Barry Sonnenfeld On His Post-Converted Men in Black 3: It's 'The Best Use of 3-D'
Director Barry Sonnenfeld exudes a nervy confidence that extends from his blithe dismissal of reported troubles in the making of Men in Black 3 (“The story is if the movie works when it’s finished…”) to the navy blue stingray leather cowboy boots he rocked as he sat with Movieline for a chat (“They’re fish. Feel ‘em!”). And with the sci-fi comedy threequel earning pleasing grades from critics, marking box office titan Will Smith’s return to the screen, Sonnenfeld is already basking in another coup — his first, effective, foray into 3-D filmmaking: “I think this is — I’ll just say it — the best use of 3-D.”
In a landscape dominated by James Cameron’s groundbreaking advances in 3-D, and with filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Douglas Trumbull pushing technology further, Sonnenfeld’s triumph comes from the impressive new way in which he uses the added dimensionality. Most surprising: He did so, by choice, via post-conversion.
“Up until I think this movie, everyone thinks conversion is a second hand citizen,” he said recently in Los Angeles. “We shot a lot of tests with a lot of 3-D rigs, and I actually decided on conversion. Because I use wide lenses, I feel that the audience physically thinks they’re in the room with the actors. If you look at Michael Mann movies or Michael Bay or Tony or Ridley Scott, they use long lenses and they’re really good filmmakers, but I always feel very slightly emotionally removed and distant, like I’m watching something.”
The major difference in Sonnenfeld’s approach is in where depth appears to the viewer — the former cinematographer filmed in ways that brought his actors forward out of the screen, rather than taking the audience beyond it. “Unlike every movie you’ve seen in 3-D, we’ve put the convergence at the screen and put most of the depth in front of the screen,” he explained. “A lot of the new 3-D stuff, the aesthetic was kind of created by James Cameron, and if you think about everything James is — how he likes to go underwater and look through small holes, deeply underwater — the 3-D depth in those movies feel that way. The depth is in the back of the screen. So to me, I think this is — I’ll just say it — the best use of 3-D, because the actors are actually with the audience.”
Sonnenfeld sat for a chat with Movieline about coming back to his Men in Black franchise ten years after Men in Black II, why those reports of catastrophic delays in the film’s production are moot, his most inspired casting choices, memories of shooting the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona 25 years ago, and more.
When did plans to make a third installment, after so long of a gap, really start coming together — and why did you feel Men in Black 3 should be made?
Well, I was not involved in that decision; I came in after a script had been written, so I’ll guess that Sony felt that even though it had been a long time between the movies that it’s shown so often on DVDs and cable television and network television that, even though it had been ten years, even young kids were aware of the franchise. That they weren’t saying ‘It’s been way too long and no one will remember this stuff’ because it’s on so often. The challenge for them was how to make it both similar to the first two so that we love Will and Tommy and all that, for instance, but fresh enough so that it didn’t feel stale or old. And that’s where Will’s idea came in. You know, the idea for Men in Black 3 is based on something Will said to me one night, one late, cold night on some ranch in the valley when we were shooting Men in Black II. Will said, ‘You know, I have an idea for Men in Black 3 — something happens in the beginning of the movie and Tommy’s character is gone, and I realize that an alien has traveled back in time and done something to Tommy and I have to go back to some other era where I have to save him.’ I mean, it was that simple and basic of an idea.
Did you love the idea back then?
Well, what I said to Will was, ‘Can we just finish this movie?’ I thought it was a good idea, but time travel is both interesting and incredibly challenging.
How would you describe the creative dynamic between you and Will and your other collaborators, hashing out where the Men in Black 3 story would go given the unusual, highly publicized development process you went through?
There was a script that Will and I read, and we started early pre-production, which means working on the script and hiring crew and all that. Will has really good ideas, but so does a writer, so do I, so does a producer… and we were a team, trying to make the best version of the script possible. But it was never a Will ego or ‘Will says we have to do this’ situation. Will is a really good collaborator with me, we get along incredibly well and totally see the same movie, so that was really easy to do. And I think without knowing how every movie gets made, every movie goes through stages where you’re re-writing the script, you’re throwing out scenes, you’re putting scenes back in that you had taken out… the first Men in Black, we totally changed the plot after we shot it, in post-production. On Addams Family, a week and a half before we were shooting, the entire cast rebelled and demanded that Fester be the real Fester and not an imposter.
