The Spooky Secrets of The Addams Family Movie

The Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld breaks down the Mamushka, his directorial saddle, and James Gandolfini’s patois.

Uncle Fester and Gomez Addams in The Addams Family (1991)
Photo: Getty Images

“We would gladly feast on those who would subdue us.” These are not just pretty words, but the motto of The Addams Family. Originally released on Nov. 22, 1991, the comedy about lovable and pioneering psychopaths, fiends, mad-dog killers, and brutes hits its 30th anniversary this year. To celebrate, the film will be released for the first time on Digital 4K Ultra HD on Oct. 19, and has the full sequence of the Mamushka dance restored in its entirety. Paramount Home Entertainment says the release is timed for Halloween, but every day is a dark holiday for fans of The Addams Family.

While both Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) and Wednesday (Christina Ricci) might prefer to spend their holidays in the Bermuda Triangle, Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) need go no further than the family plot for their most relaxed reposts. Charles Addams’ characters have happily blighted American culture since The New Yorker published his first one-panel cartoon in 1938. In the 1960s, The Addams Family premiered on the same day as The Munsters debut, though both were ultimately taken down by the caped crusaders of Batman. The TV series codified many amorphous aspects of the comic, including family names, Thing, and the theme song. Written by songwriter Vic Mizzy, it was so memorable it inspired the Addams clan’s most imaginative reimagining.

Before remakes of The Flintstones, The Beverly Hillbillies, My Favorite Martian, and Sgt. Bilko tried to recapture the light comedy of TV’s Golden Age, Twentieth Century Fox’s big-screen version of The Addams Family tarnished the landscape. The screenplay was written by Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson, and punched up by an uncredited Paul Rudnick, who would write the screenplay for Addams Family Values (1993).

The Addams Family marked the feature debut of director Barry Sonnenfeld, who had been cinematographer for such films as the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing, as well as Danny DeVito’s homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Throw Mama from the Train, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally…, and Penny Marshall’s Big. He would go on to direct Men in Black I and II. Get Shorty, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Sonnenfeld’s storytelling camera exposed the spookiest of the creeps to be the modern world, while the strange, deranged Addamses are the most permissive of units, equally accepting of all but the most wholesome good cheer.

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To celebrate the reissue of The Addams Family, Den of Geek threw on a shawl and paid a call on Sonnenfeld, who spoke openly about It, Thing, and other things.

Den of Geek: What was it about The Addams Family that said “this is the first feature I have to direct?”

I wasn’t looking to direct. I was really happy as a cameraman. I was a couple of weeks from finishing Misery for Rob Reiner, and Scott Rudin sent me the script for Addams Family. The script wasn’t very good, but if there was one script that would make sense for me to be the director on, as a first-time director, it would be The Addams Family. It’s quirky. It’s dark. It’s black comedy. And I grew up with the Charles Addams cartoons in The New Yorker. Every week my dad would read The New Yorker, and I would look through to see if there was a Charles Addams drawing in there. So, it was the perfect first thing for me to do because it let me do a lot of visual stylizations, but also be very true to Charles Addams’ tone, which the original script didn’t do, and we worked with Paul Rudnick to get it there.

I spoke with Charles Addams’ biographer, who said the screen versions were never as dark as the comics. But with lines like “widows and orphans, we need more of them,” I think you captured it best. What was so jokey about the first draft of it?

You know, I don’t remember, but it was much more like the TV show, there were comedy scenes and jokey scenes and slapstick. It felt like it was one step short of a banana peel kind of script. There are so many moments where I just stole Charles Addams’ images and put it into our movie. Gomez playing with the train set and me looking over it and seeing Gomez’s face? That was a New Yorker cartoon. The cauldron, in the opening scene, where they pour oil on the carolers on Christmas Eve, is a Charles Adams cartoon. I even stole, well used, a concept in the teaser. Charles Addams drew this drawing: you’re in a movie theater and there’s a woman on the screen and the woman is going like [screams] and everyone in the audience is turned to see what she’s screaming at, as if the woman on the screen is actually seeing something in the theater.

