BAMF Interview Archives: Shane Black

This is the first installment of the BAMF Interview Archives. Over the course of next few months I will be posting some of the interviews that I have conducted over the years. In most cases, only small portions of these interviews were used for articles/reviews I was writing for the newspaper I used to work for. This interview with writer-director Shane Black was conducted in 2005 just before the release of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Not only was the film about a week from being released, lead actor Robert Downey Jr. had not yet made his triumphant comeback with Iron Man.

DAVID WALKER: I loved your movie.
SHANE BLACK: Thanks very very much. That’s pretty great. I appreciate that.

DW: Have you seen Domino yet?
SB: No, I haven’t. I don’t know if it’s opened, or if it has, I missed it.

DW: It’s terrible. It opens this week. And I actually saw it the same day that I saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and it was just odd to compare and contrast. I wish I had seen Domino first, that way Kiss Kiss Bang Bang could have gotten the taste of Domino out of my mouth. But no, it was stuck in there. Domino is what action films have become—which is style over substance and no story and no dialogue. And then watching your new film, it’s like wow, this is a great mix of everything.
SB: Yeah it’s little old school. That’s on purpose. I like old school.

DW: Could we talk about why this project, how this project came about, being that you had taken a hiatus from writing and now you’re back with writing and directing, so what fueled this?
SB: Well I sort of subtracted myself from the limelight. A while back I decided that I still had all the love of thriller movies, suspense movies, but I had started to become disenchanted with what I consider a misnomer, and that’s “action films.” It seems like it’s a shame to call things action films because what’s implied is that what is important has nothing to do with the story or character, but simply the kinetics of things flying through the air and/or blowing up. And I think that I was getting a lot of attention of the wrong kind based on the money I’d made and no one considered me to be a creative force of reckoning. I wanted to just try something that would let me flex my muscles a little bit. So what I did was I took a little time, probably squandered a little time, trying to go way far away from an action movie. The result I think was a romantic comedy, a sort of ill fated and really poorly written romantic comedy, which I was trying to develop. I showed the pages to a director, friend of mine, a very big director, a good director named James Brooks. And I trust him to, having done the things he’s done, he knows what works and what doesn’t. He said, “I like the scenes, but it’s very dark for a romantic comedy, and it seems like you’re leaping far away from action, it’s almost as though you’re having an adverse reaction to it.”
And I said “yeah, you know, I’m overcompensating, I’m trying to be more like, I guess, the sort of thing that you would do.”
He says “Well, I understand that action has become sort of stale for you, but you don’t have to leave a genre picture. Look at Chinatown. That’s a genre picture with character driven twists and turns, suspense, and a powerful ending, but it’s not an action movie.”
And at that point I agreed with him. I said, “Well, maybe I’m going a bit too far. Let met think about it.”
And as I thought about it I realized that maybe I should take more of a baby step. Not a baby step, but something that still felt like I was on solid footing and not so much at sea. And that was to make the romantic comedy into a murder mystery and play with that combination and see how the things bounced off each other. And it was bizarre. I started putting in all kinds of interesting weird things that just wouldn’t have made into either the murder mystery of the romantic comedy by themselves. Like you know the robot in the middle of the night, or you know just bizarre stuff, Abraham Lincoln walking in. I don‘t even know why those things occurred to me, but all of a sudden, once I had gotten my hooks into what I wanted to write, all of these ideas came flooding in. And I thought well, this movie isn’t going to change the world but at least I’m finally having fun.
And then I gave it to Joel Silver who flew with it even further. And he made so many wonderful contributions and changes and with him in the editing room it was just glorious, so you know it’s interesting. The film is the bastard child of two fathers, one being James L. Brooks, and, on the other hand, Joel Silver. They’re very similar men in many ways. You’d never expect it but both were so influential and I think that’s what shows in the movie, you know. It’s a combination of a romantic comedy and a suspense mystery thriller. I would thank both of them equally. I would shake both of their hands and say “your influence has formed this wonderful child.”

