MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
"The Nice Guys" roll into theaters today. The movie stars Ryan Gosling as a hapless private eye and Russell Crowe as a hired enforcer. They are oddball partners trying to solve a mystery.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NICE GUYS")
RUSSELL CROWE: (As Jackson Healy) You get drunk. You lose your gun. And now you're going to tell me it's like hallowed time on a detective ploy, right?
RYAN GOSLING: (As Holland March) It was very slippery up there, OK? I was in the pool.
CROWE: (As Jackson Healy) Why?
GOSLING: (As Holland March) I had to question the mermaids.
KELLY: As you can tell, it's a comedy set in LA in 1977. It was directed and co-written by Shane Black, who has written action comedy movies for decades. NPR's Mandalit del Barco met up with Black in LA to get his back story. Something of a Hollywood legend of its own.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Shane Black was once the youngest, highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, just 24 when he sold his first big script for the buddy-cop movie "Lethal Weapon." The same year, 1987, he wrote "The Monster Squad," a horror comedy. And he acted in the sci-fi movie "Predator." With his earnings, Black bought an elegant 1920s mansion. That's where we meet him, in the home he's filled with books.
SHANE BLACK: Violence is my business. Homicide is my game. Jeopardy is my job. Manhunt is my mission. Peril is my pay.
DEL BARCO: Black tics off titles of his treasured paperbacks, hard-boiled detective novels, pulp fiction, westerns, comics. They fill built-in bookshelves in every room. They're stashed in closets and hidden in secret cabinets.
BLACK: Here is the next film I hope to do, "Doc Savage." These are all from 1930s. These are all the reprints, with this wonderful cover art.
DEL BARCO: Black says he sometimes called on his collection for inspiration.
BLACK: The clue in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" that solves the mystery is actually taken from this book, "Counterfeit Wife," which I've had since I was a little kid.
DEL BARCO: As a shy boy in Pittsburgh, Black says, he took refuge in his father's collection of tough-guy, dime-store novels. As a UCLA student, he started writing his own stories with a group of friends.
BLACK: The Pad O' Guys. I'm in this crappy little bungalow in west Los Angeles. And we were just buddies who argued at all hours of the night about movies. We'd make little shorts. We'd goof off. We would just share pages back and forth. It was like a little writers group.
DEL BARCO: The Pad O' Guys also helped each other up the Hollywood ladder. Black quickly impressed producer Joel Silver.
JOEL SILVER: He was 21 years old, just got out of UCLA. He had written half of this script called "Lethal Weapon." And it got to me. And it was just magical. And it was two incredible characters. And it just was fresh.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LETHAL WEAPON")
MEL GIBSON: (As Martin Riggs) I'm surprised you haven't heard about me, you know, I got a bad reputation. And sometimes I just go nuts, like now (laughter).
DANNY GLOVER: (As Roger Murtaugh) I'm too old for this.
DEL BARCO: The cop-buddy movie was a hit and became a successful franchise for actors Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Black continued to sell scripts for record amounts of money. But he was filled with doubt.
BLACK: It was very difficult for me, the hardest thing in the world, writing. Even just a day or two after finishing something, I'd feel like I was back to square one. I can't write. I'm a fraud. They're going to find out.
DEL BARCO: Despite, or perhaps because of that insecurity, Black says his early success led him to the kind of Hollywood party life he often depicts in his movies. He'd host hundreds of people at his wild Halloween blowouts.
BLACK: People just had a great time. And I'd wander around feeling like king of the castle, except, once again, inside, still a fraudulent feeling. I'm really a shy kid. And I really can't write. And why are these people at my house? Eventually, you know, I would take to drinking at these parties and blacking out and missing some of the party. I realized later that, as we crossed into the 2000s, I just drank too much. I needed to stop drinking.
DEL BARCO: So he gave up alcohol. He'd written big hits, including "Lethal Weapon," "Monster Squad," "Last Action Hero," "The Last Boy Scout." Yet, he found himself rejected from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
BLACK: And the letter came back from the Academy it said, Mr. Black, we've reviewed your application for membership. But we find that it's not appropriate at this time. Perhaps you'd care to reapply in the future when you have more credits. These guys at the Academy didn't want me. The subtext may as well have been, hey, young hack, get lost. You know, you make too much money.
DEL BARCO: Determined to prove himself, Black wrote a romantic comedy/mystery/buddy movie that he also directed, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KISS KISS BANG BANG")
ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Harry Lockhart) Where is the girl?
VAL KILMER: (As Gay Perry) What did you just do?
DOWNEY: (As Harry Lockhart) I just, I put in one bullet, didn't I?
KILMER: (As Gay Perry) You put a live round in that gun?
DOWNEY: (As Harry Lockhart) Well, yeah. There was like an 8 percent chance. Wasn't it just eight?
KILMER: (As Gay Perry) Eight percent, 8?
DOWNEY: (As Harry Lockhart) Yeah.
KILMER: (As Val Kilmer) Who taught you math?
DEL BARCO: That 2005 movie was filled with the kind of snappy dialogue Black grew up reading. And it helped resurrect the acting career of Robert Downey Jr. Black later directed him in "Iron Man 3," which made more than a billion dollars. Fast forward to today, and you can still hear that Shane Black banter in his newest film, "The Nice Guys." A period piece set in 1970s Los Angeles, it involves smog, the auto industry, and X-rated movies.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NICE GUYS")
GOSLING: (As Holland March) So let me get this straight. You made a porno film where the point was the plot?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) What's your hang up, man?
DEL BARCO: "The Nice Guys" has all of Shane Black's signature elements, two inept quarreling buddy's, a murder mystery, a Christmas scene.
ANTHONY BAGAROZZI: He has a really harsh way of writing screenplays.
DEL BARCO: His co-writer on "The Nice Guys," Anthony Bagarozzi, talks about his friend's process.
BAGAROZZI: He would write a scene. And he'd come back the next day, and he'd write another scene that had nothing to do with the first scene. And then he'd come back a month and a half later and go, OK, well, these suck. But, you know, these three are pretty good. This could almost be three scenes from a movie. So he takes the other 30 scenes, and he throws them in the trash. And he goes, OK, now I'm writing this movie. It's a torturous process that produces lots of really great scenes.
GOSLING: He's like a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
DEL BARCO: "The Nice Guys" co-star Ryan Gosling says he grew up admiring Black's storytelling skills. Take, for example, a shootout scene.
GOSLING: You know, if a shot goes off, in most movies, it's just a missed shot. But in Shane's world, he thinks, well, if it missed that person, well, where did it go? And he'll follow it. Well, maybe it went into the next room, and it hit somebody that was reading. And then for the rest the scene, you'll hear that person screaming while the scene is going on, you know? It's dark, but it's realistic. And it also is funny and absurd. And there's just so many dimensions to it.
DEL BARCO: Black finally made it into the Academy and votes on the Oscars. Insecurities aside, he still thinks a lot about his craft.
BLACK: Do I write great literature? No. You know, I felt bad about that for a while. I thought, well, I like private eye stories. Some of them feel very literary. And I think that, ultimately, no matter what you say about someone's writing skills, how great can they be if you don't want to turn the page? So to the extent that you can say, what happens next? I want to find out.
DEL BARCO: The next page turner for Shane Black after "The Nice Guys," working on a new "Predator" movie, and possibly a flick about one of his pulp fiction favorites, "Doc Savage." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.