How do we know which are your visual gags and which are the gags that you lifted from the cartoon?

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Well, the ones I’m telling you I got from the cartoon, but it’s a good question. Charles Addams never had a moving camera, so he couldn’t follow Thing around a house from a séance to a door. One of the things I’m proud of is putting the full Mamushka back in there, which is one of the add-ons for this 4K version. To get Marc Shaiman and Comden and Green to write the song and actually film this whole dance number. That’s not Charles Addams, but the tone is. They’re throwing blades and juggling knives and Fester swallows one. In tone, Charles Addams, in execution, Barry.

Charles Addams had a crazy apartment in Manhattan with suits of armor and torture devices. And you have a public bathroom as a bathroom, and direct movies from a saddle. Will you ever direct one from a mechanical bull?

No, it’s too heavy and you don’t want to make the crew carry it around from location to location. I often dress like a cowboy. I wear a cowboy hat. I wear cowboy boots. And at the end of Men in Black II, which was 20 years ago, the crew, as a joke when we wrapped, gave me a saddle and it sits on an Apple box. And ever since then, we’ve improved the saddle. It now has various drawers for my medications and bottles of water.

Now, I have a second saddle that on A Series of Unfortunate Events, we actually took a Rascal, which is one of those things that old people use to get around like Walmart and stuff, in the villages down in Florida, and we put a saddle on that. So now I have a motorized saddle so I can just drive myself up to the actors and go, “OK, just do it again, just a lot faster.” And then I pull on a joystick and go back to the monitor or to the camera. So yeah, I’m a quirky guy, and I always say I take my work seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. So that’s how I get through the day on the set.

I heard the Mamushka was cut because of a test audience. How does that feel to have to cut something so fully formed and fun?

That’s half true. When you have a recruited-audience screening, you don’t really need tests. You don’t need them to fill out forms. Just being in the theater, you sense when people start to cough or fidget. You always want every scene to move the story forward. If you can cut a scene out of your movie and it doesn’t affect the plot or emotions, the scene shouldn’t be in there. And the problem is, before the Mamushka there is a very long lead-up to the Mamushka. We introduce Lumpy Addams, we introduce Flora and Fauna Amour, and there’s this endless setup. 

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Dede Allen, who was a brilliant editor, and I felt we should leave all of the Mamushka in, but get rid of some of the stuff before, because somewhere in there we weren’t moving the plot forward, and we could sense the audience getting just a little bit fidgety. And at the end of the day, instead of losing the stuff before the Mamushka, we cut the Mamushka in half because it was an easy way to just cut into it in the middle.

But I regretted that decision. It’s the only time I’ve ever wanted to make anything longer. Joel and Ethan, they produce special editions, and they’re always shorter. The Blood Simple special edition is shorter than the original. Joel and Ethan and I are working on a rerelease of Miller’s Crossing for Criterion. And Joel is actually reediting the movie and making it shorter. This is the only time I’ve ever wanted to lengthen anything, and I really miss the full Mamushka because it starts wonderfully. Raul Julia is such a brilliant theatrical actor, on Broadway musicals, so I regretted taking out the first half.

How did the Mamushka inform Schmigadoon!?

Well, I’m not a fan of musicals, but yet I seem to know how to shoot them. I’ll tell you the truth. I think that most dance movies and most modern musicals don’t know how to shoot. There are too many inserts. Too many cutaways. In both the Mamushka and Schmigadoon!, we see full bodies, we see people dancing head to toe. We played everything very proscenium, in wide shots, so you can see whole dancers. The way they used to shoot musicals. I’m just not a fan, but it doesn’t mean I don’t know how to shoot them.

What is the Fred Astaire connection to Thing and is Thing you as a living camera?

I think the camera is me. I love how energetic and self-aware and self-important the camera is in everything I do because it’s me saying, “Hey, here I am. I know I’m not on screen, but pay attention to me.” That’s why, in Raising Arizona and Throw Mama from the Train, I do all these wacky camera moves. It’s so the people know that I’m the cinematographer or the director. Fred Astaire, he’s a darn good dancer. Thing was good too, and what I loved about Thing is, again, he wasn’t CGI. It was always Christopher Hart, with a black sleeve, coming up Gomez’s shoulder or sticking his hand underneath through a hole in the table. But ninety five percent of Thing, 98 percent is real Christopher Hart. And he was patient and brilliant and worked long hours.

