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Film director Barry Sonnenfeld

Film director Barry Sonnenfeld. His latest movie is Men in Black II, the sequel to his film Men in Black. Both films star Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Sonnenfeld's other films include Wild Wild West, Get Shorty and The Addams Family. Before directing, he worked as a cinematographer. He did three films with the Coen brothers - Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing. He also worked on Misery, When Harry Met Sally and Big.

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Other segments from the episode on July 9, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 9, 2002: Interview with Barry Sonnenfeld; Commentary on the Pledge of Allegiance.

Transcript

DATE July 9, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Barry Sonnenfeld discusses his new film "Men in Black
II"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite from "Men in Black")

Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Agent K) At any given time, there are around 1,500
aliens on the planet, most of them right here in Manhattan. And most of them
are decent enough. They're just trying to make a living.

Mr. WILL SMITH: (As Agent J) Cab drivers.

Mr. JONES: No, not as many as you'd think. Humans, for the most part, don't
have a clue. They don't want one or need one either. They're happy. They
think they have a good bead on things.

GROSS: That's Tommy Lee Jones in a scene from the 1997 film "Men in Black,"
the comedy about special agents who patrol the Earth looking for
extraterrestrials disguised as people and animals. The new sequel just broke
the box office record for a July Fourth weekend opening. My guest, Barry
Sonnenfeld, directed "Men in Black" and "Men in Black II." He also made "The
Addams Family," "Addams Family Values," "Get Shorty" and "Big Trouble." In
the first "Men in Black," Tommy Lee Jones played the most cunning of all
agents, Agent K, who has to train a new partner, Agent J, played by Will
Smith. In the sequel, the roles are reversed. Tommy Lee Jones has gone into
retirement and is working at a post office in Truro, Massachusetts. When he
left the Men in Black, they erased all his memory of his work with the aliens.
But now Will Smith has to bring him out of retirement and restore Jones'
memory, because Jones is the only person who has the clues that can help stop
a diabolical alien plot against the Earth.

Not only have Smith and Jones returned for the sequel, so has Frank the pug,
the alien talking dog who also sings.

(Soundbite from "Men in Black II")

FRANK: (Singing) And so you're back from outerspace. I just walked in to
find you here with that sad look upon your face. Should have changed that
stupid lock. Should've made you leave your key if I'd have known for just one
second you'd be back to bother me. Go on, now go. Walk out the door. Just
turn...

GROSS: Barry Sonnenfeld, welcome to FRESH AIR. When you made the first "Men
in Black," did you know then that you'd likely be making a sequel?

Mr. BARRY SONNENFELD (Director, "Men in Black II"): No. When we were doing
the first "Men in Black," we're very lucky that we didn't know we were making
a sequel, because if we did know we were making a sequel, the studio, which is
Sony Pictures, never would have let us taken away Tommy Lee Jones' memory at
the end of the first one and send him on his way back to Truro, Massachusetts.
They would have said, `That's not the way you end a movie that's gonna have a
sequel.' So we were actually incredibly lucky that we didn't know we were
going to be a fairly successful film.

GROSS: Was it hard to get Tommy Lee Jones or Will Smith to agree to do the
sequel?

Mr. SONNENFELD: Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith just love these characters and
very much wanted to come back and do a sequel. In fact, the sort of cool
thing for me was to see Tommy see himself for the first time in "Men in Black"
and see that he actually was funny. Tommy had no idea that he was a funny
person or that he could get laughs as an actor, and I think it brought him
such joy to be in a movie theater and see people laughing at what looks like a
very effortless performance, that Tommy very much wanted to come back. Will
very much wanted to come back. You know, they are the coolest heroes.

GROSS: Was it hard to get Frank the dog, the talking dog, to agree to make
the sequel?

Mr. SONNENFELD: As you know, one of the big surprises of the sequel is that
we have a talking dog named Frank the pug, who's actually named Mushu. Mushu
is a seven-year-old pug. He was in the first movie in a small role, and comes
back in a much bigger role in "Men in Black II" and gets a lot of the biggest
laughs, because he sings disco. Now what I love about Frank is you can watch
television and see 15 different commercials with talking dogs, from Taco Bell
to, you know, I think Blockbuster has hamsters and rabbits that talk, but what
I love about Frank is he's got really bad attitude. He's a womanizer. He,
you know, sings bad disco. So I love that. And, in fact, he's so good and
was so well-trained that I have talked to his trainer, and if we do "Men in
Black III,"(ph) I have convinced her that if we get the script to Mushu early
enough, I believe he can learn the lines and do his own lines instead of
having us, you know, animate his mouth using various computer techniques.

