The end of a fade for Black

Special to The Times

The parties never went away. They are, to many in Hollywood, legendary. They take place in screenwriter Shane Black's Hancock Park home, a mansion set on a well-kept lawn and in a gated community.

On this night, it is Black's 43rd birthday party and the cars -- expensive and shiny, like giant jewelry -- come gliding in. Black sips a Grey Goose and soda as he moves from room to room, stopping to flirt with a local weather girl -- "Isn't she beautiful?" -- and pose for the photographer he has hired to be on hand. In a snapshot that later shows his eyebrows amusedly raised and his hands on the shoulders of two women, he plays the part of a Casanova perfectly. He seems relaxed, happy. One would never guess that in the annals of recent Hollywood history, Black has had one of the most complicated and speculated-upon journeys through town -- and that in the minds of many, he essentially disappeared close to a decade ago.

Arriving fresh-faced and gifted in Hollywood in 1985, Black sold his first script, "Lethal Weapon," for $250,000. He was 23. Four years later, he followed that up with "The Last Boy Scout" -- which sold for $1.75 million, at the time the most ever paid for an original script. Black beat his own record in 1994 with "The Long Kiss Goodnight": It garnered $4 million.

But Black wasn't just rich. He was credited with inventing a new version of the action genre. That cool, jive-talkin' guy nonchalantly backed up by epic explosions? Pure Black. It may be hard to believe, but the combination of wit and wild action in film was new in the late '80s, and the likes of Tarantino might not exist without him.

Yet at the height of his creative powers, if not his commercial success ("The Long Kiss Goodnight" bombed), Black walked away. No one knew why. Was it the shock of failure? Personal problems? Self-loathing at his own extremely commercial sensibilities? Or was it just the dropping out of a well-compensated success who'd come to Hollywood to make his pot of gold and, that accomplished, had decided to travel down Easy Street?

All anyone really knew was that Black stayed in Hollywood -- often giving those well-known bashes -- and yet, as the years ticked by, his work wasn't seen on screen again.

When asked about the "lost" years, Black initially demurs.

"I guess the easiest answer is just oblivion. I think anyone who's past 40 will understand that a phenomenon happens in [one's mid-30s], which is that time passes in a way it's never done before. It accelerates." He also says he spent a lot of time hanging with the guys: "I'd call my friends on a Saturday and we'd drive around like in 'Swingers.' That was me for, like, two years." He mentions bouts with guilt, false starts on scripts, teaching the occasional film seminar, and his father's death as well. But through it all, Black seems to be grasping at straws, throwing out pieces of the puzzle but unsure how they fit together.

So he goes back to the beginning. The answer he finally formulates could be encapsulated by several lines in the script of "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," a new film he wrote and directed. Starring two of Hollywood's bad boys, Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, it is screening out of competition later this month at the Cannes Film Festival and in many ways signals a break with Black's old style.

"I guess you'd call this a detective story," the film's narrator says. "There are dull parts, but there's a murder in it. Also a broken heart, so I guess it's a love story. Oh, and everything's connected, it all loops back around, it's cool.... My hobbies include [messing] things up, and reading. Welcome to L.A. Welcome to the party."

An unusual kid

Meeting Black, one encounters a man who on different days looks alternately pasty or radiant. Sometimes, his confident aura seems exponentially increased by being in the context of his home, which has been decorated to resemble the '60s gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows." Black has four dogs -- Ava, Teddy, Roscoe and Honeybear -- and can himself appear to be the fifth one. A bruiser of a guy, he seems to be seeking love (although with a lot of pride thrown in) as he clomps around his house slightly haphazardly. One can picture him intently taking in a movie and then falling asleep -- as Roscoe did one early evening, to his owner's delight -- on one of the manse's opulent maroon couches.

Black was, by his own account, an unusual kid. He was born in Pittsburgh to a coal miner's daughter and a former University of Pittsburgh football star who, like many men of his generation, had trouble expressing emotion. The young Black liked books and found solace in them, but he also felt the pressure, and sting, of trying to live up to his father's expectations.

After his family relocated to Fullerton and Black had a shot at playing varsity football, the opportunity literally drove him nuts. "I just realized I was going to blow it," he said. "I developed this weird religious thing where ... I had to pray obsessively for six, seven hours a day."

By 17, he said, he was checked into the psychiatric unit of a local hospital and diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Six months of family therapy later, the symptoms disappeared, but they might be seen as the beginnings of his perfectionism. Joel Silver, who produced several Black films, including the "Lethal Weapon" franchise, said it's a trait that affects Black as a screenwriter today. "Rolling something through a typewriter just isn't Black's style," Silver said. "He's extremely cautious about what he writes and how it's perceived."

