Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - Shane Black interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
Q: It has been suggested that until Kiss Kiss Bang Bang you had been suffering from bad writer’s block?
A: I had a film bomb horribly at the box office in 1996 – The Long Kiss Goodnight. It was not just having a bomb; it was feeling an aversion to Hollywood. People had started referring to me only in terms of the money I was making. I was too sensitive, I know you must have a thick skin to exist in Hollywood but I kept hearing the word hack.
When you are making a lot of money people forget you are trying to be creative and they picture you laughing all the way to the bank… especially with an action script, automatically it gets boo-hooed as being worthless.
It was very difficult to hear that sort of thing and I lost a good many friends over money issues because they didn’t have money or their scripts weren’t selling and mine were.
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.
Q: Did it boil down to jealousy?
A: I don’t know what it boiled down to. People see what they perceive to be bad work and people getting money for it and it infuriates them. For whatever reason, hearing that an action movie writer was making this sort of money infuriated people. I don’t know if that’s jealousy or just a sort of a knee jerk response. It’s like finding out that some really bad comedian is making tons of money while someone who is really a genius, like Andy Kauffman, is making nothing. 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…ok, 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.
Immediately all kinds of ideas presented themselves and that was the end of writer’s block. It was just then a process of getting it all. The period I’m discussing was full of self recrimination and self doubt. You begin to feel something of a fraud when so many people rail against you for having made $4 million for a script. You think maybe I was overpaid; maybe I didn’t deserve the money. You feel like a charlatan to have pulled it off. But after every script I feel like I’ll never write another one that I will have forgotten how to write. I don’t think that’s uncommon among writers.
Q. Was part of the problem the fact that you had a very high profile?
A: I had a very high profile. It was something to live up to which would have been difficult enough if I wasn’t also coming off a bomb which had given people plenty of time to scoff. There was a lot of pressure for me to demonstratively say… I’m still in this game. But I didn’t really believe it myself. Every day I wait for the guy to knock on my door and say… ‘Hi, I’m from Ohio where I have been pumping gas. Now it’s your turn to do that and I’ll be the screenwriter’.
I really think it is a day to day, hand to mouth business and one success on a given project is no guarantee of any continued success. You’ll hear so many stories about people like Preston Sturges – who was considered one of the greats of his time – who was profoundly unhappy and died miserable.
There is a struggle and the struggle is partly against the system that encourages cynicism, and is very intolerant of any failure but it is mostly against yourself. It is mostly the struggle to take a leap of faith that what you have today and the skills you possess will still be there tomorrow when you come back – they are not going to desert you overnight.
I have always assumed that in a very over compensatory way that I will come back tomorrow and the treasures will be gone. Then you have those days when you have not written for a while, you are a bit rusty and you think the vault is empty. Eventually you have to take a leap of faith. But I have never been too big on faith. Deep down I hope I have this overall positivism within. I have faith in life’s ability to provide terrific crescendos but there is also this nagging certain that what awaits me are these horrible pitfalls.
Q: The actors were impressed that you were very calm in the role of director. Weren’t you nervous?
A: Having been through a period of years which I describe as gradually dispelled misery, I had nothing to lose. My life couldn’t get worse. So on the set there was nothing for it but to be as focused as possible. I did a tremendous amount of preparation… studying and reading and watching films. I would rewind them until I was sick to death of them, until I had every shot in my head and why and how it worked. I studied every different lens. Everything stuck in my head so that by the time I got on to the set I was so prepared that I was able to be flexible.
I think that’s the true key. You do enough advance work and then you can throw it all out, but at least you have it.
Q: Can you remember when you first watched the film with an audience?
A: I’m pretty good at being an audience member and in the editing room Joel and I had looked at it so many times. Overall I was pleased that audiences were coming away saying they understood the plot… it was a little confusing but they understood it. I had thought people wouldn’t get it.
But they enjoyed the film and loved the actors. I think that’s why I was confident about sitting down and watching it with an audience because I knew these actors were pulling off these gags. And I can still watch the film even though I have seen it through 30 times and 100s of times in the editing room.
But I can still sit there and laugh at Val or Robert and look forward to certain bits. I love seeing the audience laugh. It just works. And I get a kick out of the expertise of the actors. they make it almost impossible for the audience not to enjoy the film.
Q: What’s next?
A: I have been reading Elizabethan and turn of the century ghost stories; I’ve probably read over 100 of them. I’m going to try and do an odd, gory and even grotesque modern horror film that’s done in a real classical style. So I have been going crazy over ghost stories. But I don’t want to do a gross-out or slasher picture and I may set it in England.