Screenwriter Ed Solomon boasts quite the writing resume. Not only has he written four (four!) separate screenplays that have spawned sequels and franchises (Men in Black, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Now You See Me, and Charlie’s Angels) but he also has experience writing for television, getting his start on Laverne & Shirley while a senior at UCLA and eventually graduating to work on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. He also recently wrote every episode of the revolutionary, Steven Soderbergh-directed show, Mosaic.
Solomon recently sat down with Aaron Tracy, host of the Yale Podcast Network’s To Live and Dialogue in LA, to discuss his start, what it takes to make it as a professional writer, his writing process and more. Here are five pearls of writing wisdom extracted from the episode.
1. Flexibility Can Lead to Opportunity
Solomon’s the first to acknowledge how lucky he was to fall into the Laverne & Shirley gig while still in college. But, if he’s being honest, it wasn’t exactly what he had in mind as a dream job, going into it. “I was like, ‘I would never write for a show like Laverne & Shirley.’ And then I get this offer,” he says. The show wasn’t necessarily his type of comedy — Solomon had been performing stand-up and writing jokes for comedians, which is how the job found him. Writing jokes and performing stand-up was nothing like working in a writer’s room for a sitcom and the experience was a wake-up call for the 21-year-old Solomon. “I went from being kinda sporadically, amateurishly funny to having to be in a room with incredibly, incredibly funny people with a lot of pressure.”
Coming to terms with the fact that the experience wasn’t as successful as it could have been, Solomon looks at the bright side. “Had I been a little bit better (at TV writing) I might not have had the career that I ended up having,” he says. “Had I been just a little bit better, I probably would have gotten hired onto another show and I probably would have gotten onto a bit of a treadmill, I think, that I wouldn’t have been able to handle.” Possessing this flexibility as a writer — and the self-awareness that comes with it — helped Solomon survive and ultimately find what he was best at.
2. Toughen Up
A writer’s room can be intimidating for anyone but even more so for a fresh-faced 21-year-old still in college. When asked how the overall experience went as a young writer in a room with other (more experienced) writers for the first time, Solomon is blunt. “It was not good. Part of it was I don’t think I was the wunderkind that my play and the joke writing had promised. It took me a while to get my sea legs. I was not the personality to walk into a room and just start whipping jokes out really fast, especially at that level.”
Toughening up is what helped Solomon survive and find more success later on with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and his screenwriting career. But this early experience with these seasoned writers who didn’t pull any punches, Solomon knows, was essential for his career, long-term.
3. It’s Possible to Feel for Any Type of Character
Solomon dives a bit into his process of creating characters. As high concept and, perhaps, bizarre his scripts like Men in Black and Bill and Ted’s may seem on paper, those scripts handle their characters, and the respective relationships, with care — and that’s why they work.
“When you make the choice to sort of empathically project onto another character, you do kind of have an empathy for them that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. You can follow almost anybody,” Solomon says. He continues, “Just by the nature of — I hate to use this word — but of dramaturgy, I guess, just by the nature of point of view, and the use of point of view, you can make any character if not sympathetic, at least fascinating.”
“Optimize” was a term Shandling would use when Solomon worked with him, and it’s one that Soderbergh used with him when they worked on Mosaic together. And now Solomon uses it for himself and preaches it to all writers. Solomon explains the term by using joke-writing as an example, but he says it remains the same for writing in general.
He says, “Optimize… You take these two jokes, look at why those work, get rid of everything else, and now build the set around those two jokes and then when those two jokes are no longer your strongest jokes, you get rid of them, and just keep optimizing.” It’s a good term to keep in mind while rewriting — doing an optimization pass/draft may be essential.
5. If You Really Want a Writing Career, Patience May be the Key
This may seem somewhat obvious, but it can be hard to remember in the moment. “The people that shoot out (into the business) fast, don’t always last,” Solomon says. “In fact, most of the people that I compared myself to, and usually negatively, like, ‘Oh my God that person is so talented, or, look at how good they are at this…’ didn’t have long careers.”
Knowing how quickly Solomon found success, it may be easy to roll your eyes at him giving this piece of advice. But he details how that early success was relatively short-lived. “I got lucky early with this break, and then I spent two years struggling, had to borrow money from my parents and actually thought I was a flash in the pan… I was so fried… I felt like I was literally a one-hit wonder…”
But inspiration can surface at the most random of times, and if Solomon had given up too easily, or packed it in too soon, movie history would arguably look a bit different. During the struggle, Solomon says, “my friends and I had been renting … a theater space in Hollywood to just work out and do improv. Random night, random sketch, Chris (Matheson, screenwriter) said, let’s do two guys who know nothing about history, studying — and he called me Bill, I called him Ted… and Chris and I just loved doing the characters and goofed around… and one day we decided to put them into this movie… I was getting to the end of my money… literally thinking, what am I going to do — we wrote the Bill and Ted script.”
Clearly, a little patience goes a long way.
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.