According to Shane Black, “The Nice Guys” happened by accident. The filmmaker and his writing partner Anthony Bagarozzi, wrote the script — about a private eye and an enforcer teaming up to solve a missing persons case — in 2001. But no one wanted it, not even when they tried to rework it as a network TV show or a saucier version for cable. Then Ryan Gosling happened upon it. He wanted to work with Russell Crowe, who jumped at the chance. And so, in 72 hours, a project that had been sitting on a shelf for 13 years was suddenly happening.
Black’s no stranger to waiting. He burst into Hollywood in the late ’80s with his script for “Lethal Weapon,” which basically invented the modern buddy action movie. He became the highest paid screenwriter up to that point, thanks to “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” only to spend several fallow years, unable to get work off the ground. When he made his directorial debut with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” starring Robert Downey Jr. from 2006, it was a low budget affair, released like an art film. The film did help get him the job directing and co-writing “Iron Man Three.” But don’t assume that film’s success gave Black carte blanche.
So Marvel money didn’t help get this made?
Hell no. [Laughs] This was distributed by Warner Brothers, but it was financed independently. We went outside the system. That’s the model these days. If you’re not a tentpole movie or if you’re not a recognizable comedy, you’re sort of in the indie world. You can get a negative pickup, you can make your movie with foreign money. But the studios have the slots they’re used to, especially with this budget.
Hollywood doesn’t really make this kind of movie anymore: thrillers that are also comedies that are serious about being both. Usually it’s mostly one or the other.
Either it’s a comedy and you get two “SNL” alumni or it’s fluff. I love “Anchorman,” but the fact is, it’s very slight. It’s a sketch. I love the notion that films used to have a lot of different tones. You’d go see a thriller that was also funny, that was also heartfelt. My favorite example is “Night Shift,” which Ron Howard did in the ’80s. It was a screwball comedy, which is how it was sold. But when you got there you saw a heartfelt friendship where you take this journey. By the end the two characters are walking away and you’re almost in tears, because it’s so honest and soulful in addition to just being a movie. That’s what I love.
Nowadays every big movie has to be primed so it can sell all over the world, not just to specific audiences.
It’s called the “four-quadrant” approach and I despise it.
The way your films play it seems like the writing is very precise, like you’ve worked it all out over a long period before production starts. How much room are you leaving for the actors to change it?
It depends. There are certain things I know have to be said or delivered in certain ways to get the effect, for the joke to make an impact. At other times it’s important to understand the script is a living document. I’d be a fool to ignore the input of someone like Robert Downey or these two guys [Gosling and Russell] can bring, because sometimes their ideas will result in elevating the material in ways I didn’t expect. Robert Downey is the most playful actor I’ve ever worked with. I toss something at him, he tosses it back, and soon there’s something better than was in the script. You never finish writing. You just stop and go to the next step.