Winter 2020

New Worlds

Lemony Snicket's Palpable Universe

Barry Sonnenfeld wove together disparate elements into a unified vision for the fanciful TV series

By Susan Young

Sonnenfeld works with actress Malina Weissman, who plays Violet Baudelaire in A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Photo: Joseph Lederer/Netflix)

Director Barry Sonnenfeld was very specific about his vision for A Series of Unfortunate Events when he entered the initial meeting with Netflix.

Sonnenfeld had been a fan of the books, written by Daniel Handler under the nom de plume Lemony Snicket, since he read them to his then-young daughter. In a 25-episode-long adaptation of the 13-book series, Sonnenfeld wanted to capture the quirkiness of the dark children's books about the besieged Baudelaire orphans, saddled with incompetent adults and the villainous Count Olaf, in a highly stylized way in a controlled environment.

To achieve this, Sonnenfeld insisted everything be shot on stages built in Vancouver, where he could control the palette. The sky and other elements are painted backdrops. The pastels pop against the gray backgrounds.

An early illustration presented to the Netflix team showed the office of Mr. Poe, the children's guardian and estate manager, with file cabinets soaring 40 feet high in a space that was only 10 feet wide.

"I said this is how stylized the show will be," Sonnenfeld recalls. "If you have a problem, tell us now because everything will be pushed like this. Once they bought in and embraced it, we had the right to make the show we wanted."

In the books, the wry, melancholy narrator Lemony Snicket has a more passive role in the storytelling. Sonnenfeld conceived him as an active participant in a nod to The Twilight Zone host Rod Serling. The director—who also served as an executive producer on the Peabody Award-winning show that wrapped its three-season run earlier this year—embraced the 21mm lens and got into a specific visual rhythm: Never pan, always track. Shoot a building so it is not off center, like you were sitting in the eighth row of a stage play.

Malina Weissman, in plaid jacket, with actors Dylan Kingwell (left) and Patrick Warburton (center), in A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Photo: Eric Milner/Netflix)

Sonnenfeld stresses that it's the director's job "to stay consistent in the tone, whether it's set design or visual effects."

And yet the palette is wide-ranging. Post-modern. Gothic. Mock gothic. Steampunk. All have been used to describe this distinctive series with the flat tableaux. Sonnenfeld didn't want the show to feel like a period piece. He wanted a timelessness about it that would often include such anachronistic elements as telegraphs and walkie-talkies existing in the same universe. Cars were picked for looks and curves rather than period.

"I wanted it all to say that this doesn't take place in a specific time frame," he explains. "It's a different multiverse, not America or England. What attracts me to projects is to create worlds, whether it is Men in Black or Pushing Daisies or the original The Tick or Wild Wild West. Combining reality and fantasy in a way that seems real."

Part of that alchemy has to do with a consistency of vision.

"When a prop guy hands you something and asks if it should be red or green, he doesn't want the director to say, 'You choose,'" Sonnenfeld says. "A director is an amalgam of thousands of decisions: the color of a folder, sneakers, cars. All those decisions on those elements build up and create tone."

He was nominated this year for a DGA Award for his work on the 2nd season episode "The Vile Village: Part One," set in an old European countryside-influenced location and featuring a huge balloon airship.

"There were several things I loved," says the director. "It all takes place in that village square area with everything from the town hall to the bar to the jail, with all that cobblestone, and all on a Vancouver stage."

To successfully combine all those elements, Sonnenfeld says it all comes down to preproduction.

From left, actors Lucy Punch, Neil Patrick Harris and Chris Gauthier play incompetent and villainous adults in "The Grim Grotto." (Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix)

"Time is cheap, and you can shot list and storyboard before even starting. You know what to build, where to put it, what you'll need and you can pull off that stylization for a price that's expensive, but not as expensive," Sonnenfeld says.

His minimal direction is "flatter and faster."

"If the actors talk fast enough, it prevents them from overacting because they don't have time," Sonnenfeld says.

At first, he admits, it was a challenge to work with other directors. Sonnenfeld says he encouraged creative latitude, but also needed his guest directors to adhere to his overall conception.

Liza Johnson, who directed the season 3 two-parter "Grim Grotto," said it was helpful to have two previous seasons to study.

"The style of the show is this kind of symmetrical rigorous set of rules for the camera," Johnson says. "It has a logic established by Barry, but he was never authoritarian and was always interested in what I was doing.

"And he also taught me a lot of synonyms for faster."

Johnson said she had no idea how popular the series was with young viewers until two children separately approached her about her work on the show.

"It was like I was Madonna," she says with a laugh. "I was famous to these 9 year olds because this has a real fan base."

Netflix's embrace of Sonnenfeld's vision gives him hope that others will be able to use the SVOD space to break out of the established boundaries for what is considered children's or youth programming.

"I got a real sense that they didn't want to feel like a normal studio or have the same rules," Sonnenfeld says. "Creative people are given personal responsibility. You can't make a director be responsible without giving him the power to succeed in that role."

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