casShane Black’s new film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is one of my favorite this year. It’s like nothing I have seen in a long time, the kind of movie that’s so much fun and has so much going on that you can’t wait to see it again. It’s jammed to the edges of the frame with amazing performances, incredibly snappy and stylized dialogue and lots and lots of noir.

Robert Downey Jr plays a petty thief who accidentally gets involved in Hollywood. Cast as a PI in a movie, he gets paired with a real private dick to learn what that world is like. That PI’s name – Gay Perry – may tell you a lot of what you need to know. Along the way, Downey and Perry (played the inestimable Val Kilmer) find old flames, corpses in showers, unravel conspiracies, lose body parts and generally get into two-fisted trouble.

The film is Shane Black’s first directorial effort. He’s best known for his scripts for films like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but he’s been missing in action for most of the last decade (don’t worry, I ask him about that). Last week he took some time to give me a call, and we talked about the film, Hollywood, and screenwriting.

Q: The film was a big hit way back at Cannes, and I saw the film months ago – at the end of the summer. It’s been finished, and people have been looking forward to it coming out, so why the delay?

Black: I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s because the studio liked the picture and thought they might have something they could tack onto the Christmas season. Now that’s what I was told. The wide release of the picture is November 11th, so you’re already in territory where films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula opened. A lot of Christmas and holiday movies open at that time, and we had never been seriously considered as part of that slate. I think it was a combination of things – I think Tim Burton wanted to put out Corpse Bride earlier, and the studio said, ‘You know what? Why don’t we see if this Kiss Kiss Bang Bang picture can csperform in November,’ against probably much stiffer competition than if it had opened in September.

Q: Has there been any discussion that opening it then might lead to an Oscar push for best screenplay?

Black: No, nothing like that. No one’s mentioned it. That’s pie in the sky. I’d be delighted to make money, or to get some kind of accolade – but who cares, you know? Ultimately I got the movie made and everything else is gravy. I was talking to a Warner Bros executive who said that the magic number on this picture was 30something. If it makes 30something, we’re going to throw a party. We’ll be thrilled.

Other people are like, ‘Hope your movie makes a hundred million!’ No, dude, dude, dude – 30. 35. Whatever, then I’ll throw a party because I’ve had a hit movie and I’ll get another job, I get to do this again. It’s all good.

Q: How was your first time directing? I noticed that you did an interesting thing your first time out and you hired two leads who have a history of being seen as difficult to work with.

Black: I just decided to dive in with both feet. I hoped that everyone trusted me. There’s bound to be some skepticism, but I had a sense, this little birdie in my head, telling that this is something I could do. I know a lot about actors and acting, even if I’m not the best actor in the world. I can certainly trot out a laundry list of tricks to basically allow me to understand what an actor’s problem is when they’re talking to me. I get their problem more than if I hadn’t studied acting.

I didn’t worry about difficult people. If they were difficult I would stand up to them and it turns out they weren’t. Now whether that’s because of any skills I possess as a director or whether it’s because I had this giant standing behind me in the form of Joel Silver, who knows? I suspect it had more to do with the wrath of Joel, should anything go down. But these guys were angels, Downey and Kilmer. I don’t know what they’ve done in the past, I don’t know what they’ll do in the future, I just know what they did on the set with me, and it was – every day was inspiring. It was educational. I got completely jazzed up by these guys, watching them take on the script. They conversations we had when I would see them working on the character and I would think, ‘Shit, I’m not talking to a movie star, I’m talking to a guy who is doing his work. I’m talking to a craftsman.’ In that moment, yes they were movie stars, but you could see them roll up their sleeves and then again in those momentscas they’re like actors, any actor taking apart a script and doing their job, doing their craft. It was so cool to watch movie stars at that level, where they’re actually beyond being a star. They’re just doing the work like everyone else has to.

Q: You definitely get great performances out of them. I was impressed to see Downey in his best performance in a long, long time. And he blew Kilmer off the screen, which is incredibly hard to do. I mean, Val Kilmer is such a magnetic performer but Downey went in there and made every scene his own.

Black: I agree. It’s not quite fair, because the film is weighted towards Downey, he is the protagonist and I give him all the adorable moments where you’re supposed to feel for him. Kilmer is pretty much the foil and he doesn’t get those emotional moments in the script. But I disagree that Kilmer gets blown off the screen, but I do agree that Downey’s character has more to do than Kilmer’s.

Q: One of the things that was interesting to me is that the credits say that the film is based, in part, on a novel. Can you talk about that?

Black: It’s like a meta-perspective thing. The movie is about these characters who loved these private eye novels when they were kids and then grew up and found themselves pitifully incapable of filling those shoes. What looked so easy to the eyes of a child keeps slapping them down as adults. They try to be tough, they get beat up. The main character can’t even handle the tough guy narration; he’s fucking that up. The guy who is the real tough guy ends up being gay. It was sort of that feeling that these books inspired them but then when they were adults things changed.

So I needed a plot, a plot that was about real life, but then I also needed a Johnny Gossamer-type plot that was bizarre and ridiculous and could slowly encroach upon their reality. So I went back – here’s the meta-perspective part – to the books that I read as a kid, and one of them was written in 1941 and it was called Bodies Are Where You Find Them. The part I took was the Johnny Gossamer plot about [spoilers redacted! See the movie, damn it!]. It’s silliness, but because of my love for those old books, and because I was paying homage to them, I thought why not lift the plot from one of those old books and let that be the Johnny Gossamer plot. It would be just like the books the characters in the movie are reading. And then I added the part with the incest and the red-haired girl, and the gay detective and all that new stuff, and that would be the contrast.

