An Action-Packed Career: Producer Joel Silver on ‘The Nice Guys’

With over 70 films under his belt, including action classics like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and The Matrix, Joel Silver is no stranger to the movie business. We sat down with the showbiz veteran and producer of The Nice Guys to talk about the film, his long-time relationship with director/co-writer Shane Black, and the process of getting a movie made.

Photo Credit: Concept Arts

[Photo Credit: Concept Arts]

You have a long history of working with co-writer/director Shane Black, first with the Lethal Weapon films and most recently with the 2005 comedy thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. You two have been kicking around The Nice Guys for a long time. Why did it take so long for the film to come to fruition?

It actually was written before Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I have a 30-year relationship with Shane it’s true. I met him in 1986 when he wrote Lethal Weapon. He was 21 years old, just out of UCLA. Then we made Lethal Weapon 2 which he was very involved in in 1989, then The Last Boy Scout in ’91 and then we didn’t work together for a while. He wrote The Nice Guys in 2001 and I saw [the script] in 2002. He wasn’t saying he was going to direct it at that point; he just was trying to deal with the material and not sure what to do. Then in 2004 he wrote Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which he wanted to direct, so we went ahead and did that one. I was just coming off of The Matrix so the studio was okay with us taking a little money and making the movie. We didn’t have a lot of ‘umph’ in the picture but we went and did it. It was the first movie he directed, and he bonded of course with Robert Downey Jr., and then when it came to Iron Man 3 Downey suggested Shane to direct it, so that came out in 2013.

Then along the way we discussed other things with The Nice Guys. We had gone at one point to CBS to make a pilot for a potential series that never went forward. We talked to a few people about turning it into a television show, but in 2008 or 2009 Shane and Anthony [Bagarozzi, co-writer] said “What if we rewrite this and put it in the 1970’s?” and I said, “You really want to do that?” I was a little dubious because I knew people at that moment were very concerned with period movies. Will they track? Can we get them into the theatre? Then we made Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and that movie – yes, it was Downey, but it was 1891 – it did very well. And after he did Iron Man 3 when they said, “What do you want to do?” He [Shane] said to me “Why don’t we just make The Nice Guys?” So even though it seems like a long time it was kind of a natural progression.

You’ve been very successful in producing films like Lethal Weapon, Sherlock Holmes and now The Nice Guys that blend the typical ‘buddy’ film with action and comedy. How were you first attracted to this particular genre?

I did 48 Hrs. in 1982 and at that moment I’m not going to say we had anything to do with inventing the ‘buddy cop movie’- that’s a fantasy. But if you look at what Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was, I think The Nice Guys is closer to Abbott and Costello. But when 48 Hrs. came out it had a kind of a watershed effect on these kinds of action movies that had humor. So when Lethal Weapon came around they brought it to me because I had essentially just done 48 Hrs. a couple years earlier.

The lead actors in this film, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, are perhaps best known for their serious/dramatic acting roles. Did you have any hesitations about casting two primarily dramatic actors in a film like this?

These movies aren’t really comedies, they’re thrillers. They’re mysteries. They’re action movies that actually have a beginning, middle and an end. It’s not two guys from Saturday Night Live who go on and try to be funny. Shane has a very singular voice so this was written. And it was a vehicle for two actors, one a tough-guy and one a morally ambiguous PI. Over the years we never really figured out how to make it, but when it became something that we wanted to do and Russell Crowe was intrigued, we just thought the idea of Russell and Ryan together would be an incredible pairing. And you know it is a dramatic movie but Shane is very funny, so yes it is going out in the world as an action comedy… but it’s a serious picture. And you have two guys in it who are very serious actors. Yes, they’re also very funny, but that’s the way it’s crafted and scripted by Shane.

From a producing standpoint how have you changed over the course of your career? How do you pick your projects?

This is always a hard question because it’s always all about a kind of alchemy. What inspires me? What do I read or know about that excites me and that I want to do? I’ve made over 70 movies; I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’m still excited by the process. I still love the idea of reading a script and thinking, “Gee, wouldn’t that be great to put on the screen?” I read a lot of things that I don’t feel that way about but when I find something that I really think can work and the audience might want to see I think I can make a good movie with it that excites me. It’s a very complicated process to put a movie together, get it made and get it out to the marketplace so it has to be something that I’m passionate about. I love hits and I love successful movies so I like to try to find movies that I know can attract an audience. But there’s no real immediate thing that I do…it’s just something that works for me. And if I feel that it’s effective then that allows me to put all that effort into getting it made.

What projects are you currently working on? What’s up next for you?

I’ve had this script that I’ve had for a long time called Suburbicon that the Coen brothers wrote in 1986. In 2006 they came back and wrote another draft for me and I’ve been sitting on it. George Clooney called me a few months ago and said he’d like to direct it. So we talked to the Ethan and Joel Coen and they said that if that’s what he [Clooney] really wants to do then they’d love for him to do it. So he brought a whole new angle to it. He did a draft that was really interesting and effective and he got Matt Damon to star in it with Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin. It starts shooting in the fall and it’s an exciting, thrilling Coen brothers movie that has a great kind of social relevance to it. I’m working on that. I’ve also been trying to make this movie with Barbra Streisand for a long time called Gypsy and that looks like it may be happening now with Barry Levinson directing it. For a long time I wanted to remake Superfly, which was always one of my favorite movies…I’m going to try to do that too.  

There are always things that come along – some happen and some don’t – but I’m always encouraged I can make another after one comes out. There are always a lot of things in development but you always have to have a lot of things in development.

Kathryn Milczarski

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