This week on The Treatment, Elvis sits down with screenwriter Ed Solomon, whose latest project is the HBO Max film “No Sudden Move” directed by Steven Soderbergh. Solomon also penned “Men in Black,” The “Bill and Ted” trilogy and “Now You See Me.” Solomon tells The Treatment about why he incorporated the devastating history of the displacement of Black families during the 1950s in Detroit into “No Sudden Move.” He says that he believes comedy is all about point of view, and it can be a powerful thing to laugh with someone at the same joke. And he talks about what he learned working on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.”
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. I have been a fan of my guest today for a very long time because I think his particular affinity in writing screenplays has at least one character who has an undeniable, unshakable confidence in everything no matter what goes on around them. Ed Solomon's newest screenplay "No Sudden Move" is full of people like that. These characters, at least one of them, always feels like their compass is pointed towards magnetic North, and the kind of chaos that can cause because of their certitude.
Ed Solomon: I think it has to do with a kind of aspirational element that I think a lot of writers feel, which is, if I could just write a character that does things that I can't do, what would that be like when they speak? In “Men in Black," there was always this dialectic between Tommy [Lee Jones] and the producers. He had just won the Oscar for "The Fugitive," so there was a real discussion about making Tommy's character the lead, as opposed to Will Smith's character. He really is our kind of empathic projection into the film. We're with Will Smith as you go into the movie. I always argued that because Tommy knows so much and is so confident with what he knows, he wouldn't be a good lead for the film, and if you did the film from his point of view, I thought it would fall flat. In "No Sudden Move," Don Cheadle's character is always two or three steps ahead of everyone else in every scene, and so I always find it interesting to write a character like that and then in particular, follow a character without knowing what they know.
KCRW: Talking about Tommy Lee Jones, maybe one of my favorite line readings of all time in movies is when Will Smith's character says, "they're here to destroy earth," and Jones says "did they say when?"
Solomon: That is literally my favorite line reading in the film actually. When he turns and says that, I just thought, Oh, my God, this guy's got it nailed. I wrote a long speech for him once, when he is sitting on that bench with Will Smith. And there was a whole speech of him explaining how he was about to see all these things that he was never going to be able to figure out otherwise, and how he was going to have to unpack all these ideas. Tommy just looked at me, and he took a pen while staring at me, and he just crossed out the whole speech. And he said, this is how I'm going to do it. He looked across like he was looking at Will and said, I'm gonna do it in a look. And you know what? It was much better doing it in a look.
KCRW: I think so often these characters really work when they're played by really smart actors. And that's something that certainly Don Cheadle and Tommy Lee Jones have in common.
Solomon: Well, absolutely. I’ve found, to be honest, the better actors are smarter actors, just like the better comedians are smarter comedians. I think it takes a lot more intelligence than people understand to truly be able to not just understand what's happening underneath the scene, but there's a kind of emotional intelligence needed to have a deep empathy with another human being, which is, I think, what makes a great actor. I think also the writers that I admire are able to have deep emotional intelligence and deep empathy. So I do think they go hand in hand, actually.
KCRW: I've often thought that your most interesting stuff has almost a novelistic feel to it. And certainly in seeing "No Sudden Move," I find myself thinking about Donald Goines and of course, Elmore Leonard. I'm from Detroit; in fact, my family's from Black Bottom, so I grew up behind the kind of desolation and wreckage that the movie's about.
Solomon: That was the inspiration. When I knew that we were setting the movie in Detroit, I knew we were setting it in the mid ‘50s. I came upon an exhibit at the Detroit Public Library, which was called Black Bottom Street View. Are you aware of that? Did you know that existed?
KCRW: I did. Yes, I made a point of going back to see that, and it's sort of like the Detroit version of ‘Chinatown’ in a lot of ways, obviously. The thing that really makes "No Sudden Move" exciting to me is that it's about the wreckage that plan left in human terms.
