How to write an action movie

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Shane Black was, for a while, the best-paid writer in Hollywood, creator of mega-budget spectaculars like Lethal Weapon, Predator and — my favourite — The Long Kiss Goodnight. His films were fast, funny and generally filthy, and for a long time set the template for the summer blockbuster. But it all came unstuck with Last Action Hero, a gleefully post-modern deconstruction of the genre in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a fictional film hero who ends up saving the real Schwarzenegger from certain death when he steps down from the screen and into the “real” world. Launched with huge fanfare (including product placement on an actual NASA rocket), the film was savaged by critics, who had long wanted to prove that they still had some remaining muscle in the marketplace. It also confused and alienated audiences, who preferred their summer films straight-up, without the twist.

Actually, as popcorn movies go, Last Action Hero is great fun, and is probably the only time that we will ever see Schwarzenegger take on Shakespeare:

But the experience was painful for Black, and after the relative commercial failure of The Long Kiss Goodnight he dropped out of Hollywood for a while, returning in 2005 with his debut as a director, the scabrous, hilarious Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He recently gave this masterclass in action film-making to the Guardian: here are five pieces of advice that stand out.

1. The action should always go hand in hand with the story so it’s all invisibly interconnected. Take the original Star Wars movies: every action sequence is perfectly timed and is designed not just to excite the audience on a visceral level but also to reveal crucial elements of the plot and characters.

2. I try to make all the action in my movies subjective; to give a sense of what it would feel like to actually be a part of it … A great example of this style is the shootout scene in No Country For Old Men. You’re in the protagonist’s shoes. What surprises him surprises you.

3. An action film can have too much action; picture an equaliser on a stereo, with all the knobs pegged at 10. It becomes a cacophony and is, ultimately, quite boring. Now picture the high-low variations in a film such as Jaws. The lulls, the high points: it’s essentially a well-choreographed dance with the viewer.

4. Action sequences need this constant reversal of fortune. Like where the hero kills a snake but in the process opens a cupboard that’s filled with a hundred more snakes.

5. If someone fires a gun in a movie, it should always be a big deal.

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