How The Addams Family Found New Blood to Spill

The Addams Family is a cure for the commonplace, and directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon like talking about that and their new movie.

Creepy, kooky, mysterious, ookie, The Addams Family embraces them all. From back when Chas Addams’ pen created them in The New Yorker through the ’60s television series to the ’90s cinematic double jolt, the batty bloodline brings macabre warmth to all generations. The upcoming 3D computer-animated reincarnation incorporates all that has come before and finds room for growth to introduce the family to impressionable young minds of any age. Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron star as Gomez and Morticia Addams, taking on the roles rendered equally iconic by John Astin and Carolyn Jones on TV and then by Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia in the ’90s films.

While Christina Ricci stole the movies via grand theft performance, Chloë Grace Moretz allows her Wednesday Addams to be very generous with her brother Pugsley. That’s probably because actor Finn Wolfhard is well-acquainted with bizarre rituals and premature burials from his time on Stranger Things and as Richie Tozier in the 2017 film adaptation of Stephen King‘s It: Chapter One.

The family extends to Nick Kroll’s retro take on Uncle Fester, Martin Short’s haunting Grandpa Frump, and the loquacious and eloquent cousin It, played by the Doggfather himself Snoop Dogg.  Bette Midler, who played the iconic comedy horror role of Winnie Sanderson in Hocus Pocus, offers a somewhat less-than-divine Grandma in the new household, which is an eye sore to Allison Janney’s Margaux Needler.

The Addams Family was directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, who also voices Lurch, the loyal and musically gifted butler the family picks up on a side of the road. The pair spoke with Den of Geek about the legacy of Charles Addams and the first family of alternative culture.

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Den of Geek: How did you get Snoop Dogg to use his real voice?

Conrad Vernon: Well, only I knew that was his real voice, and I had to talk him into it, but he agreed.

What are the different challenges between starting a movie like Sausage Party, coming onto a franchise like Shrek, or re-imagining a classic like The Addams Family?

Vernon: Well, they all pose their own challenges. With Sausage Party, it wasn’t so much coming up with the gags and the stories and the stuff that poses a challenge in a family movie, because pretty much anything goes. In Sausage Party, the challenge was making people understand that it was a rated R animated film and it was going to be just like any other animated film, just rated R. But we had a hard time selling that to people and getting their heads wrapped around it. But with Addams, it was kind of just trying to walk a line between actually doing something that the fans would care about and enjoy as well as being new enough for the new generation to understand and not use a bunch of inside jokes from past movies or TV shows.

It’s set in New Jersey. Did you choose that because the Garden State is an easy dumping ground, because Charles Addams was born in Jersey, or because the Jersey Devil made you do it?

Greg Tiernan: Mainly the Charles Addams connection. That’s just a tip of the hat to fans of the original Chas Addams cartoons and knowing his history.

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How do you see Charles Addams’ influence on the whole of dark comedy?

Vernon: I think he was the originator of it to a certain extent. I mean in 1938 he did the first New Yorker “Addams Family” cartoon. People loved it, because I think it was the first time someone was taking the norm, a normal family, and twisting it into something dark and making it be seen as normal by them. Just holding up a dark mirror to society. And I think he was probably one of the originators of it.

Tiernan: Yeah, all the way through the history of art, of course, there have been artists that have done that, shown the darker side of humanity, people like Hieronymus Bosch. But Charles Addams did it with a twist of humor instead,and sort of made us face our fears and laugh at that.

Vernon: Oh, there was also Gorey who was a contemporary of his. Those two are probably the first ones to ever do something like this.

Do you think the world is becoming more of an Addams Family kind of place?

Vernon: Well, I think it might be steering away from it to a certain extent. And that’s why I think this movie has an important message to it. Between the social media landscape and what’s going on, especially nowadays with immigration and globalism and everything, it seems to be kind of all becoming kind of samey. And that’s why I think what the Addams Family are, and what they project, is pretty universal, and stands the test of time. Because it’s always about becoming an individual and being proud of who you are, no matter how strange other people might find you.

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Do you have to get into a special Addams Family frame of mind to make this?

Tiernan: I think we have always been in an Addams Family frame of mind, even before we were working on it, but the main thing was to reacquaint ourselves with what we find so fascinating about The Addams Family. When we were kids ourselves, we’re both exposed to the classic ’60s TV show and we were both fans of the original New Yorker spot cartoons as we got a little older and dug further back into the history of this. So I think it was super important to be in that Addams frame of mind to be able, especially with our crew and also by extension with our audience, to present these characters and stay true to who they are, and resist the temptation to make them sort of monsters or horror figures, which they’re really not. So yeah, it was important for us to get back into that frame of mind to do the best job we got with the movie.

