Shane Black has written some of the most structurally immaculate action screenplays in film history, but when it comes to his protagonists... well, he likes 'em fucked up. Same goes for his superheroes.
"The superhero, when he puts on his costume and it rips, is more interesting," explains Black.
Black is seated with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, talking to a group of journalists who've just viewed bits and pieces of this summer's first big blast of mayhem, IRON MAN 3 (due out May 3, 2013). It's been an illuminating late-January day. After unveiling the film's Super Bowl spots, Feige proudly showed off a few sequences that effectively set this second sequel apart from its pre-AVENGERS brethren. The tone is still playful, Robert Downey Jr. is still, refreshingly, Robert Downey Jr., but there's something different here. It's most noticeable in the film's first action sequence, which was screened in its unfinished entirety, cutting back and forth between live-action moments and crude animatics. There have been glimpses of this scene in previous trailers, but watching it set up and payoff as one semi-complete whole, one can't help but realize they're watching a classic Shane Black set piece. What a difference particularization and ingenuity makes.
"Whether you know who Shane Black is or not, you'll know after this movie," boasts Feige. Translation: a younger generation weaned on competent-at-best staging augmented by indifferently-slapped-together CG is going to discover that an action sequence can be visually decipherable and emotionally satisfying. Geography counts. It's not about sensory overload; it's about crescendoing from a domestic dust-up between Tony and Pepper Potts (who's steamed that he's gone on television and picked a fight with The Mandarin) to an awkward, where-the-fuck-did-she-come-from interaction with a newly arrived stranger (Rebecca Hall) to a furious assault on Stark's Malibu mansion. It's wild and cacophonous, but within the devastation it's always clear where each character is (including Stark's mechanical helpers, Dummy and You). As helicopters tear the house apart with missiles and heavy-caliber machine gun fire (think the beachfront assault on Tom Atkins's house in LETHAL WEAPON times a few trillion), Black pulls one unexpected twist after another. It's exhilarating. And there's one totally unexpected move (which Marvel and Disney evidently want us to put out there, so here it comes. Skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know.)
Consider this: there's no way anyone should survive a barrage like this. Fortunately, Tony has the suit. He's got a number of suits actually. And who's to say his live-in girlfriend can't handle herself in one? Kind of.
This is the highlight of Marvel's presentation, which also includes a funny bit of business with a kid in rural Tennessee (where Tony inadvertently crash lands after the assault), and a cool introduction to The Mandarin. Black's version of the character is an ethnically non-specific terrorist played by Sir Ben Kingsley. Like many terrorists, he hates America. And like the most infamous terrorist of the 21st century, he disseminates his message through the media. But The Mandarin doesn't operate out of a cave. He tapes in the living room of a decadently appointed mansion. He has a slick, media savvy handler (played by Guy Pearce, buried under several layers of sleaze). What's The Mandarin's beef with Stark? This isn't entirely clear, but when he nearly kills Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), he ensures Stark is going to spend every waking hour trying to wipe him off the face of the Earth.
This is how IRON MAN 3 sets up. How it pays off is up to Black. Anyone acquainted with LETHAL WEAPON, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT and KISS KISS, BANG BANG knows an action film couldn't be in better hands.
Oh right. The trailer.
And here's the lively post-presentation interview with Black and Feige. Black is, as always, a smart and devilishly funny son of a bitch.
Q: So when the conversation began "Would you like to do IRON MAN 3?", what was that decision like for you?
Black: I had no idea IRON MAN was going to take off like it did. There was something daunting, and at the same time very challenging about a third one. I'm always [wary] of the idea of sequels, because the question is how much story is left to tell, and how do you take something and make it seem like it was meant to be there all along when, clearly, if the first one had bombed there wouldn't be one. The notion of summing up the genre and trying to incorporate as much Iron Man into one movie, stuff it as full as we possibly could was very appealing. Also, I'm thankful [to Downey] for getting the opportunity to work with Marvel in a situation with a greenlit movie, that was going - because I'm not getting any younger. I wanted to make a movie, not develop a movie. He did me a solid there, and I'm happy to have experienced this. We're coming down to the wire now, and... you got to see a bit of it right?
