Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Shane Black

Black Is Back

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

October 17, 2005—Of all the stories in Hollywood, not many read quite like Shane Black's. After writing the hit movie Lethal Weapon (1987), he became a hot commodity and a staple of many bidding wars. He broke a salary record for his script The Last Boy Scout (1991) and again for The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996).

His paychecks were highly publicized, but respect was not forthcoming. Friendships were terminated. He tried to join the Academy but was rejected on the grounds that he had too few credits.

"The message was very clear: we don't want your kind," says Black, 43, who recently visited San Francisco. "That was what woke me up. If I were someone who had made no money and did these action movies, and they were all cult movies, then I'd have a cult following, but I made too much money. I'd much rather reemerge into Hollywood without all the baggage as a guy who makes a quirky movie for 15 million dollars and takes a lot of risks."

Now after almost a decade's absence, Black has retuned with a new film fitting that description, the hugely enjoyable detective comedy Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, starring Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan.

In his heyday, Black could sell a script in 24 hours, but for this new project he found a whole new atmosphere in Hollywood. "One guy said, 'we don't do period pieces.' It clearly reveals that people weren't paying attention. It was humbling."

Black wound up going to Joel Silver, who had produced many of Black's earlier films, but even he and his company weren't sure. "They said, 'there's so many words! I've never seen a script this much talk before!' But for 15 million bucks, you can't blow up a helicopter. You have to have them talk about stuff, and hopefully it's good talk."

It also helps when three excellent actors talk the talk. Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a thief-turned-actor-turned amateur private eye, under the tutelage of "Gay Perry" (Val Kilmer) a veteran private eye. Monaghan plays an "over-the-hill" actress who knew Harry in high school. The plot involves murder, guns, a switcheroo and a lot of laughs.

Black says he hates writing, but has fun cooking up funny dialogue. "Look at Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler's script for Double Indemnity, and the dialogue in that," he says. "A lot of that is just nonsense. It just comes out of nowhere for no reason."

"We got great actors," says Black. "Everyone else was rejecting because they're trouble. And they weren't trouble. We got more than our money's worth."

In making his directorial debut, Black clearly and concisely delivers the goods. "I think the best I can say about my directing is that I managed to stay out of my own way."

Like his earlier films, Black sets Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang during Christmas. "Christmas appeals to me because it's promised magic, but in L.A. it's against the backdrop of something that's very sterile and something not full of goodwill. There's so little Christmas available, you sort of have to conjure it yourself. The magic is striving to break through. You have to really pay attention to find your Christmas, almost to earn it, which is what the characters have to do."

Indeed, as demented as his characters might seem, Black loves their ability to be human, which is difficult to do in Los Angeles. Black describes it as "a city that cherishes cynicism."

"They're proud of not trusting," he says. "They think you're a fool if you get bamboozled by someone if you trusted someone. I'm more proud of the guy who got himself bamboozled, because he allowed himself the vulnerability to trust another human being."

Selected Filmography:
Lethal Weapon (1987)
The Monster Squad (1987)
Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) [story]
The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Last Action Hero (1993)
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Iron Man 3 (2013)
The Nice Guys (2016)

Movies Unlimtied