Normally this would be the place where I’d introduce my interview subject and run off a list of their career highlights, with a few lows thrown in for balance, to give you an idea as to their contribution to cinema over the years. This would be the spot for me to tell you about Barry Sonnenfeld and how he began as a cinematographer for the Coen brothers, serving in that capacity for BLOOD SIMPLE, RAISING ARIZONA and MILLER’S CROSSING. He was also the cinematographer on such films as BIG, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY…, THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN and MISERY before making his feature film debut as a director with the big screen adaptation of THE ADDAMS FAMILY and later its sequel. He was also at the helm for GET SHORTY and WILD WILD WEST. Between those pictures, he was asked by Steven Spielberg to direct MEN IN BLACK, where he stayed in the director’s chair for its sequel five years later and now its revival 10 years after that for MEN IN BLACK 3, his first film since RV in 2006.
However, to stick to that formula would indicate to you that my talk with Barry Sonnenfeld went swimmingly, which isn’t exactly what happened. In fact, to tell you the truth, I don’t really know what happened other than him getting heated about a particular line of questioning.
For the record, let me just make it clear that this interview was not meant as any sort of hatchet job against Barry Sonnenfeld. After not being a fan of the previous installments of the MEN IN BLACK franchise, MEN IN BLACK 3 is one I would actually recommend others to see, as I enjoyed it a great deal (and my review reflects that). In getting on the phone with Barry to talk about the film, I planned to ask him about the progression of Will Smith as an actor, the casting of Josh Brolin, the makeup of Rick Baker, and, of course, the fact that MEN IN BLACK 3 went into production with an unfinished script. It should have been easy, but that final point is what Sonnenfeld took exception to.
I’m not even sure how this went up for debate. It’s no secret that scripting issues on MEN IN BLACK 3 caused the film to go on a several-month hiatus right in the middle of production. Barry Sonnenfeld admitted as much in an interview with Empire (via The Playlist), where he said, "We knew starting the movie that we didn't have a finished second or third act. Was it responsible? The answer is, if this movie does as well as I think it will, it was genius. If it's a total failure, then it was a really stupid idea." Sounds like an unfinished script to me.
I was wondering why, after a development period of eight years with no real movement towards making a MEN IN BLACK sequel, would suddenly the third film be rushed into production with a less-than-ideal script. If Sony had waited that long, what was a little bit longer to make sure the film was done well?
That’s right about where Sonnenfeld got a bit defensive – referencing films like SPIDER-MAN, TITANIC, BATTLESHIP and AVATAR as movies that may have seen some trouble along the way to getting made – and the conversation got heated. It was a fair question, and the rest is what it is.
The Infamous Billy The Kidd: Hey, Barry. How are you doing this morning?
Barry Sonnenfeld: Good. How are you? Can you hear me? I’ve been having… Some people feel that this connection is wacky.
The Kidd: It sounds a little bit muffled, I think.
Barry Sonnenfeld: Yeah, it’s literally a corded phone in a hotel room.
The Kidd: Actually you sound okay right now.
Barry Sonnenfeld: Okay, let’s try this.
The Kidd: Okay, so it’s been ten years since the last MEN IN BLACK sequel hit theaters. Why is it now that you think it’s the right time for the crew to kind of get back together for at least one more go around?
Barry Sonnenfeld: Well in terms of why it took so long, that’s a question you have to ask Sony, because they are the studio, but if you’re asking do I think it’s a good time for it, I do. I think that people like this franchise. They miss it. Will Smith hasn’t been in a movie in four years and they miss him. Even though we’ve not been around for ten years, I think even young kids who weren’t born when the first one or even the second one came out have seen it a million times on like DVD and cable and satellite. So I don’t think we have to reeducate our audience and I also think weirdly, because we waited this long and also because our plot is different than the first two, because the time travel. Somehow the whole thing, for me at least, feels fresh and although not a reboot, but almost as if we rebooted the franchise.
