by Erik Bauer.
Shane Black is a Pittsburgh native whose solo screen-play credits include Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. In addition to these original scripts, Black co-wrote The Monster Squad and The Last Action Hero. Black enjoyed spectacular success in the ’90s spec-screenplay market, earning $1.75 million for his screenplay The Last Boy Scout and $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight. Originally drawn to acting, he studied theater for four years at UCLA and went on to appear in such films as Predator, Robocop 3, and the television drama Dark Justice.
You first studied theater. What interested you in screenwriting?
It was sort of default, in a way. I’ve read books ever since I was very young. I’m a voracious reader. I’ve escaped from a lot of my life by spiriting myself away and reading books in my room, reading books at school on my lunch hour. So, I had more of a sense of storytelling than anything else. I wanted to translate that to acting, but I wasn’t a very good actor and was very intimidated by the cattle call auditions where fifty guys looked just like me and I recognized one of them from a soap opera. You have to feel you’ve got something special to bring to the party. I didn’t have that feeling with acting. I felt like I was fighting to catch up.
Screenwriting seemed to tap more naturally into what I had known and loved all my life–basic storytelling. I had a friend, director Fred Dekker, who had gotten a few deals and was a buddy from college before any of us knew what we wanted to do. His scripts were really interesting. I read them and thought, “this looks like something I could do.” He was good enough, at one point, to show a piece of my work to his agent, who got me some meetings.
That was your script Shadow Company?
That’s right. Shadow Company was the first thing I tried, the first screenplay I actually completed. I had done some plays in college. I produced them with college actors, but I had never done anything professionally. This was a stab at getting a job, because I needed money. And I was surprised, it got a very good response. It got me a ton of meetings. At that time, I was excited just to have a chance to meet with anyone in Hollywood. I must have taken thirty meetings. People who’d say, “We don’t want to make Shadow Company, but we like the writing. Is there something else you have?” Or, “We’ve got a project you might be right for.” So, it was a great foot in the door. The good news is no one told me how to write screenplays. I never went to film school, there wasn’t a set of rules I followed. It was just a friend of mine who happened to think my writing was interesting and gave me a shot. For that, I’m very grateful.
Is there a film or a script you found especially inspirational for your writing?
Sure. I studied William Goldman’s writing style, especially the scripts for Marathon Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I found both of those to be really riveting, entertaining in their own right, as if you were reading a condensed novel good for one sitting. Similarly, Walter Hill’s scripts for Alien and the original 48 Hours when they were looking for a Clint Eastwood kind of pairing–I thought these were wonderfully written scripts. I studied the language and the style. I didn’t realize as I was reading them, that these were very unusual. That most people wrote scripts much differently. I assumed there weren’t many rules and you just sort of did whatever you wanted to stylistically and had fun with it. So, I took those two writers as examples and mentors.
You write in short, staccato bursts. Why did you adopt that style?
Because I like the idea of telling the story in as concise a way as possible. In other words, to generate, not a sense of what a flowery and eloquent guy I am, but rather to convey to the audience reading the script a sense of how the scene’s supposed to play.
What’s more important than explaining every detail, you know, “the mahogany desk with a purple blotter, teak pen holder and rosewood adornments…” Rather than go into details, it’s simpler to capture the flavor of what the room looks like in a few short words or sentences–that lets you move along and get to what you really want to see. All my friends in development have seven scripts every weekend they’ve got to take home and read. After ten pages of reading block paragraphs about what the character’s thinking when you’re never even going to see that on the screen, you think, “What’s this guy doing? Writing a damn novel? Why don’t they just give me the bare essentials?” So, my task is generating as much energy within the writing of the screenplay as possible for two reasons: First, to keep people from becoming bored. And second, to more effectively convey how a scene is supposed to feel. If you’re writing a thriller, it should feel thrilling on the page. It should give the audience [studio readers] a sense of how it will play after it is filmed. I think it helps the director too, not to call the shots, but to convey where the pauses come. What’s a new beat, what’s a change of beat or a reversal. It’s best accomplished in a thriller by using as concise and terse a style as possible.
So, you’re writing primarily for the studio reader and not just expressing how you see the movie unfold in your mind?
I think they’re absolutely interrelated, I try to make the screenplay read well. But, I think that’s in direct relation to what I see playing on that screen in my head. If a character’s been hit on the head and they’re sort of half unconscious in the scene, I’ll write skewed as if the character is passing out while they’re performing these tasks. And I’ll try to reflect that in the language of the script because I want it to feel like you’re reading about a character running, desperately trying to get somewhere with their head throbbing and spinning and the world sort of going black around them. If you can catch that on paper the director will know how to film it.
Do you think your acting experience has made you a better writer?
Oh yeah. I think everybody, even directors and producers should take acting classes. It’s all about beats. As an actor you’re taught to break down scripts in terms of where the attention changes and where the beat changes. That’s how to write scenes. I think there’s a lot of scripts where the dialogue is informational or expositional. People say stuff just because it needs to be said, but they don’t have a reason. Writing should always be an act of intention, just like you would break it down as an actor.
You’ve said character must be the impetus for all a film’s action.
Even if you write big action scenes, the images should be reflective of some thing more visceral than intellectual. An intellectual approach is not as good as a gut approach, coming from character. What they’re afraid of, as Robert Towne would say. Or what their weakness is, the worst thing that could hap pen to them.
But, your screenplay for The Long Kiss Goodnight seems driven more by plot than character.
Interesting. Yeah, once I had chosen the premise, there was a story that naturally told itself. There are a certain number of beats that have to be played out. She has to gradually get her memory back and there has to be this sort of chilling reawakening. Having done that, she has to have the conflict of whether to return to her family or to go back out on the road as this creepy character. I get bored with plot. I guess there’s a lot of plot there, but I’m much more interested in the banter and the relationship and the fun I had playing with Sam Jackson’s character Hennessey and Gena [Davis]’s character. I like people shooting off their mouths at each other.
You’ve been praised for your dialogue. How do you approach writing banter between characters?
I think the key to dialogue is to love it first. I’ll be sitting in a restaurant and someone will say something and I’ll just go to that person, “Say that again. What did you say? That is so cool.” You have to pay attention to people and the turns of phrase that make them distinct individuals. Little things, tics and conversational asides you notice in life. The biggest high for me is when I capture on film or paper a little conversational tic you wouldn’t normally think to put on film. Standup comics score big because they talk about things everyone has had happen, but no one has bothered to verbalize. The same thing is true of good dialogue. Everyone recognizes when they’re talking like they do in real life. And I throw in stupid jokes. I’m not pretentious enough to think I write great dialogue, I write banter and dumb jokes.
You really hit a home run your first time up with Lethal Weapon. How much pressure did that place on you?
A tremendous amount. I was very insecure at the time, a real wreck psychologically. Then my girlfriend took off, and I was devastated. I had this period where I didn’t think I was any good at anything and fought desperately just to stay afloat. They put me on the sequel and it was one of the hardest scripts I’ve ever written. I was so terrified of it, at the end of the process I looked at the script and thought I’d really blown it. I wrote it with a friend of mine, a guy named Warren Murphy. They said they didn’t like that the character died at the end, and I thought, “Oh, I’ve failed everybody, I screwed up, I blew it. My writing sucks.” So, I offered to give the money back. My agent called and said, “Excuse me, are you fucking crazy? You don’t give the money back. People write shit and they get paid millions of dollars. This is fine.”
It’s funny, because the capper to the story is I looked at the script again recently and it’s the best thing I ever wrote. There’s no question the draft of Lethal Weapon II that I wrote, death and all, is my best work. Head and shoulders, intensity wise, above a lot of the stuff I’ve done. So, the lesson is first, never give the money back. You’re not objective enough to know your work is really bad. Lesson two is trust yourself.
You stopped writing for a period after that.
