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Shane Black Solves His Third-Act Problem

Iron Man 3 and the career of an action-movie savant and Hollywood enfant terrible

I kept waiting for Shane Black to say something arrogant, given how much he has to be arrogant about these days. I should have known better. A filmmaker with a giant superhero movie about to open is like an expectant parent who’s just finished spending $200 million of someone else’s money on a crib that might still collapse and kill the baby. It’s not a moment to talk about what a great job you did, lest those remarks come back to haunt you.

For instance: When I suggest that Iron Man 3, which Black directed and cowrote with Drew Pearce, is not only a really good Iron Man movie but also very much a Shane Black movie, since it features zingy dialogue and the destruction of expensive California real estate and is set at Christmas for no particular reason, Black politely demurs. “The touches you’re noticing are inevitable,” he says, “but, y’know, I just really liked Iron Man 1. I think it’s a great movie and I hope to live up to it.”

He says all the right things. He talks about how he wanted to keep Tony Stark on his back foot a little bit in this film. About how the first one was about a beleaguered, tormented guy coming to a realization and getting himself inside of an iron suit, so this one needed to be about that same guy coming to another realization and getting out of the suit. He talks about the importance of “letting [Robert] Downey [Jr., duh] be Downey.”

I’m writing this two days before Iron Man 3 opens in America; it’s already made $242 million everywhere else. All signs point to Black having delivered a hit. If he’s humble almost to a fault, maybe it’s because he knows that at least statistically he shouldn’t be here. During the ’80s and ’90s, Black wrote a few screenplays that studios were willing to pay handsomely or even obscenely for, beginning with 1987’s Lethal Weapon. Before long, he was rich, and also famous, in the sense that he became somewhat unfairly the poster child for the practice of lavishly overpaying young hot-shit screenwriters. Then, in the late ’90s, in the wake of the commercial failure of The Long Kiss Goodnight — based on a much-derided Black script for which he was paid $4 million — he dropped out of sight. His name didn’t appear on another movie until 2005, when Black’s directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, slipped in and out of theaters.

Part modern noir, part knowing showbiz satire, Kiss Kiss barely made its $15 million budget back, but it started Black on the path to Tony Stark’s mansion. In the early 2000s, Robert Downey Jr. was still relatively fresh out of the pokey and nobody’s idea of a viable leading man, but Black hired him to play the lead anyway. Downey didn’t forget the favor; Black says the first call he got about potentially taking over for Jon Favreau on Iron Man came from RDJ himself. “He’s the one who brought me to Marvel’s attention,” Black says, “and said, ‘Hey, can you put this guy in the mix?’ I could have screwed it up if I’d gone in with inappropriate ideas, but he brought me to the table.”

The fact that Kiss Kiss was one of the best-written movies of the decade also helped. (I think about this scene every time I hear someone say they “feel badly” about something, and about “Native American Joe Pesci” whenever I cross paths with a few-degrees-off celebrity look-alike.) It galvanized a cultish reestimation of Black’s earlier work, particularly 1991’s critically firebombed The Last Boy Scout, a deranged sports-world Lethal Weapon shot through a lens smeared with testosterone gel. Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright once called it “an action thriller framed by flaming air quotes,” which was apt. The favorable fan response to Black getting the Iron Man job was almost unanimous, which testifies to what a cult figure he’d become.

“There are worse things to be,” Black sighs, “but there are better things to be. I try not to think about anybody’s reaction to what I do. Estimation, assessment, looking back, retrospecting things — those are intellectual concepts and they’re always so subject to shifts in the wind. I can’t even begin to look at that.”

