His latest movie screens at Cannes — Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe starrer 'The Nice Guys' — as the 54-year-old reveals his wild Hollywood days and how Robert Downey Jr. brought him in to direct 'Iron Man 3.'
Thirty years ago, when Shane Black was starting out as a screenwriter, he knew where he'd live when he struck it rich. In fact, he described the home in a screenplay he was working on at the time. "EXT. POSH BEVERLY HILLS HOME — Twilight," one scene begins. "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."
That movie — Lethal Weapon — wound up grossing $120 million worldwide. And Black later moved into a posh French chateau in Hancock Park. It didn't have a solarium or much chrome, but there definitely seemed to be a lot of sex. For much of the 1990s and into the 2000s, it was the setting for some of Hollywood's wildest, most debauched bashes. "It was mind-blowing to me," recalls Black with a grin as he reclines in the house's spacious living room, where so many drunken celebrities canoodled with topless starlets. "The Hollywood I had read about as a kid — it was all right here, in my own house!"
Black's party-animal days are over. At 54, he's entering the third act of his career — a notable accomplishment considering the first two nearly killed him. He started out the 1990s as one of the highest-paid, most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood ($4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight) and ended the decade as an industry punchline, a symbol of on- and offscreen excess. Alcoholism, drug abuse, career atrophy, angry ex-girlfriends with lawyers — Black checked off pretty much every crisis on the list for a successful Hollywood screenwriter of the era. But unlike so many of his peers — like Showgirls writer Joe Eszterhas, who ended up moving to Ohio — Black managed to stick around.
"The guys I came up with during the 1990s, the big genre writers at the time, they've slid off the map," notes Black. "For some reason, here I am, 30 years into the business, still viable, still making movies."
And now, riding on rocket-boot momentum from his 2013 success writing and directing Iron Man 3, he's continuing his most shocking plot twist yet: his own comeback. He'll be in Cannes to screen his latest film, The Nice Guys, a return-to-form action-buddy comedy (that he wrote and directed) starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as dimwit detectives bumbling around L.A. during the 1970s.
"There's a little bit of Cinderella Man in him," says Robert Downey Jr., likening Black to Jim Braddock, the 1930s heavyweight boxer who came back from a slump to win a world championship. "He's weathered some real beatdowns. But he's a get-right-up-and-stick-your-chin-out kind of a guy. He's incredibly tough."
"I thought he was bringing the coffee," says Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner, remembering his first meeting with Black in 1986. "He was just this kid. Very somber. Very intense."
Black was only 24, fresh out of UCLA's drama school, when he sold his spec script about two mismatched L.A. cops — one a family man, the other a suicidal sociopath — to Warner Bros. He was living with a bunch of screenwriting pals in a bungalow in West L.A. — they called it "Pad o' Guys," (an "Open 24 Hours" sign hung in the window). "It was a remarkable group," says Black. "David Silverman was there — he went on to direct The Simpsons Movie. There was Ed Solomon, who wrote Men in Black. Jim Herzfeld, who did Meet the Parents. David Fincher would drop by."
Lethal Weapon changed everything — for Black and for Hollywood. It was a totally fresh take on the action formula — a character-driven drama that happened to have explosions in it — and it made Black the hottest scribe in town. "Action movies before then, it was all generic characters and gratuitous violence," says Donner. "But the characters in Shane's script were so brilliant, the action just became part of the metaphor. I'd never read anything like it." There would be three more like it afterward, although Black stopped writing sequels after creative differences with Warners over Lethal Weapon 2 (Black wanted Mel Gibson's character to die, the studio didn't, so he walked). Instead, in 1989, he wrote another buddy action movie, The Last Boy Scout, a thriller about a disgraced Secret Service agent joining forces with a washed-up NFL player to solve a stripper's murder. The screenplay set off a bidding war, with Warners (which ultimately cast Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans and a newcomer named Halle Barry) writing a check for $1.75 million, the most a studio had paid for a spec script at that time.
