At the Shane Black Q&A at Long Beach Comic Con, screenwriter, actor, and director Shane Black (who's next film is "Iron Man" 3) began the panel by stepping onstage and pleading for the audience to explain one thing: what is the technical term for people dressing in costume?
"Cosplay!" members of the audience yelled back at Black, who then gestured at the multiple cosplayers around the room.
"In a cursory evaluation as yet to be concluded, the cosplay people here [at Long Beach Comic Con] are hotter than LA," announced Black as the audience cheered.
This interaction set the tone for the panel, Black speaking freely to the audience and encouraging people to shout out answers while joking with them from stage.
"Last time I was in Long Beach we shot a film called 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,'" Black continued, pausing to let the cheers die down after mentioning the film. Shooting on the freeway down the street from the convention center, Black laughed as he recalled that he was told they could shoot for free if the movie included the Welcome To Long Beach sign.
"Like that was going to attract tourists!" said Black as the audience laughed. Reminiscing about working with Robert Downey Jr. on the film naturally brought the director and screenwriter to "Iron Man" and Black told the audience that as an adventure comics and comedy fan he understood what it was like to be obsessed about media.
"It's the same side of the coin really, because I was that kid in high school who would come home without friends at the end of the school day and I'd buy all the comedy albums I could get...and just go up to my room and laugh my ass off by myself listening to comedy albums," said Black. Adding that he'd do the same thing with adventure stories and adventure comics, Black said that he understood the obsessive passion for material comic book fans feel. Black also thought that isolation helped shape him artistically.
"My life was living out other people's adventure stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs through Theodore Sturgeon, it was all leading up to something," said Black, adding, "Two good things come of it: one, I'm no longer ashamed to be alone...and the other great thing is that all that input just gestates and makes a stew and ferments over the years until the end product is you make something."
He then asked how many artists and writers were in the audience. Half the audience raised their hands. "There you go," said Black, pointing to the audience members.
Black told the listening audience that a four page horror comic in a horror anthology was directly responsible for him not only getting into writing, but understanding how important reversals and payoffs are to a story. Describing the comic's plot, Black explained the story revolved around a zombie kid rising from the grave and stumbling back to his house. Through the zombie's occasional lucid moments you learn he was a disabled kid from an abusive home, and that he was killed after he was accidentally beat too hard by his family.
"You say to yourself, oh zombie, he's coming out of the grave he's going to get revenge," said Black. However, after mindlessly killing his parents as they try to kill him again, it turns out the zombie wanted something else entirely. "You think, wow he just got revenge, except the zombie doesn't stop there, he keeps walking down the hall into his old room and he gets his teddy bear - and the last panel is him back pulling the dirt over him with his bear because now he can sleep," said Black.
"I just thought, Jesus god, that was so powerful for me," said Black. "Here I am as a kid in tears about this zombie getting his teddy bear and going back to bed."
Black then asked the audience who they considered the great current comic book storytellers and the audience shouted out the names Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Robert Kirkman and Matt Fraction.
"It's funny because even as a kid I knew that Marv Wolfman was good but Jerry Conway wasn't," said Black as the audience laughed. Mentioning Peter O'Donnell's "Modesty Blaise" as one of his favorite comics, Black said he felt that comics for the past ten or fifteen years lacked sophistication, telling the audience that during the height of the '90s comic bubble he was neighbors with Rob Liefield. One day the artist invited him over to read his comics, telling Black how well they were selling.
"They sucked! You didn't know where you were, what things were, you'd turn and say that's a wall of muscles and tits!" said Black as the audience laughed and cheered. "Then you get into things like 'Hellblazer' where you see more nuance and I've always wondered why can't you do a comic without that guy with the muscles?" added Black.
Switching to "Iron Man 3," Black admitted that ten years ago he would not have believed Marvel would ever make a movie about Iron Man, precisely because he was not that over-muscled stereotypical superhero. Outside of "Iron Man 3," Black was also involved in the very first "Iron Man," albeit in a very small way.
