Screenwriter Shane Black revolutionized the buddy-cop action movie with Lethal Weapon (1987) at the age of 23. The film ultimately became a gigantic hit, served as the launching pad for a successful franchise and television series, and established Black as a genuine talent with a knack for witty dialogue. In the decades that have followed, Black has continued to shine as a writer, crafting (or co-crafting) such screenplays as The Monster Squad (1987), Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) (story only), The Last Boy Scout (1991), Last Action Hero (1993), and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996).
Black made his directorial debut in 2005 with the impressive neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which he also wrote. He then took a few years off, struggling briefly with alcoholism, before making a triumphant return to helm Marvel’s Iron Man 3 (2010) (currently the thirteenth highest-grossing film worldwide). He later directed Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in the critically-acclaimed detective yarn The Nice Guys (2016), which he of course wrote.
Black recently sat down with Diabolique to discuss his views on screenwriting and cinema, as well as his career, from Lethal Weapon to his next project, The Predator, due out this fall.
Diabolique: Lethal Weapon was your first screenplay sale. Here we are, more than 30 years after that film’s release and it continues to find an audience. It’s spawned three sequels and a television series. It’s iconic. What are your thoughts on the film’s continued popularity?
Shane Black: There have always been bloody movies, there have always been bloody cop movies. I think this was, in a way, the perfect melding of actors with material because of this notion that one of these “nuts” attracted and/or distinguished it. It also came, at the time, in the midst of the Rambo craze. So, in a way, I think it was considered a Rambo movie, but with a buddy. It had this realistic flavor that the Rambo movies had since abandoned. Someone once described the second and third Rambo movies as being a fever dream that the character in the first movie would have had while he was incarcerated. The one thing that’s interesting, people say that Lethal Weapon attracted an audience because it inspired this wave of comic book cartoon-y action and violence. I feel it’s true once we get to the third Lethal Weapon film, but I feel that what really marked it wasn’t the level to which they continued to push the action and stunts, but it was the initial conception of a movie that wasn’t afraid of action and had a core character that was crazy and potentially wanted to end his own life. I think that marked it as a hybrid between action and thriller. When you say action movies, you think, “Well, okay, things go through the air and they collide, glass breaks, tires skid…” But really, to me, it’s all about the thriller, not the action of it.
I think Lethal Weapon survives because it’s one of those movies that, in the context of a traditional cop thriller, inserted one unreal element: that guy who’s better than anyone else in the whole world. I think people like to watch a character who’s imperfect and goes home and messes up his relationships and elements of his life… But when it comes to this one particular thing, he happens to, in spite of, or even because of his insanity, become better than anyone else in the world.
Diabolique: A lot has been made at this point of the “Shane Black formula” where you have two reluctant partners in a love-hate relationship and they have to work together to achieve a common goal, and ultimately become friends. Many of your finest films are written around this theme; Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys…What is it about this dynamic that appeals to you from a storytelling aspect?
Shane Black: From my earliest memory, the idea of two cops in rumpled suits, skinny ties, standing over a body, swapping information and putting it together… that’s the imagery in my head. It could be the lone cop, but I’ve always had this idea of, at the very least, two cops or even a squadron of guys. I was tremendously inspired by the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain. Each person in that squadron had a personality, but their quirks bounced off each other, bruised each other, they threw sparks. But at the same time, there was some level at which the common task they had been assigned brought their talents and abilities together. It was precisely because they were grouchy and didn’t like each other that the discovery of their mutual skill sets were interesting to me.
L.A. Confidential was a perfect example. They want to kill each other. One guy slept with the other guy’s woman, and they’re in the middle of a fight, and someone says, “Wait a minute, I just figured out a clue,” and suddenly they’re together. They have to go stump this thing, despite their flaws, despite the fact that they hate each other. That kind of discord always appealed to me. Superheroes who are best friends and are always smiling and patting each other on the back was never as appealing to me as the buried lead; “Yes, I’ll take a bullet for you, but you’re not going to know that.” Some of the most enduring and most powerful friendships I’ve ever known look like, on the surface, two people who can’t stand each other. There’s something very touching about finding what bond can link two people so vastly different, and who, in fact, do like each other.