In the early '80s, Black studied playwriting at UCLA. But upon graduation, he came across several scripts that he said changed his life: William Goldman's "The Princess Bride" and "Marathon Man," and Walter Hill's original script for "Alien." Reading them, "I understood that you could write novelistically within the screenplay format and create these wonderful little shapes that make you turn the page," he said. "You could really pick up the pace with this....The form was whatever you wanted it to be."

Within a year he'd written "Lethal Weapon," and within a week of completing it, he'd sold the script.

"I walked into my colleague's office and said, 'You have to read this right now,' " said David Greenblatt of Key Creatives, Black's representative for more than 20 years.. " 'It's the greatest thing I've ever read.' "

On the outside, Black said, life didn't change radically. But inside was another matter: "I was horrified by the prospect of having to live up to the success," he said.

What also changed, as time went on, were other people's perceptions of him. Black had arrived on the scene when screenwriters were becoming celebrities in their own right because of the money they were making, and he was uncomfortable being the gold rush's poster boy. "No one ever said, 'Hey, interesting script,' " he recalled.

Black also found himself in the uncomfortable position of a being a bit of a genius in an unrespected genre: "trash" action.

To watch "Lethal Weapon" today is to see a film filled with that-was-fun car crashes and plot points that seem optional to follow -- fun, a la carte -- but there's also brilliance to its tough-talking, explosions-filled glory. The tagline for the film was "Two Cops. Glover carries a weapon ... Gibson is one," and what Black got into his script was testosterone incarnate. Mel Gibson's heartbroken, on-a-death-mission detective Martin Riggs may be the purest embodiment of macho adolescent fantasy ever committed to celluloid.

His next films had a similar magic: "The Last Boy Scout," starring Bruce Willis, and even "The Long Kiss Goodnight," a hybrid of radical feminism and hard-core action starring Geena Davis, had an almost animal intensity to them. But "The Long Kiss Goodnight," which was made for $75 million, would gross only half that at the box office in 1996.

Black said the failure didn't have as big an effect as many thought, but it may have further eaten away at his confidence: Success had already taken a toll on his psyche. "The biggest task I had to face was managing to believe that I in any way deserved it," Black said of his swift rise, "especially in light of all the people who had worked just as hard, as strenuously, but to whom it didn't come quite so easily."

A falling out with his best friend in the mid-'90s only added to his guilt. The man, whom he'd first met at UCLA, had decided he wanted to be a writer too, but his career never caught fire. Black said "he was very angered by my success," and several months after they stopped speaking Black received a letter. "[It] said, 'I still hate you, I don't want to see you anymore, but here's a bank account number. Wire as much as you think our friendship is worth into it.' "

Black, who sent the man a large sum, remains stunned. "I said, 'Is this what writing does? Does it make you lose your friends? Make people hate you?' "

But around this time Black was also grappling with another, perhaps larger, issue: the problems of the Hollywood machine.

After "Lethal Weapon" came out, Silver asked Black to write a sequel. He did, formulating what was thought by many to be a brilliant script, "Play Dirty." But in it, Black committed the ultimate Hollywood sin: He killed off the franchise's main character, Gibson's Riggs. "I got a call from Warner Bros.," Greenblatt remembered. "[They said,] 'You can't do this!' "

Black parted ways with Silver on the project. Things went further downhill.

He recalled his phone conversations with the producer regarding subsequent sequels, which he was always asked to work on: "I'd say to him, 'What is "Lethal Weapon 4"? Why is "Lethal Weapon 4"?' "

Black was disappointed with the handling of his original scripts as well. "What started to happen was, I'd write something very dark and I'd put some jokes in it and people would say, 'Oh, these are funny jokes. Just get rid of all this other stuff and we'll buy it.' They would want to lose the darker stuff. [But] you can't do one without the other," he said. "It's yin and yang."

Black wants it known that his fallow years weren't really close to a decade. Instead, he said that from 1996 to 1999 he took time out, but in 2000, he tried his hand at several scripts. While using an office that was lent to him by a friend, writer-director James L. Brooks, Black experienced false starts, he said.

But while the two were at lunch one day, Brooks suggested he try his hand at something like "Chinatown."

"I always thought there were similarities between ['Chinatown' screenwriter Robert] Towne and Shane just in terms of great screenwriters with a voice all their own, and with a sort of singular agenda," Brooks said.

