A Screenwriting Badass: Shane Black, Director of Iron Man 3

By on September 4, 2013
Shane Black

I love a good hell raiser and I’ll attempt to highlight a few here. By doing so I’ll likely be contradicting a ton of rules that I’ve thrown at you before. Not to try to be an asshole, but the only absolute in screenwriting is that there are no absolutes. 

You need to learn the rules so you can forget the rules. That’s why, ultimately, I’m not a hater of film schools. There’s a place for this knowledge. It’s a no-brainer that doing a thing beats talking about doing a thing. So, while it’s all well and good for me to peel off 15 or 20 posts about Format or Structure, it’s far better to watch a master break most, if not all the traditional rules of screenwriting, and not just get away with it, but have an entire style associated with his writing.

Shane Black worship. I admit, just looking at the dude’s movies, I never quite understood it: Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang…any of them Top 100 for you? Not even in sniffing range here. But–and I’m still not sure by what magic this happens–when you read Shane Black’s scripts, you can help but love the guy. There is truly nobody who writes like him.

Let’s look at a few passages from his work to try to figure it out. I tried to cut and paste an action sequence from Last Action Hero, but it’s not taking, so I’ll just link it here. Read pages 3-6, here:

Do you think Producers would bust Shane Black’s balls about that obscure reference to Bugsy Siegel? How about his endless use of (beat) and (pause) parenthetical’s or his CAPPING DIALOGUE, thus giving the actors line readings? That’s not the screenwriters job, as about a thousand screenplay consultants with zero screen credits will tell you. How about the WE SEE’S, and the freakin’ CAMERA DIRECTION! Even a freshman film student knows you never do that. Guess Shane Black missed the memo…

More like he took it to the smallest room in the house, and flushed ’em right down the toilet.

If you’re good enough, you can break the rules and get away with it. That’s a terrific action sequence that screams of style–defined as writer’s voice.


Let’s look at how a million dollar script opens, from Lethal Weapon:

     FADE IN:


     lies spread out beneath us in all its  splendor,  like  a
     bargain basement Promised Land.

     bringing us IN OVER the city as we:


     TITLES END, as we --

     SPIRAL DOWN TOWARD a lush, high-rise apartment complex.
     The moon reflected in glass.

     CAMERA CONTINUES TO MOVE IN THROUGH billowing curtains,
     INTO the inner sanctum of a  penthouse  apartment,  and
     here, boys and girls, is where we lose our breath,
     because --

     spread-eagled on a sumptuous designer sofa lies the
     single most beautiful GIRL in the city.
     Blonde hair. A satin nightgown that positively  glows.
     Sam Cooke MUSIC, crooning from five hundred dollar

     PASTEL colors. Window  walls.  New  wave  furniture  tor-
     tured into weird shapes.  It looks like robots live here.

     On the table next to the sleeping Venus  lies  an  open
     bottle of pills ... next to that, a mirror dusted with

     She rouses herself to smear some powder  on  her  gums.
     As she does, we see from her eyes that she is thoroughly,
     completely whacked out of her mind...

     She stands, stumbles across the room, pausing to glance
     at a photograph on the wall:

     Two men.  Soldiers.  Young, rough-hewn, arms around each

     The Girl throws open the glass doors ... steps out onto a
     balcony, and there, beneath her, lies  all  of  nighttime
     L.A.  Panoramic splendor.  Her hair flies, her expression.
     rapt, as she stands against this sea of technology.  She
     is beautiful.

     On the balcony railing beside her  stand  three  potted

     The Girl sees them, picks one up.  Looks over the balcony
     railing ... It is ten stories down to the parking lot.
     she squints, holds the plant over the edge.

               Red car.

     Drops the plant.  Down it goes, spiralling end over end
     -- until, finally ... BAM --  !  SHATTERS.  Dirt  flies.  A
     red Chevy is now minus a WINDSHIELD.  The Girl takes
     another plant.

               Green car.

     She drops it.  Green Dodge.  Ten stories below, BAM
     Impact city.  Scratch one paint job.  Grabs the final
     plant and holds it out, saying:

               Blue car.

     POW.  GLASS SHATTERS.  Dirt sprays.  A blue BMW this
     time.  The Girl loves this game ... her expression is
     slightly crazed.  She reaches for another plant --
     There aren't any.  Her smile fades -- And for a moment,
     just a moment, the dullness leaves her eyes and she is
     suddenly, incredibly sober.  And tears fill her eyes as
     she looks over the edge --

               Yellow car.

     And jumps the railing. Plummets, head  over  heels  like  a
     rag doll. Hits the yellow car  spot  on.  She  lies,  dead,
     like an extinguished dream.  Still beautiful.

Love his use of -- within the descriptive paragraph. His style is jagged, zero fat, in your face.
Again, I'm more a fan of the script than the movie, but it shows that you've got to come out guns
blazing on page 1. Grab the reader by the throat and never let go.

