Interview | Shane Black on ‘The Nice Guys,’ ‘The Predator’ and ‘Doc Savage’
When it comes to action movies, Shane Black is one of the most important voices in Hollywood. His screenplays for hit films like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout changed the way characters talked in the genre, and added unexpected depth to a milieu that many people once associated with brainless punching and shooting.
And although Shane Black chooses to tone down the action elements of his movies sometimes – like in this weekend’s fantastic new crime comedy, The Nice Guys – he’s still an active force in the action movie scene. His superhero movie Iron Man 3 is still one of the biggest hits in history, and he’s working on an upcoming adaptation of the iconic pulp hero Doc Savage, as well as the next film in the long-running Predator series, titled The Predator (and as we learn in the interview you’re about to reading, the “the” in “The Predator” is there for a reason).
I got on the phone with Shane Black after watching and loving The Nice Guys, to learn more about his penchant for 1970s private detective stories, his thoughts on 1970s porn (which plays an important part in The Nice Guys), how he feels about the last Doc Savage movie that came out in the 1970s, and what we can expect from The Predator.
The Nice Guys hits theaters on May 20, 2016. The Predator arrives on March 2, 2018. (No release date has yet been set for Doc Savage.)
Crave: I was watching this movie and one thought kept going through my mind: “Shane Black must REALLY love ‘70s porn.”
Shane Black: You know, interestingly enough I’m not a fan. I stopped watching porn a while back! [Laughs.] But the idea of that exuberance at that time, when the sexual revolution and the bra-burning of the late ‘60s was still very fresh in people’s minds, was something I did experience. And Woodstock in ’68, all that kind of sexual expressiveness which very quickly, I think towards the end of the ‘80s, got clamped down and we became sort of… nowadays it’s almost puritanical sometimes in this country. But I loved that sense of the ‘70s and the sexual freedom where people were sort of not sure where to land with it.
As it is a period piece, did you do research into that milieu, or is this all fantasy?
The research I do is composed equal parts of stuff that I may have seen or experienced back in the day, filtered through the eyes of a teenager, coupled with what I think my chief advantage is in this field, which is having looked at and read so many, upwards of hundreds of these kinds of ‘60s-‘70s private eye novels, the crime novels. That’s the experience and the advantage I think I bring. Not so much having lived the world as wanting so desperately to resurrect a kind of literary landscape that I’ve just been so familiar with. And there’s very few private eye movies made nowadays.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know! It’s a genre… The police procedural is stronger than ever with the Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: SVU and all that empire that he constructed, the CSI’s. But the idea of the lone wolf cowboy-slash-private eye is fairly… I mean, westerns have gone and I think that may have something to do with it, because ultimately the two literary genres which are absolutely specific to America, created here, are the gumshoe private eye and the cowboy. And back in the day, in the pulp era, it was interesting because the writer would write a western and then he would write a private eye novel. They’d alternate. There was a sense that they were essentially the same type of story, just set in different time periods.
One thing that occurs to me is that private eye novel is very much about stripping away everyone’s boundaries and artifices, and finding out the seedy underbelly of every relationship and every human. And what we have now is that everyone’s a lot more up front about that kind of stuff and they’re throwing it all online.
Yeah. Interesting. It takes a lot more to pull the plug on scandal and let all the skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. It’s a lot more difficult in an era when nothing shocks anymore. I was saying this to someone the other day, because how common in thrillers is the plot line where we’re going to launch a war against someone, and someone says “No, I have evidence! If we can just get the evidence that this was trumped up, that this attack was a false flag, we’ll get it to the right people!” and the whole suspense is are they going to get it there in time to stop the war, you know? And they present the evidence and they save the day. Nowadays you present the evidence and it wouldn’t matter! You can find the truth and say “We’ve got it! Look, we made it in time! Here, everybody in America, look! This is the proof that the mayor’s a crook!” and they’d go, “Yeah, we like him anyway.”
I don’t even know if it’s “we like him anyway.” This might be me being younger, but I blame Nixon. It feels like ever since Watergate if you hear that someone’s corrupt, and that the NSA for example is spying on ever American, I feel like everyone’s first reaction is “I assumed they were anyway.”
That’s very cynical but potentially true. I think that certainly the apathy people have towards what is heinous, the needle has moved towards… I think before, where Watergate was a scandal, now it wouldn’t even be a blip. If you accused someone of having hired someone to stage a break-in or plant a bug, they’d be like, “Yeah? Come on, man, give me a REAL story.” In the evolution of the country to the place where even the most egregious gaffes, the most heinous oversights, they’re sort of written off unless it’s politically expedient to emphasize them. It’s a strange time we live in, man. It’s the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” That’s where we’re at.
Is that why The Nice Guys had to be set in the ‘70s? Surely you could done something stylistically similar in a different time period…
I like to think that yeah, it’s a harkening back to a time when… it mimics today, in the sense that there’s still greed without any kind of effective regulatory mechanism, such that money buys and sells everything to everybody. But at that time the white knight, or in this case the knights in kind of tarnished armor, had the opportunity to perhaps make a difference. You could set up an almost timeless, mythic landscape with an LA that’s sort of a modern day Sodom and Gommorah, that’s what we do in The Nice Guys. It’s a latter day sin pit, coated by smog, with the Hollywood sign in tatters. It’s this faded, dim, once-glorious place that still maintains it’s veneer of optimism. “Come here and make yourself special.” So the idea of heroes in that atmosphere who aren’t bombarded by the internet was quite compelling. I think there’s a timelessness to the private eye story that is better served by placing it elsewhere than in the present day.
