“I don’t care what people think…normally,” says Shane Black. The onetime highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood is hunched in front of an empty coffee cup, trying to explain where the hell he’s been for the past 10 years.
After defining the buddy-action-comedy with the original Lethal Weapon, at the ripe old age of 23, Black became the poster boy for multimillion-dollar spec-script sales in the go-go early ’90s. Alas, his boozy sad-sack heroes and their locker-room banter didn’t score much respect in critical quarters. Roger Ebert’s review of The Last Boy Scout ends with the line: “As for my thumb, I’ll use it and my forefinger to hold my nose.”
Following the box-office failure of 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, Black vanished. Was it burnout? Early retirement?
“It wasn’t that I was upset…. I was a real far fuckin’ cry from heartbroken,” says Black, who’s a lot like the guys in his movies—burly, foulmouthed, endearingly thin-skinned. “[But] I was only referred to in terms of the money I’d made. People were complimenting me on my business prowess, the same way you’d go up to Donald Trump and say, ‘You know, that hostile takeover was a nice job, man.’ I got very jaded and cynical about the whole process. So it took a while before I decided just to get back on the horse and reinvent the whole thing.”
And reinvent it he did. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black’s directorial debut and comeback vehicle, is an indecently entertaining mashup of genres—a screwball noir. Featuring gut-busting performances from Robert Downey Jr. (as a petty thief mistaken for a Method actor) and Val Kilmer (as his suave private-eye mentor), this cheerfully lowbrow crowd-pleaser sends itself up as it goes along, kidding the very Hollywood conventions that make it hum.
Among these are Kilmer playing the first gay action hero—or at least the first openly gay action hero. “You know, I thought this was new for me,” Kilmer says during a press date for the film, “but it was later observed to me that maybe Top Gun was my first gay performance.” He giggles like a maniac. “It’s OK to laugh,” he says. “Tony Scott and those guys made so much fuckin’ money on that movie, you can joke all you want about it. And they’re laughing too…all the way to the bank!
“But Shane and I lined up right away. With a character this well-written, it’s all there already—just a process of elimination for me. It becomes all about what I don’t need to do. You can just trust the writing, get the right sideburns, and off you go.”
It wasn’t that easy when Black was shopping Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. “Door after door slammed shut on this script; it was very unpopular,” he recalls. “Too much time had gone by, and nobody knew who I was. All these executives now, they maybe saw Lethal Weapon when they were 10. They’d take the script, two weeks would go by, and they’d come back and say something that clearly indicated they never read it. One of them even told me, ‘We don’t do period pieces.’ ”
The movie was eventually rescued by the very man who gave Black his first big payday, larger-than-life action-movie mogul Joel Silver. “Joel’s the one thing that doesn’t change,” Black says, laughing. “He thinks the same, he talks the same, he’s an immutable force. I gave him the script, and Joel instantly got what I was trying to do in a way that nobody else in town did.”
And that is? “This script is like a guy who’s on a corner, banging on a junk-box guitar…and then people are throwing tomatoes,” Black enthuses. “He says, ‘You don’t like the guitar? Well here, look—I can juggle, too!’ And that doesn’t work, so he’s got to make origami! It’s just me throwing in the kitchen sink. You don’t like that joke? OK, fuck it! Here’s another gag 10 seconds later. So what you have is a movie that’s got something happening every 15 seconds. For every 10 things I tried, maybe eight of them work. But if I’m going to direct a movie, I’m aware that there’s an audience out there, and I’m going to try to give them something.”
By this point, Shane Black is smiling. “For the first time in my career,” he says, “what I’ve written is what’s on the screen.” It’s been a long time, but he’s having fun.