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Director Barry Sonnenfeld Plays Not My Job


When you think of successful movie directors, you think of people like the guy in Fellini's movie "Eight and a Half": confident, half-dictator, half-philosopher, half-womanizer.

CARL KASELL: That's three halves.

SAGAL: Don't quibble. So we were surprised and delighted to talk to Barry Sonnenfeld, director of such huge Hollywood movies as the "Men in Black" films and "Get Shorty." Turns out he's just as odd and nervous as we are.

KASELL: Speak for yourself, Peter. Barry joined panelists Paula Poundstone, Tom Bodett and Amy Dickenson back in April and told us how he got his start.

BARRY SONNENFELD: I grew up in Washington Heights. I was the only child of Jewish persuasion.

SAGAL: Really? Now, in the cultural stereotype, with which I am familiar, that would mean that your parents doted on you somewhat. Is that true?

SONNENFELD: Well let's just say we recently passed Earth Day, and on April 22, 1969, at 2:20 in the morning during an Earth Day concert, while Jimi Hendrix was warming up, the following announcement came over the speakers at Madison Square Garden: Barry Sonnenfeld, call your mother.



SAGAL: You are kidding me.

SONNENFELD: No, I'm not.


DICKINSON: Oh, whoa.

SAGAL: And did you, in fact, call your mother?

SONNENFELD: Well, I was supposed to be at home at 2:00. It was 2:20. So - and by the way, the perseverance of my mother to actually find someone at the Garden and convince them this was an emergency was so amazing that by the time I got to the pay phone - this is pre-cell phones - I assumed someone had died.

So I called my mother, uncontrollably in tears and said who died, and her response was I assumed you did. Why aren't you at home?




SAGAL: And how many years of therapy have you had, sir?

SONNENFELD: You know, not enough, as it turns out.

SAGAL: Apparently. Well, we have benefited from that I guess. So you're a Jewish kid, you grew up in New York with a Jewish mother. Whenever I've seen a photo of you, you're always wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.

SONNENFELD: Yes, you see, the truth is I embrace all things cowboy. It's my way of trying to be manly. I often wear fake cowboy mustaches.

SAGAL: Really?

SONNENFELD: You know, when you're on the set, and gets really boring, you say to the hair and makeup people: Hey, you got any interesting moustaches today?

SAGAL: Have you ever actually spent time with or around actual cowboys doing cowboy things, riding and roping and stuff like that?

SONNENFELD: I forgot to mention that I direct while sitting on a saddle. So...

SAGAL: Wait a minute, wait a minute, what?

SONNENFELD: I'm on a saddle that sits on what's called an apple box. It has wheels. And recently, the grips had to add additional wheels because the saddle kept throwing me.

SAGAL: Wait a minute, it's like cut, everybody. The director's chair just threw him to the ground.



SAGAL: I had always understood that a movie director needs to be a dictator, needs to exude absolute authority to get everybody to get together and move in the same direction, all those egos, actors and technicians and artists. Does the saddle help with that?


SONNENFELD: Well, you know.

SAGAL: And the cowboy hat?

SONNENFELD: One of the things that I learned from my mother I call strength through weakness.



SONNENFELD: And I find that if you look like you're in need because, you know, the saddle is throwing you and stuff, others will really come and sort of take up the slack.

SAGAL: So instead of, like, striking fear into their hearts or demanding their loyalty with your authority, you're sort of relying on their pity. They're like going, oh, let's not misbehave, Barry might crack.

SONNENFELD: Oh god, yes, and it's worked for me quite well.

DICKINSON: Barry, didn't you direct "Wild, Wild West"? Was that you?

SONNENFELD: Yes. And that was very difficult because of the actual horses involved in that movie.


SAGAL: Yes, "Wild, Wild West," this was the reboot of the famous TV series. It had Will Smith and Kevin Kline. It was an actual Western. There you were, horses. Did you actually get to ride a horse around?

SONNENFELD: I personally avoided the horses. You don't want to go anywhere near a horse. They're kind of really scary, to me.


SAGAL: Wait a minute. So you dress like a cowboy, you sit on a saddle when you're directing your movies, but you are scared of horses.

SONNENFELD: Yes, but Peter, I'm also afraid of aliens, but I've managed to do these "Men In Black" movies also.

SAGAL: You have. So wait a minute, you're saying that you approach these topics, these Westerns, these big movies out of a sense of fear and anxiety?

SONNENFELD: It's funny you say that because my motto in life is live in fear.


SAGAL: Well how does that work out?

SONNENFELD: It's great because you're never disappointed.


SAGAL: I wanted to ask you about "Men in Black III." It's coming out next month. And it's weird because a lot of guys, particularly in Hollywood, end up making sequels to their films, these days I mean. But this is 15 years after the first one came out. Is it weird to go back to the same characters and the story and the same look so many years after you did it the first time?

SONNENFELD: You know, it's been great because Will Smith is the same sort of overly energetic guy. I describe him as if he's an eight-month-old Great Dane puppy. You know, on various shows he's harmed me. On "Wild, Wild West" he broke my fifth metacarpal in five places.

SAGAL: How did he do that?

SONNENFELD: I hit his shoulder.

SAGAL: Why did you hit his shoulder?

SONNENFELD: Peter you can't believe how boring making movies can be. And so Will and I got into a habit of trading punches. And he would hit me as hard as he could, and I would collapse in pain in my shoulder, and then I would hit him as hard as I could, and he would laugh uncontrollably.