GROSS: One of the really funny aspects of "Men in Black" one and two is that
it really plays on the feeling that many of us have, that the people around us
are so odd they can't be earthlings, like they must be from another planet.
And, of course, in "Men in Black" they really are from another planet. What
did you like about that premise that all the really peculiar people and
animals around you and insects really are from another planet?

Mr. SONNENFELD: Well, you know, I grew up in New York City, and you walk
around New York all day long and, you know, there are people talking to
themselves and there are people that almost look like they're human but not
quite. And, in fact, the first "Men in Black," when I was given the script,
took place in Lawrence, Kansas; Washington, DC; Nevada; California; and when I
read it, I said, `Look, the first thing I want to do, if you want to hire me,
is I want to rewrite the script so that it all takes place in New York City,
'cause my theory is that if there are aliens, they would be in New York,
'cause most of them could get by without actually having to put on makeup or,
you know, different outfits. They literally can--about half of the aliens can
pass in New York without doing anything different.'

But more than if there are or aren't aliens in the world, there's this speech
that Tommy Lee Jones gives to Will Smith to convince him to join Men in Black
about halfway through the first "Men in Black," and what Tommy says is, `Look,
2,000 years ago, everyone on Earth knew the Earth was the center of the
universe. Five hundred years ago, everyone knew the Earth was flat. Think
about what you'll know tomorrow.'

GROSS: Are any of the aliens in "Men in Black" variations on people, animals
or insects that you actually knew and suggested for the movie?

Mr. SONNENFELD: You know, I think aliens are more a state of mind than an
actual physical reality. I mean, I do believe that there's all sorts of stuff
that we don't know about, and I believe that as we're speaking, there's
probably various dimensions in the room with us sort of--well, in my case sort
of spitting at me for no apparent reason except they don't like me, and I'm
not being paranoid when I say this. I truly believe that. But I don't think
that there's anyone that you or I sort of see on a daily basis, even though we
make fun of certain actors and celebrities as being aliens. Like, for
instance, I will say that Martha Stewart, who is in "Men in Black II," you
know, is capable of making a bush noel that no one else could make, you know.
The way it looks like a log and the way that she puts exactly the right
candied flowers on it and--I mean, I remember once watching Julia Child and
Martha Stewart making exactly the same dish side by side, and Julia Child's
dish looking extraordinarily bad, and Martha's looking unbelievably perfect.
But I'm not saying that Martha Stewart is an alien. I'm just saying she's
better than anyone else at what she does.

GROSS: Barry Sonnenfeld is my guest, and he directed "Men in Black" and "Men
in Black II."

Both the "Men in Blacks" are filled with low high-tech gizmos. You know,
high-tech gizmos, but the real cheapo versions of it, like the neuralizer,
which makes you forget your real-life encounters with aliens and with the Men
in Black, and when the neuralizer is used, the Men in Black agent makes up a
new memory to replace the memory that they've erased. In fact, let's hear a
scene from "Men in Black" one in which Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith
neuralize a woman whose husband has been killed by aliens.

(Soundbite from "Men in Black")

Mr. JONES: All right, Beatrice. There was no alien. The flash of light you
saw in the sky was not a UFO. Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in
a thermal pocket and refracted the light from Venus.

Mr. SMITH: Well, wait--wait a minute. So you just flash that thing, it
erases her memory and you just make up a new one?

Mr. JONES: A standard issue neuralizer.

Mr. SMITH: And that weak-ass story is the best you can come up with?

Mr. JONES: All right. On a more personal note, Beatrice, Edgar ran off with
an old girlfriend. You're gonna go stay with your mom a couple nights.
You're gonna get over it and decide you're better off.

Mr. SMITH: Well, yeah, you know, 'cause he never appreciated you anyway. In
fact, you know what? You kicked him out, and now that he's gone, you're gonna
go in town, you go to Bloomingdale's and find yourself some nice dresses, get
yourself some shoes, you know, find somewhere maybe you get a facial. And,
oh, hire a decorator to come in here quick 'cause--damn.

GROSS: The clip from "Men in Black" one. My guest, Barry Sonnenfeld, is the
director of "Men in Black" one and two.

Barry, who came up with the neuralizer idea?