Did the Brady Bunch scare you as kids? I know it did me.

Tiernan: The Brady Bunch? We were just talking about the Brady Bunch.

Vernon: Yeah, that’s funny. It freaked me out a little, it didn’t scare me.

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How involved were you in the casting of the new Addams Family?

Vernon: We’re both really involved.

Tiernan: We were both involved in it ourselves, and of course the producers of the movie.

Vernon: We had a great casting department, casting team, and luckily the list that we made up, I mean we had second and third options just in case, but we got all our first choices, which is unheard of really.

Did anyone campaign for a part?

Vernon: No one came to us campaigning for a part, but we did fall together pretty easily.

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Did you pick Charlize Theron as Morticia because of her comic work on The Long Shot, or because she was one of the Children of the Corn?

Vernon: Well I had no idea that Long Shot was being made when we cast her, but I just knew her voice and I thought she would be perfect. She kind of embodies her physically and obviously the voice I thought fit perfectly. And she did a great job with the accent and made it her own.

There is a lot more Pugsley in this incarnation of Addams Family than I’ve ever seen in any previous works. Is that because you had Finn Wolfhard?

Tiernan: No, I wouldn’t say it was because we had Finn. Finn really did an amazing job and made Pugsley his own as well. The reason that we did that was because we recognized right from the get-go when we were trying to figure out what is it that is going to make this version of The Addams Family unique, and not just a rerun of what’s come before, and there were various things like that. Conrad, for example, came up with the idea of the origin story. But we both recognize that Pugsley sort of gets a little bit of short thrift in other versions. He’s just sort of an also-ran, because Wednesday always seems to steal the show. And so we wanted to give Pugsley more of a voice in this one and sort of look into his psyche a little bit.

Vernon: If you look back at the old Charles Addams cartoons, he’s not the silent kind of doofy fat kid that sits in the background, he’s like this little hellion, you know, this little shit that steals railroad crossing signs and likes blowing things up. He’s like an evil Dennis the Menace. And we wanted to kind of take advantage of that in this version.

Why do you think Wednesday was able to overshadow him throughout the entire history of previous adaptations?

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Vernon: Well, I think Christina Ricci did such an amazing job playing Wednesday, you know, and she was such a fun character to play with because she was, I think she described herself as kind of like a serial killer type of person, where she just had this dead stare. She was like a still-waters-run-deep type of character, and she just stole the show. Whereas in the TV show, the kids, generally, were more just something to carry plot. I think Wednesday and Pugsley were pretty silent in the TV show. It was Gomez and Morticia that were the stars of that version. But I think Wednesday became really a breakout character in the ’90s movies, but Pugsley for some reason just kind of fell to the background in both versions.

Conrad, did you use effects on your voice to get it to be so low for Lurch?

Vernon: Yeah, that’s a very simple answer, we pitched me down. I would do the Lurch voice like that and then we would pitch it way down.

What about the singing voice?

Vernon: That wasn’t me, unfortunately. I don’t have that beautiful of a voice.

Tell me a little bit about how you chose the music, and what a part it played for you?

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Vernon: Well, we definitely wanted to make this a story about an immigrant family who moves to America. So when we approached Mychael and Jeff Danna to write the score, the first direction we gave them was “This is a family from unknown European countries.” And so we instantly took the gypsy tact, and it’s not any specific region in Europe where we got the gypsy music, we just kind of took French gypsies and Eastern European gypsies and Spanish gypsies, and we just kind of jumbled the music together. And the Dannas did a great job interpreting that.

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The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” scene made me think of Young Frankenstein, and I wanted to know what you pulled from other classic horror comedies, aside from The Addams Family.

Tiernan: I mean definitely there’s a few Easter eggs I’d say when you’re looking there. For example, Gomez and Morticia’s bathroom, that color scheme is from the hotel room and the bathroom in The Shining.

Vernon: The house, I mean the spirit of the house racing along the ground back into the house was from The Evil Dead.

Tiernan: The house itself [has homages to] Get Out and The Amityville Horror, there’s quite a few. And we did actually have a whole Blair Witch sequence in there that hit the cutting room floor because that was deemed just a tad too extreme.

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Aww. I hope it’s on the DVD. Nick Kroll is doing a wonderful take on the TV version of Fester. Did you give him that direction or did he choose to go the Jackie Coogan path?

