|Ed Solomon directs Kirsten Dunst
on the set of Levity.
Levity is not the kind of film you might expect
from Ed Solomon, the scribe behind such Hollywood blockbusters as Men in Black and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But
to hear him tell it, you can’t judge a moviemaker by his/her IMDB
credits. In an interview with MM earlier this month,
Solomon talked about shifting between the roles of writer and director,
why his industry credibility offered more hindrance and help and
the inspiration for Levity, which opened this year’s Sundance
Film Festival and is in theaters across the country now.
Jennifer Wood (MM): When did you begin writing
the script for Levity?
Ed Solomon (ES): In some ways I began writing
the script in 1996, but in other ways I began in 1978.
MM: It’s based on a true story—an experience
you had, correct?
ES: Well, it was “inspired” by one. The inspiration
came from when I was at UCLA and working in an organization called
the UCLA Prison Coalition, which used to tutor kids in prison. I
went to one particular prison out in the San Fernando Valley; it
was a maximum-security penitentiary for kids who’d committed violent
crimes. There was a kid there who I worked with just a few times.
He’d been tried as an adult and was sentenced to life. He was just
about to turn 18 and was then going to be transferred to a state
We weren’t supposed to engage with these kids on any
level other than the Math or English we were supposed to be tutoring
them in, but I did talk to him a little bit about what he had done.
He used to carry a photograph of the boy that he had killed with
him, which really struck me, so I asked him about it. He wasn’t
very articulate, but I remember him saying that “The judge didn’t
think that I knew he was a human being, so he made me hold his football.”
I guess he had been instructed to manipulate the victim’s clothing
and other artifacts so that he would understand, in a tangible sense,
that it was a human life he had taken. I don’t really have a clear
image of the boy that I worked with anymore, but the eyes of the
boy in the photograph were seared into my mind.
Additionally, when I was in high school there had
been a relatively sensational event where one of the kids from my
school, his older brother had robbed a liquor store and shot someone
and he and these two other guys had been taken to prison. In my
mind for some reason, just as I was stewing it over over the years,
those two events sort of melded.
MM: So the idea had been with you all those
ES: That image of the photograph is really
the thing that lingered. In a way, the smile from the photograph
sort of posited a universe that was hosted by the boy, and I started
to imagine. Initially, the movie opened with a voiceover from that
boy which ended with: “Me, I’m off now. Part of the universe, part
of everything there ever was.” And I stayed with that until the
day before we locked the final sound mix on the movie, when I realized
that in fact the movie had sort of outgrown that initial idea.
MM: Had you been adding stuff throughout
the years? When you read or saw about a story or situation that
related, were you always storing ideas?
ES: It lived with me for a long time, and I
initially started to write it back in 1986. I worked on it for a
while actually but it was much more about comedy, in a way, which
is where the title came from. It was about a guy trying to laugh
and trying to make people laugh. The character that Billy Bob [Thornton]
played, I initially imagined him as being lost and wandering around
the city and then finding work in this place where this guy, who
is ultimately played by Morgan Freeman, has these kids who are full
of rage. And Manuel gets assigned to help them funnel their rage
into humor, which was an idea that I really liked but in reality
was pretty lame when I started to write it. It seemed really fake
and it didn’t really resonate with me. After about 30 or 40 pages
I could tell that I wasn’t really writing it up to the level of
what I wanted the idea to be, so I put it aside.
It was actually really sad, because I didn’t know
if I was going to be able to make it work. But I still thought about
it—a lot. About five years later I started it again and it was the
same thing: after 40 or 50 pages I had a sense that it wasn’t right
yet. Finally, about five years after that, in 1996, it became clear
to me what the movie needed to be. It felt like the real emotional
truth in this film was a pervasive melancholy, and a kind of haunted
quality—a sense of a guy wandering between borders—between the borders
of his own past and the present.
MM: Yes, you definitely get the sense that
there are two worlds happening.
ES: Yeah, exactly: past and present, secular
and spiritual, fantasy and reality. That’s when I realized that
a key part of the movie was going to be Billy Bob’s relationship
with the sister of the person he killed, which was Holly Hunter’s
MM: When you sat down to write the script
this time, how long did it take you to complete?
ES: About a year. I think the writing of it
was six or eight months, and then I did a little revising.
MM: Had you always planned to direct it?
ES: I always knew that I would direct this
film, and I thought—I guess naively—that it would be easier to get
the film made than it really was.
MM: Had you always wanted to direct this script, or had you been looking to just direct something?
ES: This script! I had written another script
in 1990, a spec script. As I was writing it I thought ‘Wow, this
is really going to be great!’ I spent a year and a half writing
it and had planned to direct it. When I finished, I took a few weeks
off and then I put on my director hat, so to speak, and reread the
script—and passed on it. [laughing] It didn’t work! It was
a real bummer for me, but I knew it didn’t work.