That payday paled in comparison to what happened in 1994, when The Long Kiss Goodnight, a spy thriller that would end up becoming a Geena Davis vehicle, became the first spec script to sell for $4 million. Black celebrated by buying the Hancock Park house and throwing huge parties. But it was actually the beginning of the end of his lucky streak. "There was blowback in the writing community," acknowledges Black. Making matters worse, the film ultimately laid a gigantic egg, grossing only $33 million in the U.S. (with a budget of $65 million).
And just like that, he no was longer in demand.
"I tried to join the Academy," he says, remembering the moment his self-esteem cratered. "I got a letter back. It said, 'You are unsuitable for membership, but you are free to reapply when you have more credits.' I had done Long Kiss Goodnight, Last Action Hero, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, The Last Boy Scout. That's when I realized this wasn't my imagination. This was a deliberate snub. This was, 'We don't want that high-priced hack around us.' "
In 1998, Black dropped out of sight, sort of. He still could be found hosting parties at his chateau and sometimes popped up for a cameo in a friend's movie (he played a cafe manager in James L. Brooks' As Good as It Gets). But his name disappeared from writing credits for nearly a decade. Press reports hinted he'd given up writing. In truth, he spent much of that time brooding over Hollywood's perception of him as an overpaid hipster party boy. "They didn't understand I wasn't doing it just for the money — I wanted to tell a good story," he says. "They saw me in a house full of supermodels, not a house full of books. They didn't know me."
For the record, the shelves in his home are lined with thousands of vintage paperback pulp novels. Black has been reading this stuff since he was a shy, introverted kid growing up in Pittsburgh — his dad, a printer, started him early on hard-boiled fiction — and the rhythms and patois of these detective stories are coiled in the dialogue of every Shane Black script. But after the Academy snub, Black decided to aim higher and write a movie with no mayhem — a romantic comedy. He toiled on it for years, seeking advice from Brooks, who'd become a mentor, but getting nowhere. In the end, he solved his script problems by adding a murder and a couple of detectives. It became Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Black liked it so much, he decided to direct it himself. Trouble was, nobody at that time wanted to hire Shane Black as a director. Nobody wanted to hire him as a screenwriter. "Nobody even wanted to read it," he recalls.
Almost nobody. Joel Silver, the flamboyant producer who'd worked with Black on Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, managed to scrape up $15 million for a budget. And then Silver found a star Black could afford on that pittance: Downey, fresh out of prison and all but unemployable, just happened to be dating Silver's right-hand person, Susan Levin (later Susan Downey). "When I'd go to Joel's office for a meeting, Downey was there all the time with Susan," says Black. "So we'd say: 'Hey, can you read these lines? We're doing a little read-through,' and Joel and I would look at each other and go, 'That's f—ing perfect.'"
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang turned out to be a twisty thriller filled with clever banter and cheeky, fourth-wall-breaking voiceovers. "F—, bad narrating," Downey apologizes to the audience after neglecting to reveal a key bit of information in the opening sequence. "Like my dad telling a joke. Oh, wait, back up. I forgot to tell you the cowboy rode a blue horse." The film became a modern cult classic; Rotten Tomatoes gives it four stars. But in 2005, it slipped in and out of theaters nearly undetected. It was a big letdown for Downey — "It wasn't the coming-out party I'd thought it would be," he says, but his performance attracted the attention of director Jon Favreau, who just a few years later would fit Downey for a certain metal suit. "It ended up being my calling card to Iron Man," says the actor.
Black dealt with the disappointment by partying harder than ever. "I used to get away with drinking," he says. "I could say, 'I'm going to have two drinks tonight, and I'm going to stop there.' But somewhere around that time, I lost the ability to stop." Around the same time, there also was a messy breakup with a girlfriend who filed a suit against Black claiming, among other things, that during a cocaine-fueled meltdown, Black had aimed a gun at her and fired into a wall. Black denied the allegations and countersued, asking a judge to order a mental exam of his ex. "I did a lot of drugs before I got sober," says Black. "I thought I was so attractive and so cool, but I realized when the booze was gone and the baggy was empty, everyone was off to another party." That romantic misfire, among others, has kept Black single and wary of relationships. "I'm cynical about the type of girl that swirls in the Hollywood community," he says.
