Neurotic Barry went from starting in porn to Hollywood blockbusters — and on to Netflix hit

LARRY David would be the perfect fit if a television series is ever made about Barry Sonnenfeld’s life.

The only problem, however, is that the pair do not really get on — after Larry took exception to the fact Barry believes he is the most neurotic of the two.

They asked Cheryl Hines, who plays Larry’s ex-wife in Curb Your Enthusiasm, who was the most neurotic, and she declared Barry the “winner”.

It resulted in a shouting match between Larry and Barry across the breakfast room at New York City’s Loews Regency Hotel.

The anecdote is just one of many in Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker (Hachette Books).

“I actually had to cut out 11 chapters, so I may do a sequel because I have a lot more stories,” Barry — who has directed The Addams Family, Get Shorty and Men in Black, among others — tells me from his home in Telluride, a town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

“Rob Reiner has spoken to me about turning the book into a TV series, which I guess would be a less angry version of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

“Larry is still angry about which of us is the most neurotic, though.

“I reckon Max Greenfield could play me between the ages of 30 and 45 — he appeared in one episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which I made for Netflix, and we hit it off instantly.

“He is a better-looking Jew than me, too.”

Barry is the quintessential Jewish New Yorker, complete with everything the stereotype entails.

* Overbearing and overly caring mother?

* Using comedy to get out of sometimes-dangerous situations?

* Constantly anxious?

But there is much more to Barry than his foibles.

Raised in The Big Apple, he is the only child of Irene — known as Kelly because her maiden name was Kellerman — and Nathan ‘Sonny’ Sonnenfeld.

His mother was an art teacher, while his father had a number of jobs, including lighting salesman, educator and architectural lighting designer.

Barry’s mum would constantly tell him she loved him, but in a way, he said, that demanded he invariably told her the same, too.

His father came from an Orthodox family and was one of seven children, but became less devout on joining the American army during the Second World War.

“We were three-times-a-year when in it came to going to the temple,” said Barry, who celebrated his 67th birthday on Wednesday. “My mother never came with, though.

“When I was growing up, especially at Yom Kippur, I knew two types of Jews.

“There were those who, having done fasting, found that their stomachs were too sensitive for anything heavy so they had matzo broken up in a cup of coffee with sugar and milk, or matzo brie.

“Then there were those, like my family, who were like, ‘bring on the brisket and potatoes’.”

Barry hilariously describes throughout his book how poor a cook his mother was, with him and his father regularly having to rescue what she was trying to prepare for dinner.

And nothing seemed straightforward in his formative years, even down to the fact that his barmitzvah was held in a Catholic church as his local synagogue was undergoing renovation.

There, the rabbi and shul elders covered the crucifixes and crosses with shopping bags.

Of Hungarian and German heritage, he received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Hampshire College before graduating from New York University Film School in 1978.

It was when he was 16 that an incident took place which led to the title of the book.

Attending an anti-Vietnam War concert with a girlfriend at Madison Square Garden, and just as Jimi Hendrix was about to make contact with his guitar strings, an announcement echoed over the public address system, stating: “Barry Sonnenfeld, call your mother.”

Barry believed the only possible reason he was being summoned to call his mother was that his father was dead.

However, she was merely concerned that he still wasn’t home.

After finishing at film school, he bought a 16mm camera and began working on porn films.

“A friend of a friend was a porn director who was willing to pay the friend and me to shoot videos,” Barry recalled.

“We got $400 a day and it was a great job out of film school, but I would say that anyone who likes porn should not work on a porno!

“With the book, what I wanted to do was give as much visual aid as possible to some of the stories, so with the porno chapter there is a photograph of two women in the nude waiting while someone changes a roll of film.”

Barry did not start his working career as a director; in fact he was a director of photography for the Oscar-nominated 1982 film In Our Water, before embarking on a collaboration with the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan.

He worked with them on Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, as well as with Danny DeVito on Throw Momma from the Train, with Rob Reiner on When Harry Met Sally . . . and with Penny Marshall and Tom Hanks on the 1988 classic Big.

It was not until he was in his late-30s that he directed his first film, 1991’s The Addams Family, which was based on the characters from the cartoon created by Charles Addams and the 1960s TV series.

Barry said: “Scott Rudin, the producer who I’d work with on Throw Momma, came to see me with the script for The Addams Family.

“I had no interest in directing, but I had grown up with the Charles Addams’ drawings in the New Yorker magazine.

“I found it incredibly visual and smart, and enjoyed the fact that you couldn’t figure out the joke straight away.

“The studio wanted someone with a strong visual style rather than a typical comedy director.

“It was a hard movie to make, but I am very proud of it.