And you’ve said that, in retrospect, you think that was the right decision.
In retrospect, that was the right decision. Scott Rudin and I were wrong, and luckily Christina Ricci, who was 10 at the time, was incredibly articulate and convinced us. So I think there’s not a story there. I think the story is if the movie works when it’s finished.
Well, particularly in the wake of John Carter, reports of troubled productions make you wonder.
Right, but I’ve never heard more horrible stories coming out of production than what a disaster Titanic was going to be. So my feeling is it doesn’t matter how it gets there, it matters if the movie works or not works when people see it — not if it took longer, if it was written on a Mac on a PC… That’s why I find those stories intriguing, because I’ve been to events that I’ve read about in the New York Times that I go, ‘That’s not what happened.’
You mentioned there was some studio concern about Josh Brolin playing the Tommy Lee Jones character, how that would come off, until they saw the first dailies…
It was not about Josh Brolin, it was about the writing of the character. That some people felt that the young Agent K should be much happier and much different than older K. My feeling was that if you do that, and it’s totally different, then you start to go, ‘Well, what happened to Tommy Lee Jones?’ Yet by Brolin being very similar to Tommy but being more optimistic, you think you’re still watching Tommy Lee Jones. So for me, I felt — and Josh felt — that we should not have a huge difference in personalities. Some other people felt there should be bigger differences between old and new K, but once they saw it, it went away.
Brolin’s a great fit in the role, but he’s just the latest in a line of some great casting moves you’ve made during your filmmaking career. That said, you’ve credited your wife with the idea of casting Will in Men in Black in the first place.
Yeah, Sweetie’s pretty smart! Will Smith was Sweetie’s idea for the first movie, Tommy Lee Jones was mine… Josh Brolin was my idea. We’ve had some other great castings. But here’s the funny thing; [John] Travolta is fantastic in Get Shorty but the person I wanted to play that role was actually Danny DeVito. Weirdly. And Danny ended up producing the movie, but I saw Danny in that role. He wasn’t available and had to take a smaller role. But you know, casting is so important, and the chemistry between Will and Tommy both on the set and off the set is pretty tremendous. They’re very relaxed and funny together.
In Men in Black 3 you cast two actors who’ve recently worked with the Coen brothers — Josh Brolin and Michael Stuhlbarg. Was there any deliberate connection in that, or was it purely coincidental?
Oh, Stuhlbarg! No, I met Josh through Joel and Ethan because we were at some award shows together and stuff, so that’s how I physically met Josh, which was great. Stuhlbarg is totally accidental, but I will say that I thought Michael was extraordinary in A Serious Man for Joel and Ethan, and he’s pretty great in our movie, too. He’s a lovely actor. He’s my new favorite alien.
Speaking of your work with the Coens, we’re coming on 25 years for Raising Arizona.
I think Raising Arizona would be a really good movie to convert to 3-D. [Laughs] You know, it was a lot of fun working with Joel and Ethan on that movie – I shot their first three movies, Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing — and you look at Nic Cage, Fran McDormand, who was in Blood Simple… you look at Joel and Ethan’s career, and it’s pretty extraordinary. But I’ll always resent how the grips and the electricians were paid more than I was on that movie.
How was that possible?
Now, the 3-D is a huge component in Men in Black 3, and it looked amazing. I have to admit I was surprised at how well it was used — and in a way that 3-D is not frequently utilized.
Thanks. I think that this looks a lot different than most 3-D movies, because most 3-D movies put all the 3-D behind the screen. And I thought, ‘What a waste’ — because that distances you. And also the way I see movies, just like with Raising Arizona, is that I use very wide lenses which invites the audience in. But I’m really proud of the 3-Dness of it. I think it helps the movie.
Men in Black III is in theaters Friday.