"You wouldn't expect somebody to get their finger cut off in a romantic comedy," says Shane Black, writer-director of the enjoyably oddball...
“You wouldn’t expect somebody to get their finger cut off in a romantic comedy,” says Shane Black, writer-director of the enjoyably oddball movie “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” opening Friday at the Meridian. “But you would in a thriller. On the other hand, you wouldn’t expect the audience to be laughing about a finger being cut off in a thriller, but you would in a comedy.”
Genre-bending is nothing new, though it is more prevalent on television (“Boston Legal”) than in feature films (“El Crimen Ferpecto,” aka “El Crimen Perfecto”). Black, best known for his 1987 script for “Lethal Weapon” and record-setting, screenwriting fees ($1.75 million for “The Last Boy Scout,” $4 million for “The Long Kiss Goodnight”) that made headlines in the 1990s, has returned from a protracted break from Hollywood with “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.” Smart and funny, the film is a hybrid of buoyant if caustic wit and gritty detective drama. And, yes, somebody loses a finger. And, yes, it was funny.
Black also makes his directorial debut on “Kiss Kiss,” which stars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. He says the blending of humor and suspense was accidental, born in part from his boredom with action scripts.
“I wanted to get away from action as far as possible,” Black said during a recent stay in Seattle’s Fairmont Olympic. “So I decided to do a romantic comedy. I wrote some scenes that were romantic but not really that funny. The script was getting dark and heavy.”
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Black turned to a friend for advice: writer-director James L. Brooks (“As Good As It Gets”).
“He said to me, ‘The problem is you have such an adversity to action movies, now you’ve leapt too far in the other direction,’ ” Black says. “He said, ‘You love mysteries.’ So I decided I’d make a film that is half romantic comedy and half murder mystery.”
Downey plays a thief who stumbles into a movie audition and winds up paired with a private detective (Kilmer) for role research. Michelle Monaghan plays Downey’s sort-of love interest. Their love-hate banter has an appealing, screwball tone, but the rapid, barbed exchanges between Downey and Kilmer reach a comic pitch reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s films.
“I love the talk,” Black says. “The films I love, like Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity,’ have that off-kilter dialogue, very throwaway. They don’t pause for a punch line. When it’s done right, it’s very arch, very heightened. I think people enjoy watching a really lively conversation.”
Pittsburgh-born Black went to UCLA in the ’80s intending to be a journalist but befriended several aspiring screenwriters, among them Fred Dekker (“Robocop 3”) and Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”). They helped one another. But Black says his success — which garnered attention as he broke records for screenwriter salaries — rankled some peers.
“I lost friends, and that hurt,” says Black. “There was a lot of bitterness: ‘I could make $4 million, too, if I wanted to hack stuff out like you do.’ There was pressure on the other end, too: ‘If my next movie isn’t a $100 million hit, it’s going to come back and bite me.’ I wanted to be invisible, just to protect myself.”
By the late ’90s, Black had had enough and left the business.
“A lot of what I was writing, I just didn’t like,” Black says. “I didn’t know what I wanted out of life. Hopefully some good will come out of the hiatus.”
Tom Keogh: email@example.com