Hasitha Fernando on Men In Black’s journey to the screen as it celebrates its 25th anniversary…
Before Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were protecting the earth from the scum of the universe as part of a super-secret organization policing alien life, the Men in Black had already become a part of modern-day pop culture thanks to wild UFO conspiracy theories and television shows like Fox’s The X-Files. In fact, UFO communities the world over still maintain that there exists a network of supposed men dressed in black suits, who carry out the dirty work of the government by intimidating witnesses of UFO encounters in order to halt the dissemination of the ‘truth’. But I digress. Let’s get back to the Men in Black we all know and love.
Somewhere in the late 80s two up-and-coming talents, writer Lowell Cunningham and illustrator Sandy Carruthers, decided to pool in their resources together and capitalize on the rising popularity of a concept they thought could work well in the form of a comic. Their efforts reached their fruition with the publication of The Men in Black by Aircel Comics in January, 1990. The comic’s initial publication was confined to three issues, but it was given another three-issue run the following year, when Aircel was acquired by Malibu Comics.
Although, character names and certain concepts explored in the comics made it to the big screen adaptation, that’s pretty much where their shared similarities stop. The comic penned by Cunningham was a completely different beast altogether in terms of tone and style. And the MiB’s efforts weren’t just confined to extra-terrestrial threats, no sir. Agent J and K were more like Sam and Dean Winchester from The CW’s Supernatural, except that they work for the government.
Fast-forward to a year or so later, producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald get their hands on a copy of The Men in Black and decide to option the rights to the comic. They hire Bill & Ted scribe Ed Solomon to write a script that would be faithful to the source material. And settled on Barry Sonnenfeld as the director. The producers felt that Sonnenfeld was the perfect fit for the job with what he’d done with the darkly humorous The Addams Family and its sequel Addams Family Values. During a behind-the-scenes interview producer Laurie MacDonald had this to say regarding Sonnenfeld, “There were only a very few directors out there who we felt were right for the job. It was quite a short list and Barry was on top of it. And he delivered the movie that we envisioned.”
Looking at the final product I think we can all agree that Sonnenfeld was the right guy for the job after all, because Men in Black juggled multiple disparate genres-comedy, action, drama- during the course of its runtime and pulled it off brilliantly. “I read the script and loved it because it had the quirky philosophy that I subscribe to which is, ‘we don’t have a clue’,” quipped Sonnenfeld during one of his tête-à-têtes.
From the get go everyone involved knew it would be an incredible challenge to bring to life the strange and zany world of otherworldly beings a.k.a aliens, needed for the movie. So, the producers went for the ‘best of the best’ and brought in multi-Academy Award winning veteran makeup artist Rick Baker to help make their vision a reality. But even he found this task a particularly daunting one, describing the complex pre-production as, “everything in my entire career crammed into one movie.”
The development of the creature designs also took up more time than Baker previously envisioned, since there was a lot of back and forth between the producers, Sonnenfeld and even executive producer Steven Spielberg, “It was like, ‘Steven likes the head on this one and Barry really likes the body on this one, so why don’t you do a mix and match?’ And I’d say, because it wouldn’t make any sense.” Naturally, the work involving the creature effects took an extended three months to complete before production took off. Baker was also responsible for the grotesque transformation of actor Vincent D’Onofrio into Edgar the Bug, a gruelling makeup process which took close to six hours. Ouch.
Complimenting Baker’s outlandish creature designs are the equally out-there production designed by Bo Welch. Welch who is no stranger to crafting bizarre sets, having worked on films like Ghostbusters II and Edward Scissorhands, designed the MiB headquarters with a retro-futuristic look in mind. The designer took his inspiration from the John F. Kennedy International Airport conceived by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. Welch thought a 1960s theme would be more appropriate for the HQ’s design since it corresponded to the period when UFO mania swept across America. At the suggestion of Sonnenfeld the ventilation tower of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which connects Manhattan with Brooklyn, was used as the now iconic entrance of the MiB HQ. For the climactic action finale in the third act, where Agent K and J race through the Queens Midtown Tunnel on their Ford LTD, an exact 96-foot replica, 1/8th the size of the original structure which was authentic down to the graffiti, was built.
Film composer Danny Elfman was reeled into the project in a the most unexpected manner. The musician was working on the set of The Frighteners with Peter Jackson, when Vincent D’Onofrio, who was shooting Men in Black on the other set, invited both men to watch him perform the final scene. That evening Elfman got a call from his agent saying he’d been hired to compose the music for the film. And to say the guy delivered is something of an understatement. His rousing yet quirky score was at the receiving end of many accolades including an Academy award nomination for Best Original Score the following year.
Much like The Matrix released a few years later, Men in Black had a profound impact on fashion and style at the time of its release, and costume designer Mary E. Vogt played an instrumental role in this process. The iconic jet-black suits were inspired by Cary Grant’s classic grey suit from 1959’s North by Northwest and Ray-Ban stepped in to supply the actors with some sleek ass shades. In fact, Ray-Ban partnered the film with a US$10 million television campaign which coupled with the success of Men in Black, saw their sales skyrocket that year.
Finding the right actors for a certain film is always tricky, and Men in Black was no exception, which is why before Will Smith and or Tommy Lee Jones were cast, a few alternate options were also considered. Chris O’ Donnell who played Dick Grayson in 1995’s Batman Forever, was first considered for the role of Agent J. But O’ Donnell turned it down since he thought it was similar to the character he played in Batman Forever. Even Friends star David Schwimmer was on the list before Will Smith landed the role.
Sonnenfeld’s wife being a fan of the TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air suggested that they audition the young actor to see what he could bring to the table. Sonnenfeld and the producers agreed that Smith had proved he was a bankable star a year prior with 1996’s Independence Day, so they decided to give him a shot and the rest, as they say, is history. Capitalizing on the Smith’s prowess as a talented rapper, the studio gave the performer the opportunity to come up with a song for movie. A separate soundtrack Men in Black: The Album featuring Smith’s song was released on July 1, 1997 to great success, even spending two consecutive weeks No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Clint Eastwood was the first actor-of-choice for the role of Agent K, however, when the veteran actor showed no interest Tommy Lee Jones was hired. Now, Jones was familiar with The Men in Black comic, and wasn’t too impressed with the initial draft written by Ed Solomon since it didn’t capture the tone of the source material. However, with Spielberg promising script revisions Jones signed on. Vincent D’Onofrio was cast to play the primary antagonist Edgar the Bug, and the talented method actor really embraced the absurdity of his character with some insane bravado. The guy went to the extent of binge-watching bug documentaries, to better understand how insect’s move and behave. He even taped his ankle and wore leg braces to achieve the character’s distinctive walk. Talk about dedication. The other cast members of note included Linda Fiorentino, who plays the sultry female lead, Dr. Laurel Weaver and Rip Torn as the gruff MiB Chief Zed.
Men in Black opened on July 2, 1997 in the United States to widespread critical and audience acclaim. The sci-fi comedy actioner struck a chord with people the world over, eventually going on to bag a US$ 589.4 million globally becoming the highest grossing Sony film, until it was dethroned by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. Praise was heaped on the charismatic performances, awe-inspiring set pieces, witty script and Elfman’s score. At the 70th Academy Awards in 1998 Men in Black received nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Original Score and Best Makeup and won for the latter. The overwhelming success of the film spawned two sequels of varying quality, one underwhelming spin-off and an excellent animated series that aired from 1997 to 2001. So, on its 25th Anniversary let us pause for a moment and reflect, on what an awesome summer blockbuster this movie was, and appreciate the great memories we had with it as kids.
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.