Beginning with Lethal Weapon in 1987, Shane Black coined a tough, terse style of screenwriting which spawned a legion imitators: pithy, snappy dialogue and abrupt, often blackly comic bursts of violence. Born from his love of hard-boiled detective books and movies, Black’s scripts were frequently the subject of bidding frenzies in the 90s (his screenplay for The Long Kiss Goodnight famously sold for $4m, then a record), but his finest work was perhaps the least seen by a mainstream audience.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, written and directed by Black and produced by Lethal Weapon mogul Joel Silver, was a knotty, darkly funny mystery starring Robert Downey Jr as a petty criminal and would-be actor. Although it wasn’t a hit, the film transformed Downey Jr’s career, leading to his casting as Tony Stark in Marvel’s Iron Man and, further down the road, leading Black to the director’s chair on Iron Man 3.
The Nice Guys, meanwhile, sees Black partner once again with Joel Silver for a return to the pulp, noir-ish roots of those earlier movies. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe star as “two schmucks”, as Black describes them, bumbling through a 70s Los Angeles of hedonistic parties, assassins, dead bodies and adult entertainment barons. Once again, it’s a twist on the buddy-movie subgenre which Silver pioneered with Walter Hill in 1982‘s 48 Hrs, and which Black revolutionised with the huge hit Lethal Weapon.
It seemed appropriate, then, that we interviewed Shane Black and Joel Silver at the same time one sunny afternoon in London. Finishing each other’s sentences, carrying the conversation into some odd yet very funny directions, the filmmakers make a great buddy-buddy pairing themselves. Here’s what they had to say on everything from 70s station wagons to apocalyptic summer blockbusters.
Congratulations on the film, first of all. I really enjoyed it.
Shane Black: Thanks very much for that. We tried very hard to do something fresh here.
It feels fresh. And I loved that it has both nostalgia and cynicism for the 70s era as well. The smog, the porn, the cars with wood panelling. Why did cars have wood panelling as an optional extra? I never could work that out.
Joel Silver: In the 1940s, the really high-end luxury cars had incredible detail work on them. These are very expensive cars.
SB: They were moulded in clay, yeah.
JS: But in the 40s when the wood came in, it was considered a very sophisticated material to use on a car. When the Chrysler Town & Country came out in 1946, it was actually more expensive than a Cadillac in those days, and it was a Chrysler. It was actually made of wood. And the great thing about a car made of wood is, if somebody hit you, you would just die. [Laughs]
So the ’49, which is the car I had, they actually made it out of metal but it had wood inserts and a film over it so it looked like wood. But that kind of continued on through the 60s and 70s where, like, wood panelling was considered an incredibly interesting, effective style. I had a station wagon – it was the, what was it called, Cherokee. They were always kind of cool looking. But of course as the materials altered to vinyl and polyurethane and they just became so silly. I mean, we have that in [The Nice Guys] where they say, “Wood panelling!”
That’s what I loved. As though it’s luxurious when it’s so naff.
SB: “Styled road wheels!” I mean, what other kind of wheels are there? [Laughs]
Well, I guess your time’s about up! [Even more laughter]
Yeah, I think I have everything I need.
JS: Thanks for coming! Glad to meet you!
The film also shoots holes in the theory that before the advent of the internet, it was a more innocent time, doesn’t it?
SB: Hmm. That’s interesting, isn’t it? [Pauses] See, originally, cars were moulded from clay, but they changed the model in the 50s… [Laughs]
JS: I think that time was actually more complicated than it is today.
JS: [To Shane] But please, go on…
SB: The 70s were very exuberant. A very turbulent time. We’d just come off not just the Vietnam era… you’re much too young. I was actually around – my brothers just missed the draft. But post Vietnam, angry, lost youth. Disenfranchised. The sexual revolution. My father would look up from his business in New York and see women on the street burning their bras – in the middle of Manhattan. It was a time where there was a lot of confusion about where we were going. The young generation was particularly tumultuous, and looking with disappointed eyes at the promise of what the older generation had become.