The Kidd: To bring up reboots, it’s a little bit strange that now you have films that ten years ago… they'd maybe be getting rebooted or remade or redone, so do you have to try to make sure to stay true to those roots from the original two films while also trying to maintain some kind of freshness to it?
Barry Sonnenfeld: Yeah, it’s why I think it actually isn’t a reboot, because one thing we didn’t want to do is lose what I think and what many people think is our best weapon in the franchise, which is the chemistry and relationship between Agent J and Agent K, played by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. So even though we go back in time, into 1969, Josh Brolin is playing a young Tommy Lee Jones. We made sure that Tommy was in the entire first act, so that the audience is reminded how much they love that relationship.
The Kidd: I know it’s been pretty widely known about the script issues that you had heading into the film, so my question is you started filming in 2010, which is at that point still about eight years since the last film. So you have a lot of development to try to get this right. Did you have any say with how the film was progressing forward and knowing that going into production you didn’t have a finished script? Or was this kind of the studio’s decision to, you know “This is the time we are going to make it and that’s the final say"?
Barry Sonnenfeld: Well you just said, “It’s pretty well known what was going on with the script,” so can you tell me?
The Kidd: That you started shooting, I guess, without a finished script.
Barry Sonnenfeld: Well that’s not true, so let’s go on.
The Kidd: You had a complete script going into production?
Barry Sonnenfeld: Yeah. Every movie has a complete script when they go into production. Changes are made on every script, except one that I worked on, while one shoots, but you could not ever start a movie without having an entire script. How do you budget it? How do you know if you’re ever going to make it? How do you know how many days you need to budget it or when you need actors? I mean I’ve heard from so many people that I started this movie without a finished script and no matter how many times I say “Are you insane? Do you know how to make a movie? Do you know how hard it is to make a movie and budget a movie?” So I’ll tell you what we had. We had a finished script… Every film I have ever done has had a finished script. We had a great first act, which was all of the stuff with Tommy Lee Jones. We had a great ending, which was all of the stuff around Cape Canaveral. And we had scenes in the second act where Will meets Josh then they go on these capers and so then what happens is we have the scenes, we have a finished script, but it is not a script that we think is the number one answer for the best movie possible. Let me say this, on the first MEN IN BLACK we shot all of the script and two weeks before we locked the picture to record the music I changed the entire plot of MEN IN BLACK by changing scenes and dubbing them into alien languages and putting them into subtitles on them and putting different information on that big board in the Men In Black Headquarters, but who cares? The movie is not better or worse now that you know what I just told you, that I changed the plot of MEN IN BLACK one two weeks before we locked picture. So in the case of MEN IN BLACK 3 we had a complete script, but we knew there were scenes in the second and third act that were not the number one answer. In some cases we may have had to lose them because of budgetary reasons or not having enough days to shoot them or having to wait, because we delayed the start of production to get the weather right… So now we had to delay, because I didn’t want the movie to be totally stage bound, so we also had to take a hiatus to continues to work to make those scenes better, but also to wait for weather so that we could go outside and shoot some of New York City with leaves on the tree. I never feel that MEN IN BLACK is a winter movie. For me it’s always been a summer movie, but for instance we could have shot that first draft and then what we would have done is assembled the movie and then had an eight week additional reshoot. I mean there are movies that are coming out this summer that have had reshoots that extended way beyond our hiatus, except our hiatus didn’t mean that we were shooting scenes twice at twice the expense. So the only thing I want to say is I don’t understand why this is a story since it doesn’t affect the viewers viewing of the movie and I’ve never read any worse press in the press for TITANIC, so just help me understand what makes it a story for this interview, so I can better help answer the questions for your readers.
The Kidd: No, I think it was more a matter because of the fact that things went on hiatus, there winds up being this connotation that goes along with it that a film might be in trouble at that point because it’s struggling to, I guess, find its footing, which is why I wanted to ask you about it, to I guess give you the forum to clarify what it was that was going on with the production at that point in time.
Barry Sonnenfeld: Well the movie’s out, so now you get the chance to say “The movie is in trouble, because it stinks” or “The movie isn’t in trouble and you should go see it.” So I don’t understand why the process of getting to the final result is a story once you have the final result. That’s what confuses me.
