As much as I like his work, I’ve never had the opportunity to sit down with Shane Black to talk about film. I’m hoping that closer to the release of “Iron Man 3,” we might find time for an actual interview, but I’ll admit, part of the reason I was happy to do this particular round table was because Black was going to be part of it.
Kevin Feige, on the other hand, I feel fairly comfortable with after all the years of covering Marvel movies. Having the two of them paired seemed like a nice way of making sure the conversation would be an easy one, and we dove right in when the two of them sat down, with people peppering Black with joking questions about the giant stuffed bunny rabbit glimpsed in the trailer and geeky questions about the use of the term “gauntlet” in some of the footage we saw.
Once we settled in, we asked Black about something that Robert Downey Jr. mentioned in his interview, that Black had been part of the “Iron Man” series before this thanks to Favreau and Downey reaching out to him on the first and second films. “I don’t think I contributed anything too terribly important,” he said, “although Robert’s been kind enough to cite it as being helpful.” It sounds like Black and Favreau had a great working relationship on this film, and that Black knows how easy it would have been for that to have been weird and uncomfortable with Favreau having previously called the shots on the series. “Instead, he was the nicest guy in the world and was extremely beneficial… he’s great.”
We asked about the process of cracking the story for the first post-“Avengers” Marvel movie, and Feige walked us through it. “We first started meeting with Shane in spring of 2011… we knew a few of the elements that have remained. We want it to be a Tony Stark-centric story, we want to blow up his life and see how he deals with a nemesis without his suits working, and get him back metaphorically to the cave with a box of scraps, like the first movie. That has remained and carried on through, and it was one of the reasons we connected with Shane. Because if we wanted to do ‘It connects to ‘The Avengers’ and then Nick Fury comes in’ and stuff, I don”t think Shane would have been interested in that, and I don”t I don”t think he would have been the right guy for it. But to take Tony Stark’s journey and explore his character deeper than we had since the first act of the first film? He was the man. It evolved over the next 8 or 9 months after that into basically what it is now.”
See, that excites me. It makes me feel like Marvel knows that the only way they get to keep making these films indefinitely is to put the characters through things. In a comic, you get a new one every month and they’re 22 pages long and they’re lean and mean and then you’re on to the next one. The films are much bigger, and each one needs to do its own thing, and do it well. We asked Black if he’s gone out of his way to drop in some things that connect the film to the larger continuity that Marvel is building, and he said, “I consider the fan base to basically be Marvel’s job. Mine is to be a fan, and I am one, and I have been from a young age of ‘Iron Man,’ so for me, I just please me and I hope that pleases the rest of the fans. It should. For instance, one of the joys for me has always been seeing how you take a villain from the comic book and realize him in a slightly more realistic way for the movie, render him for movies in a way that”s recognizable, but different. That”s fun. Like the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ is not the Joker from the comic book, but there”s just enough of him that you recognize him and go, ‘Wow, what a creative way of interpreting the Joker for motion pictures.’ That was our task here, too. The fans love this character The Mandarin and we just said, ‘Well, what we don”t want is this potentially racist, stereotype of a Fu Manchu villain just waving his fist.’ But we found a way, I think, to get an iteration of The Mandarin that we like. We got very excited about having cracked this story when we found out that we could include The Mandarin… that would be a perfect match, the ultimate Iron Man villain, but without relying too heavily on what the comic book stereotype was.”
Again, that’s pretty much exactly what I wanted to hear. I told Black how much I liked the notion of him as a media terrorist, and he replied, “We were all about that, yeah, the idea of just a real world interpretation of this guy who… I hate to break it to you, but he”s not from space in this. The rings are rings. They”re showmanship. They”re accoutrements. They”re paraphernalia of warfare that he sort of drapes himself with. He studies Sun Tzu. He studies insurgency tactics. He surrounds himself with dragons and symbols of warlords and Chinese iconography because he wants to represent this sort of prototypical terrorist. We use as the example Colonel Kurtz from ‘Apocalypse Now’. This guy who may have been an American, may have been a British National, someone who is out there doing field work, supervising atrocities for the intelligence community, who went nuts in the field and became this sort of devotee of war tactics, and now has surrounded himself with a group of people over which he presides, and the only thing that unifies them is this hatred of America. So he”s the ultimate terrorist, but he”s also savvy. He”s been in the intelligence world. He knows how to use the media. Taking it to a real world level like that was a lot fun for us.”
