Men In Black: The Franchise’s Behind-The-Scenes Battles

As Men In Black: International gives the franchise a soft reboot, we revisit the private battles of the first three films

men in black behind the scenes battles

All things considered, it’s pretty astonishing that Men In Black: International seems to have come together in just over 18 months. Starring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles, F. Gary Gray’s spin-off film was announced in 2017, started shooting last July, and arrives in cinemas this week. All films are difficult to make, but compared with each installment of the original trilogy starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, it sounds like it was a doddle to make.

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, the three films are loosely inspired by Malibu Comics’ The Men In Black, a six-issue sci-fi series penned by Lowell Cunningham. To give you an idea of how long it took to bring to the screen, producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie McDonald optioned the series all the way back in 1992 and turned the first film around by 1997.

The first three films center on Smith’s Agent J, an NYPD officer who is recruited by Jones’ Agent K to police undercover aliens living among us on Earth. From a production point of view, all three can be characterized by lengthy periods of development, “unfinished” scripts, and various creative disagreements between the studio and the filmmakers.

Despite its accelerated development, Men In Black: International comes seven years after the previous installment, but there are fairly lengthy gaps between all of the other three films too. In keeping with the MIB’s covert operations, these are the behind-the-scenes battles that have characterized the franchise so far.

Men In Black (1997)

In 1992, Parkes and McDonald sent the comics to screenwriter Ed Solomon, then best known for the Bill & Ted movies, and hired him to adapt the series into a feature screenplay. In an interview for the Austin Film Festival podcast On Story, Solomon recalls that Parkes told him: “If you like it, you can probably knock [a screenplay] out in six weeks.” As it turned out, he’d be hired, fired, and rehired multiple times over the following four years.

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In the first instance, the executives at Columbia Pictures wanted something different to what the creative forces had in mind. When Solomon first pitched his script, the executive proudly showed him some sweatshirts he had already ordered, touting Men In Black: The Movie for a 1994 release date. They were after a big blockbuster and although they would eventually get one, there was a battle over the film’s tone throughout the lengthy production process.

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Over the following 18 months, Solomon developed a story which spanned from Washington D.C. to small-town Kansas, about a proud Secret Service agent who discovers there is an even higher calling than protecting the U.S. President when he runs across the MIB.

Some aspects of the final film were still present this early on, specifically the idea of aliens already living among us and the central mystery being why they’re all leaving. For this version of Agent J, the investigation leads him back to his hometown, where it’s discovered that construction work has disturbed an enormous alien buried underground.

J and K discover that this being is about to give birth and inadvertently destroy the planet in the process, leaving them trying to rescue it before it’s too late. It sounds a little similar to the premise of the 2014 Doctor Who episode “Kill The Moon,” in which the moon turns out to have been a colossal alien egg all along.

The studio’s main note in response to this take was “more big guns.” They didn’t want a science fiction film as much as they wanted a big summer blockbuster and the idea of a non-antagonistic alien threat didn’t really live up to that. Solomon’s various bouts on and off the project saw the script develop into a clever and witty sci-fi comedy that also has big guns and explosions and whatnot.

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Spielberg boarded the project as a producer alongside Parkes and McDonald, but the search for an A-list director was still on. Quentin Tarantino and John Landis both turned the job down (with Landis saying that the characters’ signature black attire seemed too reminiscent of The Blues Brothers for his liking) and Les Mayfield (1994’s Miracle On 34th Street) was also briefly attached.

But throughout development, the producers had their sights set on Barry Sonnenfeld, who had made a pair of darkly comic blockbuster hits in the shape of The Addams Family and Addams Family Values. Ultimately, Columbia was prepared to keep developing the script with Solomon (and other, ultimately uncredited writers) while they waited for Sonnenfeld to finish 1995’s Get Shorty.

Solomon was still on the roller coaster of developing the script, but Sonnenfeld’s arrival helped to calm things down. The director wanted the story to be set primarily in New York, specifically Manhattan, using the city’s notorious unflappability as part of the world building. He described his take on the project as “The French Connection with aliens” and Solomon duly rewrote the script accordingly.

Sonnenfeld also had ideas about casting. Tommy Lee Jones had accepted the role of Agent K (after Spielberg assured him that the script would improve), and the studio was reaching out to actors such as Jones’ Batman Forever co-star Chris O’Donnell and Friends’ David Schwimmer to play J. However, Sonnenfeld’s wife was a big fan of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, which is how the director became set on casting Will Smith.

