Interview'I'm the curmudgeon who doesn’t like musicals'

Barry Sonnenfeld on filming ‘Schmigadoon!’: COVID was surreal; art imitated life

New show airing weekly on Apple TV+ is an utterly enchanting take on the 1940s Broadway musical ‘Brigadoon,’ filmed at the height of the pandemic inside a ‘bubble’

  • Dove Cameron in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 3. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Dove Cameron in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 3. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
  • Kristin Chenoweth in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 2. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Kristin Chenoweth in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 2. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
  • Aaron Tveit and Cecily Strong in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 2. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Aaron Tveit and Cecily Strong in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 2. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
  • Fred Armisen, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming and Ann Harada in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 1. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Fred Armisen, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming and Ann Harada in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 1. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
  • Dove Cameron and Keegan-Michael Key in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 3. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Dove Cameron and Keegan-Michael Key in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 3. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
  • Keegan-Michael Key, Dove Cameron and Cecily Strong in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 1. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Keegan-Michael Key, Dove Cameron and Cecily Strong in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 1. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
  • Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 2. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 2. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
  • Ariana DeBose in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 4. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Ariana DeBose in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 4. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
  • Ensemble cast in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 6. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Ensemble cast in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 6. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
  • Jane Krakowski in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 5. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
    Jane Krakowski in 'Schmigadoon!' Episode 5. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

NEW YORK — There’s not much that’s normal about Barry Sonnenfeld. The successful Hollywood director started his career as a cinematographer in the 1980s, working with Joel and Ethan Coen, and other great directors such as Frank Perry, Rob Reiner, Penny Marshall, and Danny DeVito. In the 1990s he made the jump to the director’s chair himself and launched two hit franchises: “The Addams Family” and “Men In Black.” Both were exaggerated comedies with groundbreaking special effects, creature design, and exciting action sequences.

In recent years he’s been working on television, on shows such as “Pushing Daisies,” “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and now, screening on Apple TV+, the incredibly fun (and fun to say) “Schmigadoon!”

“Schmigadoon!” is, as the name suggests, a spin on “Brigadoon,” the classic 1940s Broadway musical from the partnership of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Whereas the classic tells the tale of two men who stumble upon a Scottish village that appears in the mist only once in 100 years, the update is a little different.

Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong are two doctors (who meet-cute over a hospital vending machine) that first fall in love, then fall into a rut. She pines for true romance (as any fan of musical theater should!) and he’s kind but uncommunicative. And he also thinks musicals are silly.

In an effort to save their relationship, she drags him to a couples retreat where, in the woods, and in the rain, they come across a footbridge that takes them… well, takes them to a soundstage where Broadway stars like Christen Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Aaron Tveit, Jane Krakowski and more can’t stop singing!

“Schmigadoon!” is not a parody of an old-fashioned musical, but it isn’t a reproduction, either. It’s self-aware but also deadly serious. And incredibly enchanting. I blazed through all six episodes in one sitting, only taking breaks to text my friends, “You HAVE to watch ‘Schmigadoon!’ as soon as you can.”

I had to good fortune to speak to director Barry Sonnenfeld via Zoom (Schmigazoom!) and, as you’ll see, we very quickly got off-topic. Below is a transcript, edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: Hi Barry, I understand you are up in Vancouver. Are you there full-time now?

Barry Sonnenfeld: In Pemberton, about two hours north. I was doing so much work up here we left the United States. It’s lovely. And has good Chinese restaurants. That for me is important. The test of Jewish manliness is how much you over-order at a Chinese restaurant.

There’s always room for another egg roll.

The pork, the shrimp, all the treif [not kosher]. Where are you?

I am in Astoria, Queens, New York, an area you know very well, because you hung lights in my eye doctor’s office when you shot “Men in Black 3.”

Oh, yeah. I know that area well.

My doctor was thrilled because the production gave him a few shekels, but it caused some tsuris for everyone else the day I was there to get my eyes examined.

You can’t please everyone, I suppose, but I personally did not hang those lights, so…

Listen, it’s for the greater good. People like your movies, and I loved “Schmigadoon!” I watched it all in one go.

The episodes are nice and short.

Hollywood director Barry Sonnenfeld. (Sasha Erwitt)

Do you like that it is being released week-to-week by Apple, or would you prefer that people did like the press and binge it?

As a viewer, I like when the whole season gets dumped. Then I can choose when to watch. I was just talking to a friend who gave up on “Ted Lasso,” a show I love, but specifically, because they forgot which week they looked at, or not looked at.