My next question had to do with the idea that when “Iron Man” started, part of what was so appealing about Jon”s approach was how grounded it was, how real world it was, and now over the course of the rest of the Marvel movies, they’ve introduced a god from Asgard, space aliens, Loki, and all these truly fantastic elements. They still have to have Tony grounded in something recognizable, and I asked if that has been a balancing act in this film, and if there is there some sense that the fantastic has changed Tony and how he deals with this world that he lives in.
Feige responded first. “The only real connective tissue we wanted from ‘The Avengers’ in this movie was [the] effect on Tony”s psyche. This notion that Tony Stark, who is the shit and always thought of himself as top dog, now has been to outer space, nearly got killed by freaking aliens, has encountered a god that can smash him across the forest with a hammer, has encountered a guy that his father used to talk about from 1945. It”s no mistake that we meet Tony at the beginning of this movie and he”s just building suits, putting himself in the suit, and he”s much more comfortable when he”s in the suit. And a lot of this movie is about Tony learning to become Tony Stark again outside the armor, and he has a little help in that his house is completely destroyed.”
Black continued, “He”s in a world where all of the sudden, without this armor, there”s elements with which he cannot hope to compete. So his comfort in his own skin has diminished at the start of this movie by the fact that he feels like, unless he can build the perfect man, he”s going to be outdone and outshone by these people who are literally gods. So how he can then have those suits taken away from him until he”s just a man and he can”t possibly compete, that was the impetus for this movie. Rip everything off him and say, ‘Yes, you”re alone with these incredible forces aligned against you, and you don”t even have your armor.’”
Feige jumped back in with, “In all of our films, particularly this one with what Shane and Drew Pearce have done, you can have heightened elements. Look at ‘The Avengers.’ You can have these crazy otherworldly things as long as the way the characters are responding to those things, the emotional response… that”s where grounding it in reality is most important. Even in the comics, by the way, that”s the difference between caring about a comic book character and not.”
I thought it was very sharp of Black to point out, “It”s almost like a sub-genre in a way, taking a comic book movie and then imposing on it what would happen in the real world if this happened. People have done that with ‘Damage Control’ or whatever, so this is just more about trying to maintain the sense of reality from the first ‘Iron Man’ given that there”s a god from space. Because if in the middle of ‘Iron Man,’ when he was in the cave with Yinsen, if Thor came in, you would say, ‘What the hell is this movie? That doesn”t make any sense.’ But now, Thor is there, so what does that mean for our character?”
Black talked about being attracted to the notion of intentionally making a smaller film than “The Avengers,” to make a conscious choice to turn inwards for the character. Feige explained the impulse. “Again, we wanted to get Tony… back to basics, metaphorically blow him up on a convoy, put him back in a cave, and see what he can do with a box of scraps. That was about as far as we had, and that it was not an Avengers-centric story outside of just the effect that all of it has had on him. So no Nick Fury, no Black Widow. Those were really the only parameters. We did want him to have a mystery to uncover and solve that he would be on his own for. That was about it, and then Shane and Drew brought it to life. And we certainly are looking over their shoulders and giving them input every step along the way, but it was a collaboration from that point.”
If you saw this morning’s trailer debut, then you know there are a LOT of suits in this movie, more than ever before. Feige addressed that for us, saying, “We”ve seen, through ‘The Avengers,’ seven or eight suits, and we wanted to progress that in this one. He”s tinkering even more than he did before and he”s building much more than he ever did before. The Iron Patriot is also kind of a response to ‘The Avengers.’ It”s a government rebrand of War Machine, frankly because the US government felt that they were slightly embarrassed by the events of ‘The Avengers.’ These crazy heroes known as The Avengers were the ones that saved the day, saved New York City, saved the United States. Not the government. The government felt they needed a hero of their own. They have a military officer that has one of these suits, and they paint it red, white, and blue. They pose it next to the president, and Tony sort of rolls his eyes. You saw a little bit of that today. They want a hero of their own. And Tony”s like, ‘What do you mean? I”m a hero.’ And they say, ‘Well, you”ve been spending a lot of time in your workshop. We want somebody we can rely on.” So that”s sort of how the Iron Patriot came about. And, again, it”s a thing from the comics. We just thought the Iron Patriot suit looked equal parts cool and slightly goofy in the comics. It”s not Norman Osborne or any of that stuff obviously, but it gave us a place to go with Rhodey. We wanted to take Rhodey and his sort of split loyalties between his friend and his duty and keep carrying that storyline through.” The new trailer certainly emphasizes that, and I look forward to all of the Iron Patriot stuff.