And so in The Nice Guys you have this young girl, played by a wonderful actress named Angourie Rice, who is an innocent stuck in the framework of a compromised Los Angeles. This sort of latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah which is falling to pieces. And it’s up to her father to save it – and he’s not up to the task. So it’s her watching him as a role model, wondering if he’s ever going to step up and return to some form of greatness by inhabiting the myth of the private eye.
There’s an old Joseph Campbell story about a man driving his family, and he sees a guy hanging off a cliff, almost ready to fall. The man parks the car, runs over, climbs down, almost falls himself, risks his life, grabs the guy and saves him. The question then becomes, why does this total stranger risk dying, leaving his own family fatherless, to rescue someone he’s never seen or met before, who he just saw in that split second? It’s because the split second was that powerful. Because he saw a myth that wasn’t filled. There was a tapestry there, including a victim – but the portion that was the rescuer was absent. That was such a primordial myth that it called to him to step up and fill it. More so than his sense of self-preservation and the love for his family.
So it’s that way with these two schmucks [in The Nice Guys]. They have to look to this myth of the private eye that would have been in the day part of the glamour and true heroic nature of Los Angeles, and now in this shoddy, compromised Sodom and Gomorrah version, is he gonna step up, even for two seconds? Is he going to step into that myth and actually be a crusader? So to do that we choose the two least likely characters to step up, and that was the fun of The Nice Guys – they’re not heroes, they’re the least likely heroes.
The 70s seemed like the most compromised time in Los Angeles to place these guys.
Boy, that was convoluted, but you get it.
I do. When you cast this film, you obviously knew that Ryan Gosling was a great, truly capable actor. But did you have an inkling of how good he was at the physical comedy before you signed him?
JS: No! That’s the answer. I had met Ryan before on another project, and I was impressed at how personable he was, how funny he was, how articulate he was, how smart he was. So I pursued him on everything – I mean every movie that came along. His manager was a friend of mine. I really believed we could do well with him. When he decided he wanted to do the movie and we got a call from someone at his agency who said, “What about Russell?” We said, “What, Russell Crowe?” And he said, “Yeah. Can he do this? He’s very funny.” I said, “Okay.”
Shane said, “Let me go meet him.” So you [to Shane Black] got on a plane and flew to Australia, and in that time, I called Ryan’s manager and said, “I’ve got this script here. What does he think about Russell?” And he said, “He loves Russell.” So by the time Shane landed in Australia, Ryan had said, “If Ryan’s in, I’ll do it.” So he was able to walk into Russell’s office…
SB: …drop the name and get the deal closed. And Joel’s good at this. He’s always been very generous to me. He’s the kind of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. He’s the kind of guy who if you say, “I need help with something”, if he can give it, he will. Now in this case, I thought I had something I could give back with this movie, but the movie hadn’t got a lot of traction. As with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, no one else saw it; Joel saw it. He came back to me and said, “This is great! How do I get this? I mean, this must be all over town, right?” I said, “Nope, you’re the only one.” He goes, “What? This is great! Why can’t we make Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?” I said, “Joel, I’d love to. But you’re the guy. You’re the only one who seems to be seeing this.”
Now with The Nice Guys, a lot of people expressed interest, but Joel throughout this was the proponent – relentlessly devoted advocate for The Nice Guys. He got the deal done.
You guys have been working together for 30 years, right? So what were your memories of when you first started working together? Because it started with the screenwriting and appearing in the original Predator.
SB: It’s been a tumultuous 30 years. I’ve come back to Joel when I can. If someone else owns a project then I have to do it without Joel. But whenever I am able, the world that I seem to perennially return to is this guy, because he gets it. He knows my sensibility. We tend to like the same sorts of things and tell the same kinds of stories. And, by the way, you know, Die Hard. No one thought that was going to be a hit. The most seminal movie ever. The Matrix – no one knew what The Matrix was. No one thought that would be a hit, but it’s a seminal movie that changed everything. He steps up for these things that he believes in. That aren’t branded tentpoles, but then become the tentpoles that everyone else copies.