Yeah, for about two years until Last Boy Scout I was busy mourning my life and, in many ways, the loss of my first real love. I didn’t feel much like doing anything except smoking cigarettes and reading paperbacks. All things come around. Time passed and eventually I sat down and transformed some of that bitterness into a character, the central focus of a private eye story which became The Last Boy Scout.
Writing that script was a very cathartic experience, one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I spent so much time alone working on that. Days which I wouldn’t speak. Three, four days where I maybe said a couple words. It was a wonderfully intense time where my focus was better than it’s ever been. And I was rewarded so handsomely ($1.75 million) for that script, if felt like a vindication and like I was back on track.
How do you normally approach a new script, if there is a normal way?
I don’t outline at first. By the time I get to page forty my brain starts to take on the task of outlining, but it does it all internally. At first I just generate images and scenes based on characters that float into my head. I sit down and make them talk. I’ll think of a scene and say, “That goes somewhere at the end.” Here’s a scene, that belongs somewhere in the middle. And here’s the introduction to the character, that goes at the beginning. And then I play connect the dots. Gradually it takes on a shape. It’s like carving away every thing that doesn’t look like an elephant until you’re left with an elephant. It’s a very exploratory process. A lot of long walks when I get started. A lot of fear. A lot of just tapping on the keys saying, “This will not go into the script. It doesn’t matter. Just sit there and fucking do it. Write a character scene. It’s not going in the script.” And then I’ll just write characters until I find something that entertains me. Basically, I try to find something that casts a shadow. I try to get a character in my head that feels alive, like I’ve tapped into my subconscious. Once I sense the reality of them, once I know how they talk, then I can write them.
Do you write your endings first or is the development more organic?
Sometimes I’ll have an image I know will be the ending. But, more often than not the ending comes down to a choice. I may know roughly what it’s going to be but, when I get there it’s always a big choice. Does she live or does she die? I try to know the climactic point to which the character will be driven, but I never resolve how they will respond at that point until I get there.
The climaxes of your scripts tend to be drawn-out and structurally similar. How do you approach giving the audience a good BANG at the end of a movie?
It’s the kitchen sink principle of anything that amuses me or I find exciting. I try to make sure the characters are driven to the extent of their endurance. I also try to make sure there’s a setup, laced within the body of the screen play, that will pay off for the character at the end. So the character reaches their apotheosis, their big ephiphanal moment at the same time the thrill plot comes to a head. So the two are working side by side as opposed to at cross-purposes.
The Silence of the Lambs is great not because she goes in and shoots a serial killer but, because this is a very vulnerable and frightened girl who is forced to overcome all her inner demons in that moment. She’s facing a fucking monster at the end of that movie, and she doesn’t feel she’s capable. It’s so real. Her character is driven by her inner workings. It would be so different if she was Steven Segal. You don’t know what he’s thinking. He’s just kicking ass. So, I try to make sure the two work side by side. As far as spectacle, I just think you give people as much intensity as you can generate, based on your talent.
Your screenplays are slick with violence.
Right. I like violence.
What’s the relationship between violence and an effective action script?
It is very clear to me that if you’re doing a thriller, which, by the way, is what I prefer to call it. I hate “action,” it’s a misnomer. North By Northwest has action up the wazoo, but you wouldn’t call it an action movie. In any thriller there has to be danger or you’re not thrilled. It’s hard to feel a concrete sense of danger if there’s no violence. The more menace you can generate in terms of the bad world out there, the better. I’m terrified of this fucking world, it outrages me. It drives me nuts. It drives me insane to watch the news. So, I think the catharsis for me is in inventing characters who confront and accept violence. Who are forced to stand up in the face of it, even if they don’t think they can, and somehow emerge unscathed at the end. If they do, then after seeing the film, maybe in some small measure, I feel I can too.
