Breathing new life into the Addams Family mausoleum
Interview by Laura-Beth Cowley
Illustrations by Sam Shaw based on Charles Addams' characters
They’re mysterious and spooky and altogether kooky and they’re coming back to the big screen in fully animated splendour in October 2019. The dark and comical wit of Charles Addams is once again being reinvented, this time in CG. We were fortunate enough to get some time with the delightful weaver of the macabre, screenwriter Pamela Pettler. Pettlers' previous writing credits included Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and Gil Kenan’s Monster House. No stranger to the gothic and the supernatural, she was a clear choice when revitalising the classic, unusual family we all secretly hoped to be a member of.
When you were growing up what kind of stories did you gravitate towards?
I loved reading books with dark humor, even as a small child. My father was a Professor at U.C. Berkeley, originally from Prague, and my mother grew up in London, so they both imbued me with a lifelong love of reading, as well as their shared mordant wit. I loved Roald Dahl (especially his adult short stories), Edgar Allan Poe, and the Gothic Romantic novels Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
What is your favourite film?
That’s a hard question to answer with just one film! I think I would say Edward Scissorhands. But I also like Kind Hearts and Coronets.
How did you start screenwriting?
I have always written, even as a little girl. I also loved music, and played piano and viola, and after a year at a conservatory in Geneva, decided to study music in college. I figured you don’t become a writer by “studying English”, but by living life! So I got a Ph.D. in musicology and taught college for a number of years before realizing I was truly meant to be a writer. I moved to Los Angeles when I got married, and started over in my new career. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote lots of spec scripts, which got me an agent, and then I went to every possible pitch meeting, and eventually people started offering me jobs. My first assignment was writing a televised after-school special about a 12-year-old boy who turns into a werewolf for two minutes at a time. I think it is simply what I do. I gravitated towards the kind of writing I love best; dark, funny fantasy!
What consideration do you have to make when changing quite macabre or dark subject matter into family films?
I love writing dark movies with a streak of humor and sweetness, something the whole family can enjoy. I think if you write with sympathy and humanity and a wicked bit of wit, your movies can connect with everyone of every age. It’s a matter of tone, of being on a certain wavelength, and I get there completely intuitively. I check in with myself: does this feel right? Is it somehow too mean, too scary, too dark? I’ve been writing this way all my life, so I have an intuitive feeling for what is right. The real key is to know that you CAN go dark, you don’t have to be sappy or trite, even if you’re writing to include children. Children, too, have a complicated emotional life and a welldeveloped sense of dark humor! (Look at Wile E. Coyote if you doubt it.)
What are your thoughts on horror or creepy stories that are initially intended for a child audience?
At the end of the day, I write for myself and for other adults with a wicked sense of humor. I know that something with a dark streak can work for everyone because I spent every night making up stories for my son when he was growing up. I don’t really write straight horror, or even straight “creepy” stories, but stories that have what you might call a “wicked wit”; slightly twisted, but always emotionally real and always positive and sweet.
Corpse Bride, for example, was about how the dead are less inhibited, and so they teach the living how to really live. It’s about finding your tribe, your true, artistic, emotional self and allowing yourself to live your life. With Tim Burton’s imagery, the “dead” were quirky and often funny, and always in some way appealing. We created what may seem at first blush to be a “horror” movie but in fact is a very sweet, touching story, in which some people happen to be living underground. Likewise, Monster House was about three kids that no one will listen to, and even the scares had a sense of humor.
What can you tell us about the difference between writing for live action, CG animation, and stop-motion animation?
That’s a very interesting question. There are absolutely some imperatives for every medium. In live-action, for example, writers and directors often depend on reaction shots, or the look on someone’s face, and you can’t do it as well with animation, or at all with stop-motion. So you have to take this into account when you’re writing a character’s reaction; they have to have a line or an action, you can’t just write “on Victor’s wistful face, we dissolve to.” You have to give Victor a line or an action (“Bending his head in sorrow, Victor looks down at the jasmine blossom”). When writing for stop-motion you have to take into account the limits of hand-moved maquettes; “She dissolves into a thousand little butterflies” becomes “She dissolves into a butterfly.”
There’s another funny need in animation: on some intuitive level, the audience needs movement on-screen (if you will, animation). So you always have to have some kind of action happening on-screen. We as humans are always picking up tiny inflections of expression or the look in their eyes with live actors, but with animation, you can’t get that, so you need to replace it with something happening: the person is sketching, perhaps, or something is happening in the background.
When it comes to writing character and story, I have to say that I write all my scripts exactly the same way. I think about the character’s humanity, and who they are, and how they drive the story, and write it in a pure kind of way. I can always adjust for limitations or necessities later (much of production rewriting is exactly that, anyway!).
What can we expect from the new story?
I had so much fun working with the original material of Charles Addams’ original cartoons, in all their macabre glee and side-splitting wit and humor. I grew up with his cartoons in The New Yorker, and it was blissful to work with those unforgettable characters and to write their dry, wicked, but always relatable personalities. I think Uncle Fester was a particular favorite of mine to write dialog for. I wrote a script that is wonderfully dark, wonderfully touching, wonderfully human, and with a real sense that the Addams Family stands for all of us who are a “little bit different”. THEY’RE the normal people in the movie, everyone ELSE is weird! It’s dark, funny, and lots of fun for the whole family. Conrad Vernon is a wonderful director with a fantastic sense of animation that jumps off the screen at you, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how he brings it to life!