9 June 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Ed Solomon Talks With IFTN
23 Jul 2018 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN Caught up with American writer Ed Solomon (‘Bill & Ted’, ‘Men In Black’) while he was at the Galway Film Fleadh last week to find out about working with Steven Soderbergh on HBO’s groundbreaking murder-mystery series ‘Mosaic’, what is happening with ‘Bill & Ted 3’, and some tales from his first visit to Ireland in the nineties.

Californian writer Ed Solomon is best known for his work on bringing the box-office hit ‘Men in Black’ to screen. The film, which was directed by Bary Sonnenfeld and starred Will Smith & Tommy Lee, earned $589.4 million dollars at the box office in 1997. He is also the writer behind ‘Now You See Me’, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and ‘Levity’, which he also directed.

Solomon first shot to prominence thirty years ago with his cult classic ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’, which he co-wrote with lifelong friend Chris Matheson in 1989. This was followed by an animated television series and sequel ‘Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey’, which was released in 1991.  The success of the ‘Bill & Ted’ films also acted as a breakout moment for Keanu Reeves who went on to star in box office hits such as ‘Point Break’ (1991), ‘Speed’ (1994) and ‘The Matrix’ following his role as Ted.

Earlier this year, Solomon’s latest project ‘Mosaic’ aired on HBO. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the six-part series followed the disappearance of a high-profile resident of picturesque Summit, Utah and the four-year effort by law-enforcement and civilians to discover the truth behind the crime. However, the show also offered an online interactive app with branching narrative that allowed viewers to follow the story from several different character perspectives and in turn completely altered the way in which the original series was perceived by viewers.

Many fans will be hoping that Ed’s next project will be the highly anticipated third instalment of the Bill & Ted franchise ‘Bill and Ted Face the Music’, which is pegged to begin production in February 2019. See what Ed had to say about it all below.

IFTN: I think to begin with, I found it a funny coincidence that you’re here at the 30th Galway Film Fleadh for a special screening of ‘Bill & Ted’ (1989), which is also thirty years old this year. It must be so bizarre that thirty years later, your film is still screening at festivals around the world?

Ed: It's amazing. I remember the moment when we first imagined these characters. It was a random night, my friends and I, Chris Matheson, Ryan Rowe, Mark Cendrowski and Mark Jaffe, we used to rent a theatre once a week with no audience; we didn't want an audience. We would just work out to make each other laugh, to push ourselves comedically and one random night we just did-- It was Chris' idea, he said, ‘Let's just do two guys who know nothing about anything. Like, who know nothing about history, studying for history.’ We just started doing it and we so enjoyed doing these characters that we just did them for like a year back and forth, we'd write letters back and forth. It's just that they were fun to play.”

“Then, one day, we decided, ‘Hey, let's try and write a movie.’ We had planned to write Bill & Ted as a sketch that would appear in a movie of sketches and then Chris' dad who was a great science-fiction writer named Richard Matheson said we should do that one as a home movie and we thought, ‘Hey, what if we did that?’ We started to break the story and then we did it pretty fast. We had a few phone calls about what it could be and then we made some pages and notes. I actually posted them on Twitter. If any of your people want to check them out on Twitter, I'm @ed_Solomon on Twitter. We made these notes and then we decided ‘let's just go for it’. We spent seven days, three days outlining and four days writing a script just making each other laugh and we had no idea that anybody would even read it. We had no idea. I remember at one point Chris looking across the table and saying, ‘Someone could buy this.’, and we're like, ‘Ha ha ha, never...’ We had no idea that it would even get read. Then the process of getting the movie made was so complicated. It kept getting set up and falling apart, setup and then falling apart, setup and falling apart. Then finally it got made, then it got shelved and then re-edited, then re-shelved. It was this bizarre thing that took years and years to finally come out, seven days to create and then about almost seven years to come out.”

IFTN:  That's incredible; I didn't realize it had been such an arduous process. What age would you have been whenever you actually filmed it?

