Back in the late 90s, when Robert Downey Jr was still being arrested, imprisoned and fired, Shane Black's future didn't seem much rosier.
Like Downey, Black was a one-time Hollywood golden boy who'd hit the skids. He wrote, and sold, the screenplay to Lethal Weapon when he was just 22 and went on to enjoy a decade of success and drastically increasing pay cheques, which culminated in his receiving $4m for 1996's The Long Kiss Goodnight, a deal that made him The Highest Paid Screenwriter In The World. But then the film tanked. Black found himself being snubbed, derided by those who thought the money he was earning was disgusting, especially for films they considered to be dross. Plagued by self-doubt and feeling exiled from his industry, he all but disappeared.
Nearly a decade later he returned, modestly, with his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a smallish, sideways take on the wisecracking detective action genre he'd spearheaded. Black cast Downey as the lead, a comeback for the actor that led directly to his being cast in 2008's Iron Man: director Jon Favreau saw everything he wanted for Tony Stark right there. In turn, when Favreau and Downey wanted some help with the screenplay, they went to Black. Specifically, Downey credits him with writing the press conference speech Tony gives when he returns from captivity, although Black's memory is hazier. "I can't really recall," he says today. "I just remember sitting with the guys munching on blueberries. That's all I remember."
Despite his return to film-making, Black was drinking rather enthusiastically, and it would be a few years before he sobered up. He spent his time developing projects that didn't get made, but in 2011, when Favreau decided not to return for a third Iron Man, Downey came knocking once more. "I owe a debt of thanks to Robert for trusting me enough to guide a greenlit movie," says Black. "It got me up and working again." Indeed, when the Guardian speaks to him, a week before Iron Man 3 is due to be finished, he's working round the clock and adapting the sound mix as we talk. "I'm enormously encouraged," he says, when I ask how he's feeling about it. "The scale of this thing is huge, the sound is intense, I walk out a little shellshocked. In a good way."
Now 51, Black looks back at his career with bemusement. 1987's Lethal Weapon, starring Danny "I'm too old for this shit" Glover and Mel Gibson as detectives Murtaugh and Riggs, spawned three sequels, making Black the new king of the buddy movie. He bagged $1.75m for The Last Boy Scout, $1m for a rewrite of Last Action Hero, then the $4m for The Long Kiss Goodnight. But not everyone equated cash with quality. A friend offered to help Black join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, which would allow him to vote for the Oscars, but he was turned down. "The qualifications were two produced works of substance, of merit," he says. "I had seven films I'd worked on, and they said, 'You don't have enough credits, but feel free to apply again in the future if your resumé improves.' I thought, 'Wow, really?!' I'd been trying to do interesting or artistic work, and instead had succeeded in being thought of as a guy who made a lot of money."
With his self-doubt now as huge as his bank balance, he began to believe his detractors, that maybe he was a hack, and took himself out of the game, choosing instead to party into oblivion.
'Oh, I was totally rankled by it: some dude I'd never heard of who was gonna be thrown into a room with me, with a pen and pad just because they got him under contract'
"I lost track of time," he says. "I continued to write but I didn't realise I was just tinkering and toying and putting off any sort of real, meaningful progress. I'm a nervous guy, and I couldn't think of what I wanted to do, and I didn't have a lot of faith in my ability to generate spec scripts any more. I kept trying and they weren't good enough for me. I just sort of got lost. I drank too much."
At the same time as this was happening, all the former college friends he shared a house and his life with got married. Black was left alone with his dogs. Eventually he came out of his depression, deciding "to get back on board" with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. "It was fun and smaller," he says. "It felt more artistic and like something I'd been wanting to do, before getting sidetracked by big pay cheques."
This was around 2000, but it would take until 2005 to get it made and released. He had dispiriting meetings with a new breed of execs who didn't know who he was, old friends at studios couldn't be bothered to read the screenplay, and many who did didn't care for it. Finally, he decided to go to old-school mega-producer Joel Silver, with whom he'd worked on Lethal Weapon.
"He was the only guy at that point who believed enough in the script to take a chance on me," says Black. After telling him to get rid of the explosions, Silver wangled him $15m from Warners. The film barely broke even, but it got Black back on track, and finally, around 2008, he stopped drinking. "I got sober," he says, "and found that that one significant change took care of all the problems." He began developing a couple of films with the slightly less sober Mel Gibson, whose own implosion put an end to all of that. Then, the very sober Robert Downey Jr asked him if he'd be up for directing Iron Man 3.
