'From Rags to Off the Rack' by Lowell Cunningham; 
  title illo by Charlie Williams
I owe it all to a chance comment. That's right -- if not for one sentence from my friend Dennis Matheson, the top-grossing motion picture of 1997 would never have been made. Here's the story. (Several stories, actually.)

One early evening about eleven years ago, Dennis and I were passing through the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee. Suddenly, a large black car drove past. "Looks like a car the Men in Black would drive," Dennis said, referring to the ominous figures of UFO legend which, up to that very minute, had been completely unknown to me.

Since I had very little knowledge about the intricacies of UFO investigation, I prodded Dennis for more information. He told me the basics -- that 'Men in Black' appeared after UFO sightings and covered up the occurrence. My first thought was, "This would make a great TV series!" It was easy enough to mix the legends with my own ideas to come up with a viable series concept, but finding the approach which would get MIB before the masses was a problem.

I tried prose. I'm not very good at it (as you can probably tell as you read this). I couldn't get to Los Angeles, so I had to eliminate the television and motion picture media as options. I'd just about given up on my MIB idea when I got a hint from another friend. Greg Lane, a former co-worker of mine, had begun doing penciling and inking for a small comics company called Malibu. "Hey, if they buy my art, maybe they'll buy your writing," he said.

Once again, I knew a good idea when I heard it. I've read comics as long as I can remember and felt comfortable with the format. As quickly as I could, I sent sample pages to Malibu, and within a week I had a response. Tom Mason, the man who would become my editor, called with an offer to publish a comic book called The Men In Black.

In 1990 and 1991 we produced six issues of The Men In Black. There was also some other work for me with Malibu, but soon the company changed their publishing policy to concentrate on superheroes. After having little contact with Malibu for over a year I was about to give up on MIB -- and my fledgling writing career -- until I got another phone call. Guess what it was about...

The call from Malibu informing me of the possible movie deal came just moments before the first inquiries from reporters. I'd barely gotten the news when the E! cable television network rang up hoping to verify the details and find out how to spell my name. I wish Variety had done the same thing -- Hollywood's top daily paper somehow got the idea that The Men In Black comic had been written by "Lawrence Cunningham."

There was some negotiation with Columbia Pictures and soon I had quite a contract to sign. I've lived in towns with phone books that were smaller than this contract. Certain clauses even resembled works of science fiction, as when Columbia claimed the right to reproduce the upcoming movie in any format "currently existing or yet to be devised" throughout the universe. Fortunately the dotted lines I was expected to sign on had been conveniently marked with red 'x's.

Not long after signing the contract, Columbia treated me to a weekend trip to Los Angeles so I could meet Walter Parkes, who would be producing the MIB film. For my trip into L.A., the in-flight movie was Sneakers (a Walter Parkes film, by the way). The chauffeur who drove me to my hotel was an actor who'd actually had a small part in Sneakers. (There was some confusion when I tried to explain to a friend that my chauffeur was the black FBI agent at the end of Sneakers. He looked at me incredulously. "Your chauffeur was James Earl Jones!?" Of course not, my chauffeur was the other black FBI agent.) And I was a little surprised to discover I was staying at The Peninsula. It's one of Los Angeles' best hotels, but where I live 'The Peninsula' is a counseling center.

Things went well in L.A., but I didn't realize that it would take five years for MIB to actually go before the cameras. During those years, it seemed as if every company involved with MIB changed hands, changed its name, or did both. Columbia was bought by Sony. Malibu was bought by Marvel. Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald's production company was subsumed when Parkes became president of Amblin Entertainment -- and Amblin in turn became part of Dreamworks. If all that wasn't confusing enough, I also discovered that Hollywood executives come and go more frequently than most people eat.

The four years it took to get MIB through pre-production were a bit disconcerting for me. Still living in Knoxville, I was thousands of miles away from where major choices and decisions were being made. I had to get information through phone calls, mail, and news reports concerning actors who'd been hired and directors who'd come and gone from the project. It was a relief when filming began in March 1996.

I decided to visit the Sony studios during the first few weeks of filming. Thanks to the kindness of director Barry Sonnenfeld, I was welcome to watch virtually every aspect of the actual production. One thing I learned quickly was that filmmaking is very tedious work. It seemed as if I spent most of my time in L.A. watching people wait for other people to do things.

illo by Charlie Williams There are three advantages to being a guest on a movie lot. The first was having access to the craft services truck (which holds the catering supplies to feed the crew and extras). Another was getting to watch the 'dailies' which show the various takes of each scene in their raw form. This is a rare chance to see footage before special effects, music, or sound effects have been added, and possibly the only chance to see the flubs and bloopers which wind up on the cutting room floor. Finally, by being on the lot you get to do some starwatching as various celebrities made their way through the studio lot. Besides the cast of Men In Black there were quite a few well-known personalities who passed by at one time or another. John "Q" Delancie and John Kapelos (of Forever Knight) actually exchanged a few words with me, but speaking with those two was the exception. Generally I stayed out of the way of people like Kevin Spacey as they went about their work. It was interesting, though, to see Jeopardy host Alex Trebek drop by the MIB set -- the day before he appeared on The X-Files as a "man in black."

My most embarrassing run in with a "big name" occurred as I was looking for a mail box on the Sony lot. Walking along the sidewalk I looked about until I heard a voice say "Excuse me." I looked down and there was Danny DeVito, and I was a half-step away from stepping on him. "Pardon me," I said, to which Mr. DeVito responded simply, "Good Morning," and headed on his way.

