'Schmigadoon!' Director Barry Sonnenfeld On His Favorite Song And Dance Number In The New Musical Comedy Series [Interview]

In the opening minutes of the forthcoming AppleTV+ series Schmigadoon!, New York City residents Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) find themselves lost in the woods on a camping trip. But just like the protagonists of the 1954 MGM movie Brigadoon, they suddenly stumble into a mystical town that seems to appear out of nowhere. Melissa and Josh quickly realize that they're trapped in this town – one in which the residents break out into elaborate song and dance numbers as if they were characters in classic Hollywood musicals of old. The couple can't escape until they find true love...so it's unfortunate that their relationship is on the rocks.

Veteran filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) directed all six episodes of Schmigadoon!, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him about incorporating different visual styles into this series, injecting a sense of reality into heightened scenarios, the surprising fact that he is "not a musical guy," and more.

Schmigadoon! is a throwback to Golden Age musicals, but it also has a more modern component with its two lead characters. What sort of visual balance did you need to strike in terms of recreating the look of some of those old classics, while also incorporating a modern touch?

Well, that was exactly the challenge. [laughs] What we did is, I looked at a lot of musicals. I was not a musical guy, and then having researched musicals, I remembered why I'm not a musical guy. So we brought a lot from those old musicals. We wanted it to feel like it was shot on a stage, even when we were outside. We wanted the background to be very painterly. I wanted to shoot the dance and singing numbers the way the MGM musicals used to shoot them, which is head to toe. I hate the way a lot of modern musicals are shot where people are shot waist and up, or in close up, or inserts of feet. I want to see the full actor dancing. I think the audience knows when it's the actor or when it's a double or something. So I took a lot of those rules and used them, and what I bring to things is I like to use very wide-angle lenses, which weren't used in that era. But there's a certain energy to wide-angle lenses that I really like. And then Bo Welch, the production designer, and I worked really hard along with wardrobe and along with [showrunner] Cinco Paul, and it was fun to create that world and make it sort of familiar, yet a little bit more modern.

I want to go back to something you said earlier, when you were revisiting those musicals and remembered why you aren't a musical guy. Can you elaborate on that a little?

Yeah, I like reality. I like reality in my comedies. I once did a show with Tom Sizemore, and after the first day of shooting, I said, "Tom, I'm going to have to fire you," and he said, "Why?" And I said, "You're trying to be funny." He said, "It's a comedy!" I said, "Don't be funny, be real. If the situation is funny, you'll be funny. If the situation is not funny, don't help it by your stupid acting by being funny." So the challenge for me with musicals is I'm buying into this reality where suddenly people stop and sing. For me to embrace that reality, which seems a little off to me, I really needed to feel – and I think Cinco did a great job in creating that through the script – that people singing is just part of their reality. What's great in Schmigadoon, people just break out into a song as part of their normal activity. In fact, at one point Cecily's character says to Aaron [Tveit]'s character, "That was a great song," and Aaron says, "What song?" They don't even know they're singing, you know? So for me, that helped buy into their reality. That singing is part of their reality, and therefore it's OK. Once I got that, I was able to embrace people singing. And in fact, they were my favorite days. The days when I was shooting singing and dancing numbers were the happiest days for me on the set.

Schmigadoon Trailer

Cool. The production design has this heightened, purposefully fake-looking aesthetic which works really well for this magical setting, but I assume you don't want viewers to be distracted by that when you're trying to depict more dramatic scenes. Can you talk about your approach to filming with those heightened backgrounds?

Right, that's a really good question. I think that we set up the world enough so that the audience accepts that world, and they accept it because the acting is not acknowledging that stuff out there. The acting is pure reality. Even when Jane Krakowski is singing and standing up in her MG and steering with her foot, I buy that reality of that world that we created, because in all six episodes it's the same tone. We don't suddenly switch tones and you go, "Wait, that's not the four dollars I signed up for. What happened in that episode?" So consistency of tone is all you need for the audience to relax and say, "I will buy your world. Just don't screw it up by being inconsistent."

What were your executive producer duties on this show? Obviously executive producer means a different thing in the world of television than it does in film, and you're also not the showrunner here, so what did that encompass for you here?

Right. Well it encompassed some decisions that normally a director wouldn't make. Like, it was my decision to shoot in Vancouver, and I convinced Universal and [executive producer] Lorne [Michaels] and Cinco. Cinco was the least willing to leave New York, because he felt only New York had the right amount of dancers and singers that we needed. But we got them all from Canada. A lot of them had worked on Broadway and stuff, but they were all from Vancouver or Toronto. So, it's everything from budget to casting. It was hard for me because I was the showrunner for three years on A Series of Unfortunate Events, which also shot in Vancouver with a lot of the same prop people and producers and line producers and Bo Welch and the same art department. So it was often difficult for me to take a backseat to Cinco, but we got along well and appreciated each other's strengths.

So you mentioned you weren't necessarily a musical guy, but was there a specific type of dance number, or aspect of making a musical, that you were hoping and able to achieve in Schmigadoon? Any particular number that stands out to you?

Yeah, one number that stands out to me is, one of my favorite three musicals – the only three I like at all – is Pennies From Heaven. There's a scene where Bernadette Peters is teaching her class, and all the kids get up on the desk and tap dance. I love that scene, and Cinco had written a song that took place in the school, so I asked Chris Gattelli, who is the choreographer, if we could put it on those desks. Bo built special desks that could be tap danced on, and we screwed them into the floor so they'd be safe. But I really like that scene, and those kids are really tap dancing. I could not believe we could get twelve or sixteen kids who could do that, and they pulled it off.


Schmigadoon! debuts on AppleTV+ on July 16, 2021.