Portrait of the Artist as a Young Millionaire : When He Sold a $1.75-million Screenplay, Shane Black Became a Hollywood Role model, Whether he likes it or not
IT’S AN ORDINARY NIGHT AT THE Pad O’ Guys, the West Los Angeles bungalow where screenwriter Shane Black and a dozen or so buddies from his UCLA days hang out discussing the weighty topics of the day, such as how long it’s been since any of them had sex. A picket sign from the Writers Guild strike two years ago decorates the wall and a promotional display from the movie “Flipper” and an assortment of toys and movie hype collect dust on the mantle. No Good Housekeeping seal of approval here.
The phone rings. “It’s a girl,” someone yells in excitement and disbelief. A basketball game is on TV but it’s just background noise; this is not a household of jocks. Neighbors think they’re vampires. Amid the commotion, Black sits in the corner of the cluttered living room, with a Dominos pepperoni pizza on his lap. For dessert, he wolfs down a couple of Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars.
Considering their frat-house lifestyle, it’s hard to believe that these people are successful screenwriters, actors, production designers and animators. It is almost a badge of honor to downplay accomplishments, and anyone displaying the least bit of pretension is instantly deflated. Black half seriously thinks of himself and his friends as “10 guys in a sinking boat.” But to many screenwriters of his generation, Black is a role model of how to flourish in an industry famous for using and abusing writers.
The 28-year-old Black has lived out every screenwriter’s dream. In 1986, he sold his tough-guy buddy script, “Lethal Weapon,” to Warner Bros for $250,000. Then last April he upped the ante for spec scripts when he auctioned another macho adventure tale, “The Last Boy Scout,” to the David Geffen Co. for a staggering $1.75 million. He is one of an increasing number of writers reaping the benefits of Hollywood’s new hunger for completed scripts submitted on speculation--written without a contract from a studio or producer. In a town that historically has undervalued screenplays, Black’s script was a milestone--for a few months he was the country’s highest paid screenwriter. But the spending spree quickly escalated and soon his record was surpassed by Joe Eszterhas’ script for “Basic Instinct,” which Carolco Pictures bought for $3 million.
“I feel that writers deserve at least as big a share as any aspect of the creative team,” Black says. “The writer is as important as, well, the director.” With big payoffs for scripts such as “The Last Boy Scout” and others, writers are finally asserting the power of the screenplay in the movie-making equation, attempting to secure creative control along with the big money.
But Black is neither a crusader for writers’ rights nor a celebrity-in-training. His no-style style--T-shirt, ripped jeans and 4-day stubble--is a comment on what he considers important. “I don’t need the beautiful girl on my arm and the fancy car and the best restaurant,” he says over coffee at Norm’s in West Los Angeles, his favorite restaurant. “You could make a lifetime out of just trying to maintain your status as a cool guy. What I care about is the work.”
Things haven’t changed much for Black since the big deal. A few nights after becoming Hollywood’s latest millionaire, he was in a bar with his older brother Terry, his longtime mentor and a successful screenwriter himself (“Dead Heat”). “After ordering a beer, Shane pulled out his wallet and turns to me and says, ‘Terry, I’m a little low on cash. Could you loan me $10?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Shane, get a job. This writing isn’t going to pan out.’ He cracked up. Shane just doesn’t understand what it means to be wealthy.”
He still drives a beat-up Mustang convertible and lives in a rented house on the Westside with four roommates. “I don’t have any immediate plans for the money,” Black says. “I know this sounds dumb, but every two weeks or so I go on a big spree at the Mysterious bookstore on Beverly, and if I see a series of books that’s going to run me $50, I’m not going to say that’s too much. But that’s really the only difference. And on people’s birthdays I buy slightly nicer gifts.”
If Black isn’t particularly interested in his money, a lot of other people are. On the same day that accounts of his windfall appeared on the front pages of The Times and Variety, he received a call from a Westside real estate agent who wanted to help him find a new house. So many people want a piece of Black that he has started to become protective of his time and privacy; the message on his answering machine apologizes if he’s been neglecting you.
