6 Filmmaking Tips From Shane Black

By  · Published on May 8th, 2013

If people really pay attention to directors, a lot of them found out who Shane Black is this weekend. Iron Man 3, his second best film as a director, sees him transitioning to a phase that he’s lived in before as a screenwriter. He found success in his twenties after acting in Predator and selling his script for Lethal Weapon, following-up with even more stories about kidnapping and Christmas.

He’s brash, great with a comeback, and known for inserting fourth wall-breaking jabs into his scene descriptions, but he’s also been on both sides of the studio coin. That’s given him a front row seat for great success, backlash, a re-emergence that didn’t strike it big, and now another resurrection. It was clear before that he had talent, and now he’s got wisdom.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man who knows what you find when you look up “idiot” in the dictionary.

Writing a Script Doesn’t Make Writing Easier

“Here’s what I didn’t know when I was starting out that I now know. . . I thought when you were starting out it was really hard to write because you hadn’t broken in yet, you hadn’t really hit your stride yet. What I found out paradoxically is that the next script you write doesn’t get easier because you wrote one before. . . each one gets harder by a factor of 10.”

This seems a bit counter-intuitive, and might not be echoed by all writers, but it might have a corollary in marathons. Running one doesn’t make the next one easier ‐ it doesn’t subtract miles from future races, and you still have to train to keep up the performance (or get better).

On the other hand, presumably finishing a script lets you know what it feels like to have finished a script, creates a sense of satisfaction there and helps sharpen the tools you need to train for the next one (even if it’s not really easier).

You Are Not Immune to Peer Pressure

“Interestingly, out of the blue, I decided to apply for the Academy Of Motion Pictures. I had done at that time The Long Kiss Goodnight, Lethal Weapon, pictures with Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sam Jackson, and they turned me down for membership. They sent me a letter saying maybe next time, when you have more credits, we’ll consider you. Then I looked at the criteria for being a member ‐ you must have at least two works of substantive, literary merit that have been produced on screen. So according to the Academy, I did not even have two pieces of substantive work. I thought, ‘Man, people must hate me if they are not going to let me in their club after I’ve made six movies.’ So it was strange. It was almost as if writing movies had given people one more reason to hate me, or dislike or resent me. And I just want to tell a story. . . I think in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I’m going to show them, I’m not going to write an action picture. I’m going to show them I can do more.’

And that’s ridiculous; I should have written what I felt like writing. But I wanted to do a drama or something that would convince people that I’m truly serious about what I want to do. So the writer’s block was me for a couple of years trying to think of something and trying to write a romantic comedy a la James Brooks, who was my mentor at the time.

One day Brooks came to me and we sat down to lunch. He had read some pages and he said, ’You know, really like what you are doing but it’s wandering.’ I said, ‘I know, I feel like I’m sort of at sea, I’m not on quite familiar ground.’ He said maybe it was because I was trying to take too much of a leap from action pictures when part of the charm of my work was melancholy and edginess.

Brooks said he always pictured me doing something like Chinatown which was character driven with a lot of twists. I thought, ‘Okay, that’s what I’ve been doing wrong.’ What I really wanted to write was a murder mystery with romance in it. The edge was coming off this romantic piece and rendering it vicious and distasteful, and it wasn’t funny.”

Black goes on to talk about feeling like a fraud because of how many people dismissed the enormity of his success. He started to imagine that they were right, that he was paid too much for his previous scripts, and that thought combined with a search for legitimacy that ultimately got him stuck in the writer’s block mud. The murder mystery that pulled him out was, of course, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Talent Changes Your Odds

99% Preparation

“I’d love to say that [directing] was incredibly difficult and murderous, but it was a snap. If you’ve done your preparation, including storyboarding the more complex sequences, ultimately your only job on the set is to execute your preparation and be flexible enough and social enough to go beyond it in places and hopefully get something better, and change things according to the order of the day, like if the actors come up with something better. I would watch movies all night to prepare. I can almost give you shot-for-shot on Panic Room just because I watched it so many times. I would go to the set for as long as I could to just sit there, and look around, then you have all the possibilities in your head. Then you take your cinematographer with you, and you ask him about all the possibilities. So when you walk in, you’ve already covered all your bases, even if you want to throw it all out and do something different.”

Twist a Cliche and Find Gold

Clearly there was more to the success of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but Val Kilmer’s Gay Perry was a big part of its overall cleverness. In twisting the stereotype, Black proved that he 1) understood the standard but 2) was ahead of the curve.

“Having a character be gay in a movie just isn’t shocking anymore. Will and Grace and My Best Friend’s Wedding have softened us up with regards to the funny gay character. We still haven’t seen the heroic gay character that, when the chips are down, kicks down the door, shoots everybody and saves your butt.”

Movies Aren’t Climax, Climax, Climax

What Have We Learned

Because of the fine folks at the Austin Film Festival, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Black shortly after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hit theaters, and the main thing I remember was how level-headed he was. He exhibited that paper thin difference between cynicism and realism. A grounded man who wrote imaginative stories.

His interviews echo that, and it’s exciting to see a filmmaker so honest about his own wart-covered process. Black is a great writer/director who owns a bucket of brass tacks, so the honesty here isn’t surprising.The ultimate difficulty about writing is that it’s a lonely process that can sometimes be judged by public execution. So, yes, there are some tips here that aren’t exactly pick-me-ups, but kind words aren’t going to hone talent into something sharper. Having someone point out the pitfalls is far better than pretending you have a balloon to float over them.

So get excited about completing your script, and don’t freak out too much when you find a blank page waiting for you back at your desk.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.