DW: Well what’s interesting about the film is that there’s this cynical tone. There’s this throwing-caution-to-the-wind vibe about the whole thing. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the films from the late sixties or early seventies where the filmmakers, writers, and directors were just trying to shake the dust off of generations past, and say “okay we need to try something slightly different here.” There was a point where I felt like “wow, I’m actually watching a movie that someone made specifically for me.” It was like we had sat down for a couple of weeks and I had said, “Here are all of the things I would love to see in a movie.” Was that me just projecting my own cynicism about film industry and the conventions of popular film over the last fifteen years?
SB: Well, you’re not wrong, there is that cynicism there, but the problem is that for a long time I think I‘ve been kind of grumpy when I sat at the typewriter. Even when I was taking pokes at things in this one, or trying something that was a little bit sarcastic, I remember I wasn’t in a bad mood. I was feeling very good natured, as silly as it sounds. Yes it’s cynical, but I still think there is a good spirit in it, and a good heart behind it. I hope no one takes this movie as being the caustic, angry pokes at Hollywood of someone who is bitter and frustrated, because the exact opposite was true. I was making fun of detective stories, but that’s because I love them so much. And I hope that people see behind all the wisecracks the genuine fondness I have, and even for Hollywood. I think they get the joke enough to laugh along with it, instead of being offended.

DW: It doesn’t come across as being offensive at all actually. It comes across as, “We’ve done these various genres with these various conventions. Let’s just change them just enough that their not tired.” It’s almost like a successful satire. Although I use that word with a lot of trepidation because I don’t see this being satire in the way that Spinal Tap was, but it never becomes the sort of cliché that in a lot ways, it’s parodying.
SB: Well, basically, my intentions in this were, writing it just for myself, I wanted to immerse people in the world of the thing I loved the most and show them all of the things I loved about it. Because I grew up on detective stories and tough guys, and I see so many people play at it, but there is a lot of pastiche, a lot of cliché, like the smoky rooms and the blinking neon. I though, that’s not really what I like about it. I want to make a detective movie that feels like it was made by someone who as already read a thousand detective stories. And just take the best parts and throw it in the stew. And then the trick becomes, as you have said, to refresh it somehow because no one has been watching detective movies for a while. I wanted to take all that great stuff that I loved and make my stew, my caper, based in all that, but then it has to get a modern spin to it.
Like an example, a very small example, when he’s under the bed and there’s a murder happening. You see the girl come in. In a film noir you’d use that framing and you’d see these kind of beautiful, shapely legs in high heels come walking past an inch away from his head. In this movie it’s some screwed up girl with high tops and ragged jeans. And there’s an attempt to just put a modern spin on it and even to try some weird things that even make the movie, you know, the movie is aware that it’s a movie.
But you know that’s part of having fun and allowing these other things that are in the stew to surface bit by bit. In the end the comment I love would be for someone to say is “wow, I really feel like I took a trip through private eye land. I really get what’s so cool about those movies, I’d like to go see more of them.”

DW: I was reminded a lot of Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
SB: Yeah, I couldn’t stand it [laughs].

DW: But it existed in this sort of private eye world where it was never quite real. Or even, I wouldn’t say Point Blank as much, but again, the sixties-seventies stuff. Harper was another one that I thought of. It made me want to go back and, for me, watch all these old detective movies.
SB: But what you are describing is very true. I mean if I’m getting you correctly. You’re talking about private eye movies that also have stories in them that make them movies. They’re dramas too, or have something going on besides the fact that there’s a guy who carries a gun. And the great thing to me, and the challenge, the task that I set for myself in doing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was: to write a character story that was interesting enough to hold you even when the guns were put away, but had the flavor and the edge that reminded you that you were still very much in the hands of someone who was steering you through detective world. But it couldn’t’ just be a private eye movie. It had to be a movie about something that then becomes a private eye film.

DW: Going back to why I couldn’t stand the movie Domino. It’s not a movie that’s about much of anything. I think that most movies these days aren’t about much of anything other than these formulated marketing pushes. And the thing that drives Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the two things are the characters and the story itself. So its not action sequences pasted together or conventions pasted together to fill out ninety minutes and then get a bunch of people to come see the movie.
SB: No, I agree, the goal was to feel by the end of the movie, as they shake hands and part ways, they don’t really do that, but that you’ve taken a journey with these characters. You meet them, you follow them, and by the end when they look at each other and say “well that was something.” You feel like you’ve gotten to know them and you’ve taken a journey with them. That’s the key to me to any movie, and it’s very hard to do in a hour and 43 minutes.
We tried our best to just let these characters emerge so that what your left with is a sense of people who have been through the mill together, sort of bonded, and become you know friends for lack of a better word. And if I said that to you, you wouldn’t naturally assume that I’m talking about a thriller. But I think that because your are writing a thriller, it is even more important to emphasize those elements so that it doesn’t become, as you say, a movie that’s not about anything. The more guns in a movie, the more you have to emphasize everything that’s not about the guns.

