How 1991’s The Addams Family Nearly Got Derailed

The Addams Family could've been an easy project to bring to the screen. But the film, with Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston, was anything but

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

When we talk about difficult film productions, the same names seem to come through. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, for instance, are productions with well-told stories of how those behind the scenes went to proverbial hell and back. In more recent times, most of us are more than familiar with the hell that those behind World War Z went through to get it to the screen.

What I though would be a bit different though is take a generally very successful film, and dig a bit deeper to see if there was a troubled story there. One where behind the scenes issues are rarely talked about. The Addams Family was one of the few box office highlights of 1991. Off the back of a modest budget of $30m, the film went on to gross $191m at cinemas worldwide, providing to be a sizeable hit particularly in the US (where its take nearly matched that of Hook). It was a box office highlight in a year that had precious few of them. But it nearly didn’t get to cinemas at all.

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Morticia and Gomez Addams

Beginnings

The film was eventually released by Paramount Pictures, but its origins lay at 20th Century Fox. In particular, with producer Scott Rudin, who was head of production at the studio at the time. He pitched the idea of a movie based on Charles Addams’ cartoon originals of The Addams Family (rather than the TV series that had followed) to his colleagues at Fox, and he was met with enthusiasm.

What could possibly go wrong? Er, quite a lot.

For Fox didn’t have the rights to The Addams Family. In fact, they lay with Orion Pictures, not that the firm was then actively doing anything with them. Orion held the rights to a library of properties from a firm called Filmway, and The Addams Family TV show was part and parcel of that. And because it owned the rights to the old TV show, the firm also held the option to make a film. Charles Addams had died by this stage too, and further crucial rights had been left to his second wife.

read more: The Spooky New Jersey Origins of The Addams Family

Fox tried to buy said rights, and failed. Orion, it turned out, was going to try and get a new TV show going, so wasn’t willing to give them up.

The problem everyone faced though was that The Addams Family was unknown to an audience under roughly 40 at the time. Conversely, the not dissimilar The Munsters continued to enjoy repeats and bring in a new collection of younger viewers. Outside America in particular, The Addams Family had not sustained the same level of interest.

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Morticia and Gomez Waltzing

And It Begins…

Things, however, changed. Addams’ ex-wife sold the remaining rights to Orion, and the firm decided to press ahead a movie take instead. The studio brought Rudin on board, now free of his Fox duties. It looked like The Addams Family was finally happening.

So then: a script was produced, with the first draft penned by Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson, who had collaborated beforehand on Edward Scissorhands. Paul Rudnick came in to do further work (and would write the eventual sequel, Addams Family Values), and the story runs that lots of rewrites took place.

Next, it was director time. And you know those stories, where someone gives an interview and tells you that so and so was the first and only choice for the job? That absolutely was not the case here: Tim Burton, for one, was strongly linked at one stage with the director’s chair. It was reportedly quite a list.

The job, though, ended up going to Barry Sonnenfeld. Sonnenfeld has since gone on to make three Men In Black films, with Wild Wild West and Get Shorty also amongst a long line of credits. Even appreciating that The Addams Family was his directorial debut, he’d previously more than earned his stripes as a director of photography on the likes of Big, Misery, and the brilliant Miller’s Crossing. Bluntly, he knew his way around a movie set.

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The film, however, would nearly break him.

As he told Empire magazine back in 1991, Sonnenfeld admitted “I lost 13 pounds in the first 10 weeks alone. And the tension was just incredible” (in the same interview, he recalled being hired by The Coen Brothers to shoot Blood Simple: “I was so nervous I threw up 17 times.” There seemed to be a theme here).

It was three weeks into directing the film that things went very wrong. Again, as he recalled in the same interview, “I was standing behind a chair when I started to feel this tremendous pressure in my chest, as if someone was blowing up a balloon inside me. Before I knew what was happening, I got very dizzy and tried to sit down and – wham! – I’d passed out.”

Sonnenfeld regained consciousness, weeping as he did. Producer Scott Rudin, just weeks into production, had a director who was teetering on the edge. He moved quickly, and tried to order everyone home, but as Sonnenfeld said back in 1991, “I remember begging Scott, please let me get up and get going again. If we have to stop every time I faint or start to cry, we’ll never get this movie done.” Production resumed quickly, and nobody got the half day off they thought they were getting. Sonnenfeld, in a 2012 Vulture interview, would call it a “sciatic time.”

