Barry Sonnenfeld on Diving Into 3D, and the Past, in Men in Black 3

Barry Sonnenfeld with Tommy Lee Jones on the set of "Men in Black 3."

After a decade-long hiatus, director Barry Sonnenfeld and stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones have reunited to once more protect Earth from the scum of the universe in Men in Black 3. The third installment of the blockbuster franchise, based on the Malibu comic by Lowell Cunningham, finds Smith’s Agent J traveling back in time to prevent the death of his partner Agent K and stop a full-scale alien invasion.

Speaking by telephone with Spinoff Online, Sonnenfeld discussed his 15-year history with Men in Black.

Although Men in Black 3 is his first foray into 3D, Sonnenfeld, who began his career as a cinematographer, makes the technology his own in a stunning and immersive way. When asked whether this effect was achieved by shooting in native 3D or through conversion, the director quickly replied, “We converted it. I’ll tell you everything about it because I’m really proud of it.”

In pre-production, Sonnenfeld began doing camera tests with every 3D rig available, including the cutting-edge “Threality” rig, but native 3D left him with four very specific concerns. “One, is the rigs are really big, heavy and don’t let you move fast enough,” he said. “Two, is I like to shoot with very wide lenses and the matte box and the mirrors on the 3D rigs don’t let you shoot wide enough and get the camera close enough. Third of all, you can’t shoot on film, and Rick Baker’s aliens look better on film.”

But, the director’s final concern with native 3D came down to a question of depth. “In native 3D, what you see is what you get, because it’s omni-depth,” he explained. “And Will Smith, because I use wide-angle lenses very close to the actors, often in real 3D — it was pushing Will’s ears too far away from his head.”

“In conversion, I control the layer of depth,” Sonnenfeld continued. “I was able to actually have a lot of the convergence – a lot of where the actors are – slightly in front of the screen, and I think it immerses the audience more in the story, and even beautiful 3D movies that I’ve seen like Hugo and Avatar, because they put the depth at the screen and behind it — it’s very beautiful but slightly distancing to me and a little less emotional.”

Men in Black 3 marks Sonnenfeld’s fourth collaboration with superstar Will Smith, whom the director credits for coming up with the main plot. “Will had the idea on the set of Men in Black II one night while I was trying to direct around four in the morning,” he recalled. “He sat down next to me and said, ‘I got an idea for three: time travel. Here it is!’ It wasn’t specific to ’69, but he sort of laid out a very — in five sentences — basically this movie.”

Barry Sonnenfeld on the set with Josh Brolin and Will Smith.

Sonnenfeld and Smith worked closely on both the script and the evolution of Smith’s character Agent J, who has since become a 15-year veteran of the Men in Black. “The nuance there is we needed Will to still have that comic energy that he brings to everything without being — [without] playing it like a goofy rookie,” the director explained. “We had much less of Will screaming and going ‘WOOOOOOOO’ and that kind of stuff.”

While there are certainly references to the first two films, Men in Black 3 introduces new characters, a new timeline and a much younger version of Tommy Lee Jones’ craggy, cranky Agent K, portrayed in 1969 by a scene-stealing Josh Brolin. When asked if he considers the third film to be a re-boot, Sonnenfeld said, “It’s half a reboot and it’s exactly what we wanted.”

“By going back to ’69, it can reboot and we get to have Josh Brolin play this brilliant version of an optimistic, you know, sort of romantic version of a young Tommy Lee Jones,” he said. “We get to see the moon launch, we get to see the [New York] Mets play. It’s both a re-launch and not a re-launch.”

The heart of Men in Black has always been the relationship between Agents J and K, but Sonnenfeld said he had no reservations about Brolin stepping in to play a younger version of the role so clearly defined by Jones.

“There were no concerns about Josh’s acting because I had seen him in W., and what he did in W., where he played George Bush, was brilliant,” he said. “The only concern, which was done away with the first day we actually shot with Josh, is would there be chemistry between Will Smith and Josh.”

“As soon as we were on the set and we rehearsed that scene where Josh is interviewing Will Smith in 1969 Men in Black headquarters, I knew it was going to be great,” the director continued. “I knew the chemistry was going to be identical — both on the set and off the set.”

Men in Black is as famous for its sleek weaponry and gadgets as it is for Rick Baker’s fantastical alien designs, and Sonnenfeld said he had a very specific idea of what the technology should look like in the 1969 sequences. “What I said to Bo Welch, who is the production designer, and Doug Harlocker, who builds our props, is that I think the difference between 2012 and ‘69 is basically battery technology. The batteries are a lot smaller now so the objects can be smaller,” he said. “The objects in ’69 should be oversized. So, whether it’s the neuralizer in Men in Black headquarters that looks like an M.R.I. machine, or the cell phone that Josh Brolin takes out at the end of the bowling alley [scene] … It was all done to sort of be modern for the time, and what makes things different now, is that everything’s just so much smaller.”

Although Men in Black 3 plays out against the backdrop of key moments in American history, the fact that it’s been a decade since audiences last saw Smith and Jones in their iconic black suits might be the most nostalgic part of the film.

As Sonnenfeld explained, I think the nature of it being 10 years, and being that long, and suddenly to see a new movie with the guys wearing the jackets is kind of a cool thing.”

Men in Black 3 opens today nationwide.

Related: CBR reviews Men in Black 3

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