Announced by Marvel Studios earlier this year, screenwriter turned director Shane Black is taking the wheel of the ‘Iron Man’ franchise, directing the upcoming third installment of the comic book property slated to release in 2013. Collaborating with “Iron Man” star Robert Downey Jr. and screenwriter Drew Pearce, the writer for Marvel’s unproduced “Runaways” script and for “Sherlock Holmes 3,” the announcement surprised many fans who knew Black primarily as the writer of movies like “Lethal Weapon” and “The Last Boy Scout.”
While “Iron Man 3” will be Black’s sophomore directing project, he has had a long and tumultuous history with Hollywood. Penning “Lethal Weapon” at age 23, the director shot to fame as an action/adventure screenwriter in the ’80s and early ’90s. Upon selling the script for the 1996 film “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” Black was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood at the time, commanding four million dollars for the movie. Shortly after that, however, Black dropped from the public eye, taking a hiatus from the entertainment industry until 2005 when he returned with Robert Downey Jr. in a film Black wrote and directed, the critically-acclaimed “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”
CBR caught up with the director at Long Beach Comic Con for an exclusive discussion with Black about “Iron Man 3” and his directing career. While Black could not actively discuss plot or character details, he readily dove into explaining his intended approach to the film, passionately laying out both his professional goals for the movie, his personal hopes for his work and a desire to rid modern comic book action movies of the “blandness” he sees plaguing the industry.
CBR News: I was at your Q&A earlier today, where you were saying how much you want “Iron Man 3,” visually, to be grounded in reality and to avoid having it look like a cartoon. Is this realism something you’re emphasizing in the script as well?
Shane Black: Yeah, I think the approach is not just a visual or cinema-graphic approach. Iron Man is a different type of property, in a way, because Robert Downy is a different type of actor, number one. If you look at the first “Iron Man,” the events of the story feels like the crossover between what’s in a comic book and what’s in real life. There’s always been the tendency to make Iron Man the real-world superhero who deals with things a bit more rooted in geopolitical reality and then have comic book elements added. What’s interesting to me about the first movie, and to some extent the second movie, is the character. If you’re really paying attention to the story, the more people care about the character, the more people will care about the outcome, I think.
That being said, the first two movies are very improv-heavy and very much in Jon Favreau’s specific style. How much of your own stylistic stamp do you feel can you put on the third installment?
I believe in something I didn’t make up; it’s called the monkey bars approach. If you’ve ever been to a jungle gym, it looks on the outside very rigid and structured because there’s all these bars that are locked in place and elaborately structured. But if you go inside the monkey bars, there’s room to play around. So as long as the monkey bars framework exists, you can still play. What I wouldn’t want to do is just play and that’s it. Get the script first, get the script nailed down — we’re working very hard to ensure we’re not writing the script as we approach production, that we actually know what we’re doing so we can make production the process of enhancing and enriching and fulfilling the potential of our preexisting script instead of trying to make it up as we go along. I’m really thrilled to be as far along as we are, already.
“Iron Man” marks your second directorial work after “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Do you feel that your experience as a screenwriter, maybe more so than your experience directing your first movie, informs the way you direct “Iron Man 3?”
I’ve been accused of directing things on paper, anyway. The way I write tends to reflect the way it should look and feel and sound and what you should take away from the scene, not just the physical events of the scene. So I think I naturally gravitate towards a directorial point of view, or a point of view, because I think that’s important to have, but as mostly a writer. Keep in mind, I’ve been on the set of six, seven, eight huge movies where I wasn’t directing but I was on set as a writer, watching. I absorbed the styles, strategies and, to some extent, got to see the personas of all these different, talented people, like Tony Scott, like John McTiernan, like Richard Donner. It sort of filled me up with a sense of how these things get done.
