Men In Black 3 Director Barry Sonnenfeld is quick to give out tech-related advice. “This is an incredibly good stereo mic that fits into the bottom of your phone,” he tells me as he pulls the gadget from his bag. It comes as no surprise. After all, in addition to directing films full of apparatuses and contraptions—from the memory-wiping Neuralizer in the MIB films to Wednesday Addams’ tried and true guillotine in The Addams Family—he wrote a column about the modern, digital man for Esquire for eight years. Luckily for cinephiles, cameras are his main passion. Well, that and the Wild West.
The marriage of filmmaking and buckaroos is particularly apparent in his Men In Black films, the third hitting theaters May 25, after a 10-year hiatus. “They do come in, you know, ‘Step aside, ma’am, we’ll handle this,’” he says of Will Smith’s Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones’ (now Josh Brolin’s) Agent K. Sonnenfeld also has a similar cowboy approach to 2-D-to-3-D conversion, something that typically leaves a bitter taste in Hollywood and filmgoers’ mouths.
“I grew up as an urban Jew in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, but I sort of embraced all things cowboy,” he says. Sonnenfeld’s true cowboy catalyst came when he shot Joel and Ethan Coen’s noir thriller, Blood Simple, in Austin during his early days as a cinematographer. After arriving in Texas, he and the Coens went to a country western store where they shopped for Shady Brady hats and shirt jacks—“You know, it’s too thick to be a shirt, but too thin to be a jacket,” he explains. At this moment, he’s wearing navy blue boots with a white inverted flame stitch with a pinstripe suit and suspenders.
Still, this John Wayne mentality transcends clothing. “I had a great time thinking about shooting and converting it to 3-D,” he says of Men In Black 3. “The whole 3-D of it all is really rewarding for me because you read so much about how native 3-D is good and conversion is bad and I never felt that was the case.”
The current wave of 3-D movies is still a relatively new one that’s driven up ticket prices and divided critics and fans alike. The massive success of Avatar—shot in 3-D—would lead one to believe that it’s the only way to film, especially after failures of 2-D-to3-D conversions ranging from The Clash of the Titans to this year’s mega-flop John Carter (films that, admittedly, had other problems that went beyond their format). However, the unbelievable success of 2-D-to-3-D conversion, The Avengers, which made $450 million in 17 days, and the potential success for fans to rediscover Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black 3, may seriously challenge and change the way we think about stereoscopic 3-D’s successful gallop.
“I always felt bad native shooting is bad, good conversion is good,” Sonnenfeld says. “Personally—forget about everyone else—I’m thrilled by how it looks in 3-D. It looks exactly how I imagined it would look.”
Sonnenfeld tested various cameras and conversion techniques with reality rigs, pace rigs, and 35mm film before shooting to compare the look of different kinds of 3-D. In the end, he felt he had more control over the depth shooting in film. Likewise, genre favorite Rick Baker’s aliens didn’t look as good in digital.
Meticulous testing has always been Sonnenfeld’s staple—each shot comes across as fantastically stylized, almost like the earlier work of Robert Zemeckis or a more subtle Tim Burton. “I’ve always been smart production-wise,” Sonnenfeld says. Even before his days with the Coen Brothers, he shot nine feature length pornographic films in nine days on 16mm, an experience he calls “disgusting” and “depressing.” While most directors would shy away from their erotic pasts, Sonnenfeld remembers. “I learned that by strategizing and pre-planning how you were going to shoot so much work in a short amount of time,” he says. “It’s something that I still do to this day.”
To that end, Sonnenfeld has come a long way from his days as an urban youngster. “The funny thing is, Tommy Lee Jones really knows his way around a horse and Josh Brolin owns a ranch,” Sonnenfeld says of his cast. “They’re real cowboys and they cannot put up with the fact that I wear cowboy hats and sit on a saddle on set. Luckily, they haven’t seen me in chaps. I’ll occasionally wear chaps, too.” That animated way of talking about leather over trousers is the same way he talks about 3-D. It makes you want to believe that we were duped into believing 2-D-to-3-D conversion was bad, all the while wishing everyone lived on a ranch with horses.