Kevin Feige and Shane Black on making 'Iron Man 3' photo-real and building a better story
As much as I like his work, I've never had the opportunity to sit down with Shane Black to talk about film. I'm hoping that closer to the release of "Iron Man 3," we might find time for an actual interview, but I'll admit, part of the reason I was happy to do this particular round table was because Black was going to be part of it.
Kevin Feige, on the other hand, I feel fairly comfortable with after all the years of covering Marvel movies. Having the two of them paired seemed like a nice way of making sure the conversation would be an easy one, and we dove right in when the two of them sat down, with people peppering Black with joking questions about the giant stuffed bunny rabbit glimpsed in the trailer and geeky questions about the use of the term "gauntlet" in some of the footage we saw.
Once we settled in, we asked Black about something that Robert Downey Jr. mentioned in his interview, that Black had been part of the "Iron Man" series before this thanks to Favreau and Downey reaching out to him on the first and second films. "I don't think I contributed anything too terribly important," he said, "although Robert's been kind enough to cite it as being helpful." It sounds like Black and Favreau had a great working relationship on this film, and that Black knows how easy it would have been for that to have been weird and uncomfortable with Favreau having previously called the shots on the series. "Instead, he was the nicest guy in the world and was extremely beneficial… he's great."
We asked about the process of cracking the story for the first post-"Avengers" Marvel movie, and Feige walked us through it. "We first started meeting with Shane in spring of 2011… we knew a few of the elements that have remained. We want it to be a Tony Stark-centric story, we want to blow up his life and see how he deals with a nemesis without his suits working, and get him back metaphorically to the cave with a box of scraps, like the first movie. That has remained and carried on through, and it was one of the reasons we connected with Shane. Because if we wanted to do 'It connects to 'The Avengers' and then Nick Fury comes in' and stuff, I don’t think Shane would have been interested in that, and I don’t I don’t think he would have been the right guy for it. But to take Tony Stark's journey and explore his character deeper than we had since the first act of the first film? He was the man. It evolved over the next 8 or 9 months after that into basically what it is now."
See, that excites me. It makes me feel like Marvel knows that the only way they get to keep making these films indefinitely is to put the characters through things. In a comic, you get a new one every month and they're 22 pages long and they're lean and mean and then you're on to the next one. The films are much bigger, and each one needs to do its own thing, and do it well. We asked Black if he's gone out of his way to drop in some things that connect the film to the larger continuity that Marvel is building, and he said, "I consider the fan base to basically be Marvel's job. Mine is to be a fan, and I am one, and I have been from a young age of 'Iron Man,' so for me, I just please me and I hope that pleases the rest of the fans. It should. For instance, one of the joys for me has always been seeing how you take a villain from the comic book and realize him in a slightly more realistic way for the movie, render him for movies in a way that’s recognizable, but different. That’s fun. Like the Joker in 'The Dark Knight' is not the Joker from the comic book, but there’s just enough of him that you recognize him and go, 'Wow, what a creative way of interpreting the Joker for motion pictures.' That was our task here, too. The fans love this character The Mandarin and we just said, 'Well, what we don’t want is this potentially racist, stereotype of a Fu Manchu villain just waving his fist.' But we found a way, I think, to get an iteration of The Mandarin that we like. We got very excited about having cracked this story when we found out that we could include The Mandarin… that would be a perfect match, the ultimate Iron Man villain, but without relying too heavily on what the comic book stereotype was."
Again, that's pretty much exactly what I wanted to hear. I told Black how much I liked the notion of him as a media terrorist, and he replied, "We were all about that, yeah, the idea of just a real world interpretation of this guy who… I hate to break it to you, but he’s not from space in this. The rings are rings. They’re showmanship. They’re accoutrements. They’re paraphernalia of warfare that he sort of drapes himself with. He studies Sun Tzu. He studies insurgency tactics. He surrounds himself with dragons and symbols of warlords and Chinese iconography because he wants to represent this sort of prototypical terrorist. We use as the example Colonel Kurtz from 'Apocalypse Now'. This guy who may have been an American, may have been a British National, someone who is out there doing field work, supervising atrocities for the intelligence community, who went nuts in the field and became this sort of devotee of war tactics, and now has surrounded himself with a group of people over which he presides, and the only thing that unifies them is this hatred of America. So he’s the ultimate terrorist, but he’s also savvy. He’s been in the intelligence world. He knows how to use the media. Taking it to a real world level like that was a lot fun for us."
My next question had to do with the idea that when "Iron Man" started, part of what was so appealing about Jon’s approach was how grounded it was, how real world it was, and now over the course of the rest of the Marvel movies, they've introduced a god from Asgard, space aliens, Loki, and all these truly fantastic elements. They still have to have Tony grounded in something recognizable, and I asked if that has been a balancing act in this film, and if there is there some sense that the fantastic has changed Tony and how he deals with this world that he lives in.
Feige responded first. "The only real connective tissue we wanted from 'The Avengers' in this movie was [the] effect on Tony’s psyche. This notion that Tony Stark, who is the shit and always thought of himself as top dog, now has been to outer space, nearly got killed by freaking aliens, has encountered a god that can smash him across the forest with a hammer, has encountered a guy that his father used to talk about from 1945. It’s no mistake that we meet Tony at the beginning of this movie and he’s just building suits, putting himself in the suit, and he’s much more comfortable when he’s in the suit. And a lot of this movie is about Tony learning to become Tony Stark again outside the armor, and he has a little help in that his house is completely destroyed."
Black continued, "He’s in a world where all of the sudden, without this armor, there’s elements with which he cannot hope to compete. So his comfort in his own skin has diminished at the start of this movie by the fact that he feels like, unless he can build the perfect man, he’s going to be outdone and outshone by these people who are literally gods. So how he can then have those suits taken away from him until he’s just a man and he can’t possibly compete, that was the impetus for this movie. Rip everything off him and say, 'Yes, you’re alone with these incredible forces aligned against you, and you don’t even have your armor.'”
Feige jumped back in with, "In all of our films, particularly this one with what Shane and Drew Pearce have done, you can have heightened elements. Look at 'The Avengers.' You can have these crazy otherworldly things as long as the way the characters are responding to those things, the emotional response… that’s where grounding it in reality is most important. Even in the comics, by the way, that’s the difference between caring about a comic book character and not."
I thought it was very sharp of Black to point out, "It’s almost like a sub-genre in a way, taking a comic book movie and then imposing on it what would happen in the real world if this happened. People have done that with 'Damage Control' or whatever, so this is just more about trying to maintain the sense of reality from the first 'Iron Man' given that there’s a god from space. Because if in the middle of 'Iron Man,' when he was in the cave with Yinsen, if Thor came in, you would say, 'What the hell is this movie? That doesn’t make any sense.' But now, Thor is there, so what does that mean for our character?"
Black talked about being attracted to the notion of intentionally making a smaller film than "The Avengers," to make a conscious choice to turn inwards for the character. Feige explained the impulse. "Again, we wanted to get Tony… back to basics, metaphorically blow him up on a convoy, put him back in a cave, and see what he can do with a box of scraps. That was about as far as we had, and that it was not an Avengers-centric story outside of just the effect that all of it has had on him. So no Nick Fury, no Black Widow. Those were really the only parameters. We did want him to have a mystery to uncover and solve that he would be on his own for. That was about it, and then Shane and Drew brought it to life. And we certainly are looking over their shoulders and giving them input every step along the way, but it was a collaboration from that point."