Barry Sonnenfeld: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker

Men in Black 1 - Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

There are not many filmmakers’ biographies as entertaining and engaging (and sometimes crude) as Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker.

Before becoming a director of successful films like the Men in Black series and The Addams Family movies, Barry Sonnenfeld made a name as a DoP (Director of Photography).

Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker cover

Sonnenfeld started in features as a cinematographer for his friends Joel and Ethan Coen. For them, he DoP’d Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987) and Miller’s Crossing (1990). He is responsible for the look of a few more relevant movies, like Big (Penny Marshall, 1988), Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990) and When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989).

Before getting into features, he did camera work in porn movies in LA. His account of that period is quite unique and shocking.

If I were to make a suggestion for a sequel to his book, I would dare ask Mr Sonnenfeld to tell us about his experience making the Men in Black films. We miss that.

I have selected two excerpts from the book that I hope will make you want more.

One is about his brief stint as a DoP in Tango and Cash (1989), and the other one is about a budget meeting when he was pre-producing Get Shorty (1995), which he directed.

Don’t worry if you don’t know the films, Sonnenfeld’s stories are wildly entertaining by themselves.

On Tango and Cash

If you check the credits of Tango and Cash, you won’t see Sonnenfeld’s name anywhere. He left and was substituted as a DoP by Donald E. Thorin.

Tango and Cash is an action comedy with Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell from 1989 directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. The Russian director was a very peculiar choice for a buddy movie. Check the trailer.

Barry Sonnenfeld was offered to be the director of photography in Tango and Cash. As a replacement.

(…) I got a call from my talent agency offering me the job of cinematographer on Tango and Cash, a film directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. The cinematographer on the show, Don Peterman, had just quit due to a “family crisis.” Peterman, by the way, would later be the Director of Photography on three films I directed, Addams Family Values, Get Shorty, and Men in Black. Don and I were both represented by the Gersh Agency.

Tango and Cash (1989). Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.

My first morning with Andrei the director and Jon Peters the producer—whom I would later work with on Wild Wild West—made me realize that Peterman didn’t have a “family crisis.” He was just fleeing a sinking radioactive ship.

In our first meeting, Andrei, a Russian, explained that the Soviet Union was letting us use their biggest transport plane, in fact the biggest plane in the world, the Antonov An-225 Mriya, for an evening.

The idea for the scene was that as the plane taxied down the Burbank Airport runway, the back of the plane would open, and Sly and Kurt, who were being held captive in their jeep inside the plane, would drive off the huge jet just as it lifted off.

I asked Andrei if the sequence had been storyboarded, or if there was any pre-visualization of the scene, or if I could talk to the Visual Effects supervisor and stunt coordinator. I was curious how much was going to be blue screen or was it all visual effects work, with the exception, maybe, of a two shot and close-ups of Stallone and Russell in the jeep screaming or comedy bantering—although probably even those shots would be filmed in a studio against blue screen and not on the actual plane.

Maybe second unit would film a shot of the An-225 taxiing down the runway, although probably that too would be better and cheaper as a miniature or a computer graphics model. I was more of a comedy guy, and since action films were not my forte, I was curious to hear what the plan was from the team that had been on the show for the last four months.

Andrei started screaming. “Why are you asking about all these tricks? Why are you wasting time with questions? I just told you the scene. You read the script. Your job is to film the scene. The plane goes down the runway, the back of the plane opens, and the jeep drives out with Sly and

Kurt looking cool as the plane takes off into the sky. It’s in the script. You read it.” “Oh… kay… Obviously, you’ve thought all this out, and I’m just getting started, but here are a few, admittedly dumb, questions. The scene takes place at night, which means there’s going to be a lot of lights and a lot of crew to film a plane on a more than a mile-long runway, and it’s summer, so we don’t have a lot of hours of darkness.

“This is my first morning, and you, Andrei, directed Runaway Train, so you know your way around action movies, but I still need to ask a few more, a bunch more actually, dumb, dumb………… dumb questions. “Do we know that the Antonov can even land or take off from Burbank Airport? Do we know if the plane’s systems allow the cargo door to drop down as the plane is taxiing, let alone can the plane take off with the rear door down?

Do we know how long it will take, after the plane lifts off, if it even can, for it to circle the airfield, land, and come back to the starting position for take two? And, speaking of landing, do we even know if the plane can land with the rear door down? Do we really think Sly and Kurt, or their stunt guys, are going to drive a jeep off a moving plane just before it takes off?

I know you’ve thought about all of this, I mean, for months, but it seems like I’m missing something.” I swear, Jon Peters turned to Andrei and said: “What about a huge chase scene with one of those big dump trucks that carry coal, and a Caterpillar D9 earth mover in a quarry somewhere? Sly and Kurt could each look cool driving those really big trucks.”