One more from LETHAL WEAPON…notice how fast you read this, how your eye is forced down the page:

86   MURTAUGH'S POV                                                  86

     reveals a crowd of people, milling back and forth, he
     has no idea where the sniper is,  and  suddenly  BAM  --  !
     The wood blows out not two inches  from  his  head  and  he
     ducks, and meanwhile -- back outside ...

87   MARTIN RIGGS                                                     87

     He's on the move. He jogs ... trots ... runs ...  Noticing  a
     lone man in black, striding quickly across the lawn,
     striding into the crowd ... toward the edge of  the  bluff  ...
     Things happen fast now, pay attention, as -- The man
     turns, sees Riggs ... Riggs sees him... and the man is
     none other than Mr. Joshua.  Crew cut.  Sunglasses.
     Moving fast.

88   MURTAUGH                                                         88

     diving out the window.  Hits.  Rolls, comes up.  Scream-
     ing, waving at Riggs ...

89   RIGGS                                                            89

     Gun out ... moving fast,  shoving  through  the  crowd,  people
     screaming now, "Jesus, he's got a gun -- !" Running
     across the lawn,  Murtaugh  thirty  yards  behind,  moving,
     hard and fast,  both  guns  drawn,  pushing/shoving,  knock-
     ing people ass over teacups and meanwhile let us not
     forget --

90   JOSHUA                                                          90

     moving at a dead run, now, gun out ... at the edge of the
     cliff. People all  around  him,  confused,  I  mean  Jesus,
     what the hell is all  this  shooting  about,  and  Riggs  can't
     get a clear shot ... He's sweeping the  gun,  back  and  forth,
     bodies crossing in front of him... all the wrong bodies,
     Goddammit...!  Moving forward, shouting:

               Lie down!!!  Down!!!

     Murtaugh, springing hell bent  for  leather  --  and  folks,
     grab your hats ... because just then,  a  BELL  COBPA  HELI-
     COPTER crests the edge of the bluff.

     An explosion of sound...
     As it rises like an avenging angel ...
     Hovers, shattering the air with turbo-throb, sandblasting
     the hillside with a roto-wash of loose dirt, tables,
     chairs, everything that's not nailed down ...

     Screaming, chaos, frenzy.
     Three words that apply to this scene.

     And in the midst of all this -- Joshua steps onto the
     chopper and is hauled inside.
     No expression.
     The total professional.
     And then, my friends, it's bye-bye time.  The CHOPPER
     ROARS like a behemoth, tilts --
     slips over the side and plummets away ...

     Slick.  Very slick.
     Except Martin Riggs it not impressed.

     He's still running, you see ...
     Dives flat at the edge of the cliff, nearly flings
     himself over the damn edge ...
     GUN extended like it's part of his arm...
     Finger flat on the trigger ...
     Blowing SHOT after SHOT at the retreating chopper ...
     BAM-BAM-BAM        His face contorted in a rictus of
     animal concentration...

     And he wings the chopper, even.  POP
     spray of fiberglass, but nossir, no cigar...
     cause the damn chopper flies away.

     And Riggs dumps his magazine, stuffs in a new one ...
     and Jesus Christ he keeps FIRING.

     As Murtaugh walks up beside him.  Stares down.
     Gun held loose at his side.

     Riggs still FIRES, BAM-BAM-BAM
     doesn't know it yet ...
     Until his MAGAZINE CLICKS empty.

     He lies flat.
     People screaming, running away.
     Murtaugh standing over him, staring down at this animal
     with a gun, who even now refuses to  look  away  from  the
     retreating chopper, whose gun even now continues to
     follow its course out over the sea.

     Hands, clutching tlie barrel.
     Finally, they relax.
     Riggs shuts his eyes.
     Murtaugh stares.

“It rises like an avenging angel …Hovers, shattering the air with turbo-throb,
sandblasting the hillside with a roto-wash of loose dirt, tables, chairs,
everything that’s not nailed down …”

Your action sequences can be functional, they can be who is in the shot and what’s happening, what is the camera seeing now
like all the screenwriting books tell you–or they can be edgy, risky, pure poetry like this.

Shane Black…

Nobody like him.

About Paul Peditto

PAUL PEDITTO wrote and directed Jane Doe, an A-PIX Films release starring Calista Flockhart. The film was awarded Best Feature at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival and grossed over 2 million dollars. Six of his screenplays have been optioned, among them Crossroaders to Haft Entertainment (Emma, Dead Poet’s Society). Recent credits include Additional Dialogue for Roundabout American shot in July 2011, currently making the festival rounds. He also wrote the micro-budget thriller CHAT, scheduled for release in March, 2014 He has won semi-finalist honors at Nicholl Fellowship Screenwriting Awards and Slamdance. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College and Chicago Filmmakers, professionally consulting on thousands of screenplays since 2002. His book, WRITING SCREENPLAYS, was just released worldwide by Self-Counsel Press, and is available on Amazon and elsewhere. Check Paul out at: SciptGodsMustDie.com