It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)



Shane Black

Posted on | October 9, 2008 | No Comments

A decade ago, the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood up and vanished. Now he’s back HOT COMEBACK

YOU PROBABLY DON’T know who Shane Black is, but he lives in Los Angeles, in a humongous mansion of the French château style, fourteen great-big, dimly lit rooms in all, where he can shuffle around for days on end without seeing another soul, except for maybe the occasional friend (or friend of a friend of a friend) sleeping it off in one of his beds. The house cost him $2 million in 1994. He says it was a steal. He was thirty-two and had the money. How he got the money is: He wrote screenplays that sold for record-setting stupendous amounts. While you might not know him, you may know at least one of those movies. In 1987, as a twenty-two-year-old kid just out of UCLA, he wrote Lethal Weapon, starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, followed by The Last Boy Scout (1991), starring Bruce Willis, and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson. The screenplays for these three movies netted him $6.15 million. He was the most envied screenwriter in Hollywood. It wasn’t just the money. It was also that, starting with Lethal Weapon, he’d almost single-handedly added an entirely new and much-copied dimension to an old-standby movie genre: the wisecracking-cops buddy movie. The difference was, his flicks — fun, and dark, and witty — cranked up the action to non-stop, hair-sizzling levels that left you breathless, if not giddy.

And then, after 1996, Black vanished. One minute he was applying for membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so he could vote in the Oscars; the next he was being denied membership, apparently because his movies lacked substantive merit; and shortly after that, poof, gone, not to be heard from again for many, many years.

Not long ago, however, he was spotted in a no-name Los Angeles restaurant, drinking cup after cup of coffee and saying to the waitress, "Actually, could you do me the meatloaf?" A handsome, almost barrel-chested guy, he wore some scraggle on his chin and a ball cap on his head. He was forty-three. He had on sneakers and a striped button-down shirt. He didn’t sound so good. He kept coughing, and clearing his throat, and blowing his nose, like he’d just come up from a dungeon. His cell chimed. He answered it, listened, sighed and said, "No, man, I do not want to go out tonight."

After that, he got his coffee freshened and began speaking. "I once heard that the curse of Hollywood is not that ninety-nine percent of the time you’re out of work; and your friends are mean to you, petty, peevish and angry; and everyone hates each other and is venal, full of spite, malice, bigotry, hatred and self-interest. No, that’s not the curse. The curse is that the one percent of the time it’s good, it’s so good that you’ll put up with all the bullshit just for that one time you can sit in a theater and go, ‘Hey, that’s my fucking name up there!’"

He chuckled, then began coughing again and blew his nose.

"I’m OK," he said. "I’m OK."

It was painful to see him like this, the one-time snappy-dialogue king of Hollywood and former hero of film-school-graduate screen-writer hopefuls everywhere, but at least he wasn’t dead. In fact, he was, as they say, attempting a comeback. He’d written a movie called Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, gotten Lethal Weapon producer and old friend Joel Silver to produce it, snagged lovable bad boys Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer to star in it, directed it himself, seen it warmly received at Cannes and now was waiting for it to open here, with his name up there on the screen again. Set in petty, peevish, spiteful, venal Hollywood, the movie features a con man turned actor (Downey); a gay detective (Kilmer); a murder; intelligent, amusing dialogue; thrilling chase scenes and fun explosions; and lots more of the stuff that once made Black the most highly paid writer in town. In a sense, then, he should have been warily on top of the world and looking gleefully forward to an injection of that one-percent solution of pure bliss. Instead, he was morose.

"I don’t know why it is I’m kind of down," he said.

His cell phone rang again. He looked at it but this time left it unanswered.