I also don’t like cheating with violence. For instance, I’ll give you an example–the old show Charlie’s Angels. They kidnap Jaclyn Smith, this big Revlon model, hold her in a warehouse tied up to a chair, and there’s three guys cleaning their guns saying, “She still in the corner? Yeah boys, she’s tied up. Okay, just leave her there. Don’t touch her.” In real life you know that’s fake. It’s wrong because we know they’d rape the shit out of her. Or beat her, or burn her with cigarettes or something. But they wouldn’t just take this most beautiful girl, tie her up, and sit there cleaning their guns. You don’t feel the threat, you feel the filmmakers cheated. She gets out okay at the end, but you don’t go, “Oh, my God, she got out. She’s safe.” Because you knew she was never in any real danger. Now, if she was in real trouble and got out, now you go, “Oh, my God, what a catharsis. She was in as dangerous a position you can get, man. And she somehow manages to get out. That makes me feel like I could deal with a situation like that.” So, that’s important for me. I feel it’s important to address violence in a realistic way that reflects how the situation would actually transpire.
In the shooting draft for The Long Kiss Goodnight you toned down the violence a notch. Was it just too over the top in the spec-script?
Yeah, the action was toned down. The violence? At certain points I agree, at certain points I disagree. Overall, it’s at about the right level now. People get scared. People think my scripts are sometimes too violent and they may be right to take out certain things. I don’t know. I think we all try to be cautious because we don’t want to hurt… what we’re essentially trying to do- tell a story. Specific scenes may have been toned down slightly, but I don’t think they were compromised seriously, creatively. Or I would have stepped in and said, “Sorry guys, I know this seems violent to you, but it’s necessary.” I would have fought like a motherfucker to keep it.
Were you the only writer in the revision process?
Yeah, I stayed through so many… four, five, six drafts and then on into the shoot. I was also a producer on the film, one of three, so I was in Canada the whole time on the set. It’s been a very involving process.
What did you set out to achieve with your script The Long Kiss Goodnight?
I wanted to do a quirky pulp movie. I love espionage, I always have. I used to beg as a kid to read the James Bond books. My mother said they were too old for me, too adult. All my life I’ve been fascinated by espionage and good pulp. I just adore things like [La Femme] Nikita that take a pulp premise like a former drug addict turns government assassin, but they play it as if it were Academy Award winning material. And they give it the balls and the bite you’d expect from Sidney Pollock. I’m fascinated by good pulp, especially in the ’70s with movies like Magnum Force and Dirty Harry. I just really wanted to do a movie with a ’70s flavor to it, a ’70s espionage film.
The minute I hit with the idea of a housewife instead of a man, who’s got this amnesia in the suburbs, somehow it just clicked. It was a powerful image all of a sudden, the two worlds that collide, the world we live every day and the one we blind ourselves to. The conflict and the contrast between extreme violence, terror and worldwide implications and the small, intimate, oblivious life of a community in the suburbs. I thought that would be a lot of fun.
What theme did you plan to come out of that?
In a way I think it’s about confronting and accepting parts of ourselves of which we’re ashamed. In each of us there is something of which we’re profoundly ashamed, of which we don’t want to admit.
For you then, this movie harkens back to the theme of Lethal Weapon.
Yeah. It’s about self loathing and self hatred, something with which I’m quite familiar.
Other than the subplot with Hennessey and his son, were there other ways you wove that theme into the screenplay?
I tried to illuminate it in the relationship between her and Hennessey. For instance, I like the idea that Hennessey, who’s this down on his luck private eye with no scruples, running con games to generate a few dollars, becomes the moral heart of the movie. At one point she comes on to him–it’s a beautiful moment–and he actually says no. Not because he’s not attracted to her, not because he doesn’t think she’s sexy or could probably use a good fuck about that time, but because he says this is bullshit. You’re using me to erase your past, and I like your past. That’s the essence of the theme for me. That a person who’s a total scum bag like Hennessey can somehow redeem another person.
Was La Femme Nikita the film that convinced you audiences wanted to see a woman acting in this type of a role?
