Will Smith is cool. I've known this for years, because I'm a writer, and I have a dictionary, and when I open it to "cool" there's a photo of the Fresh Prince. But still, when I found myself face-to-face with Will Smith the real-life person, hastily finishing a quick bite of upscale breakfast whilst rushing in to the press junket for the new movie Men in Black 3, a palpable aura of coolness filled the room, and for the sake of courtesy I had to bite back a bona fide "Day-amn!" (I don't actually talk that way; it was just an absurdly, well, cool moment.)
We the few, the proud, the entertainment journalists got an early eyeful of the third installment in the Men in Black series, and it's a raucous, rollicking ride, as visually stunning -- in truly sensational 3D -- as it is hilarious and exciting. Could have trimmed back the Chinese bug-people and the baseball-obsessed Rain Man alien, but no major movie so far this year has entertained me so fully and giddily. The Oscars, which usually lean Heavy and Significant, really should launch a category for Funnest Picture; for with its strongly Douglas-Adams-esque blend of zany aliens, glib zingers and wacky gadgets, plus another wonderful Danny Elfman score, Rick Baker's amazing makeup, and even Emma Thompson as the saucy new department head, Men in Black 3 would easily win.
The gist of Men in Black 3, in brief, is that somewhat-seasoned NYC alien-policer Agent J (Smith) bewilderingly loses all traces of the saltier Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and must perilously time-jump -- you simply must see this -- back to the Warhol, flower power and moon launch of super-groovy 1969 to save Young Agent K (Josh Brolin topping Rich Little for spot-on imitation) from a very nasty alien villain, of the Bogdanovich species or something, named Boris (Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement), who looks like Lemmy from Motörhead crossed with, er, let us say the second word of the term is "dentata." (He does -- especially his hand.) And now that we have raised Google searches for those two fine entities, let us turn to Mr. Smith, who speaks thusly of his role against one character played by two actors:
"That's what's crazy," enthuses the sci-fi veteran, "that's all Josh Brolin. As actors, when you're in a scene, it's like a tennis match, you're going back and forth. Me and Martin (Lawrence) have different chemistry than me and Tommy Lee Jones, you know. And as an actor, you find the lanes, and you develop the chemistry, so I was expecting to make an adjustment from Tommy Lee Jones to Josh Brolin. But Josh studied Tommy so thoroughly that it was almost identical!
"It was absolutely stunning, and it's crazy because you don't even really notice how good his acting is, because it's so good you're just watching Tommy Lee Jones. You don't realize: No, that's Josh Brolin!"
Smith is not only a purveyor of science fiction, he's a fan, and he quickly locates the message in the medium, when discussing his favorite new on-screen gadget: "It has to be the Time Dial," he laughs. "Somebody has to come up with a 'Time-Jump app'! That idea -- I've always loved time-travel. For this movie to actually dive into it and start thinking about it and talking about it, I realized that: For black people, you don't really want to do too much jumping into the past! Right now is like the best it's ever been. So maybe the Time Dial, if I could go forward with it, that'd be a great thing."
And speaking of going forward, Men in Black 3 is Will Smith's first foray into 3D. How's that going for him?
"My first concern with being in 3D was my ears," he chuckles, gesturing to his cranial appendages. "Because I could see these things pretty much taking over the whole of the screen. But when I first saw it, they were cool, so I was like, 'All right, we didn't have me looking like satellite dishes.
"So the idea of special effects now, you can see anything! There's no limitations with special effects. Probably the last five, six years, there's absolutely no limitation of what you can see onscreen anymore." Mr. Smith reckons: "That's the world that we live in now, so it's just a matter of the artists figuring out how to create it in a way that it's most effective for the audience."
Two masters of that craft are Men in Black 3's dual Visual Effects Supervisors, Ken Ralston and Jay Redd. Both visual veterans with extensive credits, Mr. Ralston's many successes extend from the Pillsbury Dough Boy to the Star Wars and Star Trek films to the recent Beowulf and Alice in Wonderland; and Mr. Redd's got Babe, Stuart Little and three new Looney Toons CG shorts under his belt. I sat down with them to talk shop. What's it like to create extremely high-tech effects which must measure up perfectly to the micron -- and yet also be hilarious?
