It's been 10 years since makeup effects guru Rick Baker and director Barry Sonnenfeld worked on their last "Men in Black" film together -- and apparently, to Sonnenfeld, the 10 years it took to get to the release of "Men in Black III" seemed like an eternity.
"Barry actually emailed me when the film was first starting up and said, 'I know that you're retired, but I can't imagine doing a "Men in Black" movie without you. You've got to come out of retirement and do this.' Then I said, 'Well, first of all, I'm not retired, and secondly, you don't have to beg me to do a "Men in Black" film. I love doing these,'" Baker recalled for me with a laugh in an interview Thursday. "Barry considers me a collaborator and wants my ideas and input, so that was really nice."
Opening in 2D and 3D theaters nationwide on Friday, "Men in Black 3" opens with alien villain Boris (Jemaine Clement) traveling back in time in 1969 to assassinate the young version of Agent K (Josh Brolin) to drastically alter the course of history. With the modern-day world suddenly in peril, Agent J (Will Smith) travels back in time, too -- but a day earlier than Boris -- to save his colleague and dear friend.
There's no question "Men in Black" is near and dear to Baker's heart. One of most heralded makeup effects artists in the business, Baker has been nominated for 12 Oscars in the last 30 years and won seven -- including one for the first "Men in Black."
The "Men in Black" trilogy is made up of three films that have been spread out over a 15-year time frame. A sci-fi action comedy about a pair of alien-busting secret government agents -- Agent J and Agent K -- the first film came out in 1997, followed by its first sequel five years later.
Of course, in the 10 years after "Men in Black II," computer-generated imagery has grown by leaps and bounds. To some makeup effects artists, CGI has posed a threat to their livelihoods, but Baker knew he was in good company on "Men in Black III" because the visual effects supervisor was Ken Ralston, a legend in the business whose work dates back to the first "Star Wars" film.
"I was happy knowing Ken was in charge of the visual effects. I've known Ken since I was 17 years old," Baker said. "We were both crazy monster fans when were kids and Ray Harryhausen fans, so I knew that it wasn't going to be a situation where it was the CG guys being pitted against the rubber guys. I knew that we would be able to work together, and the filmmakers would be able to use both of us to their best advantage."
For Baker, the big change for "Men in Black III" was not only re-establishing the continuity of the alien beings to match the tone of the first two films, but to create a different set of aliens to compliment the film's vital time-travel plot. As a fan of monster and alien invasion films as a kid, it gave Baker the perfect opportunity to give the creatures a much-desired retro spin.
"It was my idea to do that. I said them, 'When we go to 1969, we have to do retro aliens. They have to look really different from the 2012 aliens. They have to be big-brained, bug-eyed aliens, and there had to be guys with fishbowl space helmets and ray guns.' I was really excited when they went for it," enthused Baker, 61. "It was great to pay homage to films like 'Invasion of the Saucer Men' and so many films I grew up with and loved."
This year marks Baker's 40th anniversary in the business as a makeup artist, and even with all of his success -- much of it groundbreaking, starting with becoming the first-ever recipient of Best Makeup Oscar in 1982, in recognition of his work in "An American Werewolf in London" -- you'd swear talking with him that he just completed his first gig.
The main thing, he said, is that doing makeup effects, despite any ups and downs or stops and starts, is and has always been fun -- the key to success in any profession.
"The actual making of the stuff is fun, but movie-making is hard," Baker said, laughing. "The hours are ridiculously long, and there are so many people in the mix that can slow things down. But the actual time I'm pushing clay around or whatever, I'll stop to think, 'I can't believe I'm doing this for a living.' It began as a hobby, and now people pay me to do it. I still can't believe it."