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

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by Drew Taylor
May 3, 2013 11:03 AM
11 Comments
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"Last Action Hero" (1993)
Price: $1 million (estimated)
Synopsis: A movie-loving kid is magically transported into his favorite action movie; later, that same kid brings his beloved action star out of the movie and into the real world.
What About It? A goofy, satirical, and warm-hearted spec by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, "Last Action Hero" was soon put through the Hollywood script-doctoring machine and eventually wound up on the desk of Black and his writing partner David Arnott. Black described his work on the film to Empire Magazine, saying, "...[we] were to take this very small script, where not a lot happens, and beef it up into a summer movie, with lots of set-ups and pay-offs and reversals. Zak seemed to think that we ruined his script but I was actually quite fond of what we came up with." Black really pushed the movie-within-a-movie conceit, saying, "We had a silly gag where Slater reaches up, grabs a scratch on the film, and stabs a villain with it." Columbia was evidently not as thrilled with Black's contributions as they had let on, and when "Die Hard" director John McTiernan took hold of the project, a number of other writers (including big guns like "Chinatown" scribe Robert Towne) were brought on to try to fix something that was fundamentally broken beyond repair (Black attributes the failure of the movie largely to McTiernan's decisions and described the final product as "a jarring, random collection of scenes"). Penn, who had started the script after going to the MPAA library and reading all of Black's scripts, said the entire experience was unfortunate and otherworldly: "It was this surreal moment of, ‘We’re parodying this guy, and now he’s been hired to rewrite us.’ It was just a strange, strange occurrence." 

Lethal Weapon” (1987)
Price: $250,000
Synopsis: A mismatched pair of LAPD detectives (both of them Vietnam vets) team to take down drug smugglers in Los Angeles who have a connection to the detectives’ past.
What About It? The sale of deranged buddy cop script “Lethal Weapon” for a quarter of a million dollars, from a 23-year-old kid who had just graduated UCLA, was the moment Shane Black as we know him today was born. All of the trademarks of his work are evident in this very first screenplay – witty banter laced with profanity, reversals, reveals, a loopy plot that doesn’t make much sense if you hold it up to any kind of scrutiny but it’s so fun you never will, a Christmas-time setting – less tightly controlled and mannered in his later scripts, but still there. (Director Richard Donner and producer Joel Silver helped wrangle in the script that everyone thought was brilliant but slightly unwieldy.) Black became the icon for every maître d with a script tucked underneath his podium – not only did “Lethal Weapon” get sold for top dollar -- particularly for a first time writer -- but it attracted top talent like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and became an international sensation that spawned three equally lucrative sequels. The movie is largely considered a classic because of Black’s script, and the subsequent films were less successfully, critically and commercially, because Black wasn’t there and the crazed madness of the original kept getting watered down. “Lethal Weapon” was such a sensation that Black was paid $125,000 just to come up with the idea for the sequel, although little (if anything) from that made it into the final film. Still, the money from “Lethal Weapon 2” is probably about what he made off of… 

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005)
Price: Unknown (but probably very, very little)
Synopsis: A criminal is mistaken for an actor who then becomes an amateur private eye alongside a gay detective and his childhood crush. Based loosely on a pulp novel by Brett Halliday.
What About It?: When Black finally returned from the wild after a nearly decade-long, post-“Long Kiss Goodnight” exile, the found the atmosphere in Hollywood noticeably different. Gone were the days when his script was sent out to every studio in town with a ticking clock attached to it (when the time was up, somebody had to buy). Instead he was met with chilly indifference. “Cut ahead to 2001,” Black said to Vanity Fair, sounding like he’s writing the screenplay version of his life, “when I finished a script for something called ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ and all of a sudden not only is it not ‘Read in the office while we run a clock on you,’ it was ‘I submit ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ and maybe in a week or two they get back to me.’ Suddenly, I had no power.” The entire climate in Hollywood had changed though, and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” arguably the most brilliant script in Black’s career, became something too small, too smart, too adult, in the franchise-driven, take-no-chances landscape. It didn’t help, too, that the movie would star Robert Downey Jr., still largely considered a liability after years spent battling substance abuse (this was two years before the first “Iron Man” reinvigorated his career). Still, Black persevered, thanks largely to his old friend Joel Silver, who vouched for the filmmaker and secured funding from Warner Bros. The resulting film, Black’s sole directorial credit before “Iron Man 3,” is absolutely brilliant – full of mistaken identities, meta-textual voice-over, and finely calibrated comedic performances. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was a breakthrough – instead of a director adapting his prose, Black was doing it himself, and the whole movie is effervescent and alive in a way that only reading a Shane Black script was. Ironically, it was a complete dud at the box office (largely because of Warner Bros’ marketing and distribution of the film). It made $4 million domestically, which is how much New Line Cinema paid for “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” the movie that helped kick him out of Hollywood in the first place. It’s like something out of a Shane Black script. 
 

What's so fascinating about Black is that, even though he was one of the most in demand screenwriters for almost a decade, his output was relatively small. In 1987, the same year that "Lethal Weapon" was released, "The Monster Squad," a horror-comedy about monster-loving kids who encounter the real deal, also came out. Co-written with director and friend Fred Dekker, Black's original draft included a spectacularly ornate prologue with blimps and legions of the undead. On the commentary for the film, Dekker snorts, "Of course one of the kid's parents is a cop, because somebody's always a cop in Shane Black scripts." It didn't do much at the box office but remains a cult favorite. Black is credited with the story for "Lethal Weapon 2" which shows you what getting paid $125,000 means in Hollywood. And in 2006, Black wrote a twenty-minute short film called "A.W.O.L" under a pseudonym (Holly Martins). We've never seen it but it sounds great – it's about Vietnam soldiers who encounter some supernatural weirdness in the jungle. One thing's for sure: after "Iron Man 3" makes approximately one kajillion dollars this weekend, Black will very much be in demand once again.

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11 Comments

  • 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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