Q: We brought this up with Robert, but the scene where he first meets the young boy is really special. I wonder how much of that is actually a softer side of Tony, or is it a rough around the edges thing? Because clearly he's not soft with the kid at the beginning. How does that shed new light on the character?
Black: I think it's that kind of irreverent kind of relationship that I love, where things are not stated explicitly. Obviously, he has a great deal of affection for the kid, and when you see the movie you'll see the kid is a powerful presence in the film. But Tony never says things like that. I kind of love that he treats the kid with the respect of not having to treat him like a kid. That's fun. Also it's fun because this kid represents a lot of Tony himself; he recognizes himself in this little boy who is similarly alienated in the way I assume Tony was growing up - not having a good family unit. But the kid is off by himself in a little workshop devising these little toys, so Tony takes to him. It's cool. I don't know why it's cool. It just is.
Q: Kevin, you mentioned yesterday that IRON MAN 3 is totally unique. Could you elaborate?
Kevin Feige: I think you got a little taste of that today. It's because of this man right here. (Points to Shane) This is Marvel Studios' first Part 3. We've had other Marvel characters that have had Part 3s that I was around for, and may or may not be as good as Part 2s or other ones. Frankly, I didn't want to fall into those traps. When we were going through the other ones, when I was a part of them, you don't see necessarily that you're falling into those traps. I want to learn from everything that's come before us. If you look at the most recent best Part 3, TOY STORY 3, that's totally different than the other two. It goes to places you don't necessarily expect. We were well under way on IRON MAN 3 by the time we saw that movie, but it is to be admired because it goes to places you wouldn't necessarily expect - and, frankly, you only could've gotten to that place in a Part 3. That's the advantage of a franchise that has more than two parts: you know the characters so well that you feel for them, and are willing to go, we're betting at least, on a different and much more off-the-beaten-path journey with them than you have before.
THE AVENGERS, in a way, liberated us in the development process because we knew we couldn't go bigger than THE AVENGERS. We didn't want to go bigger than THE AVENGERS. What are you going to do? Crack the Earth in two, and Iron Man's going to have to [put it back together]? That's not what it's about. We were much more inspired by the first half of the first IRON MAN film. "Let's put [Tony] metaphorically back in a cave with a bunch of scraps and see how he uses his brain to get out of it." That's very much in Shane's wheelhouse, which is taking cinematic tropes and cinematic conceits and spinning them in an unexpected way. He's done that in this film. Not just in Tony's story, but even with the armor. You saw a brief glimpse today of the way he can just toss the armor onto another person. That's in the books, the way individual pieces can come on to him, but with that sort of new conceit of the armor, Shane constructed three unbelievably cool action sequences - which gave us the opportunity to check that box of big, unique action, while at the same time just being a Tony Stark character story.
Q: Shane, all your career you've been writing memorable action. When you read the sequences on the page, you say, "I know exactly how this is going to play." Then getting to direct with KISS KISS, BANG BANG... it's a smaller film, but I think of the set piece with the coffin. It's something small, but elaborate; it's pulled off really well. Here, you get to go really big. I'm curious as to the challenge of that, and being able to keep all the plates spinning.
Black: That was the challenge. Together with these really remarkable artists, animators and people who were available as a resource to me, to not just have scenes where Iron Man flies in, shoots a bolt, it hits somebody, and the guy flies backwards. How do you start to tone the action so it becomes intricate and you don't remember all of it, you just finish the scene and go "Wow!" And then if you go back and look at it, you'll find little pieces in the [sequence] that you forgot were there, that serve as toning mechanisms, as detailing. To me, it was about getting together with these really brilliant people who do a lot of this pre-visualization process at Marvel and just detail the action so that some of it's subjective. You're inside the action, you're inside it with the character as things come at you.
Little bits can put things over the top. Like in THE PERFECT STORM with George Clooney. It's not really an action film, but there's this scene in it where... he looks up at one point, and there's this Rube Goldberg thing that happens where the mast is coming down, and this thing *whoosh* goes by his head like a foot away. It's just a split second, but for some reason, in the midst of everything else, that extra detail sells the action, and you remember the sequence. I think what we have now, hopefully, like Kevin said, are three really memorable sequences. But they also have to be organic. What I hate about action movies is it's "character, character, character - STOP! Action Scene! (Pause) Alright, start the character again." It's got to be one thing, and that's the challenge. But it's great working with Downey. Downey won't just do an action scene. Every action scene he does is a character piece. That's why I think IRON MAN 3 has advantage over [other action films]. Like, I enjoyed FAST FIVE, but there are the characters, and then they'll just start an action scene. You can take one action scene and put it in the middle, and take the one from the middle and put it at the end. We don't do that here.
