Tommy Lee Jones Wanted Men In Black's Script To Pick One: Comedy Or Science Fiction

For decades, the mythology of the Men in Black has hovered over the UFO community. Legend says that investigating paranormal phenomena, spotting unidentified craft, or encountering alien beings often leads to a scary visit from pale men in black suits who threaten the witness to keep quiet about what they've seen. Many supposed eyewitnesses claim that these men are government agents or shape-shifting aliens tasked with keeping the existence of the paranormal a secret from humanity, while skeptics wrote them off as a silly fable created by a kooky, paranoid community. In 1997, a popular film offered a humorous take on the enigmatic Men in Black.

Between 1990 and 1991, Lowell Cunningham wrote "Men in Black," a dark, violent comic book series that focuses on the daily grind of government agents who exterminate supernatural beings and human eyewitnesses to keep the public ignorant. According to a 2022 interview with Inverse, after writing six issues of the comic, Cunningham turned the concept into a script and sent it to Hollywood. Screenwriter Ed Solomon read it and enjoyed it, but didn't think the darkness and violence would work for the film as well as it did for the comics. Cunningham was offered the chance to write the first draft of the screenplay, but didn't feel that his experience as a comic writer had prepared him for such an undertaking, so the job landed in Solomon's lap.

Solomon went with his instincts and wrote "Men in Black" as a comedy, which is a decision that caused some friction with Tommy Lee Jones.

'Comedy would allow the leaps of faith needed for this to work'

Ed Solomon's initial pitch to put a comedic spin on the concept landed him the gig, and he ran with it, creating a humorous take on the concept of extraterrestrials and the government agency that has to keep them in line. 

Tommy Lee Jones, however, had a very different understanding of the script. Solomon told Inverse that Jones felt the film should either be science fiction or comedy, and that Solomon's attempt to blend the two wouldn't work. "I said it wasn't good enough science fiction to be dramatic," he told Inverse. "Comedy would allow the leaps of faith needed for this to work. So I was asked to do a draft that was more dramatic and which made him the lead. But I argued that that wasn't a good idea because it's a world-build notion and he already knows the world."

Solomon's argument is a solid one. The goofiness of "Men in Black" differentiated it from popular '90s sci-fi hits like "The X-Files," "Independence Day," and "The Fifth Element." In the end, after being fired four times, Solomon's original idea stuck, and he produced one of the funniest and most popular sci-fi movies ever. He also gets to say he won an argument against Jones, and considering the actor's prickly personality, I doubt that happens very often.

Jones' cuts

Keeping the humorous tone of the film allowed Will Smith to lean into his natural comedic talent and ad-lib some of the film's funniest lines. "There were lines in 'Men in Black' that I couldn't have written that [Will] winged and [he] was right on," Solomon said at the 2015 Austin Film Festival. "There's a scene where he lands in the bus and I think he says, 'It's raining Black people in New York.' I wouldn't have had the confidence to write that." 

As a dramatic actor, Tommy Lee Jones couldn't compete with Smith's quick quips, but that didn't stop him from putting his own spin on Solomon's script as well. After discovering that aliens exist, Jay (Smith) and Kay (Jones) discuss the ignorance of humanity and the necessity for a secret organization like the Men in Black. According to Solomon at the Austin Film Festival, he filled the scene with a long analogy that Jones wanted to cut. "It was this long, eloquent [...] description of 'Yeah, you know you're trying to find a suitcase that you can fit this whole thing into, blah, blah, and get a handle on it." Jones made the executive decision to remove the long-winded metaphor from the script, which Solomon admits made the scene "way better."

"Men in Black" was released July 2, 1997, and earned a staggering $51 million its opening weekend. It went on to gross over $250 million domestically, spawned an Emmy award-winning animated series, and three sequels. Despite Jones' concerns, his dramatic talents blended well with Smith's comedic abilities to create one of the most unpredictable, yet successful, on-screen comedy teams of the late '90s.