They may be creepy, kooky and all together ooky, but 30 years ago, America couldn’t get enough of The Addams Family. Released in theaters over the 1991 Thanksgiving holidays, Barry Sonnenfeld’s big-screen version of Charles Addams’s mysterious and spooky New Yorker cartoons — and the 1964 TV series — became a box-office sensation, banking nearly $120 million and finishing amongst the Top 10 highest-grossing movies of that year.
But the film might have gotten lost in the Bermuda Triangle alongside Uncle Fester had Sonnenfeld not listened to the words of wisdom expressed by scene-stealing child star Christina Ricci. Speaking with Leak Herald Entertainment, the director credits the then-10-year-old actress — who played the Addams’s wickedly funny daughter, Wednesday — with single-handedly talking him into changing the movie’s original, and much less emotionally satisfying, final scene. “The whole cast was unhappy with the ending,” Sonnenfeld remembers now. “They made Christina their spokesperson when we had our first table read.”
The plot of The Addams Family, which was written by Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson, and then extensively re-written by Paul Rudnick, hinges on whether or not Christopher Lloyd’s Uncle Fester really is the long-missing brother of Gomez Addams (Raul Julia) or an imposter after the family fortune. According to Sonnenfeld, the original ending went with the latter answer, which infuriated Julia as well as his on-screen spouse, Anjelica Huston, who played Gomez’s reigning Goth Queen, Morticia. “They were outraged,” Sonnenfeld says. “They wanted Fester to really be Fester.”
During that contentious table read, the director tried to make the case for his intended ending. “Gomez says in the original script, ‘Family is a state of mind, not biology — so welcome to our family,’” Sonnenfeld notes about what the take-away message would have been. He even asked Lloyd directly which identity he preferred. “I said, ‘Chris, do you care if you’re the real Fester or a fake Fester?” And he replied, ‘I don’t care.’ So I told the rest of the cast: ‘Chris doesn’t care. Why do you care?’”
At that point, Huston nudged Ricci to deliver the ensemble’s closing argument. “Anjelica said, ‘Barry, just listen to Christina.’ And Christina explained to me how the audience would be left emotionally adrift if it wasn’t the real Fester. Does that mean the real Fester is still out there? And how could Gomez just give up his search for his brother after all these years just because this imposter came into their family?”
Confronted with Ricci’s youthful wisdom, Sonnenfeld and Rudnick immediately went back to the typewriter and Uncle Fester was Uncle Fester again by the time shooting started. “Christina convinced us,” the director says, chuckling. “We knew right away that she’s a formidable intellectual and a very smart actress.” Don’t forget “box-office savvy,” too.
That original ending won’t be seen in the Sonnenfeld-approved extended cut of The Addams Family that’s arriving on Digital 4K Ultra HD on Oct. 19, followed by 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and remastered Blu-ray editions on Nov. 9. (The theatrical cut is also included on the 30th anniversary release, alongside new featurettes.) But the longer version does restore the director’s favorite sequence, which was severely edited down in the theatrical cut. To celebrate 30 years of good, clean, wholesome Addams Family fun, we spoke with Sonnenfeld about capturing the spirit of Charles Addams’s cartoons on film and directing Julia — who died in 1994 — in one of his best-remembered roles.
One of the things I’ve always loved about The Addams Family is how you balance both the macabre and the comedy. That’s sort of encapsulated in how you approach Thing, who is both a hilarious character and also a disembodied hand!
We used a really good actor for Thing named Christopher Hart, who was also a magician. I would say that 97 percent of everything you’re seeing in the movie is Chris, and we erased his body by shooting a plate of the shot behind him or we stuck his hand underneath tables. In one scene, Chris is hiding behind Raul Julia, so Thing can crawl up his back and perch on his shoulder. We got away with a lot, considering that we didn’t have the budget and that in 1991 there wasn’t a lot of CG that wasn’t insanely expensive.
For me, the movie was exclusively about being true to the Charles Addams drawings that appeared in The New Yorker magazine as opposed to the television show, which was sort of goofier. The cartoons were my inspiration, because I grew up with them. We got The New Yorker every week, so I was well aware of them from the time that I was probably 7 or 8 years old.
One of the great things about Charles Addams’s drawings is that he plays a lot with levels: There’s often something happening in the foreground and in the background. For example, in the case of the scene where Gomez is in the motel room watching the Sally Jessy Raphael show, you see Granny through the window going: “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty” and she’s got a club in her hands. Later on, she comes in and says, “Dinner’s going to be late.” That’s a very Charles Addams thing to do.
This was your directorial debut, but I understand that you almost turned the movie down because you didn’t like the first script.
The original script I read was more like the TV show: There were jokes and there were pratfalls. It was not totally like the cartoons, which were much more sort of sophisticated. I expressed my concerns and the producer said, “Look, if I can get you a job directing this, will you agree to do it?” And I said, “Yeah, sure. If you can get me a job directing it, sure.” I didn’t think he’d be able to!
