With Straight Outta Compton and Fate of the Furious director F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black: International now playing in theaters around the world, I recently attended the London press day for the film where I got to speak with producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. As most of you know from the trailers, Tessa Thompson is the newest member of the Men in Black family playing Agent M, and joins Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and an animated character named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Najiani) on a worldwide adventure. The film also stars Liam Neeson as High T, the head of the Men in Black’s UK division, Rebecca Ferguson, and Emma Thompson, reprising her role from Men In Black 3.
During the interview, Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald talked about how the sequel came together, how they decided to cast Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson and if they debated not doing it because of Thor: Ragnarok, how the film came together in the editing room and if they made any big changes, deleted scenes, if they ever debated changing the Men in Black title, and more. In addition, as a longtime fan of the movie Sneakers (which Walter F. Parkes produced and helped write), I asked what ever happened to the Sneakers TV show that was being developed. Check out what they had to say below.
Collider: This is not how I was going to start but I have to ask, what is, for all the people that can’t stay together, what is the secret? Because you guys have been together since the 80s.
WALTER F. PARKES: We got married in ’83, 1982.
LAURIE MACDONALD: Lord.
PARKES: And been working together as full partners since, ’90?
MACDONALD: Yeah, yeah.
Right, so what’s the secret because in Hollywood, no one lasts.
MACDONALD: What is it?
PARKES: Luck? I don’t know.
MACDONALD: I know. Luck!
PARKES: I think… Here’s one serious answer. In the last, how many years? And I like to joke, compared to normal people, we’ve been married 36 years but if you actually look at the amount of hours we have spent together, we’ve been married for about 97 years.
PARKES: But you know…So you know what question never gets asked? “So how was work today, honey?” I’m not kidding, it’s like, we can leave all that and we’ve raised two fantastic kids through all of this because, once we were home, we were quite aware of what our worlds were like and very willing to let them go.
MACDONALD: We also really share the, and I would say daily but they can be hourly, the ups and downs of doing this kind of work. You know, creative work, that everything’s going to happen and then it falls apart and, there’s a way in which we’ve gotten to ride through that together, which helps. You don’t have to like question, “Why is he in such a shitty mood tonight?”, you know? And we have had the great joy, we’ve talked too about how refreshing and reinvigorating, in every movie you work with, it starts with the writer who we usually spend hours and months and years with in developing a story but we are constantly forming these great new creative partnerships that are fresh. And so, it doesn’t get boring in that way. It even, I think it livens our relationship because you have these, you’re just working with such great people.
I’m going to give credit though because, to work together and, you know what I mean-
MACDONALD: Yeah I know.
PARKES: You’re very sweet.
Talk a little bit about the genesis in terms of, obviously it’s a very successful franchise, but how long ago had the studio said, “Maybe we want to do another one of these?” Or talk a little bit about that: the germination and where it all started.
PARKES: Of this one.
MACDONALD: Yeah, I’m trying to remember if it was a year after…
PARKES: I don’t think that the studio every said that. My recollection… I mean, there was a big moment there where there was going to be a short-lived but for a moment exciting idea of mashing this up with Jump Street. Do you remember that?
MACDONALD: Crazy but kind of fun idea. We were, yeah.
PARKES: And honestly when we were done with the third one, everyone involved felt, “Okay, we have told that story.” The Tommy and Will version of this has run its course Barry, all of us felt like great. And we felt good about the third picture.
Laurie and I had an inkling about a character and approach, because it all ultimately comes from character, which was the Molly character, as opposed to someone who was recruited. What if there was this young kid? This young girl who would have an experience and, you know, hadn’t been neuralized and spent the rest of her youth trying to find the Men in Black and what would that journey be like?