There have been a few stories that I thought, ‘If
I can get this to work, I want to direct this.’ From 1996 on, it
was Levity. Directing is really, really hard. I’ve got a
family and I’ve got kids, and the commitment to directing a movie,
you really have to be willing to not see them. You have to love
something so much that it’s the only thing that matters for a while,
which is a tough place to be in, emotionally.
MM: Did your success as a screenwriter help
to open any doors that wouldn’t typically be an option for a first-time
ES: My success possibly opened a few
doors, but those doors were not the doors that I thought they would
open. In fact I think that, overall, it did not help—and
I would even argue that it possibly hurt.
MM: Were people expecting you to bring in
the next Men in Black or Bill & Ted—a sort of
blockbuster, fantastical comedy?
ES: Absolutely! That’s the first thing people
were expecting. I get the sense that people look at the film with
my IMDB credit list in one hand and go “Wait a minute!” It’s so
hard for me, partly because anyone who knows anything about how
movies are made knows that it’s very dubious to look at someone’s
credit list and think that represents them as a creative individual,
or as a human being. I think in some ways it was really hard, partly
because I would like people to look at Levity as really being
by a first-time director—certainly not as though it’s by the guy
who wrote Men in Black or something.
MM: But at the same time, do you think your
experience in the film industry helped to lessen the sort of trepidation
that your team—from cast and crew to financiers and producers—might
typically have when it comes to a first-time director?
ES: It didn’t help me in any way with regards
to financiers—at all!
MM: How long did the financing take?
ES: Well, from 1997 when I had the script finished
until 2001 when I started shooting.
MM: Was it a full-time thing that you were
ES: Initially I came out of the box trying
really hard. Then, after six or eight months, when it had been rejected
unilaterally everywhere—by every studio and every independent source
that I had access to and every producer I met with—I started to
slow down a bit. I still brought it with me everywhere I went and
said ‘Hey, there’s this movie that I want to do,’ but I had to start
doing other things, as well.
MM: What made you keep going?
ES: I guess it was maybe two years ago—right
when I was turning 40. I started thinking about what I really wanted
to do, and realized it was making Levity. So I rededicated
myself. I’d been trying, and I’d come close a few times. At one
point I got some money, but not enough to make it I didn’t think.
It was hard! [laughs]
MM: It’s also not a mainstream movie, which
is going to make it more difficult. Even looking at a movie like Monster’s Ball—which was a success both critically and financially.
Studio executives are still going to take the ‘lightning only strikes
once’ attitude, the thinking being that this “kind” of film has
already been successful once, and they don’t want to take a chance
on seeing whether or not it can happen again.
ES: You know, you could have 37 hits and if
someone doesn’t want to hire you they’ll say “Well, lightning doesn’t
strike 38 times—it only strikes 37 times!” [laughs] People
can find reasons to say yes or no to anything, which goes back to
the other question: I made the mistake of thinking that the more
experience I had as a writer, the better I’d be as a director. But
it’s irrelevant. No, that’s not true, it’s not irrelevant…
MM: But is it only relevant in the fact
that you know the inner workings of the film industry?
ES: But you don’t. There are things about being
a human being in the world that really help you in directing a movie,
but only a few of those things do you learn within show business.
Most of them have to do with general creativity and working with
people. I think that in all of my years as a writer, most of the
skills that I had honed did not help. It’s interesting, because
I hadn’t really thought of it that way.
MM: You spoke about an earlier script that
you had written and planned to direct and how, when you put on your
“director hat” you had passed on the project. Did you make any modifications
as the director of Levity, not thinking of yourself as the
ES: Well, ultimately it’s all the same. It’s
being guardian or steward of this entity—this organic entity. How
do you create enough room and space for this delicate little thing—this
movie—to be what it’s telling you it needs to be? To that end, as
the writer you sort of give birth to it and try to nurture it and
let it be whatever it is up until a certain stage, when it goes
off to someone else who then continues to let it evolve.
I guess as a director you could argue that it’s all
writing—every choice you make is a writing choice in certain ways.
We call one thing “writing” and one thing “directing,” but the boundaries
are a lot less clear-cut, particularly when you’re the same person
and you’re just continuing the same process. I think an outline
or a screenplay, they’re both sort of snapshots of something that
is in process; something that’s evolving. You take a snapshot and
call it a “screenplay.” Then you revise it, you take a snapshot
and you call it a “second draft.”
MM: But do you separate the two roles?
ES: Yes. Sometimes I would be standing there
as a director on the set and ask ‘What the hell was the writer thinking
at this moment?’ And sometimes I would watch the dailies going ‘What
the fuck was this director thinking?’ The writer often got in the
way. I think you often fall back on what you know, and when you’re
directing a film there are problems and things don’t work or things
happen that you have no control over and you have to quickly make
changes. I think if you’re an actor, you tend to solve the problems
in the performance. If you’re a production designer, you tend to
see things visually. If you’re a writer, you think in terms of writing
and so you always fall back to those skills that you feel comfortable
with to sort of do your triage. But then, as soon as you’ve done
that, you sort of step back into a larger role.