Ed: “Twenty-two when we came up with the idea; twenty-three when we started writing it; twenty-six when it was filmed; twenty-eight almost twenty-nine when it came out. It was that part of my twenties bracket anyway with that movie.”

“We had no idea and then it was originally hated by critics in the States. Actually, in the UK it was well received interestingly. We didn't realize, we had no idea that it would last culturally. I think that's just due to maybe the performances of Alex and Keanu and the generosity of spirit that they embodied, that those guys embodied. That's why they were so fun to play because it was a really fun headspace to be in when you were being Bill or being Ted. We would just alternate, neither of us played one character or the other, we would just alternate between doing these two voices. Sometimes we'd do the dialogue in this go, Bill, Ted, Ted, Bill, no Ted. “

“Now they have much more distinct voices in their heads, especially in this new one that we've written. They're 50 years old, in this new one that we've written. They have a little bit different voices because they've grown more into what they are. I'm so grateful that I had that opportunity to be a part of that. I mean, Chris and I have often said to each other, “if all we ever put out into the world; our entire life would be ‘be excellent to each other’. We will have maybe not have done such a bad thing."

IFTN: Have you been to Ireland before or is this your first time?

Ed: “In the early '90s I did a road trip through Ireland and had a great time. I wasn't planning it; just my girlfriend had gone back to New York. I had an extra week to kill so another friend who was in town and I just took a one-week road trip. We rented a car, drove around the country. It was really fun.“

“She was friends with someone whose father wrote a hotel guide so we sort of cheated. We would call the hotel and go. ‘Hi. We're calling from ____’, I don't remember the name of the guy. ‘We're calling from the guide, we are two writers, and ____ from the guide recommended that we check the place out.’ We made it sound like we were trying to make it sound like we weren't writing for the guide, but that we were doing a bad job of it, meaning that we would show up at these hotels and they'd be so nice and we'd buy the cheapest room, then they would upgrade us. We would get free wine.”

“We did it the entire week where, it was the fine line of work. We knew that if we said, ‘Hi, we're writing for a guide.’ They would be like ‘Uh-huh...’ so we had to pretend that we were...”

IFTN: Trying to be incognito

“Exactly, it was a very fine line to walk. We had the greatest time because what we found was-- first of all, we stayed in really nice places, which we hated because it was too stuffy for us but we'd always end up just making friends with the staff at the hotel and then getting taken out to clubs. It was always way more fun. We always hated all the guests that stayed in these stuffy hotels but we loved it -- I remember I drank a lot of whiskey and beer, and we had a great time, but I haven't been here since then.”

IFTN: I was hoping you might be able to give me a little bit of insight into your involvement in bringing ‘Men In Black’ to screen. They have only recently announced a new spin-off starring Chris Hemsworth & Tessa Thompson, do you know anything about it?

Ed: No, I'm not involved in it at all. I know they are doing it. I know they're shooting right now, but I don’t know anything about it. I hope it's good. It sounds cool and it’ll be really interesting and I think somewhat surreal to see. Watching the sequels that I didn't work on was a surreal experience as well.”

 “I worked on the first one for four years. I really worked hard on it. Initially, there was a comic book that had three issues, three little issues. Very, very different story and very, very different tone. It wasn't a comedy, it was very dark. It was like demons and things like that. It took quite a while to actually figure out what the real story was in it, but once I did it was really fun to write.”

IFTN: I would imagine the process was quite demanding?

Ed: It was really hard, a lot of rewriting. More and more people starting to get involved so there was a lot of studio rewriting and there was rewriting for cast, that kind of thing.”

IFTN: Explaining the concept of ‘Men In Black’ to someone that doesn’t know the franchise is quite straight forward, but the storyline of the first film is actually quite complicated. Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process?

Ed: Well, I had written an entirely different story initially which took place all over the country. When Barry Sonnenfeld got involved, he sat me down in his house. He had just moved out, and at the time he lived in East Hampton in New York out in Long Island. I went out there to visit and work with him and we watched French Connection together because he said, ‘I want to do French Connection but with aliens.’ We restructured it to be French Connection, kind of, with aliens. Not a lot of people would make that connection, yet there it is.”

