You already know the words of Shane Black. In fact, you’ve probably committed many of them to memory. At age 24, a UCLA theater grad living with a bunch of young Hollywood hopefuls, Black penned the screenplay for Lethal Weapon, effectively defining the style of crackling banter that marked late ‘80s and early ‘90s action comedies. “I’m too old for this shit,” might be one of the most quotable movie lines of all time, up there with “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille.”
Black went on to receive higher and higher paychecks for his scripts for The Last Boy Scout and Last Action Hero and topped out with a $4 million payday for the Geena Davis/Samuel L. Jackson lady-spy-with-amnesia movie The Long Kiss Goodnight. When that flopped, Black took a long break from Hollywood, before returning with his 2005 directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also a comeback for Robert Downey, Jr.), going on to write and directed Iron Man 3.
Black, a longtime fan of detective and pulp noir fiction, is back with the 1970s-set detective comedy The Nice Guys, starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, which is headed for a Cannes premiere. He’s also connected to a reboot of Predator (which he appeared in) with old friend, former roommate and collaborator Fred Dekker, with whom he co-wrote the ‘80s cult classic The Monster Squad.
We recently caught up with Black to talk about his Hollywood rollercoaster ride, the key to writing dialogue that snaps and just what it is about Christmas that makes him want to set all of his movies during that time of year. It’s not surprising that the screenwriter gives good interview: He talks like one of his own characters, or even a detective in a beloved Chandler novel.
You wrote Lethal Weapon at a very young age and defined the action/buddy movie, genre. What’s the key to writing good buddy movie banter?
There’s just a key to writing dialogue that snaps on the page. People on screen they don’t talk like they do in real life; they don’t waste words. You have to sound like it’s real life, but it has to be heightened; it has to be condensed. The trick is to make it sound real but have it more purposeful. I’d be hard-pressed to write a comedy. Finding a serious story full of people who are organically driven, and then just having them crack wise with each other along the way, is so much easier and effective for me than trying to just make it funny.
So it comes from a natural place.
It should come from a heartfelt place—two people genuinely trying to get to know and assess each other, as opposed to a formula where one guy eats junk food and the other guy is health nut. Which, to me, is kind of a templating process. I don’t like that.
I rewatched The Long Kiss Goodnight recently. I was young when it came out, but I think the movie holds up, and it’s gotten an unfair shake.
It really laid an egg box office-wise. It’s interesting: There may be problems with the film, but within three years of Long Kiss Goodnight, suddenly you saw a spate of tough heroines, Alias on TV, you had all these kickass ladies. When we opened, no one wanted to see the kickass ladies.
The fun for me is to take a pulp story, the kind of thing that you’d see in a trashy novel you read on the bus in the ‘60s with a real flashy cover you’re embarrassed to be seen reading, and you take that flashy pulp story and then give it weight and gravitas as though you’re doing a real movie. Try to give everyone organic motives and real scenes and just take it seriously, give it a degree of respect that the really great pulp writers knew how to achieve.
Let’s face it, the premise is silly, but it gives the opportunity to play around in some really mythic themes and generate some images that resonate. I’m just sorry it didn’t do better.
You took a long break between Long Kiss Goodnight and your directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. What were you up to during that time?
I was dabbling. I guess the best answer to your question is largely fuck-all. I was in my thirties, the movie didn’t do well. I was staring at a blank page again, and I just let time drift a bit. I had a bunch of friends at that time, and we all got together in two cars or three cars on Friday night and drove around like the guys in that movie Swingers.
In the back of my mind was this dread that maybe I didn’t know what I wanted to write, and maybe I wasn’t quite as facile or as effective a writer as I thought. Having been paid a lot of money for the script for Long Kiss Goodnight—$4 million—that’s a lot of money, more than anyone had made. I was happy to the take the money, but it engendered a degree of resentment, which became apparent in a lot of articles.