One call that he wishes he didn’t take came in the middle of the night from a female acquaintance, who berated him for his success. “She woke me up at 2 a.m. saying she just wanted to let me know that she thought I was sick for writing this stuff and making so much money,” he remembers. “I should be ashamed of myself because there are real writers out there struggling and I write this trash.”
Like any other successful writer, he’s received his share of criticism. Women frequently attack his work for being too violent and totally male oriented. “I don’t hate women,” Black says. “If a feminist thinks I’m evil because I dip heavily into male icons, then I will have trouble getting along with that person. I write about male heroes because I write adventure fiction. So sue me.”
BLACK’S SOFT, almost weary delivery seems to keep a lid over his emotions--rage, frustration, and even happiness only occasionally dart out from under the cover. He tends to be overly critical of his social skills and says he didn’t go on a date until he was in college. He thinks of writers as the guys who stand in the corner at a party gawking at the girls. Looking at his six-foot frame and solid build, it is hard to imagine him as the 98-pound weakling he claims he was in high school and in some ways still imagines himself to be. He’s surprised that his shyness is sometimes perceived as arrogance.
For fun, Black is content to shoot pool in his garage, read a good mystery and hang out with his friends. The center of his social life is the Pad O’ Guys. Conversation at the Pad, a cross between an L.A. Algonquin round-table and a bull session by a couple white guys hanging around a mini-mall, ranges from banter about great-looking babes to semi-serious discussions of favorite movies. “We’re not totally geeks, but we used to be,” he says by way of explaining the bond that keeps a core group of 10 or 15 guys and a couple of girls together seven years after finishing college.
Any visit to the PAD includes, at no extra cost, a tour of the premises, including a stop at the “Shane Shrine,” a framed copy of a story from People magazine hanging in the place of honor in the dining room. It is unlikely, however, that much actual dining goes on there. In the kitchen, a 7-Up coffee shop placard features the PAD O’ GUYS MENU, offering such items as praise, a rare commodity, for 50 cents, or sarcasm, clearly in greater supply, for only a cent. To describe their housekeeping skills, the Guys tell a story about how after their annual PAD O’ PARTY last August they started to smell what they thought was a dead rat under the floor. It wasn’t until two months later that someone opened the oven and discovered the remains of a piece of raw chicken left over from the party.
When they first met at college, most of the Guys were just beginning to figure out what they wanted to do when they grew up. In those days, Black was a theater major. An actor and a stand-up comic, he was known as the Wild Man for throwing things around the stage and his general erratic behavior. He wrote a string of one-act plays and continued on stage throughout college but scrapped acting after he graduated because he was too intimidated by auditions. “It was very frightening to think I could just go on not having a career and end up living at home,” he says.
Home was in Pittsburgh until high school when his father moved his printing business to to Fullerton. His father, an ex-college football player, passed his affection for hard-boiled heroes on to his son. Shane devoured the Mickey Spillane books and the Matt Helm adventures his father left lying around the house and then sneaked down to Sun Drugs to spend his lunch money on more pulp fiction.
He started writing at an early age--comic strips, short stories, journalism--but never thought of it as a way to make a living until his last year in college. His friend Fred Dekker, who was working on a screenplay assignment, showed him his sci-fi script and suggested that he try it too. “It just popped like a bubble in my head that writing was not impossible and that, in fact, I would probably be good at it.”