Which I guess means it’s up to us.
Last Boyscout
Black’s first screenplay, Shadow Company, was a supernatural thriller set in Vietnam that John Carpenter considered directing. His second screenplay, written in six weeks, was Lethal Weapon. It sold in 1986, for $250,000.1 Black was 24, still living with a group of screenwriter bros at the Pad o’ Guys, a West Los Angeles bungalow whose frat-house squalidness delighted journalists who came by to report meet-the-reluctant-wunderkind profiles.2

Lethal Weapon went on to gross $65 million and spawn three even-more-lucrative sequels. There’s something about the first one, though. It has Gary Busey — not yet the sad business-suit-stuffed-with-dead-lifeguard-jerky who confronts us every week on Celebrity Apprentice — as an ice-veined mercenary. It has quippy tough-guy dialogue elevated to absurdity, with characters communicating in Dirty Harry koans:

God hates me.

Hate him back. It’s always worked for me.

The action itself has a lunatic glee and a sense of real risk. Once these movies became a franchise, it got harder and harder to believe that Mel Gibson’s Riggs was still looking for a reason not to eat his gun, but the first movie feels character-driven (i.e., handcuffed to an insane protagonist) in a way that justifies that overused phrase.

The most compelling character the script introduces is Shane Black, though. He’s a cocky, chatty authorial presence on the page, as in this passage, one of the finest descriptions of a drug lord’s mansion in the history of screenwriting:

The kind of house that I’ll buy if this movie is a huge hit. Chrome. Glass. Carved wood. Plus an outdoor solarium: A glass structure, like a greenhouse only there’s a big swimming pool inside. This is a really great place to have sex.

A lot of Black’s movies have featured precocious wiseass kids — from the daughter in The Last Boy Scout to Harley, the preteen who helps out Tony Stark in the new Iron Man — and that’s what Black sounds like here. Also, he breaks a lot of basic screenwriting rules; the script is heavy on parenthetical actor instructions (“[sweetly]”) and even camera movements — the kind of directing-on-the-page stuff a Dummies manual admonishes newbies to leave out.

In the movies he’s directed, Black uses voice-over to put that fourth-wall-breaking authorial personality right on the screen. At the beginning of Iron Man 3, Tony Stark starts telling us a story, stops, doubles back and tries again, a narrator calling attention to his narrating, and within the context of a superhero movie it’s as close as you can imagine getting within the context of a superhero movie to Downey’s spazzy raconteuring in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:

Damn it. This robot bit. I made a big deal, then I forgot. Fuck — bad narrating. Like my dad telling a joke. Oh, wait, back up. I forgot to tell you the cowboy rode a blue horse. Fuck. I don’t know if you want to see it now, but here’s the fucking robot stuff. Can I say “fuck” more?

Bad narrating: I forgot to mention that Black was born in Pittsburgh, graduated high school in Fullerton, originally attended UCLA as a theater major before trying his hand at writing toward the end of college. He continued acting on and off for years — he played a “yuppie hit man” in the premier episode of the CBS series Dark Justice. But his highest-profile acting role was in 1987’s Predator — he’s Hawkins, the radio operator with the glasses and the endless repertoire of off-color jokes, the first of Arnold’s team to die.

According to Predator producer Jon Davis, there was an ulterior motive behind their decision to hire the hot screenwriter of the moment to play a grunt: “The idea was hatched — we’ll hire him as an actor and then when he’s stuck in Mexico we’ll make him rewrite it.” This never actually happened; instead Black read a lot, hung out in Mexican discos, and worked on the script that became The Last Boy Scout.

Black was hired to write Lethal Weapon 2, agonized over the project for months, then turned in a script that ended with Riggs dying, which (spoiler alert) is not how the finished version of Lethal Weapon 2 ends. (When I ask Black, jokingly, if Marvel would have let him kill off Tony Stark at the end of IM3 if he felt it was dramatically necessarily, Black replies, “There’s a phrase for that. It’s called sending away the bread truck. No one likes to do that. Least of all me.”)

