Seeking Redemption


In college, I tutored in a maximum-security prison for kids
who had committed violent crimes. I met a 17-year-old boy there who
had killed a 16-year-old boy earlier that year. He had been
tried as an adult and sentenced to life. Though we were only together for a
couple sessions, he left an impression that to this day still haunts me.

He kept a cracked, yellowed newspaper photo of his victim in
his pocket. And he would constantly pull it out, unfold it, gaze at it, then
put it back in — only to remove it again and stare at it some more.

The sentencing judge not only made the boy finger his
victim’s personal effects, he also made him wear the dead boy’s clothes. The
boy told me he even had to put his victim’s jacket, and it made him feel
“spooked.” “Like I didn’t know that this kid was, like, a human being or
something,” the boy said. It was the judge, in fact, who told him to keep the
boy’s photo.

But the judge never told him he had to look at it forever.

And yet he couldn’t let it go. It was as if by staring at
this two-dimensional image he was trying to reconstruct some three-dimensional
persona. As if a kind of understanding would emerge, a way of grappling with
the magnitude of his actions.

It was this relationship — these two boys, total strangers
now bound forever by one horrible deed — that was the initial inspiration for
“Levity.”

In researching the movie, I spent time with a lot of people
who had committed murder when they were kids. I met some through youth groups,
others through church and community programs. Some I interviewed extensively,
others I just followed around for a while. They were all different ages, yet
each had in common that he was trying to come to terms with the consequences of
what he’d done. Some (those who believed in God) were trying on a spiritual
level, others (those who didn’t) on a secular level. For all of them it was a
kind of obsession.

The other thing they had in common was a sense of futility.
At the end of the day, none actually thought he could ever make up for his mistakes.

When I sat down to write the script, I called a friend,
Naomi Levy, who was a rabbi at a Conservative temple in Venice. I told her I
wanted to tell a story that questions whether any number of so-called “good”
acts can outweigh one very bad one. And I told her I want the central character
to not believe in God. (It seemed to me that if he believed in God, there would
be more of a proscribed path for him to follow, and that was too easy.) I asked
her what my protagonist might have read that would underscore his belief that
he would never be redeemed.

Naomi pointed me to Maimonides, a 12th-century Talmudic
scholar who wrote about the five steps one must follow to achieve redemption.
The last three involve making right with your neighbor, making right with God
and being in the same place and behaving differently.

“Levity’s” central character, Manual Jordan, knows he can’t
return the dead boy like a stolen chicken. And he doesn’t believe in God. And
since he is convinced that time makes certain one is never in the same place
twice, Manual knows there’s no hope for him.

But Manual has a conscience, and he’s obsessed with trying
to salvage some version of a life. And even though he knows his is perhaps a
lost cause, he desperately wants his somewhat hesitant presence on the planet
to not be wasted. So he bumbles and stumbles, disconnected from the flow, never
really knowing where he’s going, yet somehow guided by what may be seen as his
best intentions.

So often I think we feel our behavior as individuals doesn’t
have any effect; that what we do doesn’t really matter. “Levity” looks at how,
to the contrary, the world around us can actually hinge on our individual
actions. What we do can have direct, instantly determinable consequences, or
our words and actions can ripple away behind us, in subtle ways we never know
and could certainly never predict.

For instance: the boy who started this whole thing off. At
18 — just two weeks after we met — he was transferred to a state penitentiary.
I never heard from him again. My guess is he’s still there. And he’d certainly
have no recollection of our time together — I was one of dozens of tutors. So
there’s no way he could possibly imagine how our brief conversation had any
effect on anything. Most likely, he was just trying to get out of talking about
math and English.

But, looking back, if I follow the steps that lead to this
very moment, right now, as I sit at this table writing this piece, I arrive at
that image of that nearly 18-year-old staring at that photograph of that
eternally 16-year-old.

And I think about how those two boys — completely unknowingly
— changed my life. Â


Ed Solomon makes his feature directing debut with “Levity,” which he also wrote. The film opens April 4 in Los Angeles and New York.

Solomon’s Choice


The first images of Ed Solomon’s thought-provoking film,”Levity,” came to the writer-director while tutoring in a maximum-securityyouth prison in Calabasas two decades ago. “One inmate kept a photograph of theboy he had shot, and he kept touching it, fingering it,” he said, speakingquietly and intensely in a Santa Monica cafe on a recent afternoon. “He wasstruggling to understand that it was a human life he had taken, but he was only17 and serving the first year of a life sentence. And that haunted me. I beganwondering, ‘What would he be like as an adult? Where would he go if he were letout of prison and what would he do with the photograph?'”