Diabolique: As writers, we sometimes see themes pop up and reemerge in our bodies of work. Is that something you do consciously—return to that theme of the two reluctant partners—or is that a thing that just finds its way into your work?
Shane Black: I don’t make conscious choices to follow any particular formula… the opposite holds true. I’m forced to make a conscious choice. Normally, I would probably just gravitate to my crutches, or my my comfort zone. A detective novel or a cop procedural has always been a comfort zone for me. It’s reassuring. It’s like a nest. If anything, it might reflect on a fantasy of mine that, despite my own idiosyncrasies or odd behaviors, I’m itching my own skin that there might be someone who is willing to accept that and still find within me those characteristics which transcend any initial notions of likeability. I can be a very odd guy. I have Tourette’s Syndrome… Not seriously, but when I get tired, I will bark. I just have odd things, and it’s nice to think of odd characters earning acceptance, even grudgingly, from people who would normally not like them. Maybe that’s a factor of my own fantasy.
Diabolique: Of all the projects you’ve had produced, what characters’ castings were the least like what you had envisioned when you wrote them?
Shane Black: It’s hard to say. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard. I’ve been tasked at various points, with sequels or considered sequels. I’ll have a character in my head that’s sort of an amalgam. When I sit down to write the script, it’s not an actor I’m picturing. When you read a book, it’s not an actor you’re picturing. You’re picturing whatever that character represents to you. For instance, like in The Nice Guys, or like Lethal Weapon, or The Long Kiss Goodnight, when I start to picture the sequel in my head, I’m no longer picturing that initial concept or construct I had so long held when writing the initial script. I’m picturing the actor that played it because they embodied it. I’ve never had any friction in that regard. I’ve never felt that I was a victim of miscasting. In fact, if you look at Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, just to name two, or Val Kilmer or Sam Jackson… I’ve been gifted with terrific actors—people so good that you can’t picture anyone else in those roles.
Diabolique: As a big film buff, are there any films you wish you had written, and if so, what about them make you feel that way?
Shane Black: Well, because I’ve grown up being a recluse, to some extent, and reading books, just reading and reading, I have a special fondness for English authors. I have a tattered copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which is almost falling apart from reading it so much. Even as a kid, I acquired a fondness for language you can chew. Things where they didn’t just spit it out. [In a mocking high-pitched voice] “You don’t understand! He’s in there, we have to stop him! And if you don’t help me, I’ll have you out of a job fast enough to make your head spin!” Okay, that’s not dialogue to me. Because it’s the first thing that comes to your head. It’s the exquisite choice, that wonderful, thoughtful, almost channeling of a character voice that I appreciate. The two things I look for: 1) Some people think that one way to write well is to take a very simple idea and express it in as florid and effusive way as possible; in as many words as you can. 2) Other people, and I think this is more interesting, take a character with limited vocabulary, and he’s forced with his limited vocabulary to get at what he’s feeling and describe something bigger than he has the words to properly utilize. It’s in those cases where the art comes out. How do you take minimal language skills and artfully, as a writer, turn them into genius?
I think when you look at Marty (1955)… when you look at Sweet Smell of Success (1957)… These are movies that came out of a generation affected not so much by movies, but by stagecraft. They still went to Broadway. They still went and saw plays. This is about language, not the fast cutting or the action. Movies that shadow that, that go on, tend to be my favorites. Now the exception to that is The Exorcist (1973), which tends to have very little dialogue. What there is of it is terrific. That’s probably my favorite film of all time.
In general though? Anything by Mamet. When he wrote The Verdict (1982), that’s art to me. That’s genius. The simplicity and terseness and the sheer “get to what the audience cares about” of the original Dirty Harry (1971). It’s just a textbook study in terse suspense. There are all these models where I just bang my head. William Goldman was a wordsmith. He was a writer that loved language. If you look at Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and then read and reread that script over and over… God, I wish I had written some of Goldman’s early stuff. Those are all my heroes. James L. Brooks and his attention attention to language in movies like As Good as It Gets (1997), Broadcast News (1987), you know… he’s looking and prying for those little moments. He doesn’t stop until he’s got the words exactly right.
