As part of their ongoing Emmy campaign, Netflix held a panel for A Series of Unfortunate Events, at their FYSee Space in Beverly Hills, with executive producer and director Barry Sonnenfeld, and stars Neil Patrick Harris, Alfre Woodard and K. Todd Freeman.
Based on the book series of the same name by Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler), A Series of Unfortunate Events covers the sad tale of the Beaudelaire orphans, as they are pursued by the rotten Count Olaf, who’s out to steal their fortune.
Woodard described the tone of the books, which work for kids and adults. “It assumes that children are people already and they don’t turn into people at some point. We don’t talk down to them. Whatever’s happening to you or is happening in the world is happening to children, so we have to be frank about it. And the best thing is to teach them to laugh about it, because no matter how bad it gets, sh*t is always funny. That’s why we survive.”
The show is an excellent blend of humor, darkness, and emotion, bringing the books’ unique wit and style to the screen. Each book is covered in the series by two one hour episodes, and despite the dire situations the kids find themselves in, the series is very much a comedy.
“I know comedy, I live comedy, I grew up with comedy, and when they said hour shows are supposed to be in the drama category, I said I promise you this is not a drama, I wouldn’t know how to make a drama. It’s incredibly funny but it’s always real within the world we’ve created,” said Sonnenfeld.
The show’s look is a stylized as its humor, with bright colors, symmetrical lines, and ornate costumes and sets that are both modern and vintage at the same time, often leading to comparisons to Wes Anderson’s distinctive style. But Harris refuted the idea A Series of Unfortunate Events is any kind of carbon copy.
“It annoys me a little bit when people who are talking about the show say it’s ‘very Wes Anderson…it looks very Wes Anderson,’ it’s all these great static, symmetrical shots. But Barry’s older than Wes Anderson, he came before Wes Anderson.”
“Thank you so much Neil,” Sonnenfeld added with a touch of sarcasm. “But I do agree, I totally agree.”
What sealed the deal for the series style was an early scene (screened during the panel), where Count Olaf visits Mr. Poe at the bank. Sonnenfeld presented the early sketches with production designer Bo Welch to Netflix, emphasizing the importance of the specific design. Sonnenfeld told them, “Look, it’s this stylized. If you don’t want to do this, tell me now because this is the plan, and I’ll do something else. But if you buy into this, this is just the beginning of the amount of stylization we’re going to do.” And Netflix bought into the concept, resulting in one of the more visually striking shows in recent memory.
And despite the stylized look, there’s little to no digital assistance (except for some of the backgrounds) when it comes to those incredible sets. “There’s no CG, it’s all practically done, and that helps immensely, especially for me because I have a bunch of weird sh*t on my face,” said Harris, referring to his heavy duty prosthetics in character as Count Olaf. “So, when I’m in a world that’s so outside of my norm and I also look so strange, it’s a nice dynamic.”
But if you’re hoping to visit the sets from previous episodes, there is unfortunate news indeed: they destroy them once they’re done with the location, as the story moves forward and rarely, if ever, goes back to a location.
As mentioned above, the writing is also very stylized and specific. Freeman, who plays the kind but misguided banker Mr. Poe, had high praise for the words (and coughs) he works with on set. “The writing is really spectacular. And if it weren’t for Daniel Handler and the team…actors ask their many friend on network television shows, and they shall remain nameless, who say oh well, you know we’re polishing a turd. But they’re on network and they’re making bajillions of dollars every week. But we’re not polishing a turd. The dialogue, the language, it’s…fun to get in there and say the words, you want to memorize the lines. The language is the key.”
In addition to the look and writing of the show, casting was clearly crucial. Sonnenfeld initially pitched the project to Harris at a Thanksgiving dinner at Kelly Ripa’s house (“As you do,” joked Harris). He had to be vague at first when presenting the show. “I assumed it was porn,” teased Harris, when he described the meeting. Alfre Woodard was brought on board based on Lawrence Kasdan’s recommendation of her to Sonnenfeld. K. Todd Freeman was only person on the panel who auditioned, but Sonnenfeld commended him, saying, “By far the best person who auditioned and we immediately hired him.” Can you imagine anyone else coughing their way through their lines the way Freeman does?
Speaking of imagination, Harris complimented the casting going beyond what he initially pictured in the book, especially in casting Woodard as Aunt Josephine. “We’re being as loyal as possible to the source material because we all have great affinity for it for a variety of reasons. And yet within in that we are able to cast people who would be unexpected in specific roles. And for someone like Alfre, when I heard she was in the mix for Aunt Josephine, when I read the book, I did not consider your type as someone to be Aunt Josephine,” which was met with awkward chuckles.
But he went on to explain, “No, I considered Aunt Josephine…like a really old, white, decrepit little scared woman, when I read it, that’s what I thought. And then when your name was brought into the world, it expanded my mind in way because I thought, that’s a f**king fantastic idea. Because, Josephine is part of the VFD [the book’s secret society]…and through that she was fierce and formidable, which are two words we use within the show. And so, I think I was wrong in my initial interpretation of it when I read it, it was my own, it wasn’t written as such, that’s what I came up with. But that 85-year-old decrepit white lady in my mind would have not have been able to be in the VFD, so when you look at someone like Alfre who is able to play both timid and terrified and you wonder why would someone who looks like this be so scared, it adds another layer to the show because you know that at one point she was fierce and formidable, because you were able to portray that so well. So, I’m just a big fan of the casting decisions not being so archetypal to what everyone would have initially expected.”
“I love how Netflix has let us create an entire world on stage with incredible actors, except for one of them,” Sonnenfeld said, teasing Harris.
