Marvel Studios' third film in the Iron Man franchise, "Iron Man 3," underwent a bit of a creative shift when Shane Black stepped in to direct the film, replacing original series helmer Jon Favreau, and co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce who was also tapped by Marvel to adapt "Runaways" as a feature film.
One of Hollywood's highest paid action-film screenwriters during his writing heyday in the '80s and '90s on movies such as "Lethal Weapon" and "The Last Boyscout," Black directed his first film in 2005 with "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," the action-comedy that effectively relaunched Robert Downey Jr.'s acting career.
"I can only imagine that having worked previously with Robert contributed to him calling me and asking me onboard this somewhat ambitious production," Black told CBR and reporters at the film's Beverly Hills press junket alongside co-writer Pearce and "Iron Man 3" stars Guy Pearce (Aldrich Killian) and Rebecca Hall (Dr. Maya Hansen).
As for why he personally wanted to direct, "The chance to have a green lit picture where I got to work again with Robert Downey and also spend time with Jon Favreau who gave me endless advice and tips on this thing was just too attractive to pass!" Black said.
Explaining that he actually sat down with Favreau and Downey during phases of the previous "Iron Man" movies, Black expressed his respect and admiration for the franchise's previous director. "Our ambitions were to feel that we had, in fact, a worthy successor to the previous Favreau films," Black said.
He also was happy how hands off Marvel and parent company Disney had been in the creative process. "To Marvel's credit they said, 'We've done the Avengers, we've made a lot of money, we're not doing that again right now, let's do something different,'" Black said. "They allowed for a different stand-alone film where we got to be more character-centric and back to basics of what Tony Stark would do next.
Overall, Black said his goal for the film was "to make it more of a thriller and to make it more about Tony, sort of just ground it more, that was our intention."
"Iron Man 3" was not just ambitious in terms of vision but also with its international scope. Shooting in China, the US-China coproduction catered to Chinese audiences by including Chinese action stars like Fan Bingbing in cameo roles and an alternate version of the film will be released specifically for Chinese audiences.
"Well, we left out the giant dragon," Black joked about the Chinese version of the film. However, the director admitted that the only parts he had seen were individual scenes, and did not know how ultimately they would be edited in.
"The Chinese version will be an interesting surprise; we do know there is additional footage that will be available in that version which I'm sure will filter back here," Black said. "I was busy doing the American version while we were simultaneously obtaining footage for the Chinese version, so I got a sense of what was going on and got a chance to look at and approve later the footage. Now we've got these two versions, I'm just thrilled we had the opportunity to work with what is one of the single fastest emerging box office environments in the whole world, which is China."
While Black's previous movies have favored R ratings and profanity-laced dialogue, the director laughed when asked about toning his language down for Marvel's PG-13 "Iron Man 3."
"[Avoiding] the F word, tempting as it always is especially in film environments, was pretty easy because I worked on a film for kids previously called 'Monster Squad,'" Black began before being interrupted by cheers from the audience of reporters.
"That's like a carbon dating test," actor Guy Pearce joked as Black looked around the room, startled.
"You were all children then!" Black fired back at the laughing crowd.
More important to the director than writing a film with softer language was writing and directing one that captured the experience of anticipation and excitement Black felt as a child. "Coming back to this I remembered what it was like to go to the matinee to stand in line for 'Empire Strikes Back' or 'Star Wars' or those types of films and get excited all over again for that type of adventure that could appeal to a family but was still edgy. We didn't want to pander, we didn't want to be kiddie," Black explained.
However, as co-writer Pearce admitted, they still had to scale the edginess back in their first drafts.
"We actually had to have a sit-down conversation about the fact you can't say 'fuck' in a PG-13 film," Pearce laughed. The two also recalled getting their start in TV where they would write expletives into the scripts and the studios and editors would just cut it out later or not film it.
"As long as you don't condescend to that audience, I think you're spot on," Black added.
