The Nice Guys: Shane Black on Tackling the Fairy Tale of ‘70s LA

Shane Black, director of Iron Man 3, chats about his new action-comedy, The Nice Guys, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

There are few screenwriters in Hollywood who have the knack and flair for the action-comedy genre like Shane Black. The filmmaker burst onto the scene 30 years ago with his screenplay for Lethal Weapon, which would become the model for the overused buddy cop comedy, and he has been running and gunning in the industry ever since.

After writing a number of popular action blockbusters, Black took on the directorial reins for the 2005 noir comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, and after a tangent into the Marvel Universe to direct Downey in 2013’s Iron Man 3, Black returns to his favorite genre, putting another twist on the detective movie with The Nice Guys, which once again teams him with producer Joel Silver.

The premise won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with their previous work together.

Set in 1977, it follows private detective Holland Marsh (Ryan Gosling) and tough guy Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who are teamed together and looking for a missing young woman named Amelia, which takes them through the underbelly of LA with Marsh’s young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) often tagging along and finding more clues than her dad.

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Den of Geek chatted on the phone with Black last week, mostly talking about The Nice Guys but also talking about his experiences working with Marvel Studios on 2013’s Iron Man 3, as well as upcoming projects The Predator and Doc Savage, both which you can read about here.

As one might expect from a consummate Hollywood screenwriter, Black answered some of our questions in prose.

Den of Geek: This seems like a companion piece to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in that it might take place in the same LA only 30 earlier. What was the impetus to do a period piece set in the ‘70s?

Shane Black: The thing about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, although it was contemporary, I always felt there was a timelessness to it. There was the air of a fairy tale about it, about going to the big city and meeting the love of your life with knights in tarnished armor having to fill the shoes of the fictional private eye. It’s like the guy trying to be James Bond. As a kid, it seems like a good idea, but as an adult you can’t do it—you’re not enough.

Similarly, I think this one has those same suits of tarnished armor applied to our two schmucks, basically, who can’t fill the shoes. But they inhabit the ‘70s because it’s a great time for crusaders, really. It’s about people trying to fill mythic shoes, and the crusade in the ‘70s was against LA’s two biggest problems at the time—smog and porn. If you lived through it, there were actually air raid sirens that would go off when the smog was so bad. You’d have to pull your kids inside, if they were playing ball, because they’d get sick if they stayed out.

You had Hollywood Boulevard where every other storefront had a “XXX” on it, and it was just a pit. You couldn’t let your kids go there. The sky was a crust of purple smog, the Hollywood sign in tatters, presiding over everything and no one bothered to fix it. It was still this endgame destination for every American dreamer, [that] was LA. But this sort of prom queen version of LA had decayed. It had become this tattered version of itself—the make-up was slipping. It was like a prom queen with dementia stumbling around, still pretending that this was the ideal.

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I thought that notion fit perfectly with our private eye concept. Two faded heroes trying desperately to crusade in a city covered with smog and presided over by a broken Hollywood sign, in which pornography was creeping like a fungus.

I was trying to do the math but I figured you must have been the age of the kid at the beginning of the movie when you moved there with your family from Pittsburgh.

1975, yeah, so I was probably 13 or 14, just starting high school.

Was that kid in the beginning meant to be you?

That kid who jacks off every night? Yeah, that was me! [Laughs] There’s an element of kids in the movie, because once again, the fairy tale element of these fantasy images whether they’re pornographic magazines, whether it’s the Hollywood sign. It’s all iconography that’s just an illusion, and very quickly, this kid who is looking at this illusion of an air-brushed centerfold finds the real thing broken on a rock and the last thing he does is cover her up so she won’t be naked when the police get there.

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His whole world shifts in five minutes from the fantasy to the reality. I think that’s what the movie has a lot of, when it’s successful, is that mix of the whimsical and the fairy tale mixed with the harsh reality that creeps in.

Did you write this with Anthony Bagarozzi or had he written something previously that you took over when you decided to direct it?

No, no, we were hand-in-hand the whole time. This is truly a collaboration between him and I, to the point where we each initially agreed that we were going to write one character apiece—I would do March and he would do Healy. That didn’t really work—it never can—but we batted out different versions of this over the years. Thirteen years it’s been in the works and then it came together in three days.

Like I said, this felt like a companion piece to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but I wasn’t sure if you had to wait until you had a hit like Iron Man to get someone to make this movie. Obviously, Kiss Kiss was well loved but it didn’t do huge business in theaters and a lot more people ended up discovering it afterwards.

Yeah, and there’s something to be said about being the king of the midnight movie. “Oh, let’s go see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang at midnight at the Aero” or, “Let’s go see Long Kiss Goodnight. It would be nice if people lined up for the fucking thing in the first place. It’s great to have cult hits, but cult is not the way I want to go.

Fair enough. Going back to what you said about kids, the presence of Holly adds a different dynamic from other movies you’ve done. How did you go about finding an actress who can deliver that? One that can deliver such specific dialogue opposite these two very experienced actors, who each have a presence, and yet she’s stealing scenes from them.

