Barry Sonnenfeld on building Schmigadoon! behind the scenes

Everyone knows by now how fantastic Schmigadoon! is. The Apple TV+ series has been enchanting audiences since it premiered, but a musical this massive doesn’t just happen overnight. I spoke with executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld, who also directed every single episode of the season, to talk about the creative choices and production logistics that made Schmigadoon! one of a kind.

Brittany Frederick: It’s very uncommon for directors to helm an entire season, but you’ve often been behind the camera for multiple episodes of a show. What was it like for you to take Schmigadoon! from beginning to end?

Barry Sonnenfeld: It’s what I like to do. In the case of, for instance, A Series of Unfortunate Events, I directed almost half the episodes of all three seasons. It helps maintain tone and consistency. [Schmigadoon!] is a very narrow tone—you don’t want to be too flat and too dreary, but you don’t want to be so giddy and over the top in performances that the audience doesn’t buy the reality and the emotion of what you’re trying to do. By directing all six, I was able to make sure the actors stayed on track. 

BF: How did you find that tone on set? What were the conversations you had with the cast?

BS: It’s the way I work with actors. I just never want them to be funny or to play into the comedy of the scene or the emotion of the scene. I basically say to the actors “Faster, flatter.” My feeling is if actors talk fast enough, it prevents them from acting. I hate to watch acting, so by them talking fast, they don’t have time to act. I’m always asking actors to do one more take because everyone talks faster, and then I would just make sure that they always knew the scene was about the reality of the scene. Don’t play into the fact that you’re singing or dancing. 

BF: You’ve worked on other quirky shows like Unfortunate Events and Pushing Daisies. Were you able to bring any of your experiences on this projects to Schmigadoon?

BS: I’m really very relaxed about designing sets with Bo Welch, the production designer. I have very specific rules about the lenses I use; I like wide angle lenses. I think it brings [viewers] into the environment. They know the camera is close to the actors. So I always like shooting with wider lenses. I think that they’re funnier, they’re more energetic and they also stylize your show in a very specific way. 

BF: Schmigadoon! feels kind of timely because it’s a positive show at a time when TV needs those, and it’s a musical as Broadway is getting back on its feet. Did it feel timely to you as you were filming?

BS: it felt very timely while we were making it, because we were wearing masks and shields and we’re in the heart of a serious COVID time, but we didn’t know how well timed it would be when it was released. It’s so optimistic and so sort of refreshing. It takes your mind off serious stuff. I think it’s a good time to release it actually. 

BF: How challenging was the pandemic on a production this big?

BS: The biggest challenge was when we shot it which was last October, November into the beginning of December—with COVID testing three times a week, with masks, with shields, with having to get the camera crew out before the actors could come in. There were a lot of logistics. Other than that it went really smoothly [because] I’m a big believer in pre-planning everything. Every dance move, every shot was already designed, so we weren’t figuring things out on the set. I wish our stages were bigger but we still pulled it off really nicely.

BF: What were your favorite parts of the season?

BS: For someone who doesn’t like musical theater and doesn’t like singing and dancing, my favorite part is some of the songs. I loved “Cross That Bridge,” where Keegan-Michael Key is trying to find a new girlfriend to cross the bridge with. I love Jane Krakowski singing and dancing inside of a small MG car. And I love Kristin Chenoweth, in either episode 4 or 5, doing a four-minute song and dance number without a single cut. She’s brilliant in that scene. Those are my favorite moments. 

Schmigadoon! is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.

Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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