Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

Director Barry Sonnenfeld Plays Not My Job

Barry Sonnenfeld. i i
Alexandre Meneghini/AP
Barry Sonnenfeld.
Alexandre Meneghini/AP

Barry Sonnenfeld either directed or shot some of the best movies of the '80s and '90s. He was the cinematographer on the Coen Brother's first movies and directed the Men in Black movies and Get Shorty, among other works of dark genius. His movie Men in Black III is coming out in May.

He plays a game called "Men in White," where he will answer three questions about people who play cricket.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now, the game where we ask little questions to people who've done big things. Barry Sonnenfeld either directed or shot some of the best movies of the 80s and 90s. He was the cinematographer on the Coen Brothers first movies, directed the "Men in Black" movies and "Get Shorty," among other works of dark comic genius. His movie "Men in Black III" is coming out next month. We're delighted to have him with us.

Barry Sonnenfeld, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BARRY SONNENFELD: Thanks, Peter. Glad to be here.

SAGAL: It's really exciting to have you. I love your movies, pretty much ever since the first Coen Brothers movie I saw.

SONNENFELD: Sure.

SAGAL: Let's do some biography. You grew up in New York City?

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...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: 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 22nd, 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.

AMY DICKINSON: No.

SAGAL: You are kidding me.

SONNENFELD: No, I'm not.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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. 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?"

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

DICKINSON: Wow.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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 it gets really boring, you say to the hair and makeup people, "hey, you got any interesting mustaches 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

SONNENFELD: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I had always understood...

SONNENFELD: Yeah.

SAGAL: ...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?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

SAGAL: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

DICKINSON: I know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: 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."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well how does that work out?

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I want 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 8-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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Why did you hit his shoulder?

SONNENFELD: Peter, you can't believe how boring making movies can be.

SAGAL: All right.

SONNENFELD: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Oh, I understand. So what I love is that 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SONNENFELD: Exactly.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SONNENFELD: You know, the fake horse, it's just fantastic. In fact, the last couple of days of shooting, the prop people, they actually put a tail on the horse, which is pretty great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SONNENFELD: No, no, I swear to you, it's something that you're making fun of but you would be jealous and wish you had one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POUNDSTONE: Oh, I am.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SONNENFELD: I will send you photos.

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

SONNENFELD: You too.

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

CARL 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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?

SONNENFELD: Yep.

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"?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: 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?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

POUNDSTONE: Oh geez.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

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.

POUNDSTONE: Huh.

SAGAL: All right, next, you're doing great. Which of these - this is the next question - which of these is legal under the rules of cricket? A: insulting the other 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 get frustrated trying to hit it, you can just pick it up and 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 and you can polish the ball to try to make it spin. 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?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

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...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SONNENFELD: Fantastic.

SAGAL: Barry Sonnenfeld's new movie "Men in Black III" opens May 25th. Barry Sonnenfeld, thank you so much for being with us.

SONNENFELD: My pleasure. Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!