A work of tele­vi­sion art

Why is Net­flix’s ‘A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events’ su­pe­rior to the movie? We ask Barry Son­nen­feld

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A + E - By Robert Lloyd

Be­lieve me when I tell you that one of the great works of tele­vi­sion art — yes, art — over the last two years is the Net­flix adap­ta­tion of “A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events,” 13 al­lit­er­a­tively ti­tled vol­umes of sus­pense, ad­ven­ture, ter­ror, love, ob­ses­sion, satire, ab­sur­dity and vo­cab­u­lary lessons writ­ten by Daniel Han­dler un­der the name Le­mony Snicket. (Snicket is also the story’s nar­ra­tor, and a quasi-char­ac­ter just out­side it, driven like the An­cient Mariner to re­late his tale.) The third and fi­nal sea­son be­gan stream­ing on New Year’s Day.

The se­ries con­cerns the Baude­laire or­phans — Vi­o­let (who in­vents things), Klaus (who reads and re­tains a great deal) and Sunny (a baby with a ta­lent for bit­ing) — and the men­ac­ing Count Olaf, whose great dream is to sep­a­rate them from their in­her­i­tance, and through­out the se­ries as­sumes dis­guises only the chil­dren see through. Hor­ri­ble things hap­pen, mostly. The first three nov­els were adapted for the big screen in 2004, with Jim Car­rey as Olaf. It was a dis­ap­point­ment to this fan of the books and, I as­sume, oth­ers as no fur­ther films ar­rived to con­tinue the tale.

It turns out the se­ries was just wait­ing for the age of stream­ing tele­vi­sion. Where the film com­pressed three books into less than two hours, the tele­vi­sion ver­sion, which be­gan in 2017 and stars Neil Pa­trick Har­ris, has adapted each at two-part fea­ture length, fill­ing out and re­fin­ing the nov­els’ mythol­ogy. Most im­por­tant, it has Barry Son­nen­feld (“Get Shorty,” “Men in Black,” “The Tick,” “Push­ing Daisies”) as showrun­ner, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and pri­mary di­rec­tor, not to men­tion Han­dler writ­ing the screen­plays. It feels de­fin­i­tive and looks fan­tas­tic.

Both Son­nen­feld and Han­dler were orig­i­nally in­volved in the movie; both were let go from it. Son­nen­feld, with whom I spoke re­cently by phone from Tel­luride, Colo., where he has a home, calls their his­tory bring­ing the nov­els to the screen a “se­ries of un­for­tu­nate events that ended well.” The se­ries, he says, has been “the best ex­pe­ri­ence I’ve ever had work­ing in the film or tele­vi­sion busi­ness.”

Q: Where does your his­tory with ‘A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events’ be­gin?

I had read the books to my daugh­ter, Chloe, when she was a kid, and at some point she moved on and I didn’t. I would say the sec­ond half of the se­ries I read with­out her. What at­tracted me to the books was that they posit that chil­dren are ca­pa­ble and smart, and all adults, whether they mean well or are vil­lains, are equally in­ef­fec­tual and hor­ri­ble — which could have de­scribed my par­ents. They meant well, but they were hor­ri­ble.

Q: Tell me about work­ing with Daniel Han­dler.

Daniel’s re­ally funny and re­ally dry; we have a sim­i­lar dark sense of hu­mor. He has a much big­ger vo­cab­u­lary than I do. We both felt the movie was more over­pro­duced [rel­a­tive to] what we wanted to do on the show. I went to Net­flix and said, “I want to shoot this show en­tirely on the stage; I want ev­ery­thing to be con­trolled, from the skies, to the col­ors, to the water.” We didn’t want a huge, loud pro­duc­tion; we wanted some­thing that was much more in­ti­mate. It’s dry, it’s flat. The com­edy is never meant to be jokey so much as al­low­ing Pa­trick Warburton as Le­mony Snicket.

the au­di­ence to find the joke. We don’t try to sug­ar­coat things — peo­ple die in the show. This isn’t to say good or bad, but it’s the op­po­site of a Dis­ney show. It’s not bright, it’s not col­or­ful, it’s not sing-songy, it’s not happy. It’s dark, it’s dreary. The pal­ette is very re­stricted.

