Interview: Barry Sonnenfeld talks Men in Black III
On May 25th, the MEN IN BLACK return to the big screen for the first time in ten years, with Barry Sonnenfeld leading the way. The successful film franchise may be most beloved for its wildly imaginative extraterrestrials and the wonderful dynamic forged between Will Smith's hip agent and Tommy Lee Jones' stone-faced veteran, but Sonnenfeld is the unsung hero of the series. The director's vision has helped guide the unconventional, frequently flat-out weird MEN IN BLACK tales into snazzy, uber-popular summer blockbusters, with the third film which sees Smith's Agent J head back in time in order to save his partner's life looking to do more of the same big business.
Recently, I was able to briefly corral Sonnenfeld for a chat on the phone about the return of the MIB series after a decade-long hiatus. Was it a no-brainer to come back to the franchise after such a long layoff? What's possible now that wasn't possible during the production of the last one? What about those rumors of a troubled set plagued by rewrites, reshoots and severe delays? Thankfully, Mr. Sonnenfeld was willing to talk frankly about all of it.
Q: What I found refreshing about MEN IN BLACK III is that it's kind of old-fashioned family entertainment. It's not cynical, it's not mean-spirited, it's very wholesome in a way. Was that a specific goal for the production?
Sonnenfeld: Well, all the Men in Black movies get their strength from the personal relationships between the guys and the people. We'll never be the biggest movie with the most actions or explosions; what works for us is the storytelling and the relationship between J and K, whether it's Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, or Will and Josh Brolin playing young Tommy Lee Jones. And then you throw in some cute aliens, mean aliens, the villain alien, some magical aliens and make a good story.
Q: When MEN IN BLACK III came up, were you at all hesitant to return to the franchise?Sonnenfeld: Not at all. I love working with Will and Tommy, and then I read that it involved time travel - going back to '69, which was one of my favorite years growing up- and casting someone to play young Tommy Lee Jones. It's also protecting the franchise tonally, to make sure the third movie didn't feel different, whether it was wackier or meaner or bloodier than the first two. I love the franchise, I love working with Will and Tommy, and also love directing these characters, you know?
Q: When you and Will and Tommy get together, does the old report reform, or does it take a while to get back on the same page?
Sonnenfeld: Will and I and Tommy hadn't seen each other in probably ten years, and when we first got on the set, it was like we had spent a long weekend apart. It's pretty instantaneous. Tommy lightens up and gets happy, and Will and I are always in a great place. It's a very, very easy relationship when we feel like we can make suggestions, lose words, change words, discuss stuff... It's very relaxing.
Q: I'm curious how involved you are in breaking the story and deciding what kind of adventures the Men in Black are going to get into.
Sonnenfeld: In the case of this franchise, as opposed to ADDAMS FAMILY where I was very involved all along, what's happened on the second and third ones is, because of the amount of time it took for it to be decided to be made and all that, I have very little input in the first draft. When I read the first draft, it has not been an idea I've suggested or anything like that. But from that, we make changes and spend anywhere from six months to a year making sure the script makes sense for what Will and I want to be doing. But I'm not involved in the initial stages of development.
Did the fact that this film mostly takes place in the 1960s present a greater challenge to the production, at least aesthetically?
Sonnenfeld: The first one is always the most challenging, because you're inventing everything. You know, Do they always wear black suits, are they modern black suits, are there different members who wear black suits from different years? What kind of cars do they drive? In the first one, you're really setting up the tone of the entire franchise. When time travel got involved, the producer called me and said they were thinking of '69, specifically because it was when man left the earth for the first time and went into outer space and in effect became an alien. So I thought that was perfect. The challenge of '69 in this movie was not as great as it would have been ten years ago. In terms of Andy Warhol and the streets of New York, it's all about picking the right costumes and locations. That's not hard. There were three huge set places that we literally could not have done ten years ago: Will Smith time-traveling off of the top of the Chrysler Building, the scene that plays out at Shea Stadium in 1969 and the entire end of the end of the movie, which is the moon launch in Cape Canaveral. All three of those set-pieces were 8% real sets that people were standing on, and 92% computer generated. The reason we can now do it is because computers are so much faster, so much cheaper, and storage is so much cheaper, that we can build these massive amounts of pixels. Like when Will jumps off the Chrysler Building, you can see for miles and miles of city blocks, where photographs were taken and tiled into this 360-degree computer environment. It would have been unheard of to do that ten years ago.
Q: Of course, we read a lot over the past year about MEN IN BLACK III being a troubled production, with all of the delays and the rewrites; was it as difficult as it was made out to be, or has that been overblown by the press?
Sonnenfeld: You know, I promise you, you can write the same article about any of the movies I've made or any of the movies that have come out this year. I've directed ten movies, and there was only one movie that I ever worked on one movie whose words never changed throughout production, and that was GET SHORTY. On the first MEN IN BLACK, we changed the plot of the entire movie after we were done shooting and two weeks before we were going to finish the sound, music and sound effects. We totally changed the plot due to subtitling, totally changed the plot. It doesn't matter; all that matters is how the movie turns out. I find it such a non-story. If you look at any of the summer movies this year, at some point, someone shot additional photography, or it shut down, or it went over budget. I mean, I should be so lucky to have the problems that TITANIC had. Or the fact that on AVATAR, they shot the movie about four times. I don't get it, I think it's overblown.
Q: Is it frustrating to read that stuff, or do you just not pay attention to it?
Sonnenfeld: I don't read the stuff, but it gets frustrating to talk about it because I know it's not the issue. So I just don't read about it.
Q: If MEN IN BLACK III does well, would you be willing to do a MEN IN BLACK IV? Are they already talking about it?
Sonnenfeld: We'll see if MEN IN BLACK III does the numbers that everyone is hoping it makes. If it does well and we come up with a great idea that feels right to do, I'll be there.