Barry Sonnenfeld On 'A Series Of Unfortunate Events' Season 2 [Interview]

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.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Another comparison people noted was the depiction of Lemony Snicket as a Twilight Zone-esque narrator really solidified him as a real character, unlike the previous depiction in the film by Jude Law. I admit I completely forgot Lemony Snicket appeared in the movie. What made you decide to portray him that way, with Patrick Warburton no less?

At the meeting I had with Netflix before I became the showrunner, I said that I thought that Lemony should be an onscreen presence and not just the guy sitting at his typewriter that you bring in at the beginning and end of every episode. I thought that Lemony should really be our tour guide and that he should exist in the present of the Baudelaires but in the future in terms of where he's telling the story from. I love omniscient narrators, so I thought one of the great parts of Daniel's books is the asides, is the narration, the definition of words. And I didn't think it would be as good to do it as voiceover or a guy on a typewriter. And I've worked with Warburton a bunch of times and adore him. I was executive producer for The Tick that was on Fox for a short time, he was in Men in Black II. So there are certain actors whenever you read a script you say, okay, what part can I get this guy in, and Warburton was one of those guys.

It was actually Daniel Handler who said what about Warburton when I talked about the idea, and as soon as he said it, I said absolutely. Patrick has a really hard job because he doesn't get to act to anyone, he doesn't ever have a line of dialogue where he speaks to someone else. Although we're hinting that something might change about that down the road, but we'll see how that works out. So I love Warburton's performance, it definitely feels very Rod Serling and he's just a great guy to be around.

And how does Daniel Handler feel seeing his pseudonym come to life in front of him?

I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I think he's very happy with the way it turns out. And I know Daniel and I feel the same way about tone and flatness of performance. And I think Daniel and I together have really nailed what Daniel wanted.

Yeah, I know he had a lot of criticisms for the movie when it came out. One of my favorite things was that director's commentary where Daniel basically lambasted the movie as the director was trying to explain it.

[Laughs] That sounds great, I'll rent the DVD to hear that, that's very funny. Daniel would lambast me, but in a very loving way. We're constantly chiding and poking each other in the chest.

And both of you are still on for the second and third season?

We're not officially picked up for the third season yet, but we're on board for whatever Netflix wants to do. As far as I know, Netflix has not officially announced the third season.

A lot of the criticism about the movie was that Jim Carrey was too big of a personality for the film. Were you worried that the show would fall to those same pitfalls when Neil Patrick Harris — who himself is quite a scenery-chewer — was cast?

One of the things I felt I wanted to do differently than the film, was that to me, the story's about the kids and they are the heart and soul of the show. The extent that the movie stopped and let Carrey do sort of comedy bits — the one that comes to mind is the Tyrannosaurus Rex one — it took away for me, the real threat of Olaf which was important to me. It took away the focus on the kids. Also, I enjoyed the concept of the troop and sometimes in the movie there was no room for the troop because Jim took over that role, kind of. I think Neil is fantastic because he's to me much more of a real threat and more bipolar than the movie version.

Near the end of the first episode, they're all at the dinner table, and Klaus is going off on him about their beds and finally Olaf backhands Klaus in the face. Neil at the end of each take wanted to feel remorse at the end. I said we gotta do a take with no remorse, where you're really mean, where you feel no regret for having done it, because for so much of the show Olaf is sort of ineffectual and buffoon-like, and even though it's shocking to the audience that this happened, we need Olaf to be a real villain. You need a strong villain to have a strong hero. I personally think Neil is extraordinary in the role and extraordinary as all these different characters. He can play both stupid and ineffectual and ineffective and evil. It's hard to walk that line of actually having something be sad and funny, because it's at opposite ends of each other. If something's too funny, it takes you out of the threat, and if something's really scary it takes you out of the comedy. The hardest thing for the director to do is to figure out the tone of the show and maintain the consistency of tone.

One of the things I'm most proud of is that we're walking the really thin tightrope between comedy and tragedy. The fact that we've built all the world on a stage, so there's artifice, but we still want you to be engaged. And we've created a world that's both fantastic but also real. We have a 1950s walkie talkie and a 2016 Motorola walkie talkie in the same show, and somehow the challenge is to make it all feel like the same world. One of the many unsung heroes is Bo Welsh, who's the production designer and did the Men in Black movies with me, and by the way, he did a few movies with Tim Burton — Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands — so that may be why people see similarities.

What can we expect for the second season of the show? The first season covered the first four books, so I'm assuming the second will cover the next four and so on?

The second will actually cover five books. So that will take us from the one I'm directing at the moment, which is Austere Academy, all the way through to Carnivorous Carnival, which is the ninth book. And three more books in between which are Vile Village, Hostile Hospital and Ersatz Elevator.

When can we expect it to be released? Have you started production yet?

We're working seven days a week. We're currently in production for Season 2. I'm not sure that Netflix has officially decided yet, but I would expect it would be sometime in the first quarter of 2018. It won't be before that but we're still trying to figure that out based on post-production and some other issues that we got to make sure we can deliver on time.

You took some creative license with the first season, mostly with the twist with the parents at the end. Will you be doing a couple creative flairs like that in the second season?

Yes, we're creating characters that are not in the book, we're creating them with Daniel. I was able to convince Daniel that we had to open up the material a little in the book, so there will be some new characters. For instance, in the first season, Larry and Jacquelyn — Larry the waiter who was the anxious clown and Jacquelyn who was the secretary— weren't really in the books, and they will have a bigger role in the second season. So we're creating additional great characters that will have entire emotional arcs in season 2. That will hopefully be emotionally satisfying.

Will we have any more buzzy guest stars like in season 1?

That's sure the hope. We just worked with Roger Bart on Austere Academy and we've got Lucy Punch who will play a large role in the second season, [as] an actress named Sarah Ruse. We definitely will have more guest stars in the second season and hopefully if we get everything moved forward with the third season.