A legendary Hollywood screenwriter who basically invented the modern buddy-cop-action-psychodrama with the original "Lethal Weapon" back in 1987, Black's unique style -- frequently characterized by an at once serious and funny blend of wry voice-overs, film noir detectives, odd couples, hopeless despair, Christmas, the destruction of houses on stilts, and outrageous violence -- shines through the filter of every director he's worked with, and is much-beloved by his fans.
Among those admirers is Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, who recruited Black to succeed Jon Favreau as the man behind the man in the iron mask, so to speak, even though Black had only one other directorial credit to his name. That film is the acclaimed "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," which happened to star Tony Stark himself, Robert Downey Jr., in a career-re-defining performance that helped land him the "Iron Man" part in the first place.
Obviously, it was natural progression for the talented Black to helm the new Iron Man film, but we were nevertheless struck by how Shane Black-ish the new film really is, despite hitting all the notes we've come to expect from Marvel Studios films. The synthesizing of styles and confounding of expectations were part of our recent conversation with Black and Feige, who explained, candidly, the Marvel method of moviemaking as well as the symbolic content of "Iron Man 3," strong women characters, and why it can be a good thing for an audience to leave a movie with questions about what they've just seen.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
Moviefone: First question, Christmas and a house on stilts; were these the deal-breakers?
Shane Black: [laughs] We didn't really project that [Tony Stark's doomed house] would be that far out over the peninsula. It just sort of evolved. The fascinating thing to me about the house is that it's just not real at all. On day one I said, "Please do me a favor. I know you guys know how to do this. I'm not going to presume. But please, let's do models. Please, let's just build the house, we'll make it the size of two rooms, I don't care if the water looks a little fake, I just love models." And they said, "You know, ["The Avengers" director] Joss [Whedon] said the same thing and quickly changed his mind." And sure enough, they made it look real. I always thought CGI couldn't look real but you can do anything now.
All the Marvel Studios films have a prevailing aesthetic, but you also work with really idiosyncratic filmmakers, too. And the films work. But this film might be the most seamless. It's definitely a Marvel Studios film. It's definitely a Shane Black film. What's the process behind it?
Kevin Feige: It's very difficult...
KF: Well, it's a legitimate desire to bring a unique voice to each movie and have each movie stand on its own and be a great piece of entertainment in and of itself. Then it must connect to the broader Marvel Universe in various ways. Frankly, when Shane was signing up for "Iron Man 3," we knew he knew what Iron Man is, he knew what the audience's expectations were for an Iron Man movie. As he's done many times before, he figured out a great way to turn that on its head while keeping it very much in line.
SB: There's a humility, too, that's required -- a lesson I am forced to learn again and again as I go through life. It's knowing that there are accommodations, there's a Marvel Universe that I now get a pass to play inside of. It doesn't mean I can't say, "Okay, everyone dies!" But who wants everyone to die? I had fun collaborating and constructing with Marvel, and to some extent even with Downey, the story that we hope will satisfy everybody. There's a lot of wrangling to be done because there's a lot of opinions in the room, but that's the fun of it.
We skip the middleman. Normally I'd go off and do my bad thinking in private and write down ideas and go, "Argh, that doesn't work!" or I'd spit [an idea] out and my friend would go, "Wow you really put your foot in it with that one!" and I'd finally go, "All right, here are my great ideas, finally!" and hand them over to Marvel. Except Marvel doesn't work that way. They want you to be in the room, so my bad laundry is being viewed by everybody as we work in the room together. Once I got over that, I said, "You know what? Fine. I'll say a dumb idea, I don't care. We'll get this together. We'll skip the middleman. We'll write this damn thing in this room." And we did that. We had this marvelous collaborative experience with [executive producers] Lou D'Esposito, Stephen Broussard, [co-screenwriter] Drew Pearce, and Kevin and myself in a room, vetting ideas and breaking story for hours at a time.
Ultimately, it's this great fusion that wouldn't exist otherwise. I've never been able to do that before. Most producers I work with can't stand 30 minutes of sitting in a room talking about story. These guys can do it days on end.
An interesting theme in the film is anonymity. Anonymity gives Killian (Guy Pearce) his power. Tony Stark identifying himself explicitly is what ends up getting him blown up. Was there any aspect of Internet culture involved in that, the notion that anonymity can empower people?
SB: Yes. There was the notion of having created something beyond yourself and then stepping back and watching it play out. It's no mistake that the Mandarin videos which go viral are kind of chaotic and "video"-looking. He is a mythic figure who basically exists in the ether now. He's been created. He's the ultimate terrorist. The anonymous voices who benefit from him don't have to interact with that. They've created something bigger than themselves. So, too, has Tony with his Iron Man suits because he has made something he can never live up to. This thing that is literally a hollow individual which walks beside him. It's now something he's projected outside himself, and he is the anonymous creator of these things.
There's a lot of those symbolic things running through the film. By the end, [Tony] has to recall [the suits] in a way, and reclaim his flesh, his being. He says, "Yeah, it was great for a while to be anonymous but now I have to step up and own myself again and get rid of all these distractions."
It was great to see Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper step up and have that moment where she wasn't the damsel in distress, she was the one saving Tony. Was that important to you?
SB: It was important, especially to take the curse off the damsel in distress thing. I have a hankering for empowered females trashing stuff. Especially when that stuff includes this metal suit that's been impinging on their relationship. Literally showing up in their bedroom at night and driving her to distraction. It's in essence Tony's lover. It's become the other woman. This f---ing Iron Man. So she, at the end, has a chance to exact some vengeance on it and reclaim her boyfriend.
We were speaking with Rebecca Hall (Maya Hansen) earlier, and the scene she mentioned was when she and Pepper were interacting. That they'd both been with Tony Stark was incidental. They were all business, as opposed to having a cliched cat fight.
And The Mandarin as well, without spoiling anything, there's obviously a flipping of the script. It seems like you guys take that opportunity when it presents itself.
SB: You can't do too much of that, though, because then that becomes predictable. But to the extent that it feels like it's organic, the attempt to be surprising and have moments that you can go in and interpret different ways -- maybe this means this, maybe this means that -- for example, you came in here with questions about the film. That's great. Those questions are great. Observations about the film, that's a victory already. I wouldn't try to turn things on their head just to do so, but to keep things surprising and keep possibilities in play, to keep notions in play and see how those notions bounce for each other, that's all you can ask for -- especially in a superhero movie where you're not expected to deliver anything of significant intellectual weight, why not give it a shot?
KF: They're both such strong characters in and of themselves, Maya Hansen and Pepper Potts. They each have so much more going on in their lives than the fact that one slept with Tony once and one's sleeping with him now. We love the idea that that's just completely incidental. They don't get catty about it. Maya couldn't give a sh--, and Pepper knows what Tony was up to all those years.
SB: Maya wasn't even that taken with him, really!
KF: Tony said it was a great night and she was like, "Eh..."
SB: It's also part of the rom-com of it. What's important to me in honoring Favreau and what he's contributed with the first movies, which I went back and watched again and again, is they're part-thriller, and there's also a lot of romantic comedy. The extent to which rom-com figures in the early Iron Man movies is substantial. The relationship stuff -- what some people might unkindly call the soap opera stuff -- is just as important in some ways as the technology and that was amazing to me. Make them care about the people, make it funny, and then have the mythic stuff that's sort dark and powerful and portentous and then take the curse off that, take the piss out of the myth if you can. It's just juggling.
KF: The best of the Marvel comics have been doing that for a long time.
"Iron Man 3" is in theaters nationwide.