Clipography With ‘The Nice Guys’ Director Shane Black
A lot of people do what Shane Black does. He just does it better.
In 1987, Richard Donner directed Black’s script for Lethal Weapon, launching a franchise and cementing an entire subgenre of films, the buddy cop movie. Other examples existed before Lethal Weapon, but it became the prototype, and its success begat a thousand imitators who copied Black’s ticks but could never capture the quirky rhythms of his dialogue, his cockeyed sense of humor, or his unique ability to blend genuinely big laughs with truly dark subject matter (most of his movies are about suicidally depressed heroes, often around Christmastime).
For a while, Black was a victim of his own success; he became more famous as a guy who got paid a lot of money for scripts (he received a then-record $4 million for his screenplay for The Long Kiss Goodnight) than as a guy who wrote great movies. He reemerged in the 2000s as a writer/director, first of a new buddy comedy screenplay, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and then as Jon Favreau’s replacement at the helm of the massive Iron Man franchise, where he managed to fulfill all the obligations of a Marvel franchise while still indulging some of his signature curiosities. (His Iron Man 3, set around Christmas, turns Tony Stark into a sort of private eye, sussing out a massive conspiracy.)
Black’s latest effort as writer and director is The Nice Guys, which reimagines the Lethal Weapon formula in the smog-soaked confines of 1977 Los Angeles, where the Hollywood sign is crumbling and porn is everywhere. A beautiful dead woman (shades of the opening scene of Lethal Weapon) kicks off a mystery that eventually brings together drunken private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and heavy-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). Cars are chased, corruption is exposed, quips are slung, and everyone goes home happy.
With The Nice Guys headed to theaters, and Lethal Weapon approaching its 30th anniversary next year, it seemed like the perfect time to look back at the total scope of Black’s career. I met up with him at Warner Bros. New York office, armed with a laptop full of classic Shane Black clips. We watched a bunch and let the conversation flow from there. Here’s what he had to say about some of the greatest — and most controversial — moments from his three decades in Hollywood.
“I’m Too Old for This Shit”
From Lethal Weapon (1987)
Shane Black: This is a last minute idea we had. There are two fun things in this scene. One is, Riggs takes out his gun and he’s looking around for the guy with the gun and then realizes, “Okay, that’s me they want.” And then, of course, this line [“I’m too old for this shit.”] which became the trademark line from the show.
ScreenCrush: When you wrote it, did you have any idea that it would become such a famous and quoted line?
No, no idea. So many of these things, you throw them away. “I’m too old for this shit” — it just sort of rolls off and you don’t picture it becoming iconic in any way. Similarly, the Predator — which I’m working on now — the first Predator, they only had eight weeks to design an alien because the first one crapped out.
Yeah. So they threw it together and went “Okay, the mask will look like this,” and it’s become the most iconic makeup. It’s lasted 30 years now. So often the most hastily arrived at impromptu decisions end up establishing a precedent that’s spectacular. And other times you try for weeks to get something and it sails off the radar.
Have you had the experience of people quoting that line to you not realizing you were the guy who wrote it?
No. I did have the odd experience, though — I don’t know if you remember Lethal Weapon 2.
It’s been a few years, but I saw it many, many times as a kid.
There’s a line at the end — and I’m not crazy about the movie overall because I only did part of it — but at the end, there’s a guy who holds up a passport and he goes “Diplomatic immunity!”
And you remember Danny [Glover]’s line, he goes “It’s just been revoked.” And he shoots him.
So I’m standing in line at the supermarket and people are talking about it. And they’re saying how much they like Lethal Weapon 2, and I think “Oh boy, here we go.” And one guy actually says “Oh man, that’s my favorite line from the movie! When the guy goes ‘Diplomatic immunity!’ And then the guy goes ‘This is for when you vote!’ Boom! And he shoots him!”
“This is for when you vote”? Not only did he get the line wrong, and it’s not in the movie, but it’s his favorite line!
His favorite line is the one he wrote.
Yeah. It’s amazing to me what people hear.
This pairing, the two mismatched buddies who become partners, has been a structure and an idea you’ve returned to over and over. What is it about that dynamic that really speaks to you?
