Writer/director Shane Black has forged a career out of creating fast-talking men of wit and candor. And sitting down with him to talk about his latest action-comedy The Nice Guys, it’s easy to see traces of Iron Man 3‘s Tony Stark, Lethal Weapons‘ Martin Riggs, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang‘s Harry Lockhart in the charismatic and devil-may-care demeanor of this Hollywood heavy hitter.
Screen Rant sat down with Black in Warner Bros’ New York offices to dig into this heralded storyteller’s creative process. And through a vibrant conversation, Black shared his thoughts on The Nice Guys, Marvel studios’ “machine,” his upcoming Predator sequel, fanboy backlash, China’s influence on U.S. tentpoles, and his thoughts–for better and worse–on Captain America: Civil War. We’ve teased bits of this interview before. But here it is uncut and Black to the bone.
In many ways, The Nice Guys feels like a companion film to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, from its triad of heroes to its pulp-inspired detective tale and setting. Do you consider these films to be linked?
Shane Black: I think they share a very similar sensibility and one I could continue to play with. It’s a sandbox I like to revisit. There’s a sort of straight thriller (element), which by the way I’m all in favor of. I love Three Days of the Condor for instance. It’s probably where I get the Christmas backdrop settings (that appear in “Lethal Weapon,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Iron Man 3,” and “The Nice Guys”), because that’s where I experienced that for the first time. But there’s also the kind of deconstructed detective movie, which I love too. And that has to do with the awkwardness of what violence is in real life. It has to do with the inability of a detective character to fill the mythic footprints that he’s expected to. He can’t fit those shoes. No one can.
So, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, you have the scene for instance where everyone expects the hero won’t get information out of this guy. He takes a bullet, puts in the revolver is like, “Alright click!” And the guy goes, “Oh, you’re crazy! Alright, I’ll talk. I’ll talk!” But what if the click hit the one bullet: BOOM. And it’s like, “What the fuck did you just do!?” So similarly in this movie, a detective wraps his knuckles (in cloth) and tries to break through the glass (of a window, but he gets badly cut). So, it’s the same kind of sensibility. You take the tropes that you’ve seen a million times in these sort of tough guy movies, and then you stand them on their head as best you can, or at least try to inject an element of reality.
Now that makes it a comedy a lot of the time. Sometimes you do that and it makes it wrenching, but other times it’s really funny to be to just take the piss out of these things. It’s by the way what I think Marvel does so great. The reason they’re scoring so big at the box office is they have these mythic caped heroes come striding out of the fog, lit from below and backlit. And then they stub their toe! They remember to do that part. Even with the latest one, Captain America: Civil War, The Winter Soldier is brutalized and tortured. But then there’s this scene where he’s in the back of a car (chuckles) and he’s just nudging his buddy, ’cause Cap’s kissing a girl. They know to do that.
I was actually just saying to someone, those little car moments–which is already inspiring so much fan art–it reminds us of the human stakes of those larger-than-life worlds. So, it’s still escapist, but it also connects to us on a human level.
I agree. You can’t take mythic too seriously. People can’t watch Fistful of Dollars for too long unless the character does something human. He can’t just be chiseled the whole time. I don’t know. I try to think–what do you think? The new Spider-Man is so much that. He’s like completely the other way from Spider-Man. I don’t know. Do you like it? Or don’t you?
I like the new Spider-Man. I think they had me from him being in an apartment in Queens as opposed to another big house in Queens. I’ve lived in Queens nine years–
People don’t have houses there?
Some do, but it’s doesn’t feel connected to the majority of a modern New Yorker experience. So from that moment and little things like talking about catching the train and “nailing” the algebra exam, he felt like a more authentic city kid to me than the Peter Parkers I’ve seen before.
Interesting. That’s (Marvel’s) philosophy by the way. I’ve worked there, and they know to go straight to that kind of a choice. Those decisions are made routinely there. I am really a fan of the Marvel sensibility, mostly because the guys running the show–the studio itself–they’re comic book guys. They grew up with this shit. It’s very important (to them). When I was leaving to go home, Kevin Feige was staying ’til midnight working to get the details right from these comic books. I just think that’s why they’re good. Everyone else is a suit trying to make a superhero movie, and these guys are comic book guys.
In the situation of making Iron Man 3, was that encouraging to you or intimidating?