DW: Was it always your intention to direct this film?
SB: No, I thought I had to do something different. Not just re-invent. But because I was sort of burned out on simply writing, that’s a strenuous job, to me, backbreaking work. And then giving away the candy store to someone else to go have all the fun, it felt like I was like eating all the brussel sprouts and skipping the desert and leaving that for someone else. And that’s probably one the reasons I couldn’t set this project up. No one wanted it initially because people would say “who is this guy whose been out of the loop for a little while, and now he want to direct this thing. We don’t know him, we don’t want to take a chance on this guy.” And the script was unusual and no one really like it that much. But I was intent on directing it. And my refusal to back off on that point was probably the capper that sent doors slamming one by one, until I was left out in the cold holding a script that few people liked and most had just glanced at, skimmed, or never even read.
I thought, “What the hell man?” A couple of years ago I used to really get a reaction when I put out a script. It was a very humbling experience. But I still wanted to direct it. And I said I’ve got to find someone who believes in me, and to do that, I need to find someone first who’s going to really love the script and that’s when Joel’s name popped into my head. Also so much had changed even in the few years I had been gone. It seemed like all of the studio executives were ten years old and had only the vaguest notion of who I was or what I did.

DW: And it’s not like you’re that old in the first place so that’s got to be frustrating.
SB: It was frustrating. I got the cold shoulder from most people who looked at the script. But I thought Joel would like it. He’s someone that doesn’t change. Kind of an immutable unswerving constant. The Rock of Gibraltar. And you know, the world of Hollywood is just shifting all the time. I went to him with it. And he did love the script, which I though he would, and it was refreshing because I finally got validation. I had to go back to Joel to get it. And he went to work on how to put this picture together. Downey at the time was engaged to his right hand person and she’s also a great producer, and so he’d be hanging around and he started reading some of the lines with us and we thought “Shit, this is great.” And we gave Downey the script and he read it and loved it. So we had Downey, we had player now. But there was pressure to have someone opposite him who was a big actor, like a $20 million salary actor.

DW: Got it.
SB: Because you know, whose Downey to sell a movie? That kind of idea. And I think after while, with trying with these actors you have wait forever to get them to even get back to you; “Oh he’s in Belize he’ll get back to you in January.” To get them to get a script, it was murder, and it’s a weird script anyway. Finally the studio said “Joel, do what you want. You want to make this huge movie, then make it. You want do the smaller version, do the smaller version.”
It was poignant, and we looked at each other and he was good enough to say, “Why don’t we just get two really good actors for this.” He knew he didn’t have to make a $15 million movie. That’s not his style. Warner Brothers certainly didn’t need that. That’s not the way they usually work. But he liked the script, and this is to his credit. He said, “Let’s make the $15 million version of this. I don’t need it as a producer, but I want to do it. I like this story. And let’s just get great actors.” We’ve got Downey. And Kilmer had just become available off a film. It was fortuitous timing and we snapped him up. You can imagine at that point we looked at each other again and said, “Can a first time director handle these two personalities, you know you’ve got Robert Downey, Val Kilmer in the same film?” And again, Joel gave me a shot. Of course he was there to shepherd the whole process. I don’t work with him because he’s a nice guy, I work with him because he’s very talented, he knows film. And that’s how we got me to direct. It was a harrowing process. A lot of standing around in the cold with people not remembering me or having no faith in me.

DW: It seems like the break that you took lent itself to the creation of both the script and ultimately this film. That might not have happened had people been willing to kiss your ass during the height of, you know, Shane Blackdom.
SB: Well no one’s willing to kiss your ass as a director no matter what you’ve accomplished as a writer. Honestly, I think you know that too if you’ve been in Hollywood. You know that the writer is truly the low totem on the pole.

DW: Exactly.
SB: And so I think you lose your power the minute you become a director in a way. What was great about this, what saved me, because no, to answer your question, I could not have, it would have been the same story back then, unless I’d had someone like Joel. Like I did now. Warner brothers threw the $15 million at Joel and said, basically, “call us when the picture is locked.” So they were confident enough to trust him. It was almost like discretionary money. I didn’t have a development meeting. I didn’t have studio notes. I didn’t have censorship. I didn’t have suggestions. All I had to please was one man, and that was Joel. And that’s why so much of the stuff that got in the movie got in. Because it was just me and Joel having fun. I’m glad that was the case.
Ten years ago I think things might have gone very differently. The only advantage that taking time off afforded me was that it allowed people to sort of forget that I’m that guy who made all those action movies and a lot of money and now it allows me to reappear as someone who doesn’t need to make big movies, whose perfectly willing to make a smaller movie, and not necessarily an action film. And I’d much rather be thought of that way.


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