The mismatch, the two guys who have to use each other as a sounding board and figure out how to get up in the morning when the questions they ask themselves don’t resonate anymore. It’s the notion that I think you sometimes need someone else to believe in you for you, before you have the courage to actually believe in yourself. There’s a real thread of that in a lot of what I do. When you get two great actors to play off each other what you get is good comedy, number one, because they have someone to talk to. But you also get a very heartfelt sense of friendship that hopefully, by the end of the movie when they part, you think, “Wow, these guys have been through an experience together, which had as much to do with friendship as it did kicking ass.”
I’m less drawn to movies where the pairings are buddies like in The Expendables, tossing each other guns, and more when it’s just people who sort of don’t want the other guy in their life, and have to reluctantly admit somebody or some other influence. Like, what Lethal Weapon, the first one, got right is where [Riggs] comes over to dinner and gets a glimpse at Danny Glover’s lifestyle, with a family that he can’t and won’t have. And for a moment he feels like he’s a human being again. He has a scrap of dignity beyond the hatred he’s evolved within himself. And that gives him the courage to come back at Christmas and join the family. I think there’s a humanizing aspect to having the two people redeem each other rather than just one guy.
From Predator (1987)
Oh God. So I’m very familiar with this clip.
This is a bad take. They used it because you had to shout [to be heard over the helicopter’s engine] and it doesn’t work when you shout. These are actually two jokes that I wrote for the film; well, I didn’t write them, I put them in. But I think it’s sort of odd and fun to have them in there. I’m only surprised the director went along with it.
You’ve got to look for something to make your character distinctive. And unfortunately they wanted me to write for the other characters as well, and I said “Hey man, I’m just an actor.”
Well, that was another question I had, because I love the story on the Predator making-of documentary where they’re like, “We’ll hire Shane as an actor, and when he’s on set we’ll get him to rewrite the script!” And then you’re like, “Yeah, I didn’t do that.” But you don’t explain how you got out of it, so that’s what I want to know. How did you get out of rewriting that script?
There was no contract, there was an “understanding.” And the truth is I looked at the script and I thought, “We don’t need more wisecracks.” David Peoples, who’s a wonderful writer, did a whole draft of them going to brothels together and being clowns and having setups and payoffs in the jungle of them pranking each other. It completely took away from the originality and simplicity of the very strong concept that was there. So I didn’t think it needed help. And I was happy to tell them that I didn’t think so, especially since I didn’t really feel like doing any writing [laughs].
It’s kind of ironic, though, that all these years later, you are working on a new Predator. What was it this time around that got you interested in the material?
I think there’s a real strength in the first one: The mythology of seeing it through fresh eyes as though it’s new. At the time it was a “What the f---, why didn’t I think of that?” kind of idea. And then it became sort of standard. Over the years, Fox rendered it household by putting out a new movie every couple years with the same sort of $50 million budget. But never the sense that you would get your tickets in advance. It was like, “Oh Predator‘s out again. I guess I can see one more of those.”
We want to establish it the same way you would establish the typical Tom Cruise movie, or the new [Planet of the] Apes movie, where people are aware of it as a potential event. We really tried this time to reinvigorate it — and the challenge was to make it as fresh as interesting and mysterious in its way as that first one was, and really pay homage to the suspense of the original. It’s not just going to be Friday the 13th with Predators roaming around, popping out for scares. We want to do it with a spirit of adventure and mystery. And I hope we can get the sort of event status going that really makes people aware that this is a kind of thing that we put more money into and paid extra attention to. It’s not just another knockoff.
From The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
My writing partner at the time was helping me out with research. And he brought me a whole stack of research just about the initial World Trade Center bombing, because it was 1994 and 1995 when we were writing this. ’93 is when this first bombing went down.
This is all real. There were actual rumors. To this day they persist, that it was a CIA-abetted operation. And this is the beginning of what came to be known as “false flag.”
And you can even see on the description of the clip on the YouTube page that people have taken this up as an example or proof of a conspiracy behind 9/11, which is really interesting.
Yeah, some people have actually approached me online saying that I was aware that 9/11 was coming. And I’m like, “Come on guys!” I mean first off, they don’t even know there was a bombing in ‘93.
If they paid more attention to your movies, they’d know that there are vast conspiracies in almost every single one.
Yeah, something that starts small and escalates.
