Time operates differently in the Men In Black universe. Or rather, it does as far and its production is concerned. There was already a bit of a gap between the first and second films in the franchise, which were released in 1997 and 2002 respectively. But all calendars were thrown out completely when MIB 3 was released a whole ten years after Men In Black II. Now, the latest addition to the series, Men In Black: International hit screens a whopping 22 years after the first. Many that grew up watching the series and attempting to neuralyze their schoolmates took their kids to the cinema this year for the third instalment.
You would be hard-pressed to find a mainstream film lover that wasn’t charmed by the alien-policing Men In Black back in 1997, and most other franchises would have leapt at the opportunity to get the ball rolling on more movies ASAP. So we have to wonder: why wait? We speak to longtime Men In Black producing team (and real-life couple) Walter F Parkes and Laurie MacDonald for the answer.
“The right time for all of them has been when we had a script that we and the studio felt was worth making,” says Parkes. “You can only time these things so far. I guess there are instances like in the Marvel world where it’s such a big, rich world and there are many different sorts of stories, but here it’s somewhat more specific, and they’re not easy scripts to develop. It started with that.”
“The other thing I think is, in the first three films, we have clearly told a full story,” adds MacDonald. “We felt that by Men In Black 3 the story with Will [Smith]’s character was complete. It’s also the question of: are we going to bring this franchise into another [era] and expand it? I think we always felt that Men In Black was an international organisation, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do that.”
Where the first three films in the Men In Black canon followed Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (and Josh Brolin in the case of Men In Black 3) as Agents J and K, Men In Black: International revolves around a brand new partnership. Tessa Thompson leads the cast as Agent M, a new recruit assigned to the organisation’s UK branch, with Chris Hemsworth coming along for the ride as Agent H, her partner and one of MIB UK’s top agents. With Smith and Jones’ legacy to contend with, what do the new duo bring to their roles?
“Well, it goes without saying,” says MacDonald.
“You know, the way they look, the way they act…” laughs Parkes. “They’re brilliant!”
“Chris came on board first and was clear to us as someone who could both be cool and an action hero but also has such incredible comic gifts, which were really key in the franchise,” says MacDonald.
“And Tessa has a career worth of work that isn’t necessarily in the big Hollywood-like sphere, but she’s just extraordinary,” says Parkes.
Following Thor: Ragnarok, in which Hemsworth played hero Thor and Thompson joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as fallen warrior Valkyrie, it was clear that the pair had a lot of on-screen chemistry. As a violent buddy tag team, they slayed Hela’s army of Berserkers and bewitched audiences as they did it.
“You just saw that Tessa in that character would stand up to Chris,” says Parkes. “There was this sort of spark between them that when we came round to thinking about casting the female lead we felt she suited the film perfectly.”
However, they didn’t want to fall into the trap of casting a partnership that had worked before simply because it worked before. “It was funny because after we cast Chris we saw Tessa and thought, god, she’d be great!” MacDonald tells us. “We were also a little concerned: we didn’t want to feel like we were duplicating that, or trying to, but the role is so different. In this, she has an equal role. They’re really partners. It felt different enough that that wasn’t an issue. I mean, they have great chemistry in Thor, but it wasn’t so much about chemistry as character. Agent M is a complex, brilliant woman, and looking at the landscape and what would be fresh and who would be interesting, Tessa was our first choice.”
Thompson isn’t the only actor playing the character: when we first meet M, she’s a little girl called Molly, portrayed by Mandeiya Flory. After her family had an alien experience when Molly was just six, the Men in Black swooped in to do their job and wipe their memories. However, only Molly’s parents fell victim to the neuralyzer; Molly herself was left with her memories intact, and as a result spent the following two decades searching for the Men in Black.
“She’s been looking for 20 years with the knowledge that there’s this other reality out there, which has isolated her,” says Parkes.
“And the obsession to see it,” adds MacDonald. “She’s a really smart little girl who has already has a tremendous imagination that leaked beyond her parents’ world. Having seen this at the age of six, it was life-changing. We meet a character who’s not going to be chosen but has instead obsessively looked for the Men In Black and finds them finally.”
As far as the scripts for new Men In Black films go, it tall starts with the characters. Men In Black: International is no different. “We talked in general about [the film], but we really sat down to expend some energy and see if we could expand this, what the next iteration would be, it was all about creating the character of M,” says MacDonald. “She was at the heart of it. The key to these movies for us is not that they just deliver great action and comedy and adventure, but that there’s some emotional issue at stake. The character of M grew out of that.”
As a result of Molly’s childhood experience, M becomes the first person ever to track down the MiB, as opposed to being recruited by them. Finding the US branch of the organisation, she’s swiftly sent to the London office, where Emma Thompson’s Agent O, who appeared in MIB 3, has some suspicions about her.
“She ends up teaming with Chris’s character, who in some ways challenges M’s idea of what a Men In Black agent should be,” explains Parkes. “He’s sort of a loose cannon. That basic character premise felt right to us and, as Laurie said, we find when developing scripts like this, if you get the character dynamic right then the story work is a little bit easier.”
Many fans will have picked up on the fact that there’s something a little different about the new film: Agent M will be the first central female MIB agent in the franchise’s three-film history. “It wasn’t a conscious choice,” says Parkes. “The instigation for this movie was the idea of there being this little girl who ended up not getting neuralyzed and chased down the Men in Black.”
“It was a conscious choice for me!” argues MacDonald, laughing. “Obviously Emma became a big part of the movie in the last one as we expanded that world. It’s not as much a political move as it is a creative one. It’s just fresher. We finished Will’s story, so we needed to figure out what the next pairing could be and what that dynamic is. For that reason too it seemed like a good idea.”