Mr. SONNENFELD: The neuralizer idea was written into the first script, which
was written by a guy named Ed Solomon. And, in fact, the neuralizer was one
of the reasons that I decided to direct "Men in Black," because I grew up as a
painfully thin, shy, overprotected Jewish boy, and was incapable of getting a
date growing up, and all my life the thing I would have liked to have had was
the ability, after, you know, some girl named Toby in my high school said, you
know, `I won't go out with you. I won't go see the new Woody Allen movie and
thanks for the chocolate-covered strawberries but I still think you're, you
know, like, a geek.' I mean, if I had the ability to erase her memory of me
ever asking her out, it would be the ultimate, joyful thing. I mean, more
than anything else, if I could have had a neuralizer growing up, I think I
would have become a much less neurotic individual.

GROSS: Too late, huh?

Mr. SONNENFELD: Yeah, I think we're a little late for that.

GROSS: And in--now the neuralizer basically looks like a pocket flashlight.
It's like a stick with a light at the end of it. Was it your decision to make
it so low-tech looking?

Mr. SONNENFELD: You know, the neuralizer is one of those devices that you
think will be easy and cool to work with, and I think we probably spent in the
course of the two movies, oh, maybe $3 or $4 million in shooting time fixing,
repairing, replacing the neuralizer. They're incredibly difficult to get all
this stuff into this skinny little thing. And it doesn't even look like it
should be that hard, but in the first "Men in Black," we used a flashbulb from
an old Kodak Magic Cube(ph) camera that was connected to a series of batteries
inside the neuralizer. The neuralizer has to, when you press a button, open
up and send out a glow, which was red in the first one and cyan in the second
one.

And the problem with the first "Men in Black" is every time it flashed, the
flashbulb would send out a little puff of smoke, so we were constantly adding
more and more fans whenever we were shooting it to try and get the smoke to
blow away and be out of frame before the audience saw it but, of course, A, we
were blowing like people's hair around; B, the fans were making so much noise
we were thinking we were going to have to loop the dialogue, and it was truly
a disaster.

And Tommy, I think, on the first one broke maybe 15 or 20 of them. Tommy also
was incapable of not, on camera, making his own sound effects. And so, like,
as he would press a button, Tommy would also go, `Pshu,' or when Tommy would
shoot his guns, he'd go, `Kew!'

GROSS: My guest is Barry Sonnenfeld. He directed "Men in Black" and the new
sequel "Men in Black II." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Barry Sonnenfeld. He directed "Men in Black" and the new
sequel, as well as "The Addams Family" and "Get Shorty."

Some of the extraterrestrials--particularly I'm thinking of the insect and
animal ones, seem to have Yiddish accents when they speak.

Mr. SONNENFELD: You know, I tend to impose my cultural Judaism on my movies,
and I find that Yiddish words, just like words that end in K or just like odd
numbers as opposed to even numbers are just funny, so the worm guys, two or
three different times in the movie, will say, `Oy.' I just find it funny that
the worm guys are both aliens, New Yorkers and possibly have a Jewish
background. Frank the pug--and I don't want to give away the line, but the
last line Frank the pug says in the movie is a Yiddish phrase that I think
will be very funny to people in New York and Los Angeles, but I'm thinking
that St. Louis may miss out on that particular joke. But I don't know if you
remember the Woody Allen movie where--I think it was "Sleepers" where you find
out that a madman named Albert Shanker blew up an atomic bomb and the irony is
that Albert Shanker was the head of the United Federation of Teachers in New
York City. And again, in New York and certain, you know, areas around New
York, that got a huge laugh.

But the weird thing is, I also saw the movie in Massachusetts, and it got a
little laugh, but it still got a little laugh because the name Albert Shanker
just sounds like a funny name. And I'm hoping that the same thing happens
with Yiddish, that those that know Yiddish will laugh because it's funny, and
those who don't will laugh because it just sounds like a weird phrase that
maybe an alien might say.

GROSS: See, I worry that in films it's getting more and more difficult,
particularly in big-budget films, to have a joke that might not be gotten by
some of the people in the audience, particularly because films have to sell to
an international audience now, and some jokes just don't translate to foreign
languages or some, you know, dialects that might be funny don't translate to a
foreign language. So is that the kind of thing that the studio wanted you to
worry about or maybe even cut out because it might not play internationally?
It might not even play in parts of America.

Mr. SONNENFELD: I think it won't play in most of America actually, but in any
given film, I need three things that are just for me, you know, which I think
is actually a low percentage compared to most directors. I think that most
directors end up making films that are likely painfully too long in part
'cause they just don't want to give up the stuff that they worked so hard to
achieve, whether it was a crane shot or a shot that took two days to do or a
scene that they love but isn't helping the movie at all, but still love that
particular scene. So the fact that I have three little jokes in a movie that
are just for myself I think is actually a very low percentage.

