By Alicia Hollinger
—“I haven’t worked in three years so I wanted to put on some shoes that I knew fit!” says Will Smith joking about his eagerness to reprise the role of Agent J in the newest incarnation of the ‘Men in Black’ franchise, this one, of course in 3D. “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. The seven-year-old boy in me comes running out when I put the black suit on.”
This version, the third and presumably last in the series, involves time travel and a poignant surprise ending. “The surprise at the end of the movie, that was the thing that got everybody really excited to want to make the movie,” says Smith. “It was like, wow, that’s an interesting way to tie up the series and get you all the way back to the beginning. A lot of people are like ’Whoah!’ I never saw that coming!”
Time travel to the past, specifically 1969 becomes a character in itself. From a fun realistic portrayal of Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York, to the way Will Smith’s character was treated as a Black man in the sixties brings a thought-provoking new aspect to the movie. “I’ve always loved time travel,” says Smith. “Someone needs to come up with a Time Jump app!” he jokes. “But I realized, for Black people, you don’t want to do much time jumping in the past. Like right now is the best it’s ever been. If I could go forward, that would be a great thing!”
Will Smith’s character J’s partner Agent K, played in the first two movies by Tommy Lee Jones, is split this time between Jones and Josh Brolin as his younger, more optimistic and joyful self, before he became the gruff, hard-nosed K, played so well by Jones. Brolin says he had been doing, in his words, “bad impressions” of Nick Nolte and Jones way before he got the call to do MIB3. Unsure if he could pull it off, his first reaction to the offer was “Ummm… can I think about it?”
Concerned about getting the character just right, Brolin listened to countless hours of Jones’ voice on an ipod and watched the earlier Men in Black movies over 50 times. “It’s like putting your ass on the line,” he says. “I still don’t know if Tommy liked it or not.” But Will Smith certainly was impressed. “Josh had studied Tommy so well that there wasn’t a single missed beat when Josh came in. It was almost the identical chemistry, which is very difficult to come by,” says Smith. “It’s crazy because you don’t even notice how good his acting is because it’s so good, it’s like watching Tommy Lee Jones. You don’t realize, no that’s Josh Brolin…. It was absolutely stunning.”
The uncanny physical resemblance between the two didn’t hurt. “You can find a picture of Tommy Lee Jones as a lineman for Harvard and compare 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,” says producer Walter F. Parkes. And just to help Brolin look even more like Jones, the actor was fitted with a mold of Tommy Lee Jones’s nose that was found in the studio archives from 20 years ago.
The ever-reticent Tommy Lee Jones was vague about his reaction to Brolin’s portrayal of him. A bit blasé in general, he says “All I’ve ever done is do the best I could to play the role as it appeared on the page and respond to the director and the other actors.” Not particularly impressed with the new technology utilized in current films, he states “A green screen is still a green screen. Aliens are still aliens. From my perspective it hasn’t changed much.” He’s only seen an early rough work-print of the movie and hasn’t seen a 3D movie since he was a kid—which is when he had his acting debut—in a second grade performance of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” in the role of Sneezy.
Oscar winning make-up effects artist Rick Baker enjoyed the creativity involved in creating the aliens. A combination of make-up effects with animatronic characters, puppets and computer generated effects provided a full palette of creative tools to draw from. For the 1969 scenes, Baker conceived the idea that the aliens would be retro aliens inspired from 60’s era sci-fi. “Let’s imagine that the guys who made monster movies back in the 50s and 60s really happened to see a real alien and based their monster design on that. That was where I really had fun on this movie – to do my version of those classic science fiction aliens is a lot of fun,” Says Baker. Visual Effects Supervisor, Jay Redd agrees “it’s fun, it doesn’t have to be real all the time. You get to play with physics.”
MIB3 is a seamless blend of digital effects and live action. CG created period cars are plopped into current NYC streets while neon signs and everything modern simply painted out. Motion capture performances are blended with live action stunts. “People say ‘Oh, computer generated images…” says Redd. “It’s the people behind the computer. If you put a canvas and paint brushes down, nobody says “Oil painted generated images.”
The physical appearance of the aliens were not scripted but conceived later by the creative teams. “There’s so much variety in it, it’s all crammed into this one film. You get to create real worlds like New York and have a lot of control how it looks,” says Ken Ralston, Visual Effects Supervisor who shared duties with Redd.
But this final MIB is not just all laughs and visual effects, it explores the characters of Agents J & K and goes deeper than the earlier films. “We’re all ten years older from the second movie,” says Smith, “and different things are important in our lives and we’re growing. We wanted to have the same kind of dumb that the first two movies had, the same kind of silly, because there’s an appreciation of the silly that the comedy delivers, but it was really important for us also to have some meat to chew on and able to create something. If you’re going into the third part of something, we thought it was important to deliver more emotionally… Just because it’s a popcorn movie, doesn’t mean you don’t have something to say….” But after a three-year absence from acting, Smith worries “When you stay away from acting for a while, it’s like a muscle, you know, you get out there and you look stupid. You gotta warm up a bit. Coming back to ‘Men in Black 3’ just felt like home.”