Barry Sonnenfeld is a director and producer with the most incredible filmography.
From directing the Men in Black films and the Netflix series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, to producer credits on such clever shows as The Tick (BOTH iterations), Pushing Daisies, and Disney’s Enchanted, this is a man with a wicked sense of humor and timing.
Taking on the director’s chair on Apple TV+’s Schmigadoon!, which lovingly savages the Golden Age musicals of Hollywood, seems like a natural fit. But, speaking with TV Fanatic on a virtual press day, Sonnenfeld is quick to set the record straight.
“Y’know, I’m not a big fan of musical theatre whether it’s Broadway or even MGM musicals from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I never bought the reality of people stopping what they’re doing to break into song.
“So I found it a little bit difficult. There were a few musicals I really liked, but they were a little bit… I loved Miloš Forman’s Hair. I loved Steve Martin in Pennies From Heaven.
“And I loved Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life as well. But it wasn’t like Carousel or Westside Story or that kind of stuff.
“So, for me, the challenge was how do I reproduce the visual style but yet still make it my own as well?
“One of the things is we often shot dance numbers wide, which is something that they would do in older musicals where you can see that they’re actually dancing, head to toe.
“A lot of new musicals are too cutty and have too many inserts, so the challenge was to make it look like an old MGM musical yet still have the acting be very emotional, very real, funny. Reality-based comedy and not people slipping on banana peels funny.”
Geographically, the town of Schmigadoon is an idyllic but surreal environment with the realism of the MGM backlot and lit with a pastel palette and all the menace of a child’s birthday cake.
Furthermore, the diverse (and talented!) chorus is dressed in gingham and floral prints with miles of petticoats as far as the eye can see.
“They’re good for dancing. They flow. We had a great choreographer named Chris Gattelli, who has won Tony Awards on Broadway but hadn’t done that much stuff for the filmed world.
“We had a great working relationship. He would take a group of stand-in dancers, all wearing masks because it was during COVID.
“He would rehearse and record it on his iPhone and then send it to Cinco and myself, and I would give him notes. ‘Let’s pan the camera here. Let’s track instead of panning. Don’t cut around. Let’s do a continuous shot with the person [who] comes close to the lens. etc. etc.’
“And then he would go back and shoot it, and I’d give more notes so, by the time we got to the set to shoot it, Chris had gone through anywhere from three to six iterations on the dance based on notes from Cinco and myself.
“By the time we were on the set, on the day, it was very easy. It was all pre-planned. We knew the lenses. We knew the distance. So it was like a technical rehearsal almost to shoot.”
COVID was a factor that no one had ever had to contend with before while making a TV show. Sonnenfeld was circumspect about its effect on production.
“I don’t want to say that COVID was good for us because it wasn’t.
“It was very hard because, every setup, there would be crew wearing masks and shields, and then when the actors came in, most of the crew had to leave, and then the actors had to rehearse wearing the shields.
“So, it was very difficult, although we did end up coming in a day under schedule in spite of all that.
“The good part is because everyone had to isolate, several things happened.
“One was we were a very closely-knit family because there wasn’t a lot of going out at night and drinking and entertaining. So everyone went back home and learned their lines, basically.
“And second of all, we also had to work six-day weeks. So that meant on the seventh day, everyone was so tired, they just stayed at home and did their laundry and played with their kids.
“There wasn’t, again, time to socialize, go out and catch COVID. So we ended up doing forty-three straight days without a COVID incident which is amazing.”
So how does a musicals cynic like Barry Sonnenfeld survive the onslaught of bright and beautiful production numbers that is the juggernaut of joy called Schmigadoon!?
“Schmigadooon! affected me. I really enjoy the show. I enjoy watching the episodes. I love the actors.
“And for me, being on that set every day with people singing and dancing, it was hard to be pessimistic.
“It’s a challenge for me to be optimistic, so it was great working with that group of actors. They were just extraordinary, every single one of them.”
Have you been affected by Schmigadoon! yet? Has it wrapped its optimistic tendrils around you and seeded absurd happiness in the dark realist soul of you?
If you haven’t crossed that bridge yet, what are you waiting for? Schmigadoon! is available on Apple TV+ and the soundtracks for every episode (as they drop) are available on all streaming platforms.
Diana Keng is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.