Q: Can you talk about working with Downey?
Black: He shows up to play ball. You've got to be pretty alert in the morning - which I'm not generally. (Laughter) I remember standing outside his trailer, and jumping up and down a couple of times... and a bolt of coffee, because I knew I'd go in and *boom* this guy's going to stand right here, and no matter where you go in the room, he's going to be two inches away from your face. He has ideas, and we collaborate; we've done it before. He's a force of nature to be reckoned with: he's an adult, he's a child, he's a genius. He can be the laziest guy, and he can be the most hyperactive, kinetic guy who is limitless in his energy. Basically, he's a phenomenon. He's also this amazing success story. Nobody does what he did. You don't go from being a drug addict to being in prison to being five, six, seven years on top as the biggest star in the world. It doesn't happen ever to *anybody*. But he managed to do it, and I'm fascinated by how he continues to stay at that level and do what he did. He came back from odds that no one beats. I know. So, yeah, he's remarkable to work with, and he shows up to play. You've got to be on your game, because when he walks in, it's not about chewing the fat and drinking coffee. He wants to go. And that's what our challenge was: to be ready on set for him. When he walked in, we had to be up to it.
Q: Can you talk about bringing The Mandarin in? The early Mandarin was kind of Fu Manchu caricature. Why was this the right time to bring him in, and how did you find the right way to play him in collaboration with the writing and Sir Ben Kingsley?
Feige: Dor those of you following along, I think it was Comic Con 2007 when Jon Favreau said, "I can't tell you much, but I can tell you The Mandarin is the bad guy in IRON MAN." We thought, "What can we tell them? That's probably safe!" And then we changed it. (Laughter) About twelve weeks before we started filming, we said "There's too much stuff going on here, we've got to focus on Tony more", so we took him out. We talked about him again for IRON MAN 2, but frankly it wasn't until Shane that there was the idea that sort of cracked it - [an idea] that allowed him to be an entity that, right off the bad, is recognizable, frightening and is fearful in a very ripped-from-the-headlines Osama bin-Laden way, but at the same time spun in a new way. The example Shane always uses, that the cinephiles among you will know, is Marlon Brando's character in APOCALYPSE NOW, Colonel Kurtz. He's a guy who's gone off the reservation and is incorporating all these symbols and iconography into his worldview.
Black: He has an intelligence background. He probably supervised atrocities in his time. His nationality's not even clear because he's shrouded in secrecy, but at some point this field officer went nuts and became a student of warfare and Ancient Chinese symbology and drew from South American insurgency tactics and has created around himself this little world of warfare - the only unifying principle of which seems to be a hatred of the United States. So he represents every terrorist in a way, but specifically he has crafted himself in the manner of The Mandarin, of a warlord. I think that's great, because you get the comic book, but you don't have to deal with the specifics of Fu Manchu stereotyping. We're not saying he's Chinese. We're saying he draws a cloak around him of Chinese symbols and dragons because it represents his obsession with Sun Tzu and various ancient arts of warfare that he has studied. That's what we like about it.
Q: So what is it about Christmas? (Laughter)
Black: It unifies everyone in the world, and puts them on the same playing field. You can cut all over the place, and still be in the same world. Also, I think there's a universal sense at Christmas of a potential for possibilities; everyone stops and takes stock at Christmas of where their lives are, where they've come, and where they've been. That to me seems appropriate for people who are about to encounter the most climactic event in their lives. When you do a TV series, they come back every week. But when you do a movie, even a number three, what you're looking to do ultimately is find the most important thing that ever happened to that character. Because *that's* the movie. The TV version would be an episode, but you don't want an episode. And Christmas to me represents a time when... it's heightened. There's immediately a heightened reality to that. Also, it's fun to pick out bits at Christmas, especially in L.A. - which is bizarrely beautiful [at Christmas]. I've often commented that, to me, that little electric candle inside the cracked Virgin hanging from the Mexican lunch wagon is every bit a powerful memo of Christmas as a forty-foot tree on the White House lawn. I just love the bits you can find, almost like little bits of salted magic that are left around. In film, you can focus on them and bring them out.