Rattled by the Lethal Weapon 2 experience, Black wrote nothing else for two years. In the meantime, the market for spec scripts — screenplays not written at the behest of a studio, usually by impoverished, unshaven dreamers working out of their own pads-o’-guys — grew into a tulip frenzy. Upstart studios aiming to build a slate (Morgan Creek, Largo, Carolco) threw money at anything that looked like the next Lethal Weapon; so did under-new-management companies like Columbia Pictures.3 When Black resurfaced in 1989 with the script for The Last Boy Scout, a bidding war ensued; he ended up selling it to Geffen/Warner Bros. for $1.75 million, which was the most anyone had ever paid for a spec until 67 days later, when Joe Eszterhas, the Louis-Ferdinand Céline of the cocktail-napkin pitch, sold Basic Instinct to Carolco for $3 million.

“Eszterhas used to call and wake me up at night saying, ‘I just sold something for more money than you, ha-ha,'” Black told Vanity Fair in March. “I was like, ‘Joe, I don’t care, man.'”

In a 1990 New York Magazine article about rumpled whiz kids striking it rich in the great big beautiful/obscene spec-script gold rush, it’s revealed that Black actually turned down bigger offers — between $2 million and $2.5 million from Carolco and TriStar — to make the deal with Geffen/Warner, because Black thought working with them would be less stressful. “Whether it’s worth what I gave up, I don’t know,” he said. “But what the fuck. It’s all Monopoly money.”

In the photo that opens the article, Black is standing in what’s presumably his driveway next to what are presumably his garbage cans and his Oldsmobile; he’s wearing ripped jeans, a flannel shirt, and an almost sheepish grin that, in context, implies that with regard to why he’s being offered millions of dollars to write movies, your guess is as good as his. $1.75 million buys you the right to dress like you’re taking the trash out all the time.
Lethal Weapon
Black came aboard as a producer on an action-comedy script called Extremely Violent, then agreed to do a rewrite, shaping the material into a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The original script — written by two college students, Zak Penn and Adam Leff — was a knowing, Scream-before-Scream parody of overblown ’80s action comedies like Lethal Weapon. This was problematic for obvious reasons.

The story was about a movie-crazy kid whose fictional supercop idol steps down off the silver screen and into real life. Together they fight to save the real world from a movie villain; the kid’s encyclopedic knowledge of movie clichés keeps them three or four steps ahead of the bad guys. You can see why Black liked the premise, but he was probably the wrong guy to punch up a Shane Black parody, just as you are the wrong person to take out your own wisdom teeth. The Extremely Violent script became a movie called Last Action Hero, which recapitulated action clichés without critiquing them much. It was one of 1993’s noisier flops.

Years ago, in a post on a screenwriting message board, Penn called the Action Hero experience a “writer’s nightmare,” alleging that Black reneged on a promise to give them screenplay credit and generally behaved like a megalomaniacal prick, and he may well have. But if you read both scripts side by side, it’s pretty obvious why people hire guys like Shane Black to rewrite things.

Here’s how Penn and Leff’s draft [PDF] introduces the character Schwarzenegger ended up playing:

“The elevator doors slide open and … Holy Shit, your pancreas dances, because who’s standing right in the middle of the doorway but …

ARNO SLATER, the toughest, strongest, hardest-to-kill, Action Hero you’ve ever seen.”

Which is a pretty good parody of Black’s own excitable screenplay voice, but here’s that same character’s introduction in a subsequent draft of the script [PDF], credited to Black and David Arnott:

“A lone figure strides ACROSS ROOFS,
wading thru a SEA OF FLASHING LIGHT like a juggernaut.
Dressed casually in a bomber jacket and jeans.
T-shirt with a slight tear near the shoulder. Cigar. Three-day stubble.
A .44 Ruger Blackhawk, the BIGGEST GUN EVER MADE,
perches in his hand like an old friend.

SERGEANT JACK SLATER is in a bad mood tonight.”

Maybe that isn’t poetry. But it has a poetry to it. It’s a rock song with a Flying-V guitar solo played on the hood of a burning cop car. It’s a page torn from a Mike Zeck Punisher comic. It moves. It’s entirely possible that a movie more faithful to Penn and Leff’s script would have been better, but Black’s version makes theirs seem wordy and unfocused.

