Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by Shane Black
(formerly titled You’ll Never Die In This Town Again)
126 pages. Dated November 21, 2003
These won’t be reviews in the traditional sense of the word. I won’t be giving scripts star ratings or grades or anything of the sort. For one, I’m clearly not qualified to be doing that. Secondly, that isn’t what I think is educational about reading screenplays. I’m reading screenplays because I want to write screenplays. I want to see how others do it, how they build characters, how the action unfolds, how the formatting works (or doesn’t). That’s my goal.
So, in these “reviews” I will be coming at it from the perspective of a beginning screenwriter. The stories and characters are still important, but I will mostly be focusing on the flow and the structure. Spoilers will be marked as such.
Shane Black sold his first script when he was just 22. It was a small arthouse film called Lethal Weapon. It starred some Australian guy. You probably haven’t seen it. Anyway, he went on to write (and sell) quite a few other action scripts over the next decade. He quickly earned a reputation for writing action mixed with witty dialogue that played with the genre’s conventions. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was his directorial debut after a long hiatus in screenwriting. Ok, here we go.
The first thing I noticed about this script was that the intro had quite a bit of camera movement in it. Things like “ECU (Extreme Close-Up) of paper” or “Camera begins to pull back” or “Camera roams the canyons west.” Everything I’ve been taught and read about screenwriting says this is a no-no. Write a story that is compelling and doesn’t take the reader out of the movie. Leave the directing to, well, the director. But none of this matters here for 2 reasons: 1) The date on the cover page is November 2003. According to Variety, this script was sold around May of the same year. So he knew this thing was getting made and was likely responding to studio notes and adding in little cinematic touches. 2) Shane was the one that was going to direct it. Since he knew this, why not add in some camera movements so that you’d remember your brilliant ideas when the time comes to put it on celluloid. You can’t offend the director by telling them how to do their job if the director is you.
The first character we’re introduced to is, unusually, the Narrator. If you’re going to have a narrator, they better come in early, but using one in a film is pretty uncommon. Black makes the most of it though, giving the Narrator (who is also our hero Harry) some great voice-over dialogue. He acknowledges that he is the narrator, talks about what he hates in other films, and even calls out little hints the movie gives you about future events and pokes fun at some of the exposition. He’s the narrator playing the savvy viewer. Someone who has seen a lot of movies and knows how they work and the tricks they pull. All entirely appropriate since the movie revolves around Los Angeles, the movie business, acting, and pulp novels.
There is a loose, conversational tone to the whole script that makes it a quick and enjoyable read. Great little descriptions like “An almost handsome man enters…” or how he describes an alarm bypass as “Nice work.” The informality helps lifts any need for the writer to get too deeply into setting the scene. There aren’t 5 lines describing the toy store they’re robbing. It’s a toy store, it’s closed, they’re inside with flashlights. That’s all you need.
Let’s take a look at an early excerpt (p.25) to show you a few things:
I didn’t get famous, Harry.
He watches her flatten the beer label in her palm. Leans forward, very intense, pronounces one word:
EXT. PARKING LOT – DOMINO ROOM – NIGHT
HARRY AND HARMONY. Laughing, silly... They walk, hips brushing. The female FRIEND waits sullen in a nearby car.
... You’re shitting me. Which one?
With the bear that goes, I prefer Genero’s, but I’m a --
- When the action is slowing down and emotions are showing, Black lengthens the descriptions. When things get crazier, he picks up the pace by shortening the action lines and inserting powerful ALL CAPS words like “ENGULF” or “SPIN” (seen later on once the gunplay becomes prevalent).
- He has the action lead directly into the dialogue with a colon. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary. We know the character is about to speak, there name is there in all caps for us to see.
- All caps are used here for the emphasis. Harry and Harmony all caps together while the friend is capitalized but all sullen on her own.
- The transition is really well done. From inside the bar to outside, we don’t bother to see them exit. It doesn’t matter. Harry says “Yet” and then it’s much later and they’re leaving for another location. The scene ends on a strong word and a strong emotion. Much better than letting it linger (unless you want to emphasize some discomfort).
The short bursts of dialogue and action, something present in all of the Shane Black penned movies I’ve seen, are in full effect here. The banter is quick and lively. The action descriptions hit you like bullets:
He unzips. Starts to pee. Rubs tired eyes... Reaches over, opens the medicine cabinet. Fumbles for aspirin --
The mirror nicely captures THE CORPSE IN THE TUB.
It swings into view. Sitting there mute, behind him. It’s the girl from the lake. RIGHT behind him.
Great use of short sentences and CAPS for emphasis. There is no time to get bored or distracted. It hops along at a steady pace. Hell, on pages 112-114 (during a climactic car chase), there is only one line of dialogue per page.
Black also plays with the conventions established in both the mystery film and Hollywood movies in general. He has a narrator that mentions that he shouldn’t be telling you things you’re already seeing (he hates that). Our hero doesn’t know how to fight (our introduction to him is a scene where he gets the shit kicked out of him). The complex dance Black does here is between cheating expectations and playing directly to them. There are still satisfying gunfights, car chases and even some torture. Each has enough of a twist, a dash of spice to make it seem familiar and new at the same time. When Harry plays Russian roulette with the orderly, we don’t expect…that.
I watched the film shorty after finishing the screenplay. At first I was surprised at how similar they are. That was, until I remember that Shane Black wrote it for himself to direct and was clearly given a great amount of freedom. There were some slight changes to the ending and beginning, but the meat of the film (including almost every line of dialogue) remained intact.
Lessons learned: Keep action to short bursts when necessary. Conversational tones in the script make it a quick and enjoyable read. There’s no need to be formal if it follows styling guidelines and it’s engaging.
Hits, rolls -- comes up moving. Drawing his pistol. Heads for the door, running full out --
Unfortunately running in full view of the store OWNER, who promptly blows the shit out of him. POW! POW! POW!
Drops him. Guy dies more surprised than anything else.