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."
In 2001, after struggling for eight months to write a romantic comedy, he confessed his frustration to Brooks. "Jim said to me, 'Frankly, I've always pictured you writing something like "Chinatown," ' " Black recounts. "And suddenly it hit me: Why couldn't I do a detective story, and still have a charming romantic side to it?"
Inspired by the detective fiction he had devoured as a child, Black created Harry Lockhart, a bumbling thief who literally stumbles into an acting audition and is flown out to Los Angeles. He is introduced to Perry van Shrike, a macho Los Angeles private eye whose nickname, Gay Perry, says it all. Perry, who is supposed to train Harry for a role, barely tolerates his presence. This bickering odd couple suddenly are thrown into a real murder mystery that threatens them and a struggling actress (named, appropriately, Harmony Faith Lane) who turns out to be Harry's childhood flame.
When Black finished writing "Kiss Kiss," he sought backing for it -- and got nowhere. "My cachet was gone by the millennium," he says bluntly. "No one would touch it. It was really humbling to me: I tried to put it together myself as a director/producer and, boy, the doors just slammed."
Finally, he turned to Joel Silver, who had produced all four "Lethal Weapon" films (as well as, among others, "The Matrix" trilogy). "I loved Shane's script," says Silver, sitting in a hotel suite in Toronto. "It makes fun of the detective genre at the same time as it is that genre. Shane told me he wanted to direct this one and so I said to him, 'If you're serious about this, we can get it made.' "
Thanks to Silver, Black got the go-ahead from Warner Bros. to make the film for $15 million -- a small sum by studio standards. He then had to find the two male leads. A newly sober Robert Downey Jr. came across the script because his wife, Susan Levin, is executive vice president of production at Silver's production company, Silver Pictures. "I saw Mrs. Downey sitting on the couch one day, reading the script and laughing out loud," Downey says with a smile.
With Downey on board to play Harry, Black began to think about who could play Gay Perry. He was intrigued to hear that Val Kilmer had just become available, because he felt that Kilmer had the right virile swagger to play a private eye. "Val looks like he should be on the cover of one of those detective novels," he says.
According to Michelle Monaghan, who plays Harmony, the comic dynamic in "Kiss Kiss" stems from Black's way with dialogue and his playfulness with genre. "Actors never get the chance to do comedy, drama, romance and action all wrapped up in one film," she says. "We were like a bunch of kids in a candy store." Very few films come to a close with the narrator (Downey) saying, "Don't worry, I saw the last 'Lord of the Rings.' I'm not going to have this movie end 17 times."
Besides poking fun at Hollywood, Black wanted to send up the traditions of the detective story -- and what better way than making his private eye gay? "In terms of Hollywood's acceptance of gay characters, 'Will & Grace' was doing this kind of thing five or six years before," he says. "But if I can show that it's the gay guy who ends up keeping his nerve and saving the day, so much the better."
He shot "Kiss Kiss" in the spring of 2004, in a tight 35 days. "I was concerned the first week because Shane was so quiet: I thought maybe he was in shock," says Kilmer, laughing. "But he wasn't at all: He was just totally prepared."
Black saved money by setting an extended Goth Christmas party scene at his own house in tony Hancock Park. Los Angeles -- tawdry, sexy, nocturnal -- becomes one of the most vivid characters in the film. "I have a real love-hate relationship with this city," Black says. "It's like aliens built this place years ago and then left the lights on and went away."
Black grew up in Pittsburgh, in very different circumstances. His maternal grandfather was a coal miner and his father was a former college football star who founded his own printing business. The family moved to Fullerton, Calif., when Shane was in high school, and he studied theater at the University of California at Los Angeles.
After graduation he hung out with a group of film-buff friends, one of whom, screenwriter Fred Dekker, encouraged Black to try writing screenplays. After Black got the idea of a cop who becomes suicidal, he completed his second screenplay, "Lethal Weapon," in six weeks -- and his agent, David Greenblatt, sold the script within three days.
At that time (1985), the studios were hungry for "spec scripts" -- scripts that are written on speculation and then auctioned off to the highest bidder, in contrast to, for example, a studio developing an idea in-house and then hiring a writer to execute it. The need for new material -- and the fact that a finished screenplay could land a hot actor and a hot director -- drove the prices of these scripts to unprecedented heights. (That bubble burst in the mid-'90s because, among other reasons, several spec scripts underperformed at the box office.)
But "Lethal Weapon" became a hit, and with it Black breathed new life into the action genre. When asked how it felt to become the It boy at age 23, he shrugs ruefully. "I used to get the $1.99 dinner special because I didn't have money to pay for dinner," he says. "Sure, it was euphoric to have access, for the first time, to that much money. But with my blue-collar mentality I was terrified to overstep my bounds."
And Black didn't play it safe creatively, either: When he wrote "Lethal Weapon 2," he killed off the Mel Gibson character. Warner Bros., not surprisingly, objected and Black left the project. He wasn't involved with the two later "Lethal" movies, but he went on to write a Bruce Willis actioner, "The Last Boy Scout," that sold for $1.75 million (the most that any spec script had fetched at the time).
He also did one of the many rewrites ("along with every writer who's ever worked in Hollywood," he says) of the Arnold Schwarzenegger flop "Last Action Hero." And then he made a record sale again for "The Long Kiss Goodnight," which in many ways prefigured the current vogue of female action heroes -- from "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" to the "Kill Bill" films.
Explaining Black's winning streak and his allure as a writer, Greenblatt says, "Shane redefined the way scripts were written at that point. Most scripts were written in a very flowery way -- but Shane, in describing the interior of a restaurant, would say, 'You know, the kind where there are always french fries under the table.' His scripts were incredibly readable: He would talk to you like that."
But increasingly, Black became frustrated at not being able to realize his own vision on the screen. "For years I was doing the excruciating weightlifting of writing scripts -- but then I stayed thin and someone else got all the muscles," he says.
He liked the experience of directing "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" so much, he says, that he wants to continue directing his own screenplays. "I'd love to say that directing for the first time was harrowing and difficult," he says. "But it wasn't: It was a wonderful thing.
"When it's 2 in the morning and you've got to do a shot and something falls through and you've got to decide what to do, and then they give you 27 more decisions to make in the next 10 minutes. " He pauses, and smiles. "It's invigorating, it's terrifying and, more than anything else I've done, it's brought out a better part of me."