Pre-Independence Day, the studio was reluctant to go along with this, but Sonnenfeld stuck to his guns. In fact, when executives made him go and sit down with O’Donnell to discuss the role, Sonnenfeld reportedly warned the actor off of the film, saying he didn’t think it was going to be very good so that he would turn it down. The director eventually got his way and after meeting with the filmmakers, Smith accepted the role.

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It still took a long time to nail down some of the particulars. Creature make-up and effects wizard Rick Baker was vocal about his frustration at having to get his designs approved by both Sonnenfeld and Spielberg, who often disagreed with each other in small ways. He wound up creating hundreds of concept designs as a result but later won an Academy Award for his troubles.

Filming finally began in March 1996, but certain aspects of the film were still in flux. Five months into production, the filmmakers realized that the planned ending, a comical Douglas Adams-style existential debate between J and the film’s villain Edgar the bug, wasn’t working. More big guns were needed, but to get the film to the climax we now know, it took a lot of rewriting and an extra $4.5 million’s worth of effects work.

Although an animatronic bug had been created for the original ending, the new action sequence required a CG version of Edgar. The 1997-era CGI hasn’t necessarily held up as well as the rest of the film, but at the time of release, Sonnenfeld would call the result “the best $4.5 million I ever spent.”

Three years after the planned release date, the $90 million film was released in cinemas in summer 1997, where it made $84 million in its first five days. During its big screen run, it grossed more than $580 million at the worldwide box office. Featuring an array of iconic moments and topped off with a banger of a theme song by Smith, the film really holds up as one of the better blockbusters of the 1990s.

In the same On Story interview, Solomon reminisced about his first viewing of the film, many weeks after that initial “six-week” assignment: “I remember seeing it in its final form, coming out into the lobby, sitting down and crying, in a good way, because ‘Oh my God, it worked out.'”

Men In Black II (2002)

The studio was eager for more Men In Black after the massive success of the first film, but understandably, Smith, Jones, and Sonnenfeld felt underappreciated for their efforts, compared to the back-end rewards handed out to Parkes, McDonald, and Spielberg.

Instead, Smith and Sonnenfeld moved onto another project at Warner Bros., a little film called Wild Wild West. Critically derided and commercially overlooked, 1999’s big-budget version of the 1960s TV Western of the same name wasn’t quite the smash that Men In Black was. Ultimately, both would return for Men In Black II, but not until the salary dispute was resolved.

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Producer Amy Pascal, a powerhouse at Sony for many years, was the one who brought everyone together with the studio’s “first and last” offer, granting them 50% of the film’s first $200 million gross, split between all six parties. Salary disputes settled, production on the sequel started rolling, with Galaxy Quest‘s Robert Gordon penning the script.

When the end of the first film was reconfigured, Agent K got quite a happy ending, in which he reveals to J that he’s been training a replacement rather than a partner, and submits to being neuralyzed so that he can return to civilian life. Disappointingly, the first order of business in Men In Black II is to undo that happy ending by having K recover his memories, inverting the dynamic of the first film by making him the rookie, with J as his mentor.

Sonnenfeld’s main takeaway from Wild Wild West was that audiences didn’t like Smith being the straight man. However, in Gordon’s draft, K didn’t appear until 50 pages in and Sonnenfeld wanted the first act over with quicker in order to reunite Smith and Jones. Revisions were undertaken by script doctor Barry Fanaro, who also added a multitude of pop culture references, including Frank the pug singing “Who Let The Dogs Out?”

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In casting terms, the film also features an early acting role for Jackass star Johnny Knoxville as a Zaphod-esque two-headed alien. He was set to play the sidekick alongside Famke Janssen as the main villain, Serleena. However, Janssen had to leave the production days after filming began due to an illness in the family, and was quickly replaced by an earlier contender for the role, Lara Flynn Boyle.

When principal photography began in June 2001, a potential actors’ strike was looming and the script was once again in flux. A constant barrage of questions from producers and studio higher-ups made the production one of the most taxing of Sonnenfeld’s career. After one particularly happy day on set, he asked to be taken to hospital, fearing that he was suffering a heart attack. Although it was a false alarm, Sonnenfeld said the doctor told him she’d never seen anyone more stressed out.

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On a lighter note, he was also able to catch up with the alien that got away the first time around. Although Michael Jackson had refused to approve the use of his image on the giant board of famous aliens in the first film (other famous extraterrestrials included Sylvester Stallone and Danny DeVito), the superstar wanted to make a full-blown cameo in the sequel.

