Shane Black, the last action hero
How The Nice Guys director survived a Hollywood exile – and why he might resurrect that rarest of genres: the original, adult-oriented blockbuster
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Shane Black should be living in Ohio. Maybe drying out in Mexico. Or possibly dead. But he should definitely not be walking the red carpet at Cannes, where his new film The Nice Guys just got the full-court press treatment. Yet there he was on Sunday, enjoying all that a Croisette premiere has … Wait, sorry – this is bad narration, as Black might write in one of his own screenplays, famed as they are for smart-ass narrators. Let's go back to the beginning of Shane Black's story, which just so happens to be the beginning of high-gloss action cinema, or at least the kind of high-gloss action cinema that defined the eighties and nineties.
In 1986, Black was just 24, a few years out of UCLA and living in a West L.A. bungalow filthy with wannabe screenwriters, in addition to being just plain filthy. After selling his screenplay for Shadow Company – a Vietnam-set zombie movie that would never get produced – Warner Bros. shelled out an unprecedented $250,000 for a Black script titled Lethal Weapon. A few years later, he got $1.75-million for The Last Boy Scout. He was offered a polish on the Predator script and turned it into an acting job. It was the height of the spec-script gold rush, when a clever idea and a fresh name could net you a bidding war and an instantly inflated ego, and Black was the era's poster boy. But like most things in Hollywood, it wasn't built to last.
Black's first misstep: a rewrite of Last Action Hero (original title: Extremely Violent), which turned into a flop so embarrassing it's still used as a punchline. Then there was Black's mammoth $4-million payday for The Long Kiss Goodnight, whose final product made Last Action Hero's disaster seem dignified. In between there were legendary parties at Black's mansion – debauched gatherings that wouldn't look out of place from the louche bad-guy lairs in, say, Lethal Weapon – and enough industry jealousy and vitriol to drown out anyone's voice for good.
Which is all a long way of saying that Black could have retreated to the suburbs of Cleveland like Basic Instinct's Joe Eszterhas, another icon of the halcyon spec-script days. Or he could have ended up so lost in the L.A. party scene that his obit would have long ago been printed. Instead, Shane Black is alive, sober and ready to embark on his second (or third, or fourth) act: the man who can save Hollywood from itself.
It's no industry secret that studios are relying increasingly on sequels and superheroes, familiar properties that can be stretched into an endless cinematic universe of franchise opportunities. Which is exactly why Black's The Nice Guys – which he directed and co-wrote – stands out. With two movie stars (Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe), a budget that's not insulting ($50-million), a major studio's backing (Warner Bros.) and a hard-R rating in the United States (sorry, kids), the film is that rare summer-movie beast: an original wide release about adults doing adult things, with nary a cape in sight.
"It's getting harder and harder to encroach on the market when fewer and fewer films aren't the dependables – the tentpoles or the sequels or the branded product. How do you enter the summer sweepstakes?" says Black, now 54, over the phone from L.A. "For me, it's gratifying that [The Nice Guys] exists. This is a postcard to Los Angeles, a tribute to the detective novels I still collect – it's purely a labour of love."
That labour of love took more than a decade of tinkering, though, as Black scrapped his way back into the industry's good graces, first with 2005's low-budget Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and then with 2013's ludicrously budgeted Iron Man 3. Written with friend Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys acts as a master class on all things Black. There are the two mismatched, overly quippy heroes (Gosling and Crowe here, echoing Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon), a wise-beyond-her-years kid (hello, The Last Boy Scout and Iron Man 3), a twisty plot (The Long Kiss Goodnight) and unexpectedly verbose henchmen (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).
"I didn't grow up reading scripts – I read pulp like the Ed McBain novels. If you want a playful style, all you have to do is check out how he describes a crime scene," says Black of his style. "But I'm also painfully aware how difficult it is to read scripts, with these giant blocks of text, just paragraphs of stuff, so I've always thought I owe it to the script-readers and directors to tap dance a little bit, to show them not just what things look like, but what it should feel like."
Which is how you get descriptions like this, from Black's Lethal Weapon script: "EXT. POSH BEVERLY HILLS HOME – TWILIGHT. The kind of house that I'll buy if this movie is a huge hit. Chrome. Glass. Carved wood. Plus an outdoor solarium: A glass structure, like a greenhouse only there's a big swimming pool inside. This is a really great place to have sex." Black makes films that know they're films – the only goal is to entertain, to keep the movie moving, dancing.
"His work doesn't walk a straight line," says frequent collaborator Fred Dekker, who met Black at UCLA and directed their script for 1987's The Monster Squad. "He's always had his own peculiar, pulp-influenced bent. We see the world through the same kind of coloured glasses – an eye for throwback things like the cop and crime shows of the seventies, but with a contemporary edge. Which is why I think The Nice Guys is the most pure Shane movie yet."
If The Nice Guys ends up a hit, it will not only pave the way for more original, adult-first films, but also cement the comeback narrative that Black has been building for two decades, ever since The Long Kiss Goodnight fizzled and he found himself a pariah. (In an infamous 1994 Variety editorial, Peter Bart wrote that Black's "weapons are out of control. If the French have established a 'language police' to protect their native tongue against vulgarization, then Hollywood may have to come up with its own language police to protect against Shane Blackisms.")
"I got my feelings hurt, no question," Black says now. "Right after Bart, a friend of mine called and asked if I wanted to get into the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]. You get to vote on the Oscars, go to screenings, it sounded terrific. Cut to a week later, and the academy says, 'Sorry Mr. Black, but we require two pieces of substance of merit for consideration.' I had tons. I just realized, wow, they don't want me.
"It occurred to me that they didn't really know me – they just pictured a kid laughing all the way to the bank and lighting my cigar with $100 bills. So I thought I was going to show them! I'll write a drama or romance!"
His attempt to become the new James L. Brooks didn't fly – and instead Black added a murder to that romantic drama, which turned into Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It would attract the attention of a similarly career-moribund Robert Downey Jr., who would years later persuade Marvel to bring Black on to the Iron Man team and, well, as one of Black's narrators might ask, where were we again? Oh right – here, on the eve of Shane Black's latest comeback. His last, he hopes.
"I have no idea how [The Nice Guys] will perform, and I try to stay out of the results business. But the end game is to just enjoy that it's out there, something fresh in a summer filled with stuff that's good, but stuff that's recognizable," says Black, who is learning to manage his expectations – both of Hollywood and himself – as he enters his eighth year of sobriety.
"I used to expect a bad outcome, of almost getting everything in life and having it snatched away at the last second," he adds. "Then I stopped drinking and I'm surprised when something goes wrong. It's a remarkable, transformative thing. There's no way I'd want to go back."
It's doubtful the industry would want him to, either. After all, the movies need Black as much as he needs them. Both to give fresh life to their almighty franchises – Black is currently working on rebooting the Predator series with Dekker – and to produce the original, Blackian stories that the landscape so desperately lacks.
"I'm lucky enough I can still write on spec – there are fewer movies being made, and they are all so thoroughly vetted," Black says. "But I think there's still room for people to see more than one kind of movie, something that is distinct and represents a commitment from someone to have a clear view. Something fun." And, maybe, just a bit smart-ass, too.