Q: But you are doing a series in a way. At the end of the movie, Tony has to go back to The Avengers. So even though it looks like you're going darker, like you're taking everything away from him...
Black: Well, I'm not going to kill him! (Laughter) But I don't worry about THE AVENGERS. That's their problem then, to find one... that's the biggest thing that ever happened.
Feige: And the truth is, aside from not decapitating Tony, we don't necessarily want to think about the next ones. This movie was developed and scripted and shot before Joss put pen to paper on THE AVENGERS 2. Although we're always sort of working on four or five movies at one period of time, we're focusing on one chapter at a time. This movie goes to places you might not expect a franchise - where you already know the next appearance of that character - is going to go. We don't want these to be episodes of a big, really expensive TV series. We want them to be films.
Black: And it seems to be trending that way. Even with the latest Bond film, which I had a lot of problems with, but it basically seemed like they were trying to do the same thing, like "Let's get something that feels like it's not an episode, but more like a... touchstone in the life of a character."
Q: Robert talked about not writing Pepper as a damsel in distress. Can you talk about her role in this film?
Black: They're on parallel tracks in the movie. You saw him, he's off by himself. He's not with her, but we do track both, and they're both forging ahead and doing things. We get to see her being more proactive, I think. She'll play an important part by the end of the movie. It's just giving her something to do besides reacting to him. That's easy. That's rule number one for me: the females have to spring to life a little bit. That's the one thing about the Bond movies: the Bond girls never did anything. You could just choose a model and say, "Here's this year's Bond Girl!" It could be some girl from British perfume sales or something.
Q: Well, there's Diana Rigg.
Black: But that was the exception. He fell in love with her and married her. He said, "This chick I can deal with." That's also my favorite Bond opening because George Lazenby looks at the camera and says, "This never happened to the other fellow." (Laughs)
Q: One thing I loved about KISS KISS, BANG BANG is that you'd walk right up to the edge of these tough-guy movie cliches, and then, at the last second, flip them on their head. A great example is the Russian Roulette bit, where he nails the guy with the first shot. That's one of the appeals with this: it gives you a whole new set of cliches and expectations in the comic book movie to then play off of and subvert.
Black: We were trying, I think, to stay away from a lot of the comic book conventions. If a solution happens too easily, we would reject it. Tony surrounds himself in [IRON MAN 3] with technology, and we wanted to keep that sense of Michael Crichton, or heightened tech everywhere. It's always available..., [and] he's always tinkering and improvising because it's not always going to work. The idea that this technology is unstable and doesn't work, but he's always got more, was fun. The superhero, when he puts on his costume and it rips, it's more interesting.
Q: Your banter is always so great, but oftentimes profane. With this, you're writing something for everyone, for families.
Black: I try to push the boundaries, and then the boundaries... you do what you can. (Laughter)
Feige: "Shane, you can't say 'fuck'." "I thought you could say two in PG-13!" "No."
Black: It's a question of keeping it irreverent. I don't believe necessarily in the four-quadrant approach, where you please everybody. I'll hit two [quadrants], and the others can go screw themselves. Thankfully, I think we've been able to achieve a great compromise of irreverence without being LETHAL WEAPON, where, you know, "They fuck you at the drive-thru!!!" You don't need to do that. We can find humor, and the challenge... it's like a comic who's asked "Don't do your blue set tonight. It's eight o'clock, and it's for the Vice President. Could you just..." "Alright, I won't do the midnight set! I'll do the eight o'clock set." We've done the eight o'clock set, which has challenged us to be irreverent without saying dirty words.
Q: Kevin, going into the bigger picture a little bit. What's your take on Fox, and how they're building their own little Marvel Universe. How do you think these two will coexist?
Black: "I'll piss on their graves!"
Feige: That's for the midnight set. (Laughter) You know, we have a certain amount of involvement in those, but not an enormous amount. I've heard them talk about wanting to do that, but the only one I actively know about is [X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST], which is more about combining the X-Men franchises in a way that sounds unbelievably cool.