Are you attracted to conspiracies in real life yourself, or is that just something that makes good drama?
Well that’s the thing. That’s what people don’t get. There were complaining about Iron Man, some of the fans, saying, “Ah, this truther nonsense!” And it’s like, no, you don’t get it. I don’t buy into the nonsense, but movies is where you should! The insane conspiracy that you actually think is real, that would make a good movie, because it’s not true. And that’s the fun part. But now, as you can see from this clip, what we make up in movies and surmise about, people suddenly latch onto and say “It’s real! It’s out there, they’re coming to get you.”
I believe in conspiracies. I also believe in coincidences. And apparently to these conspiracy theorists, there’s no such thing.
From Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
This was a fun scene, one of my favorite character scenes. This was in the original Kiss Kiss script, where it was a romantic comedy, and this was just the way to get the character out to Hollywood.
I heard you talking about that on The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell.
Yeah. I just thought it was a fun little meet-cute sort of thing where he stumbles into Hollywood, not of his own volition but because he’s actually living the scene.
And as a result, they go “This guy’s pretty good!” [At 1:06 of the clip:] They spelled “Raphael” wrong, which I never corrected. It’s just a nice little scene, for an actor especially too. It’s almost an homage to Downey himself, because he is this actor who’s great in audition rooms.
A lot of your characters find themselves at absolute rock bottom. They’ve hit the worst possible moment of their life.
Downey might not have been as bad as your characters, but he’d certainly had some rocky times by this point. And I think about that during this scene.
The blur between reality and fiction of his life is echoed in this scene between the blur between reality and fiction. Yes, that’s exactly right.
And that was something that appealed to you about casting Downey?
Yes, it was. Very much so.
Besides the fact that he’s such a great actor, it adds something to the scene.
He’s surprising. Part of it is, people just know him as a great actor. So he can play an actor. He can play a good one or a bad one. It’s just fun to watch him be an actor.
From Iron Man 3 (2013)
Oh boy. See, here’s a scene that I happen to like a great deal. I think Kingsley’s great. It’s surprising. In the audience, on a good day, you hear a lot of laughs and have a lot of fun with this idea. Now, on a bad day...
...I’ve had death threats online. I’ve had people threaten to beat me up because of what I did. It’s a goddamn comic book for crying out loud.
Just looking at this scene again today, getting ready to talk to you, when Downey’s pointing the gun at Kingsley and going, “All right, where is the real Mandarin?” I realized that you predicted the reaction you were going to get from a lot of people.
That’s basically what happened, you had a lot of fans freaking out and demanding the “real” Mandarin. And don’t get me wrong, I love comic books...
As do I!
...And I love this scene. There’s a pro wrestling term, the “swerve” where you blindside the audience with something they never see coming. A wrestler comes out of the back and you think he’s going to help another guy who’s in trouble, but then he hits him with a steel chair instead. And a lot of your movies have great swerves like that. And this is just a classic swerve.
Well, I was particularly happy with the notion that we had a swerve in a big summer movie. You can’t have them [anymore]. It almost never happens because everyone already knows everything about the movie going in. That’s where they felt betrayed too. It wasn’t in the trailer. We managed, to our detriment it seems, to conceal effectively that this was going to come.
The truth of it is I feel bad that the fans didn’t think it has the same texturing or cleverness that I did. Obviously you’re always going to change up the comic book. Whiplash [in Iron Man 2] does not look like the comic book Whiplash. But he’s cooler in a way, and people buy it.
In this instance, I thought the idea of this think tank, A.I.M., cobbling together a terrorist based on their research into our worst nightmares actually added a whole political and cool thriller element to it. Comic book fans just wanted to see a fight. And I wish they had the same amount of fun with it and taken it in the same spirit that I did. I never intended this to be the only version of the Mandarin available. It’s just the one that seemed like it was the most fun. Because otherwise they’re just ... do they really just want to see people beating on each other? Or shooting rays at each other?
I mean, based on the evidence, I would say some people do. The other thing the reaction made me wonder is: Do people even want to be surprised by movies anymore? Or do they just want exactly what they’re expecting?
