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, among many others.
In 2017, he teamed with Director Steven Soderbergh and HBO for the first-of-its-kind branching-narrative television series, “Mosaic,” which was released as an app in November 2017 and then as a limited-run series on HBO in January of 2018. After that, he wrote the script for “No Sudden Move” for director Soderbergh and producer Casey Silver. It debuted at Tribeca and received rave reviews from critics and can be found on HBO Max.
He is currently in post-production on another limited series for HBO and Soderbergh: “Full Circle” will star Claire Danes, Zazie Beetz, Dennis Quaid, Timothy Olyphant, Gerald Jerome, CCH Pounder and Jim Gaffigan. It airs on HBO Max July 2023.
The following is Part I of an excerpted transcription of Ed’s interview, edited for the page:
W4W: How did you get to be where you are today? Did you know that you always wanted to be a screenwriter?
Solomon: If I were starting again, I wouldn’t have gone into screenwriting as my primary genre. I did it because at the time it seemed like the apotheosis of what a writer was, but I realize in hindsight screenwriting involved a set of life compromises that I regret.
That isn’t to discourage people from going into screenwriting, but go into it with your eyes open. You go through the processes of a so-called “real writer,” but the results in a screenwriting life are that you end up with a kind of corporate art that may or may not reflect what you wrote. And if what you wrote is important to you, that your words are coming as close to the ear or the eye of the viewer or reader as possible, screenwriting is something you need to approach cautiously.
There’s stuff that got made that has my name on it that’s kind of a cousin of me and my work, and sometimes it’s close and sometimes it’s far from what I imagine it to be. Sometimes it’s better than I thought it would be. Sometimes it’s less good. But the actual work is essentially anonymous.
What I really write is just for myself and a few others. And that’s what has sustained me. The process is the same process any artist or writer will go through. The work is really hard. Making that script as great as you can make it takes a lot of discipline and skill and craft.
The other thing that I would have done different is to curate the people I worked with a little more carefully. What I’ve realized, especially in the back half of my career, is that when I’ve gotten an opportunity to work with better people, my work has grown exponentially. The better a person is that I’m working with, the better my work is when it comes out the other side.
It can be very easy to surround yourself with people who make you feel good about what you do. Finding the balance of support and people who will push you harder is a really important thing. Who do you have read your work and whose opinions do you seek out? But I wish that I had taken tougher routes to be surrounded with better people, at times anyway.
I would add this caveat—seeing a movie you wrote in a theater with an audience is a wonderful experience, especially if you feel like it’s your words.
W4W: But all of those are lessons learned in retrospect, right? It seems like you’re being a little hard on yourself, because when you’re a young writer, you’re going to take what opportunities come your way. Do you feel like if you had been able to do it over, you would have become a different kind of writer? Would you have gone into television or theater or written novels rather than be a screenwriter?
Solomon: I’ve always walked a line between having faith in what I was writing and needing outside opinions to let me know that it was OK. And I think I would have had more faith in my internal voice had I had a little more confidence. I probably would have allowed myself to be more exposed as a writer, meaning done more theater, more novel writing as well.
But I didn’t have the confidence. And I think I developed certain skills that were more craft-oriented and less voice-oriented until later in my career. I got lucky on some early things in that they were successful enough for me to keep working. If I had made other choices, I may have ended up in the similar spot. If I said no when I said yes, if I started going another way, who knows, right? We are who we are.
W4W: You mentioned a mix of insecurity and ambition. One of the things we talk about in our programs is imposter syndrome, the feeling that you’re not good enough or you don’t belong. And I think a lot of writers struggle with insecurity on the one hand and ambition on the other. Because you’ve got to have ambition just to deal with the inevitable setbacks that come your way. Can you talk a little bit more about that balance for you?
Solomon: I believe there’s healthy insecurity, and there’s unhealthy insecurity. The healthy insecurity is kind of humility where you have respect for what’s come before you, respect for people who are coming up behind you, an ability and willingness to learn from everybody. That’s a healthy version of it.
The unhealthy insecurity is where that inner voice tells you you’re shit or tells you the work you’re doing isn’t good enough yet. That part—the voice that is especially early in your career, where your creative facility is not as well developed as your critical eye—which says “this isn’t good enough, this isn’t good enough,” that can be really tough to work through and to manage. I find the relationship between yourself and your inner voice is a life struggle. Metacognition—how do you think about how you think?
Audience chat: But what if you really are terrible?
Solomon: Well, we all could be. I mean, that’s the thing. Any idea you write could be something that works and then something that doesn’t work. To me, it’s not about whether you’re objectively good or not good. It’s whether you’re curious about the thing you’re writing about. Is your curiosity slaked by writing about it? And when you’re writing about it and exploring an idea, does that process give you some kind of joy? Or are you doing it so that other people will tell you you’re good? Or are you doing it because you want to be able to say you have written?
We never know if we’re good or bad. We never know if the work we’re doing is good or bad. All we know is, am I making the story better? And if so, on what grounds? And what is the criteria for which I’m judging it? And am I getting better at understanding my own process? Am I getting better at getting deeper on ideas? Am I getting better at being able to transcribe what’s going on inside me into the page? And am I getting better at being able to look at what I’ve written and assess what is working and not working?
To me, that is the journey. It’s not, “when will I get an agent?” The wonder is if I’m just able to stick with it, I will keep making it better and better. My general experience is that when your work is up at a certain level, you start to feel different. You start to notice a difference in the way people are responding.
