surely they’d tell me.

“But when I was on the phone with (Paramount production chief) David Kirkpatrick, suddenly (then-studio chief) Frank Mancuso got on the line and said, ‘So how’s your movie?’ ”

Rudin throws up his hands. “That’s when I realized, ‘Wow. Something is going on!’ ”

With the film now at Paramount, where Rudin has an exclusive production deal, concerns about its future have abated. With the movie now scheduled for a Christmas release, Sonnenfeld’s biggest challenge has been keeping track of the much-revised script.

Written by the “Edward Scissorhands” team of Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson, it was substantially rewritten, says Rudin, by Paul Rudnick, a novelist--and a longtime Rudin pal. The new version, Rudin says, has an archness and theatricality that was missing in the original script.

Sonnenfeld confesses he’s a little overwhelmed. “This script has gone through more rewrites than all the other films I’ve worked on put together. You know how the colors of the pages change whenever you have a new revision? Well, we’ve gone through every color that’s possible to Xerox. Now we’re on to the ones that come out black.”

Anjelica Huston may be dressed in black but you would have to color her mood bright. After playing a concentration camp survivor in “Enemies: A Love Story” and a mob bagwoman in “The Grifters,” both of which earned her Oscar nominations, she’s clearly relishing her role in this spirited farce.

“There’s something really great about doing comedy,” she says, lighting up a cigarette in her trailer. “It’s like having a secret that you keep in your cheek all day. It’s not as ragged as playing dramatic parts. It doesn’t carry all that emotional baggage.”

It’s easy to see why Huston was the filmmakers’ first choice to play Morticia. A bright, thoughtful woman from an extraordinary film family, Huston has an austere, regal air, even when sitting in a cramped trailer, wearing sweats, with her hair pulled back in a knot.

“We always wanted Anjelica,” says Rudin. “She’s a hothouse flower, she’s Mrs. Miniver in this movie, the mother hen of the family. She can be sweet and arch and then turn on a dime and be very passionate too.”

Having grown up in Ireland, Huston’s first exposure to the Addams clan was through Charles Addams’ cartoons. Still, she acknowledges watching a few “Addams Family” episodes before the film went into production. “But I thought it was wrong to try to ‘do’ Carolyn Jones. She was the ideal Morticia. You couldn’t really find any fulfillment doing her.”

Instead, Huston screened a 1975 documentary called “Grey Gardens.” Shot by the Maysles Brothers, it was a striking portrait of a pair of eccentric old women--both relatives of Jacqueline Onassis--who were found living ankle-deep in garbage and cat droppings in a decaying East Hampton mansion.

“I was fascinated by the way they’d found a certain serenity in their eccentricity,” Huston explains. “You realized that it didn’t matter if everyone else thinks you’re highly peculiar. You accept your own eccentricity.”

Huston sounds as if she’s found a similar serenity in her own work, which often finds her working from 5:30 a.m. until after dark. To see her trudge back and forth to the set, waiting endlessly for her call, you realize the glamour of moviemaking comes on Oscar night, not during the arduous days of location shooting.

“I’ve been at this since almost October and there are definitely times when you get stir-crazy,” she says. “It’s almost an unwritten law that no movie crew gets a shot before 10 a.m., even though time and again they call you in here at 5:30 a.m. Sometimes it gets you down. I’ll just feel that I stink that day or I have a tangled brain. So you have to find ways to cheer yourself up, to get yourself laughing.”

She says working with Raul Julia has helped keep her spirits from sagging. “We haven’t had an uncomfortable moment,” she says. “He’s very generous and easy-going and remarkably free of those demons so many actors have.

He’s just a happy man.”

And to Huston’s way of thinking, he is cast perfectly as Gomez. “We have this exquisitely romantic relationship. He’s a heavy-lidded Sir Walter Raleigh. He adores Morticia and protects her and get inflamed when she speaks French. The only difference is that he’s a little more enslaved to love than Morticia is, which is the perfect way for men to be, isn’t it?”

Barry Sonnenfeld isn’t exactly the heavy-lidded Sir Walter Raleigh type. A man who burst out weeping at his own wedding, he jokes that his wife considers him not only “her husband, but her closest girlfriend.”