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE NOW, but for a brief moment a little more than a decade ago, the biggest stars in Hollywood weren’t actors, directors or producers but the erstwhile lowly screenwriter, and the two biggest stars were Black and one Joe Eszterhas. They didn’t write scripts as the hired hands of the studios; instead, they wrote so-called spec scripts — penned with no one’s backing, on speculation — and then sold them to the highest bidder. A belligerent loudmouth and former ROLLING STONE writer, Eszterhas was the more pyrotechnic of the two. He made his name with 1992’s Basic Instinct, featuring icepick murders and lesbian chic, for which he was paid $3 million; and he solidified his reputation two years later by scribbling the concept for a movie on a paper napkin and selling the napkin’s contents for a reported $2 million. That it was turned into a laughable piece of hooey called Showgirls is beside the point. The point is, screenwriters were getting paid like never before. Black, for one, got $400,000 for Lethal Weapon, a record $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout and a record $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight. It was a gold rush, and the rising young screenwriters were called the Young Turks.

Needless to say, however, unless you were a Young Turk, or a Young Turk’s agent, you didn’t much care for the punks. For one thing, pressure tactics got them their money; studios would be given maybe twenty-four hours to read a completed script and start coughing up bids or be blocked from bidding at all. Meanwhile, the non-Turk writers looked on with mounting bitterness. To them, and to other observers, it looked like all those kids actually cared about was the money and that they were, in fact, talentless hacks who ended up in the right place at the right time with the right product; their scripts weren’t crafted, they were extruded. The poster-child recipient of this kind of thinking? Shane Black.

It was 1996. Two years had passed since he’d sold that $4 million Long Kiss Goodnight script and now the movie was about to open. It’d cost $65 million to make, big money back then. Exit polls and pre-release reviews were mainly positive. Geena Davis looked suitably fetching as the amnesiac schoolmarm who rediscovers her CIA-assassin past. But no one seemed to care. The movie tanked. Black took the hit and took it hard.

"I put as much as I possibly could into that movie, to an obsessive level," he says. "But when it belly-flopped so singularly, it seemed to lend credence to all the people who were saying, ‘Hey, you’re an overpaid hack.’ Then the attitude became ‘You want to write a stupid little movie that sells for all that money? Well, see what that gets you, smartass.’"

This was a far cry from the happy hoopla surrounding the opening of Lethal Weapon, which made $7 million its opening weekend and went on to make well over $150 million. But Black was a rookie then, brand-new, and a much different person. "It was a charming, very engaging time, when I was completely naive," he says. "I was all excited and full of all kinds of grand notions and big ideas, and just so goddamned pleased to be here. To this day I still like the movie, though the sequels, which I didn’t stick around for, just about killed me. It was a great way to debut. I mean, if you’re a neurotic, messed-up twenty-four-year-old kid with a great deal of self-loathing, it probably only adds one more reason to try to self-destruct yourself. Even so, I remember it with great fondness. And the fun we had."

After the Long Kiss Goodnight debacle, Black repaired to his mansion and pondered his future through the miserable haze of countless packs of cigarettes. He’d done this kind of thing before. In 1993, he’d had a hand in writing The Last Action Hero, the first Arnold Schwarzenegger flick ever to bomb at the box office, and took its failure to heart. But he’d been only one of several writers on that stinker, and he came back in a year or two. The Long Kiss Goodnight was his alone. This time, when he went down, he stayed down.

It’s hard to say exactly where the next ten years went, as Black is a little fuzzy on the details. He says he spent a couple of years just cruising the streets of Hollywood, in imitation of the dime-store lotharios in Swingers, with his Young Turk pals, all of whom had been his roommates in college. He went on overseas trips that lasted for months. He acted in student films. He tried to get a few projects off the ground, in vain. He suffered from writer’s block and the pain of composition ("When it’s going well, it’s great, but until then it’s murder, loathsome, the worst thing in the world"). He worried that he’d never be able to top his early success. He occasionally got words down on paper, only to say to himself, "No one in Hollywood even remembers my name. I’m typing these pages only for my mother to read because no one else is ever going to." He showed up as a panelist at a screenwriting symposium and felt like a fraud. He read books. He walked his dogs.