After college, Black worked as a typist for a temp agency, a data entry clerk for the 1984 Olympics and, for a short time, an usher in a Westwood movie theater. Finally, he made the big move and asked his parents to support him for six months while he wrote a screenplay. The result was “The Shadow Company,” a supernatural thriller set in Vietnam that he describes as a cross between “Platoon” and “The Exorcist.” With Dekker’s help, the script landed him an agent and a lot of posh lunch meetings with mid-level studio executives. Black enjoyed the attention for a couple of months until he realized that he was wasting his time. Instead of buying “The Shadow Company,” they wanted to give him an assignment. Even then Black knew that that was not for him. “I was terrified of being hired. I didn’t want to have to work on a deadline. So I stopped taking meetings and sat down and wrote a script in about six weeks. And that was ‘Lethal Weapon.’ ”
Before starting work on a rewrite on “Lethal Weapon,” Black asked the film’s producer, Joel Silver, if he could have a minor acting role the movie Silver was then shooting. He was cast as a soldier in “Predator,” an action picture starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that was filmed in Puerto Vallarta. For Black, it was like a paid vacation, “reading a lot of books, hanging out in the jungle, dancing at Mexican discos.” Around the same time, he sold another screenplay, “The Monster Squad,” which he co-wrote with Dekker, who then directed it.
“Lethal Weapon” opened in 1986 and there he was, a 24-year-old kid with $250,000 in the bank and a hit movie on his hands. Was he happy? Not really. It was all a little too much too soon and when Black stopped moving, he lost his balance. “By keeping busy from the time I started writing ‘Lethal Weapon’ until basically the movie had come out, I hadn’t really faced the fact that I had been making all this money and surviving all this pressure,” he says. “And finally I reached a point where it caught up to me. I guess I didn’t really deal with success very well for a while. I didn’t feel I deserved it.”
Suddenly the money and the expectations became a burden. In his car one day, Black turned to his friend Jim Birge and suggested that they drive to Las Vegas and bet all his profits on red. Whether he was serious or not, Birge talked him out of it, but realized that Black was near the edge.
Black wrote the first draft for “Lethal Weapon 2" with novelist Warren Miller in which, perhaps reflecting his dark mood, Black killed off Mel Gibson’s character. Close friends, who had always seen that half-crazed heroic character as Black’s alter ego, feared that this was a symbolic suicide. Whatever Black’s motivation, Warner Bros, who was financing the film, had no intention of pulling the plug on a money-making series. And when it became clear that it wanted a more comedic approach to the material, Black dropped out.
It was a relief; things were beginning to crash in and Black lost his desire to write. A family illness threatened to destroy the one constant source of stability in his life. Then a longterm relationship fell apart, leaving Shane’s already shaky confidence at a low point. This is a period the usually accommodating Black is reluctant to talk about in detail. For the next two years he would do no writing, spending much of his time hanging out at the Pad. “I was afraid to do the next project, afraid of failing, afraid of being a fluke.”
He finally managed to pull himself together, forget about the money and the expectations and sit down long enough to tell a story, this time a gritty detective tale about gambling and corruption in professional football. When he took “The Last Boy Scout” five months later to a local copy shop, he was still wondering if he had wasted his time.
BLACK AND A HOST of other writers, some selling their first screenplays, discovered that Hollywood, 1989, was the quintessential right place at the right time. For the past two decades, the protocol of the screenplay sale dictated that a writer go to a studio to pitch an idea; some describe it as groveling. If it were well received, he or she would then be paid to execute several closely supervised rewrites until the film got made or, more likely, the studio grew tired of it. Countless screenplays and years of work regularly disappeared down the black hole known as development.
But in the past couple of years, things started to change. Start-up operations at the Sony-owned Columbia Pictures and the JVC-financed Largo Entertainment, along with acquisition-eager independents such as Morgan Creek, Carolco and Island Pictures, created a demand for big budget action scripts, potential blockbusters. The easiest way for a new company to get going is to acquire a few high-priced, high-profile scripts. Agents, never shy, have taken advantage of the demand and whipped it into a frenzy, orchestrating heated bidding wars, like military campaigns. Strict time limits, often 24 hours, give the proceedings an added air of urgency.
Black’s agent, Bill Block, head of the InterTalent Agency, called a handful of studio heads and powerful producers and told them that they could pick up a copy of Shane Black’s new script at his reception desk. It would be sold before the end of the day, he assured each one, and it would be sold for more than $1 million. By the end of the day, it had sold for nearly double that price.
