Shane Black interview: Iron Man 3, Last Action Hero, writing

With Iron Man 3 out soon, we sat down with writer and director Shane Black about screenwriting, action, Last Action Hero and Christmas...

When Shane Black talks about action, he makes explosion noises, like an excitable kid describing an episode of Thunderbirds. “Smash! An explosion of blood! Smash! Glass shattering!”

Composed and thoughtful when he talks about the business side of filmmaking, Black becomes animated and passionate when talk turns to screenwriting, or the composition of action scenes, and it’s Black’s passion for writing and action – not to mention his trademark wit – that has made him one of the biggest names in Hollywood. His script for Lethal Weapon, which he sold on spec at the age of just 23, launched a legion copycat buddy-cop movies, while The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight remain cult favourites.

Having turned to directing as well as screenwriting for the magnificent crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, Black subsequently brought his enthusiasm for action thrillers to bear on Iron Man 3. Playful, explosive and extremely funny, Black’s brought his own sensibility to a well-established franchise, resulting in a film that’s as surprising as it is exciting.

Ahead of Iron Man 3‘s release, it was our pleasure to speak to Shane Black not just about his addition to the Marvel universe, but also about breaking into screenwriting, spec scripts, his work to date, from Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and also his love of Christmas…

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When you came to make Iron Man 3, there’d already been two movies as well as The Avengers. How did you place your own stamp on the established Iron Man world?

To Marvel’s credit, the producer Kevin Feige said to me, “That Avengers just made a tonne of money. But let’s not just do that again. Let’s not impose a template or try to recreate The Avengers. Let’s make a standalone movie. Stylistically, it doesn’t have to be the same as The Avengers.

I made the point, when we were sitting around the table, that when Tony Stark was trapped in that cave in Afghanistan in the first Iron Man – hammering away and sweating – and Thor walked in, it would have been silly. People would have walked out and said, “We don’t get it. This is a totally different movie.”

Now, the universe has evolved since then to include figures like Thor, but at the same time, we really liked Iron Man one, and the idea of getting back to that, tonally. That was what I liked.

So putting my stamp on it meant making it into a thriller – here’s the good news – which was already the template Jon Favreau had established. So in order to be true to the movie I wanted to make, all I had to do was get together with [co-writer] Drew Pierce and concoct something that was pretty much in keeping with what Favreau had already done and established: a thriller that would succeed on a personal level and not just a level of this guy puts on a big suit, and then another guy puts on a big suit.

For me, the stamp that I impose on stuff comes from the fact that in the 80s, when I was starting to write movies, I looked back to the 70s. So the films I enjoyed as a kid were the thrillers that came out of the 70s. Back then, you didn’t have action movies; you had adventure films or thrillers. You had The French Connection: tonnes of action, but no one said, “You’ve got to see that new action picture, The French Connection.” They just said it was a thrilling movie.

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If I’m not mistaken, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, it’s not like someone said it was an action movie. It was this epic adventure. So for me, that’s the stamp I wanted to get back to. I think Favreau understood that, and I hope that’s what we’ve done. Yes it has action, but it’s not tailored to just be about getting to one set-piece to the next.

The set-pieces aren’t interchangeable. You look at so many action pieces, they get a clue, they go over here, and there’s a gun fight. They get a clue, the go here and there’s another gun fight. And you could swap those. You could take the warehouse and the car chase, and you could swap them around and it wouldn’t make any difference. And that’s not what we wanted to do. Those are the kinds of things we concentrated on in order to put an individual stamp on it. 

You mentioned the 80s. 1987 was obviously a huge year for your career, with Lethal Weapon and your role in Predator. How do you think the industry’s changed, at least for writers trying to break through as you did?

There’s a lot fewer films getting made now. To the point where one notable studio announced a couple of years back – announced, they weren’t ashamed of it – “we’re only going to make sequels, comic books, remakes and reboots”.

We see good Pixar movies, and a few films based on books, but where are the originals? I guess, maybe Oblivion? Was that an original?

It was, yes.

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That’s one of very few, certainly, to be made at any budget level. Everything else has to be a reboot or a sequel, or a videogame, or some kind of remake of a television show. Or a remake of a movie that started in Europe, or came out five years ago here.

It’s a difficult spec market. Practically nonexistent. But my advice would still be, if you’re going to get in, get in with a spec script – and this is my experience. The first script most people write probably isn’t going to sell – mine didn’t! People might be interested in it, they might like the writing, and that encourages them to hire you for something else. They might say, “Yeah, he’s pretty good. Let’s get him in to do the next draft of our film that’s in production”.

So it’s a calling card to get you into the business and paid, in the union as a writer. That’s why a spec script is still a great idea. It’s probably a good idea to get representation, to have a product. Also, I just think it’s necessary. So many writers I talk to, coming out of the mid-west, say “Well, I’ve got some ideas. I got a treatment I wrote.”

