Shane Black on Screenwriting, R-Rated Studio Films, and His Upcoming 'The Predator'

(From left) Director Shane Black, Ryan Gosling, and Russell Crowe, on set for 'The Nice Guys,' 2016. (Photo: Daniel McFadden/ Everett Collection
(From left) Director Shane Black, Ryan Gosling, and Russell Crowe, on set for ‘The Nice Guys,’ 2016. (Photo: Daniel McFadden/ Everett Collection

By Nick Schager, Yahoo Movies

After redefining the mismatched-buddy action-comedy genre with Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, Shane Black receded from the cinematic spotlight for a while before making a splash with indie comic-mystery Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, then roaring back in 2013 with the $1.2 billion-grossing Iron Man 3 and the critically hailed The Nice Guys this past summer. Now, in the recently published On Story — Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films, a collection of transcribed panel discussions and interviews from the Austin Film Festival, Black shares some of his insights on the movie-scripting process. Featuring a chapter devoted to Black’s Austin conversation with David Milch (Deadwood) and Sydney Pollack (Tootsie), the book affords an in-depth look at the art of writing for the big screen. In connection with the book’s release, Black spoke with us about his relationship with On Story and the Austin festival, making R-rated event pictures in a studio system geared to PG-13 releases, and his slated-for-2018 big-budget sci-fi/action reboot, The Predator.

Related: Shane Black: How He Went From Golden Boy to Outcast to the Top Again

How did you first get involved with the Austin Film Festival, and On Story?
Back in the ’90s, [Austin] was a small festival which I went to, to hang out with some buddies of mine who were writers, like Ed Solomon, Scott Rosenberg, Akiva Goldsman. Those people who were there from the very first or second festival. It was a small but focused event that seemed to be about the writer in Hollywood. It was so much fun hanging with peers, seeing the interest in screenwriting, and having a chance to circulate in a very informal environment. I’d be sitting up late at night with one of the writers — like, Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean) is a friend of mine — and we’d just be drinking coffee and someone would wander by and we’d just start an argument, and pretty soon everyone gathers and some other writers come in from drinking and join us. It was just that sort of summer camp/town hall environment, all centered around the Driscoll Hotel in Austin, Texas. It just became a real collegial and friendly place to be — and one of my favorite places to be. Out of 23 festivals, I’ve been to 20 of them. It’s a chance for me to do a little lecturing — and, in the course of doing that with all these bright-eyed young kids, I end up saying things I didn’t know I knew. And finding out what I’m thinking about. They do that service for me. That’s something I derive from it.

Watch an Austin Film Festival ‘On Story’ featuring Shane Black:

At the same time, I see all my friends, and we all feel it’s a good way to feel good about yourself, and to take a break from L.A. And in the course of it, I’ve met the most amazing people. Among them David Milch and Sydney Pollack, who are part of the panel discussion in the book. So I’ve been privileged to be part of this.

I was once in a meditation class, oddly, and I was asked to find my “safe space.” And for some reason, the first thing I thought of was sitting at midnight in a bar in the Driscoll watching people come and go, and knowing that I was safe amongst those colleagues and writers and students. So that was kind of a big endorsement.

I’d say so. Even today, do you consider yourself a writer first and director second? Or have those artistic roles now merged together?
I tend to find they go hand-in-hand. The only problem as a director, in trying to consolidate or solve some issues filming-wise — I always realize it goes back to the script, and I end up in a room for two days adjusting or clarifying the script so that it flows along with the story. And then it makes it easier as a director to solve those problems.

I don’t think there’s really a difference, except that a lot of directors don’t really know how to write. They’re intuitive, and they know how to interpret writing. But I think the gift, if you can blend them, sort of a one-stop shopping toolkit for how to fix your director’s problems, is that you go back to your keyboard for a day, and then you return to the set.

How hard is it to get an R-rated film like The Nice Guys — or your upcoming The Predator — released by the studios, especially in the summer, given their apparent preference for PG-13 event pictures.
It’s tough. And the thing is, it’s not that it’s impossible to do. It’s just that studios are loath to spend the same amount of money either financing or promoting an R-rated movie if you can make it PG-13. They’re always asking the question, “Can we do this as a PG-13 movie?” And I usually say, well, not really. So with The Nice Guys, we actually had to go outside the studio. Which is to say that, we got foreign money and went off to make the movie, understanding that some of the budget would come from Warner Bros. distributing the picture.

‘The Nice Guys’: Watch a trailer:

Have you had a similar experience with The Predator? Is Fox fully behind your R-rated vision of it?
Yeah, they are fully behind it, to their credit. I’m having a good experience in terms of the openness of it. I made it a condition of the filming that it would be an R-rated picture, I said, “Frankly, there’s a rule of thumb which says you spend less money on an R-rated version of Predator, because fewer people see it. But I think this is counter-intuitive, because in my opinion, I don’t think anyone wants a PG-rated version of this movie.” I kind of see it as a betrayal of the concept — the original is rated R — and I think they would see it as kind of a letdown, or a cheat. They’d view me as trying to capitalize and make a family-friendly version. And I think that’s not what I want, and it’s not what the fans want.

Oddly, Fox kind of nodded their heads and went, “Yup. Let’s make it R.” They had the success of Deadpool behind them at that time — it had just opened. But that said, I still think they’ve been remarkably cooperative. So I’m pleased with it.

Although you co-starred in the original Predator, how tough is it to “reboot” a franchise that you didn’t originate — which is something you also did with Iron Man 3 — versus working with your own material?
It’s the same as with Iron Man. And the only question you have to ask yourself is, “Does the material excite you?” On some level, even if it isn’t Shakespeare: “Are you a fan?” And the truth is, it tickles me, this notion [of The Predator]. I have a fondness for the series. But beyond that, if I didn’t think these movies were fun and if I wasn’t a comic book fan…and by the way, I think some of the comic book Predator titles are really terrific. The ones they’ve done at Dark Horse and at different places since. I just remain a science-fiction comic-book buff. And in-between sort of obscure, lower-budget movies, I think there’s room to make a real fast-paced, high-ticket summer-type movie of the Predator.

‘The Predator’ Reboot De-cloaks Itself With Teaser Poster Reveal: