Ed Solomon’s directorial debut-Levity-offers little of just that. This might surprise moviegoers eager for the latest from the writer of Men in Black. Fittingly, the title refers to what’s missing from the lives of its burdened characters.
Solomon is a moviemaker with a lot on his mind, including forgiveness, faith, friendship, and the way we run from self-realization and dodge the consequences for our sins. These themes needed richer soil than his previous scripts for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Charlie’s Angels.
I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Solomon during a brief stay in Seattle where he was promoting the film. He was remarkably soft-spoken and humble, clearly glad to have a conversation instead of trying to pitch his movie. Here are some of the things we talked about.
(My review of the film Levity can be found here.)
I would think that after working so hard on mainstream comedies–Men in Black, Charlie’s Angels, the Bill and Ted movies–it would be quite a change for you to work in such a ponderous dramatic mode as you do in Levity.
Everyone is complex… just by being a person. I think it would be very hard to only work from one angle, on a personal level, but on a professional level it’s really tempting to always try to work where you’re comfortable, or where you’re reinforced professionally to work… either by people who hire people who go see the movies. It’s tempting to really to work where you feel safe. But I feel that, creatively, it’s kind of deadening.
Especially when you get older, and I guess I’m getting older. I’m 42 now. I see a lot of my friends say, “I’m in my 40s now, so I’m gonna cash in. I’m gonna do what comes easier. I’ve worked hard enough.” I feel the opposite. I’m getting older, and in order to keep growing, I’m going to push myself.
I don’t believe in the “Write What You Know” thing. I think you write what’s true for you or intriguing for you or what you feel. What you “know” is, I think, wrong.
I have a lot of confusion about issues… like spiritual ones. I’m not coming to this film from a place of knowledge. I’m not trying to present a religious point of view. I was trying to really explore questions. I think we all have different stories in us at different times of our life. To me, it’s really important to follow something that’s more creatively challenging or pressing to me than to just constantly fall back on what you know. I love comedy, but I’m just trying to keep pushing myself.
I would think after writing comedy so long, you would start collecting and building up things that don’t fit in a comedy, or ideas that you couldn’t really explore thoroughly in comedy. And I got the feeling from Levity that you were letting out a lot of ideas that had built up.
It’s true. Things stay with you and they well up… these creative or emotional assets that have been building up over time, things you forget about. They surface again.
Is this a story you developed over a long period of time?
I was a tutor in a prison for teenagers when I was in college. I met this kid who had killed somebody and had been tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. And he kept a photograph of the person he had killed. The judge had told him to keep this and have it, and the judge also made him hold things of the boy…grapple with them… hold his clothes…I remember him saying “I had to hold his football.”
He was staring at this picture, he would put it in his pocket, take it out, look at it, put it away, take it out again, open it. He would stare at it like he didn’t know it was a human being, like he was trying to take this two-dimensional image and have it become three dimensional. And then he was gone; he turned 18 and he went to the state prison.
[Solomon pauses, staring intently into his memories.]
It’s funny. I was just thinking: What ever happened to him? I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s out of jail. He was sentenced to life, but that was 25 years ago, so who knows?
That kind of haunted me. And then in my mid-20s the idea of the movie came around. It was a different take on it. A lighter take. Morgan Freeman’s character was taking Billy Bob’s character and trying to help him take charge of these kids who were trying to be comedians. I could never get it to feel right. 30 or 40 pages in, I quit and I tried it again. I held it out saying “One day I’m going to get this right.” I almost gave up. Finally I said, “I’m just going to do this. I’m just going to get it right.”
There are clearly echoes of that experience in the character of Manual, in his “grappling” with the crime he committed as a teenager. He grapples with the reality that there had been a human being on the other end of that gun.
I like what you say about asking questions through your storytelling. I think the movies that last and that really mean things to people are often those where the artist doesn’t have a pulpit and a message. Instead he doesn’t really know what’s going to happen. He’s exploring, and bringing the audience along with him. And I really felt that sense of uncertainty, of questioning in Levity. It kept throwing me curves.
Was there a preacher or a minister that inspired Evans, the character played by Freeman?
No, this was the first time I wrote a character with an actor in mind. It came out of how I heard Morgan and felt his presence. He rejected the character the way I initially conceived it. It was my perception of what he could do rather than what he could do or wanted to do as an artist.
I contacted this Christian guy [I know]… Jim… and faith is a big part of his life. He worked with kids in South Central L.A., kids trying to get out of violence and really turn their lives around. Jim introduced me to a couple of people who had committed crimes, and I talked to some of them. He wasn’t a preacher, but he really inspired me in some ways.There wasn’t a pastor, per se. It was more of a voice, a kind of counterweight… I always saw Manual’s character as constantly looking at himself and obsessing over the minutiae and details of what he had done, and in so doing he’s terrified of what he is capable of. I called him ‘Manual’ because of what he is capable of -Manual means “by hand.” I didn’t mean to use “Emanuel”, to give it any kind of religious connotation.
[He pauses and smiles.]