We met with Orion [the studio that financed the movie], and they were concerned because they had recently done an Oliver Stone movie called The Hand that had gone over budget. So they kept asking me questions as it related to Thing, because they had used [expensive] mechanical hands for that other movie and I explained that my concept for Thing was to shoot everything in-camera with a live person doing the acting.
They hired me, but at the end of the meeting they said, “You’re sure you’ll be able to fit the hand physically in the camera?” I had to explain to them what “in-camera” meant! [Laughs] Then we brought on Paul Rudnick, who is the uncredited re-writer of The Addams Family: He really turned it around and understood the tone I was going for. He also wrote the second one, Addams Family Values.
The Addams mansion is very much a character in the film, with secret rooms and catacombs around every corner. Was it fun to turn that house into a world of its own?
It was! Richard Macdonald was the production designer on the first movie, and his sets were slightly more romantic and curvy than the Addams drawings. For Addams Family Values we had a different production designer and if you look at the two movies, [the sets] are totally different even though it’s the same house. But Richard did a beautiful job: I was very happy with the way the sets looked.
On the first movie, we had a really long shoot and were on a lot of different stages. Some stuff we had to rush through: that underground room where Gomez and Fester hang out and Fester sees all the gold was a last-minute thing. We were out of money, and it was right down to the wire if we would pull the scene off or not. If we were doing the movie again thirty years later, I think we would’ve had visual effects as opposed to what we did, which was use a real room with forced perspective. It was really hard to pull off: the camera had to be in exactly the right place or it wouldn’t line up properly.
The extended cut contains the full version of the “Mamushka” [dance] sequence that had to be edited down for the theatrical version after test screenings. Were there any other scenes you had to lose based on the audience reactions?
You always learn a lot from test screenings, although you don’t really need all those forms to be filled out. Questions like: “What did you think about the ending, and what were your favorite parts, and who were your least favorite characters?” — all that stuff is a waste of time. But what you do learn from sitting in a room with 300 people is that you hear when they start to cough or when they start to fidget.
The Mamushka was a wonderful number and I’m so glad that we put the full-length version back in for this new version. In fact, it will probably be the only time that any director’s cut I work on will be different from the theatrical release. Usually when I see director’s cuts, I go: “Wow, I can see why they cut out all that stuff.” I think there should only be one version of a movie, just like there’s only one version of a painting. There’s not a director’s cut of Guernica, you know? [Laughs]
The problem with the Mamushka was not really the Mamushka. Leading up to that number, there’s a long pre-sequence where we meet a lot of new characters, like Lumpy Addams and Cousin Itt. I couldn’t lose any of that stuff, but with the accumulation of those introductions and then the Mamushka, I felt [the movie] was getting a little too long. As soon as we locked the cut, and put the movie to bed, I regretted taking out the Mamushka because Raul is so wonderful and the lyrics are hysterical. So this will probably be the only time I’ve put something back into a movie, and I’m excited for everyone to see the full version.
Raul Julia’s performance as Gomez is still so delightful to watch. He gives his all in every scene.
That’s the great thing about both Raul and Gomez: They embrace all things. Gomez embraces sadness, anger and depression the same way he embraces happiness and romance. He just loves living, and that was Raul, too. He was the happiest, friendliest, nicest, easygoing, lovely actor I’ve worked with. Some people tell me that they like Addams Family Values more, and I always say that what I love about The Addams Family is how romantic it is. The relationship between Gomez and Morticia is wonderfully romantic, and Raul and Anjelica pulled it off perfectly.
I do have to ask about the “Addams Groove” by MC Hammer: How involved were you with that song and the music video?
You know, I used to shoot an occasional music video — like the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” video — but I’m not really the right guy to direct them. We really felt that we needed a great end-credits song, and Hammer was very hot at the time. We had an early meeting with him and he was great, and he wrote a great song about the Addams Family. I’ve been very successful with end-credit songs in my movies. The Men in Black films have all had them, and it’s always value-added.
Bringing it back to Christina Ricci, when exactly did you realize that she was going to steal the movie?
Early on, I directed a scene where the whole family opened the front door, and their point of view is the reveal of Fester in the rain. I shot the whole family staring at Chris walking off-camera and after the first take, I went up to Christina, and said: “I’d like you to do one more, but I want you to look just like a little sadder.” I went back to the camera, and I heard her say: “Barry, I can’t be sadder. Sadness is an emotion, and Wednesday has no emotion.” I thought, “Wow, I didn’t take that away from the cartoons!” [Laughs]
I told Christina, “You know what? Just be more dour.” Decades later, I told that story at an event where I presented Christina with an award. I said, “To this day, I don’t know if Christina knew that dour was similar to sad, but she did it anyway.” When Christina took the award, she replied: “Believe me Barry — I knew what dour meant.” So she’s fantastic, and so good in the first movie that we were able to almost make her the lead of Addams Family Values.
The extended cut of The Addams Family premieres Oct. 19 on Digital 4K Ultra HD, and Nov. 9 on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and remastered Blu-ray