I’m sure Apple has done all their metrics and they know what makes sense for them. And besides, people can just wait a little bit and start later.

I got a little choked up at the end. No spoilers, but I didn’t see how it would come together. Though in retrospect, it seems obvious — like all perfect endings, I guess. How hard is it to find the formula with a premise that is kinda silly, but keeping an emotional edge?

I never viewed it as silly. I always tell my actors: Scenes might be absurd, situations might be absurd, characters might be absurd, but you must play the reality of the scene. For everyone in that town, this is their reality.

By the end, if you are emotionally invested, it’s because of the quality of Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong’s performances. The chemistry between them is wonderful, and they each have an arc. Cecily needs to learn how to be less controlling, and Keegan needs to learn how to open up and express himself. They bring their reality into the surreal situation.

You say surreal situation, let’s talk about how this was shot up in Vancouver, isolated on stages, with all the pandemic protocols. There’s a kind of life-reflecting-art scenario, with your characters trapped in a bubble town.

You’ve just articulated something that I don’t think anyone actually put into words. I mean, we knew it was weird. At first, Cinco Paul was worried about shooting here, because we might not get the same caliber of singing and dancing troupe as New York or Los Angeles, and then New York and Los Angeles both shut down. We were the only town open, so we got amazingly good people who would normally work there.

Ensemble cast in ‘Schmigadoon!’ Episode 6. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

I thought the shoot would be a nightmare, because for 43 days we had to wear a mask plus a face shield or goggles with different colors for the zones. Some crew is marked red zone, then the grips and electricians had to leave the stage when actors were on. Then any adjustments meant clearing the stage. In spite of all that, we finished a day ahead of schedule and not one person got Covid.

Part of this, I think, was due to Cecily Strong, because she had a hard out date. As such, we had to shoot six-day weeks. Normally it would be five. Since we did six, no one could go out and socialize and get Covid. That seventh day they were playing with their kids and doing laundry, not out drinking with friends.

Fred Armisen, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming and Ann Harada in ‘Schmigadoon!’ Episode 1. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

What’s the one song you had playing in your head over and over at night when you were trying to go to bed?

The answer is whatever we shot that day. But, yes, you are so, so right. I am up at 4 a.m., getting picked up in two hours, and I can’t sleep because I’m singing “Corn Puddin’’’ nonstop.

I remember when I made the movie “RV” with Robin Williams, and I invited some Canadian friends to come by. There was a day when the actors sing Delaney and Bonnie’s “Never Ending Song of Love.” Two weeks later they call me and say “I hate you!” They had that song in their heads nonstop from seeing the actors sing it over and over and over. It happens, and it’s horrible.

And it’s really tough on this one because the songs are designed to be so catchy and easy to hum. Horrible!

Ariana DeBose in ‘Schmigadoon!’ Episode 4. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

Probably the most impressive number is Kristen Chenoweth doing a spin on “The Music Man,” with the song “Tribulation.” You really made your life more difficult by doing it all in one take, no?

I made Kristen’s life more difficult, not mine!

This is the fourth or fifth project we’ve done together, so I know she’ll never let me down. She claims it was 18 pages long, filled with tongue-twisters. I’ll give you the details on how we did it, since you sound interested: Our choreographer worked with her on a second stage and videotaped it, and I gave suggestions on different turns and whatnot. Once they had it, they rehearsed on the real stage with the cinematographer watching and preparing steadicam moves. Then the next day, after we shot other things, it took three hours to light using dimmer boards, so she’d never be in a shadow from the steadicam.

The next day, this becomes a ballet between Kristen, the steadicam, and the dimmer board. We ultimately did three takes. She sang it live the first two times. Her singing was great but I felt like the performance was only 85 percent of the way there. The third time we played it back with sound from the first two takes, and she’s singing along with herself. That was perfection. What you ultimately see is that third take, but with the music from an earlier one. No one but Chenoweth could pull something like this off.

Kristin Chenoweth in ‘Schmigadoon!’ Episode 2. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

There’s an adorable dog in “Schmigadoon,” even though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Is it hard casting the right dog?

Yes. It needed to be small enough that you can put it on the bed, then pick it up and move it around. Then it has to be a certain color, because we’d already picked out the bedspread. You don’t want the dog to disappear. Then it can’t be too contrasty, so it can’t just be black or white. This was sort of a dirty-ish dog.