IFTN: You have touched on it already, but is there anything you can tell me about ‘Bill & Ted 3’ and what way you approached the final film that has comeback so much later than the first and second?

Ed: Well, starting about 15 years ago, we sort of noodled with the idea of it-- a lot of people had asked if we were ever going to do another one and we didn't really think we were but about 15 years ago, it came up because I think Keanu had done an interview and mentioned, ‘Yes, I wouldn't mind playing Ted again.’ That kind of became this media thing that happened, so we said ‘Well, would we actually do it again?’ We all said - and by all, it was Chris Matheson, me, Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves. We were like, ‘Would we?’ Only if there was a story to tell that we really wanted to tell, that made us laugh, that felt true to them and did not feel forced. We said, ‘If we have an idea like that, maybe one day we'll do it but let's not force it.’ We got quite a few years later, Chris and I were talking and we stumbled upon something. Similarly at that same time, I think there was more press about Keanu saying something or someone else asking him, ‘When are you going to do Ted again? When are you going to do Ted again?’”

“We called him up and said ‘Hey, let's just talk.’ We went to Alex's house. Alex made dinner, barbecue in his backyard. We all sat in his backyard and started throwing some ideas around. That was the first time we actually even talked about it. It was interesting because I as a fanboy was like, ‘Wow, I'm sitting with Bill and Ted.’ I would actually then pinch myself and go, ‘Dude, you created Bill and Ted. You can chill a little bit.’ I know because that was my whole life. I'm like ‘Oh my God.’"

IFTN: You have almost removed yourself from the whole thing!

Ed: Yes, we were going, ‘This is the coolest thing.’ I'm talking to Alex and Keanu about Bill and Ted and then going, ‘All right, you can relax. You belong here, don't worry.’ We started throwing some ideas around, what would it be about. We very quickly stumbled into this thing that all four of us really felt about him which is:

"What if you were told as 16 or 17-year-old's that you were going to write a song that was going to save the world and then you spent your life trying to figure out what that was and everything that you did was in that context, what kind of pressure would that be. What would happen if it never happened, how would you feel and where would you go from there?"

“Also, we thought, what if they had become super successful, that would be a very stupid story to tell. What would happen if they started and it looked like they were going to be super duper successful... Yet, as the time went on, it just fell away and faded away and faded away and now they're in middle age and what if somebody shows up and says, ‘Where's the song? We need it now.’, and the guys have to then scramble to find it. What would that story be? We wanted to have the movie that would be the same absurdity, the same just ridiculous comedy, and we wanted to make sure that we laughed a lot writing it, and Chris and I laughed a ton writing it so that was good.”

“We also wanted to bring back characters that we loved writing. We also wanted to make it a very different movie. I mean, the sequel Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey was very different than Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and there had been a lot of pressure for us to do a retread. Now, they go to a different historical place, or now they go into fiction, now they go into Dustyesky’s Saint Petersburg and now they go into whatever, you pick a novel.”

IFTN: Would the budget have been bigger with the sequel as well?

Ed: “Kind of a bit of a bigger budget. We didn't want the sequel to be a retread, so we said, ‘What if we kill them and send them to hell?’ Kind of like, ‘all right, hell and heaven.’, so that's what we did with the sequel. With the third movie, there's still time travel in it for sure, but it's-- we're trying to go like, ‘Where are they now? They're 50, going into their middle-age. What would they be, what's the family like, what's their life like, what are they like as people, and how do we do all this in a comedy.’ Once we stumbled on that, and once we started laughing coming up with ideas, we knew we were in the right track, then we did a bunch of drafts on spec.”

“We wrote it on spec, meaning nobody paid us for it. We didn't even own it, so it was a very stupid business move in a certain way in that, there's literally one buyer, which is the people that own the underlying material, which is MGM. We wrote a spec script for it, which is like writing fan fiction basically, and then we brought it to them all excited like, "Guess what, we did you guys a big favour. We got a new Bill & Ted movie for you with Alex and Keanu.

