Man in Hat: MIB director Barry Sonnenfeld

Photographs By Jennifer Koskinen

At Home Theater, we’re all about the gear, but our systems would mean nothing without the memorable films we watch on them. Barry Sonnenfeld has had a hand in a good many of those. A 1978 alumnus of New York University Graduate Film School, Sonnenfeld broke into the biz as cinematographer for 1982’s Academy Award–nominated documentary In Our Water.

What followed was a hookup with co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, who used him in a string of successes including Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing. Sonnenfeld worked the camera for the comedies Big, featuring a young Tom Hanks, and Throw Momma From the Train, and director Rob Reiner used him for When Harry Met Sally and the psychological thriller Misery, which earned Kathy Bates an Oscar for Best Actress. Sonnenfeld’s directorial debut, The Addams Family (based on the Charles Addams cartoons and the ’60s TV show), was a commercial success, leading to, among other projects, the sequel Addams Family Values and the critically acclaimed Elmore Leonard–based Get Shorty. But he is undoubtedly best known for creating the Men in Black franchise. As most Home Theater readers likely know, the series stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as secret government agents battling shape-changing (and often slimy) aliens who live among us day to day as humans and house pets but sometimes run amok. MIB3, after a successful theatrical run last spring, is hitting Blu-ray just in time for the holidays.

That would be reason enough to sit down for a chat with Sonnenfeld about the movie, his views on 3D, and whether or not we’ll all live to see another MIB sequel. But what sweetened the pot for Home Theater is that Sonnenfeld is one of us. A confirmed electronics, photography, and gadget buff, he has for years made a side-living writing Esquire magazine’s Digital Man column, and he takes his home theater seriously. He’s owned several through the years at various abodes. The latest, in his permanent mountain residence near Telluride, Colorado, recently underwent some upgrades. We sent correspondent Jamie Sorcher, who once interviewed Sonnenfeld in his home theater on Long Island, to visit with him again and check out the new digs.

So, without further ado, here’s Barry. —Rob Sabin

HT: So here we are in your home theater—a work in progress, right?

BS: I love having a screening room. And it’s a dedicated one, so you can make it totally pitch black. There’s no ambient light. I’ve had a screening room somewhere for the last 10 years or longer. In this screening room I have now, the projector is fantastic, and the sound is really manly.

HT: One thing I notice that you did differently in this room versus your previous one [in East Hampton, on Long Island’s east end] is that you have multiple levels of seating here.

BS: This room is bigger and wider, so it allowed me to have three levels. The truth is that it’s usually two or three people watching and you’re on the same level anyway. But I love the room. It’s the only thing that prevents me from spending all my time just sitting outside on the deck. With these views, you don’t want to go anywhere but outside. So you need a screening room that’s so good that it invites you down there. Now I have it.

HT: Is this a working screening room for you?

BS: There’s something these days called PIX. When you work on a film, you can put all your dailies on PIX, which is a server. I used to go to a screening room at the end of shooting every day, and you would have to project the dailies. Now the lab puts them on PIX, which is in the cloud, and you can download them with a computer. There’s a [secure] Mac Mini that will store the stuff. And so here I was in Telluride over Christmas last year, and the editor would be able to make cuts in Los Angeles and send the cuts to me on PIX. Except for one thing: It requires Internet. Here’s the challenge of living in Telluride. Where it all falls horribly apart is with our Century Link high-speed Internet service. The nearest control box is a mile away. By the time Internet gets up here, it’s slower than dial-up. So they can FedEx me DVDs, or they can shrink it down to the lowest resolution and try to send it as a QuickTime cut. But until we get Internet that’s workable, I can’t really work here.

HT: I know you just installed the new Sony 4K projector [VPL-VW1000ES] as part of your system. As a cinematographer and director, were there things you liked about this projector in particular?

BS: The built-in automatic lensing for anamorphic [2.35:1 widescreen] is fantastic. Because my screen is so big [14 feet wide by 6 feet high], I love that I can take full advantage of it without any letterboxing. It’s a phenomenal feature. Also, I love contrast and saturation, and this projector is both really contrasty and super sharp because of the 4K. It’s also incredibly quiet, which is true of all the Sony projectors I’ve had since the Qualia 004. This new one also does 3D, which is something I’m starting to get into.

HT: Men in Black 3 was your first foray into that as a director.

BS: Yes, that’s right. As soon as we agreed to do MIB3, I wanted it to be released in 3D. Everything I’ve shot or directed feels like it’s in 3D. If you look at Raising Arizona or Throw Momma From the Train or Addams Family or any of the MIB movies, I move the camera in a very straight line—and I love wide angles. I hate to pan. Panning is the enemy of 3D. You never want to pan in 3D. For me, I was thrilled to be able to do MIB3 in 3D. So then the question is, what rig do you use? We tried two different 3D rigs, and we did some tests in 2D. And for so many reasons, it made sense for me to convert from 2D rather than shoot in native 3D.