Yeah. I’ve always wanted to do a film like that. I used to be a big fan of Modesty Blaise. Or even April Dancer, the girl from U.N.C.L.E. People would tell me while I was working on it, whether it was producers or my agent, “Why are you making it a woman? You can’t sell this. There’s like four actresses that can play the part. Make it a man. That way anyone can play it.” And I kept pointing to Nikita and saying it’s not impossible to make a film like this that’s effective. It’s just a little more difficult, that’s all. In the long run, I hope I’m proven right.
Your writing has been attacked for being totally male oriented. Did you approach writing for a female protagonist differently?
No. There’s not as much difference as people think. It’s not like you write for a woman and all of a sudden she talks about her period all the time. I treated her just like any other character. I wanted to feel sorry for her. I wanted to feel empathy for her and I wanted her to be funny and interesting. I created a character I would want to go out with, that I would find attractive, wild and fascinating.
I think a lot of women these days talk like men. I don’t know if anyone’s listening, but every time a studio says to me, “You can’t have a woman say this…” Excuse me, have you been to a bar lately? I don’t know where you grew up… but I haven’t met a woman like that in quite a while. I wasn’t looking for vindication in the eyes of people who might, for what ever reason, find me misogynist. In fact, if anything, I think the character is very strong, but, she’s just as sexy and racy and ’70s… The ’70s were a very misogynist time and it’s my favorite filmmaking period. I don’t think my films are particularly misogynist. I think women are very strong. I think men are very foul-mouthed. The other thing that bothers me is the tendency people have to equate the voice of a character with the views of the author. If a character in a screenplay turns and says, “Hey, what are you? A fucking fag?” I know lots of people who talk like that, but that doesn’t mean I go around calling people fags.
Did you write the spec-script as straight drama or was there an underground element of satire to it?
It’s supposed to be, in ways, a revisionist Bond. There is a little bit of the outrageous thrown in. Yeah. I love what Warren Murphy does. He’s a very satiric writer who authored a series of books called The Destroyer. The early ones, one through thirty, are such wonderful blends of adventure, politics, pathos- real, genuine drama–and satire. And I’ve never seen it anywhere else. I dig them so much. To this day, I still call Warren and say, “Hey, Warren. I just read Destroyer #17 again. What a kick.” I think that’s where I got it from, that sense of… contempt for authority, contempt for the government, con tempt for social conventions. Once again, the ’70s were big in that. A real time of dissension and outrage in film. The satires were so biting back then. Where’s Poppa? You don’t see that any more.
Not to mention Network.
A wonderful movie. Where is satire now? It’s just not around. I don’t think I’m a satirist, but if you sense a thread in there I’m not surprised, it’s what I love.
There was more in the spec than in the shooting script.
Unfortunately, that’s what happens.
When New Line purchased The Long Kiss, Michael Deluca [president of New Line Films] said, “The script didn’t need a lot of work. We were effectively buying a movie as it was written.” But, you went through six drafts of rewrites.
The problem was they bought a script as it was written for a $100 million film and they had $65 million. So, a lot of the work we did was to stream line and economize the film. It’s not about huge spectacle anyway. It’s best when it’s about the people. So, the fact the violence is a lot more intimate and personal now is better than when there was so much expensive spectacle. That’s great, but we’ve all seen Twister five times. I’m pleased with the film. In a sense there is still spectacle, but, it feels more like a thriller. A lot of the cuts were made in economizing a kitchen sink draft down into some thing filmable.
I thought the shooting script was a real improvement. Could you walk me through a little of the revision process?
It was very unusual because the director [Renny Harlin] was supposed to start on the project right away, but suddenly, had to go off and do Cutthroat Island. I didn’t know that going in. We thought Cutthroat Island had been deep-sixed, but it popped up again. So, most of the stuff was just communication by fax to Malta where they were shooting. We would try various drafts to make the plot work and the character work. When Sam Jackson came on board we were all ecstatic. I can’t remember. The whole revision process is a blur. I remember at one point I didn’t like the MacGuffin in the spec. I didn’t like the MK-Ultra chemical spill, it was muddy. So, I said rather then doing some bullshit from an article about experiments in the ’50s and ’60s, I’d better get off my ass and go to the library and find out what’s actually happening.
