- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

NEW YORK CITY "It was a struggle on this one," movie director Barry Sonnenfeld says as he describes some of his tribulations in completing "Men in Black II," presumed to be a surefire sequel to the enormously successful science-fiction adventure farce of five summers ago.
The prototype revolved around Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as the amusing dynamic duo of agents Kay and Jay. Kay was a weary veteran and Jay a sassy newcomer in a secret government bureau designed to control and monitor a disguised but substantial population of outer-space aliens in the United States, especially Greater New York.
Mr. Sonnenfeld recalls his most trying day on the job for the sequel during recent press interviews at the Rihga Royal Hotel, with Columbia Pictures and DreamWorks as hosts. It happened almost a year ago, soon after shooting in New York City had begun, and he feared he was on the verge of a heart attack.
"We were shooting a scene with Will Smith and Patrick Warburton in front of the Rose Planetarium. Our script was still in flux, the studio was in town," recounts the cherubic and cheerful filmmaker, who also has a slightly high-pitched voice that would have been a natural on vintage radio comedy shows. "One of the writers, Barry Fanaro, and I were working on the script by day while I was shooting at night."
In short, Mr. Sonnenfeld was feeling pressured in the earliest stages of production. "The first movie had been so successful financially that everyone was understandably nervous about making this one as successful," he explains. "I always feel a great deal of pressure, even when going to the supermarket. This time it was overwhelming. The script wasn't there yet. There were disagreements about what it needed. I was always trying to find more opportunities for physical comedy, more comedy set pieces, which you can't really describe to a studio. Anyway, it was just a rough time."
Mr. Sonnenfeld completed the first part of the scene and called a meal break at 1 a.m. "I told them that I was gonna skip eating because I wanted to lie down and meditate," he recalls. "While meditating, my arm falls asleep and my fingers go totally cold. My left armpit starts to hurt, and it feels as if someone is blowing up a giant balloon in my chest. I get up and say, 'Let's drive to Bellevue, I'm having a heart attack.'"
In retrospect, Mr. Sonnenfeld admits that this was a peculiar thing to say, especially for a New Yorker, because Bellevue Hospital is known for psychiatric services, radiation therapy and other things, but not as a cardiac emergency unit. For whatever reason, "Bellevue came out," and his alarmed associates rushed him there. At that point, the potential patient discovered, "I'm the only person not in leg shackles or handcuffs. From midnight to 5 a.m., they bring in inmates from Rikers Island to get dental work done at Bellevue. So there I am."
He remained there for an hour or so and was shifted to the nearby medical facility at New York University. "Finally, they do all the cardiograms and stress tests and conclude that it's not my heart, which is perfectly sound. No plaque in the arteries, none of that but they've never seen a more colossal case of stress. The first thing they recommend: a program of meditation."
Mr. Sonnenfeld was born in New York City in 1953 and graduated from New York University with a degree in political science before returning for an additional degree in film studies. Initially successful as a cinematographer, he shot the first three Coen brothers features, "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona" and "Miller's Crossing." He also shot a trio of hit comedies of the 1980s "Throw Momma From the Train," "Big" and "When Harry Met Sally" before making an immediate directing splash with "The Addams Family" and its sequel, "Addams Family Values," after the turn of the decade.
The success of "Get Shorty" and "Men in Black" had Mr. Sonnenfeld looking almost invulnerable to failure before he miscalculated with "Wild Wild West" three years ago and then "Big Trouble," belatedly released this year after a postponement prompted by the September 11 attacks.
Co-stars Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones have commented on Mr. Sonnenfeld's theories about comedy and camera lenses, and he amplifies during round-table interviews: "It's all a matter of what a specific comedy scene calls for," the director says. "When the writing is really good and the actors are really good, comedy should play out in two-shot action and reaction in the same shot. No cutting away. Editing is the enemy of comedy when your material and performers are really strong."
Mr. Sonnenfeld says he pesters special-effects shops such as Industrial Light and Magic, which supervised the trick shots on "Men in Black II," to recruit filmmakers and have them add computer skills to their portfolios rather than starting with "computer guys, who tend never to get out of their strange environment."
"Actors know how to adapt their instincts to what a director needs. It's much harder to convince computer-graphics types. Instead of bringing enough people up through animation and storytelling and editing, which should be the foundation, and is the foundation at studios specializing in animated features, they're trying to make the computer guys artistic."
Mr. Sonnenfeld's favorite "comedy lens" is the 21 mm. "It's a weird optic thing," he says. "Wide-angle lenses have a tremendous amount of energy. If the camera is a foot away from me, everything from my stomach to my head is framed. If I lean forward a little bit, that movement creates a dynamic surge. On the other hand, a telephoto lens, shooting in close-up from a considerable distance, will reduce that sensation. Your subject can walk six feet closer to the camera, and the perspective will barely change. It's easier to feel in the scene with wide-angle lenses."
There's also the subtle math of keeping head sizes in relative harmony. "You may have noticed that Tommy Lee Jones has the biggest head of any human being," Mr. Sonnenfeld says. "Tommy's head is so huge it's really made for wide angle. You always measure the distance from the camera to the actors in every shot, because you might have to re-shoot, even months later, if something happens to the footage. If it's six feet to Tommy's head in a close-up, a camera crew will know automatically that a reverse angle of Will's head will need to be about five feet away. Otherwise, his head would look too small by comparison."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide