Shane Black burst onto the scene in the '80s as an actor in Predator , but he quickly became a household name writing some of the most lucrative spec scripts in screenwriting history.
He gained quick recognition with Lethal Weapon and followed it up with films like The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Action Hero, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Nice Guys ...along with Iron Man 3 and The Predator remake.
This list doesn't include the countless punch-ups and other uncredited work.
Black's career is one I deeply admire. Instead of becoming a flash in the pan, he's been able to find longevity in an arena that chews most up and spits them out.
Today I want to examine Shane Black's love of Christmas, wit, and violence. And talk about how those signatures shook up Hollywood and allowed him to pave his own way in the business.
Why Does Shane Black Layer Wit, Action, and Christmas in All His Scripts?
Action movies of the 1980s were either heavy on the comedy and light on the action, or took themselves incredibly seriously and didn't have too much comedy. Black, who fancied himself an okay actor, saw a need for levity and dialogue punch-ups on most of the things he was reading.
This eventuality landed him meetings with executives and a job writing Monster Squad .
From there, the sky was the limit. Black became one of Hollywood’s most in-demand writers. He made $250,000 for his spec, Lethal Weapon , and then chased that sale with a huge payday ($1.75 million) for the Bruce Willis-starring 1991 action flick The Last Boy Scout.
Black quit Lethal Weapon 2 after the studio vetoed his decision to kill off Mel Gibson’s character, but that didn't slow down his career. He continued to make a lot of money writing. And money bought Black time to write the stories he believed in.
Still, that money also created resentment among other writers who were not as successful.
Eventually, the noisy sales waned, and Black lost his love of storytelling. He knew he had to return to just working.
In an interview with The Independent , Black said, “I just wanted to tell good stories. I didn’t care about money that much. I got turned off to the whole business. I decided, if and when I wrote something, I would end up directing it. But I took my time, believe me. I started Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 1999 and didn’t finish the script until late 2001.”
Yet that pivot to writing and directing only solidified his style.
Action AND Comedy
What I love about Shane Black, and try to emulate, is his blend of action and comedy. It's not cartoony at all. It contains a lot of depth and character development . Black crafts characters with a ton of flaws. Those flaws make us care about them and they usually make us laugh.
From Murtaugh's "I'm getting too old for this shit" to Gosling in The Nice Guys , where he plays an alcoholic whose boozing and depression doesn't debilitate him but actually becomes a hilarious force of nature getting him into trouble over and over until he cures himself, Black allows us to see people for who they truly are: damaged goods just trying to do one thing right.
As much as his characters complain or lament, they usually have enough in them to give it one last shot.
And that last shot is always entertaining.
Even when the violence hits.
Black uses violence to achieve real stakes. People die in his movies. People we love. He famously wanted to kill off Riggs in Lethal Weapon 2 , but aside from that, he allows even fan favorites like Happy in Iron Man 3 get severely injured.
Violence also can lead to comedy, like when Russell Crowe's character breaks Ryan Gosling's arm in The Nice Guys .
This balance is all thanks to a very carefully crafted tone .
Violence means something in these movies because of the comedy. Providing both extremes gives an amazing juxtaposition that allows the audience to be fooled time and time again.
One of the best surprises is in The Long Kiss Goodnight , where Geena Davis' character is trying to figure out her amnesia and thinks she's a chef. Later in the movie, she uses that same knife to stab the head of a hitman that attacks her family.
It's funny, but then the threat of violence kicks in to show the highs and lows of being a mother and wife.
And these touches don't just accentuate the story.
Even his scripts have what people call "Shane Blackisms" inside them, jabs at the people reading that feel meta and exciting.
So why does Shane Black love Christmas?
One of the writer and director signatures of Shane Black is setting his major movies during Christmas, from the subtle hints of Lethal Weapon , where Christmas is seen as a time of high suicide rates, family stress, and the general "fakeness" of Los Angeles (even cocaine as snow!), to the more endearing message of Iron Man 3 , which really is about capturing the spirit of giving once again.
Christmas is just one of those things you love to see in a Shane Black movie. Like the season, it's warm, comfortable, and allows for another layer of the story.
Here's why Black loves Christmas in his own words, given to a reporter from Entertainment Weekly , "Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days, a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives. I tend to think also that it just informs as a backdrop. The first time I noticed it was Three Days of the Condor, the Sydney Pollack film, where Christmas in the background adds this really odd, chilling counterpoint to the espionage plot. I also think that Christmas is just a thing of beauty, especially as it applies to places like Los Angeles, where it’s not so obvious, and you have to dig for it, like little nuggets. One night, on Christmas Eve, I walked past a Mexican lunch wagon serving tacos, and I saw this little string, and on it was a little broken plastic figurine, with a light bulb inside it, of the Virgin Mary. And I thought, that’s just a little hidden piece of magic. You know, all around the city are little slices, little icons of Christmas, that are as effective and beautiful in and of themselves as any 40-foot Christmas tree on the lawn of the White House. So that, in a lot of words, is the answer."
What does Shane Black hope the future of Hollywood holds?
One of the biggest lessons I try to learn from the masters is where they think the industry is going. A lot of times their break-in stories feel unattainable because they happened in a different time. But hearing Black talk, the one thing that remains timeless is great writing.
And the only way to get people to know and accept that you're a great writer is...to write.
Black told The Independent about where he hopes the industry will go in a few years. “I would love to see more spec work being done,” he says. “Because I remember fondly those days when it was a boon market. You would sit down and desperately try to come up with something compelling that created its own franchise – something that wasn’t reliant on those pre-existing brands.”
I absolutely hope the industry goes back there. It usually helps if an original movie makes a ton of money, but we have so many platforms that need content, and so many people who crave storytelling, I want originals to make the new era of screenwriting more hopeful.
For now, the best thing you can do is keep writing.
Finish your script . Then finish another.
We can't wait to see what you write next.
What's next? How to write an action movie !
The action genre is a high-octane thrill ride that gives the audience all the explosions and fights they can handle. But how can you utilize the lessons and tropes of action in your own writing?