When I decided to make my first foray into the world of screenwriting, I was midway through my undergrad years. I had zero experience in filmmaking, let alone screenwriting, and my major had absolutely nothing to do with either. I read a couple books (Syd Field’s was one of them) and cranked out my first feature. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be an utter piece of shit… a disaster of epic proportions. What does any of this have to do with Shane Black and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? Being the dumbass I was back then, I didn't read one screenplay before I tried my hand at the craft. The first script I ended up reading from page one all through to that final fade out was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it absolutely blew me away. Needless to say, this one has a special place in my heart and dramatically altered my understanding of screenwriting for the better.
Before we get into the actual script itself, we have to talk about the man behind it… Shane Black. Originally, Black set out to become an actor. He studied theater at UCLA, before his friends talked him into giving screenwriting a go. Black’s first script landed him an agent and, at only 23 years of age, he sold his first screenplay for $250,000 dollars. Perhaps you've heard of it... a little film called Lethal Weapon. Selling your first script at such a young age is already a big enough feat, but having that same script actually get produced and then go on to become such an iconic hit is beyond remarkable.
Shane Black’s epic run in the 90s was also one of the biggest driving factors in spec screenplay sales going through the roof. For those of you that don’t know, a spec script is one that’s written without the writer being paid to do so. The writer will then try to sell his/her script to potential buyers. Anyone who writes a screenplay in their spare time with dreams of it one day being made into a motion picture is writing a spec script. Usually, working writers try to sell pitches (unwritten ideas) to studios, or are paid to write on assignment after signing a contract. Black preferred to write his own original ideas and made a hell of a career off selling his specs to the highest bidder. Black’s script for The Last Boy Scout hauled in $1.75 million, a figure that made waves at the time. In 1994, he sold another spec, The Long Kiss Goodnight, for a record setting $4 million. He was also paid one million dollars for rewrites on The Last Action Hero. You should also know that most of his screenplays ended up being rewritten extensively by other writers. The result was that the final product was often very different from his original screenplays, with even Lethal Weapon falling into this category. Unless you read his original scripts, you weren’t really hearing Shane Black’s true voice in its entirety. Of course, this all changed with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as it marked Shane Black’s directoral debut.
Shane Black scripts are well known for blending action and comedy, but his writing style is what really gets people talking. The conventional school of thought when approaching the more technical aspects of screenwriting is to keep things sparse. Describe only enough to tell your story. Scripts are sometimes thought of more as blueprints as opposed to the poetic prose you see in novels. That’s not to say screenplays can’t have beautifully crafted metaphors and such in their description, they’re usually just a little more bare than other forms of writing. Unlike many of his peers, Shane Black approaches his scripts in a much more conversational tone. He often makes editorials and humorous asides in his descriptions that speak to the reader, breaking the fourth wall if you will. Here’s a famous example from Lethal Weapon, which also happens to be one of my personal favorites:
EXT. POSH BEVERLY HILLS HOME - TWILIGHT
The kind of house that I'll buy if this movie is a huge hit. Chrome. Glass. Carved wood. Plus an outdoor solarium: A glass structure, like a greenhouse only there's a big swimming pool inside. This is a really great place to have sex.
These almost irreverent comments are fun moments in the script, but they wouldn’t work if the story, characters, and dialogue around them weren’t sharp and on point.
The first thing that strikes me about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is just how self-aware it is. Here’s a script excerpt to illustrate what I’m talking about
Buddy mystery films have been done time and again, and Los Angeles has always been a prime local for noire. This story is very aware of all of this. Instead of getting the cliché version of the city that we’ve all seen countless times, the script goes right after Hollywood and takes a dig at a lot of its bullshit right down to character names. ICM is a pretty big Hollywood agency, so when he writes “ICM Type” everyone in town knows exactly what that means. My favorite bit in these pages is Jill, spelled J-Y-L-L-E, because anyone who lives in the area knows more than one girl just like that. They also know of so much about the, "what do you do for a living" comments from every person you meet. Aside from being really great storytelling devices and bits of dialogue, these descriptions also serve to make this script extremely conversational. It feels like Shane Black is one of your friends shooting the shit with you face-to-face. It really makes the script that much more enjoyable of a read, which is something that can't be overlooked.
I’ve heard may writers say that Hollywood doesn’t want original, they want fresh. I think a better way of phrasing this is that even if you think you have a completely new idea, it’s probably already been done before. But, it’s not really about having an entirely original idea; it’s about putting a unique spin on a familiar concept. As I said above, Shane Black is doing just that in this script. Take a look at his characters. Again, he’s playing off of Hollywood stereotypes, both in film and real life, in order to take the audience into a new place, a new world, even if the actual framework of the story has been seen before. Take our hardboiled detective, Perry, for example. Every noire has one, but Perry isn’t some down and out P.I., he’s a consultant who takes actors out on jobs so they can better prepare for their roles. And he also happens to be gay, with Black affectionately giving him the character name Gay Perry. His demeanor ends up being a perfect foil to our protagonist, Harry.
