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King of the spec scripts rises once again

Shane Black is back.

In his first deal since landing a record setting $4 million in 1994 for “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” Black will make his directing debut at Warner Bros. on his noir drama script “You’ll Never Die in This Town Again,” re-teaming with “Lethal Weapon” producer Joel Silver. Black’s also teamed with Anthony Bagarozzi to write “The Nice Guys,” a buddy action spec that is now being shopped.

Black’s original rise up the ranks of Hollywood’s best-paid scribes was meteoric. Fresh out of UCLA, he got $250,000 for “Lethal Weapon.” Soon, he and Joe Eszterhas took turns rewriting the spec record book. The arrival of a Black spec was an event that sent studio execs into a frenzy, and twice left Black’s agent sorting seven-figure offers within 24 hours. Black got $1.75 million for “The Last Boy Scout” and set the still-standing spec record when New Line paid $4 million for “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”

He didn’t get near that on the new project, and doesn’t care. The pressure attached to those big paydays, and the failure of “Long Kiss,” brought on a case of writer’s block that took three years to disappear.

Despite his lack of productivity, Black, who has leading-man good looks, has cut a dashing figure around town. He lives in a 14-room French chateau, replete with screening room and disco, and throws a spectacular Halloween party each year, complete with thousands of dollars in scary props, that is one of the town’s hottest invites.

“For many moons, I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to write,” said Black. “Quick success came with a price. I’d been busy since I was 22 years old, and I sort of skipped my twenties. I’d succeeded and felt an increased sense of living up to escalating expectation levels. What I needed was to find the fun again, to reacquaint myself with why I decided to write in the first place. It’s not supposed to be a burden.”

When the ideas and words wouldn’t come, Black hit the road. “I went to Normandy, Brussels, Italy,” he said. “I was in a relationship for several years. These things supplied me with insights I had been missing.”

Ultimately, the block was broken by James L. Brooks, a friend who got Black to imagine what it would be like if the Jack Nicholson from “As Good As It Gets” played Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown.”

“I set out to make a romantic version of ‘Chinatown,’ and it opened all kinds of roads,” Black said. “I did my little victory dance having finally thought of something that excited me, dragged out the typewriter and got going.”

Black set the murder mystery around a movie shoot in L.A., and gave his patented buddy formula new twists. His protagonist catches a Hollywood agent about to have his way with a semi-conscious starlet. When they step outside, the agent beats the hell out of Black’s chivalrous hero, who doesn’t have a clue how to fight. His tough guy partner, a private eye, is gay. The characters also have a world weary sense of mortality now felt by a writer who just turned 40 and learned how quickly success is forgotten in Hollywood.

He showed his script to a young exec, who was unaware of Black’s past success and told the writer he had potential.

“If there is a mistress more compelling than fame and money, it’s the feeling of being useful because you are working,” said Black. “I felt good again.”

He felt better reuniting with Silver, who presided over four “Lethal Weapon” films before godfathering “The Matrix.” Silver said yes immediately, even though Black had turned him down so many times.

“A lot of where I am today is because of Shane,” Silver said. “‘Lethal Weapon’ was a pivotal moment in my life — it changed the way people thought of action and me. I’d always wanted Shane to take a job and not be so precious with his talent. I asked him to write three scenes for aspiring actors to read for my NBC reality show, and he wrote great action characters and signature Shane dialogue.”

HORSE PLAY: The makers of “Seabiscuit” have another horse to root for this weekend. Writer/director Gary Ross, his wife and exec producer Allison Thomas, producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, and DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw have a 10% stake in Kentucky Derby entry Atswhatimtalkinbout. They’ll be at Churchill Downs, unfazed by the horse’s 12-1 longshot status. “We’re opening a drama in the middle of the summer, so we know what it means to root for an underdog,” said Ross, whose movie bows July 25.

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