In December 2004, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” hit cinemas nationwide.
Based on the best-selling books by Daniel Handler (under pen name Lemony Snicket), the series starred Jim Carrey — who was as hot as fire after the box office behemoth “Bruce Almighty” and critical darling “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — and the film entered a marketplace friendly to live-action family fare. Three “Harry Potter” films had already been released, amassing more than $2.5 billion globally, and Carrey himself had carry-d the kid-friendly “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to the highest-grossing film of 2000 just a few years prior.
Yet even with the added star power of Meryl Streep and Jude Law, the $140 million production couldn’t surpass that figure domestically, nor double it worldwide. The film was a flop, with critics pointing to the softened edges of the original source material as one reason why.
While undoubtedly a disappointment to many involved, one man’s torch remained lit; a largely insignificant collaborator who was rendered such despite a deep-rooted love of the books. Barry Sonnenfeld, officially credited as an executive producer on the film, wanted so much more for the project and was originally slated to lead it.
Now, after a decade-plus wait, Sonnenfeld is finally able to do just that.
Losing the Film
“This is a redemption story for Barry,” Neil Patrick Harris told IndieWire when we visited the massive, Vancouver-based sets in August 2016. “I want this to be as good as he envisions it to be.”
Harris is the new Count Olaf, taking over the role Carrey played in the film, and he’s one part in a giant production all constructed to the whims of its showrunner.
“Netflix has given me a lot of money to basically do whatever I want and make my version of reality a reality,” Sonnenfeld said. But such power didn’t come easily. The Emmy-wining director had to fight just to get Netflix to consider him, and it all tied into when Sonnenfeld was forced out of his own film.
“I was the director of the feature film for a long time,” Sonnenfeld said. “I was going to be with Jim Carrey, as his director, and through a series of unfortunate events Paramount Pictures decided they wanted to make some [changes]. They brought on another financial partner, which was Dreamworks, and Dreamworks decided they wanted a different director, so I left that project.”
Despite his disappointing experience trying to get the first film made, his love for the franchise never dissipated.
“I’ve always loved the books,” Sonnenfeld said. “They’re about [how] all children are capable and all adults are horrible, whether they’re evil — like Olaf — or well-meaning, like Justice Strauss. It doesn’t matter: If you’re an adult, you’re going to screw things up. And I love that the children are so special and so capable and so smart. That’s why I was always attracted to the material.”
The Long Wait
But the film’s financial failure made it impossible to resurrect in the following years, especially with Paramount still holding the rights to the books. Sonnenfeld moved on, directing and producing the short-lived but cult favorite ABC series “Pushing Daisies” and revisiting his most popular franchise, “Men in Black,” for the third time in 2012. He was creatively stimulated and working consistently, but he kept reading the books to his kid, never lost his love for Handler’s prose, and those in the know knew Sonnenfeld still harbored a passion for “Unfortunate Events.”
“So about three years ago, a manager named Jimmy Miller, who represented Jim Carrey, called me and said, ‘Hey, you know, Netflix bought the rights to the books. You should get involved in it,’ Sonnenfeld said. “And I worked really hard to get in the room and meet them.”
But it was difficult. Whether it was the need to attract a star of Carrey’s stature or meet the demands of a high-budget feature film by focusing on the most salable actor, the 2004 version of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was largely built around the villain instead of the heroes. Netflix wanted their version to hue much closer to Handler’s novels and were hesitant to even hear Sonnenfeld’s pitch because of his film credit.
They hired Handler to write some of the episodes and “do a pass on all the scripts,” as Sonnnenfeld put it, but they still needed someone to bring those words to life, and — because of the series’ new direction — they still didn’t want anyone from the movie involved with the show.
“I don’t think it was whether they were making a value judgement about the movie, but they were saying, ‘We want it to be rebooted. We don’t want to do more of the same. We want it to feel and to look different — for everything about it to be different,'” Sonnenfeld said. “They thought, because my name was on the movie as a producer, I had somehow been instrumental in those decisions.”
But once Sonnnenfeld got his foot in the door and gave his pitch, attitudes shifted.
“I worked really hard to get in the room and meet them,” Sonnenfeld said. “[I had to ] explain I had nothing to do with the movie, and what my vision of the show was: It wasn’t about Count Olaf. It was about the children. […] What [the books] are about is that all children are capable and all adults are horrible, whether they’re evil — like Olaf — or well-meaning, like Justice Strauss. It doesn’t matter: If you’re an adult, you’re going to screw things up. And I love that the children are so special and so capable and so smart. That’s why I was always attracted to the material.
That pitch won him the job, and his second chance right along with it.
“They were looking for a fresh start, and I convinced them I was that fresh start. […] And they hired me.”
A Big-Budget Studio Film for 10 Percent of the Price
Once Sonnenfeld got his foot in the door, then came the little task of actually making the series. Only it wasn’t so little. The shared desire between studio and director to honor the books meant deciding how much time was really needed to cover the plot without short-shifting the charming flourishes of the story.
“There are 13 books, and we’ve decided to do — pretty much — two episodes per book, so there will be a total of 26 episodes. Daniel will not disagree with me when I say some books are better than other books, but I think all our scripts are pretty great. It’s perfect for a long episodic thing because you don’t have to truncate stuff. The movie took maybe three or four of the books and tried to make them into a 90-minute show. Each one of our books is between 90 minutes and two hours — each episode is 45 minutes to an hour long.”
“I think where the movie faltered in my mind, a bit, is trying to truncate these multiple-100 page books and take four of them and put them into a two-hour movie,” Harris said. “You’re not even getting the Cliff’s Notes version. You’re just getting a scene and then another scene, while there’s so much in the books. Because there’s such a fan base for the books, I feel like people could watch something like that and feel that there were missed attempts. We have the freedom to have two hours to tell a single book. That’s great.”
“Every book is the length, scale, and scope of a feature film,” Sonnenfeld said. “And we’re probably doing each book, each two hours of television, for 1/10th or less of what it cost to make the movie. And I feel it looks as good or better — at least, my version of better.”
Doing the math, that puts the budget for the eight-hour first season at roughly $56 million. All in, bringing 13 books to life as 26 episodes would run Netflix roughly $182 million, making “A Series of Unfortunate Events” an important piece of the streaming service’s lineup for the next three years; an idea Harris has been aware of since the get go.
“It was pitched to me as Netflix’s first four-quadrant show,” Harris said. “Meaning, they were wanting to get as many demographics as they could, to be respectful of the people who read the books when they were younger but also to encourage people who are young now to watch it. I was intrigued by that idea.”
Such intrigue, as well of over a decade of waiting, put layers of pressure on Sonnenfeld’s shoulders. But months before “A Series of Unfortunate Events” earned rave reviews from critics (full disclosure: including this one), Sonnenfeld was already beaming with pride over his cast, including Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket (“fantastic”), K. Todd Freeman as the banker, Mr. Poe (“perfection”), the three child actors (“[They] really make me happy.”), and, of course, his pride in Harris’ performance. The actor’s reaction to the end result lent a particular sense of satisfaction to the director, who remembered their first shared screening.
“I showed the first two episodes to Neil,” Sonnenfeld said. “And he said, ‘This is so binge-y.’ I had no idea what that word meant! I said, ‘Is that good or bad? What does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Everyone will just binge watch it.'”
They likely will, and hopefully Sonnenfeld can find more well-earned gratification in remembering that Netflix bingeing wasn’t even available in 2004: Time is finally on his side.