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'Men in Black' turns 25: Director and production designer explain why the sci-fi comedy worked so well

"You know what the difference is between you and me? ... I make this look good."

Men In Black

It's been 25 years since swamp gas from a weather balloon trapped in a thermal pocket refracted the light from Venus and...wait...sorry...that's just the after-effects of the Neuralyzer talking. What we meant to say is that it's been 25 years since the wide theatrical release of Men in Black and despite the clandestine agency's best efforts to make us forget that they exist, the anomalous sci-fi comedy never fails to bubble up to the surface of our cinematic memories like a giant space cockroach crawling back up the galactic drain.

The idea of a secret, quasi-government organization that monitors alien activity on Earth is a strong narrative concept in and of itself, but none of it would have worked without the  odd couple pairing of Will Smith as the cocky new recruit and Tommy Lee Jones as the seen-it-all veteran. This mismatched character dynamic between Agents J and K is what turned the film into the highest-grossing movie of 1997 with over $250 million at the domestic box office. But when production first began in March 1996, Jones apparently needed to be convinced by director Barry Sonnenfeld, whose track record for offbeat genre comedies like The Addams Family and Get Shorty made him perfect for Men in Black.

"On the first day of shooting, Tommy Lee Jones started delivering lines like really big and broad, and Barry said, ‘Whoa, whoa. Wait, what are you doing?'" recalls production designer Bo Welch, who has worked with Sonnenfeld on a number of film and television projects over the years, including Netflix's recent adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events. "And [Tommy] said, ‘Well, I'm in a comedy, so I have to be funny.’ And [Barry] goes, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Trust me, the flatter and drier you are, the funnier this will be next to Will Smith.’ He sold him on that idea and fought him on it a lot too. When [Tommy] saw the final product, he was just beyond happy."

Chatting with SYFY WIRE over the phone in 2019, Sonnenfeld explained that the film was such a triumph because of its ability to perfectly blend action, adventure, and comedy. "Tonally, they’re really hard to pull off because if the action is real and scary and strong, it really screws up the comedy. And if the comedy is really funny, [i.e.] you’re stopping your show for comedy, then you don’t believe that the action is really putting these people in danger because they’re stopping to say funny lines or whatever,” he explained.

"Tonally, I think one of the hardest things to pull off is an action-adventure-comedy," the filmmaker concluded. "Comedies are easy, dramas are easy. Tonally, you know what a buddy comedy movie is. And in a drama, you know the rules of a drama. But in action-adventure-comedy, it’s tonally hard to pull off. I think we did it really well in the first Men in Black and in the third Men in Black … In terms of comedy teams, you need the straight man and you need the funny man. If you look at all the Men in Black movies, you can tell that Will’s character and Tommy’s character loved each other, but were never gonna say, ‘Boy, this is fun.’ I think that’s what made it so successful."

Adapted from the much darker comic book series created by Lowell Cunningham, the first Men in Black was penned by Ed Solomon (best known for co-writing all three Bill & Ted movies and, more recently, Steven Soderbergh's No Sudden Move). According to Welch, the original draft of the screenplay had the MiB headquarters located in "a series of adjoining Brownstones in lower Manhattan, with exposed brick walls and typewriters and shelves full of papers." In short, a far cry from the iconic Tunnel Authority-operated Ventilation Building facade at 504 Battery Drive.

"I read that and I thought, ‘Hmmm, this doesn’t feel right.’ I said, ‘It really is hiding in plain sight,'" the production designer continues. "That [hidden] in New York is basically what I decided was a terminal for aliens traveling intergalactically. And to handle it real matter of fact and this is the reality of it. So it went from, a vintage-y detectives office to a ‘60s-inspired terminal — an airport, basically, based on my pitch to Barry early on, and he he leapt all over that. And, of course, the rest is history."

Looking for more sci-fi goodness? The entire run of SYFY’s Battlestar Galactica is streaming now on Peacock, along with the second season of Resident Alien, which returns to SYFY this fall with new episodes.

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