At the time I like to think there was a collaboration at work. Joss Whedon came to me early on, because I really wanted to just keep writing and do things with Drew Pearce and not include the machine with every step of the way. And the machine was always there looking over your shoulder. And finally, Joss was like, “Look, just trust the machine. I mean, you can’t keep control of every moving part, and there’s so many people here willing to help you. I know you’re concentrating on the script, but just let go and let the machine take on part of the work.” And he was absolutely right. There is something there that you can learn from. I opened my ears from the second I heard him say that, and just paid attention to Louis D’Esposito (Marvel Studios co-president) and Kevin Feige (Marvel Studios co-president) and Victoria Alonso (executive producer) and Stephen Broussard (executive producer). I just watched and listened and I learned an incredible amount. Now, I’m a better moviemaker.
Iron Man 3 won praise in part for the way you reshaped The Mandarin, taking a character that once traded in racist stereotypes and recreating him in a way that could be freshly enjoyed.
To some, yeah. To most people. The idea was very interesting to me that this think tank–which was already in the comics–of A.I.M. would put together a cobbled together bogey man, comprised of their research into all our fears, all the various things that inspired people to take cover. And then they would hire an actor even to play the role of that guy. We thought that was so fun. Now some of the fans–I still get death threats you know.
Oh yeah, you should see some of the stuff online, like “I want to put my fist through your face and watch the blood splatter.” You know?
I’m a woman on the internet. I have a pretty good idea.
I’m curious in the context of what you went through re-creating The Mandarin, what are your thoughts on the way Marvel has re-interpreted The Ancient One for Doctor Strange?
This is something I just read about. I don’t really have a thought on it except to say that Tilda Swinton is a really good actress. Everyone knows why they did it. It’s a financial decision. So, they’re not trying to be PC because it’s one of these movements they’re following. They’re trying–I would imagine–not to piss off China, which is a huge market. So, if you say they’re smart businessmen, you’re right. If you say maybe they’re caving, maybe that’s right. It’s a decision they had to make based on the fact that China is opening a new movie theater every day. It’s a huge market. Don’t blame Marvel for that. I mean, go look at The Transformers’ movies, where there are lines about like, “Let’s stop them! But first we must consult the Central Committee!” There’s stuff written in the script that just kisses ass cheeks!
There’s a part in–I think the last one–where there’s aggressive close-ups of a milk beverage that’s sold in China, but it made the U.S. cut.
Right. Look, “Iron Man 3” did it. We had stuff that I didn’t even film for the Chinese version, where it just cuts to their Robert De Niro in essence–a really wonderful actor–and he’s like, “Is Mr. Stark on his way? Ah, good yeah. We must prepare! I’ll do my best.” He hangs up and then just starts drinking this milk in front of the camera! Geely milk! But here’s the thing: I know a lot of Chinese people and I had a Chinese girlfriend. Even they know it’s bullshit. In China they’re going: “Guys, come on. This isn’t fooling anyone. This isn’t even supposed to be in the movie. You’re just jerking us off here.” But they still saw it in China.
What’s it like for you as a filmmaker to see these sections added to your movie?
It’s fine with me as long as it’s not in the version of the movie I’m seeing. Those scenes they added, they went to China. They were not in the U.S. version. They were not in the French, English, Italian version. They were just for the China version. I guess the thing I feel more strongly about is the censorship exerted over the films that go to China. Even Nice Guys, I just got the China cut back and there’s things missing.
What did they cut for the Chinese version?
Blood. They don’t like gore and nudity. So, for me, that’s like, “Whoah!”
That’s some cuts from Nice Guys for sure.
It’s not that much, but yeah.
Does that shape your writing? Do you think about how things could be censored when you’re going in?
No, no, no. Not for one country. I mean, come on, China’s a great market, but that’s a decision made at high levels by people who are trafficking in billions of dollars. I don’t think about money at all when I write.
But even at the MPAA level is there a sense of worrying about what will be allowed?
Never. I don’t care. I made it a condition of directing The Predator that it has to be the same rating as the first one, which was R. We probably could have gotten more money to do it as PG-13. But I actually think that although that seems like good logic, that you’re shooting yourself in the foot. I don’t think the fans want a PG-13 Predator.
I think Deadpool makes a strong argument for more rated-R action films.
I think it does, but before Deadpool everyone was saying exactly the opposite. So yeah, it’s only been recently that this sort of thing has become more palatable to the decision makers. But Fox has been great. I am so impressed with the degree of consideration and creative insight. I mean Emma Watts (president of production) and Stacey Snider (co-chair of 20th Century Fox) and the people at Fox, this has been the smoothest thing I’ve ever worked on. That’s why I’m still in it. The train is rolling. They’ve just been great.
