The 20-Something Writer Whose Screenplay Started A Hollywood Bidding War

Predator, 1987. The man who will quickly become one of the biggest talents in late ’80s, early ’90s cinema has just stepped off a choppa. Surprisingly, it isn’t the Austrian Oak who’s chewing on a cigar like it’s a liquorice whip, but the weedy, bespectacled gent caught in his shadow. Wisecracking communications specialist Hawkins might have “first guy to die” written all over him in this interplanetary rumble in the jungle, but so what? He’s got other things on his mind; specifically, a close-to-retirement cop and his suicidal partner.See, Hawkins was played by Shane Black, who at the age of 24 put together his first successful screenplay, Lethal Weapon, a film that would change the industry forever.

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

As far as action movies go, it’s among the greats. It’s the BFF (best fucking film) of buddy cop movies. One that many could imitate but never replicate. Black’s writing technique was unlike something no one had ever seen before. Rule breaking and out of the box, smart but simple, and with enough to make it not only an interesting pitch but simply an enjoyable read for whoever was lucky enough to get a glance. The most oft-referenced extract of Lethal Weapon goes like this:

EXT. POSH BEVERLY HILLS HOME – TWILIGHT
The kind of house that I’ll buy if this movie is a huge hit. Chrome. Glass. Carved wood. Plus an outdoor solarium: A glass structure, like a greenhouse only there’s a big swimming pool inside. This is a really great place to have sex.

It was this daring maneuver that got Black’s foot in the door, and helped him stay there. Thankfully, producer Joel Silver saw the potential for the movie to be a hit, giving Black $250,000 for his troubles and putting the young screenwriter on Hollywood’s radar. Not bad for a 24-year-old who saw the nasty end of the Predator’s shoulder cannon.This was only the beginning for a writer with a razor-sharp wit and a fondness for the holiday season. Following the unprecedented success of Lethal Weapon (the film made $120.2 million at the box office), studios soon began to deduce that the dough would rise if Black’s name was on a screenplay. As a result, studios were fighting hand over fist to get a look inside Black’s book of ideas. As it turned out, the man who had gifted us Lethal Weapon had a vast armory beyond the studios’ expectations.
So began the hunt for the next Lethal Weapon, the next big outsider writer who could deliver something with so much pop and originality that it would send the studio’s receipts into the stratosphere, all the while keeping an eye on the man who set the trend. While Black was hard at work on his next big thing, other budding writers looked at this new kid on the block and thought they too would be able to deliver the same kind of punch. Some of them actually did, but not before the movie industry’s most wanted writer took another crack at it.Our man Black had a number of ideas in his book that spelled success just as clearly as Lethal Weapon. The winning ingredients were all there: Noir-like tales of characters who spouted venomous dialogue better than anything you’ve thought of after an argument; men infused with the smell of alcohol and failure who would bite and bottle their way out of a tough scrape and laugh about it after. This formula would be repeated to a degree following Lethal Weapon, swapping pharmaceuticals with football in The Last Boy Scout. The film would see Bruce Willis as a besmirched Secret Service agent turned P.I. who discovers a road of corruption leading from the football stadium to a politician’s office. Damon Wayans was the other half of this dysfunctional duo — a quarterback with a coke problem, chiming in with wise cracks as Willis sneers at a world gone rotten. This would be the page turner that revealed just how much power Black had gained from his debut, and how the industry was working to tap into it. Like a Draft Day in Hollywood, Black was getting calls with bids that writers at the time had never dreamed of hearing. Yet, here he was, a 26-year-old scribe who was getting offered millions; one of the first at that time, in fact. Studios were basing the sale solely on his reputation and strength as a writer, not necessarily its commercial appeal. As soon as the script was in their hands, the rest was up to them — and The Last Boy Scout was a prime example of how a great script doesn’t necessarily equal a fantastic movie.As is often the case in Hollywood, too many cooks got involved in the recipe of the Bruce Willis-starring broth, namely Willis himself. In the end, the combined efforts of both the Die Hard star and late action aficionado Tony Scott weren’t enough to reload the success of Lethal Weapon, and The Last Boy Scout became a box office bomb. It wasn’t an issue for Black — the end product might not have been as strong as the original draft — and that didn’t alter his reputation or the price tag that went with it.The offers grew bigger and the competition more intense. No sooner had Black signed on the dotted line for The Last Boy Scout and collected an enormous fee did another eager beaver make a bundle for his finely tuned work. The lucky soul that won big was Joe Eszterhas, with a script for Basic Instinct and a price tag for a whopping $3 million. Eszterhas even bragged to the Lethal Weapon scribe about his recent profit, which Black recalled in 2013 to Vanity Fair with vivid detail:

“Eszterhas used to call and wake me up at night saying, ‘I just sold something for more money than you, ha-ha.’ I was like, ‘Joe, I don’t care, man.’”

He didn’t, and it’s something that has remained true throughout Black’s career. Even with the mild nosedive piloted by a jig-dancing Bruce Willis, Black persevered. His wonderful writing style continued to turn important heads, even to the point that he was called in to do recovery work on a film that was aiming to be Black-like from the get-go. Last Action Hero saw a kid get sucked into a movie and team up with Jack Slater, an Arnie-like hero played by Schwarzenegger, with his tongue planted firmly in that chiseled cheek of his. It was a brave and bold story; had we known Black had not penned it from the outset, it wouldn’t be crazy to think it was his idea from the start. While he managed to complete the piece, the final film was overshadowed by a summer blockbuster that even Arnie couldn’t compete with: Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Regardless of the fan base that grew with every bit of work Black did, the box office still didn’t see it. The final push that sent him into a lengthy hiatus from the spotlight was the aptly named The Long Kiss Goodnight. Starring Geena Davis as the leading (and ridiculously lethal) lady, the film followed a former assassin turned amnesiac housewife who, after a car crash, recalls her early days as a deadly killer. It was overtly violent, wild, and had more F-bombs than a Scorsese marathon. It also sold for $4 million. All well and good for Black, but the trend he’d set was now in full effect and brasher writers were now circling the starlit streets. We now had the likes of Quentin Tarantino being nominated for an Oscar with Pulp Fiction and Christopher McQuarrie making a splash with The Usual Suspects. Screenwriters that had followed in Black’s footsteps were now ahead of him in the game, leaving him to take a break from Hollywood and drop completely off radar.
Flash forward an unthinkable near-decade later and the writer who had vanished from view was now back in the industry adapting to the mark he’d left behind. Good job that he’d returned with the perfect script in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, painted in that familiar Black layer of wit and wonderful manner. Another buddy movie focusing on a murder in the Hollywood Hills, the film not only revived Black’s career (and marked his directorial debut), but also the film’s star, Mr. Robert Downey Jr. Yeah, thought that name might ring a bell. You ever want to see what helped get him the role of everyone’s favorite billionaire playboy philanthropist? Look no further than Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This is where Tony Stark was born, and being such a proud parent that he was, this new director who was a seasoned writer would eventually reunite with RDJ for Iron Man 3 where he’d finally find some long overdue success. OK, so being a chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe practically gave him a license to print money, but it was his co-writing effort with Drew Pearce that helped the film along and finally got a Shane Black movie to where it deserved to be — the top of the box office. Not only was it the second biggest film of 2013, but now the 10th biggest box office success of all time. To paraphrase the Mandarin, a.k.a. Trevor Slattery, we never saw him coming.Or did we? Even with the highs, lows and full-blown departures, Shane Black was and still is a credible name that always promises stories that are sharper than the rest. Now with the impending introduction to The Nice Guys, his return to the world of Predator, and the long-discussed Doc Savage coming to fruition, there’s never been a better time to bet on Black. To be honest, we were all in since the beginning.Illustrations by Ben Holmes