Q&A:: Why is Netflix’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ so superior to the movie? We ask Barry Sonnenfeld
Believe me when I tell you that one of the great works of television art — yes, art — over the last two years is the Netflix adaptation of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” 13 alliteratively titled volumes of of suspense, adventure, terror, love, obsession, satire, absurdity and vocabulary lessons written by Daniel Handler under the name Lemony Snicket. (Snicket is also the story’s narrator, and a quasi-character just outside it, driven like the Ancient Mariner to relate his tale.) The third and final season began streaming on New Year’s Day.
The series concerns the Baudelaire orphans — Violet (who invents things), Klaus (who reads and retains a great deal) and Sunny (a baby with a talent for biting) — and the menacing Count Olaf, whose great dream is to separate them from their inheritance, and throughout the series assumes disguises only the children see through. Horrible things happen, mostly. The first three novels were adapted for the big screen in 2004, with Jim Carrey as Olaf. It was a disappointment to this fan of the books and, I assume, others as no further films arrived to continue the tale.
It turns out the series was just waiting for the age of streaming television. Where the film compressed three books into less than two hours, the television version, which began in 2017 and stars Neil Patrick Harris, has adapted each at two-part feature length, filling out and refining the novels’ mythology. Most important, it has Barry Sonnenfeld (“Get Shorty,” “Men in Black,” “The Tick,” “Pushing Daisies”) as show-runner, executive producer and primary director, not to mention Handler writing the screenplays. It feels definitive, and looks fantastic.
Both Sonnenfeld and Handler were originally involved in the movie; both were let go from it. Sonnenfeld, with whom I spoke recently by phone from Telluride, Colo., where he has a home, calls their history bringing the novels to the screen a “series of unfortunate events that ended well.” The series, he says, has been “the best experience I’ve ever had working in the film or television business.”
Where does your history with ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ begin?
I had read the books to my daughter, Chloe, when she was a kid, and at some point she moved on and I didn’t. I would say the second half of the series I read without her. What attracted me to the books was that they posit that children are capable and smart, and all adults, whether they mean well or are villains, are equally ineffectual and horrible — which could have described my parents. They meant well, but they were horrible.
Tell me about working with Daniel Handler.
Daniel’s really funny and really dry; we have a similar dark sense of humor. He has a much bigger vocabulary than I do. We both felt the movie was more overproduced [relative to] what we wanted to do on the show. I went to Netflix and said, “I want to shoot this show entirely on the stage; I want everything to be controlled, from the skies, to the colors, to the water.” We didn’t want a huge, loud production; we wanted something that was much more intimate. It’s dry, it’s flat. The comedy is never meant to be jokey so much as allowing the audience to find the joke. We don’t try to sugarcoat things — people die in the show. This isn’t to say good or bad, but it’s the opposite of a Disney show. It’s not bright, it’s not colorful, its not sing-songy, it’s not happy. It’s dark, it’s dreary. The palette is very restricted.
The other thing we wanted was that Lemony should be an onscreen narrator. I thought the character was not served well by the movie — which was basically Jude Law at a typewriter. [Our Lemony] would never be in the same chronological time as the action, but he was telling the story and could be physically in the scenes. That was a huge plus. And even though I had worked with [Patrick] Warburton on “The Tick” and “Men in Black II” and “Big Trouble,” he was actually Daniel’s idea for Lemony. He brings so much to the show emotionally and tonally; he can say really funny things without you ever thinking, “This guy’s trying to be funny.”
But that character is also so sad. He’s so wounded.
He’s incredibly sad, he’s incredibly wounded, and one of the things that makes me cry every time I see the third season is the resolution of Warburton’s character. We don’t want to give that away, but I will say it so bookends the three seasons — it was not in the books, but it feels like it was always supposed to be that way. I think what we’ve managed to do, while still remaining mysterious and subtle and never spoon-feeding information, is to fill out a lot of questions that were never resolved in the books, and resolve them in an organic way that feels like, “I remember that.” Without becoming overly commercial or wrapping everything up, I think our ending ultimately is more satisfying.
How did you settle on Neil Patrick Harris for Count Olaf?