On the set, kidding one moment, grouching the next, he has the irresistibly neurotic charm of a young Woody Allen. Today he’s reliving his parents’ visit to the set.

“I sat down with them ahead of time and tried to coach them but it didn’t do any good,” he recalls. “As soon as my mother walked onto the set, she said, ‘My son! Directing a movie!’ And she immediately started to cry.”

Sonnenfeld wags his head. “Actually my mother was great,” he says with the deadpan delivery of a nightclub comic. “The weeping was OK. It was the 10-minute coughing fit that slowed us down a little.”

Add his mom’s histrionics to the other crises he’s survived during this four-month shoot and you can see why Sonnenfeld has a renewed appreciation for the rigors of directing.

“Don’t get me wrong, this is a great opportunity, but it’s been a painful experience,” he says. “I lost 13 pounds in the first 10 weeks alone. The tension is just incredible because you have this enormous desire to please everybody.”

As a film director, you’re answerable for every last detail. “I was hired to do this movie at least in part because of my visual imagination, but what I end up worrying about is the color of everybody’s lipstick,” he says. “A great deal of your job consists of answering questions. Will you need to see the pages of a book in this shot? Or just its back cover?

“So you make hundreds of moronic decisions and they all end up haunting you because when you get to the set you realize that it would look better if we could see the character turn the pages of the book consecutively after all.”

To make matters worse, Sonnenfeld is simply lonely. He hates being separated from his wife, Susan Ringo, and their children, who are back in New York. Though his wife’s health scare is over, Sonnenfeld constantly bemoans her absence.

“This would’ve been a lot easier if she’d been here,” he says. “Then I’d have someone to come home to at night and sleep with and read magazines with in bed.”

He survives largely by playfully harassing his producer.

“Scott has all the power here--I have none,” he says with an impish gleam. “The only way I can get back at him is by being incredibly juvenile. I’m constantly acting as obnoxious and annoying as possible. I chew my food and spit it out in front of him. I whine and pout, anything I can do to unnerve him.”

The 37-year-old filmmaker’s sense of humor, which vacillates from sly to childlike to self-deprecating, seems perfectly suited for the wry tone of the film. From his point of view, “The Addams Family” is a comically exaggerated look at familial relationships, a subject close to Sonnenfeld’s heart.

Asked to describe his upbringing in New York, he gleefully focuses on his mother’s unusual culinary habits. “For two years, my mother would cook the same meal every night--fried steak and Kelly’s Irish potatoes,” he recalls. “She’d put everything on the stove and then go into her room and talk on the phone. When the smoke would start to waft into my room, I’d rush in and flip everything over.”

Sonnenfeld said he ended up at NYU film school only after his mother offered to pay his tuition so he would stay close to home. After he graduated, he bought a camera and began shooting low-budget documentaries and industrial films.

Joel Coen, whom he’d bumped into at a party, paid him $100 to film three days of sample scenes that Joel and Ethan Coen used to raise money for their first feature, “Blood Simple.” The brothers liked Sonnenfeld’s footage so much they hired him to shoot the film.

“I was so nervous I threw up 17 times,” Sonnenfeld says. “I had no idea what I was doing, but somehow I knew what to do. I was like an idiot savant.

Sonnenfeld’s work with the Coens won him instant acclaim and jobs on such Hollywood films as “Throw Mama From the Train” and “Misery.” Still, he insists he never had a strong urge to direct his own films.

Then his agent, Jim Berkus, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “He said if I wasn’t directing in a year that he’d lick his carpet. I think I took him up on it because if I didn’t get a job, I’d get to see a Hollywood agent lick his carpet.”

So here he is, wearily finishing his first film.

“My agent told me this film is a great break for me,” he says as he settles into his director’s-chair perch. “It allows me to skip two movies, in the sense that you normally don’t get to direct such a big-budget type of film your first time out.”

He smiles uneasily. “And I told my agent, ‘That’s great. The only problem is that with this movie I feel like I’m directing them all at once.’ ”


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