Do you think it’s more difficult to get these kinds of thrillers made, particularly at this budget level?
JS: I mean, yes and no. It’s never easy. People say to me, “Joel, what’s it like being a producer”. And I say, “This is how I spend my time: every morning I wake up and people say no to me.” That’s it. If I have one yes among 3,000 nos, then I’ve had a good day. And that’s what it’s like. It’s sort of like Sisyphus, where he’s pushing a boulder up a hill, but you’re pushing it with your penis. I mean, it’s a boulder up a hill, and every night it comes back down. [Laughs]
SB: Not even a hard penis. [Laughs]
JS: Well, I mean it’s very big, so… [Laughs] But it’s always a convoluted process. Because saying no is easy. Saying yes is like, “It takes 4,500 muscles to smile…” what is it?
SB: It’s like, 800 muscles to smile…
JS: …and 22 muscles to frown.
SB: No, I think it’s the other way around. We like to frown, so we justify it any way we can!
JS: I always say this: to the leap of trying to get a movie made, you have to really want to see it. I mean, the kind of movies that I’ve made, I want to see them. I want to get them up on the screen and look at them with an audience. I’ve been in the commercial field because I like commercial movies, you know? They’re not always cheap. Kiss Kiss was cheap, RocknRolla… I’ve made some movies that were not expensive, and I’ve made some movies that were expensive and didn’t work. But mostly I’ve got to the audiences. I mean, V For Vendetta was a very complicated movie to get made. And a very hard movie to sell, but we made it work. It just depends on the picture. I think Shane has a very pure, singular voice. Look at the lines in his movies. I only saw the trailer of the Lethal Weapon TV show, but…
SB: I actually thought it was intriguing.
I haven’t seen it yet, I must say.
JS: But some of the lines from the original movie are transposed into this television aesthetic. Shane’s line goes, “God hates me.” And Riggs says, “Well, hate him back. Works for me.” That’s just two simple lines. There’s a line where Murtaugh says to Riggs, “Is there anybody you haven’t killed?” And he goes, “Well, I haven’t killed you yet.”
There are lines like that in the TV show, but they aren’t as clear and pure as when Shane says it. The thing about it is, he wrote a few scripts with me, I mean he wrote Lethal Weapon, which was a very big success, and then he was actually in Predator. I was hoping he’d do some writing, but he only wrote the jokes for himself. Then he wrote The Last Boy Scout, which was complicated in the way it was made. It didn’t really clear his voice as well as I’d have liked. Then he went off and did other things, and then he wrote this, and he wrote Kiss Kiss. He wasn’t going to direct [The Nice Guys] because his partner had another view of it. But he wrote Kiss Kiss himself and said, “I’ll direct that.” And then I was passionate about the material and I thought, “Let’s take a shot.”
See also: revisiting The Last Boy Scout
Downey [Robert Downey Jr] was on his ass, it wasn’t as if anybody was trying to hire him – nobody wanted to hire him. But I’d known him for 20 years at that time, and I thought he was the right choice. We went after Val [Kilmer] to make the movie, even though the receipts weren’t as high as I hoped, it did in fact help Downey to eventually get Iron Man. So it was an important thing for them. But it defined an aesthetic that Shane had…
SB: Which we would call the deconstructed private eye. Literally deconstructed in Kiss Kiss, to the point where we’re literally stopping the film to comment, you know? This has more of that too – it’s not as meta as Kiss Kiss, but there is the element of deconstructing these tough guy tropes and trying as best we can to stand them on their heads a little bit. That’s just the fun we like to have. Joel’s absolutely right about one thing – and only one thing! – you have to want to see the movie. You can’t make something you don’t believe in. And so you can pay me as much money as you want and say, “Jump up and touch that ceiling,” and I’d say, “I can’t!” And you’d say, “Well, for two million can you?” I’d say, “No! I still can’t do it!” [Laughs]
I don’t know how to do that. And similarly, no amount of money can make me do a movie I just don’t really want to see.