And every Halloween he threw a party at his mansion that became the hottest ticket in town. A thousand people would stop by. He hired shuttle vans, special-effects technicians and security. It was a total debauch, featuring naked supermodels painted bright green; girls in plaid schoolgirl miniskirts; lots of nifty girl-on-girl dancing-and-kissing action; guys with eye patches and devil’s horns; and red flags emblazoned REDRUM. It was a mad sexed-up scene straight out of Day of the Locust. And then there’s the grinning host himself, dressed in black. Do you know that guy? Who is that guy?

"Earlier, I was mortified to have become almost entirely associated with the money side of the movie business," says Black. "Everyone thought I had this magic formula, some Rube Goldberg machine where you dial a screenplay, mix it up right and money comes out the other end. I got sick of people saying, ‘You’re that money guy!’ But then those Halloween parties became bigger and bigger, to the point where one year I realised, with dismay, that I’m now known as That Guy Who Throws That Party Every Year. I didn’t want it to happen. It happened anyway.

"Ha, ha," he goes on. "Ha, ha."

WAY BACK WHEN, HE was indeed neurotic, messed up, and full of self-loathing. He says that as a kid he was "weak and wimpy" and that "if I ever got in a fight, I got my ass kicked." Born in Pittsburgh, he was living in Fullerton, California, a 135-pound, seventeen-year-old weakling nerd. Other Orange County kids were into orgies and drugs. Meanwhile, he’s busy reading books about Star Trek, his favorite show, or listening to comedy albums in his bedroom, with the door shut. He was a loner.

Then, one day, his father, a former University of Pittsburgh football star and 240 pounds of apparent menace, suggested that his son try out for his high school’s junior-varsity football team. Black took it as an order. On the first day of practice, during the first play, he had his nose broken by a teammate, leaving him with "the worst deviated septum my doctor has ever seen." He persevered. He started lifting weights. By year’s end, he’d put on seventy-five pounds’ worth of muscle and set lifting records at his school.

"You know what?" his coaches said. "Next year we’re going to start you on the varsity team."

"Thank you," said Black. To himself, he said, "Oh, fuck, what have I done?"

He hated football, hated, hated, hated it so much that he quickly got religious about his hatred and started praying to God for a little salvation. Soon, he was praying all the time. He’d get up, go to school, do his homework, come home and pray for the next eight hours. He slept about one hour a night.

He started noticing germs. He’d stay up at night polishing stuff.

He started worrying about electrocution and began crawling around his house, checking its electrical outlets for safety problems.

Outside, he started picking up broken glass — "because a car might drive over it and a tire might pop and the car could crash and a little kid could get killed or something."

After about four months of this, his parents, against his will, checked him into the psychiatric wing of a local hospital, where he spent the next five months. The diagnosis was obsessive-compulsive disorder. In family therapy, he learned his father didn’t care if he played football and wasn’t full of menace but full of love, "the nicest guy in the world, a fucking pussycat." He hadn’t known this about his dad. He knew it now, and his bout of OCD receded.

RIGHT ABOUT NOW, THE phone rings. Black answers it. "Hello, baby, what’s up?" he says coolly. "I’m OK. I overextended myself, hurt my leg, plus I’m catching a cold…."

As it happens, in high school he never got close enough to a girl to even peck her cheek, much less call her "baby." It didn’t matter that he was a big, beefy dude; inside, he still felt like a nerd. "The course of nature had a lot of Star Trek to work against," he says. He matriculated at UCLA, where he was a theater major, and began living with a bunch of movie-nut nerds like himself, many of whom would also go on to become those hotshot screenwriters of the Young Turk sort, such as Ed Solomon (Men in Black), Chris Matheson (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and Gregory Widen (Backdraft). They called their place the Pad o’ Guys. It was nonstop fun, twenty-tour hours a day. In the middle of the night, they’d gather on the front lawn to act out scenes from John Woo’s early chop-socky action movies. They had cameras and made their own movies. They’d audition foxy sorority chicks, saying. "Hmm, you look like you might be right for this part!"