Diabolique: New Line purchased your script for The Long Kiss Goodnight for a then-record-breaking four million dollars, but then proceeded to change the story and water it down from what you had originally written. Whose idea was that, and what considerations went into those changes?
Shane Black: It was even more prevalent on The Last Boy Scout. It has to do with their giant appetite for what looks good on paper, and then the executive machine kicks in and they start to look for things that might offend, or things that need to be cleared up. As long as they preserve the characters, I don’t care too much. And sometimes the scripts are too long. Accommodations will always be made. The problem I have is when they pay for something and then start sanding off the corners. Almost like they bought the bit of it they could identify with, that’s universal, but the fine-tuning of it that rendered it unique or made it stand out ends up getting softened or rounded off somehow.
I see that with studios a lot. They get a script and they’re ready to go. They’re almost out the door with it to go shoot, and someone says, “Wait a minute! One last thing! We gotta sand off the corners!” And then, just to feel safe, they start to make it like other things they’re familiar with. That’s not going away anytime soon, by the way. That’s a studio phenomenon. They’ll get someone unique like Quentin Tarantino making indies, but if he came on board at Warners or Paramount, and if mainstream movies started doing some of his stuff, they’d say, “Whoa, whoa! I’m sorry, but you can’t do a flashback within a flashback.” They would just start to make it look like things they’re familiar with.
Diabolique: When one looks at your filmography, given the films you’ve done and that you’re generally associated with, Iron Man 3 would seem to be sort of an anomaly; an impressive anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless. How did you get involved with that project? I’m guessing it was through Robert Downey Jr.?
Shane Black: It was. It was around 2004. I was looking for work, and no one knew who I was anymore. I was an alcoholic. I had started going overboard. I was not making sense on phone calls, I was isolating, and I was forgetting to work. After Kiss Kiss Bang Bang came out, there was a period of a couple years where it looked like I wasn’t going to come back or do anything interesting. In fact, I was in rehab in 2008 or so. Coming out of that and getting sober changed a lot. About two years into my sobriety I got a call from Robert Downey, who had had his issues too, and we had talked about them, and he helped me. I think that when he discerned that I was sufficiently sober and not lacking, or destroyed, that my talent had not been burned away by the couple of years I had been overdoing it, he called me and said, “I want to try something. Why don’t you come in and let’s talk about this?” I think he gave me the shot. I’m forever grateful.
Marvel, at that time, was also the studio that was taking on directors who didn’t necessarily have to be the biggest directors because they considered themselves to be the draw of the thing, not the director. While that seems like a negative thing, it did allow me to come in and do that movie, whereas in another studio they would’ve said, “This is a lot of money. Who the hell are you?”
Diabolique: The Nice Guys was one of the freshest, smartest films to emerge in the last decade, and not surprisingly, it became one of those films where the critical consensus was higher than the audience score. It seems like audiences don’t like smart films as much anymore. They seem to just want to turn off their brains and vegetate. As you know, in the Seventies many of the most intelligent films were huge hits. Do you have any theories about why today’s audiences seem more hesitant to view more intelligent films?
Shane Black: I don’t have any theories, except to note that movies in the Fifties and Sixties, like 12 Angry Men (1957), reflected a theatrical tradition of really paying attention and listening to every word. Then, the blockbusters of the Seventies and Eighties, the Spielbergs and the Lucases, took us to another level where, I think people were still paying attention, but there was a little less dialogue and there tended to be more of the “look out, jump, duck” variety. That’s not to say all films were that way, because you still had smart films being made.
Towards 2000, a new generation came up. This is just a theory, but I think that the idea that started with MTV where no cut could be longer than a second and a half in a film or video… The ascension of rock videos coupled with the insanity of video gaming, which eclipsed the motion picture business in terms of revenue… I think people got used to this kind of frenetic, almost chaotic pace that you couldn’t keep up with. I think that slow movies, which were normally considered fast-paced, would now be considered very lugubrious. I think it’s almost like the audience is saying “faster, faster, more, more, stop talking, get to it.” And I agree with it to some extent. I think today I would look at certain movies from the Seventies and just say, “Speed it up a little.”