I think that the screenwriting experience helps, but I wouldn’t have started directing if I felt that the screenwriting was quite enough, somehow. I was having a chance to write stuff, but I didn’t have the control and the say so to insist on a point of view that I liked, because it would be eclipsed by what the director chose to do that day. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” the good part was, for the first time in my career, I’d been able to write something and pretty much just film it and get across the movie that I had intended. I’ll go back to directing for that. It’s a great feeling. And they’re being really cooperative this time. It’s a real synergistic group, between Drew and Robert and Marvel and me. Knock on wood, but so far we seem to really be complimenting each other.
Going along with that, obviously, the last time you worked with Robert Downey Jr. was in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and, from an outsider’s point of view, a lot of people have pointed to that film as the one that helped relaunch his career. What has it been like coming back and working with Robert Downey Jr. and collaborating with him again?
Well, the great news is that Robert is a stand up guy. He sort of called me up and gave me this opportunity, in a sense, to launch a directing career. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was an ok movie, but I don’t think it did very well; no one was clamoring for me after that. I think Robert was, on the one hand, very generous, and if I can be so bold, also very smart to return to someone who really understands and adores his voice. I just love that actor, I will write for that actor any day of the week. So he turned to someone who was very diligent about understanding and appreciating what he has to bring to the film, and to the extent that I can do that, I think absolutely in terms of success of this “Iron Man 3” movie. If we get Downey and tap what he does best, we can’t lose.
Along those lines, you also have screenwriter Drew Pearce coming on to write the film. Are the three of you working together on the script to get to the essence of who Tony Stark is?
Absolutely! Drew’s great. Drew lives in London, but now he lives in the States. He and I go off and write and bring the pages to Downey, and it’s just a great collaboration. I’ve never had a better writing experience that on the one hand was sort of fraught with terror at first, but then became so much fun. This guy, Drew, just makes me smile. He makes a process that can be so difficult and unbearable just that much easier.
You are also doing the “Death Note” movie and are still working on “Doc Savage,” which people have been talking about for years. That’s a lot of comic book movies — do you feel that’s the direction you are going in right now or you are interested in?
I think it’s just what got offered to me. It’s interesting, because it represents what I liked in my childhood. Now, if we did “Death Note,” the challenge is make it real world and adult; if we do “Doc Savage,” the challenge is make it adult. I think that there are so few practitioners of action movies these days who are doing worthwhile stuff that it behooves me to try to weigh in and try to do the “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”-type stuff, to try to recapture the magic. When I stood in line for a summer movie when I was coming up at eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, I stood in line for two and a half, three hours and you got the goods! They delivered! And if they didn’t, you went outside and said, “Arg, ‘Indiana Jones 2’ wasn’t that good, I stood in line for three hours!” Now, you don’t know what you’re getting!
There’s just, I think, a decrease in the quality of these types of comic book action movies, and so it’s almost irresistible, sometimes, to try and shore that up a little, or weigh in at least with my opinion about what’s wrong and how it should be. It’s not the next thing I want to do. I want to do something more serious, a smaller movie at some point. I’m sure there’s a “Winter’s Bone” in my future. But for now, I’ve immersed myself in comics. I do want to do “Doc Savage.” The script is still evolving and I’m kind of busy, but I want to get it right and I want to do it.
When talking about “Iron Man,” you’ve mentioned “Demon In A Bottle” a couple of times — is that sort of darker tone something that you want to play with in the movie?
No, because if we go there — it’s part of Tony’s character, but I think the “Demon In A Bottle” aspect, if you go there, you really have to go there. The film then becomes about that, because the journey that involves recovering from alcoholism is an entire movie. I mean, I want to keep it dark and interesting and edgy and spicy and all those things, but I don’t think we want to go as far as to deal with Tony’s descent into alcoholic madness. That’s maybe not where we want to be.
You mentioned that action movies in recent years have suffered a dip in quality and are blandly trying to appeal to everybody across the board. Do you think this “blandening” of the genre has been a trend since you stopped working the in ’90s?
