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5 Scripts That Made Shane Black Hollywood's Hottest Writer In The 1990s

by Drew Taylor
May 3, 2013 11:03 AM
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Iron Man 3, set photo, Shane Black

Iron Man 3” has already amassed more than $300 million worldwide and is on target to become the highest grossing opening weekend in the United States ever (outdoing even last summer’s “The Avengers”). This is quite a coup for director/co-writer Shane Black, who, back in the '90s, during a kind of spec script arms race, was frequently topping himself as the most paid screenwriter of all time, alongside guys like Joe Eszterhas (Black recently told Vanity Fair, in a terrific piece about spec scripts, “Eszterhas used to call and wake me up at night saying, ‘I just sold something for more money than you, ha-ha’”).

Black scripts were known at the time for how well they’re written – they have swift plotting, breezy characterization, and stage direction that compelled the reader to continue (and then offer some staggering sum of money). In that same Vanity Fair piece, Black’s frequent producer Joel Silver said of the spec script boom: “"In that period, you could read a script and say, 'This is a movie. It can be cast. It can go.'" Just like that, many of Black’s scripts went – only, of course, to be changed along the way, sometimes turning something that the studio had paid a handsome sum for into a virtually unrecognizable Frankenstein’s monster. Part of the problem, though, was that while he tried desperately to not be pigeonholed, “a Shane Black script” meant something very specific, and that demand led to a certain amount of creative frustration. Black was both forced out of the game and took himself out willingly, but either way it seemed necessary – he had to dismantle what he had built, just like Tony Stark, in order to triumph again.

His comeback project, a tiny studio gem that he also directed called “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” that barely anybody saw, starred another Hollywood quantity who was too risky to employ – Robert Downey Jr. Now with the both of them reteaming for what will easily be one of the biggest hits of the year, we thought we’d look back at the screenplays that defined Black as one of the most well-known (and well paid) screenwriters Hollywood has ever known.

The Long Kiss Goodnight

"The Long Kiss Goodnight" (1996)
Price: $4 million
Synopsis: An amnesiac schoolteacher discovers that she was once a government-trained assassin. With these newfound memories (and the help of a scummy private detective) she must stop a nefarious terrorist plot.
What About It? At the time of its sale, to New Line Cinema for a whopping $4 million dollars, "The Long Kiss Goodnight" was the most expensive spec sale in the history of Hollywood. (A few years later, Disney bought "Déjà Vu," which would go on to become a time travel thriller starring Denzel Washington, for an estimated $5 million.) The eventual movie was made by the husband and wife team of Renny Harlin and Geena Davis and Black was originally reluctant to sell it to them, since they had to make one movie before they could begin work on "The Long Kiss Goodnight" – "Cutthroat Island." Eventually the studio added a half-a-million dollars to the price tag, and Black relented. The original version of the script was more explosively violent, possibly reflecting the post-"Pulp Fiction" permissiveness when it came to mixing grim violence with even grimmer humor. (Brain matter fried on a stove like bacon gristle; in later drafts this element was removed at the request of New Line Cinema.) A number of threads from Shane Black's filmography, including a Christmas-time setting and at least one character who is a detective (amateur or otherwise), appear in both "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and "Iron Man 3." The eventual "Long Kiss Goodnight" movie hedged fairly close to Black's revised draft, but the movie, while attracting an almost instantaneous cult following, never connected with large audience and eventually made less than $90 million worldwide, a shameful showing considering how much better American action movies tend to fare overseas. Its failure also managed to mute Black's considerable power in Hollywood, leading to a period of inactivity that would last almost an entire decade. Currently, Black is attempting to turn "The Long Kiss Goodnight" into a primetime cable series.

The Last Boy Scout

"The Last Boy Scout" (1991)
Price: $1.75 million
Synopsis: A former Secret Service agent teams with a former pro football player to investigate the murder of the football player's stripper girlfriend, uncovering a vast criminal conspiracy.
What About It? At $1.75 million it was also, at that point, the most expensive spec sale ever (67 days later, Joe Eszterhas made double that for his screenplay "Basic Instinct") and by all accounts that original draft was worth it. Director Tony Scott, many years later, said that he thought the script was better than the movie he made of it – citing the creative tug-of-war between producer Joel Silver and Bruce Willis as the chief reason the movie didn't perform like it should have. (It has gone on to become one of Scott's most beloved movies, at least amongst his ardent fans.) Black, who marveled that the scripts bought for the most money were the ones that looked the least like those scripts when the movies finally came out, later described the film as "a frustrating proposition, so much potential, then a lot of 'big action' which evolved over time and bloated a much less grandiose blueprint. One of my big Hollywood lessons, not the first." That's a good description of the final film – one in which you can see glimmers of the Shane Black script underneath (hardboiled characters, snappy dialogue, bursts of shocking violence, a Christmas setting) but surrounded by a lot of unnecessary bullshit to the point where you can almost feel the egos of the movie superheating the frame and melting away what was once originally there. Tony Stark shares at least some of the edgy paranoia and self-destructive tendencies personified by the two leads of 'Boy Scout' (played by Willis and Damon Wayans). "The Last Boy Scout" is an essential piece of Black's catalog (but far from the best), made all the more so by Scott's dazzling (if occasionally misguided) direction.

