II director Barry Sonnenfeld reveals which lens is comedys
friend, why he fears digital projection, and how he came to
direct a sequel once thought too expensive to produce.
Barry Sonnenfeld tell it, he was shanghaied.
had no interest in directing at all, moans the former
cinematographer who did acclaimed work as director
of photography (DP) for the Coen brothers, Rob Reiner and
Danny DeVito before he was offered the directors chair
for the Addams Family and Men in Black
was very happy as a cinematographer. I thought I was totally
in control of my craft. I could want something to look a certain
way and it would look that way. I had the admiration of directors
I respected. And then I was in L.A., doing pre-production
on Misery, when [producer] Scott Rudin sent me
the script for Addams Family and basically sort
of forced me to direct it.
more than a decade later, Sonnenfelds set to mine his
most successful film for more comic and box-office gold. Men
in Black II, opening July 3, reunites Tommy Lee Jones
and Will Smith as intergalactic customs agents K and J.
reading this interview a while back where you said a Men
in Black sequel would be too expensive to make with
you, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith all attached. What happened?
The main reason it was going to be prohibitively expensive
was less because of me, Tommy and Will, but more because of
me, Tommy, Will and Steven Spielberg. Sony was able to come
up with a formula to allow Tommy and Will and myself to make
the movie, and for Steven to sort of come in later, and for
Sony to come in later so that Will, Tommy and I could
share and reap some of the rewards we werent able to
reap financially on the first one.
none of that would have been interesting to us if it wasnt
that we really liked working together.
that you played a lot of the movies little jokes in
the trailer. Theres Will Smith trying to re-explain
MiB to Tommy Lee Jones, and Smith just sort of shifts his
eyes and sighs with these tiny, exasperated expressions. And
it gets a laugh.
Well, both on Men in Black and Men in Black
II, I felt that I was ultimately making a buddy movie
with a lot of smoke and mirrors and the smoke and mirrors
are aliens and visual effects. What ultimately makes the movie
work or not is ultimately the small stuff, not how gooey an
alien is or anything like that.
reading reviews that said the first Men in Black
was, at heart, a small New York film.
sequels always need to be bigger, right? How do
you keep that intimate feel?
You know, its the only way I know how to make movies.
Somehow, the directors personality comes out in a movie,
even when hes not trying.
when I read the first draft of the first Men in Black,
the movie took place in Laurel, Kansas; Nevada; Washington,
D.C.; somewhere out in the middle of the desert and
I said to [producer] Steven Spielberg, Look: If you
hire me, all I want to do is make The French Connection
. Its just literally going to be
a police-procedural movie with Popeye Doyle and whatever the
other guys name is, and the only difference is theyre
tracking down aliens. But the comedy will come from the fact
that theyre tracking down aliens without ever acknowledging
that its any different from tracking down, you know,
a drug dealer.
always been my hope and sense of what comedy is putting
smart people in absurd situations and then letting them play
it for the reality of the situation.
you were starting on the first MiB film, did you have to go
through a process where you told the actors and everyone involved
with the production to not play it as farce?
Yeah. But you know what? My biggest role as a director is
to make sure everyone from the actors to the cameraman
to the film lab to the costumer knows that theyre
not working on a comedy.
I start a movie, the first three or four days of dailies are
like incredibly too blown out and too bright. And then I call
the lab and I go, What are you doing? Why does it look
like Laverne & Shirley? And they go,
Well, we were told it was a comedy.
all about making the script be funny and making sure
nobody else is trying to be funny.
told EditorNet that you initially resisted computer-generated
effects, because as a cinematographer you lost control. Do
you still feel that way?
CG is both a blessing and a curse. Its a blessing because
you can visually do things you cant do any other way.
And the curse is you end up spending a great deal of your
time directing people who are really good with the computer
who may never have seen the light of day. These people are
sometimes born and bred and forced to live year-round in small
rooms with fluorescent lights and you know, instead
of being able to create things with actors and comedians,
youre trying to create comedy with a bunch of guys who
want to know if you want more secondary muscle movement in
the legs. And you answer, If its funny.
youre directing a team of guys to make one character.
