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Kevin Feige And Shane Black Talk Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3's producer and director on Tony Stark's latest adventure

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When Shane Black was announced as director of Iron Man 3, it raised quite a few eyebrows. After all, the man who had once been the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood hadn't directed a film for eight years since his debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But there was no need for eyebrows to be raised, Marvel may have a track record of leftfield directorial choices, but hiring Black made perfect sense. After all, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was directly responsible for putting Robert Downey Jr. onto Jon Favreau's Tony Stark radar, while Black's magnificent blend of wiseacre wisecracks and subtle deconstruction of genre tropes, whether it's a private eye movie, buddy cop flick or superhero film, made him the perfect partner for Downey once again.

For our recent Empire cover feature, Chris Hewitt traveled to LA and visited the edit suite where Black and the man who hired him, Marvel chief Kevin Feige, were finessing the final cut of Iron Man 3 (working title, Chained). Here, you can read a full version of a fascinating interview for which Feige was happy to largely take a back seat, perhaps intuitively understanding that the baseball cap-sporting Black, razor-sharp and restless, was ready for his return to the spotlight.

Kevin Feige And Shane Black Talk Iron Man 3

Shane, this is your first film in eight years, and the biggest film of your career. Were you ready for what lay ahead?
Black: I was prepared. I'd been warned in advance that there would be a tutorial involved where people would walk me through a process that had been tried and true. I've learned a lot about special effects in this room and what's required and how desperate they are for us to do what we do so we can turn it over and they can start the process of rendering it. Along the way, animatics and storyboard people would take it to an animatic and then that would be a pre-viz that I could approve and along the way it was the most elaborate storyboard staff at my disposal. Everything we could think of could be rendered. It's not a movie where you can walk onto the set and say, "What are we doing today?" You're collapsing a building. Let's start with floor one. You have to have so rigorously laid out in advance everything you're going to do and that's what these people are good at.

What was your first day?
Black:
If I'd known on day one what was coming I'd have just jumped out the fucking window.
Shane Black
The first day was odd. Three hours in, one of our beloved key grips fell through the floor and broke his ankle very badly. We had to look at each other and say, that's over with, we got that out of the way. That's a bummer. Now here's the good part. The cheerleader who brought us out of the doldrums after that happened was Robert Downey, who was on fire for the next two days keeping people's spirits up and running around doing bits. The first sequence we shot was a big sequence in Tony's workshop with all the suits and stuff, and there was a lot of action. So there wasn't time to think, except that it was a reunion with Robert and it was getting to know people and there was no way to think about the immensity of things.

One thing you learn is there's no thinking about the next day or the day after that. It's one day at a time. If I'd known on day one what was coming I'd have just jumped out the fucking window. There's no way I would have survived the notion of what was to follow and here I am, almost done with it, still thinking, "One day at a time." If I think in terms of what's coming between now and May 3rd, I'll still jump out the fucking window.

Feige: We were shooting for so long that that crew member healed, returned, and was with us for the last few weeks.

So who was the cheerleader when it was Robert's turn to hurt his ankle?
Feige: That's a good question. It was still Robert in a certain way. Everything stopped. Robert was the cheerleader after that first event but we were stopped for six, seven weeks.

Black: Kevin points out that there's a part where he breaks his ankle in the movie and it looks completely lame and doesn't look like anything, and then there's the part where people will think he broke his ankle, which is the stunt that went very well. You see him go,"Aaaaah!" Crack right on the ankle and you think, that's gotta be it, but it's not.

Robert hurt his ankle in a Tony-only action scene, and there seems to be a lot of those in this movie.
Feige: We were looking for ways to differentiate this movie from Tony Stark's three other giant movie appearances and knowing Shane's wheelhouse - and Robert liked the idea - it seemed a natural for Shane to embrace the notion of at least a portion of the movie without the suit. We wanted to get back to that notion of Tony back against the wall, back in the metaphorical cave from the first movie. That first half of the first film he didn't have a suit and it's incredibly engaging to see him try to figure a way out of the situation.

Black: We found a very fun and clever way to do it in the end with Kevin's help and with Robert's help. Instead of taking away his playboy lifestyle and his comfort zone of cushions and creature comforts, in this film we take away his tech and his suit comforts. After The Avengers especially, he's relying on these suits to feel like he's in any way capable or that he can keep up and compete. He surrounds himself with these things almost like a blanket because they've become a psychological crutch for him and then you rip it away and he's like, "Where's my suit?" It becomes progressively more desperate for him to come to grips with himself, powerless, and rediscover himself in the way he did back in the cave, only this time the cave is the absence of his tech, rather than the absence of the playboy.