The other thing I feel is I think that most studios don't realize that
audiences are smarter than they think they are, and one of the things that I
pride myself on is I like to make comedies where I feel the audience is ahead
of me and knows where that joke is going and elbows, you know, the husband and
says, `Oh, it's gonna turn out she's gonna be in the next room' or whatever,
in a comedy. I'd rather have a big laugh or no laugh.

GROSS: Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have really nice chemistry together.
How did you figure out that they were going to? Like, what kind of tests did
you do, screen tests or whatever, to see how they were together on camera?

Mr. SONNENFELD: The way I read scripts is I get a bunch of scripts and I lie
in bed with my wife and we get two copies of every script delivered to us, and
she and I read the same script at the same time, and she usually finishes
first 'cause she's a better reader. And Sweetie and I read "Men in Black" and
we closed the scripts and Sweetie turned to me and said, `Will Smith,' and I
turned to her and said, `Tommy Lee Jones.' And it was really that simple. At
that level of actors, you don't do screen tests. You don't even audition.
You offer them the part and hope they'll take it. And then hope the chemistry
works.

And what's interesting is, I think part of the reason the chemistry works
is--I have a theory about comedy which is you never want two funny guys in
your comedy. You always want George Burns and Gracie Allen. You always want
Abbott and Costello. And we got incredibly lucky with Will and Tommy.

GROSS: Now was the role that Will Smith plays written specifically for an
African-American actor, or was it just written without any regard to color?
Was the assumption, that thing on the part of the studio, that it would be a
white actor?

Mr. SONNENFELD: "Men in Black" was written specifically, really, for two
white guys. In fact, the studio, the producers, the executive producer, were
all convinced that the Will Smith role, as I like to call it, should be given
to Chris O'Donnell. And Chris O'Donnell is an incredibly good actor. He was
great in "Men Don't Leave" and other movies, but my wife told me I should hire
Will Smith, so that was really the end of the discussion as far as I was
concerned. So the studio said, `No, we want Chris O'Donnell. You must hire
Chris O'Donnell.'

Luckily I went to dinner with Chris, and Chris told me all the reasons he had
problems with this script. He didn't think it was funny enough. He didn't
think his character was strong enough. He went on and on with legitimate
concerns. And I said to Chris, `Look, Chris, I am not a good enough director
to make this script any better, and if I were you, I would not take this role.
It's not a good role, and I don't have confidence in myself that I'll make it
better.' And the next day Chris passed.

The studios then had me meeting every male member of "Friends," and they would
all schlepp out to East Hampton for the day and I'd drive them around and show
them where Spielberg's house was and Lorne Michaels' house was, and they'd go
back to Los Angeles, and eventually I just wore down the studio. I got Will
Smith to come out to East Hampton to meet with Steven Spielberg, and Will left
the meeting and I think Steven's kids said, `You know, Dad, you know, Will
Smith is like the coolest guy on Earth,' and eventually that's how I was able
to get the studio and Steven Spielberg to let me hire Will. I just basically
convinced all the other actors that I wasn't a good enough director to work
with me.

GROSS: Barry Sonnenfeld directed "Men in Black" and the new sequel "Men in
Black II." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Group: Here come the Men in Black. Here they come. They won't let you
remember.

Mr. SMITH: (Rapping) Right on, right on. The good guys dress in black,
remember that, just in case we ever face to face and make contact. The title
held by me, MIB, means what you think you saw you did not see. So don't
blink, think what was there but now's gone, black suit with the black Ray Bans
on. Walk in shadow, move in silence...

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Barry Sonnenfeld,
director of the "Men in Black" films. And now that the Pledge of Allegiance
is in the news, our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the challenging words
within the pledge, words that are mispronounced and misunderstood by many kids
who recite it.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Barry Sonnenfeld. He
directed "Men in Black" and the new sequel, "Men in Black II," starring Tommy
Lee Jones and Will Smith. Sonnenfeld also made "The Addams Family," "Addams
Family Values," "Get Shorty" and "Big Trouble." When we left off, Sonnenfeld
was explaining that the screenplay was written for two white leading actors.

Now I'm thinking demographically for a movie, although the studio wanted you
to cast a white actor in the Will Smith part, it must really get a bigger
audience if you have a white and a black actor teamed up because then, you
know, I think it's very possible that African-Americans are more likely to
turn up to see a movie in which there's an African-American star.

