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A series of very unfortunate days

Times Staff Writer

If the magnitude of a star is measured by the way he can orchestrate a set around his demands, then the real star of the $142-million Christmas extravaganza “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” isn’t Jim Carrey, big comic star, looking like a demented Abraham Lincoln in his black Count Olaf suit with a peaked nose, rotting teeth and electric-socket hair. It isn’t the lavish Richard Heinrichs sets meant to evoke the spooky, ersatz Dickensian world of the three Baudelaire orphans -- not the forced-perspective cornfield complete with railroad tracks and faux country store, Olaf’s dilapidated mansion, or the mammoth indoor lake. It isn’t even Meryl Streep, perhaps the greatest actress of her generation, last spotted on the set at 2 a.m. wearing a wetsuit.

This star is implacable and wailing away at the top of her lungs, as 100 or so crew members wait.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 17, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
“Lemony Snicket” -- A photo caption with an article in Sunday’s Calendar section about the movie version of “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” referred to Klaus Baudelaire as the eldest of the tales’ three orphans. He is the middle sibling.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 21, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
“Lemony Snicket” -- A caption last Sunday with an article about the movie version of “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” referred to Klaus Baudelaire as the eldest of the tales’ three orphans. He is the middle sibling.

She is small, blond, stuffed into a black Victorian gown, and not quite 2. Shelby Hoffman and her twin sister, Kara, star as Sunny Baudelaire, the youngest orphan, who along with her way-older siblings (Emily Browning and Liam Aiken) lose their parents and fall into the clutches of their evil guardian, Count Olaf (Carrey), a failed actor and raging narcissist who will stop at nothing to steal their fortune. Unlike other screen infants who are usually consigned to sitting around bloblike and adorable, it is the conceit of the book that Sunny, despite her youth, is a fully developed character. She speaks in theatrical shrieks (only understandable to her siblings, although subtitles will be provided) and likes to express her hearty emotions through biting.

“Sunny would be the character to start a barroom brawl,” says director Brad Silberling, with a sigh. “That’s a performance aspect you don’t expect out of a 19-month-old.” The small, 40ish director with the long tousle of dark hair looks beyond frazzled. It’s close to the end of a marathon 123-day shoot, and nervous studio executives have been calling.

Silberling and his camera crew are ensconced on a floating platform at the edge of the indoor lake, built at a former aerospace factory in Downey and in fact the largest inside tank in the world with its 1.5 million gallons of water. Ahead of them are large, white reflectors to cast the perfect dusky light, smoke, stuntmen in wetsuits and a boat filled with the three orphans and Olaf. In this bit of the scene, the children are watching their kindly but extremely nervous guardian, Aunt Jo (Streep), drift away in Lake Lachrymose, which as Snicket would have it, is filled with leeches.

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Unfortunately, Shelby Hoffman, ringed in a bulky life jacket, is squirming desperately to get out of the arms of Browning, who plays Violet Baudelaire. Her plaintive wails echo throughout the sound stage.

“Let’s get going. We have a cranky baby,” screams one of the assistant directors. “That’s novel,” mutters Silberling.

THE FATE OF THE FRANCHISE

Babies might not exactly qualify as “unfortunate events,” but the mammoth production of “Lemony Snicket” has been beset by its share of Hollywood-style turmoil. The stakes are high for almost everyone involved: for Silberling, the director of “City of Angels” and “Casper” who’s never helmed a production of this size; for DreamWorks; and particularly for Paramount, a studio desperate for a breakout hit after a three-year drought, a studio that’s hoping and praying that this production is the beginning of a beautiful franchise. The film encompasses the first three books, “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room” and “The Wide Window”; there are eight more books in the Snicket series, which has sold 25 million copies worldwide. And so the stakes are high for Daniel Handler -- a.k.a. Lemony Snicket -- who’s watching his beloved creation take on cinematic life.

