East Hampton resident Barry Sonnenfeld uses the word “quirky” to describe his interests as a filmmaker and television producer.
The same adjective could be used to characterize Mr. Sonnenfeld’s habits on set, too.
He is known to wear a cowboy hat, even though he was born and raised in New York City. But last Thursday, September 25, on the second to last day of filming his HBO pilot, “Suburban Shootout,” at East Hampton Studios, the “Addams Family,” “Men in Black” and “Get Shorty” director passed on the cowboy hat, opting instead for a baseball cap.
Of course, he also passed on using a director’s chair, preferring to sit astride a saddle fixed to a wooden box that others on the set called his “horse.” A few of his colleagues suggested he add rockers to his cowboy perch.
Mr. Sonnenfeld sat before two small monitors; one playing back film shot earlier on Fresh Pond Road in Amagansett, and the other playing a live stream of the bedroom set on the sound stage.
On set, actress Judy Greer, playing protagonist Rebecca, walked up to the bedroom window and peered out. The footage would later be spliced with the Fresh Pond Road takes, in which actress Kelly Preston, as mob boss Camilla Diamond, made a delivery to Rebecca’s front porch.
For each take, Ms. Greer walked into frame to the window and held aside the curtains, pretending to be on a second floor looking down. Next, Mr. Sonnenfeld would yell “Camilla!” to cue a reaction, and, flustered, the topless actress would pull the shades closed.
For the initial takes, Ms. Greer would end by turning around and facing the camera, registering shock in her eyes. But that didn’t sit right with Mr. Sonnenfeld, who decided to drop the dramatic turn and have the shot end with Rebecca still facing the window.
As Mr. Sonnenfeld called “action” and “cut” again and again from his “horse,” producers, cast members and others sat around him, including his wife and associate producer, Susan Ringo, writer and executive producer Michelle Ashford, and actress Kerry Kenney-Silver.
Ms. Kenney-Silver, a star of “Reno 911!” like her fellow “Suburban Shootout” cast member Mary Birdsong, was knitting to pass the time before her turn in front of the camera. Elsewhere at the studio, a woman who looked eerily similar to Ms. Kenny-Silver and wore an identical floral print dress, also looked for ways to pass the time: she was Ms. Kenny-Silver’s stand-in. The stand-in was later seen chatting with the double for Rachael Harris, who also co-stars in “Suburban Shootout,” a takeoff on a British dark comedy of the same name.
Mr. Sonnenfeld took a break from filming last Thursday afternoon to discuss his career, the pilot and how it feels getting to film in his own backyard, having lived in East Hampton since 1982. “It’s been really wonderful to be able to go home at night and sleep in my own bed,” the director said.
“It’s rare that you ever get to shoot in the Hamptons,” Mr. Sonnenfeld lamented. “It’s expensive during the summer, and that’s when people would want to shoot here.”
He pointed out that he has worked in the area before: Back in the mid-eighties, he was the cinematographer for “Compromising Positions,” a film starring Susan Sarandon that shot in East Hampton. He was also a cinematographer for Coen brothers films and moved to the director’s chair—or “horse”—in 1991 with “The Addams Family.”
Back then, East Hampton Studios in Wainscott didn’t exist, but today it is still a challenge to make a film or television show on the East End, according to Mr. Sonnenfeld. “You have to put up the whole crew, so it’s a very expensive proposition to shoot in the Hamptons, especially in season, which is impossible,” he said.
Though the pilot has been exclusively shot in Hamptons villages and hamlets, including Main Street in Bridgehampton, the Amagansett Farmers Market and Post Crossing in Southampton Village, the show is not set on the literal East End. Instead, “Suburban Shootout” takes place in the fictional suburb of Georgica Bay. In fact, Mr. Sonnenfeld said the show was never even intended to be filmed in the Hamptons. The original intent was to shoot in south Los Angeles and Pasadena.
A 30-percent tax incentive the New York State legislature passed in April this year—up from 10 percent—for film and television productions was a game changer.
“If we spend $5 million, of which $3 million is for room rentals and crew and supplies and all that, we get 30 percent of that $3 million back. So it ended up being cheaper to shoot in New York State than in Los Angeles,” Mr. Sonnenfeld explained.
He never expected it but now a number of shows, like “Ugly Betty,” are moving to New York, he said.
Even with the incentives, if HBO decides to order a season of “Suburban Shootout,” Mr. Sonnenfeld does not anticipate shooting the whole season, or even most of it, in the Hamptons. “We’ll build our sets in New York City and probably shoot on Long Island within 50 miles of Manhattan,” he said. The 50-mile range allows the crew to go home at night, so there will be no need to pay for their lodging, he explained, noting there were about 100 employees who needed lodging for the pilot.
At least a few crew members employed on the shoot are local to the Hamptons, including Marissa Friedes, a 2002 East Hampton High School graduate and aspiring screenwriter who has dual jobs for “Suburban Shootout”: assistant to producer Graham Place, and assistant to the director, Mr. Sonnenfeld.