Mr. SONNENFELD: You know, I'll tell you the truth. I was just doing what my
wife told me to do. I really wasn't thinking commercially at all.

GROSS: No, no. But I assume that this...

Mr. SONNENFELD: I just wanted to make sure Sweetie continued to love and
respect me. I will say that I have a friend of mine who's a writer and he
said that he has a list of his favorite studio notes that he's ever received,
and he said the third best studio note is a note that's actually a good note,
but you don't want to be the studio executive saying it. And the note is,
`Can our lead actor have a really cool black guy as his best friend?' And the
truth is, you know, it is a good note because it does lead to cultural
conflict, you know, very different ways of coming into a scene, of dealing
with reality.

I mean, Will Smith and I will look at an event on the streets of New York, or
the way I talk to someone, and Will cannot believe that I can talk to
strangers a certain way in a way that he could never talk to strangers 'cause
he feels if he talked the way I talked, it would become a sort of--it could
lead to a fight. And he can't believe what I get away with with strangers
that he feels he could never get away with.

GROSS: Did you change the script at all when he signed on?

Mr. SONNENFELD: When Will signed on to do the movie we didn't change his
script in terms of, like, adding slang or making his role seem more black or
urban, but Will brings that to the table. And a lot of the funniest stuff in
"Men in Black" one was written by and ad-libbed by Will Smith, everything
from when Will lands on the top of the bus that is filled with Japanese
tourists and Will says to the Japanese tourists, `It be raining black people
in New York.'

Well, what happened was we had a totally different line. It was like Will
Smith lands in the bus with Japanese tourists, and I think we made some
obvious joke about cameras, like, you know, because Japanese and cameras. And
I hated the line, and we were about to go to lunch, and the next shot after
lunch was going to be that shot. And I said, `Will, I hate this line. Go
back, write something better.' Will came back from lunch and said, `I only
came up with one thing, and you're going to think it's too stupid, but here it
is, "It be raining black people in New York,"' which, of course, I loved, and
that's what we used in the movie.

Throughout "Men in Black" and "Men in Black II," Will would continue to ad-lib
or pitch--not ad-lib like I didn't know what he was going to say, but he would
pitch stuff that just sounded more like it was stuff that he would say. But
we didn't change the script and make it more about a black guy or a black
guy's point of view.

GROSS: Barry Sonnenfeld is my guest, and he's the director of "Men in Black"
and "Men in Black II." He also directed "Addams Family," "Addams Family
Values," "Get Shorty" and "Wild Wild West."

The first "Men in Black" grossed about $600 million, so what pressures are
there on you this time around to, like, make a lot of money and to do a lot
of, like, merchandising tie-ins?

Mr. SONNENFELD: "Men in Black II" was the hardest movie I've ever directed
because of the pressures from "Men in Black," one, because "Men in Black" one
made too much money. In fact, even though I directed "Men in Black" one I was
often feeling that the studio and the producers felt, well, they couldn't get
the same guy who directed "Men in Black" one so they would get me, but they
would help me through the process. It was a very difficult experience in
terms of working out the script and in terms of disagreements we had between
myself and the producers about the amount of comedy that should or shouldn't
be in the movie.

And I realized that some of the most successful sequels were sequels of movies
that were not ultimately that financially successful in the first place. I
think the first "Terminator" only grossed 40 or $50 million. I think the
first "Austin Powers" even only grossed 40 or $50 million domestically. And
now I'm stuck doing a sequel to a movie that grossed, worldwide, close to $600
million. So the pressure was phenomenal.

What made it rewarding was the actual shooting of the movie was much easier
than the first one because Tommy and Will were so relaxed because they knew
who these characters were, they knew that audience loved those characters, and
they just enjoyed playing them. So the shooting was easy. The pressure of
doing a sequel when the first one was so successful was overwhelming, not
because of merchandising or, you know, making sure we had, like, cool toys or
stuff like that, but just the pressure of everyone fearing failure.

GROSS: So even though you made the first one, you're being challenged all the
time, like is this going to be good enough? Will it measure up to the first
one?

Mr. SONNENFELD: Not only challenged, but doubted.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SONNENFELD: It was really difficult, you know. I, you know, ended up
having so much pressure and anxiety that one night I was convinced I was
having a heart attack two weeks into the shoot and ended up spending the
night in a New York hospital convinced that I was having a heart attack. And,
of course, it was just pure anxiety. But now I'm done. There's nothing I can
do about it. The movie's finished and it will now have a life of its own.

GROSS: On nights like that, do you ask yourself is it worth it?