Vernon: We did want to go a little bit more in the direction of the TV version of Fester. But the direction we gave him was actually from the first episode of The Flintstones, which was Barney Rubble. And this was before Mel Blanc was doing the voice to Barney Rubble. It was more of like a “Hey Fred” type of a thing. And Nick was the one who added the lisp. So it was kind of a jumble of all those different things.

The Addams Family has been dug up quite a few times. Is it hard keeping it fresh?

Vernon: It was a challenge to make sure that this movie stood on its own.

Do you know of any jokes from the New Yorker comics that have made their way into all of the Addams medium?

Vernon: I think “Kick your father goodnight.”

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Tiernan: “Kick your father goodnight” has been in quite a few, and we use that. And I’m not sure if the reference to the banker is in all of them, but we used it, so…

Vernon: Yeah, I think there might’ve been in one of the Addams, I think the first Addams live-action movie, they had the extended family in the graveyard. Morticia was explained to Fester, you know, all the different people from the Addams clan that have died. And I think there might’ve been a couple of those characters that we actually brought back to life.

Tiernan: We dug them up.

I’ve always seen Gomez as the most optimistic character on TV. But Oscar Isaac brings something else to it, he brings a little more vulnerability.

Tiernan: Oscar really did a fantastic job with bringing another dimension to Gomez like that, because we did want him to have that sort of vulnerability, that sort of naivety that he always displayed, while at the same time being very capable swordsman and very, I guess if you ask Morticia she’d probably agree with this, a capable lover. But yeah, he did. In this one we wanted to, again, delve into his relationship with his kids, especially with Pugsley, when he feels that he’s let his kids down. And it’s important for our main characters, just like we would like our audience, to pick up on various life lessons from watching the movie. It’s important for our characters within the movie to see that too. So we really wanted Gomez to have that vulnerability and really feel that he’s let his kid down. Which he didn’t of course, but that’s just the way he felt about it. But Oscar played it beautifully.

Vernon: I think that Gomez, left to his own devices, could probably take care of himself very well. It’s his love for his wife and his family that makes him a little bit vulnerable, where he’s willing to show that side of himself and be more vulnerable for them.

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Given that this is animated, is there any room for improv among the actors?

Vernon: Oh yeah.

Tiernan: Of course.

Vernon: Nick Kroll. Nick Kroll and Oscar. They all did a lot of improv, especially Nick. Sausage Party, he gave us-

Tiernan: Hours of material.

Vernon: Hours of material and that’s why we wanted to bring him back on this, because we knew he would be able to really fill the character of Fester out. Where there was a lot of room, especially in that character, just to kind of go crazy.

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Tiernan: In general, we work on a very improvisational method, not only with the voice talent, with the actors, but also with our storyboard crew as we’re boarding out the movie. And very rarely would we just go verbatim from whatever the current version of the script may be. We use that as our foundation, and putting jokes, and all the way down the line, there were other artists down the line that would come up with some joke that we thought, “That’s fantastic.” One of our editors would come up with something, and we put that in there. So again, as long as it’s funny and it makes the movie just a little bit better, it was a fair game to put in the movie and change up and improvise.

I’ve loved Bette Midler since she duetted with Tom Waits. How did you get her to play Grandma? And was she an Addams Family fan?

Vernon: Well, I wanted her from the beginning to play Grandma, because I’m a huge fan of hers as well and really wanted to work with her on this. She was interested but wanted to first talk to me on the phone about it. So she called up and said, “You know, to be honest with you, I’ve never really followed The Addams Family. I don’t know a hell of a lot about them.” And then she started asking me, “Who played the role in the movies?” And I said, “Carol Kane.” And then she said, “Oh my God, Carol Kane’s wonderful. Why don’t you get her?” I said, “Well she’s already done it. I kind of want you.” And so she said, “Well, what do you want in the role?” And I explained it to her, and she said, “Do you want me to do an accent then?” And I said, “Yeah, that’d be great.”

Vernon: So she actually went away for a week and worked on an accent and then sent me recordings. And then she and I just worked together on it until she got it down. And then she said, “You know what, this is fun. I like it.” And she signed on. So it was really fun to work with her and, you know, I had to talk her into it, but I got to meet her and work with her, and that’s what was most exciting for me.

I know that in order to do some voices, you have to make certain faces. Do any of the actors have to contort themselves to do what they want to do vocally?

Vernon: Definitely, you know, make a little bit of faces.

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Tiernan: Each of them have their own performance style and their own way of working. So yeah, for sure. We always keep a camera on the actors, so we use that for inspiration for the animators. Some are more physically animated while they act than others. But yeah, I mean I guess there was some facial contortions in there. We laughed a lot. I mean our faces were contorted for sure.

The Addams Family opens in theaters on Oct. 11.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.