I think we said we had this idea and we tried writing it. We wrote a whole script based on that, which is not the script you’ve seen, which we actually threw out. And we were a bit stalled on it, which is when the studios told us that there’s some interest in a Lord Miller camp about doing mashup. We said, “Fantastic.” We loved the idea but it turned out to be a very difficult mashup. And then it was-
MACDONALD: When that didn’t work, we just, I think the studio then said, you know, because they loved, there were elements of the original script we developed that were- Molly was fantastic. We knew that there was a kind of heart and soul to the story if we could figure out, you know, who- And we had Chris’ character but he wasn’t as well-defined and it was kind of finding that dynamic.
PARKES: And let’s be honest though. Most studios, particularly Sony, and it’s now five years ago which is around when we started thinking about them. Four years ago. This is a landscape that is dominated by franchise movies and if you’re a major motion pictures studio and you don’t have Marvel, you don’t have Pixar and you don’t have Star Wars, your franchise titles are extremely valuable to you. So, it was right around then as the movie business was sort of changing, because really, the domination of the marketplace by this tiny handful of franchises really is really more the last five, six, seven years. I think that’s where the energy of, “Yeah, guys can you deliver one? Is there a way to get this going again?”, became more of an urgent issue for the studio.
I obviously loved the chemistry between Chris and Tessa in Thor: Ragnarok. So, talk a little bit about how they ended up together in this, in terms of, had you, you see Ragnarok and then you’re thinking? Or this is before Ragnarok?
PARKES: No, it’s quite in spite of in a way-
MACDONALD: We had to actually, I actually think, had we already- We always love Chris and oddly enough even though it began with Molly, that character, the female character, when you looked at the casting of the movie, it was very tough to think who could handle H’s role. It was very, to us, a very short list because he needed to be British, or as we said now, or at least Australian. He needed to be –
PARKES: True. Plus, a man.
MACDONALD: So, and there are a lot of good actors but he needed to be both cool, leading man who can do action and can play that suave version of that, you know, a Bond-like character, but also as deeply comic. And, so it was very hard.
So, we cast Chris first. We were very happy the first person we went to said, “yes”. And then it was about Molly and it was interesting, we had seen- Then we saw Thor, we loved Thor and thought they were amazing in it. And we’d seen her in Creed, but had never seen her do more, you know, more sort of comic work. Even though Thor is a little less of it, but anyway we just loved her and when we got down to it and then brought Gary on board who was also a huge fan of hers. And we put them together. Honestly, we felt some- Our only stalling for a moment on that decision was feeling like, “does this feel like we’re just doing what they just, you know we’re putting these two people together who were in this other franchise?”
PARKES: It was looked upon as a potential negative.
MACDONALD: For us it was, “is it a potential negative?” But we felt that-
PARKES: But on the other hand there was proof of concept. We saw that she, and this is the most important thing, you have Chris Hemsworth, that looks like Chris Hemsworth and has Chris Hemsworth confidence and charm and size, everything. Who can stand up to him?
PARKES: Who can absolutely hold their own? In a way that isn’t even competitive but is just like elemental forces. Not that many people, and we did see evidence of that. It’s not why we cast her, in fact we had certain trepidations about how we proceed…
MACDONALD: We didn’t want to look like, do we have no imagination? We’re just going to…
PARKES: But, as it turns out, it was the right casting and, in fact, people are embracing the idea that it’s that duo back together again…
MACDONALD: Yeah, we hadn’t thought about that.
But, isn’t it also you can look at Hollywood history and see all the times that two actors worked together on so many different projects because people love their chemistry?
PARKES: Yeah, absolutely.
MACDONALD: When it really works, when actors really do have chemistry, yeah it’s a rare-
PARKES: Have you looked at To Have and Have Not recently?
I have not.
PARKES: Go, as a film person, go take a look. It’s the first Bogart Bacall…
That’s what I mean though.
PARKES: And it’s just amazing. And you just go, “Oh okay, that’s done.”
MACDONALD: Yeah, in this case you-
PARKES: Tom Hanks and Meg for that little while…
MACDONALD: For that period, yeah. No it’s-
But that’s what I’m talking about, it’s like they’ve clearly worked together. For me, I was like I totally want to see the two of them together again.