I think it’s a tradeoff. They want what they’re expecting, but they want you to do it cleverly enough that it takes them by surprise. The evidence is there that they still want to be surprised in movies, but, you’re right, trailers have almost come to the point where they’re dissected, and you know what you're seeing before you see it. With The Nice Guys, I’ve been warning people: “Look, if you’re going to see it, and you don’t need the advertising to affect you, don’t watch the trailers because they’ll give everything away!” You could take all four trailers for The Nice Guys and basically cobble together a mini movie and then just say, “Well, I’ve seen it.”
People definitely do that with superhero movies. They edit together all the different trailers and clips into a miniature version of the movie, and you wind up with a 15 minute version of, say, Batman v Superman.
It’s a real shame to me. I used to hold my ears and close my eyes during trailers. I honestly did.
“I Made a Film”
From The Nice Guys (2016)
This is an interesting one because here we have the essence of the two problems of the ’70s: smog and porn. There’s actually a pulp writer by the name of Davis Dresser, who wrote under the name Brett Halliday. And in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I used one of his clues; we gave him credit. And in this one, you’ll see at the end of the credits special thanks once again to Brett Halliday. That’s because in one of his books called Blue Murder there was a clue that I saw like 10 years ago, and it just said, “A porno film where the important part is the plot.” That’s it. It’s not like there’s a whole movie there, that was it. But I called up the granddaughter, Chloe, and I said, “Listen, can I steal a clue from you? Not steal, I’ll pay for it.”
I just think there’s a plethora of unmined stuff in these old pulp novels. I have all of them. I read them off and on. I’ll just pace at night when I can’t sleep and read a bit of this one or a bit of that one. And I’ll find these wonderful magical little snippets that could really give you an armature to hang stuff on. Because once you have that concept you know that’s where you’re going; now you can do character stuff along the way.
Your dialogue tends to get a lot of attention, but there are nice visual touches in this movie. I love that Gosling’s daughter, who becomes almost the third detective in the movie, has Nancy Drew novels on her bookshelf in this scene. You don’t talk about it, no one comments on it. But it helps explain why she keeps tagging along.
That’s right. And she’s probably better at [being a detective] than her father. She’s been influenced by what he does for a living, but she takes it seriously as she’s watched him slip out of the mode of taking it for anything but just a quick dollar. She still has the romanticized, pure vision of what it means to get to the heart of things. And she’s hoping that she carries that torch and keeps the faith that he’ll come around ... Her dream of what a private eye looks like was never her dad. But then it is.
You mention these pulp novels that you love. The Nice Guys really did feel like a pulp novel to me, and I would love to read a novel about these characters. Do you have any interest in writing novels, about these characters or anyone else?
I would, except there’s two things going on. One is if I’m going to write something, moviemaking is more fun. I don’t want to waste it on a book that then doesn’t become a movie. And secondly, it’s very common that people who write really good novels can’t write screenplays. And so the leg up I have is that’s something I’ve studied and know how to do. Once you go the other way, there’s a hell of a lot of people who can write really good books, and entering into that realm is a bit more daunting. I’m no longer Mr. Know-It-All, now I’m just a fledgling in a sea of survivors of the Titanic, all trying to stay above water. And in the private eye field there are so many good ones too. I can bring something to it, but for now at least, and because I’m getting a little older, I owe it to myself to be prolific in the field I’ve chosen, and that’s writing and directing films.
The other thing that’s fun in this scene is that she’s talking about smuggling important ideas into very lowbrow culture. Are there any messages you hope the audience takes from The Nice Guys?
Honestly, no. There’s an old expression in Hollywood: “If you’re going to send a message, call Western Union. Don’t put it in the movie.” No matter what you say there’s going to be obvious parallels between this story, which is timeless and political in its way, with current issues and modern-day themes.
I think that the universal thing is the idea of the lone knight in tarnished armor trying to fill shoes he can’t quite fit, which are those of the true private eye and crusader. In mythology, there’s always going to be schmucks who inexplicably find themselves having to step up to fill that myth, in the same way when you’re driving and you see a guy hanging off a cliff, why do you abandon your family in the car and run and save a total stranger? Because the piece is missing and you have to fill it, the piece of rescuer that’s so mythic that it draws you, more than your own family, and demands that you run and fulfill that myth. That’s what I make movies about.
The Nice Guys opens in theaters on Friday, May 20.