Beloved as it is, what a lot of people don’t know is that studio execs at one point wrote off the Oscar-nominated The Addams Family as unreleasable.
However, supernatural comedy grossed $191.5 million at the box office, and the 30th anniversary of its landing in theaters is being celebrated with a newly-restored, extended cut 4K UHD release.
I caught up with director Barry Sonnenfeld, who made his directorial debut with the hit, to discuss fighting for Anjelica Huston to play Morticia instead of Cher, the grueling journey to create a classic, and the opening weekend at the box office that got everyone in Hollywood talking.
Simon Thompson: Was this restoration something you approached Paramount Pictures about, or did they give you a call?
Barry Sonnenfeld: Paramount called me about four or five months ago and said they were going to remaster the movie in 4K because all the streaming services want everything that way. They also wanted to have a Blu-ray version and a new digital download. I said, ‘Hey, listen, if you’re going to do that, then I’d love to participate but is there any way you guys can go back into the vault and see if you can find the missing half of the Mamushka dance sequence?’ Now that I’ve done Schmigadoon! I suddenly love singing and dancing, which I never did before. Anyway, Paramount went back into the vault, found the cut workprint, and they found the original negative for it, so we’ve re-installed the full-length sequence that Raul Julia and Christopher Lloyd perform. The Addams Family restoration is the first time I’ve ever wanted to add something to a movie. I believe there should be one version of a film, not the special cut or a director’s cut or new or alternative endings and all that stuff. It should just be like a painting or a sculpture. The single best scene, and the funniest scene, in Get Shorty, is not in the movie. When I released the Special Edition, I added that scene at the end so that you could look at it, but I didn’t put it back into the body of the work. In this case, I so missed showing the full Mamushka that the second we released the movie, I regretted it, so I was thrilled that Paramount could find that and remix the footage.
Thompson: When was the last time that you revisited The Addams Family before this?
Sonnenfeld: It was about six months ago. Like all movies that you direct and revisit, I literally forgot certain scenes, but I remember them now and love them again. There were other moments where I had regrets about not cutting certain things, but I liked it. I was really pleased to see it again.
Thompson: We know The Addams Family, which has become a beloved movie, as a box office hit. I understand it wasn’t an easy movie to make.
Sonnenfeld: I was a first-time director, and I didn’t have any idea if I’d be able to communicate with actors. The DOP, Owen Roizman, did a beautiful job shooting the film’s first half, but he was very talented but very slow, so we kept falling further and further behind. Halfway through, Orion Pictures, the original producer, sold us to Paramount, which meant a change of many things, and people were nervous. Stanley R. Jaffe at Paramount didn’t like our movie and thought it was uncuttable and unreleasable, so it was tough going. NRG is the company that studios use to preview movies, and I remember them saying you’ve got too many very goods and not enough excellents on the response cards, so the studio got very worried. I said that was because The Addams Family is a comedy, and comedies don’t get excellent. I was told that I was wrong and that comedies will get as many excellents as anything else, so I made them add two more questions at the following audience screening. The first one was, ‘In your life, have you ever seen a comedy you would rate is excellent?’ and the second was, ‘What was your favorite movie the last six months?’ A third said they had never in their lives seen a comedy they would rate is excellent. What was their favorite movie the last six months? I think it was City Slickers or another comedy, which proved my point. It was a terrible experience because no one knew we would have a successful movie until the weekend box office.
Thompson: What do you remember about that opening weekend? Audiences did turn out en masse for The Addams Family, and I remember the powerful word of mouth.
Sonnenfeld: The studio system was going through one of those slumps, but you’re right that there was a specific word of mouth about this movie. It was predicted that The Addams Family would open with $12 million, which was this huge number 30 years ago. We opened with something like $24 million, twice as much as the high end of expectations. I remember that weekend well. I lived in East Hampton, Long Island, and I was getting calls from Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, and all these people I had never met in my life congratulating me. Everyone congratulated me about the box office, except Katzenberg, who congratulated me on the film, which was interesting. I really liked that. I kept saying, ‘Well, it’s not about me, it’s about Paramount’s marketing. It’s about their execs, Barry London and Arthur Cohen, and so on.’ Then on Sunday night, Scott Rudin, the producer, called me up and said, ‘Congratulations, Bar.’ I said the same thing to him that I said before, and Scott stopped me and said, ‘Barry, if you can’t be happy this weekend, your mother won.’
Thompson: I heard that Anjelica Huston, who plays Morticia Addams perfectly, was shocked that Cher wasn’t picked to play that role. Was there a scenario where Cher was in the running, and what happened?
Sonnenfeld: When we started discussing casting at Orion, they wanted Cher and bagged Scott and myself to cast her in the role along with someone else as Gomez. However, we felt it was the Charles Adams concept that was a star and that we didn’t need star actors, we needed excellent actors, and no one could have been a better Gomez than Raul Julia. He was just so big and full of life, and Anjelica was so perfect. We pushed back against what Orion wanted, and thankfully we got our first choices.
Thompson: Those portrayals have become so iconic that they are the go-to versions for a vast majority of people. How does that feel to have created something that surpassed the original?
Sonnenfeld: In all honesty, the credit goes to the creator, Charles Addams, because our Bible was not the TV show at all; it was his work. When I was asked to direct The Addams Family, the first script I read wasn’t very good and was very much based on the TV show. We went back to the source, which was Addams’ incredible cartoons, the black and white drawings. Even when I was eight or nine years old, I loved those because they were like visual puzzles. You had to stare at them and figure out where the joke was. His method of joke-telling is precisely the way I like to direct, which is to let the audience find the comedy. Don’t cut to the close-up for the punchline; stay in the wide shot. We had all those images, so Charles Addams deserves all that credit, not us filmmakers.
Thompson: The Addams Family’s success gave us Addams Family Values, one of the greatest sequels of all time. What lessons did you carry from this film to that one?
Sonnenfeld: We had a ringer with Christina Ricci in that you could do no wrong with her, so we focused on her character and all the summer camp stuff. With Camp Chippewa and her great Thanksgiving speech, we knew that Christina was a homerun. We knew we didn’t want to duplicate the same movie. Actually, I think one of the problems with the sequel was that the marketing of the second one was too similar to the first. People didn’t realize there was a whole new story. We were also fortunate to have Joan Cusack join the cast as Debbie Jellinsky, who was brilliant, and Paul Rudnick, who wrote the screenplay. Paul did a massive rewrite on the first one but didn’t get a credit, but the second movie was all him. He was an unsung hero of both of the Addams Family films.
Thompson: You’ve had a very positive experience with converting The Addams Family to 4K. Could we tempt you to do it again for Addams Family Values turning 30 in 2023? Are there nuggets you had to take out that you’ll finally get to show us with that movie too?
Sonnenfeld: I would love to. I don’t remember that we cut out much of the second film. Cutting out all of the Mamushka in the first film and getting to put that back was a unique situation. I’d love to work on the second one again, but I don’t think I ever want to put more stuff back in.
The Addams Family will be available on Digital 4K Ultra HD on Tuesday, October 19, 2021, and on a remastered Blu-ray from Tuesday, November 9, 2021.
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