Even if you come up with a question they’ve never heard before, they’ll still more likely than not give you something fairly dull, and well-practiced, as before you get anywhere near them, they’ve been quizzed about the film by studio executives, coached by publicists and harassed by journalists visiting the set.
Even on the day of your interview, they will probably have been by at least fifteen people before you, each with their own variation on the same question. And that’s assuming you’re at the first junket for the film – a more likely scenario is that they’ve already done press for it around the world before they come anywhere near you.
The point is, that, while we’d all like an original answer, most of us are happy with a prolonged pause before they begin speaking – a sign that you’ve at least made them think. Consequently, I was rather surprised when, during my interview with Barry Sonnenfeld, I seem to have hit on something that no one had ever mentioned before – that he seems to have accidentally written himself into Men in Black 3, in the guise of Griffin, an alien who is the walking embodiment of the Many Worlds Interpretation. What was even more surprising was that this revelation caused him to become a little skittish – much like the character in the film.
In fact, the whole interview was a little unusual, because although we spoke about the film, and what it was that made him want too come back for a third go round, we also spent quite a large portion of it talking about quantum physics, the frustrating phone calls he receives from his wife and daughter, and his love of The Coen Brother’s film, A Serious Man.
HeyUGuys: Quite often with these sort of franchises, directors tend to do the first couple of movies, then pass the torch on for the third. What was it that made you want to come back?
Barry Sonnenfeld: For me, Men in Black is one of my favourite children. When I directed the first one it felt very much like me, and my philosophy of life. And when I read the script for the third one and saw that it wasn’t going to be an auto-pilot story that anyone could direct, because we needed to really cast and perfect Young Agent K, and we were going back to the 60s, it felt more like doing a different movie than going back to the third part of a trilogy, because I love the script. Also, I just love working with Will, and I love working with Will and Tommy, and so I would have missed that experience.
You’ve mentioned the time-travel story, and I know that came about when Will Smith mentioned it on the set of Men in Black II. From a dramatic standpoint, making time travel work isn’t the easiest thing to do. Were you at all apprehensive about it?
At the time, I didn’t realise that it’s hard enough to do a Men in Black movie, it’s hard enough to do a time travel movie, but mixing two genres is really hard. And I will admit, there were many nights during the scriptwriting stage that either Will, or the writer or myself – at the end of the night we’d all high-five and realise we had cracked it, we had figured it all out – and then one of us wakes up at three in the morning and goes, ‘wait a minute, if he dies first, then doesn’t that – oh no, we can’t do that version’. So there is a lot of that.
You worry going into every movie. Sometimes it’s the script, sometimes it’s who you cast in the lead, sometimes you know there’s not enough days to do it right. There’s very little science to filmmaking, and there’s always something that can and will go wrong, and on this movie it was that it was just really hard to get that time travel thing right, and you don’t want to make a movie where you keep changing the rules, or people are confused, so it took longer than we thought to figure it out, but to me, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because it works.
I understand Will had quite a heavy involvement with the story. When it came down to the final drafts of the film, how much of that was Will, as opposed to the screenwriters or yourself? Are there moments on screen that you can look at and go, ‘that’s me, that’s Will’?
On every movie you can look at scenes and go, ‘that was Will’s idea, that was my idea, that was this person’s idea’. On this movie you had an actor and a director who were in 100% agreement about story structure, emotion, execution, so the movie that you’re seeing is a movie that Will and I totally loved the structure and screenplay of, and there’s no scenes where I go, ‘God, I wish Will didn’t make me do that scene’. The basic idea was Will’s. There are certain scenes that someone pitched, whether it’s the writer or me or Will, or the producer or the studio, but that’s the way movies work.
Shea Stadium was totally based on my experience of having been at that game. I was a senior at high school, at music and art, played hooky and went to game five of the World Series. I felt that would work – it probably works better in America than overseas. I don’t think people care about baseball in China, that much, but the scene may have enough emotion and magic that it works anyway. The ending was in Will’s original pitch, not the actual last scene, but the discovery we make.
The character of Griffin, I’m just taking a stab in the dark here, but it seems from the way you’re describing your experiences – trying to keep it all in your head, and obviously the stadium – is he you?
