Interview: 'The Nice Guys' Director Shane Black Discuses His Latest Urban Western

In 2005, screenwriter Shane Black made his directorial debut with the wonderful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but years before he directed his first feature, he co-wrote The Nice Guys with Anthony Bagarozzi. The finished film is quite different from the original draft, but the spirit of that script has remained intact throughout the years. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling) are still the same flawed and immensely charming duo they first were.

By this point, Black is an old hand at writing buddy films. The writer behind Lethal WeaponThe Long Kiss Goodnight, and The Last Action Hero has written some of the most memorable on-screen duos of the past 25 years. We'll see if Healy and March manage to stand the test of time like some of Black's other characters, but it's difficult to imagine audiences not sharing Black's enthusiasm for these two down in the dumps heroes.

The Nice Guys director, who's affection for Healy and March rings loud and clear in the film, was kind enough to discuss his latest film with us. Below, read our Shane Black interview.

You've said how much you were inspired by old crime stories with The Nice Guys. Say for people that aren't very familiar with crime fiction, who would you recommend reading?

I would say The Chill by Ross Macdonald is sort of a prototypical example of how the private detective genre elevates itself to the level of literature. [Raymond] Chandler is great. But I just prefer Ross Macdonald. They've done stabbing attempts at trying to catch him for movies. They did The Moving Target and The Drowning Pool with Paul Newman. The Moving Target became a movie called Harper. They still didn't catch the magic of what's in those books, even with Paul Newman.

It's airport fare, but I gotta say, Lee Child is getting it right [with Jack Reacher]. It doesn't have to be great literature. It just has to be great storytelling. I go back to read Tarzan books every now and again or John Carter, and you realize Edgar Rice Burroughs is not a great writer by any means. But he was a great storyteller. You wanted to see what happened next. To me, that's the greatest lesson. You can talk all you want about levels, and voice, and auteurism, but do you want to turn the page and find out what happens next or don't you? That's pretty much the acid test for me.

Are there any particular films from the genre you looked to for inspiration?

There aren't that many caper films or private eye films. The leg up that I had, the advantage of which I was aware was that I've read a thousand books like this. I have them all at home. These sorts of...1940-1970 is just a collection of these paperbacks with the Robert McGinnis covers.

It's the sort of reading that is occasionally craftsman-like and almost carpenter-ish. But every once in a while you pull out a literary plum, and you just go, "Holy shit. That's a gem." And taken as a whole, the sort of sea of private eye literature in all its forms, from the sort of swinging dick, veiny private eye, to the more serious stuff, it encompasses 30 years of literature, which I have access to. I have every book. I've collected everything that I could find. And so, I just pick and choose the little bits and pieces that have assembled in my head.

Movie-wise, you've got a couple of good ones. You've got Night Moves with Gene Hackman, which is great. You've got Sweet Smell of Success, which is not a detective film, but it's noir, with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Harper is pretty good. But there's not a lot of good private eye movies. I liked Bullitt with Steve McQueen, and The Seven-Ups...it gets into more cop territory.

It's the idea of that sort of detective who walks into town like a western hero breaks open the doors, tumbles out skeletons in the closet. And at the end, he deals out his own kind of frontier justice. He says, "You committed a crime, but I know why you did it. So you're going to skate. I'm going to let that go. I'm going to hide the evidence on that. I'm framing you for it. Here, give me that money. I'm taking it for me. And I'm going to shoot you." And then he walks away with a house on fire behind him. You think, "Holy fuck! He walked into town, ruined everything, and walked away having reassembled it in the vestige of what he perceived as the true order that it ought...the justice it ought to really serve.

That's the cowboy kind of approach. Those are two creations which are absolutely specific to America. They are absolutely created here—the gumshoe, private eye, and the cowboy. You won't find them elsewhere. They were American things. That was reflected in the fact that, back in the day, the pulp writers would write a western, then they'd go and write a private eye novel and do it interchangeably, one after another because it's the same story.

So what I think we're ultimately talking about when you say: What are your influences? I'd say, well, it's all an urban western. If you like westerns, you like private eyes. Even Lethal Weapon is an urban western. It's a gunslinger story.

I read an old draft of The Nice Guys that was quite different from the finished film. 

That one you read was probably the one that Anthony Bagarozzi and I did back in 2001.

I think it was dated around then. How did the story evolve over the years? 

We caught the characters, but the plot was totally different. It was set in present day, and no one wanted to buy it. We had to look elsewhere. We tried it as a TV show. Thank god it didn't end up in that format because it wouldn't have been any good. Finally, after 13 years, these two guys [Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling] got on board, and we came back to it. But it's been such the trip over these 13 years. And we know these characters so well. That's why it seems so effortless in my mind, the idea of continuing to do it, making the sequel, for instance. Because we have all these stories and these scenes that we could use. It feels very familiar. This is sort of tasting menu, this one, of all the different types of scenes that bring out these characters. Now you know who they are, and now you know how they react in situations. You have this little menu of all the different hors d'oeuvres. Now I'd love to serve up another case for them. I'd love to write the sequel.

