Shane Black was sitting on the set of The Predator when he realised his life had come full circle. “I was in Vancouver watching the Predator walk past and I’m thinking: ‘Wow man, this is the same chair, the same night,’” he says. “It was surreal – life does have those moments where you forge a connection across the years.”
This was evidently not the first time the former Hollywood wunderkind had seen a 7ft-tall intergalactic monster strolling around a set late in the evening. The only difference was that, now, he was directing the beast – not waiting around to be unceremoniously killed by it.
In the original Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring 1987 blockbuster, Black played Rick Hawkins, a special forces agent who quickly falls victim to the eponymous alien. Today, thinking of Black primarily as an actor feels preposterous; in the years since Predator, he has become much better known as a screenwriter and director, having written such classics as Lethal Weapon, Monster Squad and Last Action Hero. But, for a time, the now 56-year-old Black truly believed acting was his calling.
“I honestly knew I was an OK actor, not necessarily a great actor,” he says. “When I was on the set of Predator in Puerta Vallarta [in Mexico], I had just sold the script for Lethal Weapon and was doing a rewrite for [director] Richard Donner. Then there was Monster Squad coming out at the same time. So there were three projects, all at once, swirling as I sat there in Mexico. Two of them involved me as a writer, and only one marginally as an actor. I got the hint at that point.”
Although Predator – on which Black also served as a script doctor – was a smash hit, the real success story was Lethal Weapon, his debut screenplay and a movie that helped redefine the action movie, offering audiences characters with depth rather than concentrating solely on big set pieces. As a result, Black became one of Hollywood’s most in-demand writers, taking a huge payday ($1.75m) for his next major project, the Bruce Willis-starring 1991 action flick The Last Boy Scout (he quit Lethal Weapon 2 after the studio vetoed his decision to kill off Mel Gibson’s character).
There are dozens of stories about the budding writer during this period. One recent profile gives the impression he spent every evening hosting debauched parties at his LA pad, surrounded by champagne and supermodels. One overindulgent Hollywood gathering can be seen in Black’s directorial debut, 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – was it based on his own parties?
“That’s a bit off,” he says reflecting on the time. “They were big parties but my mum and dad were there. I would invite them along. So I didn’t see topless starlets. They weren’t Hollywood parties – they were just parties. I’ve been to some weird ones and I like to generate caricatures of people in Hollywood from them. My favourite part in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was inventing the hyper-Hollywood that our poor lonely boy from New York has to navigate somehow.”
Before Black got the chance to take the reins of Kiss Kiss, though, there was a substantial amount of misfortune. Following The Last Boy Scout came Last Action Hero (which starred Schwarzenegger) and then 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, the script for which Black sold for an (at the time) unprecedented $4m. Starring Geena Davis and Samuel L Jackson, the movie was not the box-office breakthrough the producers had hoped for. Black struggled to find work as a result.
“After Long Kiss Goodnight I just floated for a while,” he says. “I was a very sensitive kid – I call myself a kid, I was probably 30. Unfortunately, people were very upset with me because I sold the script for a great deal of money. A lot of writers, who I thought were very supportive and friendly, were suddenly not looking at me with anything like fondness. They were envious because of the money.
“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.”
After polishing the script to within an inch of its life, Black was ready to cast its leading actor. And who better than an uninsurable star better known for his tabloid exploits than acting? Yet, despite the obstacles put in the way by producers, Black put his faith in Robert Downey Jr, who would go on to win rave reviews for his performance.
“It ended up being my calling card to Iron Man,” Downey said of the movie, later calling Black a “lifeline” for him. Conversely, the movie’s relative box-office disappointment left the writer-director at a new low. As a result, Black decided to party harder than ever, turning to drink and ending up with one girlfriend alleging that he had aimed a gun at her and fired into a wall during a cocaine-fuelled meltdown. He later won a court battle against her, although a statement from his lawyer confirmed they were “in a bad relationship that involved a lot of intoxicants”.
With career failure, court battles and breakups behind him, Black finally decided things needed to change and, in 2008, he decided to get sober, finding that “one significant change took care of all the problems“. He began developing ideas with Lethal Weapon’s Mel Gibson (something that came to an end after Gibson’s own personal problems). To keep the money coming, he continued working as a script doctor, heading to sets to help other directors. But then, in 2010, Downey came knocking with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“He was also a lifeline for me. No doubt,” he says. “He called me out of the blue. I was doing rewrite work on a movie called Battle: Los Angeles and was struggling with a spec script. His phone call put me on a level where I was suddenly working with a lot of money, a lot of great people again. Just like that. He had the faith to offer that to me and I gave everything to that picture.”
The result was Iron Man 3, a financial and critical success that grossed $1.2bn worldwide, putting Black at the top of Hollywood’s most-wanted list once again. From there, the offers came thick and fast. First, Warner Bros picked up The Nice Guys, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Then Fox booked Black for The Predator, the fourth movie in the long-running franchise (not including Alien vs Predator spinoffs) that he has written and directed.
Yet, something here seems amiss. Consider Black’s early career again: a revolutionary scriptwriter who helped define the action genre in the late Eighties/early Nineties. Then look at how he spent years working on Kiss Kiss. It seems odd that his biggest modern works would be sequels/soft-reboots. Of course, he would never say there was a problem – “I’m happy to come on and do a sequel to something like The Predator” – but Black does admit he still pines for original material.
“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.”
One of the many reasons original ideas have fallen through is because studios are unwilling to spend the necessary money. Yet, they are willing to chuck millions at tent-pole movies, including The Predator, which saw the third act completely reshot, much to the worry of rabid fans and the expense of the studio.
“I would like to think that it was largely a common decision that I brought to the studio’s attention that they agreed with,” he explains. “We started the special effects for these scenes and the Predator was walking around in the daylight during the climax. It looked cheap, without the mystery and ambience that you’re used to from that first movie.”
I sense there may have been more to the decision than Black’s letting on. Reports of studio interference driving directors away from projects have become more frequent (Danny Boyle with James Bond, Edgar Wright with Ant-Man, Chris Miller & Phil Lord with Solo: A Star Wars Story). Have we reached a point where auteurs cannot play out their vision?
“Nowadays, given the cost and the necessity of meeting a certain quota in terms of recouping your investment, the playground factor for directors has diminished, that’s for certain,” Black admits. “It’s collaboration at best and scrutiny at worst given to the films that are not allowed to fail. There’s a dearth of risk-taking in a lot of films. Ultimately, it’s up to me to argue whether a risk is worth taking. But it’s certainly going to be easier if it’s not got a high budget.”
Perhaps, then, Black will move onto something more low-key next? “The next one will not be Predator,” he confirms. “I’m going to take a bit of a break, take stock and try and get creative about something. I’ve been working on the same project for two years and it’s time to do something really quirky and risky and odd. So, I’m going to get a little odd and see what comes of it.”
The Predator reaches cinemas today
Update: Since this interview was conducted, a scene from ‘The Predator’ has been deleted after it emerged one of the actors was a sex offender. Black has apologised for casting Steven Wilder Striegel, stating he had been “misled” about the conviction.