They were like, "Well, we really like the script except we wanted to do a reboot with younger actors doing a new Bill & Ted.", and we were like, "Wait, really?" Then, they started to do that. They basically put ours aside and they started to do it.”

“But then what happened is, thanks to the internet and Twitter and all sorts of social media stuff, the outpouring of fans just shocked the studio, it shocked them. The reaction to the possibility of Alex and Keanu doing Bill & Ted at 50 was so positive that they went, "Oh, wait." Thankfully, in a way, thank God for the fans of Bill & Ted that actually spoke. Now, where does it stand? It’s as close as we've ever been. We have financiers. We have distributor. There are still deals to be made. The people, the underlying material are still negotiating deals with various different entities, so looks like we're going, feels like we're going. We're as close as we've ever been and it appears as though we're shooting in February, but we'll know for sure in the next couple months.”

IFTN: Finally, you spoke about it during your masterclass early, but can you tell me a little bit about your HBO series mosaic that you made with Steven Soderbergh?

Ed: “Yes, unfortunately the app version of it, which you saw a piece on earlier, that's not available here. It's only available in the States due to certain contractual obligations that HBO had with their distributor.”

However, it's designed to be seen in two different ways. One way is, we call it branching narrative where you pick a story and you follow a certain character and depending on who you follow you'll see a very different point of view of the facts of the story. The facts are all the same but the characters' perspectives are very, very different and therefore the story that you see is very, very different. It was incredibly rewarding putting together. Challenging and rewarding because you had to construct a story that was resident enough to be seen from all different angles. You had to construct characters that were worthy of sustaining their own film, which is great experience as a writer to have to do because it flashes out your movie. It flashes out everything you write going forward when you're thinking in those terms. It had to be that but it also had to be the story that you could tell in a traditional form from broadcast to HBO into six part mini-series format.”

“It became a real lesson for me in storytelling, both the malleability of stories and also the importance of point of view. Because in the branching narrative version you're picking for characters' point of view and going through the story with their point of view, which is a very different way to follow a story. You're asking very different questions than when you have more information about the character which is what you have in the HBO linear version.

You know things the characters don't know. It creates a different kind of tension because the juxtaposition of scenes is very different instead of going through a point of view where you see this, then this, then this. That's how you accrue information and so you're asking the question, "What's next, what's next?" When you're viewing things that certain characters don't know, it creates a different kind of tension. It was fascinating to see how the rules of one story were very different than the rules of the other story because of that. What kept and didn't keep the pace. It's fascinating as in just the lesson in story construction.”

IFTN: Was the six part series essentially an amalgamation of the separate branching narratives that you filmed? Or did you shoot the six-part series for TV separately to the individual story lines?

Ed: “We used the same footage but it was edited differently, entirely differently. There was probably about 85% of the footage that was in the app version but in different structure and also there was stuff in the HBO version that wasn't in the app and stuff in the app that wasn't in the HBO version. Steven went and rebuilt it from the ground up and shot by shot. He didn't just take sequences and repurpose them. He said, "Okay, we're doing an objective story. Where do we start? How would we tell it?" He went just back to the footage, did it relatively quickly.”

“All Steven's practice of taking the existing films and re-editing them to see what that's like for fun, part of his many bizarre and brilliant hobbies that he likes to do, all that applied to this because now I'm going to take this other thing and re-edit it. It could be an entirely different thing and see what that's like. It was really interesting.”

 “It's the only season. It's available on Sky I guess, whatever TV that Sky uses. I don't know where here but it is available. I’m proud of it because it is a different genre to other stuff. I've written a lot more in that forum and having learned what we learned and trying to advance the film further. I don't think it's for every story but sure for some stuff.”

IFTN: Is that the first attempt at making a show in this way?

Ed: “Certainly of a director at Steven's level, for sure. There have been others on smaller levels. For someone like Steve's level to say, "I'm going to take three years and devote myself to working in this forum and also doing something with these resources at adverse length." For sure, it was the first.”

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