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The casting, obviously, is perfect, but Christina Ricci was 10 years old. Was she just born, fully formed, as a comic genius?

Yeah, very flat. Knew never to hit the comedy. That’s what I loved about her. She never hit the comedy. Just said the lines as flat as possible. She was joyful to work with because my whole motto is: fast and flat. I don’t want to hear any intonation, just say the lines without any artifice. And she was perfection and the epitome of Charles Addams, which is find the joke. I’m not going to tell you where the joke is, but you’ll find it. And that’s Christina’s acting style.

It would seem that there’d be very little improvisation on your sets. How do you let actors play?

I really think that if your script is really good, a good screenwriter is a good screenwriter and actors are not necessarily writers. Actors can often say, “I don’t know how to say this line” or “this doesn’t sound like me,” or “this is a real tongue twister.” But in general, if your script is good, you really don’t want a lot of improv. I would, sometimes, have Will Smith improv, and he would come up with some really funny, funny ideas, like in the first Men in Black, the stuff you couldn’t write. For instance, Will is chasing this alien, the alien jumps off the top of the Guggenheim Museum. He’s now chasing him and Will jumps off, and he did this stunt. He jumps off this bridge and lands on a double decker tourist bus, and stands up and says “it be raining black people.” You’re not going to write that line, but Will said it. But yes, very little improv.

The worst part of the filmmaking process is shooting the film. I love pre-production. I’ve got all the time. There’s no pressure. I can design all these great shots. I can write shot lists. The DP can come in and say, Do we need a techno crane for this? When you say boom up or is this on a dolly? So, it’s all worked out.

I love post-production because your movie, when you’re done filming, is as bad as it’s ever going to be. And now, in post you get to make the movie better again. You know that scene where you needed the sunset? It was raining, but you had to shoot anyway. That extra ruined every take. Even though he only had one line. He never got it right. So, you get rid of that. The thing I like the least is shooting, because nothing ever gets better. Except “it be raining black people.” That got better. That’s pretty funny.

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I don’t like the pressure of figuring stuff out on the set. I always say, do you want to try something? It’s usually not different words. But maybe they want to be angrier. Or maybe they want to be less angry. Or maybe they want to try not crying, but it won’t be “Let’s do an improv.” I hate improv. I’ll tell you. Raging Bull has amazing, amazing, amazing fight sequences, but some of those improv scenes with De Niro and Pesci. You just feel the improv and it drives me crazy. So, there, I insulted Marty Scorsese.

Who first noticed Raul Julia had the burst blood vessel?

I noticed that. I said, “Raul, what happened?” And he said, “I was at a bar last night and I was just sitting at the bar and my eyeball just fell out on the table.” It can’t be true. An eyeball is attached to an optic nerve and. And he said, “Yeah, the eyeball just popped up out and you know, it’s unrolled and I picked it up and I put it back in my eye. But I guess I scratched it.” I said, “OK, that’s a good story. But we can’t shoot with you today because it was really red.” And then the next day it was better. But I love that he had to create a dramatic story because that’s who Raul was.

One of my favorite movies is Get Shorty. What was it like to work with James Gandolfini back then?

It’s really funny. Gandolfini, in the movie, plays a stuntman, and Gandolfini came to me and he said, “You know what? I think this guy is from North Carolina. I know so many stunt guys who are all from North Carolina. So, I’m going to make him be from North Carolina, and I’m going to give him just a little accent.” I said, “Bad idea. Don’t do it.” And he said, “Why?” I said “You’ll never talk fast enough.” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I’m going to ask you to talk faster and you’re going to say, ‘no, there’s a certain lilt to people that talk in North Carolina,’ and I’m going to say, “you’ve got to do it faster” and you’re going to have a problem with that because you’re from North Carolina.