Black scowls at the thought that he encouraged the spec revolution in Hollywood. “My attitude is I did this, it’s my sale. I may never do it again. I’m not concerned that all these writers seem to say I made this big difference. Well, I refuse to take responsibility for either brightening or dimming the prospects of other writers. I get what I get.”
But in the next breath Black will defend a writer’s contribution to a movie and his right to be paid well for his work. “My feeling is if a movie earns $150 million for the studio, it is certainly worth paying $2 million to the writer. I think the writer’s cut is worth 2% of the film’s gross box office at least.”
No one agrees more than agents who represent the writers. Marty Bauer, partner in the Bauer-Benedict Agency, argues that with budgets for films doubling and tripling, scripts are simply catching up to the escalating salaries paid to the other talent. “Studio executives are screaming. They’re motivated by profit. But when writers do the same thing, they’re appalled.”
With Joe Eszterhas’ $3 million sale as a benchmark, there is no doubt that the spec market is driving up the price of screenplays. But most executives argue that chasing spec scripts--bidding in the morning and buying in the afternoon--is not the ideal way to do business; for one thing, it barely leaves time to read the actual script. “It forces you to take an abstract leap of faith based on hype,” says producer Brian Grazier, whose Imagine Entertainment has been active on the spec market during the past year. “It’s like being pushed off a cliff.”
“It’s too expensive a game to play,” says David Hoberman, president of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures division. “We tend to shy away from the auction situation.”
Disney’s formula has been to develop ideas internally and have writers under contract execute them. Other studios are now beginning to do the same thing. This year, in a return to the traditions of the old studio system of filmmaking, Fox Chairman Joe Roth began hiring staff writers with longterm contracts. “We will try to get involved with talented and prolific writers who in the course of a couple of years can deliver a number of screenplays. That way we won’t be in such a pressured environment and can actually read material and make thoughtful, measured decisions,” Roth says. “I have nothing against writers getting a lot of money. It’s the methodology of buying on spec that’s bothersome.”
A writer signed by Fox, Dale Launer (“Ruthless People”), made his deal about nine months ago, before the boom market for spec scripts. He admits that he has some regrets and might not have made the same deal today. “It’s interesting how writers react to Shane’s deal. A lot of them react with jealousy and envy because they’re not getting that kind of money and they feel they’re as good. Whatever script sold for $1,750,000 will be up for very close inspection and there’s no way any script can live up to that,” Launer says.
As with all things in the film business, the success of “The Last Boy Scout” and other spec projects at the box office will determine the fate of spec scripts. Whatever the outcome, Launer considers these high-powered deals enormously positive steps for writers. “Writers will get more respect because this is a town that respects money. Now maybe more movies will be made the way they should be, with writers having more control,” Launer says.
And maybe now “young writers will be encouraged to go with whatever they have a passion for instead of any old idea the studio has, like a car that turns into a guy, or whatever,” Black says. But ultimately spec writing for him is more a matter of personal temperament than Hollywood activism. “It’s a gamble. But it’s a gamble I’m willing to take because if I wrote a script on assignment and no one makes the movie, then I’d rather I had never written it. I don’t want to write a script that no one likes or no one makes.”
THERE IS ALMOST no way “The Last Boy Scout” won’t be made. After the Geffen Co. payed almost $3 million for just the screenplay and the producer, Warner Bros, the film’s distributor may as well start putting trailers in the theaters now. Bruce Willis has been signed to star in the film and Warner Bros President Mark Canton is shooting for a January, 1991, start and a Christmas release. For Black, the pressure to succeed is intense. “I figure if they’re going to pay me this much money, then I’d better be the best, I’d better make this great,” he says with a swagger of confidence and a flash of fear all at once.