Mr. SONNENFELD: I'm going to tell you something which is absolutely--I
promise you--true. I love my wife. I love my three daughters. And as I was
going to the hospital thinking I was having a heart attack, the only thing
going through my mind was this is a no-lose situation. I either am not having
a heart attack and I'm totally healthy or I die and I don't have to continue
to direct this movie. And either option was totally fine with me, and that's
the God's honest truth. That is exactly what I was thinking over and over
again on the way to Bellevue Hospital, which was this is a no-lose situation.

GROSS: You know, it doesn't seem right that a comedy should cause such agony.

Mr. SONNENFELD: You know, comedies are hard to do, and any time that you have
a comedy where the crew is laughing in dailies and, you know, every time the
actors are just having a great time on the set and it couldn't be more and
more fun, those are the ones you have to worry about. Comedy is really hard,
and without fail the scenes that you think aren't working in dailies end up
being the funniest scenes and the scenes where the crew is laughing in dailies
and it's playing in one shot, those are the scenes, I promise you, that you
end up cutting out of the movie 'cause they somehow don't work within the
context of the whole film. It's a very weird gestalt that I still can't
figure out.

GROSS: So like when you think that you're really sick and maybe even dying of
a heart attack, when the episode is over you go back to work, do you say to
the people in the studio who've been pressuring you, which is part of why you
got so sick in the first place--do you say to them, `Stop. Look what you're
doing to me. I can't take it anymore. Just, like, turn down the heat. Cut
it out'? Or do you try to cover it up so that, you know, you look like, `Hey,
I'm not fazed by any of this pressure'?

Mr. SONNENFELD: Actually the studio was great. I was having problems with
the producers and not so much the studio, although the studio was very
nervous. I'm a big believer in strength through weakness, so I wear my
neurosis on my sleeve. And, in fact, the next day we had some more script
meetings and I used the almost fatal heart attack, which was an anxiety
attack, to my advantage. Everyone was suddenly nice to me and agreed to more
of my suggestions than had ever been accepted before. So I don't believe in
covering up neurosis or pain at all. I believe in embracing it and using it
as a secret weapon.

GROSS: My guest is Barry Sonnenfeld. He directed "Men in Black" and the new
sequel. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Barry Sonnenfeld is my guest. He directed "Men in Black II" and "Men
in Black," as well as "Get Shorty," "Addams Family" and "Addams Family
Values."

What were the science-fiction films that you grew up with that you used to
watch over and over again on TV?

Mr. SONNENFELD: I was an incredibly nervous kid who was incapable of watching
any science fiction. I couldn't watch "The Outer Limits" or an of those kind
of shows. I never went to the movies. To this day, I can't see scary movies.
I've never seen "The Exorcist" or "The Shining." A good friend of mine, Larry
Casden(ph), who's a film director, has just finished directing a Stephen King
novel, and I already told Larry, `Don't invite me to the premiere. Don't ask
me to look at your movie in progress. I'm telling you right now I will never,
ever see your movie.' And in a weird way I think a little bit of the success
of the "Men in Black" series is that I really have no knowledge of science
fiction or science-fiction movies. And, you know, I feel that our movies are
trying much harder to be a documentary than a science-fiction movie.

GROSS: What is it that you find so difficult about scary movies or
science-fiction movies?

Mr. SONNENFELD: I'm really afraid. I'm just afraid. I mean, late at night,
you know, we live out in the country in the end of Long Island, and, you know,
in the winter, you know, the heating system will come on or something, or the
wind will blow a certain way, and I'll wake up and I'll wake up my wife and
make her go get on a bathrobe, go downstairs and check the house while I put
the blankets over my head thinking that, `If I can't see them, they can't see
me.' I can't sleep with a closet door open. And I just live in constant fear
of the unknown, and I know everyone's out to get me. And I'm not thinking of,
like, robbers or bandits; I'm really thinking about the big unknown.

GROSS: Is your wife a sport about this?

Mr. SONNENFELD: My wife has been a sport for almost 20 years. She's
amazingly willing to put up with a tremendous amount of neurosis and fear.

GROSS: Now what about your parents when you were growing up? How did they
deal with their son being so scared all the time?

Mr. SONNENFELD: It is my parents that made me who I am. You know, I think
my mom worked very hard to make me afraid of everything so that I would stay
at home as long as possible. You know, the ultimate story is that on--and we
may have discussed this 10 years ago, but on April 22nd, 1970, at 2 in the
morning during a Earth Day concert, while Jimi Hendrix was warming up at
Madison Square Garden in front of 19,600 people, over the PA system came the
following announcement: Barry Sonnenfeld, call your mother. And I think to
this day that is why I am living in constant fear.

