Men in Black 3
Ask director Barry Sonnenfeld how he maintained his sanity during the making of Men in Black 3 — a process fraught with production delays, an ever-evolving screenplay, and a budget that reportedly soared above $215 million — and he pauses for a few seconds before answering. ”Well, I got to lose 30 pounds through stress,” he says, deadpan. ”Some people use Metrecal and some use other methods, but I think the best dietary technique is to direct an incredibly difficult, complicated visual-effects comedy without a final script when you start.”
You might think banging out the third installment of a sci-fi comedy series that’s grossed more than $1 billion worldwide would be simple: Just take the Ray-Ban-wearing, alien-monitoring duo of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones); introduce a new extraterrestrial baddie bent on destroying the earth; and stir. You’d be wrong. The basic pitch for the threequel’s story — Agent J travels back in time to 1969 to stop an alien named Boris (Jemaine Clement) from assassinating Agent K (played in his younger incarnation by Josh Brolin) — was actually suggested by Smith during the making of 2002’s Men in Black II. But developing that idea into a workable script proved extremely challenging.
To guarantee that Men in Black 3 would be Smith’s next film and to lock in New York state tax rebates, Sony put the movie into production in November 2010 before the screenplay was finished. Working out the various logical conundrums involved in time travel was difficult, says Sonnenfeld, who’d also directed the first two films. ”Just when you think you’ve solved every problem, you wake up in the morning and go, ‘Wait a minute, if he knew that then…’ And then you’re back to square one. I can’t tell you how many times we watched Back to the Future.” Brolin says he sensed the pressure Sonnenfeld was under after he shot his very first scene — and the director burst out crying. ”Tears were flowing down Barry’s face, and I looked over at Will and Will was laughing hysterically,” recalls Brolin. ”I was like, ‘Who’s my rock here?’ That happened again and again for the next five months.”
Around Christmas, the film went on hiatus until the following April so the remainder of the script — mainly involving the 1960s portion of the story — could be finished. That decision inevitably sparked buzz about a troubled production. ”They needed to figure some s— out and they did,” Brolin says. ”It would have been dumb to say, ‘How are we going to be perceived?”’ Still, the continual script tinkering created plenty of headaches, says Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker. ”They’d write a scene where there’d be, say, six aliens, and we’d start building those. Then it was like, ‘Oh, we’ve written that scene out,”’ he says. ”It got to a point where I said, ‘Let’s just make as many cool aliens as we can, and if we can find a place to put them, great.”’ (He wound up designing 127 different aliens for the film.)
Brolin had his own challenge: trying to mimic Jones’ staccato vocal mannerisms and brusque demeanor. ”If you’re doing a bad Tommy Lee Jones impression while you’re out drinking, that’s one thing,” he says. ”Then if someone says, ‘We’re putting hundreds of millions of dollars into this movie and the weight is on you to get this right’ — you can get a little curmudgeonly yourself.”
To his relief, Sonnenfeld says, not only did Brolin nail his performance but the film as a whole came together far better than anyone — including perhaps Sonnenfeld — might have expected. ”Your first kid is special to you, but I think Men in Black 3 is maybe as good as the first movie,” he says. ”I think we’ll be validated.” That said, he doesn’t sound ready to dive into Men in Black 4 anytime soon. ”The time between the first one and the second one was five years. This one took 10 years. So I’m guessing that the fourth one will be 20 years from now.” He laughs. ”That will be an interesting one.” —Josh Rottenberg May 25