Iron Man 3 actually isn’t the first Marvel film that writer/director Shane Black has been connected to. At last year’s San Diego Comic Con it was revealed that Black was actually called by star Robert Downey Jr. (with whom he had previously worked on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) during the production of the first Iron Man for tips and advice. But when Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige selected the filmmaker he wanted to make the second sequel in the Iron Man franchise he introduced Black into the Marvel Cinematic Universe officially. And the result is one of the best films that the studio has put out.
With the new superhero film rolling into theaters this weekend, I recently had the wonderful opportunity to speak with both Black and Feige at a press event in Los Angeles. Check out our conversation below, in which the filmmakers talk about Christmas time, using genre-within-genre, introducing new characters to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and much more.
I actually have a tradition where I watch every single one of your films at Christmas, so even when I first heard that Iron Man 3 was going to be set during the holiday season that alone got me excited. But I have to ask why so many of your films are set at Christmas. How is it a factor for you when you’re looking at the stories you’re writing?
Shane Black: I remember one of the first films I saw where I noticed the presence of Christmas in the movie was Three Days of the Condor and I just liked it a lot and then later with Lethal Weapon we had done that and then Joel [Silver] repeated it for Die Hard. There’s just something about the presence that it invokes for lonely people who are lonely at Christmas. It’s a time where the character is on a psychological journey. They take stock of where they are. They take reckoning of how they got to this place and where they’ve been in their life. So, it’s a point where there’s a sort of collective hush in which everyone gets this sense of being involved in it together. It’s a great staging point where you can always find bits of it that add to a scene and serves as a backdrop which unifies a cast of characters and so, for me, I don’t know much, I can’t even really quantify it except to say that it’s neat.
And it totally works in this one too. Also, just to talk Iron Man 3 from the macro perspective, this is an important film for the studio, simply because it’s not only the first post Avengers film. It’s also the first film in your Phase Two plans. From a structural point of view, are there plot points that you guys are working on that you feed to the writers and the filmmakers that guide it towards the direction of where you guys want the story to go leading in Avengers 2?
Kevin Feige: Well, sometimes. The truth is, every one of the phase one movies and so far almost every one of the Phase Two movies are built purely for the individual movie, and with Iron Man 3, the idea, before we even started shooting Avengers, the idea for Iron Man 3 was a return to the single character story line. We didn’t want to keep the universe building directly after we built to The Avengers, so the notion of taking Tony back to basics of metaphorically putting him in similar position to when his convoy explodes and he was thrown to the cave, that’s what so much of the movie was inspired by - to take him back to that level. Frankly, it’s much more the other way that as we started to develop this movie and seeing where we wanted to take Tony and where we were leaving Tony, is talking to Joss and saying, “Here’s what you’re inheriting,” and then he would take that forward. When Phase Two is all said and done, I’ll talk to you about what is the over, over, overarching thing is, that will end up threading through, of which there are threads in it here, but it won’t necessarily be apparent until the whole thing comes together.
Shane Black: Yeah, if it’s not apparent to me, then it’s not apparent. [laughs]
Kevin Feige: I was just going to say, there’s stuff that not even Shane might know, not in the movie, that his movie has inspired.
Have you had conversations with Joss Whedon?
Shane Black: Oh yeah.
What kind of stuff do you guys talk about?
Shane Black: Chicks [laughs] No, we talk about…he’s the one who told me to trust the machine at Marvel. He said, “It may seem like you’re in this tumultuous environment, thousands of people running around screaming all of the time,” which is true. It’s a very chaotic process, especially our schedule is insane, but he said, “Trust the machine, because ultimately it will guide you through,” and that was the case. You got on the train, you rode the train, and day by day hit all of the stops you have to hit and then the train reaches that release date. He also told me about what he thought was best in the elements of Iron Man that he’d watched and when he saw our first cut, he said, “Here’s what I like...” and he gave us some notes that we implemented because, you know, it’s all about hanging around... My whole career, hanging around people, not that people admire me, forget that. They’re ok. Hang around people that I admire. And so when Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige and Drew Pearce sit in a room with me, I go, “Okay, I’m going to listen and try to take the cotton out of my ears and stuff it in my mouth.”
Honestly, a big part of what I really love about this film is that it feels like one of your films.
Kevin Feige: Will you add it to your Shane Black marathon now?
Of course! I’ll buy it in September on Blu-ray and it goes right after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But this movie has a completely different kind of Tony Stark story than what we’ve previously seen. It’s a detective story on a really large scale. It’s genre within genre. I’ve heard that Captain America is going to be more of a political thriller, but I’m curious how that genre within genre element may play out in future projects, like Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and even Guardians of the Galaxy.
