By Patricia Burkhart Smith.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 9 #2, 2002.
As the writers responsible for some of the greatest action films of the 80s and 90s, Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight) and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive) know their stuff when it comes to the genre. Creative Screenwriting caught up with the pair at the Austin Heart of Film Conference in 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks, so we talked about the impact of events on their writing and the state of Hollywood filmmaking.
How did you become a screenwriter?
Jeb Stuart: I majored in English at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and was teaching tennis. I married my high school sweetheart, then completed a Masters in Communication at Chapel Hill and took another masters at Stanford, where I won the Nicholl Fellowship in 1985. On the strength of that screenplay, I got my start. When I was coming up, there was an expression that you could make a killing as a screenwriter, but not a living, and my whole goal was to make a living. After five years of grad school, I was $120,000 in debt. Then our first child was born two months premature and we ended up with another quarter-million dollars in hospital bills. You don’t know what pressure is like until something like that happens to you.
Shane Black: When I was seventeen, I decided to try acting but gave that up because it seemed very much a mistake for me. I couldn’t stand waiting in lines and being evaluated by people. I sort of stumbled into writing. I was in the UCLA acting program because it seemed like the easiest way to get through four years of college. I had a wonderful group of friends from there and we all loved movies. We talked about movies and fought over them and made little films together. We were sort of “the bad frat house” at the end of the block. I wrote a bunch of scripts and a friend of mine who was writing for TV showed one of my scripts to an agent and that’s how I got started. It’s interesting that each of us in that original core group has been able to climb the ladder, hopscotching over each other and reaching down and grabbing each other and helping each other up to the next level.
How do you think September 11 has affected moviemaking?
Black: I actually think the fallout from September 11 on the film industry will be good, because you won’t be able to just throw a lot of explosions onscreen as a substitute for a good story and great characters. Writers are really going to have to examine their stories and find ways to promote suspense without relying on carnage.
Stuart: I remember sitting down with producers ten or fifteen years ago and being told, this story has great action, but it would be too expensive to produce. Now, computers allow us to create things on-screen you could only imagine before. I have watched a lot of incredible action sequences in recent movies, but what was missing was the connective tissue. You have a guy sitting at a computer and someone is saying, “Oh, try this and try that,” but the guy at the computer didn’t write the story. So, in what we see on-screen, part A doesn’t necessarily go into part B.
Black: If you do blow something up, I think we’ll have to see how and why it happens. It will have to be an integral part of the story. My take on current action set pieces, whether it’s a car chase or a guy hanging off a building, is that they stop the story in order to have the action come in. That’s irresponsible, almost inexcusable. It’s almost as if they think good writing and action pieces are interchangeable.
How do you think today’s action-adventure movies differ from those made when you got your starts in the late ’80s?
Stuart: I think ever since Lethal Weapon came out in 1987, comedy has been an integral part of the action genre. It was an important part of Die Hard. There was a lot of humor in those movies. I remember when we sent the script for Die Hard to Clint Eastwood and his reaction was, “What is this? There’s jokes in here!”
Black: I think I don’t like most action movies anymore. That’s not to say that I haven’t written anything spectacularly different, but I’ve actually lost interest in the genre. And I don’t like calling them action movies. I call them thrillers now.
Stuart: If your thing is not comedy, don’t fill up your script with lame jokes. Either the comedy will appear organically or it won’t. And remember, a great comedic actor will bring his own comedy to the role.
How has the recent success of the action/thriller genre affected storytelling?
Stuart: There’s been an unrealistic idea floating around Hollywood for a while that adventure movies didn’t have to have a great story because of all the action.
Black: Special effects should make storytelling better because they allow you to do more; instead they have become a substitute for storytelling.
Stuart: The Matrix did a great job.
Black: The Matrix, The Sixth Sense…those two were mythic enough to make you respond in an emotional way to the story being told, a story that’s been told for thousands of years. But most movies today are not mythic—some guy gets busted for something he didn’t do, then he gets redeemed. The stories may seem like they’re rooted in myth, but really, they’re just rooted in old movies. Thank God I started when my models were movies like Aliens and 48 Hours. Now studio execs are telling you, “Make a movie like Armageddon.”
Stuart: We’ve been through the phase where technology was really cool; now at least when I write something that is cool technologically, I don’t have to sit through three meetings trying to explain it to the suits. We’ve had these techno geeks out there plowing the field. Now I think the emphasis is going to swing back to the story and the characters. Any film that ends up being a legacy now will not be there because of the special effects, but because people like the characters. If you don’t think you’ll like the characters in a movie, you’re not going to spend nine bucks to see it.
