“One Of The Most Functional, Dysfunctional Families” Screenwriter Matt Lieberman On The ‘Addams Family’
The Addams Family began their life as cartoon characters in the New Yorker by Charles Addams in 1938 satirizing the perfect suburban life in New Jersey during the Great Depression. In 1964 the Addamses received their very own TV show on ABC TV and several film and TV spinoffs over the following decades. The Addams Family has a new animated iteration from a screenplay penned by Matt Lieberman (Scooby Doo, Christmas Chronicles) and directed by Conrad Vernon (Shrek, Boss Baby) and Greg Tiernan (Sausage Party). Matt Lieberman sat down with Creative Screenwriting Magazine to discuss bringing this modernized remake to the screen.
You can familiarize yourself with the theme song below:
They’re creepy and they’re kooky
Mysterious and spooky
They’re altogether ooky
The Addams Family.
Their house is a museum
When people come to see ’em
They really are a scream
The Addams Family.
The Addams Family is a story about the love, strength, and unity of family – a premise that has been relevant since the dawn of humankind. We asked the screenwriter what excited him most about writing the current screenplay. “I just love how the family and the characters are rich, and one of the most functional, dysfunctional families in modern fiction.” The Addamses have been described as one of America’s most iconic families alongside the Kennedys. Okay.
MGM studios had acquired the property and they had just hired director Conrad Vernon to look at a previous script by Pamela Petter and Tim Burton. Lieberman made it known he was a big fan of the 1960s TV show and jumped at the chance to write the current screenplay.
“Conrad wanted us to give this movie a reason to exist. We didn’t want to just remake it.” They set out to modernize it by adding contemporary cultural references. “Our antagonist Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) is definitely a modern-day antagonist, a stereotypical tiger mom desperate to keep her TV show alive,” said Lieberman.
Matt and Conrad were mindful of honoring cartoonist Charles Addams’ initial stylistic intention when they approached it. The screenwriter disregarded earlier drafts and started writing a new screenplay from scratch. Lieberman drew upon his comedic sensibilities during the initial outlining phase. “I like any sort of comedy with an edge. When you have ‘dangerous’ individuals in society that scare everybody else, it automatically creates great comedy.”
The Addams Family is such a well-known brand so was imperative that Lieberman captured the tone and flavor of the original TV show, but also give it a facelift. “We tried to make it more modern, but also infused it with old and spooky tropes like witches and Dracula.” There are also several nods to modern horror films. “There’s a bit of Amityville Horror in there and references to It with the red balloon.”
We asked Matt Lieberman what his “take” was on the story. “What makes the Addams Family stand out is how they juxtapose with ‘normal’ modern society. Society may see them as abnormal, weird and strange, but as you spend more time with them, you realize that they’re more ‘normal’ than the people around them,” mused the screenwriter.
The Addams Family is also noteworthy for being unflappable. One of Lieberman’s earliest writing challenges was determining how to scare a family who cannot be scared. Nothing rattled them. That was our starting point with Conrad Vernon.
“Conrad and I also believed that their New Jersey home was a character in itself. So we really wanted to make their home integral to the story.” The concept of family and home is the bedrock of this “altogether ooky” family. Matt Lieberman also wanted to dive deeper into the underlying meaning of the story.
Thematically, The Addams Family is an immigrant story about the great American dream. “It starts with them leaving the old country. They come to America to find a new home where they can be themselves and create their own oasis. And then their little microcosm is challenged when society comes to their door and they have to come to grips with what home and family means.”
During the rewriting stage, not all of the ideas made the final draft. However, Lieberman added that there weren’t any major departures from the initial concept to shooting script. “In many ways, this movie represents the spirit of the first draft. In very early drafts there was an expanded version of the old country… where they come from and how Morticia and Gomez met. As the screenplay started to come together, Conrad realized we didn’t have enough time to fully go into their origin story.”
Typically, Matt begins his process with writing a treatment. Breaking the story often takes up as much time as writing a treatment and subsequent screenplay. “The invention of the story is the real work.” Once he breaks the story, he writes a treatment. “I write a 6 – 9 page treatment which goes through all the major beats of the story for the producers. It is an art unto itself. It should be a good representation of the screenplay you end up writing.”
The screenwriter strongly advises spending adequate time in the early stages of the screenwriting process. It all begins with not overthinking the first draft and getting it down as fast as possible. “The work for me these days is trying to get out of my own head. The more I can get my initial thoughts and feelings onto the page, however rough they may be, the better.” For Lieberman, there is “usually a lot of good stuff in there. Get out of your own way and write.”
A solid treatment paves the way for a solid
screenplay.”Writing pages for me is easy if I know who my characters are and I have everything set up the right way. I can knock out a draft in a few days if you know the theme, the structure, the characters, and the take.”
Lieberman claims that his bumper sticker logo on writing a great screenplay comes down to three things, “character, conflict and theme. If you have a problem in your screenplay, it’s because one of those things hasn’t crystallized yet.”
On a more esoteric level, he added, “make your screenplay about something that means something to you. Something emotional that you really have something to say about. Everything comes out of that.” His upcoming movie Free Guy was based on how he was feeling about his life at the time.
When asked about rewriting others, he responded, “I love it when a good idea badly executed comes across my desk, because I have an opportunity to improve upon it. Creating distance can fix a story. Sometimes writers are too close to it or didn’t know what they had.”
The screenwriter has been writing professionally for over a decade. He advocates patience and respecting the process. “Don’t get caught up in the hustle. It takes just as much effort to develop your screenwriting craft as it does to sell a script or a pitch. I got caught up in the hustle in the early days. When I focused on the craft, it was a game-changer for me.”
Matt Lieberman is known as the high-concept, big comedy ideas guy around Hollywood. His cinematic inspirations include The Graduate, all the Spielberg movies of the 80s and 90s, Groundhog Day, and Truman Show, to name a few. “Those movies got me excited about doing this screenwriting thing as a career.” His ability to generate original ideas contrasts sharply against the current world of pre-existing IP, which often doesn’t worry enough whether there is a great film within it.
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