GROSS: What did she want, and how did she manage to get her message on the PA
system?

Mr. SONNENFELD: She wanted me to call her to convince her that I hadn't
already been killed because I said I would be home at 2 in the morning and it
was like now 2:20. And I have no idea how she convinced, or what she told the
PA system, or how many people she had to pretend were killed in order to get
me to call, but they did page me and I did call. And being a fearful Jewish
only child, as soon as I heard the announcement I assumed that someone close
to me had been--you know, had died. I assumed my dad had died of a massive
heart attack. He's still fine. Mom has moved on. But that's--you know, I
think that her fear and my fear are all locked together in an incredibly
disgusting Freudian way.

GROSS: Barry Sonnenfeld is my guest. He directed "Men in Black II" and "Men
in Black," as well as "Get Shorty," "Addams Family" and "Addams Family
Values."

Now you actually got started in movies making pornography. You were directing
it?

Mr. SONNENFELD: No. I was--when I graduated from NYU Film School a friend
and I bought a 16mm camera, the theory being if we owned a camera we could
call ourselves cameramen. And he knew a guy who was a porno director and
producer and got us onto the job, and we were able to rent our camera for nine
days and get paid a little money in addition, which for us meant that those
nine days of rental for our camera paid for about a quarter of the entire cost
of the camera in one fell swoop. So it was really a horrible job and I don't
recommend it.

GROSS: So you wanted to move onto more mainstream movies, I imagine, after
this?

Mr. SONNENFELD: You know, the fact that I got to pay for a quarter of my
camera was very cool, but what really ended up changing my professional life
was I had accidentally been invited to a party one night by a woman named
Hillary Nay(ph), who grew up in Darien, Connecticut. And at this party were
only WASPy guys and girls in their early 20s, and all of their parents, for
some reason, owned coal mines in Pennsylvania. And there was only one other
Jew across the room, and that was Joel Coen. And somehow we sniffed each
other out and we started to talk about movies that had recently come out. And
we were talking about Wim Wenders and "American Friend," and Joel told me that
he had just written this script with his brother, Ethan, called "Blood
Simple," and they were looking for a guy to shoot a trailer as if it were a
finished film. And they were going to use that trailer to raise money to
eventually go and shoot what became "Blood Simple."

Because I owned a camera, Joel that night hired me. We became best friends.
I helped them raise the money, which took a year; we raised $750,000. We then
went off to Austin, Texas, to shoot "Blood Simple" with me as a
cinematographer. And the first day on "Blood Simple" was the first day that
Joel, Ethan or I had ever been on a film set.

GROSS: You've painted a picture of your mother being very overly protective
and of yourself growing up as really neurotic and probably really unsure of
any powers that you might have. And now you are really pretty powerful in
Hollywood, being able to make, you know, blockbusters, big budgets, and having
to command this huge army of people, you know, special effects and animators
and actors and so on. Does it, like, not fit your image of yourself to be a
person who actually has a fair amount of power?

Mr. SONNENFELD: Yeah, you know, I can't believe what happened to me,
considering where I came from and how insecure and unself-confident I was
growing up. And really what changed all of that for me, what has given me a
sense of confidence and self-respect and a sense of empowerment, even, is when
Sweetie, who became my wife, fell in love with me. And the fact that I'm
married to this capable, beautiful, smart, self-confident woman who decided
that she would marry me made me think, `Well, maybe there's more to me than I
thought, 'cause what's this special person doing with me?' So I believe that
all the self-confidence that I now have has come from that special
relationship.

GROSS: Well, Barry Sonnenfeld, thank you so much for talking with us.
Congratulations on the new "Men in Black," and thank you.

Mr. SONNENFELD: Thank you for inviting me back on.

GROSS: Barry Sonnenfeld directed "Men in Black" and the new sequel "Men in
Black II."

Coming up, two words in the Pledge of Allegiance have made headlines. Our
linguist, Geoff Nunberg, considers the other words in the pledge. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Meanings of various words and phrases in the Pledge of
Allegiance
TERRY GROSS, host:

The recent court decision declaring the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional
has set off a national debate. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled
last month that the phrase `under God' violated the separation of church and
state. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been thinking about what the pledge
actually means.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

Here's the odd thing about the pledge: that people can take its wording so
seriously at the same time they find it charming when people get it wrong.
It's classic Art Linkletter stuff: `I led a pigeon to the flag,' `and to the
republic for witches' dance,' `one naked individual.' And nobody seems to
mind that even older students are unclear on the meanings of words like
`allegiance' and `republic.'

