There’s an ancient studio joke that runs thus: “Have you heard about the blonde who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter?”
They stopped telling that joke in the early 1990s. Not necessarily because it was troublingly misogynistic; not even because it carried a nasty whiff of exploitation. They stopped telling that joke because Shane Black ruined what once passed for the punchline.
In 1987, aged just 23, Black sold his hot Lethal Weapon screenplay for a comparatively measly $250,000. In 1991, Black's script for The Last Boy Scout would earn him $1.75million; The Long Kiss Goodnight would sell for $4 million four years later.
And then he disappeared. Official Hollywood lore tells us that Shane Black had writers’ block for a decade or thereabouts. The truth is a little more complicated.
“I was working on projects that didn’t come together for one reason or another,” Black tells me. “And I had to get sober. I have a message for your readers: if you’re not doing so well at life and you’re not doing so well at work and you’re drinking all the time, then maybe, just maybe, those things are connected. Stop drinking and the other things will come good.”
And that, reader, is how Shane Black conquered Hollywood. Long before they added Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and gunplay, Lethal Weapon offered thrills and spills on the page:
“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.”
At 54, Black retains the playful, cheeky qualities that made his high-priced spec scripts so darned readable. Fun and unguarded, he wants to see Mel Gibson back on a studio lot (“Because if we’re going to hold the things that people say when they’re drunk and belligerent against them, then we’re all in trouble”).
He also tells tales on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a place where the female villain he wrote for Iron Man 3 was overruled because, he was told: "Female toys don't sell as well."
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Black's father worked in the printing business, a connection that inspired his son's lifelong love affair with hardboiled pulp fiction. The genre would inspire Black's 2005 directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which starred Robert Downey Jr as a thief pretending to be an actor and capering with Val Kilmer's gay detective.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang made less than $5 million domestically, but prompted director Jon Favreau to call Downey when Iron Man came around. Black, in turn, was drafted in as the writer-director of Iron Man 3, a film that is currently ranked as the 10th highest grossing picture of all time, with a haul of $1.215 billion.
Fans, however, were furious that Black had re-envisaged The Mandarin as failed actor Trevor Slattery (played by Ben Kingsley). Marvel responded with a one-shot short film, All Hail the King, in order to overwrite Black's twist ending.
"We never imagined that the character was as iconic as The Joker in Batman," says Black. "I'm a people-pleaser. I wasn't trying to upset people. But suddenly there are death threats. The movie did well, so some people must have liked it. I'm just sorry so many others hated it."
Happily, The Nice Guys sees Black back on much more familiar terrain. A buddy detective comedy set in LA in 1977, the film brings together Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a drunken, widowed PI, and knuckleduster- for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) for a case concerning a missing porn star that turns out to be a case about something else entirely.
The pair are assisted by Holly, Holland's young daughter, the latest in a long line of plucky pre- teens to feature in Black offerings (see also Iron Man 3, Last Action Hero, The Last Boy Scout).
“She’s the soul of the movie,” says Black. “She’s also the conscience and far smarter than any of the adults.”
Did he know beforehand that Gosling and Crowe would make for such great verbal sparring? Is there a science or secret algorithm to the buddy comedy?
"The idea for The Nice Guys has been around for 15 years. We pitched it as a TV show. The script has been out there. And one day I get a call from Ryan Gosling's agent saying: This is exactly what we're looking for. And I call Russell Crowe. And if Ryan's doing it, he'll do it. And when we get together you can see those guys testing each other out.
“I never thought of the movie as a straight comedy. I thought of it as a detective story with some jokes. And I knew they could do jokes. I just had a hunch. And I got lucky.”
Black is currently prepping for Predator. It's a sort of homecoming: back in 1987, Black asked Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver for a supporting acting role in the Arnold Schwarzenegger original.
In return, Black also made uncredited contributions to the script. The new Predator, which Black intends to write and direct, will neither be a prequel or a reboot.
He does admit to having mixed feelings about Hollywood’s current addiction to remakes.
"And that's where you come in," he says. "That's where I need your help. The Nice Guys is an original movie. It's hard to get an original movie made. If you want more of them, and not just more superheroes and remakes, then you need to get out there and vote with your feet."
And that, reader, is a classic Shane Black direction. Who are we to argue?