Ed Solomon Shares Insights on Developing as a Screenwriter

On Wednesday, March 22, 2023, Word for Word, Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) online literary series, was thrilled to have Ed Solomon for an evening to discuss the art and craft of screenwriting.

Ed began his career in college as a joke writer and stand-up comedian. He soon went on to write television and film, working on the groundbreaking It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” as well as the cult hit “Bill and Ted” film series, co-written with Chris Matheson. Additional screenwriting credits include “Men in Black” and the “Now You See Me” movies, “Mosaic,” “No Sudden Move” and “Full Circle.”

The following is Part II of an excerpted transcription of Ed’s interview, edited for the page (Take a look at Part I here):

W4W: What partner or group did you find especially helpful in promoting your voice and vision in scripts?

Ed Solomon

Solomon: I put myself out there in every angle I possibly could. I was writing jokes for comedians. I was performing stand-up. I was taking improv. I was taking writing classes. I was taking editing classes. I was not a theater major or a film major in college. I was an economics major. I wish I had done literature. I think that would have been the most helpful for me.

This is a tough thing to grasp, but we often think that careers are decided in these big obvious moves, like a manager sees us and signs us, or we win a competition. But the truth is, a career path is full of these tiny micro choices you’re making that you don’t even know you’re making.

I’m going to go to this festival because I want to listen to someone speak. But you don’t get into that session, so you go to another one. You sit next to somebody and say something, and it makes them laugh. Six months later, they run into you at a thing, and maybe they remember you and have thought about you, etc., etc., etc. You never know what thing or event is going to make you suddenly be discovered or make your work be seen by someone.

To me, it’s not about going down proscribed paths. It’s about pushing all the time. Saying yes to this, or trying that.  Keep trying, keep making work. Trust that if you are really a writer, it’s not about this particular script or project—it’s about a lifetime of them. It doesn’t mean just dash your work out. It means work as hard as you can on stuff. But recognize that not one project is super precious.

My very first job was writing jokes and plays. Garry Shandling, one of the comedians that I was writing jokes for, introduced me to a guy who was producing a TV show. And I invited him to this play that we were putting on against the rules, and he came. I ended up getting hired on this TV show as a writer, a young writer who didn’t really know what he was doing. But because I got hired on this show, I got to meet with a couple of agents. I chose a fancy agent because I thought that was the best way to go. It turned out that was a mistake, but I didn’t realize that for three years.

Three years later, I had stayed in touch with a person from a small agency that had wanted to sign me as well. If it wasn’t for the fact that I stayed in touch with him, the agency wouldn’t have read the first “Bill and Ted” script, which my fancy agents didn’t like. By the way, that wouldn’t be something that you one would consider “the right networking.” The person I kept in touch with was, at the time, a young assistant, but he liked my script, and the agency read it, and it worked out.

Audience chat: It seems to be all about networking, networking, networking. Finding the right people up top to pitch your work.

Solomon: Again, please be very clear with yourself about how you define networking. I cannot stress enough: It’s creative networking.

I would not have written that “Bill and Ted” script, which is the thing that really made my career change, had I not been in an improv group with four friends. We didn’t want an audience. We just wanted to push ourselves comedically.

And on one random Monday night, Chris [Matheson] goes, what if we do two guys who know nothing about history studying history? And we just started messing around as Bill and Ted during this improv session. We weren’t trying to develop characters to be turned into a movie. We were just trying to push ourselves comedically.

More than a year later, we think, what if we put Bill and Ted in a movie? And it made us laugh. My agents hated it, but I stayed in touch with the smaller agency who gave it a chance. The truth is, “Bill and Ted” wouldn’t have happened had we not been just trying to make comedy with each other without an audience, without results. And had we been thinking during that time, let’s try to develop characters for a movie, it would have never had any magic.

Audience chat: What was your biggest creative professional hardship? And how did you cope, learn and grow from it?

Solomon: The failures have taught me way more than the successes. And there have been a lot of failures, a lot of failures, big ones, big public failures, private personal failures, movies that I thought would do really well that flopped, scripts that I really love that got rejected, mistakes I made creatively, professionally. They taught me way more than the successes.

If I were to look back, I think I could probably trace my longevity to the failures more than the successes. The successes are necessary because after a while, no one will pay you to write if you only have failures. But it was the failures that led me to learn more about myself in the process. Where was it my fault? Where was it not my fault? What could I have done differently?

One could make the argument that you’re failing the entire process until it actually works. This script isn’t working, but I feel like there’s a good idea here. I haven’t quite got it yet. How do you know to keep with it? Or how do you know when to put it aside and move on to something else?

I learned a lot from a movie I directed bombing. I learned a lot. I took my name off the movie “X-Men.” That was a big, stupid mistake. And I thought, I have to figure out why I’m making these kinds of choices. I took a sabbatical, and I got into meditation. And it sort of changed. It was super helpful for me as a person. But one could make the argument that as a career move, it was like really, really, really boneheaded. I still regret it. I still think it was a stupid thing to do.

W4W: Luckily, you seem to have bounced back OK.

