“Our Story Had To Be Worthy Of The Franchise” Art Marcum & Matt Holloway Talk ‘Men In Black: International’
The Men In Black movie franchise is launching its fourth installment this summer. It’s come a long way from its first outing in 1997. Creative Screenwriting Magazine spoke with screenwriting duo Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, who also shared writing credits for Transformers: The Last Knight (2007), Iron Man (2008) and Punisher: War Zone (2008).
Writing The Next Men In Black Chapter
Writing a sequel involves both respecting the source material and propelling the franchise forward. Marcum and Holloway were asked about their approach to tackling a blank page.
“When the project came to us, we were asked if there could be a different story to tell in this universe. You have to ask yourself if there is a reason to do it. Is there a natural story to tell or is it just a commercial endeavor?” mused Holloway. “We need to find something that gets us excited about it. Men In Black is a global organization based in the New York office.” This provided the first step in starting Men In Black: International.
Expanding the existing Men In Black franchise into the present while maintaining its original comic book beginnings is a delicate balancing act. “We think of it [Men In Black: International] as an extension of the universe that existed in the first three films which are based in New York. Our movie also starts in New York, but it involves brand new characters with the exception of Agent O,” said Marcum. “Then it jets to London to give it a more global feel.”
A change in locale certainly contoured the look and feel of the sequel. So did the genre and tone.
“The previous films were sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, but they were also police procedurals. When Art and I discussed how would approach a new chapter within this universe, we asked what if we thought about it more as an international spy thriller rather than a police procedural,” said Holloway.
“We are both big fans of James Bond and Mission Impossible. If we expanded the world to include Men In Black branches all over the world, not just New York, it might lean more toward the tropes of the spy genre.”
Once the screenwriters decided this was the direction they wanted to follow the Men In Black universe, they were well on their way to writing International. “We followed the James Bond lifestyle by traveling all over the world in a wish-fulfillment sort of way.”
But Men In Black is more than a cartoon turned movie about aliens living among us on Earth. “The great thing about Men In Black is that this premise is already baked into the cake, so you don’t have to do a lot of leg work to service that,” said Matt. “You let the new and old characters exist in the world that’s already been created and observe it through their eyes.”
The screenwriters also saw their film as a metaphor of what’s been happening today in terms of immigration, even though Men In Black is about aliens invading Earth. “Also, taking Agent M (Tessa Thompson) to London allows her to explore a fish out of water story,” continued Matt.
Once their spy thriller genre and thematic set up were determined, the screenwriters needed to figure out how their characters would drive the story. They started with the familiar spy thriller genre tropes. Typically, potential recruits are noticed and eventually recruited into the top-secret spy organization. If they successfully emerge from the rigorous training they were assigned a dangerous mission Marcum and Holloway flipped these tropes.
“What if we reversed that? Agent M had an alien encounter when she was young, but was told it never happened. She knows that it did and it becomes her obsession to find this organization. In finding it, she proves that she deserves to be part of them,” asserted Matt. That is how they introduced Agent M to the Men In Black world.
Not all ideas are created equal. The screenwriters pitched many potential story ideas to Men In Black producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. Some ideas were rejected because they were either tonally or thematically incongruent, or a good idea simply needed to become a great one. “We were always striving for excellence and living up to what came before us,” asserted Holloway. “It challenged us to make sure the story we were telling was worthy of the franchise.”
“We put the story through its paces with the people who created the universe to ensure a smooth writing process,” declared Marcum. Once the story foundations were set, their imaginations were free to roam free in the Men In Black universe.
Matt cited an example of their imaginations running wild. “In one part of the story, two agents come across a Curiosity Shop. In the back of the shop, there are these alien civilizations that live on chess boards. These chess pieces are aliens from another planet in a micro-universe. We created a character called ‘Pawny’ who was 2 inches tall.”
The Comedic Voice
Matt and Art don’t specifically define themselves as comedy writers even though comedy features heavily in their writing.
“We always look for a way into the story that feels real to us and then we look for situations that lead to humor,” said Holloway. Then it all comes down to character. “Going back to our work on Iron Man, Tony Stark is a beautifully flawed character. He put lethal weapons into the world. He wakes up to it and the film becomes a redemption story. Then we adorned the seriousness with the fun texture of the movie. We like to be entertained when we go to the movies, so Art and I naturally gravitate toward the comedic tone of Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole,” declared Holloway.
“When I first saw the first Men In Black in 1997, we saw this dry, deadpan humor which I love,” said Matt. “It’s set in this world that takes itself very seriously because of how dry everything is. It was getting these huge laughs. That’s kind of our natural sense of humor.”
Marcum also claimed that the style of comedy has shifted on our screens. “The lines between comedy and action have been blurred since the early Iron Man films. You go to a Marvel Movie now and you expect to laugh. You expect total action as well. As much as we’ve been part of that, we’ve also been influenced by it.”
Art described their writing collaboration process. “We spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project sitting across from each other breaking story and talking about possibilities. Then we start breaking these elements down and write a rough outline on a board. We transfer these notes to a detailed outline on the page.”
Then they split it up and each screenwriter individually worked on their assigned scenes. They communicated via email or Skype to vet each other’s work and avoid any nasty surprises that weren’t previously agreed upon.
“One thing we learned early on is that surprising each other is not always a good thing, even if an external reader finds it interesting or relatable. We don’t handcuff each other because good surprises can also arise during the writing process.”
Screenwriting partnerships can be challenging, but also have their benefits because Art and Matt are each other’s toughest writing critics. “We bring out the best in each other by holding each other’s feet to the fire. We complement each other. We look at certain things differently even though we fundamentally share the same basic sensibilities,” added Art. “This process accelerates our writing because you’re not just writing a scene. You want to get it past muster.”
Matt said “when you’re younger you think about plot. What’s all the stuff that’s going to happen? As you gain writing experience you ask more fundamental questions about each scene. What is the scene about? Why is it in the movie? Why is it essential? What does each character want and is it fundamental to the story you’re telling?”
“The best plot comes from character,” added Art. “Stories are far more interesting because of what characters do or the dilemmas they face. Simplify your plot and complicate your characters.”
Like all screenwriters, Marcum and Holloway relish their writing downtime by doing other activities. “We read a lot of books unrelated to screenwriting. It’s important to get away from our projects and fill our heads with stories of the world rather than the things we’re going to write about,” stated Art.
They also watch classic movies or films they haven’t watched in a long time. “I find it always invigorates me because I remember how many great movies have come before us. I look at how they told their stories and how can I take inspiration from that and do something new,” said Art.
“You never want to write to what you’re seeing, but you need to know what your contemporaries are doing,” added Matt. “It comes down whether a story is a movie we’d want to see. If the answer is maybe or no, we won’t write it,” declared Art. “Starting a screenplay from scratch is intimidating and hard work. You need that creative energy and passion to keep you going. If you don’t, you won’t do a good job of writing it.”
“Screenwriting is art so decide where you want to spend your creative energy.”
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