Newby J was an enthusiastic optimist in the first Men In Black film while veteran K was far more stern and rational, roles that have been flipped for the new film. Agent M is more of a Tommy Lee Jones. “She’s new to it but she [sees the world as it really is],” explains MacDonald. “She’s very much a rationalist. She doesn’t believe in things that are not provable by science, and she’s tougher emotionally in her own way, like Tommy.”
“Surprisingly our male star [Agent H] can not only be off the rails sometimes but also reveals a little bit of vulnerability, which can be surprising,” adds Parkes.
“But his great gift, or his achilles heel, is his emotional depth,” says MacDonald. “He can fall for things.”
Though Men In Black: International is being treated as a sequel, just the central duo removes it from the first three films to the point of also being able to describe it as a reboot. The characters aren’t the only big change, however: Barry Sonnenfeld, the filmmaker behind the likes of The Addams Family, The Addams Family Values and Get Shorty, directed the first three films, but the fourth instalment has a new body in the director’s chair. This time, Straight Outta Compton and The Fate Of The Furious director F Gary Gray is helming. According to Parkes, he had a couple of key directorial goals from the outset.
“One was to try to update the action element, which I think he has been quite successful in, and to find a place that is both true to the specific feel and style of Men In Black, and also to make [the world] something that he as a filmmaker could contribute to,” he tells us. “It’s a difficult thing to do because you have to be mindful of the conventions of the franchise that are essential, but how did you liven something? I think he did a great job of that. He also interestingly enough had a kind of colour map in his head… All the Men In Black films tend to have a very black and white palette, coming out of the high sixties. But as we go from New York to London and go through the European locations, he really wanted to play up the colour and life and the very nature, visually, of these international places we go to. It’s a very good directorial instinct and I remember seeing colour boards from the very beginning that we were all very conscious of.
“Particularly in the first one, there’s a style that Barry helped invent with the Cohen brothers and the DP, and you’d very much see it in Men In Black,” continues Parkes. “It’s a deadpan approach to comedy. He’s amazing! Barry is a true talent. I think Gary certainly honoured that, but I think this is a more visual approach to it.”
Historically, comedy has regularly been dismissed when paired with genre. When comedy comes into the likes of fantasy or science fiction, the ‘comedy’ part is often the only part people take notice of, meaning hybrids like Red Dwarf and Galaxy Quest often lose a good chunk of their would-be genre audience and end up a cult property that a lot of people love and respect but would never pull in the same kind of numbers as the likes of Star Trek and Jurassic Park, which take themselves a little more seriously. Men In Black has always gone heavy on the comedy without compromising its extraterrestrial aspect.
“I do think, particularly with the first Men In Black, one of the most precious aspects of it was that it really was a comedy,” says Parkes. “We have a good amount of experience trying to merge procedural stories and science fiction, because we also made Minority Report, but that’s not comedy. The interesting thing is when you are operating within the logic of comedy you get away with more in terms of story leaps and things. It’s a slightly less demanding mistress. I will say this, and it’s an observation that I think more people in Hollywood have: up until three or four years ago, there was an amazing run of enormously successful comedies, from old Apatow pictures and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay movies, Seth Rogan’s pictures… they’re a little bit less common right now, and one theory is because if you look at things like Thor and Men In Black, a lot of these big studio movies are in fact more comedic than they ever were in the past.”
“They’re also feeding that appetite,” adds MacDonald.
“Yeah, so it could be that it’s no longer such a purest thing, that comedy is becoming more intrinsic to science fiction,” says Parkes, “and it might be stealing some of the thunder from more traditional comedies.”
“Honestly when the first Men In Black came out there had not been a big [sci-fi comedy],” says MacDonald. “I suppose Back To The Future would be the closest but it’s [more sci-fi than comedy]. They’d not been a big science fiction comedy at that point. I guess in a way it was a risky movie to make. It wasn’t a big comic book or anything. I think it was one of the very first… Honestly, even looking at those big franchise universes, there were more serious-in-their-own-way movies. They tended to be a little more dramatic, but with some comedy [thrown in].”
When Men In Black: International was first announced, it surprisingly wasn’t met with the same kind of scorn that delayed sequels often receive (shoutout to Ghostbusters (2016) and Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle), the vibes surrounding the project before its release had been good ones. But would Parkes and MacDonald take that as a sign to pull a Marvel and get started on expanding the world even further?
“If somebody else could figure out the story!” Parkes laughs.
“We’d love to! Of course we’d love to,” MacDonald enthuses. “We love what Chris and Tessa created in this, and we think it’s a great pairing. We never talk about sequels. I guess with Marvel they have to, as they’ve decided that’s their business. Men In Black has actually never been that. Even when the first one was a big hit, it’s kind of more homemade. You need to know that there’s an idea that warrants it. Obviously with success we will love to endeavour to find a story that deserves to be told, so we’ll see.”
“From the very first time we read the comic book, which was almost 20 years ago, what did entice us more than anything was the world of the Men in Black,” says Parkes, “the idea of the secret police force that we don’t know but is actually protecting us, the idea of this alien tech that has found its way into the mainstream from time to time but is largely controlled by the Men in Black. Even that tagline, ‘Protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe,’ there are aspects of that world that has always appealed to us. Whether it’s an individual movie or toys or whatever, it’s just gratifying that the audience still finds that basic notion intriguing, and so do we.”
Men In Black: International is in cinemas now. Get all the latest sci-fi news with every issue of SciFiNow.