LET’S track this from the beginning. When Shane Black was a little boy growing up in Pittsburgh, books used to make him cry. He’d pick up paperbacks lying around his house, look at the cover art, crack them open and sit scanning the words.
That was when the tears would start. “I’d get upset because I’d want to know the story of the picture on the cover of the book, but I couldn’t get it because I couldn’t read yet.”
Years later, long after he moved to Los Angeles to study writing at UCLA, and a good while after he first broke into Hollywood as a 23-year-old hotshot with a script entitled Lethal Weapon, Black would be amazed by the number of screenwriters who’d tell him they didn’t read fiction.
“But you’re a writer!” He’d exclaim.
“I write movies, not books,” would come the inevitable reply.
“You can’t write anything unless you read voraciously,” he says today. “If you don’t love a sentence, if you don’t actually become delighted over a paragraph of someone’s writing, then I think, even as a screenwriter, you’re lacking essential nutrients.”
Black, it hardly needs to be said, is someone who takes writing very seriously.
Actually, scratch that. It does need to be said.
When we meet in London, it’s to discuss his role as the writer and director of Iron Man 3. It is, by some measure, the smartest, funniest, and most idiosyncratic Marvel superhero movie to date. Barely a scene goes by in which Black’s well-honed love of language – the way it can be shaped, crafted and delivered by actors to subvert all expectations – is not apparent. And yet, having made headlines in the 1990s when his scripts for The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight turned him into the highest paid writer in Hollywood (they respectively sold for $1.75m and $4m), Black’s abilities to craft films full of witty neo-noir dialogue, instantly relatable characters, genre-subverting plots and high-stakes action have never been given their due.
At the time, critics, colleagues, even friends jealous of his success, called Black a hack. “I’d ask why, and they’d be like, ‘You took all that money.’ ‘Took all that money!’” he says, re-enacting at typical confrontation: “If you wrote a script and somebody offered you this much, would you turn it down?’”
Dismayed and disgruntled, and dealing with massive insecurities about his own talent, he decided to “walk away” for a couple of years. He was gone for nine, re-emerging in 2005 with his directorial debut Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a deliriously entertaining deconstruction of the detective thriller. The film was criminally underseen, but among those who did see it were Marvel’s head of production Kevin Feige and director Jon Favreau, who collectively tapped its then-pariah-like star, Robert Downey Jr, to play Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark.
There’s a neat synchronicity, then, to the fact that Black is now at the helm of the series’ third instalment.
“It’s not an accidental synchronicity,” says Black, who jumped at the chance to do a greenlit picture. “Robert and I had stayed in touch. He’d brought me the script for the first Iron Man film and said, ‘We need you to do a rewrite,’ and I was like, ‘Eh, I don’t really want to, but I’ll sit and talk to you.’ Which I did, but it was nothing that I got involved in officially.”
When Favreau opted not to return for a third outing, Downey called Black up again and said: “Why don’t you just say ‘yes’ and do it officially?”
“So I said yes,” chuckles Black. “It wasn’t exactly out of my wheelhouse: I’ve been reading Iron Man since I bought my first issue in 1966 as a four-year-old kid.”
Watch the film, though, and what’s remarkable is just how big a stamp Black has managed to put on it. I ask if he thinks that’s perhaps indicative of Marvel’s growing confidence after the success of The Avengers. He laughs and attributes it more to the fact that after the elaborate five-movie set-up for last year’s $1.5 billion-grossing superhero mash-up, the studio simply wanted something stylistically different that would work as a stand-alone film. “I don’t think they would let me go off and do whatever I wanted, but I think I managed to convince Marvel to keep a lot of things that I like.”
Chief among these is the film’s Christmas setting. Like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 is the latest Black film to take place during the Silly Season.
Where does the Christmas obsession come from? “I’m not sure. I think it’s just a universal leveler, an almost magical backdrop that invites a hush, momentary time-out in people’s lives … And to have to dig for bits of Christmas and find that magic in the midst of the tumult [of an action film] has a real psychological resonance for me.”
It also conjures other enduring Christmas narratives. If Lethal Weapon’s story of a suicidal cop who learns that his life has worth can be viewed as Black’s take on It’s a Wonderful Life (“You’re right, except that I hadn’t seen it when I wrote it”), then Iron Man 3, in which a haunted Tony Stark confronts aspects of his past, present and ongoing future as Iron Man, feels like a riff on the ultimate existential Yuletide tale – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
“We actually started talking about this as A Christmas Carol episode of Iron Man,” grins Black, before launching into a spoiler-heavy breakdown of which characters in the film are analogous to which ghosts.
I’m curious, though, as to whether Black sees any parallels between himself and Iron Man’s alter ego. When one character asks Stark if all he has to offer is “a cheap trick and a one-liner” it feels like an amusing dig at some of his past detractors. “I think the fact there’s a stamp on this is more a sign of a simpatico relationship between Robert and me. I think I relate to his portrayal of Tony Stark. I think the two of us – Robert and I – have been through enough of the same types of things.
He’s alluding to the fall-out from early success again. I ask if he still feels insecure about writing. He nods. “If I sit down at a typewriter after seven days away from it I’m like, ‘How do I do this?’ Writing is an infinitely forgettable skill and I have to repeatedly remind myself that I can do it.”
“Less so lately,” he adds. “I’ve got better. It helps when you don’t drink.”
Drinking, he says, was one reason his absence from the industry might have seemed like more of an exile than it was. “Time all of a sudden went ‘Whoosh!’ I’d party on the weekends and then it would be three weeks later. Finally I just gathered my wits towards the Millennium and realised I had to dig in and start writing.”
It took him another two years to write Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and a bit more to convince anyone to let him make it. “That was the price of taking a break. I remember finishing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and sending it out and getting rejections. I was like, ‘What the f***? I used to do this.’”
It’s unlikely he’ll have those kinds of issues after Iron Man 3 hits. He’s made a great superhero film and its inevitable commercial success should give him carte blanche for his next project. Speaking of which, it occurs to me that the phrase “Kiss kiss, bang bang” was originally coined in reference to James Bond, so I ask if he’d fancy having a crack at 007.
“I’ve actually approached them and they said they’d get back to me. I don’t hold great hope for it; they have very strong ideas. But I did say that I’d be willing to come in and talk, because I’m a huge Bond fan ever since …”
He suddenly remembers something.
“You know, when I said I used to cry because I couldn’t read yet, I was talking about picking up the old American Signet editions of the Bond books. They had ‘James Bond Thriller’ written down the side. So I was looking at those, wishing I could read those. Those were the books …”
• Iron Man 3 is in cinemas from today, and reviewed on page 5.