Here's the problem: we've got to make money. So let's hope it opens.

The Nice Guys final trailer

What made you oppose turning The Nice Guys into a television series?

Film doesn't just afford you the chance to use dirty words. It ultimately gives quality. You spend more money, you get better lighting, and you get more time and attention. You get to tell a more quality story. Also, tonally, TV tends to homogenize. So if you've got something that's a little odd or twisted, chances are the TV is going to take it and just start..."We love it. It's so different." Then they start to sand off the edges. "What are you doing? You are making it round again like everything else." "Yeah, but we love it! We love how sharp it is. We're just rounding it a little bit." Pretty soon it's like, "Well now it's like everything else." And they go, "Exactly, but it's fresh!" Not anymore.

I'm glad it's a film because it's a chance to shake things up tonally. Also, TV is...there are too many formulas for me. It seems like people think they already know what it should be before they've even read the script. They have all the rules lined up of how many characters there have to be and how many subplots. [Producer] Joel Silver is great at just taking a story case-by-case and saying, "What does this movie need to look like?" Not, "What do all movies look like and how do we meet that template?" But, "What are we doing here and how do we best realize the potential of this individual project?"

How did you want The Nice Guys to look? What sort of atmosphere were you going for?

I think between our production designer and our DP in this to sort of reference wall we assembled, which was a room like this but covered in images. I think we've established a look that is sufficiently noir, that it constantly serves up an image to remind you, you are in a detective movie, but doesn't do it in such a despairing or expressionistic way that it's gloomy. Because the last thing we wanted was to make a movie about the '70s that is so melancholy it felt gloomy. This is an exuberant film. It should feel like it's full of life and bustle. Even if the guys are sweating and tugging at their collars and it's miserable and smoggy out, it's because we're all in it together, and it's just part of life. They're suiting up and showing up. I like that it has a lot of life to it. I think that was our goal was for it not be just a moody character study, but that it feel lively and just keep hitting funny moments.

So, ultimately, it's a thriller, but it's got comedy in it. But I think it has enough of a nod to the genre that we actually buy that there's a mystery in there that, if you pay attention, you can look at it on several levels. That's what TV tends not to do so much — several levels.

There are some recurring tropes and ideas throughout your body of work. How do you manage to keep them feeling fresh?

Well, one good way to make them feel fresh is to sort of stand the trope on its head. For instance, it's a real tough guy staple in movies—you've seen it—someone won't give you the information you want. So the good guy takes the gun, the revolver, puts one bullet in, spins it, and it goes click, and he goes, "OK, OK! Don't do that again! You're crazy, man! Of course, I'll give you the information!"

Well, we said what would happen if he just, you know, "click" and then you pull the trigger, and it's just the first bullet, it just hits that bullet? And the other guy is, "What the fuck did you just do? You blew his head off!" That's what we did in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, for instance, because you take something you are expecting and then you go, "Oh, shit. I guess that would happen."

So taking things that are sort of movie-ish and then saying, "No, no, no, no. What would really happen?" Or taking a piece of violence that's usually done very slickly and saying, "Yeah, but what if he slipped? What's the awkward version of this?" Doing it subjectively. So instead of a big action scene with people flying through the air, you do things through the eye of...

There's a great plane crash in a movie called The Grey. The reason it's great is they never go outside the plane. And it's all about how it would feel if you are actually on the plane. You might say, "Well, they did that because it was cheap." And you'd be right. But it's also fucking effective. So there are all kinds of tricks, I think, to make these things fresh, these dangerous situations and tough guy type trope that you can just play. It's a sandbox. And the trick is to make a new castle each time. You know, stir the stew.

When it comes to your dialogue, are you a writer that likes to read it out loud? How do you find that rhythm? 

I can't do that. I know people use a tape recorder or whatever. I can't. You just keep writing it and reading it until it feels decent. It has to snap. I had a friend who once said, "You know, I used to hang out on buses." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because I would listen to people talk so I could write realistic dialogue." I said, "You know what? Here's the deal: you don't want to write like people really talk. That's a bad idea. You want it to sound like it could happen on a bus, but it has to be convinced, and sharpened, and pointed." If you actually just write what people say, it's fucking boring. They just take too long to get around to things. In movies, we don't have the patience. Plus, people talk very directly sometimes in real life, and I'd rather go at it obliquely and find the clever way to make the scene surprise you. People aren't that clever in life. That's our job, is to take regular speech and make it interesting in a way that is concise and drives home a point. And if you just want to transcribe what people say, then you don't need to go to the movies. Just ride the bus all day.

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The Nice Guys is now in theaters.