"Downey and Favreau came to my house and said, we need your help, and we talked for a few days. That was my participation on 'Iron Man,' we talked for a few days," laughed Black. Uncertain why Favreau left the franchise, Black said that he felt it was most likely because Favreau just had other things he wanted to do. He also stated Downey Jr. was the one who called him to convince Black to jump on the film.
"Robert called me and said, 'I have big plans for you!'" said Black as the audience laughed again. Though he at first planned to both write and direct the film, Black confessed he was surprised when he found out screenwriter Drew Pearce was going to write the script.
"All of a sudden I'm reading the paper and it's like, Drew Pearce writing Iron Man! I went to work and said, 'You guys, he's British for Christ sakes!'" said Black, continuing, "But what happened was this great collaboration and friendship with this great, lovely British writer."
"We decided that the villain was going to be the Melter - no, I'm kidding," added Black as the audience laughed. The director continued, "That's the problem, isn't it? Iron Man never really had good villains." When audience members suggested the Mandarin, Black dismissed it as a racist caricature. The director then said he was not going to divulge any detail about who the villain would be, stating that it was more satisfying to see the movie without knowing everything beforehand.
"Do you want to know when you're going to die? No! Just wait, you'll die," joked Black as the audience cracked up once more.
Touching on the second "Iron Man" movie, Black stated that while it was successful commercially, he believed it was critically ill received as the movie made a lot of "half choices" and that Stark was not a "proactive" hero in it.
"The middle of the movie is Tony Stark sitting around his house!" complained Black. Emphasizing high stakes as extremely important to a movie, Black said that in "Iron Man 3" he hoped to make bold choices and planned to set up multiple payoffs and reversals. He suddenly quizzed the audience on what a reversal was, and one audience member said it was an event or bit of information that shifted your perception.
"Iron Man 3" director Shane Black at Long Beach Comic Con 2011. Photo by Caitlin Holland.
"Yes!" said Black, adding that it could also be a physical twist such as revealing a gun. Touching on other films that use reversals well, Black pointed to the original "Star Wars" movies as a fantastic example, criticizing the prequels for lacking the interesting twists of the original three movies. Black then named passion as the most important part of creating any movie, whether "Iron Man 3" or "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."
Talking about the differences in his directing and shooting practical versus green screen, Black said he didn't mind CGI and green screen effects, but he has to plan it out much more carefully. He also said that while it was easier to use green screen, "The biggest problem with a green screen to me is with actors," said Black. Citing James Franco's "flat performance in 'Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes,'" he explained that the problem is that actors have a hard time reacting to nothing.
"I love the tinker toy approach, I love having a set...really I'm just playing," added Black.
The director also said he enjoyed enhancing real footage with CGI, rather than relying entirely on a created image, citing "Muholland Drive" and "Jurassic Park" as two films that skillfully use CGI to enhance reality. "As a director you need to decide where that handoff is."
The director then stated he loved "Thor," to which the audience cheered and applauded. However, "I just keep going back to the Pixar things," admitted Black with a laugh, citing "The Incredibles" as "Brilliant."
Opening the floor to audience questions, the first audience member to the microphone jokingly asked if "Iron Man 3" takes place at Christmas, like so many of Black's other films.
"I wouldn't rule it out," said Black as the audience laughed.
The next audience member asked Black whether he preferred practical effects or digital ones and Black said that at this point CG often looks more real than the practical effects, explaining that Iron Man's real armor looks faker onscreen than the CGI version. "These movies are so hard because you don't know until two weeks before you come out what they are going to look like," said Black.
Another audience member asked Black if it was intimidating to direct "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."
"It was very intimidating, but there's a great deal to be accomplished when you have nothing to loose," said Black. Talking about his retreat from Hollywood in the late '90s, Black told the next audience member to the microphone that after selling "The Long Kiss Goodnight" for four million dollars he began getting hate mail and was ostracized from Hollywood creative circles. This culminated in his application to the Academy of Motion Pictures being rejected despite his qualifications and meeting every criteria.
"I just wanted to tell my stories and explore, so I backed out and said I don't want to be in the spotlight," said Black.
