by Brock Swinson
While various comic book and movie websites instantly link the style of 2 Guns to Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, Blake Masters’ true influences came from a series of movies made in the early 1970s. The 42-year-old writer credits Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and “the whole Sam Pekinpah movement,” specifically mentioning The Getaway and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid as personal favorites. Masters admits that while it has “the whole spirit of a heist drama set in the early ’70s, it is a modern twist with a different sense of humor and different sensibility, because it knows those other films exist,” which makes it more playful for summer audiences. Although Masters never collaborated directly with Steven Grant, the graphic novelist of 2 Guns, producer Ross Richie quickly acknowledged that Grant and Masters both mentioned the same movies during the negotiation phases, so he could see the gears working together for a successful adaptation.
Playful in spirit, the trailer alone has its funny moments, but the film was never written with punch lines or set-ups. Instead, the comedy comes from the opposing moral views of the lead characters and we, as an audience, are invited to look in on those facets. “48 Hrs. was successful because it balanced action and humor, but the humor [in 2 Guns] comes out of the two characters and their oppositional world views,” begins Masters. “So that everything that is funny comes off the idea that Stig (Mark Wahlberg) has an absolute code of what is acceptable and what isn’t, even though it’s out where the busses don’t run. Bobby (Denzel Washington) looks at Stig’s bizarre code and says, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’” jokes Masters. “Stig’s inability to compromise his code and Bobby’s exasperation at it is where all of the humor comes from. They were so perfectly cast that they were able to embrace the humor to create conflict and chemistry, which is why the movie is as successful as it is.”
Creative Screenwriting has also interviewed Masters on his television writing career. Click here to read it.
As a writer, Masters writes for actors who appear intelligent on screen. Rather than writing dimwitted characters, his leads are aware of their faults but continue to live their lives accordingly. “That’s just my voice. The characters know exactly why they are screwed up, but can’t help themselves. Bobby is a character that will do whatever it takes and Stig is the guy who believes there is a code of right and wrong. In the 2 Guns trailer they are fighting over some car keys and Mark puts them down his pants, so Denzel punches him in the nose. Mark’s reaction is, ‘That was uncalled for!’ That was not acceptable within the boundaries. It’s funny because it is the conundrum of the film: what is acceptable and what isn’t. That’s why the script works. Those two characters are constantly having that argument.”
Despite being on every other billboard in the Los Angeles area, 2 Guns has taken a winding journey to make it to the big screen. Masters wrote two drafts of the script and then David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) did a set of tweaks before moving on to another project. Russell’s revisions were tossed out and the original draft brought back, which caught the eye of Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg and director Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband). “The first draft the studio saw is the draft they greenlighted, but there was about three years in between me handing it in and them greenlighting it.” With each draft, Masters’ goal was to cut the flab, making the work as clean and emotional as possible, while remaining primal. “I tend to write very fat so my first draft is almost always 160 to 180 pages.” Commenting that he doesn’t know how other writers stick to length in an initial draft, he admits that his process involves writing scenes that are too long and then pulling them back. Essentially, he cut around 60 pages from his first draft to end up at a lean 103 pages.
When it comes to editing and cutting excess, Masters is ruthless: “I’ve never met a script that I can’t take ten pages out of—mine or anyone else’s.” Because he has written so much (approximately two beats a day for twenty years), he is sufficiently merciless with himself to find the right length and is bothered by those who are less ruthless, while still understanding that no two writers have the same process. “As a writer, the minute you stop learning and think you’re any good, you suck. I mean, I think my stuff is good and I’ll defend it against anyone, but if you ask if I think it’s as good as it can be, I’ll tell you that I missed it. I was going after something and my reach exceeded my grasp. The ruthless self-critical element is fundamentally what separates great writers from good writers.” Much of this ability to trim fat comes from Masters’ on-set resume as a showrunner, producer and occasional director.
Leading up to 2 Guns, Masters began in television. Creating the Showtime series Brotherhood led him to becoming the show’s executive producer. While climbing the Hollywood ladder, the aspiring writer worked on Rubicon—with writer and consulting producer credits—before developing Law & Order: LA and the pre-production Line of Sight, which will premiere in 2014 on AMC. “Both 2 Guns and television made me realize it’s not about where [the characters] went to school; it’s not about whether they played baseball or football; it’s not about whether they had a puppy. What is the central idea you’re writing about?” asks Masters. “What’s the central dilemma you’re writing about? Be it how to get the girl or can the President torture—if you define your characters opinions, then you can define whether they played football because that would lead to their choice on the decision.”
“Start with the decision about the central dilemma of the script. Take a script like 50/50, which is about cancer. What is the approach to death? I think 50/50 is a great little movie. Everybody has an opinion on what it is to face death and they are all oppositional. That’s why the characters work together. They each approach the specter of death differently. So if he has this perspective, then he’ll have this kind of job, he’ll have this kind of apartment, etc. You don’t go from the details in. Start with their opinion about death and then decide what that would look like. How would that character dress? How would he act? How would he behave? All of sudden you have characters where the details aren’t extraneous ornaments on a Christmas tree. They are the fucking tree,” concludes Masters.
Coming off of Brotherhood, which the creator humbly refers to as “the most depressing show in the history of television,” he was looking for something to write that was both fun and “popcorny.” Adam Siegel (Drive) sent 2 Guns to Masters, who immediately loved the story and saw a spine within the graphic novel. “Comic books don’t give you a lot of room for character. But the twists and turns of the plot and the double-backs were terrific. I felt I could have fun playing around on top of that framework.”
Jumping from comic to script to movie, Masters recalls a favorite scene that didn’t make the final cut. “There is a speech that didn’t end up in the movie, but it’s the best speech of the script. Mark’s character says, ‘Whatever it takes is a dangerous thing. Because if you can do whatever it takes, then the bad guy can use your logic to justify himself.’ That, in a strange way, is the lesson that Denzel’s character needs to learn through the movie: whatever it takes is a dangerous thing. That’s the shape of the movie from a guy who thinks, ‘I don’t want any attachment. I don’t want to need anybody’ to guy a who thinks, ‘I need somebody and not only do I need them, I want to need them.’ That’s the journey of Denzel through the movie. It’s the inversion of The John Wayne.”
Click here to read Creative Screenwriting‘s interview with Masters on his television writing career.