The suggestion got Black thinking: What if Jack Nicholson's character in "As Good as It Gets" and his Jake Gittes persona in "Chinatown" were the same person? The premise for "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" -- a film populated by Brooks-esque characters ensnared in a plot reminiscent of "Chinatown" -- was crystal clear by dessert.

Black relocated to a cramped office in Westwood -- he needed a space all his own -- and got to work. But the going was still tough.

"I put that blank piece of paper in ... and there was nothing," said the man who always writes a first draft on a typewriter and later transfers it to a computer. "I said to myself, 'If whatever I'm typing happens -- if this becomes a movie and the movie gets made -- you should never be afraid again because this is the worst it can ever get.' "

Longtime friend Anthony Bagarozzi said that he worried during the darkest moments of "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang's" gestation. "He just seemed lost," he said of certain periods when Black was trying to get the film made. "Like sort of, 'What am I going to do if I don't get this going?' "

During the writing, Black tossed countless pages into the trash and battled malaise and anxiety, but at a certain point the clouds began to part.

"There's a point at which something [you're writing] becomes more interesting than your own fear," Black said. "[Writing] is the magic antidepressant."

Within a year, the script was complete.

Reviving a connection

Black walked back into a changed Hollywood.

The Silver-produced "Matrix" series and the "Lord of the Rings" franchise were the trends du jour, but even more than that, the buzz that once surrounded Black was largely gone. He shopped the script to several studios, but no one bit -- that is, until his old pal Silver, with whom he'd had differences but kept in touch, read it.

"I loved every page of it," said the producer, who came onboard. A yearlong search for stars followed, but the actors it yielded hardly looked ideal. Downey's substance-abuse problems have been well documented, and Kilmer had that amorphous label of "difficult" trailing him through Hollywood.

"I had to actually get down on my knees to Joel with that one and say, 'Please, buddy ... let's just see if they're different this time,' " said Black. (For the record, working with the two was "wonderful," he said.)

By 2004, the team was good to go. They made the film for a tight $15 million, and Black saved money by using his own house as the location for the picture's extensive party scene. Warner Bros. plans to release "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" this fall.

Today, Black's block appears to be over. Both he and Silver mention a "sexy horror" picture that Black is interested in writing and directing, and "The Nice Guys," a TV comedy Black has been developing with Bagarozzi, with Silver to produce.

In the end, watching "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" itself may be the best way to gauge the changes that Black has been through in the intervening years.

Centering on a con man (Downey) masquerading as a private eye, his P.I. mentor (Kilmer) and a lovable and only superficially cynical actress named Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), it tells the story of three fairly ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary, detective-story circumstances.

Certain classic Black elements are there -- the witty, culturally-of-the-minute dialogue; the gratuitous car crash or two -- but there's also an unexpected twist to the male characters. Downey and Kilmer's men have a new humanity and vulnerability, and also a sense of humor about themselves. When, in one surprising scene, their characters kiss (Kilmer's character is grappling with his sexuality), it's as though they're accepting not only each other but also themselves.

When Black explains what the film is about, he goes straight to the happy ending, in which the characters rediscover hope.

"[The movie is about the fact] that the best you'll ever do is not something you already did, it's not behind you," Black said. "It's in fact ahead of you, if you have enough faith to take that leap."

He is talking about the film but he might also, of course, be talking about his life.

And so: Has Black done his best work here? It's hard to say. But Brooks, for one, believes the fact that Black directed it is a significant step toward his growth as an artist.

"For a long time I've been urging him to direct, because when you have the kind of voice he has as a writer, it's very tricky to have it translated by somebody else," Brooks said.

Greenblatt said, "I think it's his purest work because he was in control of everything on it."

Despite Black's proclamations of enjoying the process, however -- "It was the greatest experience," he said of directing -- there is at first no unique visual grammar that emerges, no announcement of an exciting new visual voice.

Rather, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" appears to be almost self-consciously, and even simply, about the putting-up of words on screen. It is the sort of film in which chapter titles not only exist but are given their due with several seconds of otherwise dead screen time; in which scenes are cut into and frozen before the narrator takes us back to earlier moments.

But then it comes clear: His "style" is a visual embodiment of the writer, the wordsmith, the verbal storyteller taking control. If one were to nail Black's directorial vision, it would be to get the viewer to feel as if he is reading a great script.

And that, of course, may be the point. "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is about the writer fighting back, making sure that his characters, and their character, stay in the movie. That finally Shane Black's voice is heard.

Now that he is back, he seems to be saying that in some ways he was never here -- not really -- at all.

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