'Men in Black' director Barry Sonnenfeld and his 'Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker'
From his hit films “The Addams Family” and “Men in Black” to his Netflix show “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” director Barry Sonnenfeld paints the world as surreal, chaotic and more than a little dark. It turns out there’s a reason.
In his memoir “Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother,” the onetime Long Islander (he lived on the East End for many years with his wife, Susan Ringo), describes the emotionally stifling mother, adulterous father and pedophile cousin who together conspired to turn his childhood into something even weirder and darker than one of his own comedies.
The book takes its title from a humiliating announcement that went over the Madison Square Garden sound system while Sonnenfeld was attending a rock concert as a teenager. Its subtitle: “Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker.”
Speaking by phone from his home in Telluride, Colo., the New York native explained how his work sometimes reflects his life. “For me,” Sonnenfeld, 66, said, “‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ is almost autobiographical.”
Q: Your book opens with the opposite of an inspirational quote: “Regret the past, fear the present, dread the future.”
A: My philosophy is, there’s no upside to being an optimist. And there’s nothing but upside by being a pessimist! If every time you get on an airplane, you turn to your wife and say, “This plane is gonna crash,” one of two things’ll happen. If the plane is starting to crash and spiraling down to the ground, you get to elbow your wife and say, “Am I right, or what?” If the plane doesn’t crash, you live! So, it’s a win-win.
Q: Did your parents instill this in you?
A: My father was a profound optimist, and for no reason. Even when we had no electricity, had to cross the street so we didn’t pass in front of Lou the butcher because we owed them money, no phone service — whatever it was, Dad was the optimist. My mother was a profound pessimist. I guess I both rebelled against my father and embraced my mother’s philosophy! And I’ve combined both of them into one horrible, scared human being.
Q: Was there a moment in your life when you realized your childhood was not normal?
A: It’s a lovely question, but I never embraced anything like the normalcy of my childhood. From the age of 5, when my father woke me up to convince my mother not to commit suicide, through the discovery at the age of 14 that my father, who was my idol, was having affairs, nothing ever seemed normal.
Q: We have to talk about this relative of yours, called “Cousin Mike the Child Molester.” Looking back, how do you make sense of this person?
A: I don’t make sense of him, nor do I make sense of the fact that my parents allowed someone who they knew was a child molester to live with us for several years. It was shocking that my parents knew this. Mike worked at NBC and could get my parents — and other parents — free dinners or free hotel rooms in L.A. or Miami if that’s where the NBC conventions were taking place. So, they sort of traded off. In a really horrible way.
Q: Did you have any concerns about going public with this?
A: The whole book should give me concerns about going public! But I’ve always been a very accessible person. These weren’t secrets. We’ll see what happens when the book comes out.
Q: Is it fair to say you settle a few scores here? I’m thinking particularly of Penny Marshall .
A: I probably would not have written that chapter if Penny was still alive. She was a lovely person. Very depressed, but she was a lovely person. She and I really liked each other as people. She just didn’t like working with me as a cameraman.
Q: Could you have written this book while your mother was alive?
A: Oh, God, yes! Considering I made fun of my mother on the David Letterman show, in The New York Times, in Newsweek — I don’t hold back. I would have been happy for her to have read the book.
Q: What do you think she would have said?
A: She would have wept. And she would have said, “You know I love you.” And I’d go, “Yes, Mom, I know you love me.”
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