Black: I like the X-MEN movies by the way.
Feige: Particularly those first two, which is where I sort of cut my teeth on beginning to develop and produce these films. The fact that Bryan is going back to it, I think they're on to something with the new X-MEN movie, and crossing those two franchises together, the FIRST CLASS and the originals. And using one of the best comic stories ever.
Black: They've got it all with that premise and those characters.
Feige: But whatever else they'll do with FANTASTIC FOUR and the others, we'll see.
Q: So what makes IRON MAN 3 the must-see movie of Summer 2013?
Black: What else is out there? (Laughter)
Feige: I think it's about Shane Black. Whether you know who Shane Black is or not, you'll know after this movie. A character as big as Iron Man is, particularly coming off THE AVENGERS, who's going on this kind of journey and this kind of fresh take, I think is going to be something to behold.
Black: The love of adventure will hopefully do it. We've tried to not be cynical in this. One of the things Marvel does well is that they didn't come in with a template based on THE AVENGERS and say, "What a success we've had! Please do this again!" They've allowed this to have its own breathing space, and its own definitive personality. I also think that... I used to go to the movies and wait two hours or three hours to see RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. And you always got out of the theater and said, "That was worth the wait! That was a great time!" I haven't felt that way in a long time. I'm not saying we're RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but we made every attempt to justify your wait in line, to say "You've come to see a summer movie, you're excited because you want the adventure and the love of it. Well, we're going to try to give you an adventure that's worth standing in line for." Whether we succeed or not, I don't know, but every attempt has been made! (Laughs)
Q: Summer of 2015: THE AVENGERS 2, STAR WARS: EPISODE VII, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 5. That's one studio. Is there a breaking point? Is there a point where there's too many big movies?
Feige: Well, I think the last few summers have shown... I mean, there were a lot of big movies this summer. A lot of them did well, some of them didn't. In terms of one studio releasing that many movies, we'll see.
Q: Or just for audiences.
Feige: I don't think so. I lived through the summer of , where there was SPIDER-MAN 3, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 3 and SHREK 3. They all came out within a week of each other, and they were the three biggest movies of the year. A week is kind of a long time for moviegoers thankfully, luckily. THE AVENGERS 2 also comes out first, so... (Laughter)
Q: Did Joss come to the set of IRON MAN 3?
Black: No, he was too busy.
Feige: We were in North Carolina, so no he didn't come out there.
Black: He's great, though. Before I started, I talked to him. I said, "Okay, break it to me." He said, "You don't want to hear this."
Q: In terms of the process?
Black: Yeah. "Are you married? No? Good." (Laughter)
Q: What's the best-case for you, Shane? This movie is going to be a huge hit. How do you use that going forward? What do you want to do?
Black: Hang out at bars and flash the credentials. (Laughter) I'll try to find something *smaller*. I want to do something smaller. A $40 million budget. I'm looking at several possibilities right now. I'd love to do a noir piece where day one, the first day [on the set], I say, "Action! Just say 'fuck'!" "What???" (Laughter) "I just want to hear it! We've got to get it on camera! Okay, now I feel better."
Q: They were saying that on the first IRON MAN they called you for advice on the script and they called J.J. Abrams. Any calls to J.J. on this?
Black: No. I don't know J.J. that well. I know [Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci], but no calls on this one. I think they're in their own cottage industry right now. I'd have to try to approach the throne, and I think they're busy. But there are people I call, believe me. I think all of us have those resources we turn to, people who, when we throw up our hands and are under pressure... you just need someone who's calmer. But Downey's pretty good as a collaborator. And these guys (pointing to Feige), I'll admit it, when you're under duress are actually pretty smart when it comes to problem solving.
Q: Who do you call, Kevin?
Feige: We have a core brain trust that we trust. Frankly, Favreau was a great resource on this movie.
Black: Yes he was.
Feige: Not just when we were on set, but before that. And Joss... less on this movie, because he was finishing THE AVENGERS as we were prepping this movie, but on THOR and some of the other ones. I'll call up Shane when we're deep into [CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER] probably. When you find people like this, who you trust and who have great instincts and great ideas, why not? When you find yourself at a fork in the road--
Black: And you don't need to pay them... (Laughter)
IRON MAN 3 hits theaters May 3, 2013.