Shane Black, Coming Back With a 'Bang'

Shane Black, who hit it big in 1987 with
Shane Black, who hit it big in 1987 with "Lethal Weapon," left, gets a hug from Robert Downey Jr. at a screening of "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang." (By Evan Agostini -- Getty Images)
By Laura Winters
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 6, 2005


If Shane Black had written the screenplay of his own life, he couldn't have come up with a better "Go West, Young Man!" story:

Scene 1: Teenager from blue-collar Pittsburgh moves out to California in the late '70s.

Scene 2: At 23, he writes a screenplay called "Lethal Weapon," which he sells for $400,000 and which spawns a hit movie series.

Scene 3: Kid-turned-golden-boy writes several more action scripts, topping his previous sales each time.

Scene 4: At the height of his fame, our hero abruptly stops writing. Now, after nine years of silence, he returns with a new film, the first that he has both written and directed. A self-mocking romance/thriller/satire, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" stars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. A hit at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, "Kiss Kiss" opened strongly in five cities, and opens in Washington on Friday.

Hearing all this, you might expect Black to be the ultimate Hollywood insider -- a player with dark sunglasses. But, in fact, Black in person is resolutely down-to-earth, bitingly self-deprecating and shy. He's a tall, burly fellow who looks younger than his 43 years, with a closely cropped Vandyke beard and penetrating, melancholy brown eyes. When we meet in a quiet hotel parlor earlier this fall, during the Toronto International Film Festival, he makes a beeline to examine the books lining the walls.

In fact, Black is both the ultimate Hollywood insider and the ultimate Hollywood outsider, and someone unafraid to talk about fame and its vagaries. "Shane has a great black Irish soul," says his good friend, director James L. Brooks. "He's thoughtful, unsparing, and looks at himself every day with more honesty than most people ever do in their lives."

This blistering honesty surfaces when I ask Black why, after selling his script for "The Long Kiss Goodnight" -- which starred Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson -- for a record-breaking $4 million, he vanished from the public eye after the film's release in 1996.

Black takes a swig of coffee from a takeout cup. "Everything has been suggested about that time," he says, wryly. "Was I eaten by bears? Was I high on cocaine? Well, none of the above is true."

The truth, he says, was far less dramatic. "Basically, I developed an aversion to Hollywood. It wasn't that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' tanked at the box office: I didn't really care about that. What troubled me was that for several years during and after the making of that movie, no one referred to me even remotely as someone with anything creative to say. All you heard about was the money, and the word 'hack' was just thrown at me constantly. I needed to fade, I needed people not to look at me. I needed to be alone."

Black also feared that he wouldn't be able to continue his own run. "I wasn't satisfied anymore with the scripts I had worked so hard on," he says. "So I tried some things that didn't work as a producer, I wrote a short film that bottomed out, I was distracted by my relationship with my girlfriend at the time. I did some writing, but I just didn't like any of it."

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