HT: Why?

BS: First of all, the 3D rigs are really cumbersome. You can’t move the camera in and out really quickly because they shake and they’re too heavy. Changing a lens takes so much time. And in a comedy, you need a certain amount of pace. Also, with the nature of 3D that I wanted to present to the audience, which was this very wide-angle viewpoint, I needed the camera close to the actors. My theory—whether it’s 2D or 3D—is that if you use wide-angle lenses and you put the camera near the actor, the audience unconsciously feels they’re in the room with the actor. So there’s an energy even by the lens you choose. And I am just a wide-angle guy.

HT: Do you like watching in 3D?

BS: I like directing in 3D, and 3D is a tool. In the case of MIB3, because of the way I shot it, it really enhanced the viewing experience. There are two ways you shoot 3D. One way is that you shoot in native 3D with stereo cameras. In that case, you have to choose inter-ocular separation, which means how far apart the two eyes are—and you have to choose that as you’re shooting. And the weird thing is, you don’t know the order of shots you’re going to edit the movie in, right? If you do that ahead of time, [the viewer] can end up with a headache because the depth keeps changing. Your eye needs a second-and-a-half to adjust, and if it’s constantly doing that, it can give you a headache. So, by choosing that in post [-production], I can move the depth in a way that doesn’t give you a headache. In addition, most directors put all the depth behind the screen. And the way I did it in MIB3 is that most of the depth is in front of the screen. This allows the audience, especially in a comedy—and it may be the first use of 3D in a comedy—to feel like Josh [Brolin] and Will [Smith] are in the room with you a little bit. It’s unconscious—not jokey or anything.

HT: There is a lot of gimmicky use in 3D.

BS: It’s either that, not enough use, or bad use.

HT: What about that scene in which Will Smith is out over the Chrysler Building?

BS: Had we shot that in native 3D—not that we could have actually gotten the camera on top of the Chrysler Building and all that, but all of those decisions about depth would have already been decided. There’s a shot where, as Will walks to the edge, the camera booms up and looks down and you see 60 stories down. As the camera looked down, we increased the depth and increased the inter-ocular separation [in post-production] to make it go to wow—the way Hitchcock would sometimes do with a dolly in/zoom out. We did the same thing with inter-ocular separation and actually increased the depth as the shot was in progress, which you would never do if you were shooting in native 3D.

HT: 3D hasn’t really been embraced yet by the mainstream.

BS: But you know what? Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs looked really good in 3D. There are some good-looking 3D movies.

HT: You’ve said visuals are very important to you, but sound is intriguing to you, too.

BS: I remember the Coen brothers back when we had our premiere for Blood Simple, and they chose a theater in New York City that had better sound than picture. I said, “Are you crazy? It’s all about the visuals!” Now, as a director, if I had a choice between having a perfect visual theater or having a theater that wasn’t quite as good visually but had much better sound, I would go with sound.

HT: And why is that? Does it keep you more engaged in a movie?

BS: Yes, yes. For me, I love subwoofers. They’re manly. Subwoofers can also be used for comedy. I did a movie called Big Trouble where every time this suitcase is put down on the ground, it makes a really heavy sound. By the end of the movie, you understand why. Sound is very immersive, and one of the great things about home theater as opposed to the movie-going experience is that in many theaters they either lower the sound volume or lower the subs, because otherwise the people next door in Theater 5 are complaining that they’re hearing Transformers. But at home, unless someone is complaining upstairs, you can play it loud, you have control, your subs are working, you’ve got great surround, and you’re sitting in the middle of the room. The image quality in most home theaters—with big LCDs and projection rooms—is getting better and better. Would I rather watch a movie here? There would be no comparison in terms of picture, sound, and comfort, and that’s not to say that if I wanted to see a certain comedy and wanted to be in a room with a lot of people that I wouldn’t do it. In fact, there are some movies you should see in a theater for that communal experience. But that only works if the theater owners maintain a decent quality of projection.

HT: Well, I saw MIB3 in a movie theater, and I can tell you that you killed Chinese food for me.

BS: [laughs] That’s very funny. We released MIB3 in China and we had to cut out most of the alien stuff in the Chinese restaurant. We kept saying, “He’s not Chinese; he’s an alien.” They said, “No, but he looks Chinese.”

HT: MIB3 was shot with you sitting [while on set] in a Western saddle on an apple box. I understand that saddle was given to you as a gift at the end of Men in Black 2.

BS: First of all, a saddle feels good. It’s much better for your back than those canvas director chairs. Second, I wear a cowboy hat. Whenever I was not on the apple box, believe me, someone else was on it, because it just feels good. There are 12 wheels on it—three on each corner. At first, we only had one wheel on each corner and the apple box would buck me.