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SONNENFELD, BARRY - MEN IN BLACK 3D

Itís really hard to balance action and comedy, says director Barry Sonnenfeld who tried it in Men in Black 3D, as he explains to Harrison Pierce during a Sony press junket in Cancun, Mexico.

Q. Is it tricky balancing the comedy and fantasy in this series?
A. Everyone talks about comedy action adventure and I think that the three are total enemies of each other. If you have comedy, it can undercut the reality of the action and you donít buy into the action because you know it doesnít count because itís been funny. If thereís too much action, then you feel tonally Ė I donít get it. I donít like this funny stuff, I want to go back to action. I find it a really difficult tone to create comedy action adventure. Even in this movie, as I watch it, I keep wondering, is it a singular tone? I think we pulled it off but I find it really hard. I find that if the action gets too bloody Ė if we started to cut off heads or limbs and you saw blood instead of just vapor - it would just feel tonally uncomfortable. I think it really is a weird non-synergy that somehow weĎve pulled off but I donít recommend it.†

Q. Do you feel you pulled it off on MIB II?
A. It absolutely did not work out in the second one and we learned a lot of things. We thought that the first movie was a comedy so we did the second one without a serious villain. Johnny Knoxville was funny but never a threat. Lara Flynn Boyle was never a threat. We went to comedy with ďFrank the PugĒ too often and what we learned is that our franchise isnít based on comedy. Everyone thinks itís a comedy and if you went to the video store to find it, youíd go to the comedy section, but we kept looking at the first movie and, although itís funny, itís not Talladega Nights. What we did on Men in Black III is, we went back to the formula of the first one, which is about character and emotion. One of the joys of the whole franchise for me is that, at the end of Men in Black, when Tommy Lee Jones hands Will the neuralizer and says, ďI havenít been training a partner. Iíve been training a replacement,Ē I cry when I watch that because I just watched these two guys spend eighty-seven minutes together forming this relationship and I find Tommy so moving at the end of that movie. I cry at the end of this movie, too, but I think the second one was the aberration. Thank God we learned from it and were able to recover from it.

Q. Did you realize Men in Black II didnít work during production or when you recently rewatched it?
A. As soon as we finished Men in Black II, we all realized that we had gone to the wrong well. We had gone to the comedy well instead of the character and story well. Also, I think we tried to make a release date on Men in Black II and had to start without a script we all totally believed in. Therefore, the easiest thing to do was go to comedy, but we didnít really have a great story and we never really committed to the love story for Will. It didnít take us ten years to realize what we should do but whatís interesting is that, when we were getting ready for Men in Black III, and watched Men in Black again, we discovered that itís funny but itís not a comedy. Itís observationally funny. The audience decides itís funny. Weíre not doing wacky stuff, in my opinion.

Q. There are a lot of TV shows about the Ď60s and this movie takes place then. Do you think it was a golden age?
A. I donít think the sixties was a golden age for America. I think it was a golden age for culture and for the real awakening in the world. The late Ď60s were a fantastic time of upheaval and creative stuff. I donít think it was a golden age for America, except for me, growing up then. Hereís how í69 came about: as you know, it was Willís idea to create time travel, so now you think, you can go to any period of time where Tommy Lee Jones would have been alive. The thing about í69 was, itís when we as humans launched our first rocket to another planet, so for Men in Black, itís the first time earthlings were doing what aliens had been doing Ė we were reaching beyond our solar system. Plus, it looks great. Itís massive. Itís big. For me, the music of that era was fantastic. I love the Warhol scene tremendously. Itís my favorite scene in the movie. It was richer for a great period of time but what I didnít want to do was go to í69 and have hippies, drugs, pot-smoking, tie-dyed shirts. For me it was more of a cultural time than a flower child, wacky time. And it was perfect because of the rocket ship.†

Q. The movie addresses the issue of racism in the Sixties but with a light tone. Can you talk that?
A. Will Smith was really helpful at not making the movie be a lot of jokes about a black guy in í69. We hint at it and we have that one scene where heís pulled over by racist cops. But Will was really adamant that we donít go to that joke too many times. In fact, thereís a very funny line in the movie when Will steals some chocolate milk from a little girl that was totally added after we shot. In the scene, Will Smith takes a sippy-cup from my granddaughter and drinks it. There was no talking or anything. Two weeks later, my granddaughter was watching television with her parents and she saw Obama and she said, ďThatís the man that took my chocolate milk.Ē When I heard that, I thought, this is fantastic, so we re-engineered the line for the scene. Will hadnít seen it because it was something I looped recently. He was sitting next to me in the movie theater last night and he didnít know it was coming and he was in hysterics. Yes, racism was there in í69 and we used it the right way, which was sometimes but not exclusively.†

Q. Tommyís role is reduced in this movie. Was it difficult to persuade him to come back?
A. Hereís the thing: Tommy loves the character he created. He loves working with Will Smith and with me. We get along famously and shockingly well. I have photos of me and Tommy Lee Jones smiling together. Not photoshopped, for real. He loves the franchise. He loves Will. And he loves the character so I think it was a difficult decision for him and for us. We were really nervous. We could have destroyed this franchise because, more than aliens, comedy, action or fantasy, itís about the relationship between those two characters. If you take a poll, ďWhy do you want to see Men in Black III?,Ē it will be because we love those guys. It was really risky. I think Tommy wishes he was in the whole movie. I donít want to speak for him. He also understands that the nature of reinvigorating the franchise requires that we not make another episode about an alien coming to threaten earth. There had to be some other element. Especially because we really wanted to make it feel like it was fresh after Men in Black II and feel like a different movie. I think he was sad and I think he was happy to keep doing it and I think he likes the movie.

Q. Did you immediately think of Josh Brolin to play the younger version of ďKĒ?
A. Yes. Josh was my idea. I had seen him in No Country For Old Men and met him a few times at parties. Both Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones have the largest heads of any human being Iíve ever met. The first time I saw Josh, I said, ďI cannot wait to see what your head looks like in 3-D.Ē Also, Iíd seen him in W and I thought he was just incredible because he wasnít imitating George Bush. He created a character that made you think you were watching George Bush but it was not an impersonation. What I was looking for in Men in Black III was not an impersonation of Tommy. One of the things Josh talked about in the press conference, which was so hard, was [playing] the character of ďAgent KĒ in 1969 as a different person. He has different dreams. Heís not as crotchety. Heís not as sour. Josh and I were always discussing the fine line between being the ďKĒ of the present and being the ďKĒ of the past but not being so goofy or so happy that you go, ďReally?Ē I donít want to watch this guy playing Agent K but not being so dour that you go, ďThereís no mystery here.Ē Heís always been that guy. So it was a really amazing balancing act that Josh pulled off really well. I remember both the studio and the producers were worried at the beginning that I wasnít having Josh be up enough and wacky enough. I said, ďGuys, he still has the d.n.a. of this character and if we do that, the audience is going to go: I donít want to watch this movie.Ē So it was a really fine line and Josh did great.

Q. What was it like working with special effects and makeup artist Rick Baker again?
A. Rick is fantastic and heís designed all the aliens on all the movies. He knows my personal aesthetic about how creepy or not creepy the aliens should look. What he did for Jemaine Clement [ďBorisĒ] took four and a half hours of makeup every day. I never thought to use anyone but Rick Baker, Danny Elfman to do the music and Will Smith to play ďJ.Ē

Published September 20, 2012

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Barry Sonnenfeld

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