A Series of Unfortunate Events Season 2

The practice of beloved TV or movie properties getting a second life has practically become synonymous with Netflix — the streaming service made its name as an original content service by tapping into the nostalgia of popular properties like Arrested Development and Full House.

But it’s rare that Netflix will take a chance on a moderately successful movie adaptation that was met with mixed reception, and outright disdain from fans of the books. But A Series of Unfortunate Events came to Netflix, where it was spearheaded by Barry Sonnenfeld, the director originally attached to the 2004 movie. And it was a hit. The series met with rave reviews from critics and fans alike, who lauded its unique visuals, fourth-wall-breaking characters. and witty black comedy. A Series of Unfortunate Events was quite a fortunate break for Netflix.

It was too for Sonnenfeld, who was able to finally bring his vision for an adaptation to life alongside the books’ author, Daniel Handler (whose pseudonym, Lemony Snicket, is also an active character in the series). We spoke with Sonnenfeld about the runaway success of the first season of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and what we can expect for the second and now-confirmed third.

The first season was one of Netflix’s best-received hits. Why do you think it’s such a critical success?

I think it felt sort of visually different. It was very ambitious in terms of the size and scope of what we did. We pretty much shot on stage, which allowed us to work very hard to create a very singular and specific world where you didn’t have the challenges of sun, or rain, or snow, or night. The books are beloved. I think Daniel Handler’s books have sold over 80 million copies, and we had a fantastic cast. I think Neil Patrick Harris is profoundly, unfairly talented; and K. Todd Freeman as Mr. Poe, [Patrick] Warburton as Lemony Snicket; and our two kids are great, Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes. And finally we got really lucky with our guest stars, Joan Cusack, Alfre Woodard. We got really lucky because we had a great property to start with.

You were involved with the movie before you struck the deal with Netflix to develop the show. At what point in the movie’s production did you realize that it wouldn’t be what you envisioned?

I was the director of the movie for a while, and then the producer, who had done The Addams Family with me, left and they brought on a different producer, who was the producer I worked with on the Men in Black movies, and we had a difficult relationship. So when that new producer came on, I was let go, as was Daniel Handler, who was writing the script. I always thought when I was involved with the movie that it would be a really good movie and truthfully, I think that the movie is fine. I didn’t think it was a flop, I think it made a lot of money, it just didn’t do as well as Paramount wanted. Paramount has never really embraced black comedies, they never really got their heads around the two Addams Family movies I directed.

So I was very lucky when Netflix decided to do the television version, a guy named Jimmy Miller who was the manager, who used to be Jim Carrey’s manager, called me and said, “Look, I know you’ve always loved the books. Netflix is going to redo it.” And he helped get me a meeting at Netflix where I told them all the things I wanted to do differently. You know for me, the great thing about the books is that it posits that all children are wonderful and capable, and all adults, whether they mean well or they’re villains, are basically ineffectual. Which basically defined my parents. So I developed a real affinity towards the books. So from the time, I read them to my kid Chloe 20 years ago. I’ve always loved the material.

That reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s comments on how parents thought Coraline was too scary for kids but the kids see it as a a fun adventure. Watching as an adult makes you realize how terrifying it is. Like in Unfortunate Events, the kids are basically getting gaslit.

Daniel really wrote his books from the children’s point of view. I remember Neil Patrick Harris asking Daniel how old Count Olaf was, and Daniel’s response was, “you know, however old kids think old people are.” So that could be 40, 60, 70. It’s what makes Daniel’s book so special. Truthfully, we on Netflix don’t really talk down to the children, our show is funny but it’s also dark. It’s about orphans and they’re not treated particularly well. But we don’t sugarcoat it, nor do we make it oppressively depressing either.

Compared to your experience with the film, were you able to achieve most or all of what you wanted with the Netflix series?

I was able to achieve everything. I’m very proud of it, I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. I’ve never been a showrunner before, and I wanted to take on that responsibility because I felt so close to the material. One of the things I loved to do as a director and now as a showrunner is to create worlds, whether it was when I directed Pushing Daisies for ABC and Warner Bros., or the Men in Black movies, or Addams Family, I love to find and create a specific world. And Netflix was profoundly supportive of that.

I was very worried with the last book we did, The Miserable Mill, which was the last two episodes of the first season, the villain Sir smokes a cigar. I said, “look, it’s one thing to have and it’s another to mistreat them, but no one ever likes anyone smoking in a children’s show,” and Netflix said, “we’re not worried.” Listen, I had to debate Hillary Clinton on The Today Show in 1997 because I had the little worm aliens in Men in Black smoking cigarettes. She felt what I was doing was encouraging other aliens to smoke, I guess she was right. Netflix is very brave and supportive, it’s allowed us to make a very successful, singular vision show. You know, it’s really tonally a great thing to watch, between comedy and tragedy.

You’ve directed dark comedies like The Addams Family and have been involved with Pushing Daisies, both of which are quite stylish and have quite a few visual and thematic parallels to Unfortunate Events. Yet a lot of the praise for the show has been comparing it to Wes Anderson and Tim Burton. How would you differentiate your style from those directors that people have been naming?

I truly don’t understand the comparison. Wes, whose movies I adore, that his stylization is very twee, in that I feel a certain admiration to what he does, but I’m not necessarily always emotionally connected. It’s different than what I do, I think my camera is more aggressive and more a character in the show, I like to move the camera. If you know the work I did as a cinematographer in Raising Arizona or Three O’Clock High and then what I do with The Addams Family, the character is almost a character in the show. It’s very sort of self-conscious, and I think Wes’ stuff is one step removed from that — not better or worse, just different.

I really don’t see the comparisons to Tim and myself at all. Tim’s a great director but I think there must be something about the subject matter than necessarily tone. To me, A Series of Unfortunate Events looks like it was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. But I’m flattered to be compared to either Tim or Wes, but I don’t exactly get it.

Continue Reading Our Barry Sonnenfeld Interview

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