"Rebecca was truly profane!" Peace joked as "The Prestige" actress laughed beside him.
Though Hall admitted that she had previously told reporters she had no interest in being in a superhero movie, Hall said her participation in "Iron Man 3" as scientist and Extremis creator Hansen boiled down to the fact that she found the prospect of appearing in the film a fascinating new challenge.
"This one seemed like it it'd be one that would be fun to try and -- what other movies can you say, they weren't casting action heroes, they're casting Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow? This must be interesting," Hall said. "['Iron Man 3's'] not just about the action sequences, it's about the repartee and the wit and there was something that was sort of screwball battle of the sexes comedy that I love."
Actor Guy Pearce, who plays the mysterious head of A.I.M. think-tank Killian, also greatly enjoyed the previous "Iron Man" films and said he worked with the other actors on-set to fill in the gaps in his character's history.
"We talked about the development of the company he formed, I suppose, and the effects Extremis sort of had over that period of time. We see a couple of clips -- of moments of Killian in front of the camera talking to his team and you see slightly different look and you see the progression," Pearce said, adding that he and Paltrow also worked out a back story for how long Pepper had worked with Killian previously.
"The interesting thing about doing this was there were two earlier films that were successful and Rebecca and I had seen those films and were fans of them, so it was interesting to step into something that already existed," Pearce said. Praising Downey as a "genius," the actor also said they engaged in a fair amount of improv on set but, outside of the bigger budget, "I didn't think, 'Oh wow, this whole Marvel Universe feels different to anything else I've done,'" Pearce added.
Like many of Black's previous films, "Iron Man 3" is set at Christmas, a direction Black confessed he was initially trying to avoid.
"It was Drew who talked me into it," Black said.
"If I was going to go see a Shane Black 'Iron Man 3' movie it had to be at Christmas!" Pearce laughed.
The two then stated that they believed setting the film during a holiday raised the stakes in a visceral and interesting way.
"If you're doing something on an interesting scale that involves a whole universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience, and there's something in Christmas that unites everybody, it sets a stage within a stage," Black said.
Reflecting on his other Christmas-themed films, the director added with a laugh, "Also, there's something just pleasing about it to me. I did 'Lethal Weapon' back in '87 and Joel [Silver] liked it so much he put 'Die Hard [II]' at Christmas!"
"Lonely people are lonelier at Christmas and you tend to notice things more keenly, more acutely I think," Black added, elaborating that he and co-writer Drew Pearce were very deliberately playing with the themes of "A Christmas Carol" in that the ghosts of Tony's past were coming to haunt him.
"Harley is kind of [Tony] as a young boy, just encountering all these things that come to him at his lowest point, I think that was the idea," Black said of the young character played by Ty Simpkins whom Tony encounters halfway through the movie.
Christmas was not the only plot point Black changed his mind about. While the film's central villain is the Mandarin, when Black first began production he was against including the character as he felt it was racist, a remnant of the unfortunate Yellow Menace characters often seen in older comics. Turning the character, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, on its head, in the film the new Mandarin is a terrorist of indeterminate race and is seen mainly through the lens of political videos he releases to take credit for bombings and destruction across America.
"I thought it was an interesting an idea to mix it up where, if you're going to do something that involves a terrorist in a modern world who's just sort of a villain, who's just sort of a guy people are afraid of, why not say something about the entire experience of what it would take, for instance, to create a myth that was all things to all people," Black explained.
To that end, the Mandarin's video broadcast draw "from elements of traditional historic warfare, of swords and dragons, surrounding himself with icons that are recognizable like the beard from Fidel Castro, the field cap from [Muammar] Gaddafi, why not make an uber-terrorist -- and he attracts to him these disciples and acolytes who respond to a myth," Black said.
"We thought it was an interesting idea, regardless of his ethnicity," the director concluded.
"Iron Man 3" hits theatres May 3.