If aliens were to live on Earth, Barry Sonnenfeld believes they would most certainly flock to New York City. The Big Apple is the perfect place, according to the filmmaker, for an extraterrestrial to blend in. It is precisely why he switched the script for Men in Black around, which initially had the non-Earth beings inhabit Las Vegas and Kansas. “When you see that strange man on 42nd street in August wearing four down jackets even though it’s 33 degrees Celsius — I always say on his planet, 33 Celsius is winter,” chuckles the director during a phone call. The films — adapted from Malibu/Marvel comic books — complete 21 years this July and are still as popular as they were in 1997 when the first instalment released. In fact, there is a reboot in the works with Chris Hemsworth in the pipeline. The lure of the franchise, according to the director, boils down to plain and simple chemistry between the two protagonists: Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. “It’s not a big action adventure movie,” he says. “It’s more a buddy movie with aliens.”
The comeback kid
ThoughMen in Blackmay have hurled Sonnenfeld towards fame, he has actually worked on several other underrated projects. There is the 1991 film, The Addams Family and its sequel, the critically-acclaimed but short-lived TV series Pushing Daises ; another show called The Tick (both the 2001 original and the 2016 reboot). Most recently, he developed Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events , adapted from the 2004 film that Sonnenfeld was axed from. He candidly speaks about the experience, but chooses his words deliberately. “The head of DreamWorks [Walter Parkes], also a producer of the Men in Black movies, and I like each other but don’t get along professionally,” he says. According to the director, when Paramount — the studio developing A Series of Unfortunate Events — went to DreamWorks to strike a partnership deal, Sonnenfeld was dropped from the project. But a decade later, the director— who has always loved the series of children’s books — got his day in the sun. While seasons one and two are both currently available for streaming, Sonnenfeld is neck-deep in post-production on the third which will be the show’s final outing. “We always planned on it being three seasons,” he says. “There are only 13 books and each book represents two episodes for us.”
Sonnenfeld has worked in both film and television over the years, but it is the latter that has captured his heart.
“With a series, we’re basically making a feature film in one quarter of the time and one tenth of a budget and it’s 97% as good,” he says. “But truthfully, television has found itself with better writers, better stories to tell, and more time to tell them.” As another wave of ‘The Golden Age’ of television continues, Sonnenfeld is certain that streaming has heralded the spike in the content quality we are enjoying. Due to the absence of pesky commercial breaks, showrunners are not forced to break scripts up into four or five acts ‘that are x amount of minutes’. “Writers have become very attracted to streaming television,” says Sonnenfeld. “I love that [these platfiorms] are changing the paradigm of television because they are producing so much content and are supporting filmmakers.”
By his own admission, working on A Series of Unfortunate Events over the last three years has been the most rewarding experience of his career. He attributes it to Netflix’s “unique philosophy freedom and responsibility”. He regales me with bitter experiences about working with studios that have tried to control everything, down to a protagonist’s beard. “They will literally say things like ‘your lead character can’t have facial hair because we’ve never made a movie that made more than x amount of money if the lead had facial hair,’” he laughs.
While a release date for the final season of A Series of Unfortunate Events is yet to be announced, Sonnenfeld only has one future project he is immersed in. He dismisses rumours of directing series like Funny in Farsi and Beverly Hills Cop . Instead, he is going to stick his nose deep into completing Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother! his print memoir that is due in February next year.
Men in Black will air on Sony Pix on July 8, at 9 pm.