"It was a fun show to be on," smiles Mr. Ralston. "I think we all just connected with Barry (director Sonnenfeld) in a great way. We had a lot of fun in dailies with him. It wasn't tense, and full of sweating brows -- oh! some other director, if he was here, he'd rip your guts out if you did something wrong! -- it was a lot of very easygoing discussions, and laughing about stuff. And also he trusts us. He knew we weren't going to ruin anything. I like working on a show where I can just sit in dailies, and laugh."
(At this point I'm reflecting on my own dewy days at Paramount, when I wandered across a big, gothic soundstage as if I'd been swept up in some dark fantasy world. What was it? Barry Sonnenfeld's The Addams Family. Small world!)
"We had our work cut out for us," elaborates Mr. Redd, "because this shoot was difficult, and we had some difficult photography, and some really challenging sequences. But having somebody like Barry, who likes making movies -- he actually likes to do it, and we like to make movies -- so it's kind of fun to say, 'Let's try to have a good time, given our circumstances and our time.'" (Excellent philosophy in any field!)
When I ask what got these guys into effects, they evoke the name of the craft's ultimate grandpappy master -- and a man I've been lucky enough to meet numerous times -- Ray Harryhausen. May I? Oh, I may: The Ray Harryhausen!
"It was The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, stuff that Ray Harryhausen had done, and really all of his other movies," offers Mr. Ralston. "Something clicked in my head, or burnt into my psyche -- I think it appealed to me, the creation of a world that I really believed in. Seeing the Cyclops and his other stuff, I still have great memories of when I was a kid, seeing that stuff -- What the hell is that?! -- and then trying to figure out: What is it? There was no information anywhere.
He credits Forrest Ackerman's magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland for filling in the gaps. "Whatever it did to me, it fascinated me, to the point where: Here I am. I was knocked out, and I got semi-obsessed about what that thing was -- and I was a little kid, trying to mimic it, with nothing. It was probably horribly embarrassing for my folks! But I kept trying, and they were very understanding: getting an early Kodak camera and trying to figure out what stop-motion was, and getting the film back from the drugstore! This thing popped, because I could only hit a couple of frames per second -- but it told me something."
Mr. Redd cultivates a remarkably cool moustache which bespeaks his sense of visual flair, a talent he honed via design work in his hometown of Salt Lake City before moving on to working at Sony with Robert Zemeckis on the universe-spanning opening shot of Contact. But with Men in Black 3 he's also gotten accustomed to counterbalancing the grand with the quirky. As he relates:
"We were working on a shot -- it's the unfurling of the ArcNet." (An Earth-encompassing shield of sorts.) "The rocket launches, in different stages, and you see this thing spin around the Earth. It's a pretty fast shot. Well, you're travelling out in space, and the nerd part of me is like, 'Oh, it should be majestic! You've got to see the Earth, you've got to see this thing elegantly!" Mr. Redd drops a perfectly-timed beat. "Barry didn't want to go there at all.
"And so we showed him a few different iterations, and wanted to go with certain levels of photorealism, and slow it down, and get it to feel bigger and he said, 'Guys, guys! Stop. Just make it dopey."
"'Make it look dopey," Mr. Ralston echoes.
"That was kind of a moment," grins Mr. Redd. "Ken and I looked at each other and just kind of cracked up, and first it was: 'Oh, really?' But the spirit of it was--"
"Let's have some fun with it!" enthuses Mr. Ralston.
"--this is Men in Black, you guys." concludes Mr. Redd.
And closing with Mr. Smith, when asked about his three-year hiatus from acting, and present return, he's all smiles:
"Coming back to Men in Black 3 just felt like home."
Men in Black 3 opens across America this Friday.
Film photos courtesy of Sony Pictures.