When it comes to modern storytellers, Shane Black is one of the greats. He burst onto the scene with his script for Lethal Weapon, a classic buddy cop film that would be ripped off for decades to come, and went on to score repeatedly with high-profile, quippy scripts for films like The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Last Action Hero. But after years of screenwriting and performing uncredited rewrites, Black made the jump to the director’s chair to spectacular results with the masterful 2005 noir riff Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That film would subsequently lead to Black being chosen to co-write and direct Iron Man 3, one of the most successful (and pleasantly surprising) Marvel films yet, and this past summer saw the release of the hilarious Black-helmed 70s detective story The Nice Guys.
Throughout all of these films, Black’s singular voice as a storyteller shines through. It’s not just the zippy dialogue but the subversion of expectations, the dynamic characters, and the richness of the overall experience that make these films worth revisiting over and over again. So it’s no surprise that Black is included in the new book On Story – Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films, in which Black discusses his storytelling process alongside a number of other notable filmmakers.
In concert with the book’s release (click here to purchase), I recently got the chance to chat with Black about his work. We discussed how he goes about starting a screenplay, how movie trailers inform the way he approaches filmmaking, his experience working with Marvel on Iron Man 3 and what elements of the story they dictated to him (almost none!), and more. And with Black gearing up to next direct the sequel The Predator for 20th Century Fox, we also discussed the tone he’s aiming for with that follow-up, when filming begins, and why the movie needed to be Rated R.
It’s almost cruel to have such a short amount of time to talk with Black, but I tried to make the most with the time available. If you’re a fan of his or are at all interested in filmmaking, I think you’ll find what he had to say insightful.
When you’re first sitting down to write a screenplay, do you need to outline the plot first, or are you able to start writing dialogue and feel things out as you go?
SHANE BLACK: Well there’s different ways to do that. Sometimes I’ll have a scene that strikes me, I just feel like writing a scene, a mini-story that seems like it might lead somewhere. But that is such a tentative, fishing-hook way to go about it that these days I’ve found it’s easier to kind of at least have your concept and start attaching things to a skeleton. So I try to find the armature, the kind of backbone of it first that you can start to hang those scenes on. And it’s easier with a partner as well, I’ve worked with partners on several things now. You sort of crush the thing in terms of why are we doing this? Why, at the bottom of this, at the very base of it, have we decided to write this thing? Because the only way you can stay on top is to remember to touch bottom and get back to basics—ultimately what is this story about? Once you’ve got a concept and a sense of themes and what it’s about, then you can start to add your plot and sort of Tetris in all of the elements that you want to see, but also attach them to something that has cohesion, like a mold.
That’s what I’ve learned is that you can just start writing, but you’re gonna go off on 10 or 12 starts and weird tangents, and yeah you’ll have those pages to use later—to gift wrap some fish for your mother—but either way you’re gonna have pages. It sometimes is better to write in a more directed, focused way when the pages are aimed at something already, a mission statement or a basic spine that represents the theme or the concept that you’ve agreed on, and writing partners are great for that because you can sit there until you get it.
When it comes to something like Iron Man 3, how much of the story were you given by Marvel and how does that affect your approach to the material as a screenwriter? Do you find constraints helpful?
BLACK: Marvel was very gracious, actually. They didn’t know who the villain was. They had kind of expressed a desire that it be The Mandarin at some point, but they were willing to let it not be The Mandarin. They wanted it to be about sort of the destruction of Tony Stark, and the one scene I remember being given on Day One was his entire house and his entire laboratory are sort of decimated and taken out from under him. Beyond that I don’t know that they were—as much as we would noodle it and go over it, I was probably a little bit argumentative at times (laughs), but in retrospect I think [Kevin] Feige’s a really bright man, so is Stephen Broussard who was my exec on that, and they really know how to do it right over there. So I was very pleased with the outcome, not just as something that I had done but something that I had been able to collaborate on with them. They were brilliant.