All good screenwriting has that terseness. It’s supposed to propel your eye down the page. There’s a primal and stereotypically masculine energy to that kind of economical prose — look at Walter Hill’s script for The Driver sometime, or the verbal shrapnel of James Ellroy’s White Jazz. That’s where Black got it, from crime fiction. “I’ve read a thousand private-eye novels,” he says. He’s name-checked Raymond Chandler as an influence, but also lesser lights like Richard S. Prather and Brett Halliday. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Michelle Monaghan’s character, Harmony Lane, adores a pulp P.I. named Johnny Gossamer, whose books (by the made-up “Joe Chester”) have covers by actual pulp illustrator Robert McGinnis.

Kiss Kiss borrows its title from a Pauline Kael collection (which in turn lifted the phrase from a foreign poster for Thunderball) and uses Chandler titles as chapter headings, but the plot is loosely based on Bodies Are Where You Find Them, the fifth of at least 70 books about detective Mike Shayne churned out between 1939 and the late ’70s by Halliday, the pen name of a former mule skinner and civil engineer named Davis Dresser (and various successors).

Black, famous for bouts of unproductivity, worships the output of novelists who really cranked it out, quickly and unpretentiously. Whenever he’s asked who his favorite writer is, Black says, “The temptation is always to trot out somebody like John Cheever or Paul Theroux. Both of whom are terrific, by the way — but I can’t help going back to the guy that kept me sane in high school, and that’s Stephen King.”

King, of course, was at one point so productive he had to start publishing under a pen name so as not to compete with himself in the marketplace. By comparison, Black might as well be chiseling his scripts into marble with a pocketknife.

Robert Downey Jr.

In 1994 Black set another spec-sale record, when New Line Cinema bought Long Kiss Goodnight — about a housewife who recovers memories of her former life as an assassin — for $4 million. It ended up being Geena Davis and her director husband Renny Harlin’s follow-up to their super-doomed pirate movie Cutthroat Island, which meant Long Kiss was basically super-doomed as well.

After the script sold, then-Variety editor Peter Bart wrote an editorial about Black and his work. It began with the headline “Script fee vomits upward for mayhem-meister” and got more ad hominem from there.

“I’ve been talking to people around town who’ve read the thing,” Bart wrote, “and, based on my survey, the breakdown is something like this: About one third of the readers vowed to quit the business forever; another third made firm offers; the final third simply threw up.”4

Bart suggests that as one of the highest-paid screenwriters of his era, Black should be a better role model: “What you have done in ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ is to carry everything to its logical extreme. Your computer has spawned the grossest dialogue, most sadistic torture scenes, grisliest killings, and most mean-spirited heavies. In doing so, you have not only exploited the system, you have laid it to waste. You’ve left nothing for the wannabe Shane Blacks to try and top.”

Which is a weird thing to say, because this was in August 1994, a few months after Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, which means Bart was probably aware of the Gimp when he wrote that “logical extreme” paragraph. Either way: By October, when Pulp opened in the U.S., there was a new zingers-and-gore-peddling enfant terrible in town. The inexact-but-tempting parallel to draw here is that Black was Guns N’ Roses and Tarantino was Nirvana, with French New Wave reference points in place of punk cred. They’re more stylistically alike than that analogy suggests; the difference is that as a writer/director and a shameless attention-hog, Tarantino was able to get out in front of his movies in ways Black never could.5

The part of Bart’s editorial that probably stung the most, though, was this characterization of Black’s process: “Other writers may thrash around in development hell,” Bart wrote, “but along you come with your mayhem machine — that’s probably what you call your computer — and, pow, a $4 million spec script emerges before you can blink an eye.”

He knows this is what everybody thinks. It’s nothing like that. Not for him. Not since Lethal Weapon.

