Season 1 of Netflix’s delightful new version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was unveiled Friday. I spoke with one of the show’s executive producers and directors, Barry Sonnenfeld of Men in Black and Pushing Daisies fame, to discuss the new remake…
First, the background. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a series of books, aimed primarily at the teen and preteen market, about a trio of siblings, the Baudelaire children, whose young lives seemed plagued by peril, disaster and dastardly adversaries. Their parents are wealthy and loving – but as the series of adventures begins, the children are informed that their parents have died in a fire that also burned their family home and belongings. A dubious distant relative, Count Olaf, is the first to target the children, with a scheme to control and acquire their eventual sizable inheritance.
Lemony Snicket, the purported author of the tales, is present in the stories as well, defining vocabulary words, pointing out ironies and hinting at future events, and interjecting warnings about how dire and depressing the adventures of the Baudelaire children are from the start – and in the middle, and at the end. It’s a dark journey the children are on: part Dickensian, part Kurt Vonnegut, with lots of doses of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey. But boy, is it fun.
The real author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and creator of the character of his alter ego Lemony Snicket, is Daniel Handler, who since 1999 has written a series of 13 Lemony Snicket books. A dozen years ago, he and director and executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld teamed, with producer Scott Rudin, to create the first of what was planned as a series of Series of Unfortunate Event movies. Sets and wardrobe were designed, and Jim Carrey was cast as Count Olaf, the primary villain of the piece – and then, before the 2004 movie got deeper into production, Rudin walked away from the project, and Sonnenfeld, and then Handler, were let go.
Sonnenfeld, though, never lost his enthusiasm for the books Handler had written.
“I always loved the books,” Sonnenfeld told me in a phone conversation last week, calling from his home in Telluride, Colorado. “I read them to my daughter. And when she stopped being interested at a certain age, I continued to read them on my own.”
Sonnenfeld, whose film work includes the playfully macabre first two Addams Family movies, explains, “Basically, what the books say are that all children are wonderful and capable, and all adults, whether they mean well or they’re the villains, are equally inept, ineffectual and horrible. And that was my vision of my parents. So for me, that was fantastic.”
The 2004 movie, starring Carrey, didn’t do well at the box office, and took approaches that downplayed the potential presence of Lemony Snicket as a character, and emphasized the narrative as more of a showcase vehicle for Jim Carrey than as the story of the seemingly orphaned children. And that was it for a decade or so, until Sonnenfeld got a call from Jimmy Miller, who represented Carrey as his manager, and said to Sonnenfeld, “Hey, Bar, Paramount is not making sequels, and they sold the Lemony Snicket rights to Netflix. I know you always were so passionate about the project – you should get in and see Netflix.”
With Netflix buying the rights, author Handler already was back in and involved, and Sonnenfeld quickly sold Netflix on his own vision for a TV version. Each volume in the original series of books should be done in two one-hour episodes, like individual two-hour movies. Lemony Snicket should appear throughout, as a narrator who’s seen as well as heard. And with those and other ideas, Netflix executives were not only receptive but supportive. Sonnenfeld says he felt like “a rescue dog” at Netflix because it was such an unfamiliar experience to be treated so well.
“Daniel and I worked really hard,” Sonnenfeld says. “The thing about Netflix, it’s like no other studio. They believe you hire a surgeon for your heart surgery, but don’t stand over him and say, ‘No, you should use the other sutures.’” Daniel Handler and Sonnenfeld worked with Bo Welch, Sonnenfeld’s long-time set designer collaborator, and others to get the vision down for the TV version. Then came the casting.
In Netflix’s Unfortunate Events, Snicket is presented as a Rod Serling-type character – a perfect idea, especially for the TV series, but one that didn’t come to Sonnenfeld originally.
“I did not have that idea when I was doing the film,” Sonnenfeld admits, recalling the early days on the movie before he was fired. “But when I saw the film, I felt that having someone sit at a typewriter was a total waste of Lemony.”
At that initial meeting at Netflix, Sonnefeld says, “I tell them, at that first meeting, Lemony should be an on-screen presence. … and Daniel totally loved the idea.” Patrick Warburton (left) was an actor they both loved, and he seemed perfect for the part.” (He is, by the way.)
“I’d worked with Patrick several times,” Sonnenfeld points out. “He was in Men in Black II, he was the lead in The Tick… My neighbor here in Telluride is Jerry Seinfeld. We both feel the same way about Warburton because he played Puddy on Seinfeld. You look at the script and say, ‘Oh, my God, this writing’s terrible. Nobody can say these lines.’ And then Warburton says it, and somehow it’s hilarious.
“Danny was the first person who said Warburton’s name out loud. Netflix loved the idea. And Patrick is totally Rod Serling in this thing… He’s great.”
Neil Patrick Harris (below), who stars as Count Olaf and all the Count’s weirdly disguised other characters, like the peg-legged salty sea captain called Captain Sham, was another Handler inspiration.
“Neil was Daniel’s idea right from the beginning,” Sonnenfeld says. Because of the complexity of the shooting schedule and the needs of the special effects and other technical considerations, all eight scripts for the first season of Unfortunate Events were written, Sonnenfeld, before they commenced shooting.
“We definitely have to do that on this show,” he explains. “Every two episodes, which is a book, we destroy two million dollars worth of sets. Every two episodes is a feature film. What we’re doing in 25 days is doing a feature. The only way to do it is pre-production.”
Consequently, all eight scripts are ready at the first day’s table read, when Netflix executives join the assembled cast in Vancouver, and everyone gets to hear, for the first time, the dialogue being read aloud.
“And for the first time,” Sonnenfeld says with a chuckle, “we hear Neil being these different characters. In Wide Window, where he plays Captain Sham, he was Sean Connery at the table read. In other books, he was Stefano, he was Shirley, at the table read, and had it all worked out. He was like a chemist…
“We did very few takes with Neil because he would always nail it. At that table read, that day, we basically knew exactly how lucky we were. I had no idea how good he was going to be.”
Another spot where Harris was unexpectedly playful had to do with the show’s theme song.
“Originally,” Sonnenfeld says, “Netflix came to me and said, ‘We want to reinvent our opening title sequences. People want to move on, and get right into the show. For the first episode, you can have your typical opening music with titles – but then we just want 30-second, very short openings for the rest.’
“And I said, ‘Can I offer a totally different idea?’ They said yes. I told them, ‘I’d like to have a song, and I’d like the bridge of the song to change for each book, so the middle of the song is specific to each book, so that you actually get value added and look forward to the opening title sequence… I’d love to just, each book, have a different bridge.’ And they said, ‘Try it.’
“Nick Urata wrote the song, I asked Neil to record it, and when he recorded each book’s theme song, he did it two ways. The first book in each episode, he’s singing it like Neil. For the second episode, in the bridge section – now that you know his character [whatever new disguise Count Olaf is adopting for that book], he sings it as the character. For the first episode of Wide Window, the bridge is sung as Neil. For the second, it’s sung as Captain Sham. I love that.”
Sonnenfeld promises even more music, and general macabre merriment, if Netflix picks up Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events for a second season. According to Handler, interviewed a few days ago for Entertainment Weekly, Netflix already has given an unofficial pickup. But it ought to be official, and soon.
It should take three seasons or more, at the rate these adaptations are unspooling, for the TV version to complete its depiction of Handler’s original books. And when a TV series starts out this mouth-wateringly good, if Netflix doesn’t reward it with a renewal, that would be the most unfortunate event of all.