‘The Men in Black movies are about the relationship between J and K,” says Will Smith, who returns to one of his signature and favourite roles, Agent J, in Men in Black 3.
“This movie brings that home – it’s about the power and origin of their relationship. It’s actually an idea we’ve had for years. We had the concept before the second movie, but it needed time to mature. What we had to do was elevate the story, and the only way to do that is to go deeper into the characters, deeper into the revelations that the movie would reveal.”
Tommy Lee Jones again dons the suit and shades to play Agent K.
“The relationship between J and K has been both contentious and affectionate at the same time throughout the movies,” he says.
It has been 10 years since the Men in Black were last seen protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe, and since then there has been rampant speculation about a third film – but Smith says it was always a given that there would be another.
“We came to a point where we all felt that we had a fresh and compelling story that took the audience to a time and place they had not seen in this franchise,” he says.
For his part, Smith was excited to put on the black suit and shades again. Agent J is one of his favourite characters and as he made his return to the role, there was nothing quite like getting into costume.
“You can’t beat the black suit,” he says. “It’s such powerful, iconic imagery. You put on the suit and the shades and it throws you into the mental space of the Men in Black. It’s like a childhood fantasy – you know things that the other people don’t know and you’ve got the most important job in the world.”
Jones was similarly enthusiastic about playing the gruff Agent K. He says: “Any time you go to work with Will Smith is going to be a happy day, and Will and Barry (Sonnenfeld, the film’s producer) together make it an even happier day. They are wonderful to work with.”
The story of Men In Black 3 takes the film-makers back – back to the characters’ origins, back to the key moments of their relationship – to focus on the key elements that have kept them at arm’s length from each other for 15 years.
The answer came in sending Agent J back – back in time.
“We wanted the movie to be both familiar and different,” says Sonnenfeld, who has also directed all three Men In Black films. “What’s familiar is the characters and premise of the Men in Black and who they are. We wanted to bring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones back together again. But we also wanted something new and inventive, and that came in the time travel element.”
Producer Walter F Parkes says: “At the beginning of the movie, J and K are still partners – but they haven’t learnt much about each other in all their time together. In fact, at the very beginning of the story, the character of Zed has recently died and K gives a eulogy that provides no information whatsoever about him. This despite the fact that Zed was supposedly his best friend for 45 years. It makes J think: ‘After all these years, what do I really know about the guy sitting next to me?’ That is the foundation for our story, and it coincides with the escape of an alien, Boris the Animal, that K put away 40 years earlier, in 1969 – and he’s coming back for some kind of payback on K.”
Some kind of payback, indeed: Boris jumps back in time to 1969 and kills K. No one in 2012 has any memory that K wasn’t murdered 40 years earlier – no one except J, who is wondering what happened to his partner. To save K, J follows Boris back into the past – and as he does, he sees an opportunity to learn more about his partner.
“J sees saving K as a great opportunity to learn secrets about K – he thinks he’ll find out why K is so grumpy and reserved,” says Sonnenfeld. “But as it turns out, the young Agent K is open, friendly and interested.”
In 1969, K is played by Josh Brolin, who gives a sly, smart performance as Young K that channels Jones’s mannerisms and characterisations while also making the character his own.
“You’ll (often) hear a producer say, ‘Well, if we didn’t find this particular actor, we could never have cast the role’, but that was never more true than with Josh playing this part,” says Parkes. “You can find a picture of Tommy Lee Jones as a lineman for Harvard and compare it to a picture of Josh Brolin in Milk, with his hair cut in an early 1970s style. It’s amazing – they’re dead ringers for each other. But it’s not just about how he looks. He had to deliver Tommy, but he couldn’t do an impersonation – he had to do an interpretation. I think his performance is one of the delights of the movie.”
Brolin says: “Being a part of this movie is crazy for me. When you go see a great movie like Men In Black, you’re in the audience thinking: ‘Wow, I want to be those guys.’ And then you’re asked to do it – it’s like winning the lottery.”
Of course, even as the movie explores the characters’ relationships, it isn’t a heavy drama. It’s Men In Black, and that means trippy Rick Baker aliens, cool gadgets and big laughs. All of that adds up to an irresistible tone that isn’t quite like any other film. Sonnenfeld says the key to the tone – the only way to make the movie really funny – is for everyone to play it entirely straight.
“I want the situations to be funny but the performances to be real, so I don’t want the actors trying to be funny,” he explains.
“I don’t want the composer to think ‘comedy’, because then the music will be comedy music… If I can surround the absurd situation with something real, it’ll be a great comedy.”
The team behind the scenes includes Oscar winner (including one for his work on Men In Black) Baker designing the aliens.
Parkes says it was Baker’s idea to have a little fun in his alien designs. “He came in and said: ‘What if the aliens in 1969 were 1960s aliens, retro-futuristic aliens that reflected our collective memory of that time and a more innocent approach to sci-fi?’ It was such a charming idea.” – Staff Reporter