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