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Director Brad Silberling had to be tough enough to sack the babies on day three of the shoot, he reveals in this on-set interview with Pat Peters, before finally casting the Hoffman girls.

I imagine that Liam Aiken and Emily Browning were easy to work with, in the sense that they are grown up kids, but having a number of babies and baby stand ins, how much of a nightmare is that?
It’s the most unique obstacle I think I have ever encountered. If the story was different and if the characters were different it would have been a more traditional case of just bring in the babies and throw them in someone’s arm, and off you go. What attracted me most with the story was Sunny. Sunny is not a baby. Sunny is an infant who is full with intent and opinions and she’s one that will pick a fight. And she is treated in the stories as an equal by her siblings. They don’t cuddle her or necessarily look out for her. It’s just assumed that she’s an equal. I thought it was one of the most brilliant conceits of the story. And yet here you are as a director and are confronted with how do you bring that out on the screen. That means you have to have little ones that are going to seem to have that about them too. And there are no guarantees. We cast a set of triplets who were lovely, interesting little girls who showed up to work on the first day and immediately went into the worst separation anxiety I have ever seen. 

And you don’t want all three on camera at the same time, obviously. What did you do?
Oh my Lord! And the mum was only fifteen feet away. I knew the first morning we were in trouble. And I thought, Oh boy, here we go. I think it was an insurance issue with the studio, but I literally said, we are in trouble on the third day. We started on a Monday, and on the Wednesday….

Sack the babies!
I had to go and sack the babies! I had to walk into their trailer where the three of them were on the couch watching Bernie. The babies were looking at me as if they knew. And I even think that somewhere in their minds they went like “good” because they didn’t really want to be there. Poor things.

How old were they?
They were two years old. And interestingly, they were older than the Hoffman girls that we ended up hiring. I have a three year old now and I think it gets harder for them when they are a little bit older because they get more aware of separation and things like that. So when we fired them we had to shut down for two days and we had to recast. And I saw these twins on tape and brought them up to LA from San Diego and they were only 14 months old. One was a little shyer, and the other one, who is probably in the movie a bit more, was a real extrovert, a real connector. That was the thing, that was the quality that you had to have and that the camera had to pick up. A sense of awareness, intelligence, connection and following.

Is directing babies a bit like directing dogs, when you have to trick them to do certain facial expressions?
They’re still smarter than dogs (laughs). Dogs are more from A to B, and bark and so on. Kids are not going to be amused unless they are amused, they’re very pure. They’re not going to smile unless they have a reason to smile and they’re not going to look scared unless they are. So you have to always come back to what the story says you need in the scene. Do I need them to feel connected between sister and brother and so on? One of the most amazing moments in the movie was actually on the first day of work. When they come up in the house and it transforms back into what it is. There’s a shot of the baby looking up at the remains of the house and the shot is just extraordinary. She had just woken up from a nap, and she’d been crying and was still very weepy at that moment, and it was like, quick, bring her in, bring her in. And she hadn’t seen the set yet. And I put up a couple of tarps so if the camera was pushing in one part of the set you can see her look up in that part. So she’s actually performing what the scene should be. They are little humans. There’s going to be a genuine reaction. But in other cases you can play some games. There’s a scene when she comes in and she decides she’s going to make the snake play with her. I was playing a very specific game of hide and seek with her from behind the camera. So if you hear the production tracks people would think we were crazy. So that’s the hard thing for the other actors. Meryl Streep said it was a very humbling experience for a movie star, because it was all about the babies. And it was. If the baby was connected in a way I felt was appropriate for a scene I had to say Boom and they all had to jump into the middle of the scene and just go, so they all had to be very prepared. I’ve never encountered anything like that. It was very hard and very long. We shot for seven months and a lot of that was the babies. 

I would like to know a bit about the writer, Daniel Handler, was he participating at all in the making of the film?
He did. DreamWorks had tried to develop a screenplay from his books. He had written about eight or nine drafts of it, all wildly different. They were kind of searching, trying to find it. When I came on board, he was kind of burnt out and I think he felt he had been put through the loop too many times. By the time I met him, all he wanted to do was to go and write book number eleven. So I told him how I was going to structure the film based on having read his first three books. And it seemed appropriate that the producer and I said, let’s go through and do this structure and after the first draft was done, if Daniel then had the energy he could come back in and contribute whatever he felt appropriate. So that’s what we did. The process kind of continued all the way to post production. I had heard so many horror stories with novelists and successful book series, even Harry Potter and many other cases, where people have had a very difficult time, but Daniel has been nothing but generous. I think partly because he doesn’t want to make movies, it’s not his thing and his books are very porous, not overly specific, which left me room to create. His books are mostly about language and tone, and not heavy on detail and plot-incident. They’re more about enjoying the characters. 

What’s Jim Carrey like to direct, does he take direction well?
Jim is the fullest performer you’ll ever see, meaning he’s the guy that comes from doing stand up so he is very in tune to his audience which I have never seen. Even on the set he is very tuned, so when the crew was very small, I'd say to him, 'you know, you don’t have an audience today, and you have to trust me'. He’s not always a broadcaster. You realize what a good actor he is. He is a relatively reflective person and very story concerned. Our first meetings became a pitching session about this story and about some key moments in the story. The thing about him is that everyone assumes that it’s going to be all this improv, but he is made more secure with a real foundation. Jim's got a great character mind. So we basically workshopped these characters before we came to set. And we would improvise a lot, I’d interview him in character and ask him questions and he’d just spit out these answers.

This is on the DVD, isn’t it?
Yes, and it's chilling. I did it during hair and make up tests so he was in wardrobe and I brought a sound mixer and normally you don’t do that for make up tests, you just film someone in silence. I sat by the camera and just asked him about children’s education, cell phones and the theatre, or nutrition, and he'd just respond in the quickest and most imaginative way! 

Jim has extreme comic timing, doesn't he?
Yes, that’s the writer in him. He’s just a natural. From those improvs came brilliant material that was very on point with our story and some we took and edited it ourselves, some of it is the most valuable material. That became a lot of what was scripted. So we came with that to the set, and it was a security and he really hung on to that and from there he could then take off. 

I’m sure there will be more Lemony Snicket movies. What have you signed up for?
When I took the decision to take the movie I said I’d obviously do it with the right to refusal, I’m not going to give in to anything. I asked the studio how they were going to deal with the sequel. But they didn’t want to talk about it until the first film was out. It’s amazing; a script has not yet been worked on for the sequel, which I find a bit baffling.

When you see the film on DVD the sets look like a gigantic fantasy land playground, is it difficult to direct actors when they have to act in a world born out of someone's imagination?
Meaning when it comes from your imagination? What’s interesting as opposed to other stories is that you are physically designing the set. Every actor mentioned this, it made the job easier, you walked straight into it. Meryl Streep's house was there, fully dressed, on an angle, as opposed to standing in front of a blue screen. And the actor is actually seeing my psychosis and it was a big help. It allows them to have an environment where they can position themselves. It actually helped, more so than I even thought. 

Published June 2, 2005

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Brad Silberling


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