In a grand ballroom with black inlaid tiles and smudged, floor-to-ceiling windows, Raul Julia, dressed in a red satin cossack shirt and toreador pants, is getting his hair touched up by a bald man in black shorts. Anjelica Huston, pale as death, is plucking her eyebrows and tracing her eyeliner. Christopher Lloyd, plumped up with pillows and covered by a shapeless wool coat that a monk living off Baffin Bay might wear in the dead of winter, is plunging a dagger down his throat and loving the experience. No, these performers haven’t escaped from the Transylvania Circus. They’re the Addams Family, the campily macabre clan created by the late cartoonist Charles Addams and now being lovingly re-created for film. Gomez Addams (Julia), his wife, Morticia (Huston), and his brother, Fester (Lloyd), could not be more perfectly realized had they paraded off the pages of their hallowed haunt, The New Yorker.
The serenely bizarre characters are starring in Paramount’s The Addams Family, a $30 million comedy opening Nov. 22. As in the classic ’60s TV version, headed up by Carolyn Jones and John Astin, the Addamses constitute a household in which every social norm is turned on its head. Snipping flowers, Morticia chucks out the roses and makes an arrangement of thorny stems. She and Gomez repair to the backyard cemetery for their romantic interludes. And the dear child Wednesday gets permission from Mother to electrocute her plumpster brother Pugsley. ”Their values are different,” says director Barry Sonnenfeld. ”That’s what makes them happy.”
Gathered on a Hollywood soundstage, the Addams clan certainly seems happy. The whole hideous household is on hand: Gomez and Morticia; Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman); Cousin It (John Franklin), the five-foot fountain of hair; Lurch (Carel Struycken), the seven-foot tower of butler; Thing, the bodiless hand; and Lumpy (Ryan Holihan), a hunchback with a mouth plate and a pompadour. They’ve all gathered in the ballroom of their lavishly rotting mansion to celebrate the return of Uncle Fester, missing since a mishap involving a tuna net in the Bermuda Triangle 25 years ago. Gomez and Fester are dancing and singing ”The Mamushka,” a celebration of brotherly love written for the film by Broadway lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green and composer Marc Shaiman. The ditty ends with the two shouting ”mamushka!” and clasping each others’ shoulders joyfully as they kneel on the floor.
For the most part, however, happiness and The Addams Family have not gone hand in hand. After Orion Pictures got the rights to the characters from Addams, producer Scott Rudin considered a string of directors before finding Sonnenfeld, 38, a standout cinematographer (Misery, When Harry Met Sally , and Big) who had never directed a feature. The script, written by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) and Larry Wilson (Beetlejuice), was an immediate problem. Sonnenfeld was dissatisfied even after months of revisions — ”It was too ‘setup and punch line,”’ he says — so playwright and novelist Paul Rudnick (I Hate Hamlet, I’ll Take It) was hired for more changes, which kept coming throughout the filming. ”We were getting new script pages every hour,” reports makeup artist Fern Buchner. Even after a month-long rehearsal, the shoot stretched from the planned four months to five.
And the days were long. ”The eyelifts got tighter and tighter and the temples started to throb,” recalls Huston, who was tightly corseted in her role. ”It could leave you more wasted than having a very emotional day on the set.”
Finally, three-quarters of the way through filming, the distributor, debt- beleaguered Orion, decided to sell off the movie. Of all Orion’s projects, says Sonnenfeld, ”The Addams Family was costing them the most. But it also stood to make them the most.” The fire sale, as it was widely dubbed, created additional awkward moments. While executives from various studios prowled the set like shoppers at Filene’s basement (Paramount finally bought the movie for $22 million), Orion snapped its purse shut.
”They’d call and say, ‘You can’t paint the whole set, but you can paint the pillar,”’ Sonnenfeld says. ”I wasn’t sure if the movie would ever be finished.” One day, after weeks of working on 15 minutes’ sleep a night and using cappuccino as a food substitute, he simply passed out on the set. After a quick visit to the hospital and a recuperative afternoon watching Graham Kerr’s new cooking show, he was back the next day. ”It was terrible,” Sonnenfeld says of directing. ”Everything takes so long you forget why you were shooting something the way you were shooting it. At least when I was a cinematographer I could act juvenile and throw things.”
Even Ricci, 11, who played Winona Ryder’s younger sister in Mermaids, felt the strain. ”It’s been a really rough week,” she admitted. ”I had to chop off Pugsley’s arm, recite Shakespeare, and do this gigantic death scene (for the school play in the movie). It was really exhausting.”
Perhaps the hardest-working Addams character was Thing, the hand that keeps popping up around the house to perform odd jobs. In the TV show, Thing always remained in a box (trivia note: Thing was billed as ”Itself,” but it was actually played by Ted Cassidy, who was also Lurch). But in the movie the friendly beast with five fingers is liberated. Now played by actor-magician Christopher Hart, Thing perches on Gomez’s shoulder, scurries down a corridor, and even tries to hitch a ride in traffic.
For most of Thing’s shots, Hart was laid facedown on a dolly and propelled through the set, one arm extended, his fingers tripping over the floor. To create the needed illusion, Hart’s wrist was dressed with a prosthetic stump, and a black leotard hid his arm and upper body. Each scene was shot twice-once with Hart’s hand, once without. The two were then optically combined.
And those were the easy Thing scenes. Other sequences, such as when Thing leapfrogs across a pond from one lily pad to the next, required stop-motion animation, a laborious technique in which a puppet is moved a tiny bit at a time and photographed frame by frame. The leapfrogging, which runs less than 10 seconds, took eight hours to shoot.
Will it all pay off? Back in the ballroom, Julia watches the playback of the big ”Mamushka” scene on a monitor. He knits his brows intently. Then he raises them. Finally he smiles jubilantly. ”It’s good, isn’t it?” he says brightly.
With a candor not often found in film circles, director Sonnenfeld isn’t so sure. ”It’s not a perfect movie,” he says. ”It doesn’t have a really good plot. But what surprises me is that I really like it. It’s incredibly emotional and really funny.” It’s also, finally, over. — Additional reporting by Ron Magid and Juliann Garey