The Kidd: It’s more just a question of the filmmaking process and how you got to that final product.
Barry Sonnenfeld: Got it. Okay, got it. So answering that question… I don’t get involved in the sort of first draft of the MEN IN BLACK movies. I was very involved in the first movie. In fact when I started the first movie, the first Ed Solomon draft didn’t even take place in New York. It was underground in Lawrence, Kansas. It was in Las Vegas. It was in Washington D.C. It was in many other cities, but it wasn’t in New York and when I came on one of the first things I said was “If there are aliens on the planet, they would live and exist in New York, because it’s the one place on Earth where they can walk around often without any disguise,” because if you spend any time like in Times Square in the summer…
The Kidd: Yeah, you’ve got some interesting people walking through there.
Barry Sonnenfeld: Yeah, you go, “Alien. Alien. That whole family, they’re all aliens…” and after two years of not being able to get the script to where I thought it should be to make the movie and after seven years trying to get GET SHORTY made, which by the way we didn’t change a word of dialogue in those seven years, I finally got a studio to make GET SHORTY. I left MEN IN BLACK, did GET SHORTY, they hired another director for MEN IN BLACK. They then fired that director, then I asked the President of Sony at the time of production if he was interested in my coming back. We worked on the script some more, got it to be in New York, changed the plot, eventually started to make the movie, but I would have said between the time on that between the first time and the second time it was a three or four year process before we ever made the movie to get that script right. The difference was we didn’t take a hiatus. So on MEN IN BLACK 3 a script was developed, there were things I loved about it, the emotion, the time travel… but there were specific things where the budget was too expensive. We had whole sequences that we realized we had to cut out, which meant changing the plot, because there were certain tent pole sequences that were going to cost six million dollars or something. We had to lower the budget and on top of that we need to start, as you said, was November or December of 2010 for two reasons. One is we were not sure if New York state was going to repass a tax investment credit and by starting on that date it guaranteed us to be in the previous pool, which was going to represent tens of millions of dollars, which buys you a lot of hiatus. Secondly, Will Smith was circling several movies and Amy Pascal, the chairman of the studio and I both felt, and I think Will agreed, but I can’t speak for Will, that we wanted his first movie in four years to be MEN IN BLACK and not for another studio. You know, Sony has a big business with Will Smith, so we knew we had this great story. We knew we had a great first act and a great ending and we knew we had a whole script, but just some of the scenes were going to have to be lost for money, some scenes felt duplicated, some scenes we didn’t feel had enough action, but its all stuff… You know movies is a very plastic medium, things are always changing and where you think your problem is it isn’t. It’s just the nature of these movies and then you’re combining genres. You’ve got a MEN IN BLACK genre, which has certain requirements, and you’ve got time travel, which requires really specific rules that have to be set up for an audience. They have to understand them. You can’t cheat on them. You can’t kill the wrong guy first. You can’t suddenly have a great scene but suddenly realize, “Oh wait a minute, if he’s there, then where’s that guy?” And sure, you always want to start a movie wit ha perfect script and the lowest budget possible, but that’s like saying “How come you shot a master, over the shoulders, close ups, and insert and did sixty-two takes of the master, but you never used the master at all in the scene?” It’s just the inefficient nature of movies. It’s just a wacky thing that happens.
The Kidd: To expand upon that point, how much flexibility do you then have to make changes along the way knowing that you have this time travel story locked in? There’s a very delicate and careful balance to making sure that works, because you have these very fine details that all have to connect and if any one of them drops off, then the movie or the plot will kind of crumble underneath that, because at that point, like you said, then you’re “cheating?” So how much flexibility do you still have built into this script to work around these really fine details that you have to nail exactly?
