How the writer of Men in Black and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure penned and directed the year’s surprise Indie hit
Channeling creativity can be a tricky thing, especially for Ed Solomon, whose impressive directing debut in Levity only seems to be casting a shadow over the frothy works he penned in the past. It’s a delicious example of artistic range, but how, exactly, does a guy go from scribing something as inane as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure to probing the depths of a man’s soul in a film headlined by Billy Bob Thornton? It’s the question that has Hollywood scratching heads—and savoring every minute of it.
From the outside, Solomon always seemed embraced by an industry that collected some sweet box office cash thanks, in part, to his writing: Men in Black (1997) and Charlie’s Angels (2000) sailed through the persnickety creative digestive tracks of moviegoers; Leaving Normal (1992) and What Planet Are You From (2000) tanked. Now, the man who made Keanu Reeves whoa! America back in the ’80s with B&T, seems to be tackling more serious fair— along with the premiere of Levity, there’s the May release of The In-Laws, a comedy starring Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks, which Solomon also wrote. But it’s Levity’s search-the-soul-and-purge-the-inner-demons theme that’s winning over audiences at film festivals like Sundance. In the film, Billy Bob Thornton plays a paroled murderer haunted by his past and desperately wondering how to make amends. GT caught up with Solomon via phone in a recent interview.
Good Times: What inspired you to make Levity?
Ed Solomon: I wanted to make something for people who wanted to go to films for something other than a diversion. I don’t belittle that, it’s great to be able to have diversions, but life is hard and gets harder and harder, and for me, I wanted to see a film, which makes me work a little harder.
GT: What challenges did you face as a first-time director?
ES: The main thing was working with people of their caliber (Billy Bob Thornton, Holly Hunter, Morgan Freeman). I had two choices. I could rise to the occasion or get knocked out of the ring. For me it was only one choice but I didn’t take to it initially. I was like a duck driving a car. I started off the film being overwhelmed by the struggle to get it made. We had a four-week prep time— most films, you need 12, 20 weeks—and our financing didn’t come together until a few days before we started to shoot. I felt so wiped out, which is all part of directing.
GT: But you also wrote the film, which must have been an entirely different creative experience, considering the theme.
ES: I was intrigued with the question: If you have done bad things, is there any number of good things that can make up for it? I know that is an unanswerable question and I didn’t set out to answer it, but at what point does this character’s presence accrue positively, especially when he did heinous and horrible things? I was interested in posing that question and then, over the course of the film, I really identified with a guy who feels detached from the world and kind of like he was a ghost in his own life. From an emotional point of view, the film was very rewarding to me. And I was hoping that this film would have hope and optimism, not a sarcastic optimism, but one that comes out of struggle and pain. I was interested in finding out how can a person find any hope at all from where he started, especially if this person does not believe in God, or believe that he can be redeemed. And I got a lot of shit from people who thought I was trying to make a born again parable … one of the questions I was asking was if you don’t believe in God but you have a strong moral sense, how can you possibly tell that story?
GT: This is deep stuff, much lighter than your previous works.
ES: Everyone who is comedian and a writer comedy has a very active darker side. They are either full of rage or sadness or insecurity. To me, this film is the antithesis of comedy. It’s about the lack of humor, the humor that is missing. Manual (Thornton) is so preoccupied with the mistakes he made in his life that he cannot laugh. He carries this weight and he’s disconnected from the human race. A lot of the sound design of film was done so offscreen there is a little bit of laughter—there’s always life going on on the other side of those icy walls.
GT: So, how do you bring more levity into your life?
ES: Perspective. Then you step out of it—the writing world. You step out of the fantasy world and into the world of your choosing. In my case, I got married and had kids (6 years old, another 18 months), and like all things in partnerships, they demand and deserve your attention. Gradually you realize that the narcissism that drives you as a young, single creative person in competitive circles like L.A. is ultimately kind of emptying—it’s like running on fumes in a way. The irony of it all—somehow being married and having children forced me to integrate into the world and by integrating into the world, it made me a better writer. The whole thing did not happen the way I expected. I thought ridding oneself of one’s neuroses would deaden the creativity, but you still have demons, they just don’t control you as much. I don’t know … I don’t care as much as I used to about what people think—that fucked with me for a long time.