Sometimes you visit a movie set and things seem troubled. You’re watching as the director and actors are trying to figure out a scene and nothing seems to work. Or you can tell based on people’s interactions that certain folks aren’t getting along. Other times, as you observe a scene unfold, you know you’re witnessing something special, a moment that will be magic when projected on a movie screen. Such was the case early last year when I traveled into the hills of Los Angeles with a few other online reporters to watch co-writer/director Shane Black and producer Joel Silver make their new movie The Nice Guys. Like anyone that has seen the masterpiece Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I’d been waiting for Black and Silver to make another movie together and while it took 11 years, it should be worth the wait.
If you’re not familiar with the film (watch the trailers here), the 70s-set noir-tinged crime comedy stars finds Ryan Gosling’s down-on-his-luck private eye teaming up with Russell Crowe’s hired enforcer to solve the case of a missing girl and the seemingly unrelated death of a porn star. The film also stars Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Angourie Rice, and Yaya Dacosta.
During a break on the last night of principal photography I got to participate in a group interview with Shane Black. He talked about his love of ‘70s detective stories, writing non sequitur dialogue, growing up loving the work of Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, Richard Prather and Shell Scott, working with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and a lot more. Check out what he had to say below and look for The Nice Guys in theaters May 20th.
Question: From the sizzle reel, so clearly we are in Shane Black country. This feels like the best fit and what was it about Russell and Ryan together, because it is not an immediate, it’s not something that immediately suggests itself, but once you see it, oh my God, the chemistry.
Shane Black: Specifically, it’s because they have such gravitas as real actors. So, there’s a typical formula for a buddy movie, where you throw together some guys, you know, from television, sketch comedy, and they do, you know, a fairly unmemorable buddy picture, then there’s the idea that we had of getting guys who are that funny, but also have underneath this sort of set of chops underlying the comedy, that allows for them to change tone with the movie. It can be, there are moments in the movie that are very brutal, that are sort of very sad, and others that are just flat out schtick, and the tone shifts are what were important to me, and the actors that have the ability to pull off that kind of spectrum and bring to bear those kinds of multiple skills as opposed to just, comedy guys or action guys, you know, and that’s what I loved most about having them in the movie because it doesn’t feel like it’s an action movie. It feel like it’s a movie about these two characters who are organically very real.
How would you describe the tone, because this seems obviously sort of slapsticky and funny, but we saw a lot of action and big stuff in the sizzle reel.
Black: Well, there was a kind of movie I always, a kind of book I always loved growing up. I loved detective stories. I could do those for the rest of my life probably.
Black: But, it’s this sort of very biting, very hard-edged, but also very rye, kind of writing that i liked as a kid, that I think is lacking in what is now so definably action pictures, where there are no real surprises, and so…
There’s a lot of McDonald in your sense of humor.
Black: Well, that’s where I get it, the sensibility is such that I have and what I try to bring to things is exactly that. People remember Chandler as being this sort of bitter sad, melancholy, you know, saxophone filled sort of story, but in fact, Chandler, Ross McDonald, these guys were always very witty, very biting, and some of the dialogue for Double Indemnity that Chandler wrote is just fucking out there. it’s just nuts, you know. It’s just non sequitur dialogue. It’s that kind of whacked sensibility that came so naturally to writers of detective stories in the ‘50s and the ‘60s which is when I hit that hard and there’s this sort of, I grew up with a guy names Shell Scott, one of those swinging dick detectives.
He’s kind of groovy, likes his multi-colored, garish outfits a little too much and women love him but they kind of think he’s a little weird, but they’re groovy. There’s a kind of edginess to the story that was naturally part of it back then, even when you were writing comedy, so you’d have a detective story and it would be breezy and funny, but they’d go, oh shit, we can also put in a great mystery of course, because that’s just what you did back then. you didn’t stop with just having a character that’s funny. You had to put in a mystery, you had to have edgy moments, because they were coming from the tradition of Ross McDonald and Raymond Chandler, where, I’ll just go off on a quick tangent, it used to be in the classic detective story, that the mystery was the star and what they encountered and the feel and the tone, and the unveiling of things, and then there came this point, like ‘90s, maybe the ‘80s, where it became all about the quirks of the detective.
They have a parrot, they have an evil landlord, and they date this guy, and they drive a Volkswagon bug, and all of a sudden, it’s all about the quirky detective and they lost the mystery. So, to me, the classic private eye, which culminates with Ross McDonald, but then got this zany dimension in the ‘60s is what I’m trying to evoke here, the caper. There’s not a lot of people doing real private eye capers, and I recommend Richard Prather who no one ever remembers anymore, or Brett Halliday. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang was loosely based on a plot point from one of his books. So, there’s an infinite well to draw from if you know where to look. Most people don’t. Most people have forgotten these guys.
