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.

The following story appears in the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine on newsstands Thursday.

Hollywood veterans don't remember anything like it happening on a major movie before: In November, Sony Pictures started filming Men in Black III with only one act of the script set. The studio built in a break in production that was scheduled to last from late December through mid-February, during which the remainder of the screenplay was supposed to be completed.

Now the hiatus has been extended until March 28, and a new writer, David Koepp, who did uncredited work on the first MIB, has been brought on board to work out complex script issues involving time travel. Although the delay is costing millions, Sony says those expenses will be more than offset because the studio started shooting in late 2010 -- in time to save millions thanks to New York state tax breaks.

But the decision to start filming a complicated, effects-driven tentpole without a finished script has some in Hollywood baffled. The top executive at one production company expressed skepticism that "the tax break is covering the chaos cost," adding, "There isn't any tax break that would convince me to do [what Sony did] -- ever!"

MIB III, scheduled to open in 3D in May 2012, has a budget that will easily pass $200 million. In the story, Will Smith's character returns to 1969 and encounters famous figures of the day, like Yoko Ono, as well as a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K (played by Josh Brolin). Smith would have to travel quite far into the past just to see the previous edition of MIB in theaters: The sequel was released in 2002 and, despite a drubbing from critics, grossed more than $440 million worldwide.

With studios chasing franchises, it's hardly surprising that Sony was determined to pursue another MIB. Sony spokesman Steve Elzer says the studio came up with the unusual shooting plan because it feared the New York incentive program would expire at the end of December. (Instead, it was extended for five years.) The studio also has said it included the hiatus to allow outdoor scenes to be shot in New York in spring weather.

But several observers suspect the studio moved ahead with production largely because all of the key players -- including Smith, Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld -- were finally ready to go, and a delay might have jeopardized that.

Smith and the others agreed to reunite based on a script from Tropic Thunder writer Etan Cohen. But though that version found favor with the studio, Sonnenfeld and producer Walter Parkes, Smith wanted changes. "He's become very enamored with aspects of screenwriting," says a source involved with the production. The source believes Smith has earned the right to weigh in on the script, but he says the actor's process "takes a long time." (The star's reps did not respond to a request for comment.)

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