Film School Rejects
29 Things We Learned from Barry Sonnenfeld’s ‘Get Shorty’
By Rob Hunter
July 13, 2021
Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits one of the funniest comedies of the 90s, one of the most memorable Elmore Leonard adaptations, and arguably the best Barry Sonnenfeld film — Get Shorty.
Barry Sonnenfeld‘s most popular films tend to be his genre franchise starters, think The Addams Family (1991) and Men in Black (1997), but for my money his best feature remains 1995’s Get Shorty. Elmore Leonard’s fiction has been adapted into plenty of fine films, but this Hollywood adventure captures the man’s voice better than most. Sonnenfeld recorded a commentary track for the film shortly after its release, so I gave it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Get Shorty.
Get Shorty (1995)
Commentator: Barry Sonnenfeld (director)
1. All of the Miami-set scenes were filmed in Los Angeles.
2. The man on the right side of the screen at 1:05 is the actual Chili Palmer who Elmore Leonard wrote the novel about. The scene was shot on the second to last day of production, and John Travolta — who plays Chili Palmer in the film — said he was glad he didn’t know until then that he was playing a real person. He told Sonnenfeld he probably would have flown to Miami to spend time with the man which would have ruined his performance.
3. The shot of Chili (Travolta) in the passenger seat riding up to the hotel was filmed by a Steadicam camera operator sitting on a small shelf mounted outside the car window. The car comes to a stop, the cameraman steps off, and he’s then able to follow Palmer inside.
4. They did about thirty takes of the scene where Chili punches Bones (Dennis Farina).
5. Alex Rocco appears briefly as mob boss Jimmy Capp, and he’s introduced getting a massage — which is what he was doing in The Godfather (1972) when he was gunned down. Sonnenfeld thought it would be a fun homage, and “he even brought his Moe Green sunglasses.” He adds “we had a little fun with it, but I don’t think anyone noticed.”
6. Momo was originally written to be shot, but Sonnenfeld thought it would be funnier if a surprise party gave him a heart attack.
7. Sonnenfeld is also a producer on the film because he brought the film to Danny DeVito‘s attention after reading the novel on a cruise. He envisioned DeVito as “the perfect Chili Palmer,” but they went with Travolta who ended up being the perfect Chili Palmer. DeVito bought the rights, and they were off to the races.
8. It took three years to get Get Shorty off the ground, and they did a script read-through a couple of years before production even started and casting had been figured out. Talents present included Gene Hackman, DeVito, Gary Busey, Lesley Ann Warren, and Farina. “Farina and Hackman pretty much stole the movie, so we knew we wanted to hire those guys to be in the film.”
9. Linda Hart used to be a backup singer for Bette Midler.
10. “Let me talk to you about Gene Hackman’s goatee.” The actor suggested that Harry Zimm should have one, but Sonnenfeld wasn’t convinced without knowing what it would look like. He told Hackman to go ahead and grow one so they could evaluate it, but the legend said he wasn’t going to waste his time growing the goatee if they weren’t definitely going to use it in Get Shorty.
11. Sonnenfeld compliments Rene Russo (who plays Karen Flores) with a creepy closer. “Rene was a joy to work with. She’s really funny. She’s incredibly normal. She has a great husband, a great kid, a great body.”
12. The scene where Leo (David Paymer) gets drunk in the airport bar while his plane crashes behind him is altered for in-flight screenings to show a train crash instead. Dialogue is edited as well.
13. The shot of Chili and Harry driving through LA was filmed over two days and was constantly interrupted by passersby congratulating Travolta on his recent Oscar nomination for Pulp Fiction (1994).
14. The film’s editors didn’t like the pull-back at 32:13 — pulls away from Bo (Delroy Lindo) to reveal Ronnie (Jon Gries) — because they felt it was “too self-conscious, but I made ’em put it back anyway cuz I liked it.”
15. Preview audiences were asked what their least favorite scenes were, and their number one pick was Ray hitting Fay (Hart) because you should never show a man hitting a woman. “My feeling was, first of all, it’s okay for them not to like this scene. You’re not supposed to hit a woman. But there hadn’t been any action in the last twenty minutes so I thought it would just really help to wake up the audience.” It was also necessary to turn Ray from a clown into a real threat.
16. Sonnenfeld cameos at 37:43 as a doorman.
17. Travolta was hesitant about taking the role in part because he felt it was never all that believable that Chili was a film buff. They added the scene where he goes to see Touch of Evil (1958) to help.
18. Sonnenfeld’s favorite film is Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
19. Leonard visited the production during the filming of the scene where Chili and Karen visit Martin Weir (DeVito). Sonnenfeld was paranoid, worried, and thinking “what would Elmore do?” Other visitors while filming in Beverly Hills included Gabriel Byrne, Tom Laughlin, and numerous agents.
20. That wall mural of DeVito cost $8000.
21. Chili’s minivan is facing the opposite direction when he exits Martin’s mansion. He knew it had to face to the right when Chili leaves because the minivan’s automatic sliding door is only on that one side, but when they filmed the arrival scene earlier he had forgotten about that and went with the smoother shot… resulting in the car facing the wrong direction.
22. “I kept telling her to be more Jewish,” says Sonnenfeld about Bette Midler‘s cameo. Hackman enjoyed working with her so much that he asked if they could add her into another scene.
24. Hackman offered to do one take himself of the scene where Ray beats up Harry, but Farina said no out of fear of hurting the legendary actor. He was worried that hurting him might upset him, and Farina said “If Gene gets mad at me, he’s a big guy and he might come after me, and the only way I’d be able to stop him is to shoot him. And I don’t want to be known as the guy that killed Gene Hackman.”
23. In case you missed it, he points out that numerous magazines at the newsstand at 1:08:18 have Martin’s face on the cover.
25. Travolta required multiple takes of the scene where he and Russo are in bed together. “Every time I said action he would do it in a different language. One time he did it as Elvis, he did it as a Japanese guy, a French guy, an Italian guy.” Seems awkward.
26. The guy at The Ivy who pats Harry’s shoulder and calls him “killer” is Hackman’s stand-in.
27. Martin mentions Eddie Solomon, “the pedophile clown,” during the lunch scene, and it’s writer Scott Frank‘s nod to his buddy Ed Solomon… who went on to write Men in Black (1997) for Sonnenfeld and included a line referencing “that idiot Scott Frank.”
28. The woman in red at 1:39:11 was married to Tony Scott at the time.
29. “And now the movie’s over,” he says before adding that he was surprised how well Get Shorty did in theaters. He actually lost a bet with a crew member who said it would gross over $68 million at the box office while Sonnenfeld capped his prediction around $30m. It earned $72m at US theaters.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Chili’s not much of an actor, but he’s a really nice guy.”
“For me, the movie isn’t so much about Hollywood, as it is an exploration of self-confidence.”
“Hey look, this is me.”
“Everyone thinks they can write a script.”
“Those women are naked, totally naked, but you wouldn’t know it because we’re so far away.
“One of the secrets to directing is never to say ‘cut.’”
“You want John Travolta walking in as much of your movie as possible.”
“I asked Dennis to just ad-lib as many fucks in this scene as possible.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sonnenfeld is an entertaining speaker, and his thoughts on Get Shorty make for a fun commentary listen. He talks about camera decisions and why he chose various setups, and he also shares anecdotes on the cast and production itself. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while you owe yourself a revisit, and if you have? Watch it again you fucking fuck.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.