The way I usually describe it is that it used to be that action movies were really toned — it’s the reversals thing I talked about [in the Q&A]. It had twist and turns, and if you can picture an equalizer, you would turn some stuff up and then you’d rein it in and bring it in a bit and have a moment of silence. But now, its just action, action, action, action — one long, continuous bark of action. They just shout for forever.
I think what’s missing is the tone, the up and down toning of it so that it has a rhythm and crescendo. Mostly now, it’s just the bigger the better, I think, and I much prefer to see storytelling first, action second. I also think they waste money because I know in certain movies I’ll watch and go, “If they just stopped there with that gag and they didn’t have so much shit around it, people would applaud and they could go on with the movie!” Instead, they threw in ten more gags — it’s overkill. I think overkill is a problem.
Due to the hiatus you took between your screenwriting career and when “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” came out, do you feel coming back into Hollywood that things have really changed a lot?
I don’t know how much has changed. It’s the same; the economy has changed. Coming back, the biggest change I know is that people didn’t know who I was. I’d go into a meeting and some 23-year-old moron would say, “I’m sorry — you are again?” And I’d tell him I’d done a few things and he’d say, “I think you have a big future in this business!” It was difficult to get back into a position of having the recognition value amongst the various executives and studios. But it’s the same business, nothing changes. What changed is the outlets, now, for these movies — twenty hundred screens! When “Star Wars” opened, you went to the mall at the City of Orange to sit at the Cinerama Dome — or Cinedome, it was called — and that was it. Or you went down to San Diego or you went up the coast, but you didn’t see “Star Wars” in ten, twenty, thirty theaters, where some of them are little boxes. That’s kind of a disappointing thing to me, the saturation of movies. They open and it seems like they last a week now and go away. But maybes that’s the same too.
And that’s not factoring in the Internet and things like Netflix.
Yeah! When you see a movie billboard and it seems like just a blink later it’s on DVD, it feels somewhat trivial.
To start to wrap it up, since as you mentioned earlier, you want to get down to Occupy LA —
I probably, at some point will check out Occupy Los Angeles. This whole notion that the banks can privatize profits, but when they go bust, they can suddenly socialize? “Oh no, now we want socialism! Please give it to us!” It’s annoying enough that I feel I need to go down and at least investigate what they are up to.
Maybe not camp out on the lawn but walk around with the protestors for a bit.
And talk to some people and potentially lend support to the movement, depending on what the movement is trying to say. I want to investigate it further, because for the first time since I grew up in the ’60s, people are in the streets with this degree of determination — it’s not a joke. We picture it like they are having a picnic out there, but these people are angry. So rather than blink and miss it, maybe this is a time in history where I should go have a look at this rapidly evolving thing that represents the first chance in years for this time of outrage to be seen.
Bringing it back to directing, you said you think there’s a “Winter’s Bone” in you. Do you feel “Iron Man” has the potential to be the launch pad into more directing projects, either more blockbusters or more independent features?
We’ll see how it goes. I would love to be able to parlay a successful “Iron Man” into the next job, possibly before “Iron Man” comes out! [Laughs] It’s always a good idea to have your next job before your work is over! But now I’m just concerned with “Iron Man.” I hope it gets me work elsewhere, I hope it’s a successful film, I hope it represents what I have to give. These days, I’m just trying my best.
You’re working on “Iron Man,” you have other comic book films you’re working on and as we talked about here, nowadays, action movies are comic book action movies. What do you hope your signature or your impact on the superhero action genre will be?
I think it would be a return to the type of action movie I remember so fondly, which is less random carnage and more thriller — less action, more suspense. More character-driven urgency that makes you want to find out what happens to the guy, not what happens to the building behind the guy. There’s a certain retro vibe that I love which is the idea of taking modern technology and shot-making and even color palettes and injecting them with this sense of thriller-esque, 1970s stuff that makes it seem more edgy and accessible as opposed to just loud and obnoxious. That’s kind of where I’m heading.
“Iron Man 3” is tentatively slated to release in 2013