There were other things to see on the lot, too. One day I watched for quite some time while a poor actor apparently waited patiently on a gurney for his scene to be shot. Then Rick Baker walked over and activated a control and the man's face opened -- it was the prop that Baker had designed to house the film's little green man. On another day I watched a man I assumed to be a stage hand walk freely about the MIB HQ set as he introduced his son to the director and stars of the movie. I was starting to wonder how this person rated such treatment when he turned around -- and I saw that he was Steven Spielberg.

The aforementioned MIB HQ set was where I got to experience an odd combination of tedium and excitement. Walter Parkes and Barry Sonnenfeld decided to put me into a shot as an extra. It sounded like fun... at first. I soon realized, however, that extras are the unsung heroes of filmmaking. Not only do extras have the most mundane roles to fill, they have to perform their actions over and over again whenever anyone shouts, "Back to one!" On top of that, extras spend the day in clothes which may or may not fit them and shoes which may or may not fit anyone.

Even though my appearance on the silver screen lasts less than 30 seconds in the final cut of the film, I had to spend about 12 hours as an extra. Except for the hours of tedium (and the aforementioned ill-fitting shoes) it was a fun, interesting experience. Most of the extras were aspiring actors just looking for the chance to impress the right person, though one or two seemed be relating to reality on a different level than the rest of us.

My day as an extra began with make-up. The female extras got full facial make-up and hair styling while the males got only the hair styling. When it was my turn I hopped into a chair and waited for the make-up man to comb my hair into the same `60s style he'd given all the other guys. As he combed my hair all the way back he looked at me and said, "That's some forehead you've got there." He then proceeded to spray my hair so thoroughly that it would later take two shampooings for me to wash everything back to normal.

For the cameo, I just ambled up behind Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as they looked up at a computer monitor. I had my little walk-on without ever really meeting the two stars. I doubt they'd even noticed my presence -- they even had their backs to me the entire time we were on screen together. I would have to wait almost a year for introductions, at the film's press junket. (Yes, this is a segue.)

In June of 1997 it was time for the news media to see the film and to interview the participants. Some reporters were guests of Sony while others had to pay their own way (the latter were known as POWs). Everything took place in the remarkable Four Seasons Hotel, where the studio took over an entire floor just for interview space. Everyone seemed pleased with the movie and several interviewers even commented (with obvious surprise) that they'd seen Tommy Lee Jones smile. During the weekend of the junket, Saturday was set aside for the television media and Sunday for radio and print media. The more photogenic people were interviewed the first day and the rest of us the second. As it turned out, two of the interviewers were former college classmates of mine -- we'd only had to travel across the continent for a reunion.

The main thing I remember about the junket is the people I got to meet. Of course, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald (the film's producers) were there; I'd met them on my first L.A. trip. Unexpectedly, I got a chance to meet Spielberg and was quite gratified when he told me, "Without your work we'd have none of this." I even took the initiative to introduce myself to Tommy Lee Jones, congratulating him on his performance. "Yep. I did pretty much look like Kay up there," Jones replied.

Not surprisingly, the funniest at the junket was Will Smith. He'd just been a recipient at the MTV movie awards when I met him. Everyone was congratulating him for winning the "Best Kiss" award. He found it quite amusing that the news reports hadn't mentioned his partner Vivica Fox. "What'd they think, I kissed myself?" he asked, adding, "Let me tell you, Vivica locks on!"

Just weeks after the junket came the big premiere. So many stars and executives wanted to attend the opening that the studio had to rent two theaters to fit everyone. It was on my way to the premier, in a studio rented limo, that I first met Sandy Carruthers who'd been the artist on The Men In Black comic.

Of course, there was a party after the screening and big names were in attendance -- too many big names to drop here. Two people stand out in my memory, however. I finally got a chance to meet Rip Torn. When I mentioned how out of place I felt coming to L.A. from Tennessee, Mr. Torn smiled. "I'm from Texas," he said. "You get used to it." The capper of the evening (at least for a long time SF movie fan such as myself) was getting to meet Mark Hamill and actually speak to him as a fellow creator.

And now you've gotten the high points of my experience with the Men In Black film. Ten years condensed to about two thousand words. That's all it takes to go from rags to off-the-rack.
- - - - - - - - - -
Martin Morse Wooster probably spoke for many of our readers when he asked, "How did you get Cunningham to write for you?" Actually, we've known Lowell for many years, from well before his Men In Black fame, and he's always been a fan for as long as we've known him. When we mentioned to him that his success was kind of a rags-to-riches story, he shook his head and replied, "Maybe rags to off-the-rack." As for how success stories like this even happen, Steve Jeffery commented that "As intriguing as the tale of how Men In Black went from comic to film was [the] story of how it started from a chance remark to become a comic in the first place. There must be hundreds of moments like that where you just go, 'oh yeah', and an opportunity sails into the lost realm of might-have-beens. Sometimes (I know this is criminal) they don't even get turned into fanzine articles." Horrors!

Another article from M22 also dealt with a fan/show business connection, but not one involving Hollywood. The writer, Ian Gunn, was a notable fan artist who, before he became involved in science fiction fandom, discovered a different kind of activity in some ways not unlike fandom. Here it is again:

All illustrations by Charlie Williams

back to previous article forward to next article go to contents page