Its like youre directing puppeteers.
Well, no puppeteers are actors. Puppeteers are easier.
Its more like directing two movies: Theres the
18 weeks of directing one movie with, you know, professional
actors, and then theres 50 weeks of trying to get actors
out of guys who are really good in math.
a little further into the digital subject: I just watched
Episode II, which was shot on digital video
and speaking as a lay viewer, I couldnt distinguish
it from a movie shot on film. If you like the way it looks,
will you convert to digital tape?
Im less worried about shooting movies digitally than
I am about projecting movies digitally. I think that George
Lucas concept for, you know, 25,000 theatres with digital
projectors is nothing short of a total disaster.
Yeah. It offers good things for the studios and the filmmakers,
and unbelievably bad things for audiences.
Well, the reason its good for studios is, obviously,
they save tens of millions of dollars a year on having to
make 35-millimeter prints. And if you dont have to make
all those prints, you gain more post-production time
you just have to make a final mix and a master tape, and then
that gets satellite-beamed or whatever.
on Men in Black II, Ive lost a month of
joyful post-production simply because were making 8,500
prints worldwide and they need a month to do that.
a digital release is perfect for George Lucas and the kinds
of films he makes because he can make a version with
four more scenes, and four weeks into the run, when the movies
making only $65 million a week, George can take out full-page
ads saying, Now with four additional scenes, without
having to make 4,000 new prints. He can literally satellite
it to all the theatres.
those reasons, I think its great. Where it is a total
disaster and I dont understand why George Lucas
doesnt realize that is in any modern art form,
it is always the delivery system that is the weakest link.
In terms of television, its how bad the picture is,
its how bad the sound is
now what youre
going to do is take a mechanical medium a light bulb
with film running through it and youre going
to have a digital projector with 57,000 moving mirrors? Believe
me: Three days into any setup, everyone will be seeing a green,
blue and red band around everyones faces when the projectors
get out of alignment. Youre going to have no one who
cares enough to even fix them
concept of digital projection is incredibly frightening to
me. You cant imagine how often based on heat,
humidity, temperature these things go out of sync.
And I think it will be a disaster for the moviegoing public,
but it will be a helpful thing for studios anddirectors. It
will give them more control.
I know this is off-topic, but I know your readers are interested
in this stuff. I think people especially George
are being naïve about the reality of what the moviegoing
public sees in most theatres.
Getting back to MiB II for a minute: Where did Linda Fiorentinos
character run off to?
I didnt want it to be Will, Linda and Tommy, and I didnt
want Linda to have to come in and get killed or something.
make a very quick reference to the fact that no one likes
working with Wills character, because he became Tommys
character hes sort of angry, and he keeps neuralyzing
rookies because they dont have his sense of professionalism.
At some point early in the movie, Will says, Look, Zed
you cant blame me for Linda Fiorentinos
character going back to the morgue. I didnt want
to bring Linda in just to kill her off.
You have Patrick Warburton for that.
Yeah. Thats Warburtons job. Hes very, very
sort of become one of your day players.
Yeah. [laughs] There are certain guys Patrick Breen
is one of them, Patrick Warburton, anyone named Patrick
who you just want to work with again and again.
a cinematographer, youve worked with the Coen brothers
and youve worked with Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall
so youve sort of labored at the poles of indie
filmmaking and mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. What did you
take as a director from each of those filmmakers?
I learned a great deal from working with Joel and Ethan Coen.
What I came away with was a real sense that the cheapest way
to make movies is with the longest period of pre-production
because its so much cheaper to make decisions
when you dont have the crew standing around playing
Frisbee while youre standing in the corner of the room
with the DP going, Well, what if we put the camera there?
became a director and Ive now directed my eighth
film Ive always shot-listed the entire movie
before Ive started shooting. On Monday of every week,
I bring that weeks work to the set and publish it
so the grips, the electricians, the prop people know every
shot were going to do that week. That way, a grip can
read it and say to me, You know, on Wednesday, where
it says Boom up over the cart to reveal so-and-so,
do we need a crane for that shot or is it just a little boom-up?
