The 1970s-set action comedy The Nice Guys follows down-on-his-luck private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) who unexpectedly finds himself teamed up with hired enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to find a missing girl. With a handful of colorful characters also interested in her whereabouts, March and Healy begin to uncover a shocking conspiracy that just might end up getting them both killed. The film also stars Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David and Kim Basinger.
At the film’s press day, co-writers Shane Black (who also directed the film) and Anthony Bagarozzi spoke at a roundtable interview about their writing process, why they set the film in the ‘70s, how easy it was to get Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling to sign on, how the comedy in the film changed, the challenges of getting a film noir made now, the possibility of setting a sequel in the ‘80s, and how they’re also working on writing Doc Savage together.
Question: How easy or difficult was it to get Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling together for this?
SHANE BLACK: I talked to Ryan briefly and he said, “If you could get Russell Crowe,” and Russell Crowe [was interesting in Ryan]. It was the most effortless deal, ever. It was like having them say, “I want $20 for this!,” and saying back, “We only have $20 to give you.” That was that.
Why did you decide to set this in the ‘70s?
ANTHONY BAGAROZZI: Our original draft of this wasn’t set in the ‘70s. It was more modern day. When you write a mystery story in modern day, it’s hard to create too much tension when people can be like, “Hey, I’ll just call and tell them they’re about to be killed and to get out of there.” Everybody has got a cell phone and everything is quick access. So, on one hand, we were like, “Oh, no, we can’t do any of that anymore.” But on the other hand, it was freeing that you were left without all of these encumbrances of constant communication and the internet. It was more fun to see how it worked in the pre-internet days.
What is your writing process like, with each other?
BAGAROZZI: We’ve been friends for a long time. We read each other’s scripts and we’re always helpful. In this instance, we really were looking for something to work on together and we like a lot of the same books. We went through a period of reading these obscure ‘70s books and watching a lot of The Rockford Files and we really wanted to do something like that, in that vein. Shane has a way of writing where it’s really a hard thing to do. He’ll sit down and write a scene, and then he’ll put it in a box. Then, he’ll come in the next day and write another scene that’s totally unrelated to the first one, and he’ll put it in a box. And he’ll keep doing that until he has a stack of 30 scenes, or whatever it is. And then, he’ll read them all and go, “This sucks,” or “That one’s kinda good,” and pretty soon, he’ll have a stuck and go, “Well, these don’t go together, but if I change this character, then these three go together. I have three scenes for a movie, so I’m writing this movie.” And then, he’ll start typing. That is a torturous process to go through. So, I wanted to try to meet him half-way there. We wanted to do a film and we discussed in advance that it would be a pulpy detective thing, but that’s pretty much all we knew. He said, “You go write a character, and I’ll write a different character.” We knew it was two characters. So, I wrote the Healy intro and he wrote the March intro, and then we traded. I was like, “This March guy is interesting,” so I wrote some March stuff. And he wrote some Healy stuff. We kept going back and forth until we had enough scenes where we figured out how to make a movie out of it.
BLACK: What we do is we take a feeling we want to achieve, or even certain images where we said, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if we had a stew that included all of those images?” What you look for is an armature, which is a plot that’s interesting enough to generate a mystery, but loose enough that you could use it as a frame and hang stuff on it. That also gives you variation and room to move from being very light and colorful to maybe getting a little darker and melancholy in places, too. We just look for something that helps us get the most flavors. Sometimes we’ll finish a script and go, “God, I wish we could have used that one scene,” but we just couldn’t fit it.
Anthony, is that how you work alone, as well?
BAGAROZZI: No, it is not. People have an idea, they outline it, they do a beat sheet, they figure it out, and then they write what they’ve written down. It’s a much more efficient way to go. But Shane has a thing where he really wants to stack as many of his favorite scenes in a row as he can, so there’s no shoe leather there. It’s just all good scenes in a row. His way of doing that is to write his favorite scenes, and then just keep culling them down. I think it’s a really torturous process, but I wanted to meet him half-way on that process and see what we could come up with.
What is your own typical process?
BAGAROZZI: Because I’ve known Shane for so long and he’s been such an influence on me, I’m half-Shane. I’ll know what I want to do and what I’m going for. I have to know the first act before I can start typing, but I don’t know everything. I can get half-way through a movie and be like, “Now, what am I going to do?” I curse Shane every time that happens to me because I learned it from him.
