“Iron Man 3” has already amassed more than $300 million worldwide and is on target to become the highest grossing opening weekend in the United States ever (outdoing even last summer’s “The Avengers”). This is quite a coup for director/co-writer Shane Black, who, back in the ’90s, during a kind of spec script arms race, was frequently topping himself as the most paid screenwriter of all time, alongside guys like Joe Eszterhas (Black recently told Vanity Fair, in a terrific piece about spec scripts, “Eszterhas used to call and wake me up at night saying, ‘I just sold something for more money than you, ha-ha’”).
Black scripts were known at the time for how well they’re written – they have swift plotting, breezy characterization, and stage direction that compelled the reader to continue (and then offer some staggering sum of money). In that same Vanity Fair piece, Black’s frequent producer Joel Silver said of the spec script boom: “”In that period, you could read a script and say, ‘This is a movie. It can be cast. It can go.'” Just like that, many of Black’s scripts went – only, of course, to be changed along the way, sometimes turning something that the studio had paid a handsome sum for into a virtually unrecognizable Frankenstein’s monster. Part of the problem, though, was that while he tried desperately to not be pigeonholed, “a Shane Black script” meant something very specific, and that demand led to a certain amount of creative frustration. Black was both forced out of the game and took himself out willingly, but either way it seemed necessary – he had to dismantle what he had built, just like Tony Stark, in order to triumph again.
His comeback project, a tiny studio gem that he also directed called “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” that barely anybody saw, starred another Hollywood quantity who was too risky to employ – Robert Downey Jr. Now with the both of them reteaming for what will easily be one of the biggest hits of the year, we thought we’d look back at the screenplays that defined Black as one of the most well-known (and well paid) screenwriters Hollywood has ever known.
“The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996)
Price: $4 million
Synopsis: An amnesiac schoolteacher discovers that she was once a government-trained assassin. With these newfound memories (and the help of a scummy private detective) she must stop a nefarious terrorist plot.
What About It? At the time of its sale, to New Line Cinema for a whopping $4 million dollars, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” was the most expensive spec sale in the history of Hollywood. (A few years later, Disney bought “Déjà Vu,” which would go on to become a time travel thriller starring Denzel Washington, for an estimated $5 million.) The eventual movie was made by the husband and wife team of Renny Harlin and Geena Davis and Black was originally reluctant to sell it to them, since they had to make one movie before they could begin work on “The Long Kiss Goodnight” – “Cutthroat Island.” Eventually the studio added a half-a-million dollars to the price tag, and Black relented. The original version of the script was more explosively violent, possibly reflecting the post-“Pulp Fiction” permissiveness when it came to mixing grim violence with even grimmer humor. (Brain matter fried on a stove like bacon gristle; in later drafts this element was removed at the request of New Line Cinema.) A number of threads from Shane Black’s filmography, including a Christmas-time setting and at least one character who is a detective (amateur or otherwise), appear in both “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Iron Man 3.” The eventual “Long Kiss Goodnight” movie hedged fairly close to Black’s revised draft, but the movie, while attracting an almost instantaneous cult following, never connected with large audience and eventually made less than $90 million worldwide, a shameful showing considering how much better American action movies tend to fare overseas. Its failure also managed to mute Black’s considerable power in Hollywood, leading to a period of inactivity that would last almost an entire decade. Currently, Black is attempting to turn “The Long Kiss Goodnight” into a primetime cable series.
“The Last Boy Scout” (1991)
Price: $1.75 million
Synopsis: A former Secret Service agent teams with a former pro football player to investigate the murder of the football player’s stripper girlfriend, uncovering a vast criminal conspiracy.
What About It? At $1.75 million it was also, at that point, the most expensive spec sale ever (67 days later, Joe Eszterhas made double that for his screenplay “Basic Instinct“) and by all accounts that original draft was worth it. Director Tony Scott, many years later, said that he thought the script was better than the movie he made of it – citing the creative tug-of-war between producer Joel Silver and Bruce Willis as the chief reason the movie didn’t perform like it should have. (It has gone on to become one of Scott’s most beloved movies, at least amongst his ardent fans.) Black, who marveled that the scripts bought for the most money were the ones that looked the least like those scripts when the movies finally came out, later described the film as “a frustrating proposition, so much potential, then a lot of ‘big action’ which evolved over time and bloated a much less grandiose blueprint. One of my big Hollywood lessons, not the first.” That’s a good description of the final film – one in which you can see glimmers of the Shane Black script underneath (hardboiled characters, snappy dialogue, bursts of shocking violence, a Christmas setting) but surrounded by a lot of unnecessary bullshit to the point where you can almost feel the egos of the movie superheating the frame and melting away what was once originally there. Tony Stark shares at least some of the edgy paranoia and self-destructive tendencies personified by the two leads of ‘Boy Scout’ (played by Willis and Damon Wayans). “The Last Boy Scout” is an essential piece of Black’s catalog (but far from the best), made all the more so by Scott’s dazzling (if occasionally misguided) direction.
“Last Action Hero” (1993)
Price: $1 million (estimated)
Synopsis: A movie-loving kid is magically transported into his favorite action movie; later, that same kid brings his beloved action star out of the movie and into the real world.
