Family & Companions
One of the most commercially successful director-producers of the 1990s, Barry Sonnenfeld experienced precipitous ups and downs in a lengthy career spanning both film and television. After cutting his teeth as a cinematographer for the likes of Joel and Ethan Coen on "Blood Simple" (1984) and "Raising Arizona" (1987), as well as Rob Reiner on "When Harry Met Sally" (1989) and "Misery" (1990), Sonnefeld made his directorial debut with the creepy comedy hit "The Addams Family" (1991). More box office success followed in the form of the crime-comedy "Get Shorty" (1995) and the blockbuster hit "Men in Black" (1997). Later efforts such as "Wild, Wild West" (1999) and "RV" (2006) proved disappointing, to say the least, although Sonnenfeld did have luck as a producer on films like Disney's "Enchanted" (2007) and the Emmy Award-winning fantasy series "Pushing Daisies" (ABC, 2007-09). After nearly six years away from the director's chair, he reteamed with Agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) once again for "Men in Black III" (2012), this time with its eye-popping special effects delivered in 3-D. Boasting a 30-year career populated with smashing triumphs and unmitigated disasters, few understood the Hollywood axiom of "You're only as good as your last picture," better than Sonnenfeld.
Born on April 1, 1953 in New York City, Sonnenfeld was raised in a Jewish home headed by his overprotective mother, Kelly, an art teacher at her son's elementary school, and his father, Sonny, a salesman. His mother was so overprotective that she had him eat lunch with the other teachers until her son reached the sixth grade. At Eleanor Roosevelt Junior High School, Sonnenfeld experienced "the worst three years of [his] life," thanks to routine beatings courtesy of his classmates. He ultimately survived long enough to make it to the High School of Music and Art, where he spent "the three best years of [his] life" playing the French horn in the all-city orchestra. After graduation, he attended the Bronx campus of New York University, studying political science. But when the campus closed, he finished his degree at Amherst College in Massachusetts, much to the discern of his mother, who wanted her son close to home. Sonnenfeld returned to New York with a bachelor's in hand, embarking on his master's of fine arts at NYU after he failed to get into the graduate journalism program at Columbia University.
While attending NYU, Sonnenfeld discovered he had a flare for lighting and camerawork, which led to purchasing a 16mm camera immediately after he graduated. But because he lived in a rat-infested apartment in Greenwich Village, he was compelled to take any job that came his way - one that ultimately happened to be in porn. For nine days straight, Sonnenfeld used his new camera to shoot nine porn films at a loft near Union Square, a revolting experience that brought him up close and personal with human bodies. Shortly after graduation, he met Joel and Ethan Coen, who were both NYU students with Sonnenfeld, though neither party knew the other while there. The Coens were looking for a cinematographer to shoot a trailer for their first feature, "Blood Simple" (1984), in order to raise money. Sonnenfeld agreed and earned $100 for a four-day shoot. He quickly became friends with the two brothers and wound up shooting the feature, a dark comic noir about a Texas bar owner (Dan Hedaya) who hires a corrupt private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder his cheating wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). Sonnenfeld's stark and loopy photography - which included a hilarious tracking shot that jumped over a drunk patron passed out on the bar - was a perfect match for the Coen's outlandish and often violent humor.
