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Master Class

Producer Joel Silver On Crafting And Complicating The Buddy Action Movie Formula

As his latest two-hander, The Nice Guys, explodes into theaters, Joel Silver talks about going beyond the buddy action movie template.

Producer Joel Silver On Crafting And Complicating The Buddy Action Movie Formula

Ryan Gosling as Holland March and Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy are The Nice Guys, 2016

[Photo: Daniel McFadden, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]

It is statistically probable that Joel Silver produced your favorite action movie, and also your dad’s.

Silver is the foundation behind a fireball-fueled pantheon that includes Die Hard, The Matrix, Road House, and many other movies beloved enough to qualify as religion in parts of the world. For decades, he's been a colorful fixture in the film industry—relentlessly prolific, and brash enough to have purportedly inspired the powerful producer character in a movie or two. While Silver has done a lot to codify the modern action flick over the years, he’s also experimented with the genre enough to help diversify it into a series of substrata. But there’s one flavor of popcorn movie in particular, and one partner in crime, that he's been working with long enough to be old dear friends.

Joel Silver

Silver made his first buddy action movie, 48 Hours, in 1982 and realized he had something potent on his hands. Growing up on post-French Connection attempts to inject some levity in the shoot-'em-up landscape, like Freebie and the Bean, the producer saw a lane and swerved into it. Everything clicked into place a few years later, though, when Silver met Shane Black, a then-21-year old film obsessive who was a wizard with dialogue and dark humor. Together, the two made Lethal Weapon in 1986, which sparked a fruitful 30-years-and-counting collaboration spanning several sequels, along with quirky one-offs like The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Their working relationship, with its occasional chasms, appears to be as fraught but ultimately fruitful as that of any of the leads in the films they've made.

Their latest team-up began life in 2001. Black had conceived The Nice Guys with his writing partner, Fred Dekker, as a dopey detective romp, and at the time, they could not push it through. Silver suggested Black turn it into a show for CBS or HBO, and that never panned out either. (Side note: Tune into Lethal Weapon: the TV show, coming to Fox this fall.) After the stratospheric success of the Black-penned and -directed Iron Man 3, Silver asked what Black wanted to do next. It was The Nice Guys. Now reset in the 1970s, the resulting film—which stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling and opens this weekend—plays like if Michael Bay directed The Big Lebowski. The buddy action movie is alive and kicking.

Although the DNA of BAMs has evolved—ahoy, The Heat!—Silver is a master of mixing tried and true tactics with the new. Recently, the producer spoke with Co.Create about unlikely partners, subverting the cliche, and the magic that happens when you take ridiculous situations seriously.

Butch and Sundance Mixed With Abbott and Costello

"I’m a big fan of this genre," Silver says. "I love two-hander movies like [The Nice Guys.] People say, "Is this like Butch and Sundance?" and I say it’s more like Abbott and Costello. But these movies are not comedies per se. They are thrillers, mysteries, dramatic stories that also are very funny. In all the movies I’ve done, even movies like The Matrix and Die Hard, there’s always gotta be humor. This one has more than usual, but I always want to get some in there. When you put humor in, it makes the movie even more effective because it’s a counterpoint to the drama and the mystery."

"Back in 1980 or so, a movie had come out called Stir Crazy, with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and it was a comedy that had kind of serious content. And when we made 48 Hours, Paramount at the time believed we were making that kind of movie. They didn’t understand what we were making—a harder movie, an R-rated action movie that had life-and-death situations, and if you screwed up, the bad guys kill you. So even though the studio had something else in mind, I liked that we were reversing it. We put Eddie Murphy in a movie with more action than comedy. And I think we pulled it off."

48 Hrs., 1982Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlikely Partners Can’t Like Each Other At First

"Years ago, there was a movie called ¡Three Amigos!, and Jon Lovitz played a studio head and he’s talking to the lead characters who are action stars of their day about what their next movie, 'the Cochise picture' will be like," Silver says. "And he tells them how it’s gonna go: 'You meet Cochise, you don’t like each other, you don’t get along, you fight, but you work together and at the end of the movie . . . you’re friends." And that’s the essence of how partners work. That’s the same in all of my movies. Right away, the first time you meet Mel [Gibson] and Danny [Glover] [in Lethal Weapon], they’re in conflict. These guys have to start off on the wrong foot so that at the end of the movie, they’ll be on the right foot."

Lethal Weapon 2, 1989Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

"The chemistry of the partners kind of depends on what the actors are bringing to it. The director has something in mind, but in the case of The Nice Guys, these guys wanted this kind of movie. They take themselves very seriously in the movie, but Russell [Crowe] and Ryan [Gosling] both wanted to do something that would be fun. When both actors are really drawn to a role, it makes a difference. And then you just pray that it works."

Find What Works And Tweak It

"I love Shane Black's view of the world, his view of character, and the way he puts a spin on familiar things," Silver says. "Like when we did Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he has a scene where Robert Downey Jr. puts a single bullet in the chamber and spins it, and—well, usually the guy does that and says, ‘Tell me what I wanna know or I’ll shoot you,' and either he pulls the trigger and it’s a blank or the other guy goes, 'Okay, okay, I’ll talk!"—but in that movie, he blows the guy’s brains out. And it’s not a funny thing to happen, but the way he and Val Kilmer argue about it works: 'What are you doing? Who taught you math?' At the core of the scene is something serious and tragic, but it doesn’t take itself seriously. It make the audience aware that we know what we’re doing here. We’ve seen these ideas before, and we’re changing them."

"There’s a formula to this kind of movie, but you have to complicate the formula on the way to a resolution. I’m always looking for things I’ve wanted to see or that I recognize people have wanted to see. It’s nice to have a couple car chases and shootouts, and fights and thrills, but it’s got to all come together. You gotta figure out a way to do it in its own distinct way. I’ve lived through so many movies, and I’m not an expert on everything, but I remember action scenes and action beats so I know what can be done. 'I’ve seen this in one movie, but we should try it like that.' I did this movie called 13 Ghosts, and these glass doors close and kind of cut a guy in half. And when I was doing Ghost Ship, I said, 'Well, that worked. Why don’t we cut 100 people in half.' Sometime it’s a totally original idea, and sometimes you riff of an idea and play with it a different way. A big action movie is always an opportunity to try something fresh and unique and for the audience to enjoy it. But you don’t really know it’s going to work until you try it."

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