Sonnenfeld told BBC News: “I had a lovely conversation with Michael in which he told me he had seen the first Men In Black in Paris and had stayed when all the other people left the theatre and sat there and wept. I had to explain to him that it was a comedy.”

Jackson’s main condition for appearing was that he wanted to play an MIB agent and wear the iconic outfit. He appears in the film via video link as an alien version of himself who’s stationed in Antarctica as part of the agency’s “alien affirmative action program,” in a suitably daft non-sequitur.

As with the first film, the sequel’s ending changed during production, because the film was one of many New York-set films affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. As originally intended, the film’s climax would have taken place on top of one of the WTC towers. The final cut takes place on a nondescript roof, but features a different New York landmark instead, by revealing that the Statue of Liberty’s torch contains a giant neuralyzer.

By most measures, the sequel falls short of the first film. The various pressures on the production add up to the film that would later (deservingly) get raked over the coals in the Rick and Morty episode “Morty’s Mind Blowers” when Rick loses his memory of the original film but remembers the sequel as “an endless string of callbacks” and “a joyless cash grab.”

But if you’ll indulge a quick digression, the film does give us another banger of a theme tune. “Black Suits Comin'” (Nod Ya Head) reached number 3 in the UK singles chart and is, as far as we can remember, one of the last big singles where the lyrics really literally describe the plot of the film, ranging from the ridiculous (“There’s this chick right, Serleena makin’ me sick right”) to the sublime (“The best-looking crime fighter since myself in part one”). You can’t beat that instrumental break either.

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Costing $140 million to produce and clocking in at just 88 minutes long, Men In Black II was, minute for minute, the most costly live-action film ever made up to that point. With gross participation, the stars, director, and producers were all entitled to a percentage of the slightly smaller $440 million box office haul, but the next installment would prove even more expensive for Sony.

Men In Black 3 (2012)

Although Men In Black II fell short of Columbia’s box office expectations, the creative team was already coming up with ideas for another sequel. In fact, an exhausted Sonnenfeld had taken a pitch from Smith during one particularly stressful late-night shoot – the idea of Agent K suddenly disappearing, having apparently died in the 1960s, prompting J to go back in time and restore the original timeline.

At the time, Sonnenfeld replied “Can we just finish this one?”, but this is the seed that would eventually grow into Men In Black 3, a sequel with maddeningly inconsistent numbering after the second’s Roman numerals. But if that was the biggest of this film’s problems, we’d have a much shorter section about it.

One of the factors that reportedly delayed the third film was that Sonnenfeld hadn’t wrapped up Men In Black II on good terms with either Smith or the producers. In fact, Columbia was offering the threequel to other directors around 2005, including Michael Bay, who had recently worked with Smith on Bad Boys II.

Ultimately, Sonnenfeld convinced all concerned that he was still the right person for the job and he was signed up to close out the trilogy, after agreeing to a pay cut compared to his salary on MIB II. But in all other regards, Sony was at a stage where they saw the wind was blowing and wanted to put all their chips on their franchises.

Men In Black 3 was officially announced on 1 April 2009, along with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4 and Ghostbusters III. None of them were intended as April Fools’ jokes, but the latter two were both cancelled before their 2011 release dates due to creative differences behind the scenes. The MIB sequel did make it to screens but still went through development hell to get there.

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Screenwriter Ethan Cohen (then hot off Tropic Thunder, more recently known for Holmes & Watson) was tasked with turning the time travel concept into a screenplay. Smith wasn’t even top-billed on the first two films, but by now, he had been cemented as one of the biggest stars in the world and at the time of the film was announced, he had to choose between this and The City That Sailed, a project set up for Andrew Niccol to write and direct at his own production company, Overbrook Films.

Smith, Jones, and Sonnenfeld were all signed up by mid-2010 and although the script didn’t have a second or third act that they were satisfied with, Sony was dead set on starting principal photography in October. They scheduled shooting in two blocks, separated by a two-week break over Christmas, in order to take advantage of New York tax breaks that would be worth 30% of the budget.

Shortly before production began, Sony launched their range of 3D TVs with an industry event that also teased several film projects that would be shot in Real-D 3D and eventually released on 3D Blu-Ray. This included a clip of Smith, in costume, referencing the first film and promising “I’m about to make 3D look good.” As it turned out, with other issues mounting, Sonnenfeld ultimately opted to film in 2D and convert to 3D in post-production, as was far more common in the post-Avatar boom.

Elsewhere, Spielberg regulars David Koepp and Jeff Nathanson were brought in to rewrite large portions of the script throughout the rest of the year and during principal photography. Josh Brolin was cast as the younger version of K and Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, and Michael Stuhlbarg joined the cast in supporting roles.