Now, that said, they didn’t give us much up front. They were very gracious and allowed us to develop work. Either that or they just made us go to work and develop a story, Drew Pearce and I. So I’ve got nothing bad to say about these Marvel guys. I’ve said it in a few interviews now, they’re getting it right in a fairly spectacular way. They allow individual filmmakers to still have some degree of stamp on the film. They don’t allow you to run around like a bull in a china shop, but they’re really good at utilizing the individual talents of a filmmaker. So for me, Marvel is—well they earned it, what they’ve got now in terms of their success.
Absolutely, and I’ve said before I love that movie and thought it was a great collaboration between you and Marvel. But you say in the book that one of the ways you start on a project is you imagine a trailer in your head. Would you say the trailers for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and Nice Guys lived up to what you wanted to see as the selling points or cornerstones of those films?
BLACK: Yeah, well it was my job to see that they did. I’m Tetris-ing in as much as I could into the space without it becoming cloying or overwhelming. I think it’s an obligation to make a movie full, so you have to see it twice to get all the moments. So yeah, I do that. I think it’s very common to see a movie trailer and think, ‘Wow that’s gonna be a great movie, I can’t wait to see it.’ And of course you go see it and it doesn’t live up to the trailer. What happened? I think what happened is we’re all very intuitive, we see certain images, even two-minutes’ worth in a trailer we assign to it something, we sense a shape that it’s starting to create in our heads; we’re filling in a bubble, that is sensed rather than completely seen, of the perfect version that already exists of that movie—with those shots, with that music, we start to fill it in. We start to question in our heads, ‘What’s the idealized, optimized version of the movie that I’m seeing here in little pieces?’ And we construct an incomplete, but sort suggestive model of the perfect version, and then we go see the movie and it doesn’t live up to the version that we had in our heads. So the trick is to, when you picture that trailer in your head, you’ve gotta live up to and scrape until you feel like you’ve actually delivered upon the promise of what already in your head was starting to form. So, you know, let it grow to fruition, just make sure you sift away everything that doesn’t look like the elephant, and all that’s left is the elephant.
Sure. I know I don’t have much time with you, but I can’t wait for The Predator and I’m curious, when does that start filming?
BLACK: Right now we’re looking at probably beginning to mid February. I’m heading up to Vancouver in a week or two to go into a serious pre-production, so we’re on the cusp.
In terms of tone, are you kind of looking to sci-fi horror, sci-fi action? I know Iron Man 3 is technically sci-fi, but this is a pretty big dive into the sci-fi genre for you.
BLACK: Yeah, I think the Predator movies have slightly veered from typical sci-fi in that there is a sort of thriller aspect to them. I think it should be scary, I think it should be funny, and I think ultimately it should be wondrous and about perceiving things that human beings very seldom get a chance to see… I don’t mean movie audiences I mean characters in the movie. I’m not saying the movie will be nothing anyone’s seen before (laughs).
Well so in terms of an ensemble, are you interested in filling it out with kind of maybe the characters that aren’t typically in these films? You know, the macho guys go out to battle the brutal alien.
BLACK: Yeah, I think it’ll be interesting to get a group of credible guys—the hallmark of the first one is you have guys together that are kinda funny and self-referential and also very tough. I don’t know that we’re going to deviate over much from that, but there are at least a couple of factors that we’ve deliberately chosen to make it not just that group of buff, tough guys.
We know it’s Rated R. Is the opportunity to work on an R-rated film of a blockbuster scale exciting for you?
BLACK: Yeah, and Fox has been very cooperative. I mean part of it is the success they had with Deadpool, but I also made a case—and I think they agreed—that fans of the Predator generally, probably aren’t looking to go to see a PG-13-rated version of it. It would be more of a letdown if it was sort of tailored to a family friendly audience than if it were allowed to play out to the same scale and level that the first R-rated one did.