The other thing we wanted was that Le­mony should be an on­screen nar­ra­tor. I thought the char­ac­ter was not served well by the movie — which was ba­si­cally Jude Law at a type­writer. [Our Le­mony] would never be in the same chrono­log­i­cal time as the ac­tion, but he was telling the story and could be phys­i­cally in the scenes. That was a huge plus. And even though I had worked with [Pa­trick] Warburton on “The Tick” and “Men in Black II” and “Big Trou­ble,” he was ac­tu­ally Daniel’s idea for Le­mony. He brings so much to the show emo­tion­ally and tonally; he can say re­ally funny things with­out you ever think­ing, “This guy’s try­ing to be funny.”

Q: But that char­ac­ter is also so sad. He’s so wounded.

He’s in­cred­i­bly sad, he’s in­cred­i­bly wounded, and one of the things that makes me cry ev­ery time I see the third sea­son is the res­o­lu­tion of Warburton’s char­ac­ter. We don’t want to give that away, but I will say it so book­ends the three sea­sons — it was not in the books, but it feels like it was al­ways sup­posed to be that way. I think what we’ve man­aged to do, while still re­main­ing mys­te­ri­ous and sub­tle and never spoon-feed­ing in­for­ma­tion, is to fill out a lot of ques­tions that were never re­solved in the books, and re­solve them in an or­ganic way that feels like, “I re­mem­ber that.” With­out be­com­ing overly com­mer­cial or wrap­ping ev­ery­thing up, I think our end­ing ul­ti­mately is more sat­is­fy­ing.

Q: How did you set­tle on Neil Pa­trick Har­ris for Count Olaf ?

Neil was also Daniel’s idea. What’s funny about that is soon af­ter I had the meet­ing with Net­flix — I hadn’t been hired yet, but I felt the meet­ing went very well — my wife and child and I were hav­ing Thanks­giv­ing with Kelly Ripa and Mark Con­sue­los in Man­hat­tan, and among the guests were Neil and his hus­band, David Burtka, and their kids. And I sat op­po­site Neil, and I said, “Hey, Neil, we’ve never met and I think you’d be great in a show I can’t tell you any­thing about be­cause I don’t have the job yet, but if I get the job I’d love for you to be ... the guy.” And then I got the job and we were dis­cussing who would play Olaf and Daniel said, “What about Neil Pa­trick Har­ris?” I said, “Per­fect, I’ve re­cently met him and of­fered him the job.”

He’s ex­tra­or­di­nary. Not only is he play­ing Count Olaf, but he’s play­ing Count Olaf play­ing Shirley, Cap­tain Sham, what­ever — and he’s bril­liant, and so funny and smart. He wore a dif­fer­ent cologne as each char­ac­ter; you al­ways knew when he was com­ing on­stage ’cause you could smell the over­cologned Neil Pa­trick Har­ris as the stage door opened.

Q: What about him made you feel he was right?

Part of it was that he feels equally at home in tele­vi­sion, in movies and on­stage; he could be styl­ized, he could be big, but he would al­ways be real — real and the­atri­cal at the same time is hard to find. And Olaf ’s char­ac­ter is all over the place; he’s got to be re­ally mean and re­ally funny, and sort of a fail­ure, but a threat. The first episode we ever did, “The Bad Be­gin­ning,” there’s a scene early on where Olaf slaps Klaus across the face; we did sev­eral takes and Neil kept try­ing to show re­morse. I said, “Neil, we’ve got to do one where there’s no re­morse.” And Neil said, “Well I feel bad about that, I just hit the kid.” I said, “Olaf is a buf­foon, but our he­roes are only as heroic as our vil­lain is vil­lain­ous, and this is one of the few chances we have to say to the au­di­ence, and to the Baude­laire kids, this guy’s dan­ger­ous.”

Q: Was it hard cast­ing the Baude­laire chil­dren?

