Lethal Weapon Creator Takes Directing Reins With 'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang' (10/05)

Like Norma Desmond, who was off the screen far longer, Shane Black abhors the word comeback. "This has been referred to as a comeback," he concedes, "but I don't know that I feel legitimately that way." He then goes into a tap dance about "working on things as a producer that never got to the screen" and "supervising a short film for students at AFI called [irony doubtlessly not intended] A.W.O.L., which never got past AFI." But you do the math: The Long Kiss Goodnight premiered in October 1996, and now-nine years later-Warner Bros.' Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang brings Black back to cinemas.

It brings him back double-strength, too-as writer and, for the first time, as director. Black turned out to be the last person to figure out that what he really wanted to do was direct: "For a long time when I was writing screenplays, I'd finish them and feel very unfulfilled. To me, this whole writing deal was always a dreadful, loathsome process. On certain days when it's going well, you get all happy, but generally writing is a bitch, like pulling teeth.

"Then, I'd send the scripts out into the ether and they'd vanish, then turn up-sometimes in ways I liked, other times in ways I didn't-leaving me with nothing else to do but go back to that same lonely typewriter and begin the whole hideous process all over again.

"I think, because it didn't actually occur to me at the time to direct it myself, I lost out on all the fun. Now, what I've come to realize is that directing is the reward. All that tedious hard work that you do, all the calibration and calculation you do during the writing process-when you finish that mountain of work, the fun part is that you get to direct it. It feels like a reward. You wash the car with your dad all morning, and he goes out and buys you ice cream. The car-washing part I never liked, but the ice cream was always great."

Here, the cherry on the sundae is that he's dishing out a genre that is close to his heart and, in truth, has never been far away from his typing fingers. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is not an adaptation of Pauline Kael's book of movie criticism, but it could well pass for a kind of continuum of film noir (or, to be more accurate, film Black-the kind of gumshoe flick that he helped regenerate with flip, floor-boarded dialogue that kept up with the car chases).

"It felt like a big swan-dive into really familiar and, at the same time, very challenging waters-the challenge being that it's a big fucking lake and you've only got two hours to boil it down to just the parts you want to look at. In that time, I somehow had to sum up everything I loved about the detective genre, make it fresh and, above all, keep it fun."

To that end, Black has inserted in the action proper some chapter-heading title cards-from "Day One: Trouble Is My Business" to "Day Five: Farewell, My Lovely"-all names of mystery novels by his all-time personal favorite, Raymond Chandler. But his love for Chandler has a low ceiling, preventing him from jumping in and doing the definitive Chandler adaptation. "His stories are so well-known, so classic, that I think, by now, the only way to approach a detective story is to make up your own character and get him to fit in with today. It's incumbent upon a new writer to reinvent and say, 'You'll see echoes of the past in this, echoes of old-time detectives, but only in so far as the love of the genre will come across and show you all this is rooted in something very organic.'"

The pulp-fiction flavor that the film exudes is potent, and in the credits Black bothers to do a deep bow in the direction of Bodies Are Where You Find Them, a 1942 opus by Brett Halliday, author of the Michael Shayne sleuthing series. "The overarching plot of that," says Black, "was about a man who replaces one of his daughters with a look-alike while he stores her in a sanitarium and has the look-alike come into court, withdraw a complaint and make him a lot of money." Something in that general price range occurs in one of the film's subplots, but the real reason Halliday is included in the credits is meant more as an hommage. By any other name, the Johnny Gossamer book series that the film is draped in is a fictional facsimile of just what Halliday did some 60 times at bat from 1939 to 1976.

Subheadings writ large on the screen and an undisguised adoration of penny dreadfuls would seem to point to a writer in the director's chair-and that notion is seconded when Robert Downey, Jr. steps in front of the camera, shatters the fourth wall and informs the audience he's elected himself "your tour guide," whereupon he starts flicking off relevant backstories and character set-ups like a projectionist with the key moments already cued up. Then, he launches into his story-a petty thief who, dodging the cops who've spoiled his toy-store heist, crashes an open-call audition for a Hollywood shamus flick and succeeds in impressing producers enough to get a first-class trip to L.A. for further testing.