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The thing is that there’s no real kid stars, so when you have a role for a kid, you just look for the best one, and you throw a pretty wide net. That included this tape that we got in from Australia, this young actress [Angourie Rice] who [casting director] Sarah Finn was aware of, but she hadn’t really done much. We said, “The hell with it. What’s a plane ticket? Let’s fly her in because this is a very important role.” We were ready to cast after we saw the first six girls, because they were all good and one of them had even worked with Ryan before in Crazy, Stupid, Love. But as an afterthought, we said, “Let’s see this last girl” and we were prepared to make the decision already, and then she walked in and just owned the room.

It’s weird, because she’s a very shy kid in a way. She is a very mild kid, very sweet and polite, but when she walked in—something about her. She dropped the Australian accent, she immediately fell into an American cadence that was flawless, took over the room, started talking in character to Ryan Gosling about things in the script as though she were in the movie. She just started doing it, and he was just trying to keep up, and we as writers were jotting down the things she was saying. “Fuck, let’s put this in the movie, this is great stuff!” The point is that you never see it. I don’t know what she did or how she channeled it. Maybe it’s because she’s Australian and there’s just a different vibe over there, but I’ve never been that impressed with a kid. It’s easy to blow smoke. What am I going to say about any actor in a movie? But this kid is something special.

I was definitely impressed. I’ve seen a lot of movies with kids, and you never know which way it’s going to go, and finding a kid like that, who is so natural at doing dialogue that’s very specific, is hard.

Especially when it’s not in your idiom and it’s a completely different accent than you were raised with, and she did that as effortlessly as any great thespian.

What about casting Ryan and Russell? They’re great leading men, but chemistry is key to most of your movies and finding those two actors that can deliver that. How did you know they could deliver that?

It occurred to me that the movie is first and foremost, it will always be a thriller, it will always be rough. I’m not that impressed with things that are just funny so much, and even the Clouseau movies that I used to like as a kid, I realized that one of the reasons I loved them so much was that even though Clouseau was an idiot, everyone around him was played straight. The bad guys were still scary. That’s the thing. We wanted to do a thriller and a private eye story first, and then a comedy, so get the guys with the gravitas to actually do the heartfelt, soulful parts of the story and make it an organic friendship that’s real. Then they’ll be funny.

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Otherwise, you’re plucking comedians and getting what might be a funny movie but ultimately it will be sort of slight. If we pulled two SNL alumni, they’d be funny, but I wanted real actors. I wanted it to feel like a real story, organically real, then I could put jokes in. Those were our first two picks by the way. Ryan and Russell, in three days, they just said, “If he’ll do it, I’ll do it.”

I was also curious about having Kim Basinger in this, ecause she previously appeared with Russell in L.A. Confidential. Did that have any influence on this, also being an LA period noir?

Honestly, she was just available. It was kind of a neat revelation. “Oh, yeah, she knows Russell.” And the more touching part of it was seeing them reunite on set and that they still had some friendship there. But no, it wasn’t a factor at all in trying to reference other detective movies. If it had become too distracting, in fact, it would have been a reason not to do it.

I’m glad you mentioned the Clouseau thing earlier, because the humor in your movies is always interesting—Kiss Kiss, especially. You don’t always go for the most straight-forward jokes, but then there’s also some slapstick stuff. Ryan even does a Bud Abbott impression at one point in the movie. Can you talk about some of your other influences for comedy?

You have to dole it out sparingly, and every once in a while, you go for broke. It’s like jugging on the street corner, and they’re throwing tomatoes at you. That’s my favorite kind of filmmaking. It’s like you try something and you go, “You know what? Fuck it. Let’s just do this.” Because it’s too funny not to do. “Alright, that worked, but let’s try something different now.” It’s not as measured as a philosophy of filmmaking. We’re juggling. We’re trying to keep the show going in whatever way we can, and we kept changing it up. And one way to do that that we used in Kiss Kiss very effectively is just take a dynamic that you see, a trope from detective or tough guy movie, and stand it on its head.

Like everyone has seen the scene, for instance, where someone won’t give information out, so the detective takes the one bullet, puts it in the revolver, slaps it shut, spins (the barrel) and goes, “Okay, asshole.” CLICK and he goes, “You’re crazy man, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you!” I said to myself, “If there’s one bullet, what if the first click just hit the fuckin’ bullet, you know?” It’s like BANG! And then, “What the fuck did you just do?” So we did that in Kiss Kiss. Here we have a scene where a guy tries to break a window to unlock a door and has bad consequences.

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You’ve worked within the studio system for a long time, so how do you feel about doing test screenings and getting reactions from audiences. Is that important to your process?