"They would do anything to get a part," Black says. "I mean, I’m not suggesting they’d have sex with us, but they would be … enthused!"

He wrote one script, which got him an agent and some studio introductions, even though it didn’t sell. Working out of his garage, he started on another one. He was forty pages into it when a high-brow poet friend happened by and persuaded Black to let him read it. Afterward, the poet said, "You’re a talented guy. Why are you writing this? This is stupid."

Disgusted with himself, Black threw the forty pages in the trash and walked away. A few days later, bored and with nothing better to do, he retrieved the pages, finished the script, gave it to his agent, who went bonkers over it, and a week later sold the script for Lethal Weapon for $400,000.

Over the years, he’s learned a few things.

One thing he knows is that Mondays is Joseph’s Cafe, over on Ivar, or else Eighties night at Spider; Tuesdays is rest day; Wednesdays is Mood; Thursdays is Prey ("or, as we call it, the listless bouncing lesbians’ bar"); Fridays is, "of course," poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel, where on a good day you can see Courtney Love being taken away in an ambulance; Saturdays is Guy’s or Shelter; and Sundays is — well, he doesn’t bring up Sundays.

"This is information I’m ashamed and embarrassed to know," he says.

Another thing he knows is, "Around here, you’ve got the most highly concentrated, intensely distilled reservoir of absolute dread, with anyone who’s ever wanted to be something lodged within an area of about ten square miles of terror. It’s a constant barrage of negative impulses. If you stay too long, you become infected by that vibe."

And yet he stays, and the reason he stays is the ever alluring possibility of an injection of that one-percent solution of pure bliss.

HE IS PADDING AROUND HIS HOME, coughing and blowing his nose. The place has minimansion-size outbuildings. One would be the chauffeur’s quarters, if he cared to have a chauffeur. Another houses an office that he doesn’t use. The mansion itself has seven or eight bedrooms, its own ghost and a lush top-floor screening room with a pole in it for girls who might want to pole-dance.

"Does it seem kind of chilly in here?" he asks, looking around. "My throat is kind of scratchy. I’m making myself sick. I’m supposed to be writing and it’s not happening. I feel like a schmuck. I’m becoming ill. I’ve got ten minutes left before I succumb."

It almost feels like football season in here.

He goes to his dining room and takes a seat.

The place is empty except for his four dogs — Ava, Roscoe, Honeybear and Teddy — "street pups," he calls them. Oftentimes, people will show up at his front door, unannounced, expecting to be let in. Sometimes he has no real idea who they are. Sometimes he’ll wake up in the morning and find these people asleep in one of his bedrooms. "You never quite know who’s here and who isn’t," he says.

He blows his nose and plunges into an analysis of his current situation.

"The curse to being me is that I’m still twenty-three. All my real friends grew up, got married and moved away. Here I am in this big house, with my dogs and whoever happens to stop by." He coughs. "The bitterness is, I still want somebody to come by in the middle of the night with a camera and say, ‘Let’s go make a little movie like we used to.’"

Once again, his cell phone rings. Answering it, he listens to a friend say that he’s got all these girls, and he’s bringing them over.

Black says, "Take them somewhere else." To himself, he says, "Let them find someone else’s fucking house."

Later he says, "Isn’t it weird when nerds get some money under them and start fucking all these Playmates and stuff? I never even got to that place. I don’t know why. I guess because it’s distasteful, and I’m deathly afraid of disease." He coughs again. "I mean, women are fantastic. But I want rewards like that to be the result of something worthy of being rewarded. Let me sit down and write a new script, and I’ll fuck all the girls you want. Heh. Line ’em up, as soon as I’m done writing."

Actually, he plans to write tonight.

"Yeah," he says. "Sure."

Rolling Stone News

shane black

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