When Marvel signed him, the company already had an idea of the direction it wanted to go in. Post-Avengers, things were to be scaled back, reminding audiences of who Tony Stark was away from all the suits and toys. Also, due to contractual shenanigans with an aborted Marvel project (Runaways), it already had another writer, Drew Pearce, attached.
"Shane was caught off-guard by that a little bit," says Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, whom I speak to a couple of days before Black. "He thought Drew was just some studio flunky that had been forced on him."
'Tony Stark's not gonna suddenly turn up as a drag queen, but Marvel are willing to take reasonable risks, and I respect them. They know I always say what I mean; they're gonna get pretty much what's on my mind'
"Oh, I was totally rankled by it at first," says Black. "Some dude I'd never heard of who was gonna be thrown into a room with me, with a pen and pad, and we're supposed to somehow generate a script together, just because they got him under contract. This is baloney! And then I met Drew and, of course, within a week we were scribbling on pads together, and within a month we were friends having dinner."
Black says he relished the challenge of making "a really unique adventure film" within the Marvel framework. He and Pearce wrote a script which he's said is somewhat akin to a Tom Clancy political thriller, and by all accounts he's been able to retain his voice. "There are five things I can point to in the bones of this movie that are 100% solely Shane Black," says Feige. "It has as many, if not more, visual-effects shots than Avengers, but at the same time it has this awesome sort of 80s action-movie overlay, especially with some of the action that Tony and Rhodey find themselves in." Rhodey, Don Cheadle's character, has had a fractious relationship with Tony up to this point, but Black seems to have gone to town on it in a way that's reminiscent of his prior work. "Yes," says Feige, "Shane definitely structured the film in such a way that you literally have sequences of them perched up behind a wall holding guns up, with gunfire all around them, and you go, 'Murtaugh and Riggs!' For an Iron Man movie, that's pretty cool."
I ask Black if he thinks fans of his work will recognise his pawprints. "I think so, I think people are gonna notice check-ins with previous genre pictures like Lethal Weapon just in terms of my style," he says. "The great fun was to add the touches that mark it as being about a guy who is as effective and interesting, and in some ways as deadly outside of a suit of armour as he is within it. Those portions of the movie, when Tony's on his own and Rhodey's walking around in a polo shirt with a gun, were fun for me."
A substantial difference, though, between Lethal Weapon and Iron Man is the tone and the language. Lethal Weapon was rated 18; this is a PG, and a Disney film at that. Did he need reining in? "There was some language in early drafts of the script that would never be allowed to be in the movie itself," says Feige. "We had to say, 'You know you can't say that, right?' And he goes, 'What, oh really?' I don't think he knew the difference between a PG-13 word and an R-rated word! I don't think it ever occurred to him before."
Black says Marvel was overseeing him all the way, but he pushed it. "I insisted we have an edgy script," he says, "but knew that we'd have to go more towards ... look, I consider The Empire Strikes Back to be an edgy film, but nobody says, 'Hey Luke, you cocksucker, gimme that wrench.' I knew we weren't gonna have that sort of thing in this." It seems, though, he got some of what he wanted. in one scene, after a small boy explains that his father abandoned him some years back, Tony snaps back with, "Dads leave, there's no need to be a pussy about it." Which is reassuring. At Long Beach Comic Con a few months after Black was hired, he spoke of his hopes for the film, at one point discussing his gripes with Iron Man 2 ("The middle of the movie is Tony Stark sitting around his house"), stressing the importance he places on high-stakes storytelling. He also mentioned issues he had with the CGI in Captain America.
I wonder how Feige feels about Black shooting from the hip; if he minds his directors criticising other Marvel films. "Well, I don't know what you're referring to," he says (and no, he doesn't want me to tell him), "but I will say that we bring in different film-makers because we want that outside voice, that unique viewpoint to come into each of the movies, so they can stand alone and have a value in their own right. We want directors to believe they can do a better job."
Does Black, within the confines of a huge studio environment, feel he can be himself? "Absolutely," he says. "Tony's not gonna suddenly turn up as a drag queen, but Marvel are willing to take reasonable risks, and I respect them. They know I always say what I mean, whether they're rolling their eyes or not; they're gonna get pretty much what's on my mind. And these guys are very good at what they do, and have given me an education that's beyond priceless. So the finished film will represent, I think, the best of all worlds."
So it's happy families all round, and comeback kids Downey and Black have Hollywood at their feet once more. "I'm excited about my prospects," says Black. "Dare I say it? I got nothing to complain about these days."
Iron Man 3 is in UK cinemas in on Thu 25 Apr
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image: © Vincent Wei