“Writing is a black-box proposition,” Black says. “You see actors, you can see what they’re doing. You can watch the director on set doing his work. But when a studio says to a writer, ‘Give us some pages,’ he just goes off and comes back. It’s just pages, and suddenly there’s some writing on them.

“So there’s this illusion that it’s easy. It’s like, ‘Yeah, go up to your cabin and bang out 40 pages.’ Bang out 40 pages? Forty pages is three months! That’s insane — this notion that screenwriting is this process you can do while watching TV. It’s very arduous. And writing is harder every time. That’s what’s interesting. You’d think once you’ve written five, ten screenplays, the eleventh would be easier. No — it’s the most difficult one yet.”

Produced for around $65 million, Long Kiss Goodnight came and went in four weeks and earned around $29 million, and at that point Black more or less disappeared from public life, although like Gatsby he still socialized. His parties became legendary. In 1998, Los Angeles magazine reported that he’d been feuding with the Fremont Place neighborhood association over “lengthy traffic jams” caused by guests arriving chez Shane. One of the big, ostentatious Hollywood-party scenes in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — a movie that is, in part, about the ridiculousness of big, ostentatious Hollywood parties — was shot at Black’s house.

In 1997, before his hiatus turned into a vanishing act, Black sat down with Harmony Korine for a joint New York Times interview moderated by Lynn Hirschberg. You know those discussions where two filmmakers who seem to have nothing in common talk to each other and reveal both have an affinity for each other’s work and surprising artistic commonalities? This was not one of those.

After Korine lives up to his indie-imp rep by rolling in late, Hirschberg writes, he and Black “begin a colloquy that is not only about screenwriting but about identity.” Slow your roll, 16 Years Ago Lynn Hirschberg! The colloquy is barely even about screenwriting:

Korine: What are your movies — “Lethal Weapon”? And … what else?
Black: “The Last Boy Scout.”
Korine: Oh, yeah. I saw those.
Black: “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”
Korine: I don’t remember. I don’t think I saw that. Who’s in that one?

But there’s a moment when Black starts talking about the action movie — a form whose precepts he codified and arguably perfected with Lethal Weapon — as something he barely recognizes anymore:

The worst of the action films are the ones where everything is one shout from beginning to finish. And there’s no differentiation between beats, like small or big, or quiet or expansive. It’s all just one loud shout. And by the end, the audience has been beaten in the face so many times, you could blow up the Taj Mahal and they’d go, “O.K., that’s nice.” Because they’ve seen so much. They’re just dead. We’re in a culture where people want to be deafened, apparently. And there’s an elegance, which is somehow missing. It used to be that when people talked, they talked in a very communicative way. They varied their tone, they varied their pitch. Now they just yell at you until you fall down. And that’s what I don’t like.

There are a lot of ways to go awry as an artist once you get famous. You can become too good at replicating the thing you were rewarded for, or you can seize up in response to real or imagined pressure to keep doing that thing.

“There were some issues with expectation,” Black says. “When people would point to me as a brand instead of just a guy. Or a sum of money, a monetary figure, instead of just a guy. I was always about just telling the best story I can. I had little, artistic movies that I wanted to do. I consider Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to be one of those, oddly. It’s something that had been on my mind a long time.”

A Disney public-relations person jumps on the line, asking us to wrap it up so that Black can get on with the other 70,000 interviews he is undoubtedly doing today. There’s time for one more question. I ask Black if, when people were questioning whether or not he deserved all that spec-script money, he ever began to internalize that criticism and ask himself the same thing.

“I still like the scripts,” he allows. “Someone at one point said, ‘Black started to agree that he was a hack’ — that’s not true. I never doubted my commitment to this craft, or my ability to practice it. What I did begin to question was just how to make it happen again. I just wanted to tell these little stories. I wanted to work in comfort and peace. And to have that kind of initial, outlandish success, and that degree of attention, only distracts you from where your focus should be, which is getting to that next story, and making people turn the page to see what happens next.”

Filed Under: Movies, Ted

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.