Contains some spoilers about the movie plot
Barry Sonnenfeld Q+A
When did you settle on time travel as the backdrop for the movie?
It was Will Smith’s idea on the set of Men In Black II. One night Will Smith came up to me and said – he calls me ‘Baz’ he said, ‘You know, Baz, I’ve got an idea for Men In Black III. I think that I should go back in the past and do something that has to do with saving Agent K. And by doing that we learn secrets that we didn’t know and J learns secrets about K. It would be great to do a time travel version.’ And I said, ‘Let’s get through II!’ Then we all went off and did our own thing for many, many years but when Sony decided to do Men In Black III, we all decided it shouldn’t be another episode of some villain on the loose, so the idea of time travelling came up again. It is such an exciting idea. They called me to ask me what era we wanted, and 1969 seemed perfect, especially as that was the advent of space travel, the start of our own adventure visiting planets in our own solar system. Also the music was great and the era was great. What I personally did not want to do was a movie that took place in ’69 with hippies and drugs.
You’re brave returning to Men In Black after all the physical pain Will Smith has caused you over the years…
Well yes. I had a fake heart attack, a psychological heart attack, on Men In Black II. On this movie [Men In Black III] Will Smith tore my rotator cuff and I had to have rotator cuff surgery. My wife took a photograph of me in the recovery room with nozzles in my nose — this after the movie was done; I just worked in pain until I was finished. I sent a copy of the photo to Will Smith, of me in the recovery room looking out of it on drugs, and Will’s response, and this is an exact quote: ‘That’s hilarious’. He also broke my hand on Wild Wild West and knocked me unconscious on the set of Men In Black II. He tackled me and threw me to the ground. He is just incapable of not punching and playing. I will be directing him on the set and as I am talking to him, he is punching me in the stomach. I will be directing Tommy Lee Jones and Will is behind me, jabbing, and they are always illegal punches. He doesn’t come right at you. I must be a masochist but Will has a karmic energy that is infectious and he is really smart. He was my partner on this movie in terms of story and in terms of getting the movie done. Will and I were totally in sync as a unit. He protected me and I protected him and there is tremendous joy of having a shorthand with Will.
Scripting a time travel movie must be very difficult…
Yes, to begin with only the first act was really good. With the second and third acts, especially with a time travel movie, we were constantly thinking that we had it all done and then one of us would wake up in the middle of the night and go, ‘Wait a minute, if we kill this guy then that guy is dead’. We watched Back To The Future dozens of times because that was our Bible for how a movie set the rules of time travel and succeeded. Also, we all felt that it was really important that we had Will Smith’s next movie after him having several years off as a producer. He was circling a bunch of movies but we wanted the next Will Smith movie and I knew that we’d get there. Will and I always said that the only way we could screw up is if we didn’t, in the past, have someone that was so good that you didn’t miss watching Will and Tommy, because the movie is about that great relationship.
You obviously work terrifically with Will Smith, but what’s it like directing Tommy Lee Jones?
It is funny because it was a little bit difficult directing Tommy Lee Jones on the first movie. We had a difference of opinion about his performance but the second and third movies were joyful. Tommy was always happy. He loves working with Will. He totally trusts me. I have photos of Tommy Lee Jones and me laughing! Miracles can happen! It wasn’t fake, because Tommy won’t fake anything. He loves the role, because the reaction shot is always funnier than the action shot. I was the cinematographer on When Harry Met Sally and as funny as Meg Ryan is faking an orgasm, every time you cut to Billy Crystal doing nothing it becomes funnier.
Was Tommy upset that he’s not in all of Men In Black III?
I think Tommy wished he was in the whole movie but I think a) Tommy respected the script, b) he respected Josh [Brolin] as an actor and c) he loves the final result, has seen the movie and thinks it is really good. He wishes he was in the whole movie but understands the plot did not allow for that. It worked great because I think the audience does not view it as Tommy or Josh. I think they just view Agent K and it’s not like ‘I didn’t like Tommy but I liked Josh’, or ‘I didn’t like Josh but did like Tommy’. We were saying that Josh might not get the praise he deserves because some people will think that they saw the one same guy play the whole movie!
Was it difficult convincing Josh Brolin to take on Tommy’s character?
It was easy to convince him to play the character. I always knew that I wanted Josh as soon as I read the script. I saw him in W and thought he was extraordinary. He played George Bush and he wasn’t doing an impersonation. He really created a version of George Bush. That wasn’t exactly his accent. He created this amazing tension by eating in every scene in W. If you see it again, there’s this tension of him eating French Fries and talking or eating a tuna sandwich. It was extraordinary. I said, please let’s hire Josh Brolin.
Men In Black III has great emotional depth. Do you worry about where you might take the franchise afterwards?
I don’t worry about where we are going afterwards. It does feel like the end of a trilogy and it is kind of fun to go back and watch the first movie with the knowledge of what we now know at the end of the third movie. In fact, it is kind of fun to watch this movie again with the knowledge of what is going to come! I think the second movie didn’t have enough emotional depth so maybe this one makes up for the previous one. And Brolin is pretty great.
Has Will changed a lot as a person in the decade since you last worked with him?
He has changed a lot as an actor. As I said he thinks a lot about story and structure and in every scene he wants to know what he wants as a character from the scene. He thinks much more like an actor than he did ten years ago. In terms of who he is as a person, he was always self-confident, rambunctious, charismatic and energetic and for me he is a much bigger movie star but as a friend he is the same exact guy. And I can’t say that unless I really mean it.
How much fun did you have with the Andy Warhol scene?
That was one of my favourite scenes in the movie. For me that scene was so full of energy and life and plot. I loved those days because we were shooting not on the stage but in Soho and I could go and have great lunches and then go to dinner in the neighbourhood! And I thought Bill Hader was phenomenally good as Andy Warhol. The idea of Bill Hader was actually a Sony executive’s idea and I resisted it at first because I don’t really like a lot of comedians in a comedy film. I like to make the comedy observational and let the audience find the comedy and not tell them where the comedy is. I was afraid Bill might be too big or too funny, but he was fantastic. That sequence has energy, and also Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin I thought was phenomenal.
Did you have to adjust the comedic sensibilities in the film to match current tastes and trends?
No. I can’t. I don’t get modern film comedies. I think what happened is that due to the success of a TV show in America called Saturday Night Live, American comedies have become sketch comedies. It is really hard to find really good comedies with full structure and character development. I think that comedies now, really funny comedies, are more about comedy set pieces. That doesn’t mean they are better or worse. It is just not my thing. I don’t know how to do rude comedies. Get Shorty was R-rated but only because of language, because we use the f— word about 1,800 times. But I feel also that modern American comedies are often shot without any visual style and part of the reason is that they shoot multiple cameras and they have the actors ad lib. One of the funniest scenes in a long time is in Talladega Nights where they are all sitting around the table talking about Baby Jesus. It is really funny but I wouldn’t know how to have shot that. I am not a guy who says, ‘Let’s ad lib the comedy.’ I am more of a control guy. I am like a really old guy!
Is it true that shooting the first scene on Men In Black III made you cry?
The truth is, I did break into tears, tears of joy when I watched the first scene of Will and Josh together, which is the scene where Will is being interrogated at HQ by Josh. I was weeping because it had worked. I was weeping saying, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve got a movie!’