One of the first images in “Levity” — the opening night filmof the 2003 Sundance Film Festival this week — is a yellowed newspaperphotograph of a convenience store clerk on the graffitied wall of a prisoncell. The cell belongs to Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), who is doing lifesince murdering the clerk but is suddenly released on parole. Subsequently, hewanders through his old neighborhood, hungry for atonement, tenuouslybefriending his victim’s sister (Holly Hunter) and an enigmatic preacher(Morgan Freeman).

“Read a book once on redemption, was written in the [12th]century” he says in voice-over while riding the subway, looking out of placewith his battered suitcase and long, gray hair. “Man said there was five stepstoward making amends.”

Solomon said the “man” is actually the Jewish sageMaimonides; he says he learned about the “steps” when he and his wife-to-be,Cynthia, took a Judaism class with Rabbi Naomi Levy at Temple Mishkon Tefiloseven years ago.

“That was crucial for the film,” said Solomon, 42, aself-described “lapsed atheist.” “Manual doesn’t believe in [some] of thesteps, and he says he doesn’t believe in God, yet he’s so desperate forredemption he acts in a way that contradicts his beliefs. As the preacher saysto him, ‘Why be afraid of a God you don’t believe in?’ I wanted the boundarieswithin the film to be at least as unclear as they seemed to me in my reallife.”

Solomon has been grappling with spiritual questions sincegrowing up in a Reform Jewish home in Saratoga in the Bay Area, where he felt,”tradition was a big part of Jewish communal life but without the conviction offaith.” Meanwhile, his Christian friends attended fervent high schoolfellowship meetings where, they said, they prayed for him. “I started to feel,’I’m so different from these people,'” said Solomon, who requested a meetingwith his family rabbi.

Over drinks at a San Jose coffee shop, the 16-year-oldrevealed that he was struggling with his faith. “But the rabbi just looked atme and said, ‘Me, too,'” Solomon recalled. “Today, I might take comfort inthat, but at the time, it just underscored my sense of feeling disconnected andout of place.”

Comedy was one of the ways Solomon learned to connect withpeople, first by bonding with his father over Mel Brooks films and later bycreating funny sketches for high school shows. By his senior year at UCLA, hewas writing jokes for comics such as Garry Shandling; by age 21, he was a staffwriter on TV’s “Laverne and Shirley” and the youngest person ever admitted tothe Writers Guild of America. After co-authoring 1989s “Bill & Ted’sExcellent Adventure” with Chris Matheson, he went on to earn screenwritingcredits for films such “Leaving Normal” (1992), “Men in Black” (1997) and”Charlie’s Angels” (2000).

But when he tried to sell “Levity,” his most personalproject and directorial debut, he says he “literally got hundreds ofrejections.” In a business where artists are often pigeonholed, people wonderedwhy Solomon wasn’t peddling a comedy. “A producer friend went so far as to tellme that ‘Levity’ was career suicide,” he said.

The turning point came when he got the script to Thornton(“Monster’s Ball”), who remembered how Solomon had fought for him to star in”Leaving Normal” when he was an as-yet unknown actor. Thornton committed thenext day.

“I related to the idea of being someone who doesn’t reallyknow how to fit into society, because I feel that way, particularly in the filmbusiness,” the actor said in “Levity’s” production notes. “I tend to play a lotof characters who have more going on inside than they appear to, and I alsoseem to play loners and outsiders. What I liked about Manual Jordan is thathe’s obsessed with getting forgiveness, yet he doesn’t know if it’s possible tofind redemption.”

While Solomon says he was “terrified” on the set, it helpedthat Thornton shared his vision of Manual as a lost soul “wandering like aghost through the city.” The theme was enhanced by subtle, drifting cameraworkand by “people constantly laughing and engaging with each other just out offrame,” he said.

The character shares something with the teen Solomon tutoredin prison years ago — and with the director himself. “I wanted this movie tolive in that uneasy space between the secular and the spiritual,” he said.

Levity will be screening at the Sundance Film Festivalon Jan 17, 18 and 25. For more information, visit www.sundance.org