But even for me, having done this for many, many decades, my work is never as good as I think it is in the moment. It’s usually my work plus time.
It becomes not about whether my work is good or bad. It’s about how I deal with the input from other people telling me it’s not what I thought it was going to be. And how do I then know what to listen to or not listen to so that I can continue to make it better until it’s “done” and I know to walk away.
That’s, to me, the life journey of this thing. It’s not by page 30, this has to happen. By page 45, this has to happen. It’s your relationship with how you think about your work.
W4W: What I love about that is that you’re measuring your progress against yourself rather than looking outward and measuring it against other screenwriters. Those kinds of comparisons make you feel bad and make you feel like a loser. Whereas, if you’re looking at your own progress and gauging your own ability to improve, then I think you’re on more solid ground—not that that’s an easy process to get a handle on either.
Solomon: There was a significant upward change in my creative ability after I stopped spending a great deal of my early career comparing myself to everyone around me.
When I first started out, there were people right out of the gate that were doing so much better than me, and I thought I was a failure. There were people doing worse too; I thought this meant I was a “success.” Worse, better, whatever. Early on, you don’t realize that a person’s trajectory is completely unpredictable.
I’m not proud of this, but there was a time when I would think that other people’s success reflected negatively on my lack of success, or made my success seem less valid. I had a friend that I competed with because he was my age, he was from where I was from and he always seemed to be just ahead of me in everything in every aspect. And I found myself, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes consciously, thinking, I wish this guy would fail.
I started finding myself rooting for other people to not succeed, because somehow, I would feel like their success reflected negatively on my success or lack thereof.
But there was eventually a moment when I had a realization: this guy’s actually a great writer. What if instead of me railing against his success and comparing myself negatively, I looked at what he’s great at and thought, can I learn from that?
There’s a brilliant writer, one of my closest friends, and I was always coming up short in my comparison to her. But when I went, there’s room for everyone—wow. I actually got better once I got rid of that previous notion of comparing myself. And in fact, when I just let myself root for everyone around me, it just freed me completely. I feel better when I’m rooting for people than rooting against them.
W4W: We’ve had a couple chat questions that talk about how the industry is traditionally in Hollywood or New York. What advice do you have for students who reside in Iowa but are pursuing a degree in screenwriting, or for those who might have a family and live in the Midwest? They’re studying screenwriting, but they might not have that ability to pick everything up and move.
Solomon: The idea that one must live in the company town, whether that’s LA, whether it’s New York, London, whatever, is very, very overrated. It was before, and it is especially now. There are advantages to it that make it a little harder to replicate when you’re not living there, and that’s really that there are more people doing what you’re doing (which could also be a disadvantage, by the way).
Remember how I said curate the people that you work with? When you’re first starting out, it’s curating groups for yourself to be able to make work.
When you look at writers over the years, a lot of them, especially in film and television, emerged out of groups. Whether you go all the way back to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and Carl Reiner or the Pythons, there’s always people that knew each other when they were really young and just starting out. And I’m not talking about young in age. I’m actually talking about young in terms of the trajectory of one’s career. Because we’re all on the same continuum, just different amounts of time. And so the key is to keep making work.
Audience chat: What about competitions? Should we join them? Are they that important?
Solomon: The simple answer is yes to everything. But the deeper answer is that competitions reinforce this idea that there are gates that you need to get through and that that’s your path in. That’s reinforced by the notion that you need to be in LA or New York. It’s really not true at all. One needs to be as creative about how they get their work out there as they are about their work in itself.
Competitions are one way, and if a competition gets you to finish a script and turn it in, great. But you’re going to have lower odds in a competition than you will in a scenario where you figure out how to get a piece of your work made, which leads to this notion of networking.
Networking is usually misconstrued. People think of networking as vertical, meaning meeting and getting approval from the gatekeepers. The true networking one needs to do, especially early in one’s career but true throughout, is horizontally, meaning with other creatives, other people like yourself, where you can spar, learn, work with, get new ideas, grow. It’s those people who are going to have a bigger effect on your career going forward. As those people rise, you rise.
Take the nonstandard routes. We mounted plays because we wanted to put a play on, and fuck it if the department won’t let us. If we couldn’t get it through the official source, the standard route, fine, we’re going to put the play on over there. We’re just going to make it happen. And we’re going to push ourselves. You will learn more about your writing, and you will grow as a writer, by having the courage to take a script of yours and mount or shoot a few scenes of it on your own with some actors or friends.
Put yourself out there and meet more creative people in the areas that you fear. All screenwriters and narrative fiction writers should take acting classes. Even if you suck as an actor and don’t want to act, thinking as an actor thinks is really important. Understanding how an actor puts a scene together will help you more than having 10 people read a script and tell you what they think works and doesn’t work.
Take an improv class. Take two. Take a directing class. Take editing. Put yourself in scenarios where you’re expanding your toolkit and meeting other people who are creative. That is the kind of networking that works. The type of networking that reinforces the stereotype that you need to go to competitions, you need to meet this agent, this manager—that facilitates the managers’ jobs.
Really, what you want to be doing is continuing to grow your work and grow your work and grow your work. Nobody likes to hear this, but as long as you can keep growing, at a certain place, at a certain time, it’ll be good enough that people start coming to you. And that’s how you want things to be. But when will that happen? One needs the patience.
Continue reading Part II of Ed Solomon’s interview.