MEMO TO SHANE BLACK
FROM PETER BART
Aug. 8, 1994
I’VE GOT TO HAND IT TO YOU, SHANE, you know how to beat the system. Not just beat it, nuke it. Other writers may thrash around in development hell, but along you come with your mayhem machine — that’s probably what you call your computer — and, pow, a $ 4 million spec script emerges before you can blink an eye.
No one can remember a deal quite like it, Shane, nor a script like it, either. I’ve been talking to people around town who’ve read the thing and, based on my survey, the breakdown is something like this: About one third of the readers vowed to quit the business forever; another third made firm offers; the final third simply threw up. So you see, Shane, your writing not only makes you a lot of money, it also gets people talking.
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But that’s part of your problem. When you galvanize this sort of attention, you’re no longer just a writer, you become an “industry figure.” And I think you should start thinking about that before things get out of control.
(Let me pause here to explain a few points to the uninitiated. Shane Black is a 32-year-old writer who first achieved prominence by selling an action script called “The Last Boy Scout” for $ 1.75 million — it was not exactly an artistic triumph. He later did a key rewrite on “Last Action Hero,” which didn’t win kudos either. His new spec script, “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” was auctioned last week to New Line for a record $ 4 million and reportedly will be filmed by the husband-and-wife team of Geena Davis and director Renny Harlin.)
And that brings us back to you, Shane. At the end of your new script, you promise a sequel built around the same characters, a sequel which I assume you’ll want to sell for at least $ 6 million. Therefore, this would be an appropriate time to deal with a few pressing issues.
There is, for one thing, the issue of violence. As readers of this column can testify, I am not exactly a crusader against violence in the cinema, but you may turn me into one. It’s not just a question of body count, Shane — in your scripts, most victims are eviscerated, detonated or vaporized so that there are not sufficient body parts left to count anyway.
CLEARLY, YOU RELISH THE MINUTIAE of death, which accounts for that tasty little scene where the guy gets shot through the head in a diner, his brain splattering onto the grill “where it sizzles along with burnt hamburger.” Nice stuff, that. Also the moment where a deer comes crashing through the windshield of a speeding car and the poor beast gets wedged there, thrashing around, cracking the skull of a passenger and gouging our heroine until she shoots him. There’s also the scene where she sticks a hypodermic needle into a bad guy’s eye.
Apart from the random mayhem, a lot of children seem to be standing around witnessing the bloodshed, and even getting blasted away during it — I’m glad you’re fond of children, Shane.
To be sure, you introduce a “fresh” character into all of this, a woman named Charly Baltimore who makes the Terminator look like a wuss. Charly not only has amnesia, but also a lot of pent-up anger, not to mention a long list of enemies, and that’s why she utters poetic aphorisms like, “Life is pain, get used to it.” She also urges men to “Hit me … It makes me go into my thing.””My thing” obviously turns you on, Shane, since you describe it in such excruciating detail.
Another “thing” you dwell on — vomit. “The building vomits flame,” on page 47, “the earth vomits upward,” on page 106, and a myriad of guns vomit regularly throughout the screenplay. Maybe that’s why many of your readers are left heaving, Shane.
Then there’s the issue of scatological dialogue. Obviously, you have a weakness for down-and-dirty characters. That’s why a character dressed like Santa Claus, riding in a sleigh filled with children, shouts “I got a prostate the size of a fucking melon — half my life a doctor’s hand is up my ass. I should marry the fucker.”
I’ll give you this, Shane — you’re fair-minded. No one and no organization gets spared in your scripts. Even the hapless PTA is “the fucking PTA.” And the most benign line said to a child in this film is, “Fuck you, junior.”
WHICH BRINGS ME BACK to the”role model” issue. Young writers out there will imitate you, Shane. What you have done in “The Long Kiss Goodnight” is to carry everything to its logical extreme. Your computer has spawned the grossest dialogue, most sadistic torture scenes, grisliest killings, and most mean-spirited heavies. In doing so, you have not only exploited the system, you have laid it to waste. You’ve left nothing for the wannabe Shane Blacks to try and top.
By making a woman your instrument of mass destruction, to be sure, you have opened up new opportunities for actresses. But let’s see if even Geena agrees to do her shtick. I mean, it’s really a great moment for an actress when, drowning in a freezing pool, she reaches into the underpants of a bloated blue corpse to steal his concealed pistol which she uses to blast the villain (she “does” the job kneecap by kneecap, just to make it more fun).
What am I telling you, Shane? First, you have some remarkable gifts. Your dialogue crackles (if it doesn’t explode). Your scripts have tremendous energy. You have an ability to command both attention and money.
But cool it, kid. Your weapons are out of control. If the French have established a “language police” to protect their native tongue against vulgarization, then Hollywood may have to come up with its own language police to protect against Shane Blackisms.
It’s like the scene you wrote in the Oval Office, when an adviser tells the president, “Colonel Baltimore is the single deadliest individual I’ve ever encountered. She … scares me.”
You scare me, Shane. Before “The Long Kiss Goodnight” is finished, you may scare New Line. My God, the earth may even vomit upward.