In The Nice Guys, Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a hired hard-man forced into working with hapless private investigator, Holland March (Ryan Gosling), to solve the case of a missing girl (Margaret Qualley) and the seemingly unrelated death of a porn star. In short, it’s a bent spin on the classic mismatched buddies trope. Set in the seventies and directed by Shane Black, the film rolls with punchy dialogue, a darkly comic tone, and a narrative that veers off into unexpected territory, with the case eventually taking Healy and March into the rarefied corridors of power. Bold and ambitious, the film’s labyrinthine plot and inventive action sequences lock right into step with Shane Black’s previous work as a screenwriter (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight) and director (Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). FilmInk spoke with the filmmaker right in the middle of production on the Georgia set of The Nice Guys…
Why did you set The Nice Guys in the 1970s?
“I’m not quite sure, except that when I grew up, I had a fixation on detectives, and that was during the 1970s. Back then, there was this string in America of horrible men’s adventure series – The Destroyer, The Executioner, The Butcher, The Slayer, you know? I read them all. They’re very garish, very loud, and very abrasive. But they had this loose, rough, raw, gangly rhythm to them of the urban western. It was distinctly 1970s. Also the look of that time, and the sexuality of the ‘70s, really appealed to me. Films like Night Moves and North Dallas Forty were just so iconic in my growing up, and these were the things that I wanted to replicate. These are the things that I grew up on. So when I see people shooting across cars at each other and the hero in the foreground, I say, ‘Wait a minute! I’ve seen this before on the cover of a book that I read as a kid! This was like The Executioner # 19, Detroit Deathwatch. I remember that book!’ That’s when I feel like I’m actually reliving childhood fantasies, where I’m off in the bookstore, because my mother wouldn’t let me read the books – they were too adult. So I’d sneak them. I wouldn’t have any lunch for three days, and I’d use my lunch money to buy The Executioner, and read it after school under a tree somewhere.”
You wrote this script ten years ago? Did you have to rewrite it? Was it still in a good position?
“Yeah, I think so, because the characters are the most important – it’s about the dynamics between the two, and the rhythm of the dialogue and the jokes. Also when you set a piece in the ‘70s, it doesn’t really age – it can’t. Because it’s locked in a period that if you find it funny now, you’ll probably find the same script funny later. If you were to take a movie from the ‘30s that was big, and do it now as a ‘30s period piece, aside from some camera moves, I wouldn’t want to write a different script for It’s A Wonderful Life, or You Can’t Take It With You. Those are just brilliant films. It stays funny to me when it’s locked in time like that. It’s only when you start doing things based on technology or current fashion – so many films today are so for the moment. They’re funny comedies, but they’re sketches. I like watching all the Saturday Night Live-generated comedies, but I don’t think that in twenty years they’ll hold much water. So to put something in it that feels like it has context, to give it that, was our objective. Mostly, though, I just love detective stories.”
Where does Iron Man 3 fit into your resume?
“To be quite honest, I like Iron Man. I grew up on comic books, but at that time, it was a greenlit movie and I needed to make a living. I loved doing it, but I’d be happy making smaller films the rest of my life. The one big one that I’d like to make is Doc Savage, which is another homage to my childhood pulp heroes. I like the type of little pieces that are then unexpectedly big; you find ways to mine the moments so that you get away with a film that feels bigger than it is. And I think that’s what we’ve done with The Nice Guys. This is not the hugest budget, but I look at the frames, and the way it feels is huge.”
I always associate you with flawed detectives…
“There are two kinds of detectives. The detective is always a little bit psychotic. Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine addict, an iconoclast, and a misanthrope. He’d be happy for three days and then would be depressed and melancholy. He had bizarre habits. There are many characters who do one thing really well, against their will sometimes. They’re messed up people whom you can’t trust, but there’s a lurking crumb in there of something that they can’t deny – they can try to drown it with a truckload of alcohol, ignore it, deny it, pretend it’s not there, but their acuity, their basic ability, is still there – and you see it shine through all the flaws. That’s what we look for in the mess that we all are: to distill from it the one thing that we do well, that we can’t be denied, that is our gold, our strength. These guys are a mess in this movie; they’re complete anti-heroes. They can talk themselves into great heroic delusions that are immediately shattered, and that’s the flawed character that you’re talking about. I love characters who do one thing well but are otherwise a mess.”
I know you’re a Hardy Boys fan, but what about Mickey Spillane? I always think of you as – I don’t know if you’re a Kiss Me, Deadly fan…
“I like the movie. It’s so weird – it’s like science fiction. The books were always a little too pulpy for me. I don’t like the private eye books where there’s a lot of talk about dames and broads. It almost feels like a caricature of maleness. I always liked Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s books; his character is really funny in ways that are really bizarre, and he’ll say out-there stuff. They’re very literary books. Chandler is a better writer, but best of all, I think, is Ross McDonald. He’s the guy who moved the needle.”
You’ve got two very strong, very different females in this film. How do you approach your female characters?
“What I would love for this to be is a modern story about two knights in very tarnished armor. This is what passes for knighthood these days – these guys! And it’s about saving little girls – Holland’s 12-year-old daughter, and this stripper-turned-porn star who gets murdered. But they’re going to avenge and protect these little girls, even the ones who went faulty, who never had a chance. So in a way, they’re father figures. They’re messed-up misogynists, to some degree, women-hating people, but they end up protecting little girls, and that’s very interesting.”
In the formula for writing pulp fiction, do you have to kill off a likeable character within the film? Is that part of the formula?
“I don’t know. I haven’t really done that in the past so much. That’s the sidekick theory. ‘I don’t want to be the star of the movie. I just want to be the sidekick! I get killed and Clint Eastwood avenges my death.’”
There’s always the debate on whether the detective has to know the victim at the beginning of the movie, or if he can just be hired and not know anybody…
“I don’t think it has to be a personal stake. Like in the movie, Taken, obviously, you’re very invested in the guy getting his daughter back. But this is the basic difference in detective stories. It used to be that the detective was not the main character, in a sense. He was the observer. He went in as Everyman, and the case was what was interesting. And you’d see all the crazy stuff that he would observe. And then, about 1980, detective stories in America changed, and now they wanted the detective to be the story, so it’s a woman with three cats and a crazy landlord, who swaps recipes across the street – or it’s a guy who does hot air balloons on the weekends – they had quirks all of a sudden. The detectives became more important than the case. I tend to like the classical detective stories. There’s a purity to just taking a character who’s very powerful in his own right.”
How does the auto industry fit into the story?
“One of my favourite detective movies, Chinatown, is about a guy who’s in Los Angeles, so the city becomes a character. And at that time, the problems that the city was having involved The San Fernando Valley, and water rights, and things like that. Similarly, I want this to be a distinctly LA story, and what was going on in LA at that time was corruption, which is what tests the mettle of our two heroes. It was about smog and porn, and so in that way, it really didn’t matter – it could be any conspiracy, it’s just about two guys who take on a system that’s overwhelming. And in this case, the auto industry happened to be available and right for the time period.”
Would you like to make a sequel to The Nice Guys?
“It’d be fun to do, but it amounts to a landlocked series. This is about the Detroit auto industry and problems in LA with the smog and pornography. We could do something in the 80s. What was the 80s about? You’d have to find something to put these two losers in over their heads that’s equally distressing, but that speaks to the 80s. Maybe it’s Iran-Contra. It’s fun to go back in history because you have an infinite smorgasbord.”
The Nice Guys is released in cinemas on May 26. To read FilmInk’s interview with Ryan Gosling, click here.