Griffin is me. I admit it, and the funny thing is – that’s really astute – I love quantum mechanics, I love the concept, I love that there could be, for every decision that we’ve ever made, a version that is out there in some universe, multiplied by every decision, by every person on earth, by their decisions. It’s overwhelming, but scientists believe it’s more likely than unlikely, and what’s funny about what you’re saying, and it’s making me smile because I haven’t actually thought about this, is – I don’t know if you saw the Coen Brothers’ ‘A Serious Man’, but [Michael] Stuhlbarg*, I watched that movie, and I thought, ‘oh my God, he’s playing me’.
I didn’t realise the connection until just now, but y’know, every couple of hours in that movie, Michael Stuhlbarg in that movie gets a call from his wife, and it’s usually, ‘I can’t get ‘F Troop’ on the television set’. Here’s what marriage is for me – this is slightly off topic – we’re in the scout van, there’ Bo Welch, there’s Ken Ralston, there’s me, there’s Bill Pope, the famous cinematographer; we’re driving around Brooklyn, looking for a location. One of our phones will ring, and the first one, whether it’s me or Pope or Bo, here’s the first sentence, ‘OK. Go to the basement’ – and when I get a call from either my daughter, Chloe or my wife, the first words out of either of their mouths are, ‘I hate this computer’. ‘Ok, did you press ‘control’, ‘alt’, ‘delete’? Did you turn it off and back on?’ Right? So Stuhlbarg, in that whole movie was me.
I cast Stuhlbarg for Men in Black 3, actually I was thinking of casting Marty Scorsese, but he wasn’t available, and Stuhlbarg came in and read, and was fantastic. And here’s the thing about Griffin, he sees all possibilities, and every possibility could happen. The one issue I was having with Michael was, I wanted him to talk quickly. I believe that comedies, or movies in general, should be paced on the set, and not in the cutting room, so I always want people to talk quickly, and when I go to a movie with my wife, she has to sit on this [the right] side, and she has to hold my hand, because otherwise I watch movies like this [At this point, Sonnenfeld makes a turning gesture with his right hand, as if giving wordless instruction to speed up].
No one talks fast enough, and Michael Stuhlbarg wasn’t talking fast enough. So I said, ‘Michael, you’ve got to talk faster, Michael, you’ve got to talk…’ Never would talk faster. One day I said, ‘Michael, you know how Griffin’s a quantum mechanic?’, and he said, ‘yeah, yeah, sure’, I said, ‘Griffin knows, if he doesn’t talk incredibly quickly, by the time he finishes the sentence, whatever he was talking about has changed, or might change, but if he talks really quickly, he could get it out so there’s a possibility that the version that he’s talking about might actually be the version’. And then Stuhlbarg said, ‘I get it’, and from then on, he talked really quickly, but as you can tell, I can talk quickly, and interrupt, and change direction, so Griffin is me.
While we’re on the subject of alternate universes, we may as well – I know that originally, in the first Men in Black, Chris O’Donnell had been considered for the role of ‘J’. I’m curious where you suppose the world might be, the Men in Black world and Will particularly, because it certainly changed his career a little.
It was Sweetie’s idea, my wife’s idea – the one who hates her computer until I tell her to turn it off and back on again – it was her idea to cast Will, and this was totally off of Fresh Prince, this was pre-Independence Day, and I had to convince Chris O’Donnell that I was such a bad director he should turn down the movie, which is what happened. In many ways, it started with Independence Day, but Will’s career really exploded with Men in Black. What’s so interesting is, you can’t go back, but if I had never directed Men in Black, or if I had never hired Will for Men in Black, would he be a bigger star? Would he be president of the United States? Would I have directed [Snow White and] the Huntsman? Would I have adopted my daughter Chloe? You can never go back.
I was supposed to direct Forrest Gump, but I directed Addams Family Values instead, because I had directed The Addams Family, and I kept saying, ‘dammit! I wish I had directed Gump’, but I realised my version of Gump would have been totally different. It would have been an hour shorter, would have been, maybe better, maybe worse, then my wife said, ‘and we never would have adopted Chloe’, and I said, ‘but we never would have known that we would have adopted her, and I would have found a trillion dollars on the side of the road, and accidentally with that money run into Chloe…’. So, anyway, no, I’ve never considered it, because it would have me up all night going through the rest of my life.
*Who plays Griffin in Men in Black 3