Solomon: Oh, God, it was just unbearable to witness, and when I'm saying witness, I mean, seeing those photographs. For folks that don't know what we're talking about, there were photographs taken in the early '50s, by the city of Detroit, of all these neighborhoods that they were planning to destroy. But they didn't tell the people that, so when they took the photos, you can see families coming out of their houses, proud with their arms around their kids showing off their properties and really feeling like the city was honoring them. And the deep and tragic irony of that is unbearable, when you know what actually happened.
When I realized that that had also been taking place right at the time when our film was taking place, I knew that I was writing for Don Cheadle, and knowing that we'd be setting it against this backdrop to me added a kind of power that actually propelled the writing and propelled Don's character. And it gave Don's character, I thought, the moral imperative, that moral authority that would give him the kind of strength to then be up against Benicio Del Toro's character, who is on a different trajectory, one that's kind of backwards and downwards. And I thought that the two of them at this point in their life would be a really interesting dynamic. The backdrop of a city half destroyed felt to me like the perfect place to set that.
KCRW: Growing up after that stuff all happened and just hearing the stories about Black Bottom was the beginning of the destruction of Detroit's Black middle class.
Solomon: Absolutely. And the redlining that happened. As I'm sure you agree, it was a very conscious attempt. People knew what they were doing; they knew that by tearing up the trolley tracks, they were going to make it unable for people to commute, they were going to essentially ghetto-ize the city. They were going to make the suburb segregated, which by the way, was happening all over the country. One of the reasons Detroit was the perfect city to set this film was it's a microcosm of what was happening all over America at the time, and now to another degree, and in Detroit now strangely. By doing that, the suburbs became unapproachable for a large swath of the population, and it really destroyed the lives and livelihoods of so many people.
KCRW: You really cut your teeth as a writer working for Garry Shandling, who also worked a lot in subtext and also worked a lot and talked a lot in the bit of time I spent with him about confidence and how to play that.
Solomon: There's confidence within the character, and then there's confidence as a writer, and I've never felt the confidence as a writer was necessarily a good thing. I always felt that the balance of insecurity and confidence, living in a sense of not knowing, is really important as a writer, I think, by having faith that you can actually see a scene through or see a film all the way through. There are always those moments when you're writing, and I will do this on every project, where you feel like, I don't think I know how to do this. I don't know how to tell the story. I don't even know how to write. And I think that's one of the reasons that characters emerge out of that, who are more confident because, again, they're acting on the higher aspiration of you in that moment.
One of the other amazing things from Garry that stays with me to this day is on his show, which is the main thing I worked on with him. In terms of constructing a narrative with Garry, when we would be breaking a comedy, breaking the story, it would be as if we were breaking a drama. The most successful comedy I ever did with Garry was when we were talking about truths and when we were talking as if we were not doing comedy. Those ended up being the funniest and the best stories.
KCRW: I think about the way your stuff works. At no point does the comedy come out of writing comedy lines, but the fact that these characters are really playing points of view.
Solomon: Comedy, to me, is point of view. That's why I think there's such a bond when people laugh together because, for a brief instant, you're sharing a worldview. And I think that's a very deep connection, and it's a visceral connection. Some of the funniest lines in anything I've ever written, the biggest laughs in anything I've ever written, often come from ad libs from the actor in the moment, because they are in that point of view in character.
KCRW: I was thinking about what it is that Steven brings to this. He likes to put the audience in the position of not knowing. He seems to be attracted to screenplays where the characters also have that kind of certainty about what it is they want. For me, it's what connects you two guys.
Solomon: Yeah, I think Steven has much more certainty as an individual about what he wants than I do as an individual. “Mosaic” was on HBO, and it was available at the time in two different forms. You could watch it as a regular linear series, but you could also watch it as a branching narrative series where you chose a point of view from which to follow the film. I learned a lot about the difference between objective and subjective points of view. And when you're watching the more objective telling of something, it creates a kind of tension, because you, the viewer, are ahead of where the characters are. You see one scene and then you see the next scene that a character isn't aware of what you just saw, which creates a tension in yourself. But when you're watching something that is, subjectively through one character's point of view, you're learning the things as the character is learning something.