He said, “Please give me this.” And I stupidly said, OK, I think you’re making a bad decision. But if you think you can talk fast enough. The whole time [shooting], I’d say “Gandolfini, you gotta do it faster.” And he goes, “Yeah, I know, but there’s a certain patois and rhythm.” I go, “Yeah, exactly. And that’s why.”

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Anyway, the movie is done. He sees the finished movie and he comes up to me and he says “You were right. I was wrong.” And so, he was lovely to work with. Piece of cake to work with. Easy. But I wish he didn’t have that sort of slight North Carolina accent, because I think it did slow down his performance. Just the littlest bit. I think we get away with it. So that was what it was like working with Gandolfini. Lovely guy who wouldn’t listen to me about no accent.

How does shooting nine porno features in nine days prepare you for the subversive comedy of The Addams Family?

Well, going back before then, what I taught the producer on those nine pornos in nine days was to block shoot. We would light, and we shot all those movies in the loft on 17th Street and Sixth Avenue. I taught him the only way we can shoot nine entire features is to light a set like the dentist’s office set, or the bedroom set, and shoot scene three of movie one, scene four for movie two, scene seven of movie three and shoot out sets.

I learned at film school that filming is all about pre-production. So, when it came time to be a director, I had already shot nine feature films and an additional nine pornos and a lot of TV. For me, it’s all about pre-production, all about prep. Even on those porno films, it was: light a scene, light a set and shoot everything you can in that set before you move on. Other than that, I didn’t learn anything except don’t work on pornos.

I heard that you were hospitalized, and there were quite a few mishaps on the set of The Addams Family.

I fainted. The day before, we had shot Thing at the séance, and they hear a knock at the door and Thing runs, and we follow Thing. That Thing is Chris Hart on a dolly, doing this with his hands, going down the hallway and we’re following. And Chris is on the same dolly with his hand, that was all in camera. But because it was such a wide lens, and because we had to go through so many rooms, it took two thirds of a day to shoot that one shot, and we probably had 15 shots to do that day.

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So, I went home and didn’t sleep all night. I literally was trying to figure out what I could lose in the next day’s shooting to make up for the time, and I realized I should have had Thing leave frame at the end. And I didn’t. But I couldn’t reshoot that because it took us nine hours to light and shoot it. So, the entire night I stayed away trying to stay on schedule, stay on budget, what could I do?

The next morning, I was still awake, on the set during first set-up I drank my fifth espresso in a row, and then I heard [cinematographer] Owen Roizman say “get a blanket.” and discovered I had fainted and was on the ground. There was a lot of pressure and I was a first-time director. We were going over schedule, over budget. Our film had been sold from Orion to Paramount. That was a big change of regimes and working styles. So, it was a very tough first film because it was very ambitious.

Did the cast send in Christina Ricci to beg not to have Fester be an imposter?

Oh yeah. After our table read, by that time we had hired Paul Rudnick to do a rewrite and we had read his rewrite, the movie ended with Fester still being the imposter, and Gomez knew he was the imposter, but said, “You know what? Family is a state of mind. It’s not biology. Welcome to our family.” And we thought that was a good ending.

But the cast was totally freaked out. After we were done with the table read, they huddled in the corner. They made Christina Ricci their spokesperson, and they all came back and they said, “We hate this ending. It can end this way.” And then Angelica said, “Christina?” And Christina said, “Well, Barry, here’s the problem. The audience will not accept that ending because you haven’t answered all those questions. Where is Fester? Will he come back? Has Gomez suddenly fallen in love with imposter Fester so much that he no longer cares about his brother?”

And what Scott Rudin and Rudnick and I realized is we had created an intellectually satisfying ending, but not an emotionally satisfying ending. And the cast of actors, being actors, went right for where the emotional heart was. Christina was so articulate that I looked over to Rudnick and I said, “I think we’re going to need a new ending.” And Rudnick said, “Yeah, I think we are.” And thank God that they rebelled because our ending is so much more satisfying emotionally than if he still had remained the impostor Fester.

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The Addams Family reissue will hit select theaters and be released on Digital 4K Ultra HD on October 19.