Throughout the day we’ve been running interviews with the cast of Iron Man 3, to mark the film’s UK release. We’re finishing off with what was by far our favourite interview: director, Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce.
We say ‘interview’, because in the near half-hour we spent with them, we only managed to shoehorn in around ten questions. Really it was a case of sitting back, watching the banter and occasionally trying to steer the pair back onto the film when they went off course.
Check it out below, where they discuss their thoughts on the franchise, living with one another while developing the movie and Black’s love of Steve Coogan. Spoilers are hinted at…
Their thoughts on the first Iron Man as a character and the franchise so far
Shane Black: I think the first one was more about Tony and less about Iron Man. It’s an Iron Man film which is an attempt to make it more character-centric, and get back to the best of what I think Marvel comics brought to me, even as a kid. Which was the real person as a superhero. Up until 1961 you didn’t really have superheroes who had high school problems. And Spider-Man’s Peter Parker was the first guy to actually not be able to make the football team, and he has a girl he likes that doesn’t like him, things like that. And Tony Stark was always the more realistic one to me. If you look at the first Iron Man, all that stuff took place in Vietnam which, even as a kid, I knew was a real place where stuff happened, even on the TV. It set itself up as the superhero which existed within a geopolitical reality.
Drew Pearce: Shane always talked at the beginning of this process about how he feels like a movie’s best when it’s a stew. When you put tons of different flavours in there, and then you get a more complicated result. Even if, on some levels, it’s still a straight ahead movie, there’s more elements to it. We both agreed that what the first Iron Man movie did so well was a sense of being based in reality.
SB: The strangest thing I’ve ever seen, the combination of a Tom Clancy type international thriller about a kidnapped billionaire and a government searching for him, and then this romantic comedy, His Girl Friday relationship between him and Pepper.
How Tony develops through the series, and in Iron Man 3.
DP: There’s a huge amount of rom-com in the first movie, and that’s absolutely what we wanted to get back to here as well. Partly because you’ve got a thing that’s very rare in summer movies. You’ve got two grown-ups who are now in a relationship, and it’s a relationship you understand because you’ve come three movies with that relationship already. You just don’t get to explore either the comedy or the drama in that kind of relationship in these movies. So that was a huge fun part of it.
And it also plays into the bigger picture about what Tony’s doing in this movie, in many ways. The Avengers is the end of Tony’s traditional hero trilogy, he saves the world. And so this is a movie about what happens when even that doesn’t fill the void that’s in you, and I think that plays into his relationship with Pepper as well. This is a guy who was a playboy for most of his life. How do you settle into your new role?
SB: There was this sense in The Avengers that we got a taste for the first time of him and Pepper in a relationship that was just flirty and happy. They’re together and they’re happy to be together. That’s fine as far as that goes, but you’ve got to start to mess that up a bit if you’re going to proceed for another movie’s worth. We saw the interim version when they’re this flirty couple, but what is it when that starts to show strain at the seams?
DP: What happens when James Bond moves in with his girlfriend? She usually dies, luckily Pepper doesn’t.
SB: Who’s he with, Rachel Weisz?
DP: I was thinking more of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
SB: Oh yeah, she gets gunned down. Maybe someone will do that to Rachel Weisz.
DP: Why would you even say that!? [Laughter]
SB: Don’t say that. I didn’t mention Rachel Weisz being gunned down, because I don’t want her to be. She’s a stellar actress.
Making things harder for Tony Stark
Drew Pearce: We sat down at the beginning and said, ‘How can we do MacGyver?’. No, I think that came from one of the things Shane threw into the pot at the beginning. Shane had this phrase, ‘sci-fi Capra’, that he wanted to incorporate.
SB: A Christmas movie that had at least one image of a guy wandering at night through the snow, looking for the lights in the distance, with his buddy behind him, his Iron Man who’s crippled and being dragged.
DP: Our challenge was to find that Capra-esque sense of destiny and wonder. One of the things we loved at the beginning, and I think what Maya is in the movie, is about the innocence of science and how that gets compromised. That’s what we were trying to get at in the beginning of the middle section. Basically we knew we wanted to take stuff away from Tony. I think you have to, to get to the movie that we wanted. But we didn’t just want to do it in this modern trope, super bleak way. We wanted there to be a bit of magic in there as well. Doing it at Christmas always helps that, there’s a twinkle to the movie.
SB: It’s the sense of a good spirit behind it. In other words, there’s a desperate quality, and a real sense of people being pushed to the limits of their endurance. In this case Tony, with the time clock running and having to move fast, and prowl through the snow, and improvise things to survive. All those things are great, but at the same time to get the sense of a real old-fashioned western adventure to it, almost. The small town really catered to the western feel, and the showdown with these gunslingers.
DP: Of course, the first Iron Man movie did brilliantly and also what we wanted from it, you kind of had to take that and undermine it at the same time. It was a big risk doing the Harley scenes. We didn’t want to be the guys that got criticised for bringing a kid into the Iron Man universe. The way you have to run at that is by undercutting it whilst also keeping your eye on the ball, making sure there’s an emotional resonance to it.
SB: It is truly the ghost of Christmas past, too, it’s the Christmas Carol story. He meets this woman who attacks him as the ghost of all the women he’s left in the morning without calling. This kid is alone in the shed, with the snow outside, it’s him as a young boy virtually, he’s the ghost of Christmas past.
DP: And also he is partly responsible for the demons of the movie. If he hadn’t had that extra bottle of Cristal, maybe he wouldn’t have said what he said to Killyon, and maybe Maya’s past would have been different as well. Her path is kind of an inversion of Tony’s. Tony started off as this impure character that worked his way to heroism, and Maya starts off as the wonder of science and ends of compromised.
DP: We suggested it. It came from this Capra thing as well. We liked the idea of doing a Shane Black take on a ‘Spielbergian’ moment, that seemed like fun. Actually nothing came from the studio. Partly because The Avengers hadn’t even shot when we started thinking about this. We were given a clean slate mandate, which is very rare and I don’t even know if we’d have had that if we started writing after The Avengers came out. We got lucky, we were in the pocket, where we could sit in Shane’s house for four months and go, ‘What do we want to do with it?’.
SB: To Kevin Feige [producer]’s credit, he was good about saying, ‘We want a stand alone movie. We just did The Avengers, but we’re not looking to simply replicate that. Go back to another style, go back to another type of conceit’. The template they have, they could easily just cookie cut these things. But they really do vary it. I have admiration for Marvel for their ability to not continue to capitalise on success by trying to replicate it.
DP: Having said that, there were things from the first movie that were so good – it was more about trying to tap back into that stuff as well. Like we say, the rom-com of it, and the reality of it. I don’t just mean the real world reality. There’s an emotional reality to what Favreau and Robert achieved with that movie, and that was the other thing we needed to get back to.
The Extremis storyline
DP: I mailed Warren [Ellis – writer of the Extremis arc in the comics] and said, ‘Just so you know I think we’re going to be doing this’, and Warren’s brilliant and was just, ‘Take what you need to with my blessing’. I actually think, conceptually, Warren Ellis is this brilliant futurist. He has all these fantastic ideas. We actually had more of that science in the movie at various points, but what it really does come down to is his idea of being able to hack human DNA. He calls it the human operating system, and that’s a fantastic idea. What we liked about that was posing that with the kind of – you talk about Extremis.
SB: Yes, and the Five Nightmares, too.
DP: Matt Fraction’s a brilliant Iron Man writer as well, I don’t think he gets his due in the Marvel cinematic universe. His modern take on Iron Man is fantastic, the tone of it is amazing.
References to the comics in the film
DP: There are plenty of easter eggs in the movie. Sometimes in the suits, one of the people that blows up is actually named after a character called Firepower, which is just a gag really. There’s also easter eggs from our lives as well. The numerical address of Tony is the address of my accountant’s.
SB: There’s nothing to really sneak in, everything is there. It’s very overt.
DP: Neither of us really write like that, we’re not really interested in that reference-orama kind of writing. Any homage tends to be more tonal. We can tap into the comics like that.
SB: Brandt is an easter egg. The woman’s name is Brandt and if you read Marvel comics, that’s the Brandt who was horribly scarred from the Man-Thing, it seared her face with its hand.
DP: To that level it’s in there, but that’s just not what we do.
Filming new scenes for the Chinese version of the film
DP: I’ll take this one! I think what’s interesting is there’s going to be this curate’s egg of a movie out there, which has essentially an additional story in it. I don’t think it’ll be the one that most of the world sees, but it’s almost going to become this prized pop culture artefact in the way that the Star Wars Holiday Special is.
