When I was growing up in the ’00s, Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was second on my bookshelf only to Harry Potter (which, in turn, is rivaled only by Beatlemania and Star Wars among all-time cultural phenomena). I never dreamt that, more than a decade later, I’d be talking to the man behind Lemony Snicket about a highly successful Netflix adaptation of the books. Netflix didn’t even exist back then.
If you haven’t yet watched A Series of Unfortunate Events, you should disregard its warning to “look away” and do so this weekend. In this highly decentralized era of “peak TV,” it accomplishes the rare feat of total idiosyncrasy, and there’s enough heart buried in its layers of Tim Burton-slash-Wes Anderson weirdness to hold your attention and elicit the feels. And Neil Patrick Harris is a revelation as the villainous Count Olaf.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. One thing we discussed that didn’t make the cut is this clip of Mr. Handler playing accordion alongside Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, his longtime friend. Tonight, I will dream of Gibbard writing an entire album about the Baudelaires orphans’ sadness.
(Warning: some spoilers ahead.)
Paste: You were supposed to helm the 2004 film version of the series with [director and executive producer] Barry [Sonnenfeld], but then he left the film and your script was rewritten. Now, the original gang is back together. How did your creative vision for the series change in the intervening years?
Daniel Handler: It’s interesting, because there were some things that we were very excited to do that are now recreated exactly the way we imagined them a long time ago, and then there are many things that we dreamed up that were entirely new. It was a pretty good balance.
Paste: Some examples of that?
Handler: There are large things, such as the idea that Lemony Snicket would be interacting directly with the action on screen, and then there’s also small things, like when Count Olaf turns over an hourglass and says, “When the sand runs out the fortune will be mine” and then the sand runs out too quickly. Those are all things we thought of a long time ago, then there were things like the whole plot with Jacquelyn and some of the other VFD members that are lurking around the edges, and that’s stuff that we dreamed up anew.
Paste: In the movie, Jude Law narrated as Lemony Snicket, but he didn’t have that much of a presence—he was never even on screen. What was it like adapting the Lemony Snicket character to appear on screen so much?
Handler: I think that the narration adds a level of self-consciousness and detachment in the books, so it makes them not a complete horror story, and that’s something that we wanted to do in the film as well. Patrick Warburton [who plays Snicket in the Netflix series] just turned out to be exactly that kind of person. He was very good at memorizing long, ridiculous monologues, and he carries off a kind of mysterious deadpan that I think keeps a nice distance so that the perils of the Baudelaire orphans don’t become this relentless carnival of woe.
Paste: Was he your first choice for the role?
Handler: Yeah, we were sitting around a table thinking about a lot of people who would be good, and Mr. Warburton and Mr. Sonnenfeld had already worked together on The Tick. When we thought of [him], we were watching scenes of a movie he was in a while ago called The Woman Chaser, and no one else in the room had seen that movie. We went on YouTube and there’s a couple of clips from The Woman Chaser, and in one of them, he’s staring right at the camera, telling this ridiculous story. It was almost the perfect audition for Lemony Snicket.
Paste: You mentioned the grander VFD conspiracy, coming up with a way to work that in. When one reads the first four books, they’re more stand-alone stories. Did you bring in VFD to take it from four distinct stories to one cohesive season?
Handler: I guess that was part of it. Mostly, I would say it was two things. One is that TV and film are really literal media. You can’t imply that something might be happening, you have to kinda show it or not. So a lot of the mystery that’s lurking around the edges in the early books had to be stitched out a little bit more or eliminated. And then it just seemed to me, in adapting it for TV, that I didn’t want to mess with the original narrative line that much. So the stories of the Baudelaires are very faithful to the books, but I thought a fun thing to do would be to add things.
Paste: To that end, adding the Quagmire parents [Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders] was brilliant. As a book reader, I was like, “What? The Baudelaire parents didn’t survive, did they?” Then you get to “The Miserable Mill” and it’s a total mindfuck. How did that twist come to mind?
