Why 'Men in Black III' Started Shooting Without a Script
The current issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine looks into Sony’s controversial decision (made for tax incentive reasons) to begin production that has caused problems with the time-travel plot and stoked tensions between director Barry Sonnenfeld and producer Walter Parkes.
MIB III was supposed to start filming in October but was delayed until November, reportedly because of disagreements over the script. Even as filming began, Sony brought in screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can) to make revisions. With the first act in the can, production shut down as scheduled around Christmas, but there still was no script acceptable to all parties. The problem hadn't been resolved when the hiatus ran its course in mid-February.
One former studio chief is not surprised that Sony did not come up with a script that passed muster with Smith in the time allotted. "If he wasn't satisfied after it's been years in development, how are you going to fix that at Christmas?" this person asks. And though the prolonged pause in production is costing Sony millions, Smith is under no pressure to approve a script that is not 100% to his liking.
A key player on the film explains that the nature of the project has made it difficult to get the screenplay right. "Any movie involving time travel seems to be difficult if you want to make it work and have no bullshit loopholes, which has taken longer than we thought it would," he says.
But shooting that first act without the remainder of the script in place has only compounded the issues. "It's hard because you're locked into the beginning of the movie," a production source acknowledges. "It creates problems that are just kind of crazy."
According to a source with firsthand knowledge of the situation, Sony expected to save more than $35 million thanks to the New York tax program. But that will be reduced because the hiatus has gone on longer than anticipated. Sony maintains that the extra costs are not substantial. "Because we extended the hiatus from the holidays, few people were on the payroll, so this was a relatively inexpensive decision that has had an insignificant impact on the budget," Elzer told THR in an e-mail.
Elzer says Koepp has already delivered a revision of the script. But by now, the stresses of making the film have stirred old antagonisms -- notably between Sonnenfeld and Parkes. While Sonnenfeld is known as talented but high-strung, Parkes -- noted for a handsome head of gray hair -- often is criticized for heavy-handedness with writers. (Both Parkes and Sonnenfeld declined comment.)
The two men clashed so bitterly on both of the earlier MIBs that at one time, a knowledgeable source says, there were plans to make the third film without the active participation of one or the other. The men made up as MIB III came together, but now they are said to be at odds again, and a source friendly with Sonnenfeld insists the director is not at fault. "A lot of the blame gets put on Barry because he's so neurotic and out there," this person says. "But the real evil here is Walter trying to impose his point of view on things. And because he's so facile and he's got great hair, he wins the day a lot. But what sounds great never materializes into a screenplay."
That point of view is not new. Lawrence Lasker, once a filmmaking partner with Parkes, said a few years ago that Parkes had "a bit of a Salieri syndrome," referring to the composer who was famously jealous of Mozart's genius. Screenwriter Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinny) says Parkes is prone to throwing out many ideas in a process that "sort of cuts your balls off a little as a creative person. He gets to do the fun stuff, and you're supposed to make his ideas work."
The clash between producer and writer appears to have recurred with Koepp. A knowledgeable source says the scribe signed to the latest rewrite with the understanding that he would not be required to meet with or speak to Parkes. Elzer says it was the studio and producers who chose to have Sonnenfeld work directly with Koepp, adding, "This is fairly common."
But it's clear that when it comes to MIB, Parkes derives power from more than just good hair and a persuasive manner. Back when the first MIB (1997) was coming together, he kicked off a mutually beneficial relationship with Steven Spielberg by installing him as a producer on the film, even though Parkes and wife Laurie MacDonald had set up and partially cast the picture at Sony.
When it grossed about $590 million worldwide, Spielberg raked in a profit participation that was rumored to be $100 million. For Spielberg, who has been an executive producer on every film in the series, that proved a gift that has kept on giving.
BOX-OFFICE NUMBERS FOR THE MEN IN BLACK FRANCHISE
Men in Black (1997)
Men in Black II (2002)