I mean, as discussed, noir is very much your bread and butter, but for much of your career, you’ve also been dealing with contemporary stories. This is the first time you’ve done something period. I’m curious, how much you’ve adjusted your voice and noir is very much a classic, it started in 1920s, 1930s. It also came back in the 1970s. I’m curious how much that affected your approach to the story.
Black: Well, it’s pretty universal in a sense that there’s one, there are two genres which are endemic. They’re completely native to America. They existed nowhere else. They were invented here, and those are the cowboy and the private eye, and it’s no coincidence that the guys in the ‘30s who wrote a private eye, would write a western next and then they’d write a private eye and then they’d write a western. They are the same stories. The idea of the urban western has always been there for me. It’s never really changed. In terms of the setting in the ‘70s, it’s just a chance to revisit the childhood love that I had for that kind of edgy detective story. You look in the ‘70s, you see Klute you know, you see Night Moves with Gene Hackman. You see Dirty Harry, all of these films that seem like, in retrospect, well yeah, those are done all the time, but they weren’t. They were very fresh at the time, and they were including quality story telling as a necessity, in a way that today to me seems like an optional, you know, add on. It’s not enough to me to just dip in and get some funny jokes. You’ve got to have that undercurrent that informed all those great detective movies I loved from the ‘70s.
And how much also, and this is one of those things, in terms of setting it in LA and setting it period, there’s something great about a detective story as a way of telling the history of this city in particular, and how fucked up LA is, how our history is so messed up in so many ways. Is that, LA is something that you are so closely identified with as a storyteller. Is that something by going period, you’re able to do here. Is there a particular reason you wanted to play with the era?
Black: Yeah, there is. If you were looking, to sort of resurrect the feat that Robert Town pulled off when he made Chinatown, which is to take a slice of history, do a classic Ross McDonald mystery, but base it on something historically specific to Los Angeles, 1930s or ‘40s…
We don’t have a valley without this.
Black: Well, we looked around and I said I really like the ‘70s and I kind of want to do more comedy, but this Chinatown notion, what is that era, what is that thing that would be the Chinatown for, and we discovered this thing about smog and how LA, if you remember in the ‘70s, you were probably all too young. When I was a kid, there used to be sirens that would go off in LA, when the smog got too bad. They would say please don’t exercise until 6pm, or don’t let your children play outside today. That sounds ridiculous, but that was actually the truth. Similarly, if you took a stroll down Hollywood Blvd in 1976, it was just prostitution, pornography, just endless XXX, and so really, you had this smog crusted city, which was literally laboring under a crust of brown smog, that you could pierce with a plane as you came in, you actually had to go through it, that felt like this eternal blanket of just depression, under which pornography thrived, and so what you’ve got, and no one would clean it up, and in fact they were suing each other over this failed attempt to clean it up. It was the modern Sodom. It’s the biblical Sodom was LA in 1978, so as a story about two kind of night errants, what passes these days as knights in shining armor, in this case, very tarnished armor, saving a damsel who happens to be a porn star, it just seemed like wow, LA 1978, that was when it almost got mythic. That was the biblical downfall, of the end of the earth, of western, literally western civilization. That was when people said, we hope California falls off the Earth.
Ryan and Russell were making a joke about how they can’t get you to crack a smile, and also that when you give them commentary, or critique, it’s that was just above average, things like that.
Black: Well, that’s just a defense, because obviously I have tremendous respect. Those guys are intimidating and I don’t know how to talk to them, because they’re such fantastic… Russell, that was, that really, that’s such a serviceable master shot. That just fit in so well with what we’ve shot already. I actually think it will cut just nicely, hopefully after you pick yourself up and dust off the blood. I just enjoy being around actors. I always have, and these guys, it’s a little vicarious thrill. I flirted with something that I wasn’t particularly good at, and that was acting back aways, so now to see and watch and understand why, yeah, that’s something that normal people don’t do. How can the guy walk in, have this focus, have an emotion, memorize the lines, remember to pick this up, put that down, have the key in his hand and get the coffee at just the right moment. I can’t do that. These guys, they have a skill, you know. People these days think acting is just, oh, I don’t even read the sides, I want to be natural. I go to an audition, I just read it. No. You read it, you study. Every actor, no matter how big the star, at some point they have to do the same thing they did when they were in their garage starting out. They roll up their sleeves with a script and a pen, and go through it, and to see that on this level, at this level of stardom, that craft still existing, is really gratifying, vicarious thrill to be even a part of a caliber of acting that advanced and to bring it to a movie like this, where there’s so many laughs, we just have a good time.
It’s really fantastic. I mean, it’s very convincing.
Black: Yeah. I babbled as much as I could.