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More: Features, Shane Black, Iron Man 3

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  • Mike | May 7, 2013 4:12 PMReply

    The Last Boy Scout is a great script, badly-compromised, actor-improvised and overdirected through that hazy gauze of smoke and smog that the Scott brothers are famous for.

    We can tell this by the opening shot. In the script, the football player starts shooting other players, we see their graphic deaths, then he runs to the end zone, sticks the gun in his mouth, says, "I'm going to Disneyland," and blows his head off. In the movie, the deaths are slo-mo stylized, the suicide is censored, and he says, "Ain't life a bitch?" which is one of the worst pre-suicide lines ever. The rest of the movie (just like The Long Kiss Goodnight) is just as neutered, lobotomized, and oversimplified, theoretically to be more safe and palatable for a mass audience.

    There's a lesson here. Just because the studios paid Shane Black insane amounts of money, doesn't mean they respected him. Out of all the scripts he wrote but didn't direct, only Lethal Weapon stays true to his original spec. Because screenwriters have no power, no matter how much money they make.

  • tyler4all | May 5, 2013 6:22 AMReply

    I loved Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Shane Black is a good writer/director but he's not the reason Iron Man 3 is gonna make a kajillion dollars. Reasons people are going to see Iron Man 3: 1) It's Iron Man and 2) Robert Downey Jr.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 4, 2013 12:01 AMReply

    "The Monster Squad" is my shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

  • Stephen | May 3, 2013 3:42 PMReply

    Last Action Hero is perfect the way it is. "Jarring, random collection of scenes" my ass.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 3, 2013 11:57 PM

    That movie rocked my balls when I saw it as a child. And having re-watched it as a grown ass man... it STILL ROCKS MY BALLS!!!

    "Stop shouting! I'm not deaf!"

  • JD | May 3, 2013 1:42 PMReply

    Correction: Black's very, very first script was actually "Shadow Company", which seems to have been an expanded version of his short film. It's a Vietnam horror story about a zombie platoon. Also, Black co-wrote a script called "The Nice Guys" with somebody named Anthony Bagarozzi. No idea what happened with that, if anything. It's very much in the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang style.

  • JD | May 3, 2013 1:23 PMReply

    I have a very early draft of Last Boy Scout that is crazy beyond belief. For starters, the villain is Senator Baylor's son, who's basically a cyborg after some kind of Joe Hallenbeck-related incident. Y'know the opening of the final film with the running back shooting his way down field during the NFL game? This whole script is like that, and it just gets more and more outrageous as it goes.

  • Cobraverde | May 3, 2013 1:07 PMReply

    Lethal Weapon was not a box office smash in the US. It took in something in the region of $65m in its initial release. Even in adjusted dollars that's not huge. But word of mouth spread and it was a massive runaway hit on it's video release some time later. Which why there was a Lethal Weapon 2, which resulted in a massive summer block buster and a franchise. Black has always said he regards part 2 to contain some of his best work. And in his version Riggs dies on the ship. He nails his wife's killer and his story came full circle. Pity. We would've been spared the crappy 3 and 4.

  • Matt N. | May 3, 2013 1:01 PMReply

    Excellent article! Thank you for all the insight and trivia. I have loved Shane Black for a while (especially "Boy Scout" and "Kiss Kiss") so I'm glad he's back in focus.

    Great work!

  • Alan B | May 3, 2013 11:44 AMReply

    All I've read about the making of 'Last Action Hero' makes Penn sound like a precious, self-defeating, egotistical asshole. More to the point, he's also an untalented asshole. I've read his script and - at its best - it's 'meh', whilst NOTHING he has done since then has shown he has a modicum of talent, which also includes his 'personal' projects 'Incident at Loch Ness' which takes an awesome idea and is completely unable to do anything interesting with it. Whilst his superhero scripts are nothing to be proud of, with even Whedon - who seems pretty cool and respectful of other filmmakers - saying of Penn's 'Avengers' script, "There was a script. There just wasn't a script I was going to film a word of." The best thing Penn has ever done is this quote, "He (Whedon) wanted to do it his way, and I respect that. I mean, it's not like on the 'Hulk,' where I got replaced by the lead actor. That was an unusual one. This was more normal."

  • cory everett | May 3, 2013 11:26 AMReply

    "Monster Squad" rules. Would LOVE to read that early draft if it still exists.

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