In 2008, he hit rock bottom and decided to make some changes. Black emptied the liquor cabinet, flushed the baggies — and began writing again. He ground out a few projects over the next two years. And then, in 2010, the phone rang. "It was Robert Downey Jr.," says Black. "He told me, 'I want you to write and direct an Iron Man picture.' And everything changed again."
Bad narrating, but go back to the early 2000s, to the part where Black finished the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang script but couldn't get anyone to read it. Black decided to pass some time by noodling around with a script idea with his friend and sometime writing partner Anthony Bagarozzi. Neither had a clear idea of what they were writing — detectives in L.A. was about all they had to go on — but they started churning out scenes to see what would happen. "Shane would write a scene and send it to me, then I'd write a scene and send it to him," says Bagarozzi. "That's how Shane works. He just writes a bunch of scenes and sees what fits." Over time, they found themselves working on an homage to the gumshoe novels they both worshipped: The Nice Guys was born.
The project got sucked into a crazy development vortex. It was a feature film set in contemporary Los Angeles, then a TV show that CBS considered and finally a feature film set in the 1970s. "The Hollywood sign was crumbling, and nobody was bothering to fix it," says Black of the time. "L.A. was this sort of Sodom and Gomorrah-type smog-laden porn pit. For the setting of a detective story, how much better can you do?" Hollywood, however, still wasn't lining up to be in the Shane Black business, especially because he insisted on directing the movie himself. So the script sat in a drawer for most of a decade.
But Downey's call in 2010 did change everything. "Shane was one of my lifelines while making the first Iron Man," says the actor. "I would call to ask him about the script and dialogue. He was probably reading a noir paperback while we were talking, but his suggestions were brilliant." It was a risky move putting an inexperienced director behind the wheel of a $200 million Marvel franchise, but it paid a karmic debt. After all, Black had taken a chance on Downey when nobody else in town would. It all worked out in the end: Iron Man 3 made $1.2 billion worldwide. Sure, some Marvel purists complain about Black's interpretation of the comic book's beloved bad guy — "Two days ago, I got a meme showing me being ass-raped by The Mandarin," reports Black — but he finally was in demand again.
So much so that Silver dusted off the first Shane Black script he could find. The producer raised $50 million for the budget of The Nice Guys, sold distribution to Warners and reeled in one of the most in-demand actors of this decade, Gosling. To lure Crowe to the project, Black flew to Crowe's home in Australia to make the pitch in person. "I offered him a drink," says Crowe, recalling their meeting in his living room. "Shane said no, he didn't want one. I asked him why not, and he said, 'Oh, you know, you have one drink, and the next thing you know you're in handcuffs.' I thought, 'Hmmm, I like this guy. He's sharp.' "
When the film screens May 15 at Cannes, it'll be a sort of homecoming for Black. He last strolled the Croisette back in 2005, when Kiss Kiss Bang Bang debuted. But for all the hard lessons he's learned over that up-and-down decade, Shane Black remains Shane Black. "Are you going to Cannes?" he asks at the end of the interview. "The parties are really great."
Lethal Weapon (1987)
Director Richard Donner barely changed a word of Black's script, but he did add a scene — the kung fu showdown between Riggs and Joshua. Says Black, "I never thought that was exciting."
Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Black walked off the project when Warners wanted to change the ending (in Black's draft, Riggs dies). "I said: 'Guys, you want a comedy. I can't. That's just not me.' It felt like a feel-good version of a cop movie."
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
When Black sold the spec script for a record-breaking $4 million, critics pounced. "Script Fee Vomits Upward for Mayhem-Meister," sneered one trade headline. Acknowledges Black, "There was blowback."
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Despite studio resistance, Black cast Robert Downey Jr. in his directorial debut. "They kept saying, 'No, no, we need someone huge!' It's funny now — they didn't want to make a movie with Robert Downey Jr."
Iron Man 3 (2013)
It's the highest-grossing film in the franchise — even critics loved it — but Black still takes flak from die-hard Marvel fans who were disappointed. "You should see the letters I get: 'You destroyed Iron Man. Rot in hell.' "
This story first appeared in the May 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.