One of the other projects you’ve got on your plate is Doc Savage, which is also very much of a different era.
I was watching the movie from the 1970s very recently…
It’s kind of humming along, Doc Savage is very heroic and standing for everything that’s right, and then at the end he cuts into the bad guy’s brain and brainwashes him so he’s a good guy, and I’m like, “Wait a minute! Doc Savage is the VILLAIN?!” It’s very insidious.
The Doc Savage of the ‘30s is very specific, and I think they had about a dollar and a half to make that movie. I assume you’re talking about the Ron Ely version.
I mean that was one of the more… even as a ten-year-old child that was one of the more epic disappointments, was that Doc Savage, my hero, who had finally come to the screen, was reduced to basically Batman the TV series. They might as well have had Adam West in there, because it was just stupid. I mean the movie itself, they didn’t have money for a score! They used John Philip Sousa marches because they were public domain!
And it’s interminable!
It’s crazy. It’s a terrible film.
So no John Philip Sousa in your film?
No. In fact for the sake of everybody, and the for the sake of humanity in general, the strategy with Doc Savage first and foremost would be to pretend that the last time he emerged was in the ‘30s with those pulps and the ‘60s with the books. Ignore the movie and just concentrate on what it was that made him such a timeless character, who has survived now for 75 years.
Is that a character though, like The Nice Guys, who could exist only in the past? Or is it possible to contemporize him?
I would never. In fact it’s interesting that you ask that. I made it a condition. “I’ll do Doc Savage, I’d love to.” They said, “We’ll set it in the present day where he fights Al-Qaeda. That’s how you can get him to do movie tie-ins and do Chrysler ads.” And I said, “Well, okay, goodbye!” No interest. It’s a out a magical time when America was swamped, when democracy was still an experiment which, to some, was capable of failure. The Depression had everyone on their knees and they were looking to the exoticism of pulp and to the hope that this beacon offered, this guy who said “improve yourself.” It’s the ultimate American story, that sort of rags to riches, Horatio Alger, done as a heroic thriller, and there’s just so much to say about that time period and the glorious romance of… if you ever saw a movie called My Man Godfrey, it opens with the Hooverville camps in New York City, and across the river you see the shining skyscrapers and even though it’s a crappy little camp full of people hanging their laundry, it’s the most beautiful image you can imagine. It’s we’re all in it together, on the verge of a great war, and yet somehow the world is mysterious and exotic and if we can just get out of here there’s a yeti in the mountains somewhere. There’s hidden under the sea a kind of secret civilization. Today if there’s a yeti we would have found it by satellite.
A little less interesting, I feel.
Yeah. The Loch Ness Monster was sighted for the first time in 1939, when Doc Savage is set. That’s when I want to do it.
Is that a coincidence or did Doc Savage find him?
No! No, but it’s interesting, Doc had a speech in one draft where he says, “It’s shame. I hope they don’t find him,” because if they do, there’s a dinosaur living in Loch Ness, they’d find him and put him on display, it’s amazing, we’d all go to see it and after six months the mystery’s gone and we’d all say, “Well, do you want to see the monster?” and he’d say, “Nah, we saw him last week? Let’s go to the picture show instead.” As long as he stays submerged he’s a symbol of the things we don’t know.
The idea of the historical context of your stories interests me, because one of the other stories that you’re working on right now is The Predator.
That feels like it came very much kicking and screaming out of a particular macho mindset of 1980s cinema. I’m wondering if that, in your eyes, is still relevant now or if that needs to change contexts for today?
I think that the only thing that the 1980s macho context really has to add is that back then, the actors tended to be more… I think more “men,” and less “boys.” For instance, back in the day, the ones who filled my head as I grew up: Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, those types of people in The Dirty Dozen. “Men.” I don’t want to see a wiry kid with with a man-bun fight the Predator. And that’s the difference. Now, that said, I think it would be great to shake it up, that not everybody who goes up against the Predator is a tough guy with giant muscles.
You’re calling it The Predator. Is that just a way to rebrand it, or refocus it, or is there a significance to that [title], like, “This is the one. This guy is THE Predator?”
There is a reference in the script as to why that makes sense but I’m not really supposed to talk about it.
I respect that, I was just curious if you could. I’m very much looking forward that. I was a huge fan of Predator right from the beginning, and it always seemed like there was so much more to explore than we ever really got.
Yeah, they became very comfortable with just sort of shuffling them out in the same [way]. And you go “Oh look, honey, another Predator. Yeah, there he is.” The look didn’t… You don’t want to change it up too much but you want something more said about it. You want another discovery, another mystery to solve that makes it fresh again.
I want to know, because Predators are intelligent creatures with spaceships and technology, and it seems like they’re all hunters. There’s got to be like a support class who are actually building these machines.
It’s addressed in the movie. So yeah.
Is only the original Predator in continuity? Are you doing one of those kinds of follow-ups, or does Alien vs. Predator and everything count?
Well, all I can really say is it’s set present day, so that kind of lets out the one where they travel to other worlds. I think that was the Robert Rodriguez one. We can maybe do some pre-lapping […] but it’s set in 2018.
Which I think makes Predator 2 in the past though?
I’m trying to remember when Predator 2 takes place. I think it was in the late ‘90s “future.”
No, these things all happened in 1990, but now it’s 25 years later. So in other words, if Arnold [Schwarzenegger]’s in it – which I’m not allowed to discuss [laughs] – he would be old Arnold.
I would be interested to see how he turned out!
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.