“I love The Addams Family because it is my first child, but I think the sequel (Addams Family Values) was funnier.”

He made an appearance in the sequel, too, playing the father of Joel Glicker (David Krumholtz), who attends the same summer camp as Wednesday Addams.

Joel’s mother, played by Julia Halston, is seen constantly wetting a handkerchief and cleaning the corners of her son’s mouth in a nod to Barry’s mother.

He has had commercial failures, as well, such as 1993’s For Love or Money and Wild Wild West in 1998.

Get Shorty, which starred DeVito, John Travolta, Gene Hackman and Rene Russo, could have gone the same way had it not been for Barry’s directorial talents.

Based on Elmore Leonard’s book, it took five years to make and was released in 1995.

Barry explained: “Get Shorty was my favourite movie to direct.

“Everyone turned us down, but I convinced Danny to buy the rights and for us to make it together.

“The film imbued my philosophy about comedy, which is you don’t want anyone working on your comedy to know they are in a comedy.

“You want the audience to know it is comedy, but if you tell wardrobe then the outfits will be too colourful and if you tell the actors to be funny, it would also be a disaster.”

Two years after Get Shorty came Men in Black, Barry’s most successful film to date.

It saw Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as two agents of a secret organisation called the Men in Black, which supervises aliens who live on earth and hide their existence from other humans.

Barry directed its two sequels — but not last year’s Men in Black: International.

He said: “The studio didn’t actually want Will Smith — they wanted Chris O’Donnell.

“I told Chris that I was a terrible director and not to do it, and then I got Will to come on board.

“What I like about the film is that it is a buddy movie, there is not big sci-fi stuff, it is about Will and Tommy, who is Will’s straight man.

“What makes it work is the chemistry of the actors and Tommy being equally as funny, because he is not trying to be.”

During our conversation, it becomes apparent that Barry has no regrets about becoming a director — in fact, it seems that he suits its criteria down to the ground.

He continued: “When I was the cinematographer on Big, Penny (Marshall, the director) was incapable of making decisions.

“I lived to make them, so I was often making decisions that Penny didn’t want to.

“There is a scene, for example, where Tom Hanks gets into a limo after a night partying.

“We ended up giving three different grips and electric crews, one rigging a Subaru, one rigging a Corvette and the other a limo because Penny just could not decide which one to use.

“Producer Bobby Greenhut turned to her and said, ‘well, which one is it?’, to which she responded, ‘I don’t know, what does Barry think?’.

“I said the limo and she okay-ed it.

“She could not take responsibility, so if the scene was bad I would be blamed, but if it was good she got all the credit because she was the director.”

Father-of-one Barry, who has been married to Susan — known as “Sweetie — since 1989, refers to his mother plenty in his book, none more so when he blames her for his fear of flying.

He always feared he would be involved in a plane crash, something which actually happened in February, 1999.

He was the lone passenger on a Gulfstream jet when it crash-landed at Van Nuys airport, in Los Angeles.

The plane slid past the end of the runway and slammed into several unoccupied aircraft and a fence.

Barry recalled: “I took my first flight when I was 11 with my parents; we were going to Miami.

“My mother, convinced she was having an angina attack, persuaded the captain to drop the oxygen masks.

“When I was on the flight that crashed, I didn’t weep uncontrollably as it was happening, I didn’t think about all the things I could have done differently — I was calm and accepting of the fact that I was going to die.

“It didn’t make me believe in God, or any of those things.

“My joke line now is that every time I get off a plane that has landed safely, I consider it a failed suicide attempt.”

For the past two years Barry has directed — and been executive producer of – the Netflix hit A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on Lemony Snicket’s children’s novel.

“It is the most fun I have ever had,” he said. “They have us 25 hours of programming, so I was able to develop each storyline.

“We have been nominated for a lot of awards, including Emmys and Directors Guilds, but I have realised that all children’s programming will always lose to Sesame Street!”

Barry and Sweetie have lived in Telluride, where their neighbours include Jerry Seinfeld and director Lawrence Kasdan, for a number of years, having moved from The Hamptons, New York.

“Everybody from New York City was spending their summers in The Hamptons, which was a nightmare for us,” Barry laughed.

“We already had a place in Telluride and we decided we also did not need two big homes.

“Being a TV and film director, you never work where you live and, when you are not working, you want to live in the best and most beautiful place you can find, which, for us, is Telluride.”

Thanks to his latter success with A Series of Unfortunate Events, Barry has no plans to stop doing what he loves yet, either.

“Sweetie always travels with me and she is always on set, which helps,” he added.

“I actually don’t think I want to make another movie because I love working in streaming TV.

“I am developing several new series for that platform.”


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