In retrospect, it might not have been a good idea to ask Kevin Feige if he hires directors like Shane Black because they’re cheap. At least not in front of Black himself, the talented but notoriously cantankerous filmmaker responsible for Iron Man 3 and Feige’s latest addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. But the unique and endlessly fascinating thing about Marvel is how inextricably all of its films are linked, raising the question of where other threads or throughlines might exist, even behind the scenes.
FSR sat down with Black and Feige at the recent Los Angeles press day for Iron Man 3 where Black had previously endured three straight days of conversations about his (by most counts) triumphant return to the director’s chair for the first time since 2004’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. We were his last interview, and all kidding aside about his cagey demeanor, Black was predictably thoughtful and candid as he and Feige discussed the process of immersing him in the superhero world as the Iron Man trilogy wraps up, and Marvel’s Phase II films get underway.
What is it that made you want to take on Iron Man 3, and then what did you pitch to Marvel – and Kevin, what did he show you – that convinced them that you were the right guy for the job?
Shane Black: I got a call from Robert Downey, and basically he was pitching me a “go” movie – that they were going to make Iron Man. And I knew that to be true. So that’s immediately attractive, but then I thought, this is Iron Man – I sort of flirted with this before, and said “no thank you.” But that was before I’d seen the movies – that was before they actually got made. I like Jon Favreau’s Iron Man a lot, and I even like number 2, but I felt like I could take this character, because it’s Robert, and do an exciting kind of story. Especially because Marvel had said in the first meetings that they were looking to do a standalone piece that would put him on his back foot more, and maybe show his vulnerabilities – it was more about jeopardy.
Not so much just Iron Man experimenting in labs or fighting other robots, but just Iron Man, really on the edge pushed with his back up against the wall. That’s what kind of sold me that this was a place I could sort of land, that I could do so credibly and I could make a good showing of it if I got a good script. And then they threw this writer at me, this Brit guy with a weird beard, and I said, “no thank you.” No, but he [Drew Pearce] turned out to be a godsend, and with similar sensibilities, we got on famously. We pitched Marvel a script and we all sat in a room for what seemed like months on end, but was probably two months…
Kevin Feige: I don’t think we had even started shooting Avengers yet; in fact, the first few meetings we had with Shane was in a conference room outside the mix stage where we were finishing Captain America. That was summer of 2011. But what I knew, not knowing if Cap was going to do well, or Avengers was going to do well, I knew we were making Iron Man – and that it needed to stand apart from Avengers. Because if Avengers was going to work, it was going to work because our whole buildup of Phase I worked, and people loved the idea of seeing all of the characters together. And then if Phase II was going to work, or if there was even going to be a Phase II, or a Phase III or Phase IV, you would have to remind the audience right away that the characters were just as interesting by themselves as they are together in a big ensemble. And that was a big part of bringing Shane on, to bring in a unique voice, and to bring in someone who was very interested in Tony Stark, and then was only tangentially interested in everybody else, because we wanted him to focus on Tony.
One of the things that’s been interesting about the last several films is that you have chosen filmmakers to helm these projects who, while they’re terrific filmmakers, they haven’t done films in a little while or maybe they hadn’t taken on a directorial project in a while. Why has that become part of your strategy – to get folks like Shane, like James Gunn—
Black: They’re cheap [Laughs].
Feige: Yeah. No, we’re very lucky at Marvel on a number of levels. By the time we got to Iron Man, the only reason we got to make Iron Man by ourselves is because there were enough Marvel movies, in particular the X-Men movies and the Spider-Man movies, but even the other movies were all profitable. So we were able to get financing to make Iron Man and Hulk ourselves. Iron Man was an independent movie, which people forget – I forget. But Iron Man ended up being so successful that we were able to pay off the loan and we didn’t have to do that, thank God, and then Disney bought us so we don’t have to do that any more.