So how did you go from being in Predator to directing The Predator? I know you were asked to write it way back.
I think it has to do more with the fact that they’ve seen me do three pictures now and a TV show pilot. They’ve seen all that material. In addition to which, I think Iron Man 3 bought me a lot. I think it opened up a few doors. Like, “You’d presided over or at least seen what it’s like to make a summer tent pole. You understand what it’s like to show up every day to work and it’s just green screen everywhere.”
I think the script for Iron Man 3 was also so much fun, we had so much fun. We got to join a club that’s fairly exclusive. And it was probably there for us anyway because it’s Marvel: It’s the Billion Dollar Club. And once you do that, people take you more seriously and as someone who might concoct a similarly effective summer movie. That’s what the goal is here, to take the Predator from a sort of knock-off version that gets a certain amount of money every few years to one that’s more eventized, that you would get your tickets for it months in advance, actually know it’s coming, and say, “Yeah, let’s line up and see that.” Remember we used to line up for summer movies, and had a lot of fun? I think that sense is largely lost, especially with them being available so quickly on television.
With the idea of creating an event in mind, how does that affect your writing process?
It doesn’t. You just swap up and you think, “Alright, what was powerful and interesting (about Predator to begin with)?” It’s the challenge. How would you shake it up? How do you make a Predator movie that doesn’t feel like just an episode of the Predator? But is more a prelude to something–it’s difference of writing an episode of The Planet of the Apes television show that they had in the ’70s and actually doing the new Apes movies that they’re doing now (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), where they are completely re-invigorating that franchise. It could be done well or poorly. I hope we’re doing it well.
What are some adjectives you would apply to your version?
I would say a sense of portent, and mystery is important, where it’s not just like you see the creature and you’re just like, “Aw, there it is. We’ve seen that before.” Also, a re-imagining, a sense that maybe there was something that wasn’t revealed in the first one, but was hinted at. And so we would hunt through the first movie and say, “What’s the extension of this that we could almost say was set up here?” And that’s what we had to find.
It sounds like a smart way to reverse-engineer a sequel.
Yeah, we look for the things that were exciting to us as opposed to just copying the hardware. In the same way someone who remakes Star Wars–the mistake so many people make is that instead of capturing the spirit of it, they just copy the spaceships.
Are you speaking about the prequels or The Force Awakens?
I’m talking about the people who just copied Star Wars over the years, not the Lucas projects themselves. And I think the similar thing is there’s a whole spirit to ’80s adventure, and specifically to Predator and Alien, which are sort of missing in the sequels and knock-offs over the years. They were exciting back then and they were fresh. And we need to re-invigorate and refresh that so that it gets to that level of excitement again where people want to treat it like an event.
Do you write with actors in mind?
Never. Unless it’s a sequel and you’re bringing back somebody.
So putting Nice Guys together, how did Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe come into it? I mean, they’re hilarious in the movie, but neither is really known for comedy.
Yeah, but I never really envisioned Nice Guys as a straight comedy. Because here’s the dirty little secret: If you give me a script and say, “Here’s a thriller. It’s got a good mystery in it. Put some jokes in.” I’ll say, “You got it.” And if you hand me a blank page and say, “Write a comedy,” I’m frozen. I can’t do it.
I can’t start just to be funny. I can’t pluck two SNL guys and put ’em in Nice Guys and be like, “Come on, guys! Improv something. Be funny.” There has to be a solid, organic and very heartfelt friendship at the heart of it, and the real nod to the private eye genre that you’re carrying the torch for. There’s a legacy I got to live up to that has nothing to do with comedy and everything to do with the private detective world. Now, within that, there’s a lot of comedy to be found. But first and foremost we needed those organic actors that can sell that part. And also I always knew these guys were funny, even Russell. I just had a hunch. They can do anything. They’re that good.
There’s a particular joy to listening to Ryan Gosling just screaming in this movie.
Yeah, he insisted on screaming like a little girl. Not even like him but like a little girl. And that’s the thing, there’s no guile to it. He just said, “Fuck it, I’m a shmuck and I’m going to play a shmuck.” Which makes it more effective when he does find little shreds in himself of something that does sort of fill the sort of mythic footsteps of the private eye that we expect.
And it creates a sharper foil with Holly. I was pleasantly surprised to see the daughter is such a major character.
She’s the human element. She’s the soul of it, not only the most mature character but surely his conscience throughout.
The Nice Guys hits theaters May 20, 2016.
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