Director Robert Caruso recalls the mad rush to complete the project and the big idea Will Smith championed: “They just threw a bunch of money at it.”
Over Fourth of July weekend twenty years ago, moviegoers learned the good guys dress in black.
The previous July, Will Smith had started his journey to being one of the biggest movie stars in the world with Independence Day, and Men in Black proved that July belonged to the rapper-turned-actor. Men in Black was a smash, trailing only The Lost World: Jurassic Park at the box office in the summer of 1997.
At the center of the massive marketing machine for Men in Black was a $1 million music video for an irresistible theme song performed and co-written by Smith that came during a golden age of music videos, before YouTube and piracy began chipping away at MTV’s pop culture supremacy. The video had it all: Ray-Bans, black suits and a memorable centerpiece that saw Smith dance alongside a CGI alien.
Robert Caruso was signed as a commercial director for Industrial Light & Magic, the famed company that was creating effects for Men in Black. Though his experience was in lower budget music videos, he was tapped to helm the key tie-in for the tentpole. He met with Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld in New York as the filmmaker was completing work on the project.
“My intention was to create a darker, more underground version of the MiB crew that had been portrayed in the movie, present a kind of behind-the-scenes version of the MiB world created by Sonnenfeld and production designer Bo Welch,” Caruso tells Heat Vision.
With Sonnenfeld’s blessing, it was a mad dash to complete the video finished ahead of the movie’s July 2, 1997 release date. Today, it’s a given that corporate synergy will see endless tie-ins for films, but back then, that craze was just a few years old, and Columbia Pictures knew this video could be key to the film’s success.
“I think they just threw a bunch of money at it. It was a lot of momentum when it started. ILM was doing the visual effects. As is almost the case with music videos, it’s like ‘Oh shit, we need a video tomorrow’ kind of a thing,” recalls Caruso.
Caruso furiously worked on storyboards (see the bottom of this story) and had a number of meetings with Smith, who conceived of the video’s key moment.
“The original idea to have that creature — they called him Mikey — dancing in the video, was Will’s,” says Caruso. “That was kind of the thing that the whole project kind of hung on.”
In 1997, it would have been nearly impossible to have Smith dance with a CGI alien in a video created on such a compressed time scale, but fortunately, designs for Mikey already existed for the film.
Choreographer Buddha Stretch conceived the video’s dance moves, hired the dancers and trained them up at the warehouse southwest of Los Angeles where Howard Hughes’ giant Spruce Goose airplane was built.
“Will was really on some insane schedule at the time we were shooting that scene. He spent a lot of late nights learning the dance steps and spending time to figure it out. It’s not easy to do, to jump in there and kind of try to hold your own with all those guys who are professional dancers,” says Caruso.
Filming took place over four days, with an additional three weeks of post-production, largely focused on the alien Mikey.
“The animated character … was one of the really early uses of motion capture. I don’t think they fully used motion capture the way they do now, but some of the basic dance steps, some of that stuff was helped out by some really early motion capture work,” says Caurso. “The other stuff that was more performance stuff of the creature, was all hand animation.”
Caruso thought the video would be popular, but it ended up being much bigger than he expected. Smith won a Grammy for the song, and Men in Black: The Album would go triple platinum. Men in Black finished its box-office run with a massive $589.3 million worldwide (roughly $888 million in today’s dollars).
“I remember it getting a lot of buzz on other outlets. Like news, Entertainment Tonight. I remember kids dancing the dance,” says Caruso. “It became a whole thing for a while … it really became the thing of that summer. I remember that being kind of a wave and it was really exciting to see it do its thing.”