While the series isn’t the behemoth that is “Harry Potter,” it does have its ardent fans, who are entranced with this satiric, faux-Dickensian world where the children are resourceful and clever and all the adults are, as Handler says, “evil or incompetent, which presents a world view that I share.” (Even though at 34 he qualifies, alas, as an adult. “I don’t know how evil I am, but I certainly suffer from ineptitude.”) Reminiscent of the dark, droll musings of Edward Gorey and the whimsy of Roald Dahl, the books are paeans to children’s ability to survive, to be truth-tellers in a world populated by the self-involved, the blind and the batty.

“I loved the idea that these kids are really alone in the world,” says Carrey. “They have to prove everything they say to an adult three times over in triplicate. We never believe them right out of the gate. A lot of time they’re really right. That’s what these books do. They put them in a perspective that they’re used to being in. It’s the kind of book which [kids] read on their own and not invite Mom or Dad in.”

Yet the book’s mockingly morbid tone and schematic nature are challenging to render into film. “The ambitions of the film grew as the books became more successful,” adds Handler, who’s famous for his theatrical readings of the books. He sold the film rights to his creation before it was published. “First it was going to be quite a small film under the guidance of Nickelodeon, then it was Paramount and Scott Rudin, then the film grew into a partnership between Paramount and DreamWorks. I kept expecting that Warners or Universal would have to come in as it got bigger and bigger -- it would be the first film simultaneously made by all the studios.”

Handler wrote the initial drafts of the film under the aegis of producer Rudin and Barry Sonnenfeld (“Men in Black”), who was then going to direct. Carrey was slated to star and preproduction was beginning when Paramount asked Rudin and Sonnenfeld to slash $10 million out of the $96-million production and to further cut their already-reduced gross profit participation. Rudin quit the film.

In a move that was highly unusual (and frequently criticized), Paramount, then the most cost-conscious of the studios, decided to share its potential franchise with DreamWorks, bringing in that studio’s production chiefs Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald to produce.

Sonnenfeld, who’d had a falling out with the duo during “Men in Black,” was fired. The studio squandered more than $10 million on the aborted production.

Then the search was on for a new director. After discussing the project with Sam Mendes, Parkes and MacDonald settled on a protege of Steven Spielberg, Silberling, who had once been slated to direct the first “Harry Potter.”

The new filmmaking team promptly removed Handler from his creation, replacing him with Robert Gordon, who’d written “Men in Black II” for Parkes and MacDonald. “In a funny way, the script we developed is more true to the spirit of the books,” says Parkes. “We really felt we needed someone who was a professional screenwriter and who had a firm grasp of structure.” Silberling adds, “Daniel’s very prolific. He cranked out draft after draft, and he got to that point where up is down and red is blue and I could see that in the screenplay. It was kind of a wreck, a glorious one.”

Handler admits there was a certain relief when it was suggested he step off the development mill, but it also “made me sad to put a lot of effort into a film that turned out to go in a different direction.” The Sonnenfeld take was, he recalls, “more outsized. It was more enormous.” For instance, Handler’s alter ego, Lemony Snicket, who lurks around the periphery of the novels, addressed the camera directly. “This film is much more emotional than it would have been under Barry Sonnenfeld.” For Silberling, keeping the distinctive tone of the book was one of his main goals. Like much of classic children’s literature, the books do plumb children’s real fears of abandonment and despair all the while keeping a buoyantly mordant tone.

“It’s an oddly honest point of view,” says the director, who was wary about the studio’s intentions. “As you can imagine, every studio, they buy a franchise then they’re scared of some of the properties of it. Defensively, so I could protect myself with the studio, I pulled 15 kids together on a Saturday.” He did a town-hall-type meeting with the kids, ages 10 to 13, and interviewed them about the darkness of the movie, and videotaped the answers. “These kids, they said, ‘We like it. It feels honest. It’s dark. A baby is hanging out the window, and Olaf does knock off Uncle Monty, and it’s right for the story.’ They were really passionate about it.” He showed the tape to the executives and to the marketing departments. “It was a real shot in the arm almost to inoculate the film ahead of time.”

