By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 10, 2011 at 1:55AM
Film Greenlit With Only One Act Of The Script Ready; New Writer David Koepp Refusing To Talk To Producer Walter Parkes
Considering how tricky the genre is to pull off, the original "Men in Black" still stands as one of the more successful stabs at the sci-fi comedy. It's no "Galaxy Quest" or anything, and it derails a bit in the third act, but for the most part it was inventive, genuinely funny and starred a central pair with perfect chemistry. 2002's sequel? Not so much; a bloated, unfunny mess that failed to capture pretty much any of what worked in the original. A third film is, belatedly, on the way, but a fascinating look at the behind the scenes shenanigans suggests it's going to land much nearer the second installment than the first.
Rumors have already been swirling around the production, which took the unusual step of taking a hiatus for several months in the middle of filming, with filming meant to kick off again last month. But when the time came, the shoot was pushed back to March due to the lack of a "ready script," with not one, but two writers, Jeff Nathanson ("Catch Me If You Can") and David Koepp ("Spider-Man"), being brought on during the downtime to try and solve the issues. Filming still hasn't gotten underway, but The Hollywood Reporter has delved into what's been going on, and discovered that it's even worse than it sounded.
The original script, from "Tropic Thunder" writer Etan Cohen, was the one that persuaded the studio and the original team to get the band back together, as it were, but Will Smith, who's apparently "become very enamored with aspects of screenwriting," wanted changes (we're not entirely surprised; the Cohen draft we read was surprisingly light on jokes). However, because Sony feared the expiration of New York's tax breaks, which made the shoot more financially viable, and because the busy schedule of the principles allowed only a short window of availability, the decision was made to shoot the first act of the film (which is set in the present), first, and then take a break to fix the rest of the script.
However, things haven't proven so simple, as the revolving door of screenwriters might suggest. A rival studio executive asks the question "If he [Will Smith] wasn't satisfied after it's been years in development, how are you going to fix that at Christmas?," an entirely fair question, and the time travel nature of the plot (which features Smith's agent J traveling back in time to the 1960s and teaming with a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones' character, played by Josh Brolin) has apparently proven particularly difficult to resolve.
Furthermore, as any half-assed screenwriting guru will tell you, if you have a problem with the third act, it's actually most likely a problem with your first act -- the trouble here is that the first act has already been filmed, and Koepp's rewrite presumably has to avoid penning anything that will change the shape of what's already in the can. Nevertheless, the scribe has now delivered a revision, although there's no word if it's passed muster with all relevant parties -- although, with filming set to begin again on March 28th, you'd hope that it had. But some of the damage has already been done, and rifts are opening up with behind the scenes personnel.
The film's producer, Walter Parkes (whose hair comes in for a baffling amount of attention in the article), and director, Barry Sonnenfeld, had feuded on the previous films, to the extent that it looked at one point that any threequel would only have one of the two on board. Old wounds were patched up, but the delays seem to have opened them up again -- Sonnenfeld being a famously neurotic helmer, and Parkes being described by one former partner as having a "Salieri syndrome." Furthermore, writer Koepp took the job only on the condition that he wouldn't have to speak to Parkes.
The money saved via the New York tax breaks, said to be around $35 million, has effectively been cancelled out by the delay, and the budget's now allegedly well over $200 million -- fairly serious, when you consider that "Men in Black II" took slightly over $440 million worldwide, suggesting an uphill struggle to profitability. In a town where release dates come first, and everything else second, even rival executives are raising an eyebrow at Sony's approach, with one unnamed insider saying "There isn't any tax break that would convince me to do [what Sony did] -- ever!"
It should be noted that "Men in Black III" isn't a write-off yet; plenty of other films, from "Gone With The Wind" to "Iron Man," have suffered behind the scenes turmoil and on-set rewrites and still come out on top. But the tea leaves certainly aren't good here. Assuming Koepp can solve the script issues, and the film makes its March 28th re-start deadline, "Men in Black III" will hit theaters, with a cast also including Emma Thompson, Jermaine Clement, Sharlto Copley, Alice Eve and Alec Baldwin, on May 25th, 2012.