SB: So what you’re saying, with a bit of a wink, is that it’s going to have that same relation to the original Star Wars – there’ll be Iron Man and then the Chinese version of Iron Man.
DP: I’m actually watching the movie on Monday, they’ve organised for me to see it…. It takes a fundamental character from our movie that wasn’t in it as much, and extrapolates a bit more of what was going on.
SB: It’s sort of exciting, it’s scenes only seen in China and it’s an additional plotline.
DP: We only finished this version of the movie three weeks ago, and we’ve gone straight into all of this stuff.
On the humour in the film
DP: Shane’s the biggest fan of Monty Python I’ve ever met.
SB: I don’t like America! [Laughter]
DP: Whereas I love America. I think there’s a bit of everything in there.
SB: It’s a great place to visit. The real humour nowadays – Steve Coogan is my favourite.
DP: We talked a lot about Partridge.
SB: Alan Partridge is just breathtakingly funny.
DP: It’s my favourite TV comedy of all time.
SB: I adapt. If I’m working with someone who’s British, and they reference British comedy, I’ll go watch them or I’ll already have known about them.
DP: When we were writing, it was the thing Shane kept pushing me more and more towards. Which was amazing because I didn’t necessarily expect that. But your whole thing is that the drama’s better, and the action’s better, the more humour there is around it.
SB: I get frustrated when a studio will say – not Marvel – but when they say, ‘Well this is a sad scene, the character’s wife just died, so he’s not going to make a joke’, and it’s like, ‘Bullshit!’, you know.
DP: Also it’s about trying to make a scene do more than one thing at the same time. Cover your ears, Shane, I’m going to say something nice. One of the things that Shane did so brilliantly as a director is, it’s easy to talk about all of those different elements and you can even get them down on the page. But actually directing a movie that I think remains remarkably consistent in its overall tone, while zigzagging through both genre, and some surprises that I’m proud we’ve Trojan horsed into the movie – that’s all him, and I think that’s an amazing thing to have achieved. You can take your hands off your ears.
Joining the juggernaut and making the world of Iron Man their own
SB: I thought that there would be a way to work with Downey and make something unusual. Having worked with him before, I thought, I like Iron Man 1 enough that if we gave it a third act that’s viable, we could maybe make a movie that’s better.
DP: That’s what you have to shoot for.
SB: You have to try to top it, and I was excited about the prospect of it. Also just the prospect of having a green lit movie, because I’d worked forever to try and get a project up and running. I had a couple that were close, and then fell through. I thought, ‘This is great, I’m getting paid. But I’m not making a movie’. And here’s one that has a release date. They’re fairly strict about these things, once the train goes, the train goes.
DP: It’s the gift and the curse of these movies. You get a release date, and then you’re going to make this movie.
SB: So they’re going to make this film, there’s no way they’re not going to make this film. If I work really hard I could be sitting in that chair in a year doing what I’m doing, all systems go. I took that option. It was the right choice at the time and I think it was ultimately a good thing I did. There was plenty of story to tell, I get to work with my friend Robert, and I get to meet Drew. And I get to meet all of you great people.
DP: And I personally think it feels like a Shane Black movie, you know. I genuinely feel honoured that I was able to help get there, because that’s exciting. A Shane Black superhero movie. That in itself is a kind of genre mashup, in a way. And that’s why I hope it’s going to be a surprise for people as well. What’s great about this week, we didn’t realise press were going to get to see it before we spoke to you, the time crunch on these things is insane.
Their creative partnership
DP: I felt like I moved in with Shane for the first four months, into his gigantic but also spooky mansion in Los Angeles. But our relationship was totally harmonious, we were still in the honeymoon period.
SB: We sniffed each other, basically. It was an enforced marriage between two people who were raised to believe they were going to marry other people.
DP: We ended up, weirdly, fighting back to back against other things coming in. They maybe got more than they expected.
SB: That’s true. We did share women! [Laughter]
DP: We did not share women. Shane never shares his women. [Laughter]
SB: You can have Rachel.
DP: She’s dead.
On working together again in the future
SB: He’s my speech therapist.
DP: I am his psychiatrist, we’ve got a long road ahead of us. Truthfully, this has been such an intense two years, you don’t really get the chance to sit around going, ‘Hey, what shall we do now?’, because we literally only finished three weeks ago.