Was it tricky coming up with stuff for Tony to do on his own?
Black: That was for me the fun part. A guy on his own, played by Robert Downey, and he gets to be James Bond that occasionally invents things, that to me was great. You know that when Iron Man's on screen, he's a cartoon most of the time. It's much more engaging - it was my comfort zone to have a guy running around doing stuff instead of just filming camera moves against green screen. The action for me was much more palatable when he's on his own doing some fisticuffs instead of the stuff we know will be good but which is devised largely outside the realm of the set, per se.

How did you break the story for this?
Black: We went through several iterations. We knew what we wanted, kinda. We got a first draft fairly quickly that changed but it had the basics. Breaking the story, the hardest part was sitting in meetings with Kevin and with Robert and with Robert's people and with Drew, myself, and finally coming up with a way to include The Mandarin in the canon filmically and interpret him from the comics in a way we found palatable and exciting, rather than this Fu Manchu icon which would probably seem a little bit tawdry and racist.

Kevin, you were adamant, weren't you, that this wouldn't have any of the Avengers in it. Not even Banner.
Feige: I wanted the first post-Avengers movie to showcase the individuals, to showcase the character which is one of the reasons why he's out of the suit, to do again what they have done in the comics so well, which is each of the heroes have their individual worlds, their sub-worlds, and occasionally meet up for a bigger crossover event. Then they go back into their worlds and have some character defining storyline, return to the crossover changed from that storyline. From the get-go, when we first started meeting with filmmakers, we said no Nick Fury, no Hulk, no Widow, this is Stark, Pepper, Rhodey, his world.

Black: There's still time.

Kevin Feige And Shane Black Talk Iron Man 3

There's a very interesting thread in the movie, where Tony essentially has post-traumatic stress disorder following the Battle Of New York.
Black: It was in response to what he just experienced. There's two worlds to reconcile here which are difficult for me as a viewer, let alone a filmmaker. If you're in that cave in Iron Man 1 and he's putting on the suit and Yinsen's dying and Thor shows up with a hammer, you'd say, "What the fuck? Where'd he come from?" Yet we've now evolved to the point where he can show up like that, so if it's jarring to us, it has to be jarring to Tony Stark as well. He's in a universe which is so grounded in the geopolitical reality but also has gods from outer space. So to have him humbled by the experience, for him to realise that he's not a god, that he doesn't have the ability to live forever, or that he's superpowered like Steve Rogers, he's very much a scientist who has these accoutrements that don't always work, which is something we emphasise in this movie, his tech is often faulty and breaks.

So he has to struggle to keep up and that to me would seem to lend itself very well to a sense of OCD, obsession, "I gotta make it better, I gotta keep up with the Joneses," and that's an anxiety response to feeling inferior to The Avengers, but also to being humbled by sights he cannot possibly begin to understand or reconcile with the realities he's used to. That was the idea. If we're gonna merge these two worlds, let's sustain some sort of jarring impact upon Tony Stark where he's not so cool anymore, he can't walk around like the king because things have changed. There's a line in the movie about ever since that big guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, the rules have changed. That's what we're dealing with here.

The early footage I've seen is very interesting, tonally. A scene will rocket from drama to comedy to action in a heartbeat.
Black:
When we first started meeting with filmmakers, we said no Nick Fury, no Hulk, no Widow, this is Stark, Pepper, Rhodey, his world.
Kevin Feige
It's very simple to track a movie and have everything be one thing and here's the plot and the action and the pathos. To mix them up requires a sure hand, but if you can shift tonally so that you get a meal based on all these different planes of things interacting as a stew, rather than lining them up one after another and stacking scenes. Stacking scenes for me is the death of interesting storytelling - it's like eating your French fries and then your hamburger. I always like to take a bite and a bite.

This is, of course, the first time you've directed Robert since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. How has he changed in those eight years?
Black: He sweeps into a room. He used to walk in, now he sweeps in. You can never guess what he's wearing. But he's the same guy. He's as irascible with saying your lines as he's ever been. We spent many hours back in his trailer hashing out lines for him to say but the good news is it's fun to do. He's fun, you know? You better be ready when he shows up, because he shows up to play on the set and you can't be asleep... you have to be ready to go because he comes bounding in, and he's like, "Where do I start, what do I say, why's this line shit and where's my coffee?" And he says it to you right here [places his hand a couple of inches in front of his face] and follows you around an inch from your nose. That intensity is very difficult to abide at 7 in the morning. That's the task. Ultimately it was a joy.

Robert told me that he knows where he ends and Tony begins.
Black: He doesn't know where that statement ends and the truth begins. He is Tony Stark, pretty much. I think part of the joy of Robert is the similarity with Tony. You go back to his audition which they have on the extras reel from Iron Man 1 and you get it. That's what they want from Tony Stark. He has this thing where he comes out at awards shows and says it's really about me, of course. And that plays into Tony Stark very well. I was always happy to go with it.