Handler: We were just thinking about different ways of stitching in a mystery, and it was an idea that I liked right away. I liked the idea that fans of the books would be upset for most of the first season, thinking “I can’t believe they changed it,” and then would suddenly be relieved, and then people who were unfamiliar with the books would be relieved and then suddenly not.
I’m not really on social media, but my wife woke up in the morning and she looked at her Twitter feed, which has an alert for me, and she said that hundreds of people were saying, “Fuck you, Daniel Handler!” She was trying to figure out what was going on, and then she realized they had all watched the end of the season and they were all mad.
Paste: One of my favorite things about the books is that they’re books about books; their love of literature abounds. Was it weird translating that to a medium that some people would argue is anathema to book-reading?
Handler: There’s a few jokes we make about television, so that was obviously a little bit of a change. But for the most part, it was something that we knew we wanted to keep, we wanted to keep the literary center of these books. We wanted to keep the libraries, we wanted to keep the literary references. So sometimes it meant that we had to sit with Netflix executives and explain why we’re quoting a 19th century French philosopher named Gormand who most people don’t know about. But frankly, one thing that was great to have was the precedent of The Big Bang Theory, which has a whole lot of very esoteric pop culture references and scientific theories that people don’t follow, but they understand that it’s the world of the super-nerds of that show. So we were able to say look, this is part of the language that the characters in this show speak.
Paste: Who was your favorite supporting character to write for the show?
Handler: They were all so much fun. One thing that’s different about writing for TV from writing a book is that you write a part for a script, then you get an actor, and they inhabit it in a different way and so the scripts change. K. Todd Freeman figured out this thing about Mr. Poe, that he’s happy. He’s completely inept, but he’s happy the entire time, and that’s a really great thing to go for. We changed lines accordingly as we began to see his performance, he was such an exciting presence in the first season that he’s more prominent in the second season than he is in the corresponding books.
Paste: Let’s talk about the kids. Playing the Baudelaires is such a difficult balance of perseverance and determination with utter despair. What did you see in Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes that you felt encapsulated the essence of Violet and Klaus?
Handler: It’s more like what I didn’t see. What I didn’t see was a kind of cheerfulness and chirpiness that comes from a lot of child performers. That was really exciting to see, that they could deliver these long, literate, deadpan lines in a certain way.
Paste: They never really look happy throughout the series.
Handler: That was actually something of a challenge the first couple of days! I was looking at the dailies and both the actors were smiling a lot, I think they were just super excited to have these roles and be on the show. Barry Sonnenfeld had to talk to them really gently and say, “Everyone’s really excited you’re here, but you have to stop grinning, you’re in miserable circumstances.”
Paste: What prompted the decision to have them wear such brightly colored clothing against the drab backgrounds?
Handler: I think it’s that the Baudelaires are apart from even the world that they’re in. They wanna go to the beach when it’s a gray and cloudy day. They are not participating in the adult society they see around them. That was something that was startling for me, I might add. My first thought was that these are kind of bright colors, kind of candy-coated. But when I saw them on the sets, I started to think it was a good idea.
Paste: I know you’re neck-deep in writing Season Two right now. Kids age up fairly quickly, particularly babies. Has there been any discussion about expediting production on the second or even third seasons so you can capture the kids in this time and physical state?
Handler: It’s definitely a big concern of ours. Our dream is to film Season Three right after Season Two, we’re still working that out with Netflix. We couldn’t have filmed all three seasons in a row… but we’re hoping that with the reception the show has been getting, we can film those seasons so that at the end of the series, the Baudelaires aren’t in their 30s and we’re wondering why they’re still worried about their guardians.
Zach Blumenfeld actually attended an open casting call to play Klaus Baudelaire in the 2004 A Series of Unfortunate Events film, but he had no acting experience and was resoundingly rejected. He now resides on Twitter.