I love the sequence that was highlighted in the Super Bowl spot, the scene where the President’s plane is attacked and everyone gets sucked out of the hole in the side of Air Force One. Iron Man goes after them to try and catch them, and things get really bad really fast. We asked Black how that sequence developed as an idea. “I wanted to have people in the sky, just falling, and Iron Man is confronted with that image, and he”s got to get them out of it somehow. The challenge was on the days we said, “Well we”d really love to do this, but we don”t want to do just green screen. Can we just toss people out of a plane?’ And they said, ‘Well, that would probably be unethical.’ We found the Red Bull skydiving team that was willing to jump out of a plane and have their backpacks erased digitally. It”s kind of compelling, the first images you see of people falling in clothes, because people are always in jumpsuits, orange or yellow jumpsuits, and when you just see some girl in a skirt and a guy in a business suit falling, it”s pretty scary.”
Feige said they did a week’s worth of shoots, with eight to ten jumps a day, in order to get what he called “amazing, amazing footage.” I brought up “Moonraker,” which did a three week shoot for what turned out to be less than ten minutes worth of film, and Feige laughed. “Frankly, we talked about ‘Moonraker’ a lot because that sequence is actually pretty impressive except for the fact that you can see the parachutes. Until they cut in to the inserts, which… then it doesn”t work at all. We wanted to be like that without doing that. And we have an Iron Man suit which is an advantage over Roger Moore.”
We brought up the way the Marvel films have become known for their post-credit stings, a signature of the series so far and a great way of laying crumbs out in a trail that they hoped would lead to “The Avengers,” and we asked if they’re going to continue that on every film, or now that they’re entering Phase 2 and Phase 3, will they start thinking of it more on a case by case basis?
Feige smiled. “I don”t want to be in that theater for the first time when even two people stay behind and nothing happens, frankly. I like that we”ve trained at least some people to stay behind and get a little reward, but you”re absolutely right… it served a different purpose. It was a part of the, “Hey, surprise, these are connected. We”re building towards something here.’ Then shawarma, which everyone knows famously was an idea we came up with much, much later and shot after the premiere just because we thought it would be fun… there was not going to be a tag until that point. So it”s a little faster and looser now because people know, and frankly the whole purpose of ‘Iron Man 3’ is to say that these characters can exist just as successfully on their own again. But, as I said I don”t want to be there when nothing happens after people sit through 8 minutes of credits.”
So, yeah, stay in your seat.
We asked how Drew Pearce ended up in the mix, and Feige brought up the drafts that Pearce did of “Runaways,” which ended up not happening. That’s a shame. I love that book. The studio must have liked the script, though, because they brought Pearce on before Shane was even involved. Then when they decided on Shane, they realized they were in a weird situation, because they wanted Drew’s voice, but they also wanted Shane’s voice. Feige said it was strange at first for Black. “I think he grumbled a lot and to his credit and to Drew”s credit they now seem to be two peas in a pod.”
Black confirmed the awkward beginnings of the collaboration. “Yeah, we got together and I said, ‘Okay, basically, I don”t know why you”re here.’ And he said, ‘I guess we”re supposed to write together.’ This is not usually how great teams start. But we said, ‘Alright, let”s see.’ I realized very quickly that this guy had an affinity for this, and he and I became friends and rode back and forth to work every day talking about it.”
Feige said, “About four weeks into it, we were in a meeting and they, together, were kind of pitching us some ideas and directions, and Shane kind of kicked it off and said, ‘You know, I initially thought that Drew Pearce was the devil, the demon that you hired, and now I think he”s great. I really do.’ And Drew was not in the room when he said that, which is how I knew it was true.”
Black joked, “Drew and I, we”ll finish each other”s sentences and things like that. We trade clothes.”
The inevitable question came up of why Tony doesn’t reach out to the other Avengers for help, and you’ve already read Robert’s answer to that. Feige’s was similar. “If you are reading a standalone Iron Man comic, they don”t spend every page explaining where every other Marvel hero is. The audience kind of accepts that there are times when they”re on their own and there are times when they are together. I”m betting that movie audiences will feel the same way. That being said, there is a little bit of lip service here and there to that.”