There, he hooks up with an authentic hard-boiled sleuth, Perry von Shrike (Val Kilmer), for an atmosphere soak prior to his screen test. The von Shrike guy is gay-in fact, he's called "Gay Perry"-but Kilmer plays it so close to the vest, sans mincing, you have to take his word for it. "I guess," says Black by way of an explanation, "that character comes from a lot of not really outwardly gay friends who are very gay in certain ways but don't conform to any particular stereotype that you normally recognize. That's what I was shooting for."

The director feels Downey's smart-ass demeanor well serves the rapid-fire dialogue he was given. "He dashes off those lines in a way that makes him likeable. Another actor might have seemed obnoxious. I really think we benefited from Downey's performance. There are some actors who, if they're sarcastic all the time, tire you out, but he's such an inherently lovable character you know he's just having fun, that he's just being himself. He's not condescending to the audience. He's inviting them to join him in the joke."

The pairing of Downey and Kilmer, who in years past have topped the list of Difficult Stars to Deal With (Downey for substance abuse, Kilmer for tantrums and temperament), would give most directors apoplexy, but Black had never directed before and blithely breezed through this chore without a hitch. "I got a kick out of the idea, mostly," Black admits. "I wasn't friends with these guys. I respected their talent. I would have used Jim Varney's brother and tried to get a performance out of him. I didn't care. I was in the mode that anyone who's good is someone who will work, and I was a little bit frustrated by the pressure to put a big star in the picture like Harrison Ford. Not that I don't like Harrison Ford, but the negotiations back and forth were really stalling the production."

Comparatively speaking, the one-two punch of Downey and Kilmer in the same cast was good news compared to the general chaos attending the production. "Getting this made, with little money, was a 'Hail Mary' from the word go. Most people in town hated the script. When you're a first-time director with these problems, you've got nothing to lose, and there's great freedom in that. You've got two responses: Be very afraid or start grinning."

Now, the fear has faded and the grin is beginning to show in earnest. After almost a decade in the dark, Black is catching sight of a light at the end of the tunnel. When he was 23, he knocked out a draft of his first screenplay in six weeks and it sold one week later, for $250,000; his Lethal Weapon went on to make $65 million and produced three $125 million-plus sequels. He topped that four years later with an unprecedented $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout. In his downtime after that, he picked up another million (and co-screenplay credit) for rewriting Last Action Hero. Then, on July 21, 1994, ICM secured him a record $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight, topping by a million Joe Eszterhas' fee for Basic Instinct. (M. Night Shyamalan is now top man on the totem pole, steady and holding at $5 mil.)

Goodnight was followed by a fitful one for Black, who only now is emerging from his professional slumber. In lay terms, it's called writer's block, compounded by a sense of not deserving his success and counter-compounded by an inability to top or at least equal said success. This condition kept him staring at an empty page in the typewriter for nine years-until finally a friend, James L. Brooks, stepped in to rescue him and rouse him from his torpor. The writer-director of As Good As It Gets gave Black office space and suggested he busy himself trying to write a Chinatown. And voila!-Black thought of combining Jack Nicholson characters, the mean-spirited crank in As Good As It Gets and the hard-nosed (but not nearly hard-nosed enough) detective in Chinatown. The result, a year later, was Harry Lockhart-our funkily flawed hero in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang-and Black was back in the game, gingerly jockeying himself into a director's chair.

Shane Black's name-which became synonymous with that brief period in the '90s when spec scripts were drawing top dollar from a hungry Hollywood-is not, as you might imagine, something he got from the movies. His parents were Irish. He has a brother named Sean and a sister named Shannon. There's also an older brother-a film director, Terry-who got by "before the whole 'Sh' thing caught on. Otherwise, we all share that Irish burden." But an even bigger Irish burden, of course, is the high art of storytelling, and Black has managed to parlay his particular line of malarkey into lots of fun and profit.