After being charged with breaking and entering and a litany of other offences in early 2010, Rip Torn did not reprise his role as Z in this instalment. His character is killed off early in the film and replaced by Agent O, played by Emma Thompson. O’s younger 1960s counterpart was set to be played by Gemma Arterton until scheduling conflicts forced her to pull out, and Alice Eve took the role instead.

Shooting began on schedule, but despite Koepp and Nathanson’s ongoing efforts, the sticky time-travel mechanics ground the production to a halt by Christmas. The first block of shooting had been dedicated to the contemporary scenes, but the latter half, set in 1969, proved difficult to pin down. It shows in the finished film too, but in a bid to get the script right, that planned two-week Christmas break in shooting lasted from December until March.

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Cast and crew were retained throughout the break, which inflated the budget to double Men In Black IIs, before tax breaks. Further negative PR came from press coverage of Smith’s preposterous on-set trailer, a 53-foot-long behemoth that reportedly housed a kitchen, a gym, and a personal cinema, and was parked just a mile from his residence in New York.

Jones’ work on the film was largely done before the break and in a typically frank and forthright interview with New York magazine in February 2011, the actor said: “I don’t really know what the plotline is. There are vast pieces of the script yet unwritten.”

With the nature of the current movie news cycle, it’s not uncommon for this sort of bad press to percolate against a film before anyone even gets to see it. In particular, it seems unfair that Smith was portrayed as demanding and discontented, not least because it seems like many of his and Sonnenfeld’s grievances with the script wound up showing in the finished product, too.

This one falls squarely on Sony, counting the film’s blockbusting $624-million haul in what Pascal would later call “a shitty year” for the studio. Even though it was the tenth highest-grossing film of 2012, it cost something the range of $215-225 million after tax rebates, in addition to the existing back-end gross participation deals for the talent.

As we’d later see with both Amazing Spider-Man movies, the studio was spending more on tentpoles based on extremely optimistic box office projections passed from one executive to another. Even with 10 years to think about it, Men In Black 3 wound up feeling rushed out. With a winning performance from Brolin, it feels weirder and more creative than part two, but also a more ill-advised endeavour on the whole.

From MIB 4 to MIB 23

As with the previous sequel, the press tour for Men In Black 3 brought lots of speculation about the next adventure. Young Jaden Smith was starting to make a name for himself in films around 2012 and Sonnenfeld mooted the idea of MIB4 featuring Will’s son. In an interview with CNN, the director joked that on the current production cycle, a fourth installment wouldn’t arrive until 2032, but it would be “damn good” when it did.

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This enthusiasm quietened down in the following years, but Sony set screenwriter Oren Uziel to work on Men In Black 4. With Sonnenfeld, Smith, and Jones all ready to move on after the experience of making the third film, the studio started exploring potential spinoffs instead. Uziel was credited as a co-writer on 22 Jump Street and the crossover with that particular franchise was where things got interesting.

Following the release of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 2014 sequel, there were rumblings of the next Men In Black film being called MIB 23, as in 23 Jump Street. Lord and Miller were set to write and produce the spinoff, with James Bobin, who directed The Muppets and its sequel for Disney, taking over as director.

“It’s still a crazy idea,” Lord told MTV in 2014, “and we only do things that seem like they’re going to be terrible.”

Even though this would almost certainly take the historically PG-rated franchise into R-rated comedy territory, there’s something irresistible about the idea of putting Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s bone-headed undercover cops into an environment with undercover aliens. Imagine Schmidt and Jenko trying to integrate with other beings who are also pretending to be ordinary high-schoolers. Not only is there huge comedic mileage in that idea but it’s also the most logical follow-up to 22 Jump Street‘s insane, infinity-spanning end-credit sequence.

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The film was officially announced in 2016, but producer Parkes told Empire magazine earlier this year that it turned out to be an “impossible” match-up. As of January 2019, Lord says that the creative team has moved onto developing a more conventional sequel under the title 24 Jump Street instead, with the 23 still reserved for the potential crossover.

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Speaking of leap-frogging, Men In Black: International has made it to the screen ahead of MIB 23. Although it’s (apparently) the first MIB film that doesn’t feature Smith and Jones, Emma Thompson reprises her role from Men In Black 3, which cements the film’s status as a soft reboot or legacy-quel as opposed to a full-on audience neuralyzer job. It remains to be seen if the new film can live up to the first one, but if nothing else, it seems to have been a relatively painless film to produce.