Shane Black on The Nice Guys, buddy comedies, Lethal Weapon, Predator & more
I know it's May, but it must be Christmas, because Shane Black is around. It's a little odd to me that an entire generation knows Shane Black as the writer-director of IRON MAN 3 first. Not that it isn't a very impressive film to be associated with; but for an earlier generation - old folks like me - Black was the screenwriter to look up to for a while in the 80s and 90s. THE MONSTER SQUAD, LETHAL WEAPON, LETHAL WEAPON 2, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, LAST ACTION HERO, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (not to mention that memorable albeit brief supporting turn in PREDATOR). Black was the go-to guy for testosterone-fueled buddy-comedies. He disappeared from the scene for a decade, then came roaring back with one of his most accomplished screenplays yet, KISS KISS, BANG BANG, which also marked his directorial debut. Though it took another 8 years for IRON MAN 3 to arrive, Black was back. And thankfully we don't have to wait a long time for his next reappearance.
THE NICE GUYS is vintage Black: A detective story kicking off with the suspicious death of a young woman that is but a small piece of a larger conspiracy, the story assigns two losers - Russell Crowe's tough-but-tender Jackson Healy and Ryan Gosling's sleazy-but-smart P.I. Holland March - to solve the mystery, take down the bad guys and trade quips in between gunshots. It's a crazy, violent thing of beauty, had me smiling ear to ear from start to finish. Black is back - once again - and now it looks like he's here to stay.
Sitting down with Black, I was prepared for some writing wisdom, some brutal honesty, some amusing anecdotes, some insight into the intense worlds he frequents. Black didn't disappoint. (Would you believe children's books like The Great Cheese Conspiracy or Charlotte's Web helped inspire the Shane Black heroes like Martin Riggs or Joe Hallenbeck that we know today?) Below we talk his collaborations with longtime friend/producer Joel Silver, why he keeps going back to buddy comedies, the LETHAL WEAPON 5 that never was, what his favorite TV shows currently are, why he can't join the world of television, what's up with THE PREDATOR... And so much more!
I like JoBlo. I may have said it before, but I'll say it again.
Thanks, man. I'm glad I pressed record for that. I hear you're having quite a long press day.
It's fun because of the people I'm working with. Sitting next to Joel Silver is alternately exhilarating and draining. But he's funny, he tells these stories and I don't know of anyone who could tell them quite the way Joel does.
My first question was actually about Joel, because you've worked with him for about 30 years now. Was he the natural choice to bring this project to, and how has your relationship evolved over the years?
I think, if anything, I've come to appreciate the technical side of Joel. Before I used to look at him as someone who shared a sensibility with me, he was the devil I knew. And to some extent an angel as well, in the same way a Broadway facilitates production, Joel would let me express the sensibility I had in a way that probably wouldn't have emerged with another producer. He gets it, he gets the kind of story I like to tell. That said, lately in the editing room Joel really just makes things come together, he'll catch the things I miss. He's a tremendously skillful filmmaker. We don't always agree, but that's okay, because the 30 year proximity to the guy gives me the ability to yell at him, or be yelled at. If he calls me a sonofabitch, I'm not going to storm out and call my agent. Sonofabitch is mild for him!
One of your specialties as a writer is the partnering of two guys who shouldn't be together but form a great team. How do you keep that formula fresh for yourself after all these years, and fresh for an audience?
I think there's something to be said for... the loner is fun, but ultimately they need somebody to talk to. It also represents the two sides of my own head that need to have an internal struggle, and when I'm fighting over a concept or idea and I put it in the mouths of two characters, it's going to come out a little better; it's a chance for each of them to use the other as a sounding board. Also, I'm very much a believer in the concept of, you need to love someone in order to love yourself. There's an element of self-redemption. With a two-hander there's the idea of each of them finding redemption in each other. I go back to the most effective part of Lethal Weapon, which is when Mel Gibson goes home with Danny Glover and sees a real family. He's reviled, he considers himself an untouchable, an unworthy guy, and to be sitting at a table with actual people, he realizes he doesn't have to play dead anymore, he can wake up to the possibility of an actual life. It's very touching to me, this idea of lavishing attention on people who don't feel they deserve it. And then it goes the other way, when Danny Glover is up against something he can't face, Frankenstein's monster stands up and says, "Dude, go to your family and let me take care of this." Then the enforcer comes out.
There's a sweetness there. These movies have a very macho veneer, but at the end of them, when the two guys become friends, we're like, "Aww, I'm so happy that they're friends now!"
I hope so. It goes back to the books I read as a kid, oddly enough. When you go back to all the books about friendship that the kids read, like The Great Cheese Conspiracy, or The Cricket in Times Square, even Charlotte's Web, most of these heroes that went on to become macho gunslingers in my movies started in my head as childhood cartoon characters in these books. So you take characters who had gone down a road where they really feel it's done, they're done, and to give them an opportunity at stumbling and finding a way with their head up and their feet under them by virtue of someone else believing in them when they couldn't, I think it's important. I think it's good.
Were Russell and Ryan your first choices for THE NICE GUYS?
Yeah they were. We had an earlier version for TV that we tried to do, but ultimately the one that got traction was the 70s version. Within three days they both agreed to do it; "I'll do it if he does it." That was after 13 years, it came together in 72 hours. It was pretty remarkable.
Were you like, "Uh oh, what's going on here?"
Sometimes there's the gift horse and you just look away.
You're known for your complicated plots and you're known for your witty banter. Are those two elements both at the forefront of your mind when you start a script, or does one thing fall into place first and the other follows?