As the production hurtled into principal photography, there was one more big fight -- the battle of the widow’s peak. What should Carrey’s hair look like? How lustrous should the wig be or how spare? Silberling even flew to London for three days just to sit with Peter Owen, who designed the wigs for “The Lord of the Rings.” “I shaved my head,” says Carrey. “The company kept going, ‘We need more hair.’ I said, ‘No, less hair. Less hair.’ ”

“On movies of this scale, often a week before you start ... " says MacDonald, rushing before her partner and husband, Parkes, can finish the thought. “It becomes a way to focus all the other anxiety. “

“Actually, in a very positive way, sometimes a discussion about something that seems completely inane like the widow’s peak is also a discussion about the character,” says MacDonald.

Carrey, an attractively villainous Carrey, is of course the studio’s human equivalent of an insurance policy.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BABIES

For anyone who’s ever suffered through the cranky whims of a toddler, it’s amusing to see a giant movie production brought to its knees by a baby.

Silberling, who has a toddler daughter with wife and actress Amy Brenneman (“Judging Amy”), sees the comedy in this, but its humor has worn thin.

They try a run-through of the scene, which involves the older children screaming “Aunt Jo” with horror and Carrey theatrically trying to appear as if he’s reaching out to help her (when he’s clearly not). Yet the baby is not cooperating. Hoffman keeps reaching downward toward the bottom of the boat where her wrangler, an elfin former actress named Dawn Jeffory Nelson, is hidden out of the frame.

It’s been Nelson’s job to cajole the rather elaborate performance out of the babies, which she does with coos and pats and an arsenal of magic tricks including Cheerios and a portable DVD player playing “Teletubbies” that has, on occasion, been stationed right next to the camera. The babies also have their own trailer and their own Teamsters who drive them around to make sure they get their naps. Complicating things even further, each baby by law is allowed to work only 4.5 hours, and the clock doesn’t stop even when they’re off-set or sleeping.

The director tries waving to the baby to soothe her, but she continues bawling.

Shelby Hoffman is usually the more reliable of the twins; after the Christmas break her sister developed an apparent antipathy to filming and works less frequently. And they aren’t the first children to play the part. Initially a set of triplets from Texas were cast, but the first week they developed separation anxiety and began crying as soon as they saw their costumes. The enormous production had to shut down for several days and recast (that’s also when Nelson came on board to handle the charges).

As a contingency, there are four stunt babies, yet there are days when the production has run clear out of infants. As Hoffman’s distress continues, a command decision is made to bring in one of the photo doubles. Carrey waves bye-bye to her, and the moment she reaches dry land, Hoffman stops crying and begins beaming.

“Everything was about the babies,” explains Streep. “Like life, may I add. They’re like the cab drivers of the movie business. They’ll go at their own pace, and you know you’ll get there. To see them, they’re so pure. And when it’s time to take a nap, it’s time to take a nap -- even if it’s in the middle of big scene. It’s very humbling.”

THE MANY FACES OF EVIL

A stunt “Sunny” arrives, as pliant and docile as a baby in a greeting card and the day’s work begins in earnest.

“Fill yourself with that image of Meryl!” yells Silberling

The camera starts rolling, and the children begin screaming earnestly, “You can do it. You can do it!” while Carrey arches his back and looks absurdly intense as he feigns reaching for the disappearing Aunt Jo.

In the books, Olaf is described as a failed actor, and Carrey has sunk his teeth into the comic possibilities and begun doing pirouettes. Each take he’s slightly different, playing varying degrees of theatrical anguish, as his ostentatious sadness turns into elation. One take he ends with a deep, self-satisfied Olafian laugh. On another he does a little victory jig but then decides that’s too much. On yet another, he tones the campiness way down, playing the scene with a mock seriousness that underscores the children’s despair. There are ongoing discussions with Silberling, who appears to be subtly trying to reign Carrey in, keeping the performance big but not overwhelming.