SONNENFELD: And one day, I decided I want to hurt Will Smith.

SAGAL: Well, who hasn't thought that? But go on.

SONNENFELD: Well, I punched him so hard, and his shoulder is like hitting, you know like a brick wall, so...

SAGAL: He's a fit individual.

SONNENFELD: I collapsed in pain, had to go to the hospital couldn't say why this happened because, you know, we're responsible adults here.

DICKINSON: Couldn't you just say that you fell off your fake horsy?


SONNENFELD: You know, I could have. Instead, I said I walked into a door.

SAGAL: With your fist.

SONNENFELD: Well, with my fist. It can happen. And when the doctor rolled up my sleeve to take my blood pressure, he saw that my shoulder was covered in red, orange, purple, green and yellow welts from Will hitting me. And he said what's that. And I said I have no idea. So basically, I was a battered wife.


SAGAL: Oh, I understand. So what I love is that you said this, you introduced this story by saying that Will Smith broke your hand, and it turns out he broke your hand by standing there while you attempted to hit him.


SONNENFELD: Listen, he also tore my rotator cuff, and I recently had to have surgery because he tackled me and shoved his chin into my shoulder. And when I sent him the post-op photo of me with tubes, you know, coming out of my nose and stuff, he emailed me back saying, and I quote, that's hilarious.


SAGAL: So I guess we understand why it took 10 years between the "Men in Black" movies. You had to recover from your injuries.



PAULA POUNDSTONE: It sounds like the only solace you have is your fake horse.


SONNENFELD: You know, the fake horse has been - it's just fantastic. In fact it's something that you're making fun of, but you would be jealous and wish you had one.




SAGAL: As soon as this show is over, I am demanding of my producers that I get a little saddle on some crates and I want to wear boots and chaps and have a hat.


SONNENFELD: I will send you photos.

SAGAL: I believe it. Well, Barry Sonnenfeld, what a pleasure to talk to you.


SAGAL: We've invited you here to play a game we're calling:

KASELL: Men in white.

SAGAL: Your heroes wear black in your "Men in Black" movies, but cricketers - that would those who play cricket - they wear white.

SONNENFELD: Yeah, yeah.

SAGAL: We don't know why they wear white. We don't know anything about cricket.


SAGAL: But the question is, do you, sir? Answer three questions correctly about the game that probably has a charming old nickname, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners: Carl's voice on their voicemail. Carl, who is director Barry Sonnenfeld playing for?

KASELL: Barry is playing for Tim Sheehan of Sandwich, Massachusetts.

SAGAL: Ready to play?


SAGAL: All right, here's your first question. Which of these is a real rule of cricket: A, any player can appeal an umpire's ruling by shouting howzat; B, your team is docked one run if you are seen to step on or otherwise harass an insect on the field; or C, I don't know what this means but, quote, the wicket crease cannot be popped during an innings?

SONNENFELD: I like anything involving yelling.

SAGAL: So you're going to go with howzat?

SONNENFELD: I'm going with howzat.

SAGAL: You're right. Howzat, that's the rule.



SAGAL: The rule in cricket is you can appeal the umpire's ruling and they shout howzat, or it's become informal they go how when the umpire says out.

All right, next - you're doing very well. Which of these, this is the next question, which of these is legal under the rules of cricket: A, insulting the players during play; B, the pitcher or bowler can spit on the ball all he wants; or C, if he wants to, the batsman can just pick up the ball and throw it?

SONNENFELD: Well, I don't think it would be spitting because that seems uncivilized. I'm going to go with picking up the ball and throwing it.

SAGAL: In other words if you just, if you get frustrated trying to hit it, you can just pick it up, throw it as far as you can?

SONNENFELD: I'm going to go that way.

SAGAL: Actually, it's spitting. Believe it or not, spitballs are legal in cricket. You can spit on the ball, and you can polish the ball to try to make it spin. However, however, one Pakistani bowler in a big cricket match went too far and caused a scandal a while ago when he was caught doing what? Was it: A, subbing in a Magic 8 ball for the cricket ball; B, attaching a string to the ball so he could pull it back; or C, biting the ball like an apple?

SONNENFELD: Well, I'm going with biting.

SAGAL: And you're right, sir, that's right.



SAGAL: The rules are you can spit on the ball, but you can't deface it, cut it or put on a foreign substance. Biting was going too far. He was banned for two games. Carl...

SONNENFELD: Now, I have to admit that I once had a landlord who was a famous Jewish cricket player from South Africa.

SAGAL: So you know a little bit about cricket?

SONNENFELD: Nothing, I just had a landlord who was a....


SAGAL: Wherever he is now, he's very proud of you.

SONNENFELD: Thank you.

SAGAL: Carl, how did Barry Sonnenfeld do on our quiz?

KASELL: Well, Barry, you had two correct answers, so that's enough to win for Tim Sheehan of Sandwich, Massachusetts. Congratulations.

SAGAL: Well done.


SONNENFELD: Fantastic.

SAGAL: Barry Sonnenfeld, thank you so much (unintelligible).


SAGAL: Bye-bye.


SAGAL: Coming up, Jack Black and Kyle Gass, the men of Tenacious D, stop worshiping Satan and bow down to Carl.

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We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME! from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.