In the trades, Peter Bart, who is now a friend of mine, he said I’m a hack—“a blood-drenched pageturner,” he called it. “Embarrassment,” or something like that. I was just very sensitive and some of these things started to get to me. I’m actually trying to do the real thing here! I want to be a real writer and tell my little stories and have genuine movies which are heartfelt. I thought, wow, “high-paid hack” seems to be the most commonly leveled phrase at this point, and I just got too sensitive.
I was a kid, and I withdrew and started in the back of my mind planning to write a romantic comedy, or some kind of touching drama about teenage obesity. Anything to take me away from being the “high-paid hack,” from the stigma of that. By the way, those movies are heartfelt, and I shouldn’t have reacted that way, and I should have just not even cared. But for some reason, I got sensitive, and I cared.
It seems like a very human reaction to harsh criticism.
Hmm. Yeah, but I’m supposed to be tougher than that.
When you starting working again, did you feel that your perspective had shifted or the industry changed?
It was pretty remarkable, because I had written a script that I liked quite a bit. Finally. And I was used to an environment—imagine my agent calling prospective buyers for a script back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and saying, “You know what, I’m not even going to send it to you. You’re going to have to come here and read it here at the office. And if you want it, we’ll consider you.”
So here I am, 10 years later, trying to sell this thing, and people just don’t remember me anymore. I slid off the map. I was in that realm of writers who are just trying to get a script read. In a way, that’s fine, but it was remarkable given what I was used to.
Did you know you wanted to direct it?
I did want to direct, because I felt I could. I also thought it would be more fun than staring at a blank page. You finish a script, you send it off, sometimes you like the results, other times you see the flaws. Then you’re back at the blank page again as if you’ve never left it. You start all over again, in a lonely room, typing something that on a good day, maybe no one’s gonna read except your mother. That’s a lonely place to be. Directing is a social, invigorating, creative, collaborative environment, and it’s a lot of fun, and I felt I could do it well and I wanted to learn. You can’t learn by reading about it, you just have to do it.
How did you get Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe to be in Shane Black detective comedy mode—to work together as a buddy-movie pair?
It became apparent very quickly that these two guys, who were perfectly capable of incredible serious acting, were also very funny, without even trying. They brought stuff to it and they had ideas. For two nights before we shot, we sat in a hotel suite, and went over the script and just talked about the characters. We would try and get the organics of it, to get these two as real characters. We went through and did a mini-rewrite based on those two nights, further sharpening and honing the characters and replacing some of what we had in the script with new stuff that was even funnier.
I’m happy to take credit for a Robert Downey or a Crowe or Gosling, anyone who elevates the material and adds stuff to it, that’s great, that’s why you get those actors. Because they’ll give you something that you didn’t have.
There are several profiles that mention your old apartment, the Pad O’Guys. What was it like to be really young and making movies with your friends, finding your footing in the industry?
It’s been 30 years and it seems like a blank. Before we ever even had any evidence of success or a tangible reward in the business, we were all just buddies in college. We always loved film. We’d get together any hour of the night just to talk about film, make a little movie; we had video cameras. There was a neon sign in the window that said “Open 24 hours,” so if it’s 3 in the morning and I’m driving around, I drive past the house and the sign’s on, I stop just to see what’s going on—what are they talking about? Are we making a movie tonight? Watch something? What are we doing? We can have an argument, that’s fine too.
Okay so my last question. I gotta know, what’s the deal with Christmas?
Christmas to me, it’s a hush. It’s always been an evocative kind of time of retrospection and assessment. The whole world freezes for a moment and people react differently—people who are lonely get lonelier. There’s an element of finding Christmas in places where you wouldn’t expect, like Los Angeles. To do Christmas here, you have to concentrate less on the spectacular Christmas tree on the White House lawn and focus more on the little bits that you dig out and unearth.
I talked about walking late at night on Christmas Eve and seeing a Mexican lunch wagon with just a little broken statuette with a lightbulb inside it of the Virgin Mary, and just thinking, Wow. That’s as iconically Christmas as any of the huge displays. It’s little bits of magic, little bits of hush that inform and stamp a time period. You’ll remember Christmas more than you will just the blur of events leading up to Christmas.