Between takes, Carrey devotes himself to entertaining the baby, blowing on her face with a little fan, and trying to get her to laugh. He also incessantly pats down his shiny bald pate with a little cloth to remove the sweat.

His elaborate makeup job takes three hours every morning.

In a break, he explains that “Count Olaf is not only a ham, he’s the whole pig. He’s invented a new style of acting -- “backting.” Laughing, he says that he’s been telling everyone -- Spielberg, Streep ... -- that he’s been “backting,” i.e. acting with his backside. Turns out, he reveals wickedly, Streep had actually taken a real class in ... “backting.”

(“He was shocked to know there was such a thing,” says the actress, laughing. “When I was 14, my [singing] teacher sent me to somebody named Adler on the Upper West Side, who taught people to get their breath and seem like they’re emoting from the rear. I remember he said, ‘Here’s how you demonstrate rage,’ and he turned his back and expanded his rib cage in an alarming way that looked like a heaving brontosaurus.”) The heaving brontosaurus certainly could have been an incarnation of Olaf.

On the phone from a plane, Carrey later elaborates. “This one was a chance for me, without actually being in something Shakespearean, I was able to go to that place, that completely self-aggrandizing place of an actor who’s losing his hair. There’s nothing more dangerous than that in the world. Somebody’s going to get hurt. It’s like a lion with a thorn in his paw. I get to make fun of ego.” It is one of the conceits of the books that Olaf keeps dressing up in various disguises to try to trick the Baudelaires, who are the only ones who see through his costumes. So Carrey doesn’t just play Olaf, but also his alter egos, the nerdy scientist Stefano and the seafaring lothario Captain Sham, who tries to seduce Streep’s unsuspecting Aunt Jo.

“Not only was he the greatest actor that ever lived, he changed acting as it was known,” says Carrey, laughing. “There’s so much that goes on in these things that never actually gets seen. I improvised for three days, and I never said a word of dialogue from the script.” Indeed both Browning and Aiken, who play the older kids, were surprised to find that Carrey never did the same thing twice.

“I get bored just doing the same thing over and over again,” says the actor. “I have to kind of feel like I’m on the edge of something, where you can blow the whole thing, to feel inspired. I just keep adding and thinking as the ideas are coming. It’s an editing nightmare at the end of the whole thing.”

Yet Parkes and MacDonald say Carrey’s process is actually a little less chaotic than it sounds. Much of Carrey’s improvisations took place during makeup and lighting tests where Silberling would interview him in character as Olaf or Stephano or Captain Sham, and videotape the responses, later reworked into the script. “Eighty percent of what I improvised became the dialogue of character,” says the actor.

Handler sounds very excited about Carrey’s Olaf. “Jim Carrey is a frightening and hysterical person, which is certainly who we wanted. All the actors I could think of who would be good for Olaf were among the dead. He’s an excellent choice from the land of the living.”

The author, however, is more circumspect about how he thinks the film turned out. “It’s hard to give an opinion when I haven’t seen all of it,” he says. At that point, six weeks before its debut, the special effects still were not done.

Handler did wind up staying intimate with the production, reworking and endowing promotional material with his fey wit and writing up special Lemony Snicket stories to go into Oscar Mayer Lunchables. He consulted on the script and helped craft the film’s narration by Lemony Snicket, now opined in the dreamy dulcet tones of Jude Law.

“That movie will have a slightly different tone from the book,” he says, somewhat wistfully. “That’s what happens when it’s the vision of someone else. I don’t think anyone should expect that the movie is exactly like the books, which I’m not convinced would make a great movie. People keep asking me if authors were in control of Hollywood, would films be better? I think films would be a lot wordier.”

Rachel Abramowitz can be contacted at rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com.


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