Solomon: Yeah, but I didn’t think I would at the time. It felt like a career-ending decision.

W4W: Ed, you seem to be a guy that you study yourself with the same degree of attention that you apply to your scripts.

Solomon: Yeah maybe, but what is our job? We’re sitting by ourselves. We’re trying to marshal our own brain into making something. This job is so much about your relationship to how you think and how you feel. To me, that’s what this job is.

Because most of your feedback is going to feel negative. It’s very rare that everyone’s going, oh, this thing is great as is. Leave it. And I’ve never read anything so great. Most of the time you’re going to get OK, this worked, this didn’t work, or I don’t get this here. And so how do you react to that? What’s the voice in your head say? How do you accept criticism, and how do you make your script better? How do you make your career better?

What’s your relationship to your emotional life so that your emotions work for you instead of against you? Your anxiety, your fear, your anger, your sense of disillusionment, you know, disappointment…that’s what you’re going to feel most of the time. How do you make all that work for you? For me, if somebody doesn’t like something that I wrote, it’s really hard. It’s just as hard now as it was [earlier].

So how do I let that disappointment make the script better? If I can live in that disappointment and really feel the sadness instead of trying to push the sadness away by trying to solve it too fast to get rid of my anxiety, it makes me more humble and open to new ideas. The anxiety or fear that I feel could be the thing that motivates me to get moving again.

Anger can be turned toward the script. And sometimes when you’re mad at a script, you can break it apart more easily. It takes time, but if one can get used to recycling the emotional states that we feel back into the work, that can be really valuable. So when you say “study yourself,” I don’t look at it as studying myself. There’s thinking about how you think, and then there’s thinking about thinking about how you think.

That is a big part of the job. How do I react emotionally? When do I react emotionally? When is my writing emotional? And when do I get out of it? When is it smart for it to be intellectual, so to speak, or right brain or left brain?

However you want to look at it, it’s navigating all the time between these emotional states that’s the difficult thing. The issue is more longevity—how do you learn how to get the most out of yourself? And then more importantly, how do you learn how to deal with people’s reactions to your stuff so that you can always make it better?

W4W: Do you feel that you have a particular style as a screenwriter? And if so, has that style always been there? Can you see a consistent thread through your films?

Solomon: I don’t think in terms of my own style. I just think in terms of what am I curious about and interested in. And I trust that the style will follow it.

Instead of thinking of yourself, focus on the work that you’re making and try to assess or hear what it is trying to tell you. Your style is something that you have very little control over if you are pursuing the idea itself with integrity. What is the best iteration of the idea?

Your characters are going to have your voice some way. You can’t avoid that. But I never get too hung up on what is my style. When I have, I think it’s kind of hurt me. Because I get too self-conscious.

W4W: In an industry that demands a lot of collaboration, it seems that a script might change. How do you navigate that? With “Men in Black,” it was originally going to be underground. But then the director, Barry Sonnenfeld, said, “I want it in New York City.” Seems like a big change if you’re writing the script out. So how do you navigate that, perhaps giving up your voice for the greater production?

Solomon: Well, there’s a difference between story and plot. The plot of “Men in Black” changed tremendously. The story didn’t change at all. Barry set it in New York. I had set it all across the country. The biggest change was I wanted a more philosophical third act, which was probably wrong. The producers wanted more guys with guns and bugs.

I never liked the third act of “Men in Black” so much, but the story itself was essentially the same. It was a cocky, younger agent gets recruited into this world by a more cards-to-his-chest agent. And then we, the audience, get led into this world through the eyes of this newbie who then makes the choice to give up his life and join this agency.

My third act was still about what the third act is about, which is we as people don’t really know what’s really going on. And we think our lives are the most important things, and maybe they’re not.

But the story never changed. It was about a guy trying to replace himself with a younger person. The plot just moved into New York because the first thing Barry did when he got on the movie was screen “The French Connection,” and he said, “Like that, but with aliens.” So OK, a little bit more of a buddy cop movie in his mind, and it takes place in New York. That’s fine. At the end of the day, the plot changed, but the story stayed the same.

You’re always collaborating in the performative arts. So how do you develop the method to know what’s worth “fighting for” and what’s worth shifting?

It all comes back down to how do you deal with notes. To me, the key goes back to how you deal with your emotions, which is to say, how are you able to hear what somebody is saying, understand what’s underneath what they’re saying?

It’s not trying to please studios, producers, directors, etc. by doing exactly what they’re saying prescriptively, but rather go, I hear what they’re saying, I’m not going to let my emotions get me in a bad way, I’m going to trust that my emotions are telling me something is correct.

When you’re writing kind of performative fiction or narrative fiction or whatever you would call it, you’re trying to create work that will attract the highest level of talent so that your collaborators will elevate the project and elevate you. And so when you get out the other end of it, you’ll be a better writer.

To do that, you need to know how to create stories that are riveting, but you also need to know how to write so that an actor can sink their teeth into the script. Really, it’s down to the very basics—what do your characters want? Is this a performable thing? Is this an actable thing? What would be the coolest way to solve this problem?

This concludes Part II of Ed Solomon’s interview. Continue reading Part III here.