Andrei loved the idea. Not another word was ever mentioned about the Antonov An-225 Mriya. “Love it! Right, Sonnenfeld?” said Peters. On the one hand, I was thinking, a Caterpillar D-9 travels at like a tenth the speed of an old person walking, hardly lending itself to a “big chase scene,” but, on the other, I said: “Love it!” I knew I was going to be long gone from Tango and Cash before they got to the “big chase scene.”

Andrei and I had three run-ins during my one week of filming. The last was in a police station. I suggested we film Kurt entering the office, then let him exit frame. The next shot we’d pick him up arriving at his desk. Andrei turned red.

“Are you a pussy? Are you a girl? “Light the whole police station. We see Kurt come in, we follow him across the room, then we see him arrive at his desk. All in one shot.” “Well, Andrei, isn’t that a lot of shoe leather? Doesn’t it seem kinda boring since it will be like 45 seconds of a guy walking across a police station?” Andrei yelled, as if obvious, “I’ll tell Kurt to say some funny things to different people as he walks by. Let’s go!”

Two hours later, after lighting the Grand Central of police stations, Kurt is called to the set. Andrei tells him he’s going to walk from one end of the station to the other and then sit at his desk. “Andrei. That’s a lot of shoe leather. Why don’t you let me walk into the police station, leave frame, and then pick me up at my desk? It’s a lot of walking with nothing going on.” Uh. Yeah.

“It won’t be nothing going on, because as you pass other people’s desks, I want you to say funny things to them.” And here’s why I’ll always love Kurt Russell: “Andrei. I’m an actor. Not a writer. If you have a writer write me funny things. I’ll say them. But don’t ask me to say funny things if they aren’t written.” Andrei turned to me and said, “Kurt enters the police station and exits frame. Let’s go.”

On Get Shorty’s budget

Sonnenfeld liked a 1990 novel about Hollywood by Elmore Leonard named Get Shorty.

To make it into a film, he got an amazing cast together: John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, James Gandolfini… But before getting the go-ahead, a detailed budget had to be approved.

Our budget was $30,250,000. MGM insisted we get it down to $30 million before they gave us a green light. I went to their offices in Santa Monica with Danny and the line producer, my good friend Graham Place. I had worked with Graham since I was filming ABC After-School Specials. Our budget was lean, with no hidden money for running into trouble once we started filming.

Get Shorty (1995) - Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

(…) I saw where this was going. Death by a thousand cuts, and we still wouldn’t find $250K. I jumped in. “Ya know, you guys are busy, and I really want to make the movie, so here’s how we lose a quarter of a million in one move.” Not only did David and Mike lean forward (MGM’s Mike Markus and David Ladd), so did Danny (DeVito, also producing the movie) and especially Graham, since he knew there was no way to trim that much out of the budget. “I’d rather do eighty scenes the right way, than eighty-one where every scene suffers either because I didn’t have the right equipment or enough time to shoot it correctly.

So, what I propose is losing the scene where Travolta visits Hackman on the set of one of Hackman’s horror films. We were going to film it over two nights, and each night is a hundred and twenty-five thousand. We cut the scene, we lose two days of shooting, we save two-fifty, and we can leave the room with a green-lit picture. Deal?” “No deal. I love the scene. Find another way,” Mike said.

“Mike, I love the scene, too. It’s great for so many reasons, including one you don’t even know. Ben Stiller has agreed to play the recent film school graduate/director. It’s also great because Chili loves movies, and it’s the only time in our film he gets to see a movie being made. We also see that Hackman, for all of his neuroses, is actually a good film producer. I love the scene, but it doesn’t move the plot along.” “Absolutely not.” “Mike. It saves two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” “Find another way.”

David, who had been riffling through our budget, happily chimed in. “Do you really need a chapman crane? That’s $2,000, not including the driver.” “Actually, David, good call. We don’t need the crane, because it was for the very scene we’re taking out of the movie.” “You’re not taking it out of the movie.” “Mike. We have to. We have to lose the scene. End of story.” “Don’t tell me end of story. I want the scene in the movie.”

“You can’t have it.” “What would it cost to put it back in?” Graham and Danny were amazed I might pull it off. “To put the Hackman/Travolta scene back in the movie will cost you two hundred and fifty grand.” “You got it.” “Okay. You’re saying that you want the scene and you’ll give us two fifty to film it.” “Yes.” “So our budget is $30,250,000. And we have a green light.” “That’s what I just said, asshole.” “Just checking.” Danny, Graham, and I walked down the hallway toward the elevator, stifling our giggles.

The funny thing is that the aforementioned scene was filmed BUT FINALLY ELIMINATED FROM THE CUT.

Here you have it, including Ben Stiller playing the director:

Read The New York Times review of the book here.

Do yourself a favour and get this book.

Sonnenfeld as a cinematographer:

Sonnenfeld as a director:

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