JS: I was there last night for a Q&A screening here, and we had a wonderful experience in Cannes where the audience really responded to the movie. When you see a movie like this, which is not a comedy, I have to keep saying this – it is not a comedy. It’s a serious, detective yarn that’s a mystery, a thriller, an action film but it happens to be very funny. When people say it’s a comedy – no, because it’s got some dark places in its heart. It does in the beginning, middle and end. There are set-ups and pay-offs and things that he starts out and resolves. It’s a complicated narrative, but it’s very funny. That’s totally what Shane can do.
SB: By the way, we’ve been chatting, and I haven’t heard any questions. You’ve been very good, but do you have a question? [Laughs]
Both of you, between you, defined the buddy-thriller genre. Joel, you made 48 hrs and then Shane, you wrote Lethal Weapon…
SB: Yeah, let me clarify that real quick if I may. People say to me, “Mr Black, how did it feel to define the genre”. I didn’t define anything! He’d done 48 Hrs like years before.
Yeah, in 1982.
SB: That was the one, man. That was the one that changed everything.
But what was it like for you both after those films were successful and, for a while, seemingly everyone in Hollywood was trying to copy the template?
SB: I felt like I wanted to keep doing it. The good news was that people, as much as with anything that’s successful, they copy Star Wars for instance, after it comes out, but they copy the wrong things. They just put ray guns in. Similarly, I think there are a lot of funny buddy movies, where they pluck two funny comedians from Saturday Night Live or something, and they’re good for some laughs but they didn’t have any resonance to them. Because they didn’t pay allegiance properly to the long standing legacy of private eye and thriller movies that I grew up with. Or literature – the books I’d read ad nauseam when I was a kid from my father’s shelf.
Shell Scott and Ross MacDonald and any number of fictional private detectives. William Campbell Gault had Brock Callahan who was an ex-LA Rams football player turned private eye. Michael Collins wrote Dan Fortune, a one-armed private detective. Why does he have one arm? I dunno, but it’s great! So these were the kinds of things I grew up with. I gravitate to my kindred spirit here [motions to Joel], lest this be a mutual backslapping society, but this is a guy who’s similarly inclined. I saw 48 Hrs and I went, [snaps fingers] “That’s the guy.”
The original Predator was a war film that flipped over into slasher-horror. So what are your plans for the new movie? Can you give a vague idea without giving too much away?
SB: Geez. I’m not supposed to talk too much about it – which is code for, “I’m still working on it”. I don’t know! But I think the tone shifting is important. This one’s going to be very scary if I get it right, and hopefully also there’ll be some humour in it. The first one had humour in it, so you really got engaged with this group of guys. So we’ll invent our own group of guys. We’ll cast very carefully. We’ll get a group of people against the monster that I think you’re gonna enjoy spending time with.
The sensibility will be part noir, part mystery and part Close Encounters. The feeling I loved about Close Encounters was, you had this ordinary guy, Roy Neary, to whom this is all new. I think the danger of a Predator sequel is that it’s not new to anybody anymore. “Oh, look honey – another Predator. Yeah, we had one of those last year. Gagh, is he in the barn again? Oh God, he’s had the sheep.” You know? That’s the danger. That it’s too familiar – we have to find a way to make him mysterious again.
Do you think in Hollywood films recently that the goals are too large? What I like about this film [The Nice Guys] is that by its nature the goals are quite small. You understand what the characters want; it’s not about saving the world from destruction, necessarily.
SB: There’s a school of thought that says, how many apocalypses can you live through? A bridge collapsing should be a big deal. But in today’s filmic world, when a bridge falls into the ocean, you kind of go, “Yep, okay. I’ve seen that.” The idea of trying to get back to a place where you don’t have to literally destroy the Earth in order to [entertain], I think that’s a good goal. Now, that said, I love a good apocalyptic movie. I just hope there’s room within these caped crusaders populating our summer this year for [The Nice Guys] to also eke out its own niche and be a breath of fresh air for people who want to take a break from the more large-scale tent poles.
I hope it does well for you guys. Shane Black and Joel Silver, thank you very much.
The Nice Guys is out in UK cinemas on the 3rd June.