Neil was also Daniel’s idea. What’s funny about that is soon after I had the meeting with Netflix — I hadn’t been hired yet, but I felt the meeting went very well — my wife and child and I were having Thanksgiving with Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos in Manhattan, and among the guests were Neil and his husband, David Burtka, and their kids. And I sat opposite Neil, and I said, “Hey, Neil, we’ve never met and I think you’d be great in a show I can’t tell you anything about because I don’t have the job yet, but if I get the job I’d love for you to be ... the guy.” And then I got the job and we were discussing who would play Olaf and Daniel said, “What about Neil Patrick Harris?” I said, “Perfect, I’ve recently met him and offered him the job.”
He’s extraordinary. Not only is he playing Count Olaf, but he’s playing Count Olaf playing Shirley, Captain Sham, whatever — and he’s brilliant, and so funny and smart. He wore a different cologne as each character; you always knew when he was coming onstage ‘cause you could smell the over-cologned Neil Patrick Harris as the stage door opened.
What about him made you feel he was right?
Part of it was that he feels equally at home in television, in movies and onstage; he could be stylized, he could be big, but he would always be real — real and theatrical at the same time is hard to find. And Olaf’s character is all over the place; he’s got to be really mean and really funny, and sort of a failure, but a threat. The first episode we ever did, “The Bad Beginning,” there’s a scene early on where Olaf slaps Klaus across the face; we did several takes and Neil kept trying to show remorse. I said, “Neil, we’ve got to do one where there’s no remorse.” And Neil said, “Well I feel bad about that, I just hit the kid.” I said, “Olaf is a buffoon, but our heroes are only as heroic as our villain is villainous, and this is one of the few chances we have to say to the audience, and to the Baudelaire kids, this guy’s dangerous.”
Was it hard casting the Baudelaire children?
Yes and no. I had worked with Malina Weissman on a movie called “Nine Lives,” and she totally got my direction, which is always, “Flatter, faster.” I find if actors talk really quickly, it doesn’t give them time to act, and I hate to watch acting onscreen. In fact, my wife always has to sit to my right and hold my right arm down so I can’t wave at the screen to make them talk faster. I only got through half an episode of “Mad Men,” 'cause I couldn’t believe they were allowed to talk so slowly. So Malina was easy, because I knew she could be flat and fast and not like a kid actor.
What’s really hard is to find male actors because there seem to be fewer boys who want to go into acting, and often when they do they want to sort of overact. We had a really hard time finding Klaus; Louis Hynes put himself on tape in London — he’s British. He had never acted before, except an occasional school play or something, and we flew him from London to L.A. and worked with Malina and Louis for about an hour and decided at the very last minute — we were heavily into building sets — that he was our guy. And then Sunny was hard; we interviewed a lot of twins, but they just didn’t look right. And Presley [Smith] had the right look and the right personality. We took a chance and decided we’d go with one baby, which is always hard to do, and she turned out great.
She turned into a good little actress.
I know! In the third season she’s saying words. When she says to Mr. Poe [the incompetent executor of the Baudelaire estate, played by K. Todd Freeman], “I despise you,” it’s just … fantastic.
The show is very stylized but very human and emotional at the same time; can you talk about the relationship of something that looks quite unreal and fantastic and at the same time gets right to matters of the heart?
I think it’s specific to my personality. Or my tone. Whether it was “Pushing Daisies” or “Addams Family” or “Men in Black,” I love to create specific worlds, yet not let the viewer feel they’re outside of the world; I like to invite them in. This sounds technical, but I think the fact that I use very wide angle lenses makes a really big difference. On the one hand, wide angle lenses are very stylized, but it also means the camera is near the actor. I think the audience feels they’re there in the scene and therefore more emotionally engaged. It’s the opposite of what, for instance, Tony and Ridley Scott do, and did; they always use very, very, very long lenses, telephoto lenses, and their shows are very beautiful. But somehow the audience unconsciously knows they’re far away, that they’re observing the scene as opposed to participating in it.
Do you have a picture of your audience?
Netflix gives us no information. I have no idea who’s watching the show. I have no idea what percentage of the people watching the show have read the books. I had no idea if we should have more action, or more comedy, or they all love Mr. Poe, we need more of that — no idea. They’re fantastic to work with, they were so supportive and so great, but they just don’t give the filmmakers any information about how well the show’s doing, not doing, who’s watching.
Is it freeing in any way not to have to think about that?
No. I’m a commercial director — I want to please the audience. I want to please them on my terms, but if I knew that 80% of the audience said, “We want more action,” we would have found a way. If everyone had said, “We want more Presley” — well, of course they’d want more Presley. It’s not a bad thing to know who your audience is.
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