What About It? A goofy, satirical, and warm-hearted spec by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, “Last Action Hero” was soon put through the Hollywood script-doctoring machine and eventually wound up on the desk of Black and his writing partner David Arnott. Black described his work on the film to Empire Magazine, saying, “…[we] were to take this very small script, where not a lot happens, and beef it up into a summer movie, with lots of set-ups and pay-offs and reversals. Zak seemed to think that we ruined his script but I was actually quite fond of what we came up with.” Black really pushed the movie-within-a-movie conceit, saying, “We had a silly gag where Slater reaches up, grabs a scratch on the film, and stabs a villain with it.” Columbia was evidently not as thrilled with Black’s contributions as they had let on, and when “Die Hard” director John McTiernan took hold of the project, a number of other writers (including big guns like “Chinatown” scribe Robert Towne) were brought on to try to fix something that was fundamentally broken beyond repair (Black attributes the failure of the movie largely to McTiernan’s decisions and described the final product as “a jarring, random collection of scenes”). Penn, who had started the script after going to the MPAA library and reading all of Black’s scripts, said the entire experience was unfortunate and otherworldly: “It was this surreal moment of, ‘We’re parodying this guy, and now he’s been hired to rewrite us.’ It was just a strange, strange occurrence.”
“Lethal Weapon” (1987)
Synopsis: A mismatched pair of LAPD detectives (both of them Vietnam vets) team to take down drug smugglers in Los Angeles who have a connection to the detectives’ past.
What About It? The sale of deranged buddy cop script “Lethal Weapon” for a quarter of a million dollars, from a 23-year-old kid who had just graduated UCLA, was the moment Shane Black as we know him today was born. All of the trademarks of his work are evident in this very first screenplay – witty banter laced with profanity, reversals, reveals, a loopy plot that doesn’t make much sense if you hold it up to any kind of scrutiny but it’s so fun you never will, a Christmas-time setting – less tightly controlled and mannered in his later scripts, but still there. (Director Richard Donner and producer Joel Silver helped wrangle in the script that everyone thought was brilliant but slightly unwieldy.) Black became the icon for every maître d with a script tucked underneath his podium – not only did “Lethal Weapon” get sold for top dollar — particularly for a first time writer — but it attracted top talent like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and became an international sensation that spawned three equally lucrative sequels. The movie is largely considered a classic because of Black’s script, and the subsequent films were less successfully, critically and commercially, because Black wasn’t there and the crazed madness of the original kept getting watered down. “Lethal Weapon” was such a sensation that Black was paid $125,000 just to come up with the idea for the sequel, although little (if anything) from that made it into the final film. Still, the money from “Lethal Weapon 2” is probably about what he made off of…
“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005)
Price: Unknown (but probably very, very little)
Synopsis: A criminal is mistaken for an actor who then becomes an amateur private eye alongside a gay detective and his childhood crush. Based loosely on a pulp novel by Brett Halliday.
What About It?: When Black finally returned from the wild after a nearly decade-long, post-“Long Kiss Goodnight” exile, the found the atmosphere in Hollywood noticeably different. Gone were the days when his script was sent out to every studio in town with a ticking clock attached to it (when the time was up, somebody had to buy). Instead he was met with chilly indifference. “Cut ahead to 2001,” Black said to Vanity Fair, sounding like he’s writing the screenplay version of his life, “when I finished a script for something called ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ and all of a sudden not only is it not ‘Read in the office while we run a clock on you,’ it was ‘I submit ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ and maybe in a week or two they get back to me.’ Suddenly, I had no power.” The entire climate in Hollywood had changed though, and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” arguably the most brilliant script in Black’s career, became something too small, too smart, too adult, in the franchise-driven, take-no-chances landscape. It didn’t help, too, that the movie would star Robert Downey Jr., still largely considered a liability after years spent battling substance abuse (this was two years before the first “Iron Man” reinvigorated his career). Still, Black persevered, thanks largely to his old friend Joel Silver, who vouched for the filmmaker and secured funding from Warner Bros. The resulting film, Black’s sole directorial credit before “Iron Man 3,” is absolutely brilliant – full of mistaken identities, meta-textual voice-over, and finely calibrated comedic performances. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was a breakthrough – instead of a director adapting his prose, Black was doing it himself, and the whole movie is effervescent and alive in a way that only reading a Shane Black script was. Ironically, it was a complete dud at the box office (largely because of Warner Bros’ marketing and distribution of the film). It made $4 million domestically, which is how much New Line Cinema paid for “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” the movie that helped kick him out of Hollywood in the first place. It’s like something out of a Shane Black script.
What’s so fascinating about Black is that, even though he was one of the most in demand screenwriters for almost a decade, his output was relatively small. In 1987, the same year that “Lethal Weapon” was released, “The Monster Squad,” a horror-comedy about monster-loving kids who encounter the real deal, also came out. Co-written with director and friend Fred Dekker, Black’s original draft included a spectacularly ornate prologue with blimps and legions of the undead. On the commentary for the film, Dekker snorts, “Of course one of the kid’s parents is a cop, because somebody’s always a cop in Shane Black scripts.” It didn’t do much at the box office but remains a cult favorite. Black is credited with the story for “Lethal Weapon 2” which shows you what getting paid $125,000 means in Hollywood. And in 2006, Black wrote a twenty-minute short film called “A.W.O.L” under a pseudonym (Holly Martins). We’ve never seen it but it sounds great – it’s about Vietnam soldiers who encounter some supernatural weirdness in the jungle. One thing’s for sure: after “Iron Man 3” makes approximately one kajillion dollars this weekend, Black will very much be in demand once again.