As for Harris, he discussed his initial hesitation in joining another TV series, especially since he had recently completed one and relocated to New York with his young children, so the prospect of shooting in Vancouver for big chunks of the year for several years wasn’t immediately appealing. “But I met with Barry and he has a singular vision that is so unique, and it is funny. But, it is grounded and…he has this ability when he’s on set, the crew listens to him, the cast listens to him, they’re a little bit afraid of him” which got the cast chuckling on stage. “But it’s a fear that’s logically based because he’s expecting the best of everybody.”
Sonnenfeld commended his cast as well. “Every one of these three actors have come in, they not only know their lines, but Ken [Todd Brown] knows when he’s going to cough, Neil knows half of what line his voice will go up or down, Alfre knows exactly what she’s going to do even though she totally disagrees with me about everything I tell her to do,” he said, joking about giving notes to people who know their characters so fully, it takes a little extra time to get what he’s looking for as a director. He further complimented Harris for essentially being a different character every 23 days to shoot the two episodes that cover each book. “He’s playing Olaf pretending to be someone else, and it’s extraordinary,” he said, comparing Neil to the late (and great) Robin Williams in his ability to do two impressions or characters simultaneously.
The moderator mentioned a review that sort of backhand complimented Harris’ performance as being over the top, but as his fellow cast mates pointed out, this is a show where everything is so specific and stylized, it’s go big or go home.
“There’s no reason to play it safe when you have source material like A Series of Unfortunate Events,” said Woodard. “When you have the carry over to someone that can make it cinematic and live in a whole different way, and when you’re with people that are just, if they’re going down a track, they turn and they [place] that baton right where you need it, and you pick it up and you run with it. And if it didn’t work, it didn’t work all together, but man we had balls out fun doing it. But if it works, everybody gets to think past their expectations, past the obvious, and that’s what’s really cool about it.
“No one’s staying inside the box, why? What’s the point of that?” added Freeman. “You can’t. The genius, the art comes, the excitement comes when you dare. When you dare to even fail, because that’s where the excitement is.”
The ensemble, from the child actors to the every adult character, is firing on all cylinders, but it is truly Harris that stands out with his dedication and focus in creating the character of Count Olaf. During the panel, he switched in and out of the voices he uses for Olaf and his various disguises with ease, from Captain Sham, a sea captain, to Gunther, a Karl Lagerfeld-esque disguise we’ll see in upcoming episodes.
“Neil comes to every table read with the voice he’s going to use, so months before we shot this [Captain Sham scene] we already knew he was imitating Sean Connery,” Sonnenfeld said.
“It’s sort of Sean Connery if he had dentures and they were falling out,” added Harris, in character with the voice. Sonnenfeld also pointed to another scene that was screened, where Olaf, as Captain Sham, dons a peg leg for a “meet cute” with Woodard’s Aunt Josephine, and Harris committed completely.
“And no one but Neil could do what he did in that, in that we actually put a broomstick and attached it to his knee, and his leg was strapped to the back of him, and he was literally walking around sets,” said Sonnenfeld. “We thought we’d have to green screen out his leg. He literally did that every single shot, every day and it was extraordinary. And the scene between those two is fantastic and it’s totally real within our world, and totally big, but totally real.”
“I sort of feel like a piece of art,” Harris said of the prosthetics, which take two to two and a half hours to apply every morning. “Like hours are spent creating this visual, and from that I’m required from within the visual to humanize it in a way that is effective not only for the scene for the show, but also momentum of this darkness and this train that’s constantly moving.” Comparing it to past work where he went about creating a character differently, he added, “This is more, I look at myself in mirror and I look so nothing like me, and every month it’s a different nothing like me, and from that you have to figure out how that sort of sculpture works.”
Sonnenfeld joked that he encourages Neil to stay in make-up, with Harris teasing that he’s into him as Count Olaf. “He does look amazing as anyone but Neil,” Sonnenfeld added.
And Harris is grateful for the chance to play such an unusual character. “I appreciate so much the opportunity to be able to play someone that look nothing like me physically, but also in age, and to get to do that over and over with different guises. I grew up on a TV show where I looked exactly like myself and I was kind of a nucleus of people around me. And that’s the norm, right? That’s what you do, you look a certain way and you get hired to be a certain type of person and you keep looking like yourself in different roles. You might be a cop, you might be a doctor, you might be football player, but you’re always kind of in the same look. And so, to get to do this and get to do that, with someone like you [pointing to Woodard], I don’t l know, that never entered my world and then I got to actually execute it and have a great time doing it.”
Woodard teased him, “You know you look hot.” But she was complimentary too. “I’m old enough to be proud of you. I really am. We all can do a lot of things, several things, but you are somebody, you are a talent that can actually do all the things at the same tilt. And you don’t find a place to do that most times, and each discipline can’t really contain you. So, I was excited for the fact that you just got to take your whole instrument out for a run.”
“I do enjoy taking my instrument out for a run,” quipped Harris.
You could see the comradery on the panel, with all four people ribbing each other here and there. When Sonnenfeld discussed casting theater actors, he accidentally implied Woodard was not a theater actress. “You know what? You can’t insult me,” she (jokingly) shot back. “I have a BFA, an MFA, and a doctorate,” she declared to major applause (and rightly so. Shut it down, Miss Woodard). Sonnenfeld pivoted out of the would be slight saying “That’s why I enjoy working with you so much!”
As for the future, the show does have a conclusive ending, with plans to conclude the series where the books end. “If all goes well, we do three seasons of the show and we’re done, we’ve covered the 13 books, there’s no intention of having off shoots,” said Harris. “And so because of that, we’re running a race extra face because we know there’s a finish line.” So, don’t expect multiple seasons and reunions and spin offs of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Sonnenfeld teased the audience that you should vote for Harris for an Emmy now because you won’t be able to six seasons into the show.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is set to premiere early in 2018.
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