Black: Heroes have to have something inside of them that they don’t know is there, but the audience knows is there.
Stuart: Yes, the audience becomes scared for them and roots for them, wants them to do the right thing. If a hero resists temptation and finds a way out of his dilemma, that makes the audience happy.
Do you have any advice for novice screenwriters?
Stuart: There are people who spend hours coming up with simple sentences, laboring over each word. But a lot of times, no matter how you describe a scene, once the director and the stunt coordinator get hold of the script, it evolves. And the writer has to get involved to make sure the action serves the story. When the writer gets shut out of the development process, things can go bad in a hurry.
Black: I find the best action writing is something that sets up a dilemma and asks,” How are you going to get your hero out of this? There’s no way out.” If you can get him out of there in a way that the audience cannot anticipate, they will love you.
Stuart: What works for me is I just think of trying to write movies and don’t worry about all the crap that’s associated with it. It’s a real chore to keep your ass in the chair and come up with something that suspends the disbelief of the audience, but if you like movies, you should set a high bar for yourself and write a story that entertains you first.
Black: That’s strangely harder than you might think. At a certain base craft level, you know the language, you know the format, but that doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to come up with a good script every time. And trying to figure out what to write by looking at what movies made money is crazy. Whatever you do, do not read the trades. It can’t help and it will only depress you.
Stuart: There’s been a huge blossoming of books and material giving advice on how to write a screenplay or become successful in Hollywood.
Black: They might as well just put up a big neon “Get Rich Quick” sign over the movie section in Barnes & Noble, because for a lot of people, that’s really what it’s all about.
Stuart: One of the things I’ve always heard, and I really believe, is that the hardest way to tell a story is straight up. You can really tell when you’re losing an audience and when you’ve got them. When you get bored with something you’re writing, I can guarantee your audience is going to be bored, too. If you feel like you’ve just dropped into a hole, well, then how do you get out of that hole? You go back to your story.
Black: Another thing to consider if you get stuck is to bring your main character down to a point from which they have to recover. Heap misery upon them. Audiences will believe the most ridiculous things if they are well written and imaginative. If it brings the main character down, they’ll go for it.
Talk about “high concept.”
Stuart: If someone has a great concept that feels original, some studio will want to make it. I can’t think of a single action movie that got made because the studio thought the characters were wonderful. It’s great if the characters are good, but high concept is what sells.
Black: High concept is extremely important. There are things people want they don’t even know they want. It has to do with upping the intensity, but if you just throw in a lot of gunfire, that’s as dull as a walk in the park. Stories that are high concept succeed because the intensity derives naturally from the story, and the story is an amazing archetypal tale as old as The Odyssey.
Stuart: Something is high concept if you can completely explain the whole story in a sentence or two. You could sell the script from one line.
Black: The worst thing you can do is say, “My movie is like…” It sounds like you’re begging.
What about the pacing of today’s movies? Do you think it’s too fast?
Stuart: Yeah, but we live in an MTV world. People are expected to take in more info in less time today. When you talk about pacing, you’re really talking about editing. If the editing takes you out of the movie, it’s like bad writing. When I see something like that, I go to the bathroom and get a Coca-Cola, because the movie is not working.
Black: Movie trailers suggest a shape to the audience. You’d better fill in the blanks and fulfill their expectations with a story they can comprehend or they won’t like the movie.
So, if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, how do you get an agent?
Black: Hone your craft.
Stuart: If you have talent, you will be found.
And if you’re an aspiring screenwriter and really need help and encouragement, what should you do?
Black: Surround yourself with good people. You can’t network by hiding. And be willing to give. People who are always saying, “Read this or do this to help my career,” they’re not giving anything, they’re only taking. If you read the work of your friends and they read yours and you all do things together, that implies friendship and that’s the best networking you can have—you support them and they support you.
Stuart: Reading is good for inspiration.
Black: That’s true, but make sure you have your own sense of the language. Develop your own style. Ian Fleming, who created James Bond, had a knack of telling a story at an accelerating pace from the hero’s point of view. There was almost a surreal collage of things happening in his books.
Despite your early successes, you’ve both had long periods without a hit.
Black: Well, sometimes it’s hard to get motivated when you’ve just cashed a big royalty check.
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our in-depth article with Shane Black: I Like Violence.