Uncle Fester

Further Issues

The shoot went on for 20 weeks, but more problems hit the production, and hit it hard.

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With three months of filming left, its director of photography – Owen Roizman – quit to go and take on another film (he would still get the final credit on the movie, interestingly). Gale Tattersall, the new DP came in to finish the film – without credit – but within weeks, the film had to stop for a few days. Tattersall was rushed to hospital, and would not complete the movie. As it happened, Sonnenfeld had no real option but to take on DP duties himself, as well as directing the film. It can’t have helped his stress levels.

read more: How The Addams Family Animated Movie Came Together

Next up, Raul Julia, starring as Gomez Addams, had to miss filming for several days when a blood vessel burst in his eye. So that was further rearranging that needed to be done. And then another health issue struck. The film was being shot in Los Angeles, but Sonnenfeld’s home was in New York. When his wife fell ill with weeks of shooting still to go, Sonnenfeld went back home to visit her, all the while with his debut feature to complete and shoot.

It would be fair to say that making The Addams Family was stressful. But amazingly, it was going to get worse.

Morticia and Wednesday Addams

The Orion Problem

We’ve talked on and off about Orion Pictures before at Den Of Geek, given that the firm is one of the most notorious boom and bust stories in Hollywood’s recent history. Off the back of the huge success of films such as The Silence Of The Lambs and Dances With Wolves, Orion should have been flush with cash.

But Orion backed too many bad, expensive movies, and was running out of cash. With production still ongoing, it needed money fast. It decided to sell The Addams Family to another studio – while it was filming.

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Not that the filmmakers knew this. They were oblivious as it happened, discovering the news for the first time from a journalist, rather than Orion or Paramount.

Orion was in dire straits by then though. It’s not as if The Addams Family was going wildly over budget. Originally costed at $25 million, it came in $5 million over budget, courtesy of some new material that had been added to the script once cameras started rolling. It would have expected a modest return for its investment too – although Hook was still expected to steamroller the Christmas 1991 box office (which it didn’t) – but it simply couldn’t wait for the cash. Orion was out of options.

Just as an aside here, the film was also one affected by the growing Hollywood trend of test screenings. Originally, the Mamushka music sequence, one of the highlights of the film, was a lot longer. However, as Entertainment Weekly reported back in 1991, that scene was butchered by a test screening.  Why was it cut? “Perhaps the blame lies with a couple hundred Valley Boys who considered ‘The Mamushka’ a real showstopper. Their negative reaction to a preview of the movie evidently helped shape its final form,” EW reported.

But back to Orion. Perhaps the one saving grace was that its sale of The Addams Family was completed quickly, but it was still being done while the film was shooting. One day, Scott Rudin was reporting into one studio. The day after, he had another on the phone, wanting to get up to speed on what was happening. Rudin had to juggle that, all the while whilst his first time director fought to get the film finished.

As it turned out, Paramount would get a bargain. The studio finally gave the project some security, and filming would wrap in April 1991. The major hassles were over. But there was still a slight sting in the tail.

Gomez Addams sitting

Release

The journey seemed to have come to an end when the film was finally released in November 1991. But even then, there were problems. One of them, oddly enough, was only resolved last year.

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That’s because ongoing rights problems gave the film unforeseen issues come the DVD era. For when Paramount bought the project from Orion, it turned out that it didn’t get the full foreign distribution rights, which are now held by MGM. MGM titles are distributed in some territories by Fox. Are you still following this? The bottom line here is that when it came to the DVD release of the film, outside of the UK and US and one or two territories, rights problems meant that most countries couldn’t get a release of The Addams Family on DVD until 2013. Yep: over a decade on, the shadow of Orion’s sudden sale of the project was still being cast.

However, we’ve jumped a lawsuit, one that landed quickly after The Addams Family arrived in cinemas. David Levy, who had executive produced the 1960s television take on The Addams Family, argued that he held many of the trademark Addams Family features that the film played on. Paramount did not go all the way to court, eventually settling with Levy, no doubt with one eye on rushing a sequel into production.

Success

The Addams Family was a successful film, to which Paramount did make a better sequel (albeit one that didn’t perform as well as the original).

Because of the middling profile of the film though, the behind the scenes issues surrounding its production are rarely talked about. Hopefully, this article proves that even with a film that looks steady from the outside, the people behind it may just have gone to their own version of hell and back to get the thing made. Some of them certainly did on this one…