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Sometimes, the stories that surround the creation of iconic movies like Men In Black are just as interesting, if not more so, than the stories that they tell on the big screen. And in the case of an anecdote that Men In Black and Bill and Ted franchise screenwriter Ed Solomon has recently shared, there’s an argument to be made for the latter.
Apparently, the film we all know and love took a more involved path to becoming itself than anyone knew, as a fan asked Ed Solomon on social media if there was a point that Men In Black didn’t have Will Smith’s Agent J as the focal point to the story. And that tale starts with Solomon recounting the casting of Tommy Lee Jones, and a discussion that led to some colorful language being used:
For several years I'd had the 'J' (Will Smith - who was as yet not cast) character be the eyes into the movie. But then when Tommy Lee Jones - who'd just won the Oscar for The Fugitive - was cast (he was the first on board), there became a scramble to make him the 'lead.' Partly it was due to the fact that he was a big 'star' at the time. I disagreed, feeling like it was better to go into the world through the eyes of a neophyte, rather than one who 'knew' everything. It threw off my whole balance, to be honest; I wanted to discover his world gradually. But they needed him to feel like it was 'his' movie. This was also exacerbated by our first meeting, where he told me, in no nuanced terms, that it needed to be either 'a comedy or science fiction, make up your mind, _' (He used an expletive.) Okay, it was 'asshole.'
Never known as someone to mince words, this Men In Black story definitely tracks with the stories others have told about Tommy Lee Jones’ extremely serious demeanor. Let’s not forget, this is the man who told Jim Carrey that he wouldn’t sanction his buffoonery, in the phase of his career where buffoonery was his stock in trade.
So clearly, Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t suffer who he feels are fools, and Ed Solomon learned that lesson the hard way, as he continued to tell his story with the following additional details:
I wasn't really sure why he'd said it - I didn't really know why blending science fiction and comedy made me an 'asshole.' But he'd also brought up (in the first 10 minutes) that he was Al Gore's roommate at Harvard, which seemed equally, I don't know... the same. I told him it wasn't good enough science fiction to be drama. That it needed the kinds of leaps of faith that a comedy allows. (I believed then - and do now - that the mood of a film, a very under-discussed concept, is the thing that determines what we'll buy and not buy.)
While the comic book that Men In Black was based off of was definitely a more serious affair, the film that hit theaters in 1997 was a comedy/sci-fi blockbuster that came in behind Titanic as the second highest-grossing film of the year. And keep in mind, this movie also spawned a hit single through Will Smith’s hot career as a rap star.
So without the comedy/sci-fi tone, not only would the film have more than likely failed to snare the collective audience that it did, it wouldn’t have sold itself all that well. It was something that Will Smith himself understood, as Ed Solomon mentions in the next part of his epic story he shared through Twitter:
Anyways, I was fired, and they made a drama out of it. I read it, and wrote a ten page memo about what I thought was wrong, and why. Later (after I'd been rehired), Barry Sonnenfeld said to me: 'That memo? That memo is what got you MORE fired.' That memo became the basis for the rewrite I did. By then Will had been cast - off my first script (pre being fired) & he was like 'Wait, what happened to the tone? The tone is the thing that made all the other shit work.' (He had only been in 6 Degrees of Separation at that point.)
Ultimately, hiring Ed Solomon back as the writer of Men In Black was the best idea that could have ever transpired in this crazy path from point A to point B. As the franchise would grow to include two more sequels, and one recently released “legacyquel” out of Men In Black International, that initial seed of following Agent J into a wider world we never knew existed took root and became a memorable series. And in case you were wondering, this story does have a happy ending, as director Barry Sonnenfeld all but confirmed to Solomon in the final piece to the story, which sees the writer rehired. But as you’ll see below, even Tommy Lee Jones eventually came around to the idea that was Men In Black:
Anyways I came back on. (Then was fired again and rehired, maybe even two more times.) Two weeks into production, Barry said to me 'I think Tommy finally figured out he was in a comedy.' I think the fact that he didn't know is what [made] him so great in it. And he was great, I thought.
Collaboration is a key to making any film of any stripe work, and all of the ingredients that went into Men In Black turned it into the memorable classic that Hollywood is still chasing after to this very day. But you can’t always catch lightning in a bottle, as sometimes what works and what doesn’t work isn’t so easily discerned. But Ed Solomon had a vision, a clear plan of action, and once he was brought back into the fold for good, blockbuster history was made. And no matter what you think of the sequels, that original can’t be beat -- especially when it creates a song as catchy as the original Men In Black single.
Men In Black International is currently in theaters, with Men In Black being available on its own, or part of the original trilogy collection, on digital HD and home video.