In short order, Sonnenfeld suddenly found himself to be a working cinematographer who was in-demand for bigger Hollywood features. Drawn particularly, but not exclusively to comedies, he performed the camera work on "Uncompromising Positions" (1985), "Throw Momma From the Train" (1987) and "Three O'Clock High" (1987), while on television he earned a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Single Camera Photography for his work on the Afterschool Special, "Out of Step" (ABC, 1984). Reuniting with the Coen brothers, Sonnenfeld contributed some of his most hyperkinetic photography for "Raising Arizona" (1987), a slapstick comedy about an ex-con (Nicolas Cage) and a former cop (Holly Hunter) who have trouble conceiving after they marry, which leads to kidnapping one of seven babies newly born to a wealthy furniture magnate (Trey Wilson). After serving as the director of photography on "When Harry Met Sally " (1989) and "Misery" (1990), Sonnenfeld shot his final film for the C ns', "Miller's Crossing" (1990), a richly-textured crime saga centered on a gang war between the Irish and Italian mobs.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, Sonnenfeld was ready to make the transition to the director's chair, which he did with "The Addams Family" (1991), an ornately stylish film adaptation of Charles Addams' cartoons and the classic 1960s sitcom, which, despite repetitious humor and a throwaway plot, earned over $110 million at the box office. He followed up by directing a run-of-the-mill Michael J, Fox romantic comedy vehicle, "For Love or Money" (1993), which garnered little attention from press or public. Sonnenfeld went back to the well to helm the superior sequel "Addams Family Values" (1993). Bolstered by sharp ensemble playing - with young Christina Ricci a standout playing Wednesday Addams - his second go-round with the same material was more consistent, thanks to a coherent screenplay from playwright-turned-screenwriter Paul Rudnick. Meanwhile, Sonnenfeld played a pivotal role in developing "Forrest Gump" (1994) - including bringing friend Tom Hanks on board, but ultimately he declined the chance to direct. Meanwhile, Sonnenfeld was tapped by Duracell batteries to direct a series of commercials starring the rubbery robot family, The Puttermans, though he was quickly let go because the company felt his spots were too mean-spirited.
His career maintained a steady course, however, and even moved a few pegs up the ladder with his next film, "Get Shorty" (1995), a funny, stylish and well-nuanced adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel about a mobster (John Travolta) who tries going legit by becoming a Hollywood producer. Sonnenfeld made his first true blockbuster for his next film, "Men in Black" (1997), an ultra-hip, sci-fi comedy about two federal agents (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) inside a top secret government organization who are assigned to investigate alien-related phenomena. Sonnenfeld delivered a cartoonish visual flare and darkly comic tone, while drawing out hilarious onscreen chemistry between the film's stars, Smith and Jones. Back in Elmore Leonard country, Sonnenfeld was executive producer on Steven Soderbergh's underrated "Out of Sight" (1998), while executive-producing and directing "Maximum Bob" (ABC, 1998), which he had originally considered doing as a feature before opting for turning it into a scripted series. He was also executive producer on the ill-fated remake of "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1998-99), inserting Malcolm McDowell into the role of Rourke to take advantage of the actor's dangerous, edgy charm and make the character more devilish than originally depicted by Ricardo Montalban.
Though he was one of the executive producers on the spy drama, "Secret Agent Man" (UPN, 2000), Sonnenfeld had by no means renounced the big screen. In fact, his next feature was a remake of a classic 1960s Western series, "Wild Wild West" (1999), a big special effects bonanza about a secret government agent (Will Smith) in the late-1800s who tries to thwart an assassination attempt on the president. Professing that the movie would be bigger than "Men in Black," Sonnenfeld hoped audiences would make it a huge summer hit. It was not. Sonnenfeld's next feature, the inevitable sequel "Men in Black II" (2002), proved to be almost as successful as the original, but not nearly as well-received by critics. Because of the success of the first movie which grossed almost $600 million worldwide, Sonnenfeld felt the pressure of having to execute. Adding grist to the mill was a looming actor's strike, an unfinished script and unwanted meddling from producers. Two weeks into shooting, Sonnenfeld spent a night at New York University Hospital thinking he was suffering a heart attack. Turned out it was only anxiety. But he used the emergency to his advantage; the producers were nicer to him and he managed to get the script changes he wanted. Sonnenfeld eventually managed to get the movie made, getting it ready for release on the Fourth of July where it took in over $52 million opening weekend and $450 million worldwide.
His next project, "Big Trouble" (2002), adapted from humorist Dave Barry's debut crime novel, more than lived up to its unfortunate title. Originally set for release in late September 2001, the film was pushed back because of its proximity to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, thank in part to a subplot involving a bomb on an airplane. "Big Trouble" was rescheduled for release in April 2002, as a confident Sonnenfeld predicted audiences would find his movie hysterical. Audiences steered clear of "Big Trouble" at the multiplexes; the $40 million movie made a painful $7 million in total box office receipts. Sonnenfeld stepped back from his directing duties to focus on producing. He delved into television with the live version of the animated "The Tick" (Fox, 2001-02), then returned again to Elmore Leonard territory as a producer on the short-lived crime drama, "Karen Sisco" (USA Network, 2003-04), which was based on the U.S. Marshal from the feature "Out of Sight" (1998). In 2004, he was an executive producer on "Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events," then reunited with the C n Brothers to serve as a producer on "The Ladykillers" (2004), a remake of the 1955 Alec Guinness-Peter Sellers black comedy. Despite collaborating with his old friends, the team's previous magic failed to resurface.