It is important to me, very important, but I’ll tell you why. I don’t believe in counting cards like, “I thought it was offensive when so and so said this” or “I thought it was funnier.” Everyone is going to have an opinion. What I prefer to do is just sit in the audience and listen where they laugh and where they don’t, because then you can say, “Okay, that joke’s not hitting. I thought it would, but maybe it needs a beat. Maybe it needs more air there. Or maybe they’re not getting it. Maybe if we put this shot first, maybe they’ll understand” and then you try another screening and they laugh and you go, “Done! We fixed that.” It’s really about just getting reactions, not getting creative input, if that makes any sense.

One thing I really like about this and Kiss Kiss are the LA parties you show in those movies and how ludicrous they are. You were fairly young in the ‘70s, so you probably didn’t go to any back then, but you’ve probably been to a lot since then. Are any of these things taken from real parties you attended?

No, these are the fantasy parties that I wish I had had in a way. The whole thing is a fantasy. It’s an illusion. LA is a corrupted town, especially in the ‘70s. It was a bad place with the Hollywood sign in tatters, and so the notion is that everything is an illusion of reality thing. The parties represent the fantasy view of LA, the sort of irresponsible exuberant fairy tale. You’ll notice it’s no accident that a lot of the people at the party are dressed up as characters from fairy tales, including the lead in “Pornocchio” which is the latest Sid Shadduck movie in the film. It’s really about the fantasy world of L.A, and this sort of denial that everyone’s living this pornographic fairy tale when the city is crumbling around them, and the smog is encroaching.

I was raised on the East Coast and when I see the parties in your movies, it doesn’t seem like a fantasy. I think, “Okay, that’s what is bad about LA, and I wouldn’t want to go there.” I guess I see it a different way.

Yes. [Laughs] I see it as bad too, in a way. That’s the thing. These are parties, which are full of ludicrous images, even just of excess, and people who are dressing up to ignore what’s real instead of to augment what’s real. They’re fiddling while Rome burns. I think that was a big element of people in the ‘70s, literally fiddling while the city burned. Everything was getting worse and no one was doing anything about it, except that it was still the City of Angels. Pretend it was still the end game destination for every American dreamer who wanted to be glamorous. The glamor with the make-up was slipping.

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You directing an Iron Man movie was interesting to me, because you were working within the studio system, but I feel like when a writer starts directing, it’s to have more control of how their writing ends up on screen. How was that experience doing a movie with Marvel Studios? They make great movies, but it’s known that they have to keep a certain amount of control over the characters.

Well, you go in knowing that there’s a branded thing going on. It’s a protected commodity that exists beyond the movie you’re making, and it fits into a context, a scheme, that literally is mapped out 10 years in advance. Yeah, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to just do anything I wanted at Marvel. That said, you still try to keep a flavor and a degree of control. When I would get frustrated was because there were so many moving parts. Joss Whedon would come to me—he was working on Avengers—and he’d say, “Look, just trust the machine. They’re here for a reason. I know you feel like you’re trying to keep your grasp on everything, and it’s moving really fast, but trust the machine.  You don’t have to watch every moving part, because they’re really good at this, and you can learn something.”

And from that moment, I decided I would just keep my ears wide open and listen to Kevin Feige and Steven Broussard, and Louis D’Esposito.  All I did was learn, and it was a fantastic experience to just let the machine help instead of hinder. To this day, I’m a huge fan of Marvel. I think they get it right. I think what Kevin Feige knows better than everyone is instead of having mythic superheroes come striding out of the smoke in slow motion—he’ll do that, he’ll even backlight them and shoot them from below—but then they stub their toe, and that’s when it gets fun.

Like yhe Winter Soldier—Sebastian Stan in the latest movie—he’s tortured, he’s tormented. They brutalized the guy, but then there’s a scene where he’s nudging Falcon in the car, cause Captain America is kissing a girl, and it takes the piss out of it. It’s a tonal shift, and Kevin knows to do that. He does that better than anybody. Knowing that a movie doesn’t have to have one single consistent tone to it throughout. You can shake it up, and have fun.

Was there anything you learned from that experience that you brought to The Nice Guys that wasn’t in your wheelhouse before that experience?

No, I think Nice Guys was more of a… if I were to make a comparison—it was something that I had already dabbled in, which is the sort of zaniness of the ‘60s “swinging dick” private eye. There’s a certain genre—the caper private eye—and I’ve already tampered around in that with Joel Silver in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so in a way, the thing I’m guilty of, perhaps, is playing in the same sandbox of the earlier film. I think they’re the same sort of spiritual cousins of each other, more than they are related to Iron Man.

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If there was a third movie in this thematic trilogy, would that be something set in the future, more of a science fiction thing? Or do you feel you’ve already said what you want to say in this realm?

I can do detective movies forever. I don’t know if there’s a trilogy involved. I probably can do another dozen of them. Science fiction is next up for me with The Predator, which we’re prepping right now, and I’m very excited about that one. That will have some elements of this and some of Iron Man, and hopefully it will be the mixture, where it will be the odd adventure. There’s a noir to it, but we’re trying to event-ize The Predator and make it new and fresh again.

You can read more about what Shane Black said about The Predator and his Doc Savage project in development right here.  In the meantime, The Nice Guys opens nationwide on Friday, May 20.