How have you changed in the eight years since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?
Black: I was different back then. I was naive and stupid in the best way, which is to say that it didn't occur to me that I was making mistakes. A lot of times I just blundered into the right thing by sheer dumb luck because I was stupid and lucky at the same time. Now there's more thought goes in but there are more obstacles because of the size of the picture. In terms of skill, I've learned more on this picture than I learned on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I know more now. I used to fret about the scene in the room with three people - where does he stand? How do you do triangle coverage? Listen, it doesn't fucking matter, that's a scene that can be shot in any one of a million one ways. Pick one. Find the scene down the ways that you can't envision at all and storyboard that one.

Lethal Weapon 5 was on your radar as a directorial project at one point, wasn't it?
Black: Yeah it was. There were two films - Lethal Weapon 5, which was actively going at one point and The Cold Warrior, both of which were to star Mel Gibson. I guess it was not too long ago that I was writing The Cold Warrior, I was meeting with Mel every afternoon and he was dating this girl named Oksana and then all of a sudden things blew up. That went south, so two movies that potentially were available didn't happen.

Feige: Did you write a draft of Lethal Weapon 5?

Black: I wrote a 70-page treatment with every single beat and dialogue. It was in New York in the worst blizzard in living history. Mel Gibson would have to go to a kibbutz for three years to be allowed back into Hollywood. Robert did a bunch of drugs and slept with dubious people, he didn't insult racial groups. You don't come back from that.

Feige: It hadn't occurred to me until you mentioned Lethal Weapon 5, but there is a fun Riggs/Murtaugh Tony/Rhodey element to this.

Can you elaborate on that?
Black: I always gravitate towards Rhodey with a gun, not in an iron suit, being the CIA type government-appointed special ops guy and Tony being the Jack Ryan trailing behind him with all the technology and no skills at killing. He needs his gauntlets and his flying machines, and Rhodey just needs his marine training so Rhodey comes off as a badass in this movie. Without the suit, he's great.

Feige: One thing Don has is that he definitively has the coolest action moments he's had in his career. And he looks unbelievable. He looks younger than he did ten years ago. How does he do it? It's absolutely amazing.

Black: He's shorter in person.

That's not him in the corner, is it? [Empire points to Iron Patriot maquette standing in the corner of the room]
Feige: (Laughs) That's where it starts, a lot of it. It looks supercool. Part of the fun of these films is how do we update the suits and give a different vibe to the suits? It did come out from the comic, Iron Patriot is a very different character with a very different storyline, but the notion of rebranding post-Avengers, that the Avengers are a global entity and the government wants their own symbol that works for them, their own hero. They had Rhodey, they had War Machine, so this brilliant rebrand...

Black: In their infinite creativity, they piss on him by repainting him red, white and blue and saying, this is ours now. Rhodey, to his credit, is kinda happy with that. He likes the colours, and of course Tony thinks it's a travesty.

Kevin Feige And Shane Black Talk Iron Man 3

In the third part of a trilogy, how do you balance the main story with reintroducing the returning characters?
Black: There's two things you have in this. You want to get all the elements up front. So here's where Tony's at, he's got a few screws loose right now, he's having some trouble, Rhodey's got this going on, Pepper's CEO now, and it's the fun of meeting all the characters again. Happy Hogan is head of security at Stark Industries. It's fun. I remember watching The Empire Strikes Back and every time they featured someone old, you'd go, "That's what he's doing! There's Chewie!"

At the same time there's a slow disclosure which is important, which is you meet people and in the background you see something ominous begin and slowly start to build. The joke about these movies is that you go pace-happy - I'm looking for the Lost Ark Of The Covenant, oh there it is! You gotta let it build, and keep things pacy, but have stuff going on, what's out there, what's going on, how do we figure this out and Tony's on a journey to discover this thing. And the great thing about having more than one character is you can cut back and forth between them. We do a lot of that.

This movie finally utilises Warren Ellis' Extremis, and Iron Man's most famous foe, The Mandarin. Why did you decide to do them in the same movie?
Feige:
We knew what we didn't want. We didn't want an armoured person fighting an armoured person, like we'd done twice before.
Kevin Feige
That was the origin of the idea. The ideas came about together. It was the way that Shane cracked The Mandarin, his relationship to Extremis.

Black: The Mandarin has always had a horde of people surround him. In this, they're recruited soldiers who've basically enlisted for the Extremis program and they're great.