Barry Sonnenfeld: Well you have a lot of flexibility, because you can get a clue from 15 different aliens in 15 different scenes and so “What’s the best way to get the clue?” “What’s the funniest way?” “What’s the way that shouldn’t be funny, but should be scary?” “Which scene should it follow from?” “Where should it go to?” So there’s flexibility in the script stage to figure all of this out, but the truth is as long as you figure it out before the film comes out… Look, to me writing about the process is kind of… I don’t want to say “naïve,” but I want to say that if you interviewed the next thirty films that are going to be released you would find out that there are thirty different versions of the same story that you’re writing about here.
The Kidd: Okay.
Barry Sonnenfeld: You know, you can write a story about SPIDERMAN, BATTLESHIP, AVATAR… TITANIC… Every movie I’ve ever directed. You can say “Why would it take the studio seven years to do GET SHORTY if you didn’t change a word?” “Why did Tri-Star Studios have a huge deal with Danny DeVito and Danny DeVito was one of the stars and had a big production deal on the lot and was also producing the movie, “Why couldn’t they see that GET SHORTY was a good movie?” I don’t know.
The Kidd: Well let me ask you about Will Smith and the process of working with him now on three movies in this series. It seems like there’s a bit of maturity now to the character of Jay. In the very beginning there’s kind of this, not immature, but there’s a certain shtick I guess that comes with Will Smith’s character to a point that seems to be a little bit lessened this time out. I’m curious if that’s just a natural progression that you see with the character. Or is it really a maturity of Will Smith the actor? Or is it a kind of combination of both that I guess ties into where we see Jay this time out?
Barry Sonnenfeld: Yes. Will is 15 years older and I felt that it’s not funny for Will to, let’s say strap himself to a monocycle or the jet packs and 15 years ago he would have gone “Wooooooo,” you know? We had it and we looped it and I just felt it’s just the guy’s 42 years old and 15 years ago J was a rookie and hadn’t experienced any of this before and I think it would have been desperate to have Will at the same level of exuberance and energy as he was when he was 27 years old as he is at 42, both not only is he older as a person, but because he is now experienced as Agent J - 15 years of seeing aliens and being attacked by aliens and almost getting killed by aliens. So it’s not blasé and it’s not laissez-faire and he still has to be… in his DNA he has more energy than Agent K and more sort of outrage, but it’s got to be a different performance or it’s kind of goofy. So that’s where that comes from.
The Kidd: Also I mean you have Josh Brolin here who is spot-on, I think, as a younger Tommy Lee Jones. So how does the process go in picking Josh Brolin? Did you try to find somebody who you thought would be the closest, as far as Tommy Lee Jones? Or did you go out and say “This is the best guy for the job” and I guess hope that his work becomes Tommy Lee Jones?
Barry Sonnenfeld: No, that’s easy. I read the script. I saw there was time travel, that there was young Tommy Lee Jones and I called the studio and I said “I want Josh Brolin..” I had seen Brolin in W. and I thought his performance was spot on perfect, because although he sounded an looked like George W. Bush, it was not an impersonation, it was an interpretation and he became that guy and you just bought into the whole movie that he was that guy, but what was great was that I wasn’t saying “Yeah, I think in that scene his accent didn’t quite sound like George Bush,” because he wasn’t. He was playing a guy he created and the thing about… So A.) there was that. B.) Brolin has a very strong resemblance to Tommy if you look at Tommy’s photos like when he was a football player at Harvard and stuff he looks very much like Josh. So there was that. I had met Josh a couple of times at various events in one year when I was sort of on an awards circuit for PUSHING DAISIES and he was on the awards circuit for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, so through the Coens we met a couple of times and I liked him. Finally what Josh was going to have to do as young Agent K was totally get Tommy’s syntax and rhythm and Tommy’s voice is very melodic. It actually has a lot of movement. People think his performance is very flat, but his tonality is very musical and moves and some times he ends a sentence softly or goes up on certain words. So not only did Josh have to nail that, which I knew he would, but young Agent K is different than old Agent K. They are the same guy with the same genetics and all of that, but young Agent K needs an arc what we have is that young Agent K has much more romanticism and also much more optimism than present day Agent K and over the course of the movie, and I hope you don’t write about this, he discovers why he lost his optimism and what changed him at the end of the movie without telling what the specifics are. So now Josh and I are constantly talking about how different and how similar he should be than Tommy and what you don’t want is for him to be so happy that he’s like a different guy and then the audience says “I don’t know. I don’t like this movie anymore. I mean the chemistry was between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, now they bring in this new guy and it’s deadly.” Will Smith and I always felt the only way for this movie to really screw up would be if the audience got pissed at us that Tommy wasn’t in the whole movie and the truth is although Tommy isn’t in the whole movie, Agent K is in the whole movies and you start to forget and stop thinking “Old K, new K,” you just think “Agent K. Now he’s younger. Now he’s older” and that’s the true brilliance of Josh’s performance, just like in W. it’s not an impersonation, it’s an interpretation of Tommy, but it’s so spot-on you think you’re watching one guy the whole movie and Josh was totally my idea. He’s the first person I went to. He didn’t audition. He came in. He met us once and I offered him the job and was thrilled that he said yes.