Returning to the big screen, Sonnenfeld directed "RV" (2006), a rather one-note comedy starring Robin Williams as an over-worked executive who drags his family on a road trip from hell to Colorado in an RV he barely knows how to drive. Along the way, they encounter a clan of fanatical RV enthusiasts, forcing them to band together and become a family again. Despite poor reviews, "RV" was the top earner its opening weekend with a $16 million haul at the box office. By this stage in his career, Sonnenfeld found more success on television than in film. He was an executive producer on "Notes From the Underbelly" (The WB, 2007-08), a sitcom about an expectant couple (Jennifer Westfeldt and Peter Cambor) who deal with friends and family, as well as the impending doom of parenthood. Sonnenfeld found his biggest success on television to date with "Pushing Daisies" (ABC, 2007-09), a fantastical romantic drama about a man (Lee Pace) who has the power to bring back the dead with a single touch, only to send them back to the big sleep with a second touch. Also taking the helm on several episodes, Sonnenfeld won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement for a Comedy Series.
Sonnenfeld continued to find TV success as an executive-producer on "Are You There, Chelsea?" (NBC, 2012), a sitcom based on the boozy Chelsea Handler memoir Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, starring Laura Prepon. That same year, he returned as a feature film director for the first time since "RV" to helm the third installment of the popular sci-fi-comedy franchise "Men in Black III" (2012). Sonnenfeld's first 3-D movie, it followed the wise-cracking Agent J (Will Smith) as he traveled back to the 1960s in order to prevent the assassination of his partner, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), which if successful, would alter the very fabric of history. In an inspired bit of casting, Josh Brolin played the younger version of the taciturn Agent K to perfection.
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Cinematography (TV Mini-Series)
Worked as cinematographer for the documentary "In Our Water," about water pollution in New Jersey (shown on PBS' "Frontline")
First TV credit as director of photography, the "ABC Afterschool Special" titled "Out of Step"
First feature as director of photography, Joel Coen's "Blood Simple"; first of a series of collaborations with the Coen brothers; also shot the trailer that enabled the Coens to raise money for the project
Shot first TV miniseries "Doubletake" (CBS)
First TV-movie as cinematographer, "Welcome Home, Bobby" (CBS)
Provided "additional projection camera" for Laurie Anderson's experimental concert film "Home of the Brave"
Reteamed with the Coens as cinematographer of "Raising Arizona"
First film with director Rob Reiner, "When Harry Met Sally..."
Second time as director of photography for Reiner, "Misery"
Last project to date with the Coens, "Miller's Crossing"
Directorial debut, "The Addams Family"
Feature producing debut (as co-producer), "For Love or Money"; also directed
Helmed sequel "Addams Family Values"
Signed two-year deal with Walt Disney Company; formed own eponymous production company
Directed the comedy "Get Shorty"; script by Scott Frank and based on a novel by Elmore Leonard; also played small role as Doorman
Helmed the summer blockbuster "Men in Black," starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones
Executive produced Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight; scripted by Frank and based on a novel by Elmore Leonard
Executive produced (also directed pilot) "Maximum Bob" (ABC), based on a novel by Leonard
Executive produced the ABC series remake "Fantasy Island"
Directed the feature version of the 1960s TV series "Wild Wild West," starring Will Smith; made came as an alien
Walked away uninjured when the Gulfstream II jet on which he was the lone passenger crash-landed at Van Nuys, CA airport
In July, terminated film producing partnership with Barry Josephson; TV deal unaffected
Co-executive produced "Secret Agent Man" (UPN)
Served as executive producer and occasional director of the Fox midseason replacement series "The Tick"
Helmed "Men in Black II," the sequel to the 1997 hit; again made cameo in film
Directed Robin Williams in the comedy "RV"
Produced (also directed) the ABC series "Pushing Daisies"
Returned to directing features with "Men in Black III"; re-teamed with stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones; also made cameo in film