PARKES: Yeah, and just to the Facebook thing, it is fun to watch the two of them you know.
MACDONALD: I know, because they have great, there’s a kind of-
PARKES: And he’s sort of like in his own world and she’s so focused…
MACDONALD: Brother, sister…
PARKES: It’s just great. They’re just funny together, it’s wonderful.
I want to jump now, movies now done and, because I’m fascinated by the editing process, because ultimately that’s the final rewrite.
So, you step in the editing room, you have all your footage. What’s the first thing you’re thinking? Are you thinking, “we have it”? Because I’ve spoken to, I’ve seen everything, I’ve heard every answer from every person. I’m always curious about editing.
MACDONALD: Well they’re always terrifying first rough cuts. I mean, the editor does-
PARKES: Do you know the adage which is no movie is as good as its dailies or as bad as its first cut?
MACDONALD: But the one thing, and it was rough because it was, you know, kind of sprawling story and, like all movies, it’s all, you know, we always- I think we’ve made enough movies, that we can kind of hopefully see what the values, if there are some key values there then hopefully we can get it there in finish. But the one thing that was very apparent, even just from watching the two of us, how good the two of them were together…
MACDONALD: And how that was really working. How Kumail just, you know, knocked it out of the park with Pawny. And, so, we did feel, because that’s the only thing honestly in a really rough cut like that and you don’t have any special effects and you don’t have any of those great creatures you’re going to see in the movie, that was the one thing that gave us, you know, hope we could get it there in file.
PARKES: What’s interesting… two things about that, and look we’ve done this a lot. Still to this day, it’s very hard to judge the movie nowadays because of how much it is CG…
MACDONALD: Yeah, yeah.
PARKES: So, I thought there were two things that made me feel confident. The first one was, when Danny Elfman saw it. The only people from the original franchise that are involved in this movie are me and Laurie, Emma and Danny Elfman, who did the music for all of them. And I remember when he saw the cut, I said, “What do you think?”, and he said, “The rapport is great and everything else can be fixed.”
MACDONALD: I also love-
PARKES: Do you know what I mean, it’s like, you can’t fix the rapport.
PARKES: And the other thing was, as you know our longtime friend and partner, Steven Spielberg, is the Executive Producer, and we showed him a very early cut…
MACDONALD: Really rough, yeah.
PARKES: And Steven is someone who has done this so much, who can see past, you know, what isn’t there yet, and his response gave us that next little bit, like okay, we’re going to be all right.
I’m always curious about the first cut vs the finished film. Did you guys have a lot of deleted scenes? Was it super tight?
MACDONALD: We didn’t have a lot of deleted scenes…
PARKES: Strangely enough-
MACDONALD: We had a lot of scenes that were, you know, were certainly brought down but we didn’t in this. But we did do a lot of work.
PARKES: We did minimal reshoots, like, minimal compared to other movies, hardly at all.
MACDONALD: Yeah, yeah.
PARKES: We dropped scenes, but we didn’t drop sequences.
MACDONALD: Did we drop that many scenes even?
PARKES: I’m just thinking that one scene in Italy.
MACDONALD: But that’s nothing, that’s just a transition…
PARKES: I know, it’s next to nothing.
MACDONALD: We mainly, it was about, because a lot of, some of the scenes had gotten fat, even in the writing, you know. Everyone on the movie had great ideas and things come up but some of the scenes were just too long.
PARKES: It’s a great question and you’d be surprised how little-
MACDONALD: But we really, oddly enough, I think less than in most movies we’ve worked on.
PARKES: Yeah, the story was pretty sound.
MACDONALD: Pretty good, yeah.
PARKES: You know, I mean, she was a good character, that was understandable all the way through, and yeah, I’d have to say… I mean-
MACDONALD: There were tonal decisions. How, because you need that comedy but it always, to us, needs to be grounded so some of the comedy was, to us, a little big. And then pulling it back and bringing it back in, there’s always that, but it wasn’t a huge change in the story.