Even though it plays a relatively small part in the story, I’m pleased that I was able to pay homage to Brett Halliday and the same books that led me to think of Johnny Gossamer, and I might as well have called him Mike Shane, which is the name of the detective in the Halliday books.

Q: It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen your work. How much of that time away was because of all the media attention about your payday for The Long Kiss Goodnight?

asBlack: I didn’t like the attention. I tried to convince myself for a while, I talked to myself and said, ‘You’re over-reacting, no one is paying attention you. You’re the writer for Christ’s sake.’ Then one day I said, ‘You know what? People are paying attention to me, and it’s for all the wrong reasons.’ It was all about the money and about me and Joe Eszterhas duking it out for the highest paycheck. That was all very distasteful for me, I didn’t care for that. I didn’t want that sort of attention. The money also led to problems, like losing friends over it. Things like that.

I got very disillusioned with Hollywood and I think I just wanted to step out of whatever spotlight was on me and go somewhere where I was invisible again, where I was safe. Of course I end up overcompensating, you go too far and I go, ‘Fuck! No one is looking at me! I have to get back on my feet and in the game again!’ And it took a while. It’s not as though I stopped writing, but it took a while to find a script that I liked that incorporated enough things in one movie where I would feel like I had thrown in the kitchen sink. I didn’t want to make a tiny little one note movie.

Q: What is it about screenplays and movies that keep driving you back there? Why not a novel?

Black: Screenplays are a form that are very maligned and misunderstood. I don’t know many novelists who have written them well. Some of my favorite novelists have tried to do the screenplay adaptations of their novels and failed abominably. I just think they’re two very different things, and I respect novelists enormously. I have been lucky enough to be given a certain level of competence at understanding a medium very few people get. Screenwriting is very tough for novelists – it’s very tough for most people. It’s a playful medium for me, because you’re playing with images. Also, it’s a magic medium, because the end result of it is something up on a screen twenty feet tall that speaks to millions of people. So do novels, but movies are different, movies are magic. Especially now that I’m starting to direct things, it’s too tempting to pass up.

Q: Movies are also very collaborative, which I guess can be a positive and a negative. I mean, with Lethal Weapon 2 you had come to them with a very different thing where you had wanted to kill off Riggs in the end.

Black: You want to get to the point where that bullshit goes away. I would go back to writing novels if I couldn’t write a script without ten people sticking their nose in it. I was very fortunate on this movie because there was only one nose sticking in and that was Joel’s. I was lucky on this movie because Joel and I think alike, and like the same things. And because it was 15 million dollars, the studio said, ‘Joel, we’ll trust ya. Just go and make the movie.’ So now I don’t have to go through the development process, I don’t have to please the team of experts, I have to please one man. Joel. And he and I see eye to eye more often than not anyhow, so it was a dream. I got to do what was on the page.

That’s what I mean when I say it’s a playful medium and it’s fun, I’m not talking about thecds development process. Good God, no.

Q: So the film we’re seeing now is your vision.

Black: Yeah, it’s the first time that what I wrote is on screen. I don’t mean to malign the previous movies – sometimes they did things better than I had envisioned on paper. There are things in the original Lethal Weapon that are better than what I would have done. But for better or for worse I take the blame on this one – if it’s bad, I’m bad. It’s what I wanted, so if anyone doesn’t like it, I take the full brunt of it.

Q: On the site I write for,, we have this big messageboard, a very popular messageboard. Very often threads that are talking about films you’ve written quickly become people trading back and forth their favorite lines from your scripts. What is your favorite one-liner from your work?

Black: Oh God. I don’t know. It depends on the character. My favorite line is one that was never published. It was talking about an old lady who had witnessed a crime, he says, ‘Are you kidding, she’s an old bat. Her glasses are actual Coke bottles. If she sees a mustache on a Volkswagon, she’ll say “Gee that Omar Sharif sure runs fast.”’ Stuff like that. I like quips. I can’t pick any one.

Q: Speaking of quips, one of my favorite things that I love in Kiss Kiss is that scene at the bar where they’re going back and forth finding people who sort of look like celebrities. The guy they pick out as “Native American Joe Pesci” – I think about that and it cracks me up still, a month and a half after I saw the movie. Is that something you actually do?

sdcBlack: Oh, of course. I didn’t put any of them in the movie, but I play that game all the time when I’m out. We lucked out. I showed up and we had a guy who sort of looked like Steven Seagal, and that was it. I said, ‘Alright, obviously we have a bunch of extras and I looked through them for three days now and I don’t see any that match the shit in the script. Bald Kevin Costner, whatever.’ So I just stared at all the extras, I just walked up and down the line staring at them. I looked at him and said, ‘Native American… (he’s not even Native American, by the way) and he kind of looks like Joe Pesci. OK, you stand over here.’ And then I walked up and down and I saw one guy who looked sort of like Billy Bob Thornton but looked like he was from Brazil. So I played the game really fast, walking up and down the line of extras, an hour before we shot. So man, did we luck out with that guy.

Totally have the hots for Michelle Monaghan on our message boards!