I asked Black if he’s having fun making a big studio film like this, with all its moving parts, and asked him how soon he knew he was going to be able to set at least part of the movie at Christmas, a signature to his filmography so far. “That just evolved, oddly enough. It just seemed to organically come out of planning a story that took him to a different place and left him stranded in the snow.” I compared making a movie like this to having the keys to the Ferrari. “I don”t know if I have the keys,” he said. “I have the keys but, you know, at some point there”s a course you have to run, which is to say, you can”t take it anywhere you want. You can”t open it up on Main Street and then go 150 miles an hour, but what can happen is, you find ways without going back to my old bag of tricks. It’s like [being a comedian]. ‘You can”t do the midnight show, you”re doing this for the local church group, it’s 8:00 and we’re serving stew. So can you please tone it down and just leave out the blue material?’ I had to find innovative ways to be less, ‘They fuck you at the drive-thru.’
Feige laughed. “I don”t think Shane knew the difference between a PG-13 and an R, frankly. We would say, ‘Shane, you can”t really do that.’ ‘You can”t?’ ‘No.'”
We pointed out that Tony Stark does call a little kid a “pussy” in the footage we saw, and Feige laughed again. “Well, it”s not like we”re completely backing off that tone. And, by the way, in the first assembly, I was like, ‘Shane, we”re not going to be able to say that.’ There was another insult that he has later in the movie, and I said, ‘You keep that one. We”re not going to be able to say pussy.’ Shane, to his credit, said ‘Let”s leave it in the test screening.’ It was the first test screening we did, and the audience, as you guys did today, went crazy for the curse word, crazy for it, and nearly burned down the theater on the second one, which I had not predicted. So we took out the second one and left that one in.”
Since we know Black is a comic fan, we asked if there are any other characters from the Marvel stable that Black might want to adapt, and we asked Feige if there’s a chance we’ll ever see R-rated Marvel films from Marvel Studios.
Black said, “I always thought that certain characters could be adapted in a cool way. I wanted to do… Quentin Tarantino kind of poisoned the well with ‘Django,’ but I always thought there was a 1970″s version of ‘Black Panther,’ that could be really cool and involved a lot of the racial tensions of that time. That”s not going to happen. Other Marvel movies that I really loved, or Marvel Comics growing up? God, mostly just the typical ones. ‘Nick Fury – Agent of Shield’ in the Sterenko years. You can”t do them because Sam Jackson is 60 years old and he plays this sort of patriarchal figure now, but Nick Fury was what I adored growing up. If you ever read the ones Sterenko did for ‘Tales of Suspense’ followed by the ‘Nick Fury’ standalone 1-8… some of the best comics ever made.”
That is, by the way, the single nerdiest director’s quote you’ll read this year.
We asked about what the most physically demanding aspects of making the film were. Black said, “Everything involving these suits flying is either on wires where you”ve got to take forever to rig somebody, or it”s invisible. So there”s a guy on wires and he turns and gets hit by an invisible thing that throws him backwards and you have to match everything and nothing”s there. So in the editing room, it”s constantly vexing to me. On ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,’ we”d show up on the day and we would say, ‘Alright, we”re doing an action scene. The car crashes. Where do we go?’ You couldn”t do that. You can”t show up on the day and say, ‘Okay, he jumps of the tower and the building explodes. Let”s begin.’ You have to have it so meticulously planned in advance. The invisibility factor was for me the daunting thing of not knowing where anything is because it”s all just going to be there later.”
Working with major CGI elements is definitely a learning curve for filmmakers, and for some people, it’s a very natural thing, and for others, it never really becomes comfortable. Feige laughed and said, “We’re still very much in the visual effects phase of this film, and there have been a handful of times as we sit in the screening room for hours and hours going through effects shots where Shane goes, ‘Wait, that looks real. I didn”t think it would look that good.’ I said, ‘What do you think we”re doing? Of course it”s going to look that good.’ ‘Huh, it looks real.’”
Black wrapped things up, a smile on his face, and told us that he can’t help but goad the effects artists at times just for fun. “[Executive Producer] Victoria Alonso will sit next to us and I’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s a great cartoon.’ And she just goes nuts. But, no, the effects look real. Photo-real. I’m very surprised.”
And that was that. It was a relatively brief press day, but I felt like Feige, Downey, and Black gave us a strong indication of what kind of film we can expect from “Iron Man 3.” I’m ready to get the summer started, and I can’t wait to check this one out.
“Iron Man 3” arrives in theaters on May 3, 2013.