Kevin Feige : Yes. 100% and I think we sort of did that with the first phase. So, to me, that’s just fun and that’s a way of making sure it’s... I mean I’ve never looked at superhero movies as purely superhero movies and I think just because something originates in a comic, they start calling it a comic book movie and that’s what people always used to ask me. They ask it less now, but going back ten years, people were asking, “When is this going to end? How much longer is this fad...,” and I said, “Nobody ever asks that about novels.” You know, “How much longer are you going to be making movies off of novels, because how much more of this can we take?” Well...
Shane Black: It’s a mythology with super-powered beings, which mythology…my God, it goes back to the dawn of time. And each movie has an individual shape. What’s great about Marvel is their unwillingness to just compromise by doing the same thing again. Each one has to find its shape, like how he was talking about with Captain America was finding its shape as something different, but I wouldn’t expect that to then by the same one they did for Ant-Man. Ant-Man could be a musical comedy. I don’t even fucking know.
What can we expect from Ant-Man?
Kevin Feige: Well, you know, the neat thing about Ant-Man is that it predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I first met with Edgar [Wright] nine years ago, eight years ago, something like that. What was so exciting about it was that Edgar brought a very unique spin to it and it’s not a comedy and it’s not parody, but Shawn of the Dead isn’t either. He makes incredibly cinematic movies that embrace a lot of different genres and there is a very specific genre that is embraced in Ant-Man that I will let Edgar reveal and talk about at some point. And, frankly, again, that predates the rest of the work we’ve done, but I’ve found it is a fun way in early development to hone in on the type of story you want to tell and in the case of this movie and Captain America and even Guardians, they’re very specific genres that we’re playing with.
Shane Black: So, the shape for this one was sort of Michael Creighton meets Frank Capra in an odd way.
You’ve launched franchise before, but this is your first time jumping into one. You see much more of Tony Stark in this film, away from the suit, kind of removed from everything. When you’re tackling the character and moving him forward like you are, how do you go about referencing what has been established so far?
Shane Black: Yeah, I think you have to. I watched the first two movies a bunch of times, that’s it. Then you sit down, and I know Robert. You tell a story that you want to tell and also, I know Iron Man. I’ve been a fan from 1966. It was my first comic book, Iron Man. I purchased it for 12 cents. Now they’re up to $3.99, and I just think that it’s all about Tony and it’s all about Robert, so the more you can focus on that, the better, because that’s your money.
To talk about working with Robert, one thing I’ve always heard about him, is that he likes to take what’s written and then off-script based on what he’s read. But this movie just sounds like one of your films, and I’m curious if that’s him sticking to the script or the two of you just having similar sensibilities?
Shane Black: I think we would do it together and that’s the difference is that we sit down together and we tend to get things that are congruent with both of our sensibilities. If I didn’t show up to set and he just started doing stuff, then it might be different, but since I’m there, we tend to, even on occasion we’d go back to his trailer and just scribble things before we shot them and say, you know what, I think you’d find, and I can’t tell you which ones, but some of the best lines in the movie were written maybe an hour before we shot them.
Robert Downey Jr. has had an incredibly important impact on the franchise, but just because of the way Hollywood works and contracts are written there is going to be a point where a run ends. So I’m curious, how close are you to the point where you are going to either have to have characters leave or even possibly die? Is that something that we could be seeing happen very soon?
Kevin Feige: Well, when it comes to killing characters, I’d say that a lot of that is determined by the creative and not the contract. We could have had many more Clark Gregg stories, but the creative, we wanted to stab him through the spear. So, in terms of contracts causing a shift or a change, apart from Robert, everybody is locked in for many more movies for many, many years and I’m sure you know we’re negotiating Robert right now and it’s my expectation that he’ll sign on for a number of additional movies. So, I think for the next three, four, five or six years, it will all be determined on the story that we’re going to tell, the morality levels.
To talk a bit about introducing new characters, obviously not every hero is going to be getting their own solo film. But, for example, you have Hawkeye showing up in Thor and introducing himself to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is that something we could see more of as Phase Two develops? Will Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. potentially open up doors for characters to cross from TV to film?
Kevin Feige: We’ll see. Certainly it’s the other way right now with the TV show and part of what they want to do - like we want to do in our single movies – is, apart from Coulson, establish their own identity for that show. But listen, part of the fun of the comics and part of the fun of what we finally built in our Cinematic Universe is the “anything is possible” thing and there are a few surprises in this movie which you won’t give away. So, I like that element of flexibility.
Shane Black: It’s a fucking universe. I’m glad I’m not managing it. Three or four movies a year, welcome to it.
[To Shane Black] I’m getting the wrap signal, but if I can ask a favor, please stick around. You’re not going to take another eight years off after this are you?
Shane Black: No, no, no. I have to write. Writing takes a long time.