After a long day filming gangster John Travolta in an L.A. hotel suite, Get Shorty director Barry Sonnenfeld needs one more shot. But there’s a holdup: Sonnenfeld rushes into wardrobe, because he’s costarring in the scene.
Before you think Quentin Tarantino wannabe, consider Sonnenfeld’s costume: a top hat, a red tunic, and knickers. He’s a doorman. ”I wanted the fewest words, and ‘Evening, sir’ was the smallest role in the movie,” he explains in his nasal voice.
Unlike the Pulp Fiction writer-director-costar, this man isn’t in love with his own mug. In fact, Sonnenfeld tried to cut his cameo but was overruled by his editor. ”I thought the performance sucked,” he says.
That’s just about the only bad review Shorty has received. The movie grossed $12.7 million to finish first in its opening weekend and has drawn some of the year’s best notices. Sonnenfeld is even starting to think he might deserve them. ”When I first saw the movie, I was a bit disappointed,” he admits. ”But the more people like it, the more I like it. Isn’t that shallow and pathetic?”
Those aren’t the first words that come to mind to describe Sonnenfeld. More like nebbishy and meek. (But you know what they say about the meek.) ”Barry’s very low-key,” says Shorty costar Rene Russo. ”He’s not a screamer.”
”I’m a whiner,” Sonnenfeld agrees. ”People feel they have to help me — ‘Poor Barry, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so let’s all lend a hand.”’
Surprisingly, Sonnenfeld claims he wasn’t trying to satirize the movie biz with Shorty, the tale of a Miami hood (Travolta) who becomes a producer. ”L.A. really views this as a wonderful inside look at Hollywood,” he says. ”I perceive it much more as an exploration of desperation and insecurity.”
These concepts have been familiar to Sonnenfeld for all of his 42 years. Born April Fools’ Day, ”the only child of overprotective Jewish parents,” he was raised in Manhattan and ”had no interest in movies,” he says. ”I never had a date, and I didn’t want to go by myself. Then I’d go and see all this love and lust, and I wasn’t gettin’ any of that.” He attended nearby New York University because ”my mother said if I went to what she called ‘sleepaway school’ — what others call ‘college’ — she would commit suicide.”
After studying at NYU’s graduate film school, Sonnenfeld served as cinematographer for the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing, which won acclaim for their hyperkinetic visuals. He toned down his style for the mainstream comedies Big and When Harry Met Sally.: ”When Rob Reiner called me to shoot Harry, he said, ‘You’re not gonna do any of that wacky crap, are you?”’
Yet it was Sonnenfeld’s gift for ”wacky crap” that won him his first directing job, re-creating Charles Addams’ twisted cartoons in 1991’s The Addams Family. Appropriately, the production was nightmarish: The movie went millions over budget, helping to bankrupt Orion (which sold it to Paramount). A stressed-out Sonnenfeld fainted on the set. When he woke up, he remembers ”crying, saying to [producer] Scott Rudin, ‘This is so unmanly.’ And Rudin said, ‘Barry, you’re not a manly kind of guy.”’
“I never thought I would direct again,” Sonnenfeld says. But after the movie scared up $113 million, “people felt I could direct and wanted to pay me large sums of money.” His next two films, the Michael J. Fox farce For Love or Money and the sequel Addams Family Values, underperformed. Even worse, he had to give up Forrest Gump, for which he’d recruited Tom Hanks, to make Values. “You can’t look back,” Sonnenfeld says. “I could have directed Gump and on the way to work one day got hit by a truck.”
Now he’s got Shorty and the upcoming Men in Black, an effects-heavy comedy about space invaders with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. “If aliens lived on Earth, they’d feel most comfortable in New York,” Sonnenfeld says. “Probably most of the cabdrivers are aliens.”
Maybe that’s why Sonnenfeld lives far from Manhattan in ritzy Amagansett, N.Y., with his wife (and associate producer), Susan “Sweetie” Ringo, and their 2-year-old daughter, Chloe. Or maybe it has to do with his theory of the guilt-free nap. “If I take a nap in New York City, I wake up and say, ‘I’m a loser. There are 40 museums, 800 shows, and I’m napping?’” he explains. “But I can take a nap here and feel pretty damn good about it.”
With Tinseltown types like Steven Spielberg heading for the East Coast, is Sonnenfeld part of a wave? “I don’t think I’ll ever start or join a wave,” he says. “I don’t even swim.” The sharks in Hollywood might disagree.