Harry, of course, is another riff on a type of person you can find wandering around Hollywood… the wannabe. To be fair, he never intended to go down this road, but the point remains. This is another semi-veiled shot at the Hollywood establishment. If you noticed in the script pages above, Harry says, “That’s Dabney Shaw, my producer; he “discovered” me.” The key there is discovered in quotes. In reality, Harry accidently wandered into an audition after a botched robbery and everyone thought he was going all method on them. Of course, all the Hollywood types in that room believed they understood what was really happening, but they actually didn’t have a fucking clue. All of this comes back later quite nicely with the whole "Colin Farrell (Nic Cage in the script) wants too much money" bit.
Now, Harry, like many leads in classic noires, also serves as a narrator. What separates this narrator from the rest are skillfully crafted lines like this one:
Like the screenplay, Harry himself is self-aware and his dialogue is written to make it feel like he’s some guy telling you some crazy story at a bar... just like the script. It makes everything more personal and, as a result, more authentic. These lines also set the precedent for Harry being a semi-unreliable narrator, which gives his character an unpredictability. Surprises in scripts are usually a good thing, so this is a big plus. Harry's long narrations also give you a real sense of his character and personality, drawing readers further into the story. All in all, the characters in this script are fresh, fun, and unique. Each one has a unique voice and views and nuances that are particular to just them, which is another clear-cut sign of a great script.
Now, when most people think about action in a film, they usually point to things like effects, stunts, and choreography as truly defining a great action sequence. While all of that is true, Shane Black proves that a writer can have just as profound of an impact:
This action sequence is, in my mind, perfectly written. The brevity is a thing of beauty. There are no wasted words. The use of sentence fragments also serves to make the scene read at a faster clip, picking up the pace as a true action sequence should. And, once again, the small editorials here and there really heighten the inherent excitement of it all. Digging even deeper, one of the things that really makes this scene special is its use of setups and payoffs. Setups and payoffs are pretty commonplace in film and television. The best scripts always have plenty of good ones. Basically, they’re exactly what you’d might expect; something is setup earlier in the script and paid off later, connecting the dots in the plot more and more. Let’s take a look at a section of that last sequence as an example:
These exact lines of dialogue were used in a flashback of Harry and Harmony as children near the beginning of the screenplay. We also know that Harry’s had a thing for Harmony for a long time, but has never made it a reality. Because of this emotional tension, this payoff is that much more powerful. Harmony's words to Harry here carry a lot of weight as they not only evoke that childhood memory, but his love for her. It’s what gives him the courage and will to fight back. Let’s take a look at another setup and payoff in this sequence:
Which is referencing this:
If you watched this without reading the script, you probably wouldn’t have noticed this at all. It was really aimed at the reader, especially with that comment. It’s the little things like this that make reading a Shane Black script so enjoyable.
And, now, let's take a look at my favorite scene in the film. Here’s the script excerpt:
And, now, for your viewing pleasure the clip from the film:
Aside from this scene being hilarious and a perfect example of how great writing can make actors look ridiculously good (which can also go the other way, too), it also captures one of the things that this script does so well… taking movie clichés and turning them on their heads. We’ve all seen bad guys with their guns pressed on their captor’s back, or characters impossibly playing Russian roulette without a shot being fired. By pointing out the cliché in similar films, Black makes his that much better by not allowing his script to fall into the same traps so many others have fallen prey to.
I want to end this by putting up a clip of a press interview for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:
The part I really loved was how Shane brushed off writing for a particular actor. It's not him being a dick, but rather truly understanding what that entails. When you write for a specific actor, that character ends up becoming them as opposed to an actual person in the world you're creating. They lose their distinct voice and the story suffers for it. Leonardo DiCaprio has actually sent back scripts for rewrites, because he could tell a character was written for him. Great filmmakers understand the importance of staying true to your characters and story. Actors should embody their characters, not the other way around.
If you're wondering what in pluperfect hell Shane Black has to do with Arnold week, here’s a setup and payoff for you. Remember how I said Shane Black was an aspiring actor turned screenwriter? Part of his deal for Lethal Weapon gave him a role in Predator. That’s him to the left. Despite that weak connection, it's never a bad time to talk about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It resurrected Robert Downey Jr.’s career, reminded people how great Val Kilmer could be, and marked the return of Shane Black to Hollywood after a long hiatus. Even if you don't have any intention of ever writing a screenplay, I encourage you to give this one a read. For those of you out there who are writers, I promise you reading it is, at the very least, a fantastic learning experience. The script's pretty easy to find online, so get to it.