Youre not on the set on Wednesday saying, Oh,
God, you know what? We need a crane.
think the other person I learned from, after Joel and Ethan,
is a producer named Scott Rudin. One of the things Scott taught
me on the first movie I directed, Addams Family,
was to, every weekend while youre directing a movie,
re-read the script. I sit down every Sunday, re-read the script,
see what Ive shot, see what I havent shot, see
if I missed a transition or created a problem.
on the first Men in Black, every week I would
read the script and every morning I would say to the
producers, Weve got an action-adventure comedy
with no action. We had a debate at the end between Will
Smith and the creature we called Edgar-Bug. And
they would go [dismissive tone] Yes, yes, yes
. And finally, the week before we were going to shoot
the ending, I made them re-read the script for homework on
Sunday. And Monday, they came in and said, Oh, my God
youre right. Weve got an alien that gets
into a talking debate about the universe. And so we
hired a writer and sat down and came up with a new ending
where the Edgar-Bug swallows Tommy Lee Jones and Will keeps
the bug on the planet and they get into a physical fight.
didnt happen until a week before we were supposed to
be done shooting because no one wants to do that homework.
of the things that strikes me about your work other
than its deadpan qualities is that visually its
very carefully composed.
first seeing Raising Arizona and being struck
by the symmetrical compositions and the Dutch angles. And
its sort of followed you into the rest of your work.
Its just the way I see, you know? I used to be a still
photographer before I became a cinematographer and
I always used very, very wide-angle lenses.
with wide-angle lenses everythings in focus, because
everythings of equal value. Its hard to light
with wide-angle lenses because it sees so much of the room.
And what you need to do with these lenses which are
sort of the friend of comedy is move the camera in
a specific direction, so you can tell the audience where to
look. Otherwise, they can look anywhere. But by moving the
camera, you can say: Look! Were going towards
that guy! Hes going to say something funny! And
then you just make sure the guy doesnt say anything
funny, or youre in trouble.
a cinematographer is working for you, what do they have to
watch out for? How do you talk to [MiB II cinematographer]
Well, the way Ive always worked is that I say to them
early on, Look I dont want to have anything
to do with the lighting. I want to talk to you about it, so
we agree on a look but I dont want to get involved
in the lighting, because Ive got to direct, you know,
I hired Owen Roizman on Addams Family was that
I had seen other cinematographers like Gordon Willis and John
Alonzo and Bill Fraker move up their operator to DP when they
became directors and I think thats a mistake,
because what they were saying was, I want to hold on
to the camera, so Im going to let my operator be the
DP so I can still tell him what to do. And I thought
if I hired Owen Roizman, whos such a brilliant cameraman,
it would force me to work with the actors.
do all the shot lists for all the movies I direct ahead of
time. I hand them to the cinematographer. I choose the lens.
But mainly we figure it out very quickly, and then the DP
in this case, Greg lights. And I think, for
the most part, cinematography is about lighting which
is why its said that the cinematography award always
goes to the movie with the most sunsets, cause thats
moved pretty quickly from cinematographer to director. Was
that through-line in your career always the goal?
told EditorNet that you hate to direct.
Well, its very stressful for me. I find it very difficult
to have what I do in life judged by a whole bunch of people
after its done. You know, you make these movies and
theyre all your children and some go on to Harvard
and some go on to not graduating high school, but you dont
love them any less, you know? To see your children reviewed
in the world forum is a very difficult thing for me.
directing is all compromise. You have an idea for a great
shot to take place at sunset, and its overcast and drizzling
and you cant afford to come back, and that other actor
had to go to New York for a junket, so youve got to
shoot this shot anyway. Its all compromise and sadness
and losing of control. I hate to compromise and I hate to
lose control, so I find directing very difficult.
is your stance on directing an evolving stance, depending
on what point youre at in production?
No. Theres no part I like. I like post-production the
most. But its always compromise and losing control and
you think youll ever return to cinematography?
Uh, not unless I can make my directors salary as a DP.