Shane Black exploded onto the scene in 1987 with his script for Lethal Weapon. It became a huge hit, and he followed it up with similar edgy, witty screenplays: The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight, among others. The last one signaled an extended absence from Hollywood before returning as a writer AND a director for 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He worked with Robert Downey, Jr. for that film, and the actor was apparently so impressed that he asked Black back to direct Iron Man 3. He spoke to the press during the junket for the film, discussing the creative decisions that went into making it and adapting his unique screenwriting voice to the needs of Tony Stark.
Question: Why did Robert Downey call you to come onto this?
Shane Black: I can only imagine that my previous work with Robert contributed to him calling me, and asking me aboard this somewhat more ambitious production. I had worked briefly with him and sat with him and Jon Favreau during the inception of the first Iron Man, during those early phases. And I was impressed with the project. I was impressed with both of them. So the chance to have a green-lit picture where I got to work with Robert again, and also spend time with Jon Favreau, who gave me endless tips and advice on this thing, was just too attractive to pass.
Q: What was your ambition for Number Three?
SB: We needed to make a movie that felt like a worthy successor to the two previous Favreau films. Marvel, to its credit, said, “We’ve done The Avengers, we made a lot of money. But let’s not do that again right now. Let’s do something different.” And they allowed for a different, sort of stand-alone film, where we got to center around the characters a little more and basically get back to basics: tell what was left to tell of Tony Stark’s story. That was very appealing to me. We wanted to make it more of a thriller and to make it more about Tony and less other-worldly. We wanted to ground it more; that was our intention. I hope we succeeded.
Q: We’re told there’s a different version of this film in China. I’m curious about the version what we’ll see in China, and how much new footage there will be in the film.
SB: [Deadpans] Well, we left out the giant dragon. [Laughter] The Chinese version will be an interesting surprise. There was additional footage that I was asked to look at and approve; I was busy doing the American version while we were simultaneously obtaining footage for the Chinese version. So I got a sense of what was going on. Now we’ve got these two versions. I’m sure it will trickle back to this side of the Pacific in one form or another.
Q: Originally you had said that you didn’t want to use the Mandarin; you identified him as kind of a racist caricature. Is that what kind of led to the Mandarin evolving into what it is now?
SB: I just thought it was an interesting idea. If you’re going to do something that involves a terrorist in the modern world, why not say something about what it would take to create a myth that was all things to all people? How do you assemble elements of traditional historic warfare, like swords and dragons, surrounded with modern characteristics, like the beard from Fidel Castro and the field cap from Gadhafi? Why not make an uber-terrorist and then play with the idea of how he interacts with a corporate world that needs such a figure… that needs this undying hatred for America, and the acolytes and disciples who respond to his myth. We thought that was an interesting idea, regardless of his ethnicity.
Q: You’re very well known for your R-rated action comedies. With this film, you’re obviously working within the PG-13 rating. Is there anything you thought of that was maybe a little too extreme for this? How was it giving up your F-word?
SB: The F-word, tempting as it always is, was pretty easy to lose. I had done a film for kids previously, called The Monster Squad, where we- [spontaneous applause]. Jesus. That’s 1987 folks; be careful. That’s a carbon dating test. That was ages ago. You were children then. We were all children. And that’s the point: remembering that feeling. Coming into this, I had to go back and say, “I remember what it was like when I went to the matinee to stand in line for The Empire Strikes Back, or Star Wars, or those types of films, and get excited about that type of adventure. I had to remember that you could appeal to a family but still be edgy. We didn’t want to pander, we didn’t want to make a kiddie film. But we knew very well that we couldn’t go beyond the boundaries of PG-13. Tony only said “fuck” five times in the first draft. I have no problem with tailoring material to the audience that it’s intended for, as long as you keep the edge; as long as you don’t condescend to that audience.
Q: Lethal Weapon, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and now Iron Man 3 are all set during the holiday season. What is it that you like about setting a movie at Christmastime, and why did you feel that was right for Iron Man 3?
SB: If you’re doing something on an interesting scale that involves an entire universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience. And there is something at Christmas that unites everybody. It already sets a stage within the stage: whatever you are, you’re experiencing this world together. It’s a time of reckoning for a lot of people, where you take stock as to where you’ve been, how you got to where you are now, and the loneliness. Lonely people are lonelier at Christmas, and you tend to notice things more keenly, more acutely, I think. Plus, there was a kind of A Christmas Carol thing that we wanted to bring in for Tony as well, a certain sense of meeting the Ghost of Christmas Past.