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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

March 31, 1991|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

"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."

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.

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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