Barry Sonnenfeld is an American director, producer, and former cinematographer, who has given the industry films such as ‘Men in Black,’ ‘The Addams Family,’ and the not-so-critically-acclaimed ‘Wild Wild West.’ Born into a quintessential Jewish family in New York City, Sonnenfeld initially wished to be a photojournalist. After finding his way with the camera in film school, Sonnenfeld started at the bottom of the ladder, with low-budget pornographic films. He turned his life around after meeting the Coen brothers, with whom he collaborated as a cinematographer during the 1990s, making ‘Blood Simple,’ ‘Raising Arizona,’ and ‘Miller’s Crossing.’ His directorial debut, ‘The Addams Family,’ introduced a strange style of bizarre cinema, unique to him. The most controversial of all Sonnenfeld’s projects as a director, ‘Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events,’ which he had to leave unwillingly, came back to him as a web series on ‘Netflix’ after 13 years, in 2017.
Childhood & Early Life
Barry Sonnenfeld was born on April 1, 1953, to “stereotypically overprotective” Jewish parents Irene Kelly and Sonny Sonnerfeldin in New York City. His mother was an art teacher at the same elementary school he attended. His father was a lighting industry legend who founded the ‘Broadway Lighting Master Classes,’ currently owned by ‘Live Design.’
As a child, Sonnenfeld had an affinity for pyrotechnics. He once blew up the electrical circuit of his entire building in Washington Heights while trying to make a super magnet. In another instance, Sonnenfeld and his friends caused a sewer fire with the help of some paper and a big magnifying glass, lighting up “100 years’ worth of garbage.”
Before joining the ‘High School of Music and Art,’ where Sonnenfeld played the French horn, eventually performing for an all-city orchestra group, he had some miserable years at the ‘Eleanor Roosevelt Junior High,’ where he was subjected to constant bullying. After high school, Sonnenfeld attended ‘New York University,’ studying political science.
Unable to find his way into the ‘Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’ to train himself as a photojournalist, Sonnenfeld bought a cine-camera on his mother’s insistence and joined the ‘New York University Film School’ in Greenwich Village, graduating in 1978. However, an alternative version of this story, as comically narrated by Sonnenfeld, is that his overprotective mother had threatened to take her own life if he went to a “sleep-away” school.
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Career as a Cinematographer
Sonnenfeld had to go through the grime of low-budget pornographic films before he could graduate to Hollywood. He once filmed nine adult movies in 9 days, an experience Sonnenfeld does not discount as being completely useless in terms of learning how to be meticulous and time-efficient.
He met Joel Coen around the same time at a ‘New York University’ alumni party. At the time, Coen was assisting Sam Raimi in editing the cult horror ‘The Evil Dead’ and was in the process of conceptualizing another gory masterpiece, ‘Blood Simple’ (1984). Sonnenfeld was roped in by the Coen brothers as a cinematographer for their debut feature. By then, he had already worked with Robert Chappell for the ‘Academy Award’-nominated documentary ‘In Our Water’ (1982).
In 1985, Sonnenfeld collaborated as a cinematographer with Frank Perry for ‘Compromising Positions,’ while continuing to work with Joel Coen for ‘Rising Arizona,’ which released in 1987. The same year, he worked with Phil Joanou and Danny DeVito in ‘Three O’Clock High’ and ‘Throw Momma from the Train,’ respectively.
After working in the Tom Hanks-starrer comedy ‘Big’ in 1988, Sonnenfeld and Joel Coen came together one last time, for ‘Miller’s Crossing’ in 1990. He worked with Rob Reiner for two consecutive projects, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989) and ‘Misery’ (1990).
Career as a Director
Other than the Coen brothers, another person who had truly influenced Sonnenfeld’s place in Hollywood was producer Scott Rudin, whom he had met on the sets of ‘Misery.’ According to him, Rudin “is the single best producer around.” Rudin tried getting Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam to direct ‘The Addams Family’ (1991) before he chose cinematographer Sonnenfeld, who had no apparent directorial aspirations till then.
The unprecedented success of ‘The Addams Family’ led to ‘Addams Family Values’ (1993), which, unfortunately, did not do too well at the counters. However, Sonnenfeld’s quirky style and gadgetry was praised by people. 1993 also saw the release of Sonnenfeld’s first romantic comedy, ‘For Love or Money,’ starring Michael J Fox and Gabrielle Anwar.
The gangster thriller–comedy ’Get Shorty,’ released in 1995, was one of the many Elmore Leonard adaptations that Sonnenfeld was associated with. He was the executive producer of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Out of Sight’ (1998) and the TV adaptation of ‘Maximum Bob’ (1998), while also directing the pilot for the series.
While he was still making ‘Get Shorty’ in 1995, producer-director Steven Spielberg and producer duo Walter F Parkes and Laurie McDonald asked Sonnenfeld to direct ‘Men in Black,’ a project that was rejected by Quentin Tarantino and John Landis. Sonnenfeld saw something in Ed Solomon’s script that the others had missed. However, he wanted to change Spielberg’s original cast of Chris O’Donnell and Clint Eastwood to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
In 1997, ‘Men in Black’ catapulted Sonnenfeld to massive fame. The sequels, released in 2002 and 2012, were not creatively satisfying for Sonnenfeld, but the franchise’s cultural enigma made both the movies massively successful financially.
Between the first and the second ‘MIB’ films, Sonnenfeld directed two of the most unsuccessful movies of his career, the quirky cowboy comedy ‘Wild Wild West’ (1999) and David Barry’s ‘Big Trouble’ (2002). The former won two ‘Golden Raspberry’ awards, one each for the ‘Worst Picture’ and the ‘Worst Director,’ in 1999.
2004 was a disappointing year for Sonnenfeld, as he had to leave one of his dream projects, ‘Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events,’ a movie based on Daniel Handler’s books. The project was marred with creative disagreements from the beginning. For Sonnenfeld, the final nail in the coffin was ‘Paramount’ collaborating with ‘DreamWorks’ and bringing on board the producers of ‘MIB,’ replacing Scott Rudin. Thirteen years later, in 2017, Sonnenfeld got an opportunity to direct the ‘Netflix’ series ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ (2017–2019).
Sonnenfeld’s TV career began with ‘Maximum Bob’ in 1998. He was the executive producer of ‘The Tick,’ between 2001 and 2002. He received his only ‘Primetime Emmy Award’ for ‘Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series’ for the short-lived TV series ‘Pushing Daisies’ (2009).
Personal & Family Life
In 1989, Sonnenfeld married Susan Ringo (Sweetie) at the ‘Miller’s Crossing’ wrap-up party. The couple had their only daughter, Chloe, in 1993. The family currently lives in East Hamptons.
In the summer of 1969, at about 2:20 in the morning, Sonnenfeld heard an SOS announcement during the ‘Earth Day’ concert at ‘Madison Square Garden,’ which stated: “Barry Sonnenfeld, call your mother.” This is a popular anecdote that has been narrated by Sonnenfeld numerous times, depicting how overprotective his mother was.
Sonnenfeld has a net worth of $80 million.