The next audience member asked if Black's American movie adaptation of "Death Note" was still happening. Black said that it was, though for a while it seemed the project would be dropped as the studio tried to "loose the demon" that was a central character to original manga's plot. "Loose the Demon, we don't want the kid to be evil...they just kept qualifying it until it ceased to exist," said Black, adding that the demon and main character becoming evil are now back in the script as, to his mind, the movie should be about, "The creation of a villain, the downward spiral," said Black.
Going back to "Iron Man 3" Black told the audience that he requested that director Jon Favreau return as Happy Hogan in the film. "I love him as an actor," said Black as the audience cheered. He also revealed that outside of a few references, "Iron Man 3" would not involve the Avengers and would focus squarely on Tony Stark.
"We really want to make it Tony's movie," said Black. The director also confirmed that Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle would return as Pepper Potts and Rhoades, respectively. A female audience member asked if the rumor that Black Widow was returning to the film was true.
"I'll check the script and see if that's in there," said Black as the audience laughed.
Another audience member asked for Black's thoughts on the current efforts to remake "Monster Squad." "Just don't cock it up!" laughed Black as the audience cracked up again. He then said he hoped that it would do well, but he was not writing the script for it. Black also announced he was working with Warner Brothers starting this year on a TV version of "The Long Kiss Goodnight." With a sheepish grin Black then admitted that he was addicted to "The Vampire Diaries."
"I haven't missed an episode!" Black said as the audience laughed again.
The director also touched on his pet peeve of writers thinking that copying how people speak exactly passed as "natural" dialogue.
"It's not just natural. What people want is informed acting, informed speech," said Black.
Turning to the next audience question, Black said he felt Downey Jr. was perfect to play Tony Stark. "Tony is so indelibly Robert," said Black. "Robert and I share a voice...if I leave a line open, he'll supply the ending because we both tend to go to the same place with our characters."
Another audience member wanted to know if doing a big blockbuster like "Iron Man was part of Black's plan to finance smaller independent films. "It allows me to do my Casey Anthony biopic, yeah. It's from the child's point of view," joked Black as the audience half laughed and half groaned. He then said that films like "Iron Man" were passion projects for him.
"I love indulging the things that made me so happy as a kid," said Black.
The same audience member wanted to then know if there was a particular "Iron Man" run that will influence "Iron Man 3."
"I like the storyline where he was rich and there was a villain and then he wins," said Black as the audience laughed. He added that he went back and read a lot of Iron Man comics as research for the film but, "I cannot speak about the particulars of Iron Man," said Black.
When asked if Black had any good stories from his time acting on the film "Predator," he noted that the night before one of the shoots Sonny Landham went out drinking and the next morning developed a bad "case of the runs" before shooting the scene where they realize the Predator is hunting them.
"When I watch the scene, all I think now is that he's desperately clenching," laughed Black. He also told the audience that actress Elpidia Carrillo, fed up with being dismissed by her male co-stars and male producers, eventually retaliated by punching Joel Silver in the face.
"It was a fun set!" laughed Black.
While poking fun at Marvel Studios for stretching their budgets to the limits, Black said that Marvel has been good to him, naming Marvel Studio's Kevin Feige as "terrific."
"What's not to like other than a paycheck?" joked Black and the audience laughed. The director added that there will be a Stan Lee cameo in the film, but he does not know what yet. "It will correspond to his schedule, but I don't know," said Black, adding that the "Easter egg stuff" was the last thing on his mind when making the film.
"Film is a tinkering medium, you just stop - sorry, Harley Quinn just went by," laughed Black, derailed to watch the cosplayer walk by the stage.
Speaking to an audience member who asked for advice for aspiring writers, Black told the man to start working with his friends. "Don't do it alone, it's a lonely business, writing," said Black.
The very last audience member to the microphone revealed that he did not have a question he had a statement. "If the Iron Man movie is as great as this panel, it's going to be a fantastic movie!" said the fan as the audience burst into applause, bringing the panel to a close.