Ms. Friedes said she has many typical assistant duties, like making coffee runs and taking messages, but even the most tedious jobs gave her access to the set. “I would watch how Barry directs, how the actors respond, how the lighting guys light and make sure to take mental notes,” she said.
To pursue her chosen career, Ms. Friedes said she always expected to leave town by the time she turned 25, but said that could change if more productions like “Suburban Shootout” come to East Hampton.
Considering that “Suburban Shootout” is a 30-minute show and a first season would likely be 12 episodes, Mr. Sonnenfeld said “Suburban Shootout” might spend two or three weeks of a 12-week production period filming exterior shots in the Hamptons.
“We’re not shooting the Hamptons as the Hamptons. It’s a fictional town,” the director pointed out. “We’re just using the Hamptons because it’s so pretty out here and we want the town to look sort of idyllic and beautiful. But the truth is, if you were doing a satire about the Hamptons, this show wouldn’t be it. It’s not about rich people coming from New York City or the Hamptons cultural community.”
Using his local knowledge, Mr. Sonnenfeld pointed location scouts to some places he wanted to capture on film—at least for the pilot—like Louse Point. He also said he could imagine a scene at The American Hotel in Sag Harbor, but the Sag Harbor Village Police were not very cooperative when it came to filming anywhere in the village.
“If we go to series, now we know not even to look in Sag Harbor,” he said of the logistical difficulties, adding, “It’s too bad, because there’s some great looking houses there.”
The director also said that if the pilot is picked up, he would love to direct a few episodes each season, especially early on in the first season, so he can set the tone for the rest of the series. He said that his vision calls for a tone that is somewhat dryer than in the British series.
Last month, at the Primetime Emmy Awards, Mr. Sonnenfeld picked up an Emmy for directing the pilot of “Pushing Daisies,” an honor he said he did not expect, going up against “The Office” and “30 Rock” in the Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series category.
Mr. Sonnenfeld is also an executive producer for “Pushing Daisies,” a title he shares on “Suburban Shootout” with Ms. Ashford. As an executive producer, he reads and comment on scripts, looks at the dailies, location photos, edited cuts of the episodes and calls up actors to offer advice, he said.
Mr. Sonnenfeld is reviewing many more scripts and ideas for television and the big screen that he is looking to get made, including a script called “Moist” to be developed by “American Beauty” producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jink.
With so many responsibilities stacking up between his television and film careers and directing and producing, Mr. Sonnenfeld denied that he might be worried about spreading himself too thin. “I don’t sleep much, so I can do a lot,” he quipped, before expressing his ultimate goal: “I’d like to have four or five television shows on the air—that would make me very happy—while I’m directing a feature film.”
“Suburban Shootout” was brought to Mr. Sonnenfeld’s attention after Ms. Ashford pitched the show to HBO.
“We felt HBO was wavering on whether or not they wanted to do it, and we felt like, if they knew who was directing it, they might have a clear idea of what it would look like in the end.” Ms. Ashford said. She said she knew Mr. Sonnenfeld would be the right choice. “I thought he was absolutely perfect for this material, and he turned out to be exactly that,” she said.
Mr. Sonnenfeld said he wasn’t aware of the British “Suburban Shootout” when he signed on to direct the American pilot, but he has watched the British pilot since and found the comedy to be too broad and self-conscious for his taste.
In the pilot episode of the American “Suburban Shootout,” Ms. Greer of “Miss/Guided” has the lead as a married woman wary of her husband’s transfer from a sergeant’s desk job in the city to police chief in a quaint and quiet suburb. While her husband, played by Michael Weaver of “Notes from the Underbelly,” is excited about his new job, Rebecca’s fears are realized as she discovers the suburb is the setting of a turf war between rival gangs of gun-toting housewives.
Ms. Harris, also of “Notes from the Underbelly,” plays Camilla Diamond’s consigliere—like Robert Duvall to Marlon Brando in “The Godfather,” as Ms. Ashford put it. Ms. Birdsong plays Louise, Camilla’s henchman, Ms. Ashford said.
The writer explained that the gang war’s history, which is played out in the pilot through flashbacks, is that Camilla and Ms. Kenny-Silver’s character “came upon a crime one night that went really wrong, and they ended up killing somebody,” Ms. Ashford said. “And in that formative experience, they made a vow that they would not let their town be ruined by criminals and thugs.”
After that initial moment of solidarity, things went sour. Ms. Ashford said that although the two women started as a team to clean up their town and keep it safe, Camilla saw an opportunity for power and profit. “She realized that she could make a lot of money by basically running the criminal enterprises in the town,” Ms. Ashford said.
When Rebecca moves to town with her policeman husband, the rivals vie for her favor.
Since the cast is predominantly female and will address issues that concern women, the show will attract a female audience, the writer said, but it still has broader appeal: “There’s a lot of things blowing up,” she said, “and a lot of things being shot, so I think guys always like that.”
Asked about the prospects for the pilot to be picked up for a season by HBO, Ms. Ashford picked her words carefully.
“I would never jinx myself by predicting one way or the other,” she said, “but I do feel that the material is really good and from what I’ve seen so far, I think we’re in good shape.”
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