But we were in a position where the characters, and the I.P., was the draw, so it allowed us to make any decision we wanted just to bring it to life. Robert Downey was not a big star at the time, Jon Favreau had done excellent movies, but nothing on this scale before. And we had the relationships at the time on Iron Man, and now they’re firmly entrenched with us, people who can do the effects, people who can provide the foundation for a filmmaker like Shane who’d never done anything near this scale before, just as Jon hadn’t, just as Joss hadn’t, just as now Alan Taylor on The Dark World and the Russo brothers on The Winter Soldier hadn’t done.
But that really frees us up to say, who can do the best job with the story? We’ll help you with everything else, but we need somebody who has a unique eye. And I think Iron Man has some of the best action sequences, and Avengers has some of the best action sequences, of any of the movies – of any movie ever, to be honest, because of the creativity that came with it. I’m glad to hire filmmakers that aren’t daunted by that; they just go, “what would be cool? What would be unique? What would be interesting?” And it’s served us well. And you can go back to Bryan Singer on X-Men, or Sam Raimi on Spider-Man – or Marc Webb on The Amazing Spider-Man. It has worked well.
This is a pretty incredible have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too movie in that you seem as interested in having Tony out of the Iron Man armor as in it. How did you negotiate that balance, and what were your goals as you tried to ensure that Tony existed independently of his superhero alter ego?
Black: Well, what it comes down to, to me, is a very simple equation: I want the Iron Man stuff to have impact. And if he’s always in the suit doing stuff, it doesn’t have any impact. If every once in a while he gets just a piece of the suit and POW! he launches a bolt and somebody goes flying 20 feet through the air, but it burns him to do it, that has impact. Because you don’t get lost in the cacophony of it.
So the more that you get a sense that Iron Man doesn’t have to do a lot, he just has to be there, and you get a sense of how heavy he is, how effective, how lethal, the wonder of it – the real sense of science and wonder that we try to evoke in the film, especially with that little kid, and then at the end, okay, now you’ve sat through the “almost Iron Man” of it. You’ve seen him do bits and pieces here and there, and you get a sense of how difficult the suit is to manage. Now we’ll throw all of the suits at you at the end. But balancing it was exactly the task, right? To make sure that every time Iron Man showed up, it was a big deal and had impact, and that it wasn’t wasted or overdone.
At this point, Kevin, are there lynchpin films? Knowing that you have second and third installments planned, do you worry about certain films not working because they would mean you couldn’t go as smoothly to Phase III or whatever next step you want to take?
Feige: I feel that way about every film. We’re one film failure away from it all unraveling. Whether that’s true or not, that’s the way we think. So they’re all lynchpins. I mean, Iron Man 3 is a huge lynchpin because Iron Man has very high expectations on it. The Dark World is because post-Avengers, we want Thor to be bigger. Captain America is because, same thing, we want Cap to be even bigger – and, even more than the others, does affect the overarching narrative, and the repercussions of Winter Soldier will be felt in Avengers 2. And Guardians, because it’s completely different, and completely out of the box, and 90% unrelated to all of the Marvel characters. So Guardians is as big a venture for us as Iron Man 1 was.
In that case, Shane, what concerns did you have in creating a story with Iron Man 3 that felt conclusive but didn’t close the door for other filmmakers to pick up the character later, or the larger narrative?
Black: I didn’t have any concerns, necessarily. I thought of things that would be game-changers enough to justify the third film, and I would pitch it to Marvel and they would say, “uh, let’s think about it.” And I guess it was congruent with what they intend – I don’t know! That’s the thing, they didn’t tell me.
Feige: But Iron Man 3 was being conceived long before Avengers 2 was, so with Avengers 2 and Joss being privy to everything we were doing up to this point is taking his clues from there. So it was less about, “Joss wants to do X, Y and Z in Avengers 2, so Shane, you’ve gotta make a left turn.”
Black: There was none of that. It’s just by the end of the process, and I was rewriting along the way, we had a project that I imagine they would have told me had there been any problem. And since they didn’t say anything, we’re good. But I’m looking forward as a fan to watching these next films; I deliberately don’t want to know about the next films because I still preserve that same discipline…
Feige: You’ll know about them, when you come to the screenings and help us make them better.
Black: Fair enough.
Iron Man 3 is in theaters May 3rd.