I’m like, you idiot. You’re out here, practicing your craft. What if someone comes up to you and says, “What have you got? Show me what you got, boy.”

You’ve got to have a product. You’ve got to have it ready under your arm, you’ve got to give him two scripts and say, “These are the best that I can do. Two of them.”

It just seems like common sense, to have your work available and ready, and the best that it can be. But still people say, “Ah, I don’t want to write a script, but I got some ideas.”

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No one cares about your ideas. They’re not going to come knocking on your door looking for ideas. They’re going to want some concrete evidence that you have the potential to serve them or give them value for money.

So that’s my advice: write your spec scripts, no matter what. They’re essential as a calling card, even if they don’t get produced. 

And yet, back in the 80s, Lethal Weapon started as a spec script, and that popularised the buddy-cop genre. I mean, there was 48 Hrs before it, but it was Lethal Weapon that seemed to really popularise it…

Well, 48 Hrs, to me, was the one. But it didn’t generate the same heat in terms of spec scripts. Lethal Weapon sold apropos of nothing when I was very young, but that was a very different market. There was a system in place back then that supported the idea of a young writer with a spec script breaking through. I was very lucky back then, to have had access to that kind of money, those kinds of circumstances.

You’ve had some great directors handle your scripts. Tony Scott, Richard Donner, Renny Harlin. How did you feel about the way they directed your work?

I would always find things I’d do differently. The reason I took on directing a film myself was because, no matter how skilful a director was, or how much I liked the film, there’d always be beats where I’d go, “Oh… well, that’s skilful in a way, but it doesn’t get the flavour I’d intended in the script.”

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Like, nuances. There’s a scene in one movie, for instance, where a guy shoots someone in a car and walks away. And I know that plays in a long shot, because he does it casually, he leans over and says something, then backs away. You see it from that objective viewpoint.

If instead you cut to a hand crashing through the window and smash! An explosion of blood! Smash! Glass shattering! …that’s a totally different effect, putting you there subjectively.

If you weren’t Jim Jarmusch, but you had a Jim Jarmusch script – Stranger Than Paradise, that was his – you could make that movie completely differently. It’s stylistic, it’s all about the choices you want to make.

Renny I loved. He used too much slow-motion, I thought. He’d have eight cameras rolling, and not one of them was at 24 frames per second. I’d kid him about that. But he’s a great director in certain ways. I just wanted to be able to correct whatever flaws or whatever choices I disagreed with. And on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I had an opportunity with producer Joel Silver to do that.

Maybe there’s six or seven mistakes I made. I can see them in the finished film: “Ah, I should have done that differently. I should have cut that differently.” But I own every mistake, and I own all the good things too, which is a great feeling. 

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is another film of yours that’s set at Christmas. Is this a motif in your writing, or does it have a deeper meaning?

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Christmas is fun. It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story. It roots it, I think, it grounds everything. At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, they stock of where their lives are at Christmas. It just provides a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading. I’ve always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It’s a touch of magic.

What are your memories of writing Last Action Hero?

Ugh! I hated it. That was no fun.

It’s not something you can look back on fondly with the passing of time?

We had fun writing the original script, and then I think they gave it to every writer in Hollywood for a rewrite. Carrie Fisher had a pass at one point. William Goldman did a bunch of drafts. We came back in and did a draft. That was when [producers] got paranoid about a big bunch of movies, so they just had someone run it through the typewriter, paid them a lot of money, and said, “There! It must be better now.”

That wasn’t my favourite thing I’ve worked on. It was an example of one film I’d have done a little differently. But I like John McTiernan’s work a lot.

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[Thoughtfully] Boy. Where’s he now? Is he out yet?

I think he is, isn’t he? No, wait. I’m getting him muddled up with Wesley Snipes…

Ha, yeah, Wesley Snipes is out! [Guffaws]

You once said, after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang came out, that “Directing is the reward for writing.” Do you still feel that way after making Iron Man 3?

Yes, because I insisted on being involved in the writing. I worked every day with Drew. So it felt like an accomplishment. It felt like we had earned the scenes by the time it came to directing. I would be, frankly, less comfortable, with taking a script – even if it was a very good script – and realising it as a director, and then saying, “Well, I guess I did a good job, but boy, the writer had the hard part of it.”

Because so much of directing is just getting the script right. Getting the beats to play, and knowing what to emphasise. To me, screenwriting isn’t just exit, enter, speak your lines. It’s really about establishing a rhythm, and directing on paper, to some extent. In fact, I’ve been accused of doing that. So yeah, if you read the script to Iron Man 3, you’ll see it’s really directed on paper. In which case, Drew and I had earned the privilege of translating that pre-directed film to a finished product.

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Shane Black, thank you very much.

Iron Man 3 is out in UK cinemas on the 24th April.

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