“My entire life has been: I can do the practical thing or I can gamble on myself,” Ed Solomon says in the second part of his illuminating and engaging interview with Aaron Tracy on Yale Podcast Network’s To Live and Dialogue in LA. Find the first part here. It’s been a gamble that’s worked out for Solomon, the successful writer of Men in Black, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Now You See Me, and many more.
The second part of the discussion covered topics of inspiration, passion, as well as horror stories of pitches gone wrong. Below are five lessons gleaned from the talk.
1. Trust your audience to figure it out.
Because of the time-travel logistics of the script’s plot, Solomon recalls the studio giving an abundance of notes during the writing process of Bill and Ted, calling for more and more clarification. “We were asked many times on this movie… to simplify it,” Solomon says. But he and his writing partner on the script, Chris Matheson, were reluctant. “It’s always a mistake to dumb something down because you’re trying to make more people understand it. It’s never a good idea. You never have to talk down to an audience. Ever.”
Solomon argues that audiences are actually okay if they don’t understand every little thing. “Kids will laugh at stuff that adults won’t laugh at, adults will see things in some movies that kids won’t laugh at, it’s fine. The best kids movies have jokes that only adults get. People understand if something’s a little bit above their head that that’s actually okay.”
2. Figuring out the mood is important in a number of ways.
“I think mood is key with comedy,” Solomon tells Tracy. In fact, figuring out the mood is how Solomon realized he could write Men in Black. Solomon recalls not being initially interested in writing the script. He didn’t quite gel with the original source material. But looking at it through a different lens helped. What if those bizarre, alien-encounter stories in tabloids were actually real and a means of communication? When that idea struck him, Solomon says he figured out the mood for the script.
“Once I got the mood for Men in Black, I knew I could write it. I didn’t know what the story was, but I knew I could write it.”
3. Be real when pitching.
Solomon says when he first started out, he was absolutely terrible at pitching. But it was when he was working on a movie with Gary Ross (that ultimately was never made), he began to see the light of day when it came to selling his script. “What I had noticed was when I talked about it… it seemed very convoluted and the thrust was unclear… but when Gary talked about it, it seemed like the most amazing movie of all time,” Solomon says. He goes on to say that he picked Ross’s brain about it and Ross gave him some great advice. “He said to me, you can never be an expert on what someone else in the room wants. But you are the world’s foremost authority on your own point of view… As long as you focus on what you love about it, it’s unassailable.”
Solomon warns against going into a room and thinking you need to check off boxes you believe the producers or the bigwigs are looking for. If “you go into a room and you’re thinking, what do they need, what do they want… what are they seeing in me — it’s a losing game. But if you focus on what you love, it provides its own energy. It’s true, it’s real — they can sense that.” You can’t fake authenticity. Treat the pitch like it’s a story you must tell everyone about. You have to tell this story because you care about it — you care about the way you want to tell it.
4. Passion’s overrated — don’t believe that you need it to write.
As unromantic as that sounds, Solomon believes it’s true and it’s a word he really takes time to define clearly because he thinks passion is misused. “People are always saying you need to be passionate about something because it’s going to take so long… I don’t buy it. I think it puts too much pressure on you,” Solomon argues. He says it’s not necessary to be in love with your script at all times, you just have to be interested. “Being interested is what kind of pulls me into the story.”
Passion is “like infatuation,” Solomon says. “It goes away. And then when it’s not there, we feel like something’s wrong.” Solomon believes that when you’re building a story that’s actually meaningful to you, you develop something that’s deeper than passion. “You can actually develop a kind of legitimate love for it. An actual intimacy with it… That I think is more meaningful than passion.”
5. Same goes for inspiration.
“Inspiration is another false flag,” Solomon tells Tracy. “It’s bright and shiny and there is a thing as being inspired by something and you can have epiphanies, but we often think the big ideas have to come with a loud noise and a bright light.” Solomon wants us to know that inspiration can be much more subtle than that. “Sometimes it’s just a tiny little blip on the mental landscape.”
A big epiphany of inspiration also is misleading — it makes good writing sound less strenuous than it actually is. “I think people think writing is an intellectual process that one does with one’s brain and I believe we do it with our body and the brain kind of transcribes, the brain follows along,” Solomon says. He explains further, “I mean, obviously, you’re thinking… but it’s deeper. It’s mulling and it’s feeling.”
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.