Barry Sonnenfeld is back for his third go-around as director for the Men in Black series in Men in Black 3. The helmer is talking to Movie Fanatic for an exclusive interview where he takes us inside the magic that is Will Smith and how the addition of Josh Brolin as a young onscreen Tommy Lee Jones not only made us recall the latter actor’s stalwart Agent K, but brought so many more levels to the film than Sonnenfeld could ever have imagined.
Sonnenfeld also shares an exclusive story illustrating why Smith is much more than a star he’s worked with four times now, but someone he considers his creative equal.
Movie Fanatic: Josh, he had to make it so we don’t miss Tommy in Men in Black 3 -- but wasn’t Tommy. When did it hit you how profound his performance was?
Barry Sonnenfeld: I’ll tell you what -- I knew he was going to nail it when I saw him in W, which was years before there even was a script for Men in Black 3 [laughs]. I thought that performance was brilliant in that movie. Then I met Brolin a few times through the Coens (Ethan and Joel). I was never surprised that he wasn’t going to nail it. I will say the first time we actually shot, which was at Men in Black headquarters when he’s interviewing Will in 1969, that was the first day for Josh. We did the first take and I burst into tears. I think Josh thought I was upset. But, I realized it all was right.
Movie Fanatic: Did you worry about reducing Tommy’s role as you introduced the younger K, played by Josh?
Barry Sonnenfeld: Will and I always said that the way you screw up this movie is by taking a franchise where you had a great team, Will and Tommy, and now we’re not going to have that team? We better have someone as good because it’s a two-hander. It’s not the Will Smith show. Brolin nailed it. Will and I laugh because we thought no one would think Brolin did a good job because they’re going to think it was Tommy who dubbed his lines the whole time [laughs]!
Movie Fanatic: The other side of that coin is Will. What’s he like for you as a collaborator? I get the impression he’s really hands on with you and these Men in Black films. Also, what is it about him that is so magnetic?
Barry Sonnenfeld: I suspect he must actually be an alien because he’s got more energy, is happier and brings you into his vortex and suddenly you’re uplifted. He’s so optimistic. There’s that. He also is a student of Joseph Campbell’s work, and is always talking about the hero’s journey. He’s really good with script and structure. The great thing about working with Will is, in my case, he and I agreed on everything. I wouldn’t want to work with Will if we were butting heads because Will is really strong and smart and I’m not articulate and he’s really articulate. So, the good thing is Will and I are always making the same movie -- that’s what’s fun about this. To have Will on your side when you’re trying to make this movie is just fantastic. The thing about Will is, and I think he believes this, is that he’s got to work harder than anybody else. He’s got to be more responsible.
Movie Fanatic: Do you have a most memorable story of working with Will Smith?
Barry Sonnenfeld: I remember one night we were shooting a stunt on Wild Wild West. Rigging wasn’t going well and Will was in his camper. We were shooting in Burbank and he had to fly back to New York. The Burbank airport closed at midnight. They ferried the plane to LAX because we were running too late. Will had to be on some show that morning. The rigging was taking too long. So, I told Will to just get on the plane and we’ll do it with the stunt man and we won’t be able to tell it wasn’t Will. Will came onto the set and said, “What do you mean I can go?” He said, “I don’t play that way. If you need me, don’t worry about anything else.” That’s the man he is, that’s the way he works. It’s shocking with him being such a big star, he just gives and gives.
Movie Fanatic: I love your Men in Black 3 villain, played by Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement. He just dives into Boris…
Barry Sonnenfeld: Jemaine is the nicest and is not the Boris the Animal guy. Danny Elfman, who did the score, is a huge Flight of the Conchords fan, as am I. I showed him the movie the first time so he could write the score. He said to me when it was over, “That villain is fantastic. Who is he?” I said, “Jemaine Clement.” He said, “No!” He knows all the songs of his! Jemaine totally transformed himself along with Rick Baker and his five hours of makeup every day. Here's a true story: Jemaine has such a thick New Zealand accent that I could never understand him [laughs]. But, he plays Boris high British. So, whenever we would go to dinner together, I would ask him to only speak to me in a British accent so I could understand him [laughs].
Movie Fanatic: Going back to the beginning, what was it about the world of Men in Black that most appealed to you?
Barry Sonnenfeld: It’s really weird. I remember reading the first draft of Men in Black in 1993. The first draft took place in Kansas, Las Vegas, Washington D.C. and a third of it was underground with queen alien bugs -- everywhere but New York. It was a very different script. But, I remember reading it and instantly saying to my wife, “I want to do this movie.” I think what it was was one line of dialogue, which made it into the movie, where Tommy Lee Jones has recruited Will Smith. He shows him the big board of all the aliens on Earth and Tommy says, “This must all seem pretty amazing to you.” To which Will says, “Not really, I had a third grade teacher, Mrs. Edelston, and I would have thought she was from Mars.” And Tommy says, “Venus… or one of the moons.” For me, that's what attracted me about the whole franchise. I don’t want to sound profound, but I think we don’t have a clue about what’s going on with anything. I wrote a speech for Tommy in the first Men in Black. He says, “A thousand years ago, everyone knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five-hundred years ago, everyone knew the Earth was flat. Think about what you’ll know tomorrow.” When I was a kid, the dinosaurs became extinct because of the Ice Age. Then, it was a meteor. If I look back at my old science tests, things that I got wrong are now right. We think we’re all experts. Everything we think can be proven wrong at some point. I think the Men in Black world says in effect, “You don’t have a clue what’s going on around you.”