The Nice Guys Shane Black

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.

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