We had a few there to make sure there was a relationship with Cecily. It’s always scary using dogs, but I’ve had luck. Remember Frank the Pug from “Men in Black”? That was the same dog in all three movies, named Mushu. In “Pushing Daisies” we had a great dog, too. It always makes for a good scene.

The series ends well, but if the public demands it, is there room for a next chapter?

Cinco has some ideas. And smart ones — not, “Oh my God, are you telling me that…?”

Aaron Tveit and Cecily Strong in ‘Schmigadoon!’ Episode 2. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

Did you have to get the rights to “Brigadoon” for this?

I don’t have the exact answer to that question. But we did not want to say “inspired by” in the credits. I can say we did get permission to call it “Schmigadoon.”

I want to jump back 40 years to early in your career. You began as a cinematographer, and one of your first gigs was shooting the “Rock the Casbah” video for The Clash. This was a huge hit, and made an impression on me because it featured a dancing Orthodox Jew and Arab sheikh.

And an armadillo! Don’t forget that!

There was a brief time when I worked in music videos. It’s not my thing. I prefer longer takes like you see in “Schmigadoon!” I want the audience to feel smart, to find things in the frame. Videos have too many cuts. I also shot a thing for MTV, a giveaway for a pink house tied to the John Mellencamp song “Pink Houses,” if you remember that. Anyway, The Clash were great. We were in Texas, somewhere.

Who is the most Jewish character from your film repertoire?

Well, first of all, I am in all the movies I’ve directed. So me. In “The Addams Family,” I am inside Gomez’s train set. When the guy looks up and sees Gomez’s head, that’s me. Then there was Uncle Fester’s fake mother. She says things like “I’m only your mother. Sing, dance, date!” It’s got some Jewish mother stereotypes going. In “Men In Black” the worm guys are a little Jew-ish. Then in “Get Shorty,” there’s Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Zimm.

Gene Hackman is great, and not Jewish in real life, so that’s fun.

Gene said he wanted to wear a goatee because his character wants to believe he is an artist, not a schlocky movie producer. So he asked for a goatee and capped teeth. Then I asked, “How would you feel if you also wore a chai [necklace]?” So he’s got a necklace with a chai, so he’s definitely a Jew. A Jewish movie producer, what’s more traditional?

In “Schmigadoon!” Keegan-Michael Key is basically playing me. The curmudgeon who doesn’t like musicals. Keegan’s face is always so funny whenever they start singing: “Here we go.”

Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in ‘Schmigadoon!’ Episode 2. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

I really don’t care for musical theater or musical movies. I like “Pennies From Heaven” with Steve Martin, and Miloš Forman’s version of “Hair,” and I liked “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life,” because I used to sing “Every Sperm is Sacred” to my daughter.

Come on, you have to like some musicals. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stuff?

Yeah, well, fine, let me know how that goes for you.

Look, even “Singin’ In The Rain,” the best part is the Donald O’Connor part, “Make ‘Em Laugh.” The Gene Kelly stuff dancing around in the rain? Not for me.

Keegan-Michael Key, Dove Cameron and Cecily Strong in ‘Schmigadoon!’ Episode 1. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

I have not read your book, but I heard you tell the story of how it got its name “Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother” — the unbelievable tale of how she got the house manager at Madison Square Garden to interrupt a Jimi Hendrix concert to tell you to call home. Did she ever feel bad about that whole thing?

No. See, the thing you need to know is that my father and mother were terrible parents. Good people, but terrible parents. When my mother worried that I might go to “sleepaway school,” which others call “college,” she said she would commit suicide. I spent three years home in Washington Heights until I realized, wait, I can go away to college, plus my mother kills herself? Two birds, one stone!

Then when I had a platform to be mean back I used it. When Newsweek ran a cover story on “Men in Black,” they described me as a neurotic who would walk around the set offering people $400,000 to anyone who would kill his mother. My mother reads this and calls me. “Do you really wish I were dead?” So I was truthful. I said, “I would never pay someone $400,000 to kill you.”

Read my book, you’ll like it. I had an interesting childhood. I was an only child and I was bar mitzvahed in a church. The night before, the cantor and rabbi had to go up with ladders and put burlap over all the images of Christ.

Wait, why? There are plenty of synagogues in Washington Heights.

My synagogue was sold to an Orthodox synagogue one week before my bar mitzvah. So we scrambled to find a place.

Anyway, I hear Jesus was a Jew.

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