[The two are notified there is time for one “really quick” question.]
The Kidd: Okay, you are a big proponent of shooting on film and not necessarily doing it digitally. Does that really factor in to the choice of whether or not to shoot it in 3D or to convert it?
Barry Sonnenfeld: There were many reasons. I think conversion looks better if you know what you’re doing. First of all, you can’t shoot on film and Rick Baker’s alien makeup looks much better on film than digital. Second of all, because I used very wide angled lenses… the physical matte box on this reality or pace rigs are too big for the way I shoot, literally too big. They will not accommodate a 21mm lens the way I shoot and by using wide angle lenses I feel that I’m inviting the audience to feel like they are in the room with the actors. It’s a subliminal thing. If you look at let’s say Michael Mann or the Scott brothers movies they use much, much longer lenses. We sort of see opposite ways. Their movies are fantastic and beautiful, but they tend to I think unconsciously distance you from the actors a little bit. It feels a little bit more like reportage and by using wide lenses I feel the audience unconsciously feels they are in the room with the actors. So therefore because I wanted to release this movie in 3D, it was my idea. By converting it and shooting with these wide lenses, the actors, if you see the movie again, even just in a scene like Will and Josh in the diner, they are actually in front of the screen and not behind it. The thing that drives me crazy about most 3D movies is because they have to set intraocular separation ahead of time. Almost all the depth in 3D movies on native 3D movies is at the screen and at the screen or behind it and I find it very distancing and I wanted my movie to be very immersive, so everything is slightly in front of the screen and if we had more time I could give you many, many other reasons, but because of the nature of the way I shoot… I shoot on axis. I never pan. I use wide lenses. I was the perfect guy to shoot a movie to be released in 3D that was converted and I honestly believe that as 3D technology is, that MEN IN BLACK 3 in 3D is right now the best use of 3D of a movie that’s been released in the last several years.
The Kidd: Okay. Barry, thank you very much.
Barry Sonnenfeld: You betcha’.
The Kidd: All right. Thank you.
Barry Sonnenfeld: Bye.
Soon after we hung up, I heard from Barry’s publicist. He must have gotten word out quickly that things got a bit contentious during our call, and they were trying to see if I had any more questions for him that weren’t able to get answered. There were maybe one or two, as I always over-prepare and hope to get to most of it, but, with no plans to change the interview from being published as it was, I told them I didn’t think it would make much of a difference to the tone of the interview and how things played out. They insisted on trying to get back on the phone with Barry, and I agreed to see if we could make it work in order to get a little more information from him. In the end though, our schedules didn’t match up, and the interview was officially done.
Barry Sonnenfeld has a good film on his hands with MEN IN BLACK 3, and I’m not entirely sure why he chose to deny how it is that he got there. For all of the issues that arose in making the film, the ends justified the means. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting it, but during our talk, Barry did. At that point, just own the path you took and talk about it. Otherwise, this is what should have been a rather pleasant interview turns into.
MEN IN BLACK 3 opens in theatres today, May 25.
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