In fact, it's often said that the very obscurity of the pledge is what makes
the phrase `under God' constitutionally unobjectionable. Back in 1984,
Justice William Brennan described the phrase as a `form of ceremonial deism
which has lost, through rote repetition, any significant religious content.'
You heard that argument a lot in criticisms of the 9th Circuit decision.
Newsday described the pledge as a harmless civic recitation. And in The
Washington Post, Marc Fisher wrote that God's name is `just a frill, a space
filler in the unthinking torrent of daily conversation.' To hear some people
tell it, you might conclude that there's not much difference between saying
`one nation under God' and `one nation, by God.'

But if the pledge is merely a harmless civic recitation, why the torrent of
invective over the 9th Circuit's decision, to the point where some Op-Ed
trombones were comparing it with a straight face to the September 11th
attacks? As columnist Cal Thomas wrote, `The court inflicted on this nation
what many will conclude is a greater injury than that caused by the
terrorists.' And even if most people would find that comparison offensive,
there's no question that the indignation over the decision was very broad and
very deep.

Of course, the pledge isn't the only obscurely worded patriotic text that can
evoke strong feelings. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is famously unparsable.
How many people can tell you with confidence what ramparts are or why anyone
was watching them? And I'm sure I wasn't the only schoolchild who wondered
why we were singing a song to `my country 'tis of thee' when everybody knew we
lived in America.

But the pledge is the only one of those texts that was actually written for
recitation by schoolchildren. It was composed in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a
Socialist clergyman, as the centerpiece of an elaborate Columbus Day ceremony
sponsored by the National Education Association which was designed to promote
the use of the American flag in the public schools. Bellamy made no
concessions to the linguistic limitations of his young audience. Those
obscure words `I pledge allegiance' were intended as an allusion to the oath
of allegiance to the Union that many Southerners were required to sign before
their political rights were restored after the Civil War.

But the words wouldn't have had much meaning to schoolchildren in the 1890s,
40 years after the war had ended. Nor would children have made much sense of
Bellamy's original wording of the end of the pledge, `with liberty, fraternity
and equality for all,' a phrase that the sponsors rejected as too radical and
too French. Granted, that was an age that delighted in high-blown patriotic
language. Late 19th-century schoolchildren were expected to memorize and
declaim patriotic speeches like Patrick Henry's `Give me liberty' and Daniel
Webster's `Against Hain.'(ph)

But the pledge persevered even after those exercises were dropped from the
curriculum. And in fact, its syntax grew more convoluted as time went by.
Bellamy had originally written, `I pledge allegiance to my flag.' But in
1924, that was changed over his objection to the much clumsier `the flag of
the United States of America,' this at the urging of the Daughters of the
American Revolution who were fearful that immigrants might take the reference
to `my flag' as ambiguous.

The pledge became even more opaque when the `under God' phrase was added in
1954 to emphasize the difference between us and the godless Communists.
Whether or not you agree with the sentiment of that addendum, it's hard to
defend its syntax. `One nation, under God, indivisible'--it isn't just that
the phrase disconnects the modifier `indivisible' from the word `nation'; it's
also not clear exactly what `under God' is supposed to mean. The phrase was
taken from the Gettysburg Address, but Lincoln used it as an adverb--`This
nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom'--whereas in the pledge,
`under God' was somehow changed to an adjective, which leaves its meaning up
for grabs. Does it mean we believe in God, or that we're subject to God, or
that we have his personal attention? But then that vagueness is probably what
commends the phrase in the first place.

Schoolteachers sometimes try to explain the pledge to their charges in words
that they can understand. `I promise to be true to the symbol of my country,
the United States, a single country where people believe in a supreme being
and which can't be split apart.' But most people would resist any effort to
change the official wording to something more comprehensible. We like the
pledge as it is, in all its turgid opacity. As Eric Hobsbawm once observed,
patriotic rituals aren't supposed to be transparent; they're there to provide
the emotional signs of membership in a club, not its bylaws.

All that talk about harmless civic recitations gets the pledge wrong, because
there is a point to having children gather in collective surrender to
sentences they don't really comprehend. That's where patriotism takes its
most irreducible form. When it comes to the crunch, it's a question of `da,
da, da, flag, da, da, da, America, da, da, da, God, da, da, da, liberty, da,
da, da, for all.'

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of
Language and Information and the author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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