PARKES: It was also, maybe the only other thing you might say was that, we’ve been asked from time to time, having done several of these, “What are the values that you have to protect from the original franchise vs where do you move on?” And we had, at least we felt we had, sort of a feel for that, but everyone felt we wanted to sort of push the action a little bit compared to where we are with the first movie.
As it turns out, some of the enhanced action sequences we trimmed back because Men in Black is a very interesting mashup of genres, you know, it’s comedy, science fiction, cop procedural and action. And it only works if they’re all sort of balanced, you know, you never really want to fall into the likes-
MACDONALD: And extended action felt kind of wrong.
I’m curious about the title, Men in Black: International.
MACDONALD: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
You make a joke in the film about, you know, where’s the women? You know, was there ever talk of doing, of taking the Men in Black and doing something else with it? Or was it sort of like, once you have that IP, that title is staying?
MACDONALD: Well I think if, you know, I think in this that it was an all-new cast, a new agency and even a little bit of a tone shift, we needed to keep that. I think that it was important that it was Men in Black. I think you could at some point, but I think that, we did talk about it obviously because it all was born out of this great female character, who’s going to become an agent but I-
PARKES: I think…
PARKES: I think that the attitude is perfectly expressed by Emma…
PARKES: In it, and I think she basically ad libbed all of that…
MACDONALD: Yeah, we-
PARKES: Don’t start. We’ve had the conversation.
PARKES: It’s a process. They can’t…
MACDONALD: We had a version of that but she came in. I also think the delightful chemistry hadn’t seen is Emma and Tessa who should have their own franchise, right?
Emma’s having a year.
MACDONALD: She’s ama- Have you seen the new movie?
Late Night? Yeah.
MACDONALD: Is it good?
She’s what we call a talented actor.
MACDONALD: She’s genius.
PARKES: She is so perfect.
She also wrote Last Christmas for Paul Feig, that’s coming out at Christmas.
MACDONALD: It’s amazing. Oh, she’s so talented. She can do anything. How about her Saturday Night Live, did you see it?
She, again, she’s a very talented-
MACDONALD: She stood up there against all of those comic women and was like this. She even became 20 again.
She is beyond talented.
PARKES: She is.
MACDONALD: She’s the greatest.
PARKES: Yeah, we actually tried.
Yeah, so what exactly happened with that if I can ask?
PARKES: It wasn’t good…
MACDONALD: I don’t think you ever really wanted to try. We had so many people that kept coming to Walter and saying, “Can’t we do it?” It was, Sneakers was…
PARKES: You know, unfortunately it’s a… I love the movie, it helped start my career but it sort of became, it’s been borrowed a lot. I mean, that sort of story has been told a lot of different ways. And cybercrime and the whole thing. I think we made a mistake on the TV show not reinventing it enough. After I got to tell you something, it’s like, it’s Sneakers.
I’m very down for Sneakers stories off the record.
PARKES: Well, no, this is not a thing. I don’t know if you realize, at the end of Men in Black, when they have the fight with Riza, about getting the weapon, they say, “Hand over the box.” And, I think I worked on that scene because I write on most of the stuff we do and I realized that we always called, we would hand over the box Marty, give me the box Marty. Somehow, that found its way into this and no one checked it. It’s like, because it’s in no way a box.
PARKES: For a little while it was going to be a puzzle box.
MACDONALD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PARKES: But I cut myself on that one of just like appropriating it inappropriately.
Yeah, if that- I got to go but if that movie comes on cable or at any point, I just get sucked in, because of that cast and River and everybody.
MACDONALD: You know we haven’t… I don’t think we had watched it in so long. I don’t think I’d watched it since it came out and we watched it. It does, and it holds up. Well that cast is so amazing.
It’s an Ocean’s Eleven with just a different cast, you know.
MACDONALD: And Phil Robinson, so well-directed. The tone of it is so great.
PARKES: It’s such a well-directed movie.
Thank you so much for your time.