Two days after the script was sold, Black was in a rewrite meeting getting advice from 14 people on how to improve the script he’d obsessed about for five months. Currently, he’s locked up in his cabin at Bear Mountain hammering out yet another draft, trying to maintain the spirit of the original and satisfy the not-always-compatible requirements of the studio and the star. He grumbles a lot but he’s been around long enough to realize that after the first draft, you’re writing for the studio and that means making changes right and left. Black’s cooperative but he’s no pushover. How does he handle himself in meetings? “Quite like he does on the page, but without the guns,” Canton says.
Like everything Black has written, “The Last Boy Scout” is basically a modern western, but in his morally ambiguous world the characters become more than good guys and bad guys. “I really love Chandler and Ross McDonald,” Black says. “They wrote about personal integrity, morality, conflict, dealing with insanity, dealing with pain and death. All those things are extremely important to me beyond just writing a thrilling movie.”
For “The Last Boy Scout,” Black thought that the seamy side of professional football would make an ideal milieu for a Chandleresque private eye story. “Football is the perfect medium because it combines the spirit of the American hero with the spirit of American greed.” When a burnt out, hard-as-nails detective reluctantly joins forces with a washed up ex-quarterback to expose a sports gambling ring that extends to the U.S. Senate, action-packed mayhem ensues.
Black gets really annoyed when his movies are labeled action pictures. “Commando,” where a man just fires a gun for the final thirty minutes, that’s an action picture, he says. What the character is thinking about as he is firing is of more interest to Black. Character, he argues, must be the impetus for all action.
According to Black, the film industry has only two categories for movies: “serious films and money-makers. It’s either about apartheid or starving people, or it’s Ninja turtles.” But to Black, who sees life in terms of heroic gestures in a world that can disintegrate at a moment’s notice, horror movies such as “The Exorcist” or thrillers such as “48 HRS.” are more reflective of reality than the serious stuff.
But he chokes on the pretentiousness of calling himself a serious writer."I would rather be thought of as a storyteller than an author, " he says. “Authors write about Russian winters. Storytellers write about guys who have adventures.
Hopefully, I’ll do my revelatory sort of work. Stuff about love, once I’ve found out what it means, stuff about the nature of things. Until then, I’m proud to be writing mysteries,” he says, fuming.
Black says his script is not a calculated money-maker. “I thought it was too rough for most people. It’s not a commercial formula; it’s a very raunchy, down and dirty detective film. I didn’t even think it would sell because it was weird and out there in terms of sensibilities.”
Weird and out there is where Black likes to live, at least on the page. “He’s a Mack truck going down a hill with no brakes,” says “Lethal Weapon” director Richard Donner. Black admits that he’s hopelessly attracted to dark subject matter. On a visit to the Louvre last summer, a friend says, he spent hours gazing at a painting depicting the black plague.
Sometimes he takes it too far. “A lot of people think he’s depressing,” says friend Jim Birge. “At times he’s defeated and has problems with girls. Sometimes he’s not fun to be around. He’s always thinking so much.”
Clearly, Black pours a lot of himself into his characters. “A lot of my heroes are very anachronistic in that they’re grouchy, gruff, very misanthropic men. And maybe that’s because I’ve always felt like something of a misfit myself, if you wanted to get psychological. And in the end, all the men who are such misfits in my stories always end up validating themselves and being a hero. Well, I think that’s rather obvious what’s going on there.”
Friends say Black’s mood has lightened considerably in the past year, since he’s gotten back to work, as if writing was a way of keeping the demons on the page and out of the house.
Not everyone, however, is fortunate enough to find work that is both theraputic and enormously lucrative, a fact that doesn’t escape Black’s notice.
“If you act strange and stand outside of 7-Eleven in a baggy coat, people think you’re psychotic,” Black says. “If you act strange and take those weird thoughts and sell them for $1 million, people think you’re eccentric. There are probably people who think just like me and weren’t quite as lucky, and they’re probably in an institution somewhere. So I’m lucky enough to have a marketable obsession, a marketable lunacy as it were.”