They're interchangeable. Sometimes you start writing a scene and if it's not keeping me awake, it's not going to entertain you at all. There's has to be a hook, a unique way to get into a situation or dialogue. Even if there's no dialogue, like the opening of THE NICE GUYS, for instance. It was just an interesting little exercise I did one time, I just started typing. You take that scene and who knows where it goes. But that was part of my shoebox and I just pulled it out one day because it just seemed to fit. The shoebox is pretty useful, if you're just typing you can come up with some interesting things. Not one or the other comes first. You want an armature on which to hang your story. For instance, in this one: There's an old writer named Brett Halliday, whose actual name was Davis Dresser, he used to write about a detective named Mike Shane back in the 40s. One of these books had a clue about a porno film where the point was the plot. That was it, there wasn't any more to it than that, it was the only thing we could use, but I loved that. So I called up the granddaughter, Chloe, and I asked if I could buy that, to option just that piece of the book. And then I had an armature, because I knew that's where the plot's going and now you can do your character stuff, you can start hanging it on. In fact, on the show Columbo, they used to pay a guy to do just that, he would only come up with those clues.
How much rewriting do you do? Does it go on even during production?
What I'll do is, hopefully a couple days before production I like to get together with the guys and just hear them out, I'd be foolish not to. They're brilliant people, these actors, they come at this with a passion, with their sleeves rolled up. Their ideas are sometimes great, I'll incorporate that. What I try not to do is do it on the fly, on set. I like doing it the night before, because if you decide you want somebody to break a window on set, that means calling someone to get window glass, replace a window, you know. It's better to have that planned. That said, there are things on this we just did on the fly. There's one scene where Ryan's supposed to toss a gun to Russell, who catches it and shoots out the window. And we're about to film it and we just looked at each other and said, "We see that all the time." So now he just tosses it too high. We just changed it on the fly. It's a living document, how's that?
Do you ever watch your old films? If LETHAL WEAPON or THE LAST BOY SCOUT is on, will you watch it?
No. Especially when you direct a film and watch it in the editing room, you've seen it so many times that the only possible interest you can have is seeing it again with an audience, watching it through their eyes. But to sit by myself and watch it again? Oy. Never.
Do you think you'd criticize your own scripts? Or is part of it the, "Look how they changed it" thing writers go through?
Not so much. I see those parts, but those things don't trouble me. I made a catalogue at the time of things I would do differently, and that's why I chose to insist upon being the director when I've written a new script. I wanted to have that control. But the old films, they're fine. The only one I just really don't care for, I kind of just find boring, is LAST ACTION HERO. Because it's just not funny to me. It's a comedy and I can't remember a single thing I laugh at.
LETHAL WEAPON 5 is something that's always rumored to being this-close to happening. You worked on a fifth installment back in the day?
I did. Me and my partner Chuck Mondry wrote a 63-page outline. Riggs and Murtaugh tracking private contractors from Afghanistan who were setting up shop during the worst blizzard in east coast history. We wrote a whole thing, beat for beat, with dialogue. And it just never got made. It's really good.
Would you still like to see it get made, or is it too late now?
Do you have any interest in the TV show Fox is making at all?
What kind of stuff do you watch? What writing impresses you nowadays?
My favorite show, which I binge-watched last year, was Justified. I really think they got it right; the awkwardness, the attitude, the harshness. The things that are genuinely scary versus the things that just feel lame and awkward and out of sync with the way you'd expect an action scene to play. And just the characterizations, the empathy and the soulfulness of that show. Game of Thrones until this season was my favorite show. I watched the first two this season and I may never watch it again; just stupid and lame. I watched every episode of 24 that was ever filmed because I just couldn't stop. Something about Kiefer Sutherland in that role, it was just one of those classic clicks.
Do you have interest in joining the TV world?
I did a TV show [Edge] for Amazon last year that they didn't pick up. I really kind of liked the show, it was a western. I had fun directing the 60 minute format, but I can't do the template that is TV, it's too specific. TV it seems like, there's always one guy standing like this [makes a superhero pose] and then there's a V of other people behind him. There's the woman, there's the Asian character, there's the same black character in every show. They all have relationships that last 10 episodes and each episode is a chapter, it's a 10 chapter book, and you can't remember what happened in 5 or 7 or 8... I like to remember each individual episode. The X-Files was cool because they had a through line and they also had one-offs. 10 episode shows now, they've got to be soap operas and I just can't do that.
I have to ask about THE PREDATOR, of course. What is it about the character and that world that drew you back to the title?
I was reluctant to. If you look at the opening of the first Predator, with the helicopters coming in and landing with the smoke and the native people... It was so compelling because it established a world in which this is still mysterious for you. It's not a sci-fi world. It was so fresh back then, like a "why didn't I think of that, what the fuck?" quality to it. I'd like to get back to a movie where it's three months out and people are like, "Let's get our tickets now because we're aware of this, it seems like they put the money and attention into it, it's not just a knock-off." Really try to get back to that feeling of wonderment, mystery and adventure. A fresh movie. Without giving away details, that's been our goal. To say, "What's the John McTiernan and Joel Silver of this, and how do we get back to that?"
It's definitely your next directorial effort?
It is, it is.
Do you know when production will begin?
I think we're looking at end of September, maybe. Latest would be October, depending on casting. We might have to go over if we cast someone who isn't available yet. But if we get the right guys, September.
And is Arnold going to be in it?
[Abruptly stands and makes like he's going to leave] Can't really talk about that!
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