That section of the script is definitely improved.
My research assistant, Anthony Bagarozzi, found some clippings about the World Trade Center bombing and how one of the bombers had accused the CIA of knowing about the bombing and allowing it. In fact, the person who stamped the visa of the terrorist who built the bomb was a CIA case officer working at an embassy. Anthony and I just looked at each other and said, man, I think that would work.
How important is sex in selling an action script?
I never even think about it to tell you the truth. I think it’s important `cause I like sex. I put it in scripts just on reflex because it keeps me interested, it keeps me awake. If I had to direct a film and I had to show up for work and say, “Oh, God, what are we filming today? Train crash? Ughh. It’s the pretty ladies? Okay.” That would kind of perk me right up. But I do think it’s important if you do put sex in a script, that it’s not just a bunch of flopping titties in a club. It should have to do with the story.
Is there an art in writing the spec script all its own?
Yeah… I don’t think people should concentrate on tricks for selling their spec-script. They shouldn’t think “Well, this is a spec-script, I’ve got to be more unique. Maybe I’ll send out a clock with it [The Ticking Man]. Or a little gift package.” I’m not really interested in tricks on how to write a spec script. But, I do think there are some differences. One, you’ve got to have some fun so you’re distinctive. So people see you’re writing a story uniquely yours, with a unique voice they can pick out from a crowd. In the same way that an actor wouldn’t want to adopt a generic character. They’d want to be notable, somehow.
Also, I think you have to have some fun when you write a spec-script, because you’ll fall asleep otherwise. You’re not getting paid. It’s lonely. You’re at your house. You have to have some fucking fun. It’s a playground. People respond to people who have passion and who like to play. They don’t respond to plot point number twelve on page thirty-two a la Syd Field. They respond to someone who comes in like a street theater artist. Who says, “You wanna juggle? I’ll juggle. Watch. Now I’m going to do this. Throw some tomatoes at me. Go.” Sing, dance, tap-dance… I think you have fun, you have energy and you just sort of put yourself on show when you write a spec script. Now, the trick is how much control, precision and finesse you can bring to that passion. People blather on and on like, “Okay boys and girls, if you thought that last explosion was big, wait until you see this one.” Please spare me. I always advise people not to fly before they can walk. I used to be really wise assed in my scripts and looking back I think, “Oh, God, why did I say that.” I’m surprised it even got a development deal.
Those comments are influencing a whole generation of writers.
But, they’re not mine. They started with Bill Goldman, I got it from him. You have to careful, because if you try to wing it before you’re even walking, then people are going to say, “Who’s this asshole who keeps making jokes and taking me out of the story?” So, maybe there are tricks, but I hate to be the one who says you have to put in a lot of jokes.
Do you think you’re still maturing as a writer?
Oh yeah. I’m nowhere near where I want to be. I have a lot of energy and some of my early work I still admire for the energy of it. But, overall, I’ve got a long way to go. I have to mature into someone who’s capable of doing complex character work, psychologically driven work. A lot of people who are very bitter talk to me and they say, “I can’t believe it. I haven’t sold a script. What do you care? You sell your scripts, but what about my scripts?” And I say, “I don’t understand. Why aren’t you selling scripts?” They say, “I don’t know! I watched this show on TV the other night and it was terrible, it sucked. My stuff’s at least as good as that.” And it occurs to me as they say this, and I hear it all the time, that they feel the world owes them a career because their work is slightly less shitty than some other shitty piece of work. It really irks me to find how many people are obsessed with selling anything, regardless of its quality. I’ve never been like that. I’ve never wanted to do work that was just good enough to sell. I would encourage people to put aside their bitterness and the victim mentality which accompanies most writers starting out. Because, that’s the only way to succeed. Try to make your work good and maybe it will sell. I’m still trying to make my work good, because it’s not good enough. Even if it sells, I could still be writing a turkey.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting Volume 3 #3.