Yes and no. I had worked with Malina Weiss­man on a movie called “Nine Lives,” and she to­tally got my di­rec­tion, which is al­ways, “Flat­ter, faster.” I find if ac­tors talk re­ally quickly, it doesn’t give them time to act, and I hate to watch act­ing on­screen. In fact, my wife al­ways has to sit to my right and hold my right arm down so I can’t wave at the screen to make them talk faster. I only got through half an episode of “Mad Men,” ’cause I couldn’t be­lieve they were al­lowed to talk so slowly. So Malina was easy, be­cause I knew she could be flat and fast and not like a kid ac­tor.

What’s re­ally hard is to find male ac­tors be­cause there seem to be fewer boys who want to go into act­ing, and often when they do they want to sort of over­act. We had a re­ally hard time find­ing Klaus; Louis Hynes put him­self on tape in Lon­don — he’s Bri­tish. He had never acted be­fore, ex­cept an oc­ca­sional school play or some­thing, and we flew him from Lon­don to L.A. and worked with Malina and Louis for about an hour and de­cided at the very last minute — we were heav­ily into build­ing sets — that he was our guy. And then Sunny was hard; we in­ter­viewed a lot of twins, but they just didn’t look right. And Pres­ley [Smith] had the right look and the right per­son­al­ity. We took a chance and de­cided we’d go with one baby, which is al­ways hard to do, and she turned out great.

Q: She turned into a good lit­tle ac­tress.

I know! In the third sea­son she’s say­ing words. When she says to Mr. Poe [the in­com­pe­tent ex­ecu­tor of the Baude­laire es­tate, played by K. Todd Free­man], “I de­spise you,” it’s just … fan­tas­tic.

Q: The show is very styl­ized but very hu­man and emo­tional at the same time; can you talk about the re­la­tion­ship of some­thing that looks quite un­real and fan­tas­tic and at the same time gets right to mat­ters of the heart?

I think it’s spe­cific to my per­son­al­ity. Or my tone. Whether it was “Push­ing Daisies” or “Ad­dams Fam­ily” or “Men in Black,” I love to cre­ate spe­cific worlds, yet not let the viewer feel they’re out­side of the world; I like to in­vite them in. This sounds tech­ni­cal, but I think the fact that I use very wide an­gle lenses makes a re­ally big dif­fer­ence. On the one hand, wide an­gle lenses are very styl­ized, but it also means the cam­era is near the ac­tor. I think the au­di­ence feels they’re there in the scene and there­fore more emo­tion­ally en­gaged. It’s the op­po­site of what, for in­stance, Tony and Ri­d­ley Scott do, and did; they al­ways use very, very, very long lenses, tele­photo lenses, and their shows are very beau­ti­ful. But some­how the au­di­ence un­con­sciously knows they’re far away, that they’re ob­serv­ing the scene as op­posed to par­tic­i­pat­ing in it.

Q: Do you have a pic­ture of your au­di­ence?

Net­flix gives us no in­for­ma­tion. I have no idea who’s watch­ing the show. I have no idea what per­cent­age of the peo­ple watch­ing the show have read the books. I had no idea if we should have more ac­tion, or more com­edy, or they all love Mr. Poe, we need more of that — no idea. They’re fan­tas­tic to work with, they were so sup­port­ive and so great, but they just don’t give the film­mak­ers any in­for­ma­tion about how well the show’s do­ing, not do­ing, who’s watch­ing.

Q: Is it free­ing in any way not to have to think about that?

No. I’m a com­mer­cial di­rec­tor — I want to please the au­di­ence. I want to please them on my terms, but if I knew that 80 per­cent of the au­di­ence said, “We want more ac­tion,” we would have found a way. If ev­ery­one had said, “We want more Pres­ley” — well, of course they’d want more Pres­ley. It’s not a bad thing to know who your au­di­ence is.


Us­man Ally, Neil Pa­trick Har­ris and Lucy Punch in “A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events.”


Di­rec­tor Barry Son­nen­feld, left, Louis Hynes (in back) and Neil Pa­trick Har­ris on set.


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