Feige: We knew what we didn't want. We didn't want an armoured person fighting an armoured person, like we'd done twice before. And Warren Ellis and Adi Granov's comic was incredibly influential for us tonally and we loved Extremis, and four movies, five movies after the first Iron Man movie, we've talked about super soldier and Banner and the notion of biologically enhanced humans runs through all our films. So what happens when an armoured character goes up against an incredibly powerful biologically enhanced person? That's interesting.

But it's not a straight adaptation of the Extremis comic book...
Black: No, it's not a straight adaptation. The thing about Extremis the comic which is so appealing to me is that the guy who gets Extremis powers wasn't a villain, he was a militia member who served in the National Guard. He was a soldier who was a weapon you point and shoot at someone, he wasn't a guy who was a genius. I loved that notion of Iron Man fighting someone without a costume, without armour, who's developed themselves into this next iteration of humankind. They don't have to put on funny clothes. And there's a lot of 'em.

Feige: It's everything we talked about. Extremis isn't apparent at the start. There's an investigation Tony needs to do and that gives Tony something to do out of the suit and to see Tony use his intellect. It makes it feel very different from any other Iron Man films, from any other Marvel films when you have a character-oriented mystery to uncover. And uncovering stuff as the audience learns about it is fun.

Black: It's basically intended to be this dichotomy between people who discover ways to make themselves invincible, and Tony's lagging behind in a way. He's in need of his suit of armour in the way that these people need their next jolt of Extremis.

The comic ends up with Tony injecting Extremis into his own body.
Feige: We go in a different direction than the comic. In the comic he goes, here's this body-altering device, I have to alter my own body and fight it. That's not an option here for Tony.

Black: The suit's in his bones now in the comics.

Feige: We didn't want that. We wanted to see how this fragile human being deals with all the craziness of the Avengers and Extremis and conquer it, rather than succumb to it and become something else. The minute he becomes a robot, he's not Iron Man anymore.

Black: We didn't want him to become a cyborg because he actually... it's the wrong way to go because he desires it in the comic and does it. The more interesting thing is if the temptation is there and he rejects it and he doesn't go to that crazy place. That's what a villain would do, a villain would say 'I want to be a god!', and suck it all into his bones. Tony would say no. This one is more mechanical and less biological.

Feige: In the comics 40 years into his run, you can do that, ok. Knock on wood, in part 12 there may be a suit coming out of his bones, but not now.

Black: No Cronenberg.

Feige: It's more a metaphor.

This is the end of Robert's initial deal with Marvel. What does the future hold for Tony and Iron Man?
Feige: Tony's going to carry on. Avengers 2 already has a release date. But that doesn't mean you can't put him through a wringer and have him emerge very different. Part of what I like about Phase 2 and as you learn more about Thor and Avengers and Cap and what Shane's concocted here, each of the characters enters the next Avengers film in 2015 very different people from what they are now. The world will be very different because of the events of the other films.

Kevin Feige And Shane Black Talk Iron Man 3

Going back to the film, Tony has a new suit of armour‚ the Mk 42, a prehensile suit that he can control from afar. Where did that idea come from?
Black: That was basically a Rube Goldberg notion of enhancing an action scene. We've seen the clunkiness of him having to carry this thing with him in a suitcase, but to be able to grab it out of the air and wear it... there were even scripted bits that didn't make it into the movie, where he throws a punch at someone ten feet away and takes the guy out and then takes his hand back.

Feige: It makes an incredible addition to every single action scene now. He wants to be in that suit. He wants to build lots of suits. To him, and this is part of where his panic attacks come from, the more suits I have, the safer I will be and the more I will fit into this crazy world with S.H.I.E.L.D. and aliens.

Black: And he thinks, what if the suit is over there and I can't get to it? Now it can run towards me and I can run towards it and get into it even faster.

And Pepper gets to try it on.
Feige: Even going back to part 2, there was a similar idea. There's a beautiful piece of concept art with Pepper in the suit with Tony, but it didn't make any sense. With the prehensile suit, the notion that he can use that to save her is fun. Does she have a taste for it now? We'll see. The comics have had great success with the Rescue Armour and things like that.

How has the relationship between Tony and Pepper changed in this movie?
Black: He's experiencing these problems. She's busy. It's about two people missing each other but then at the same time they're inextricably linked. She starts to see his flaws and I think the pants begin to shift back and forth a bit between the two of them. Sometimes she's in charge and then in a clutch he's saving her. We get to play with that. She's got gusto in this. She's as much a part of telling Tony what to do as he is her saviour.

Feige: Part of what sets this franchise apart is that Tony outs himself as a superhero, there's no secret identity. He's a billionaire playboy philanthropist but remains completely monogamous. I love how unique that is. What Robert and Gwyneth have is the core of the movie, and is part of his struggle and our struggle to not make her the damsel in distress. She's going to be in danger and is occasionally in distress, but in great Shane Black fashion there are many twists and turns to that.

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