But then again… I did call him Manual Jordan… didn’t I?
That is rather loaded!
I was thinking of the river, yes. But I called him Manual because by his hands he removed himself from the flow of the human race. He looks at himself. But I was drawn to the character of Evans (Morgan Freeman) because he preaches with such fervency but he doesn’t believe what he is saying.
In a sense, Evans is a good actor.
Exactly. And with them, I wanted to raise questions:
One – Can you make up for one so-called bad act with any number of so-called good acts?
And two – Are you what you say you are, or are you what you think you are, or are you what you do? Or is that even answerable?
I was intrigued by the idea that people can go out of their way to help other people but they can never help themselves. Other people just help themselves and never help anyone else.
To me, Morgan’s character never helps himself. I told Morgan that I imagined his character to be a guy who’s always being followed by rising waters, and it’s only a matter of time before the floods come. So he is desperate to have value in this life, he grabs whoever he can and puts them up on higher ground and then runs before the water comes. I don’t think Morgan’s character is a preacher; he’s just going to act as one, and in the next part of his life he’s going to be someone else. But I always thought because Evans won’t look at himself, he’s destined to run, constantly. Manual (Billy Bob) is constantly looking at himself.
When Evans says, “You know where you are. You know exactly where you are!”, Morgan is playing that scene such that he’s talking to himself. The line “I’m lying through my teeth.” … that’s one of the two times in the movie that Evans is telling the truth, the other being when he tells Manual at the end who he is. There’s a reason he’s awake 20 hours a day; it’s desperation. There’s this frantic need to try to do anything he can to feel like he’s saving himself when the only thing he’s not doing is looking at who he is truly. He’s running.
Everything that I’m saying… I’m not a Christian. I’m not a practicing Jew, although I was born Jewish. I’m a struggling agnostic. I’m not an atheist-you have to have a pretty strong conviction to be an atheist. But I’m not coming at this from a Christian perspective. When I look at Morgan as trying to save himself, I’m not trying to talk about that in any kind of Judeo-Christian way, although there are parallels for sure. It was not me consciously trying to make a religious parallel.
Some members of the secular press have just attacked me for trying to make a “Christian film.” Initially, I was mad. I asked, “Why? How do you get that from this?” And then I was amused. “Oh, okay, I guess everyone has a right to read in what they want.” And then I started thinking about it and I thought, “Well, what’s wrong with that anyway? What if I was? Why not?”
So, you may not coming at this from a Christian perspective, but this narrative reminds of narratives throughout Scripture, stories of people who have profound encounters with God, and they’re left with sobering questions. I think of Job crying out to meet God and when he did, it was disorienting. Many of the people most actively searching for God or most aggressively and passionately wrestling with spiritual issues end up being humbled by the truth and constantly admitting that it leaves them with questions.
That’s one of the strengths of exploratory storytellers, the thing you’re doing with Levity. You know you’re in trouble, — even in the Church — when the people you’re around, Christian or otherwise, start acting like they have all the answers to all of the big questions, and that it’s their job to force their answers on you. In that behavior, they have turned away from a humble, reverent, awestruck vision of the truth… they’ve cut themselves off and appointed themselves the end-all and be-all of truth. They’re just trying to make a point.
You’re right. And when you behave that way, you don’t even necessarily make the point. You just give people the impression that you do.
Will you come back to this theme again?
I’m intrigued with trying to be truthful about the struggle. I’m trying to write from that place. The definition of Israel is “people who wrestle with God.” I think that’s fascinating.
I wanted the film not to be clearly spiritual or clearly realistic or clearly impressionistic. I wanted it to be metaphoric. I wanted the world that the film takes place in to be a subjective world that mirrors the life of the central character. I wanted people to project onto the film, but I didn’t expect people to do so to the extent that they are. I didn’t expect it to be controversial.
I also knew that by making a film that was more subjective than naturalistic, it would spark with some people.
If you take somebody’s life, it seems to me that there are two main ways that you reconcile… one in the secular world and one in the spiritual. In the secular world … you do whatever the legal system says is suitable. You seek forgiveness from others or from yourself.
If you are a spiritual person and you believe in God, it’s not like it’s easier. If you’re a Christian you choose Christ as your vehicle for redemption; dramatically, it wouldn’t have been interesting. It would have been too easy.
So I thought, dramatically it would be more interesting for the character to say, “I don’t want to be forgiven.” And so he becomes so desperate to lift this weight off his shoulders. He tries a lot of different things. But ultimately he doesn’t think he deserves anything.
Most mainstream movies make me eager to part company with their shallow, ill-mannered characters and cheap answers. Solomon challenges us with something more, something deeply personal… questions. Just as he sometimes wonders what happened to that incarcerated teen, after watching Levity we are left wondering where his metropolitan pilgrims’ progress will lead them. Do they have any inklings of real hope? Have they learned lessons that will quench their longing for relief, levity, and joy?
These questions suggest that the movie’s work is not over after the credits roll. That’s when we have the opportunity to turn to our fellow moviegoers and really get to the heart of things.