Are you doing that same process together on Doc Savage?
BAGAROZZI: We’ve written a version of Doc Savage, and we did kind of do that. On Doc Savage, we threw out those first 60 pages, four times. We just kept going, “Wow, that doesn’t work,” and then we’d start over again. It’s a hard process, but I think it really works for Shane. It produces stuff that he really loves.
Shane, when you were working on something like Iron Man 3, and you have the studio on you about time limits, does that make your process more difficult?
BLACK: One thing I’d like to stress is that writers work hard, and I like that people know that. I know relatives who are like, “Well, you’re in Hollywood, so you get all this money and you sit on your bed full of hundred dollar bills.” My mattress is not full of money. It’s full of foam. People assume that, in my library, there’s not hundreds of books of Edwardian ghost stories that I read late at night. They think there’s just some blonde sitting on a shelf, lighting my cigar for me. Writing is tough. It’s insanely obsessive work. Once you commit to it, you’re screwed. When you dance around it and don’t start yet, it’s painful, but okay. But once you start, you go, “Oh, shit, I just realized this could be really good,” and then you’re on the hook. You sense that it can be good, so you’re like, “Oh, hell, now I’ve gotta catch the whole thing.” It’s like when you start digging and you see that there’s gold down there, and you go, “I’ve gotta get it!”
Did Russell and Ryan have much input into the comedy side of their characters and the dynamic between them?
BAGAROZZI: Ryan and Russell came in, and their presence and the way they interacted with each other was something that we saw in the rehearsal and the table read, and we were like, “We have to change the script around their dynamic.” So, the script got a lot funnier, as we watched them work. We were constantly bending things around them because we liked it so much. And then, Ryan came in to do the auditions with all of the girls who were auditioning for (his daughter) Holly. We ended up with Angourie Rice that day and we were like, “God, she’s great. This is wonderful.” But afterwards, Shane and I were both like, “Ryan is a lot funnier than we thought he would be.” And then, at the table read, it was the same thing. For the first couple of days of shooting, I was watching him. The first day of shooting was when he goes to the back of the bar and tries to get in by smashing through the window and cuts his wrist, he did this thing with the blood and he fell over, and I was like, “He’s doing Peter Sellers.” He was so far from what the Drive character was that we had to adjust the whole thing. And Russell was so great at picking up on it immediately, and doing his opposite number so quickly that we had to keep pivoting around them. Every day, that was our job.
BLACK: I’m very much aware of and in love with the way these two guys make this tasting menu of all the different comedy things that they can hit, in all of those different moments. If you throw in enough of those moments, what I love is that you can’t remember all of them. You watch the movie, but then you have to go back a second time to catch everything. They did so many little things, and I would have been a fool not to have taken their input on the things they wanted to bring to it or add.
What are the challenges of getting a film noir made now?
BLACK: It’s tough. Private eye movies are my favorite. We tried with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and that was Warner Bros. That performed enough that it didn’t lose money, but it sure didn’t perform enough that it made money. At the time, we were trounced by The Dukes of Hazzard, which had Jessica Simpson. We had Robert Downey when he was a little rough and had just gotten out of the pokey, and we had Val Kilmer when he was at a low point in his career, so what are you going to do? It didn’t do well, but it was a good movie and I’ll keep going back to that well. I can make detective films for the rest of my life. And by the way, feel free to help. If you want to see more detective movies, here’s one in the middle of all the branded summer competition, largely with cape-wearing people. If you want to see guys with ties instead of guys with capes, you can probably help us out a little bit.
Have you guys talked about doing a sequel?
BAGAROZZI: We don’t have a plan for a sequel, but when we talked about it, we were like, “You know, we could do something in the ‘80s.” We like the aesthetic of the ‘70s stuff, but the ‘80s stuff would be fun, too. I have no idea what it would be, but something in the ‘80s would be fun. And there could be an ‘80s soundtrack. The thing is, we’re going to get into the territory where Shane made movies in the ‘80s. He did Lethal Weapon, so we’d be knocking on the backdoor of that and I don’t know if he wants to revisit that.
The Nice Guys opens in theaters on May 20th.