Also, editing techniques changed. It used to be if you wanted to make a cut in the movie, to shorten or speed things up, you’d have to take fifteen minutes to take the film and splice it together on the Movieola. Now you can make those changes in seconds. You can cut frames off. Two off the tail. One on the head. You can do that in seconds and crunch and crunch and crunch things. It’s all about the future shock. Things get faster. It’s more chaotic. There’s more to look at. You used to get three channels, but now you get five hundred. It’s all input, input, input. You don’t like it for more than two seconds, you flip to something else. I don’t think people are stupider, I think they’re overstimulated.
Diabolique: Over the years you’ve had several projects that have been talked about, but haven’t materialized yet. Among those, I believe there was a horror movie at one time, and adaptations of pulp titles like Doc Savage and The Destroyer. What are the odds that we will ever see any of those any time soon, and what, at this time, do you consider your dream project?
Shane Black: At this time, in terms of the ones you were describing, Doc Savage is temporarily a no-go. We were on rails with it. We had Dwayne Johnson attached. And the studio took one look and nixed the idea, even with Dwayne. They didn’t want a movie set in the Thirties or even the Forties. They wanted it current day. And that was not of interest to me. That’s not why I would want to do Doc Savage, to see him fight Al-Qaeda. That’s not Doc Savage. The Destroyer is still very much in play. As soon as I finish The Predator, I’m going to go work on that script with Jim Mullaney and Fred Dekker, the two guys who I’m supervising. Jim Mullaney wrote 25 of The Destroyer books and they’re as good as Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir’s.
The dream to me is not any one project, so much as it is the freedom to dream. The freedom to make a movie, have sufficient funds to do so, and not have to funnel it through a series of pitfalls and critiques and committees. To me, the dream project is one that could be science fiction, could be a detective story, could be any number of things, but it involves the sort of freedom Quentin Tarantino had on Reservoir Dogs; the freedom to create something truly odd without having someone see that oddness as a bad thing.
Diabolique: You co-wrote and directed the new version of The Predator, which is being released later this year. What can we expect in this newest incarnation?
Shane Black: In this version we took the traditional Predator template, and I didn’t want to violate the sense of it, but I’ve always found that, even in the McTiernan version, The Predator was never quite an alien world. Alien world, as depicted in the Ridley Scott movies, was very dark, very grim. So was The Predator, but The Predator had Arnold Schwarzenegger, which immediately meant there was sort of a wink there. They didn’t cast Paul Newman. They cast Arnold Schwarzenegger. There were these big bodybuilders. There was a meta-quality to it. You have to take it seriously, but there’s a bit of a wink going on, the fact that it’s a phenomenon, as well as a story. I wanted to do honor to the story, but I did decide for the sake of realism, to dial down on the bodybuilders a bit. The group, the team in this one, they’re not the special ops sort of slick crack team of commando experts. In fact, we deliberately went the other way. These are the forgotten guys; normal soldiers who, for whatever reason, are a little broken. They have skills, but their personal quirks and their demons outweighed their ability to continue serving. And now they’re forced to recoup, remember who they are at their core, and rediscover those abilities that they never lost. But giving them a place to start from that’s a bit broken and not quite “Hey, we’re the new experts” slapping arms and measuring muscles and whatnot.
Diabolique: One of your earliest film jobs was as an actor and script doctor on the original version of The Predator. Does it feel strange or surreal to be returning all these years later to that property?
Shane Black: It may have at first, but it’s been two years now. I’ve seen the same Predator face every day of those two years, whether it’s on set or in the cutting base. At this point it feels like the best we can do is to honor that original film, and the task is so consuming that it doesn’t really feel weird, it just feels like, what’s next on the plate? What do I have to do here? What’s the task for today? At some point in looking back, I might have more of an angle as to the strangeness of it, but not now. Now it’s just the job.