I think on another level, the idea of confidence: I think there is something very soothing and relaxing about watching a character who seems to have it together, a character who has a bigger plan, even if you don't know what the plan is because as a viewer, you're projectively identifying with a character on screen. And so to the extent that you feel held safely in the arms of that character, even if you don't know where they're going, but you know that they're going somewhere, it's like watching a magician. When you watch a magician, what you want to see is that they're confident, they're good at their craft, and they're going to lie to you, and you're going to enjoy it because you know, at the end of the day, it's all gonna make sense.
Steven and I have had a lot of talks about this. There is a tendency in studio screenplays to over-explain everything. Explain, explain, explain. And I can't stand that. I think it just dulls the movie experience, and more importantly, it doesn't play to the higher intelligence of the viewer. It actually plays to the lowest common denominator. And I think audiences like to be talked up to instead of talked down to. Steven and I, certainly on this movie, we didn't want to spoon feed people information. We were hoping they would trust that the story will make sense, trust that we know what it's about. And trust that it will all add up if you just pay attention. That is one of the many things I admire about Steven as a filmmaker is he believes in the intelligence of the audience and plays to that. You can see it in the big choices, like how we plot a movie. But you can also see it in the little choices like how long he'll hold on a shot that has very revealing information.
KCRW: There's a kind of altruism that sometimes comes out of what seems like the characters' narcissism, and it happens here, too. These characters are so certain; we think we know them, and the real reveal is in fact that we don't.
Solomon: In "Men in Black," the whole point for me of Will Smith's character was that he thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, and he realizes he doesn't know anything. That was literally to me the philosophical trajectory of that film. And that is how I built the structure of that film. In "No Sudden Move," Benicio Del Toro's character really believes that he is not at fault. He believes he's always correct. And because Benicio's character is inherently racist…
KCRW: I wouldn't say inherently; I'd say explicitly.
Solomon: He's deeply racist, but what's interesting is, he realizes that this guy who he would despise on a visceral level, is not only smarter than him, but is his key to survival. I didn't want this to be a buddy movie, and I know that Steven was feeling the same thing. No one in this movie wanted it to be that, but the reluctant understanding in Benicio's character that he might not actually be the smartest guy in the room, but that his salvation is to trust this other person at a kind of arm's length. I thought that was an interesting, very small trajectory.
KCRW: The way Benicio's racism is portrayed, which is, there's a kind of honesty to it. Generally in movies, you see this sort of thing where a racist declaims he's a racist by using racial epithets. And in fact, for his character, there's not because there is an obvious superiority in the world; you don't have to say that kind of thing very often.
Solomon: With any character, it's all about empathically getting inside their head, and I thought it was a more potent way of doing it. By not making it overt, it's almost like we're all agreeing that this is not just a racist city, but a racist country and a racist time. And, this is happening, so let's not even call it out. Let's just act as though it's a reality.
KCRW: Thinking back to “Bill and Ted” a little bit, and given where they live in the social strata of their world and the way they're regarded by their parents, by their siblings, or their families, by their teachers, that they have this kind of belief in themselves, that confidence goes back to that even.
Solomon: I never understood why “Bill and Ted” ended up lasting over the decades, especially when it was essentially eviscerated critically when it first came out. I think it was revisited thankfully, over time, but I do think that it's that altruism, and confidence. These guys do have confidence; they somehow believe in each other, and they somehow believe in the goodness of the world, and that somehow the goodness of the world will take care of them. And I think that buoyancy and that sweetness somehow is what to the extent that it lasted among people who like it, or who discovered it, I think that might be a part of it.
In “Men in Black,” there is a spirit to the first film with regard to the relationship between characters and audience, which I felt was altruistic. The movie says to the viewer, hey, this is a really cool thing on the other side of the curtain; come with us and check it out. And to me, there's a generosity that once I figured that out, I thought, Oh, I think I know what the tone of this film is. There's a generosity of spirit between filmmaker and audience, where the filmmaker, like the Tommy Lee Jones character, has access to something that the audience doesn't know yet. And we're going to bring them in gently. And we're going to introduce them to this really cool world, and then we're going to leave it with them. I find that I've never in my entire career, thought about that as any kind of continuity in the work I've done. So among many things I'm grateful to you for, is that.