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Photograph by Jonathan Wenk

Church of the Redeemer: Morgan Freeman offers ex-con Billy Bob Thornton a second chance in 'Levity.'

Wisdom of Solomon

Saratoga filmmaker Ed Solomon moved from lightweight 'Bill & Ted' films to heavyweight debut, 'Levity'

By Richard von Busack

EARLIER IN THE DAY, as he was revisiting the Santa Clara Valley, Ed Solomon had been introduced at Saratoga High School as "the first famous director to come from Saratoga." Solomon had to gently remind everyone that a man named Spielberg had attended Saratoga High School for a year (and hated it, according to biographer Joseph McBride).

Levity, which opens Friday, is Ed Solomon's first film as a director. He's a veteran comedy writer and script doctor, and served as the supervising writer of It's Garry Shandling's Show. Sitting on the porch outside the Blue Rock Shoot cafe, Solomon confesses astonishment at how splendid the spring day is.

"We never knew how privileged we were up here," he says, looking at the plum blossoms drift by on the breeze. We sit on benches facing the lazy street, the least appropriate place to discuss a film that takes place in concrete and snow. Still, in this area one can find the roots of the story Solomon tells in Levity.

"There are two events that made Levity happen," he recalls. "When I was in junior high, this kid and his brother robbed a liquor store and shot a guy. This event loomed in my fantasy life. As a teenager, I was obsessed with the idea that one quick thing could change my life for good."

Later, when Solomon worked as a student volunteer with the UCLA Prison Coalition, he met a young murderer who had been tried by the courts as an adult: "He carried a photo around with him of his victim in his wallet, to remind himself of what he'd done."

Levity tells the story of an ex-con, Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), released even though he wants to stay behind bars. On the streets, he seeks shelter from a fellow penitent, Miles (Morgan Freeman in his best part in years), who runs an unofficial church--his flock being the unwilling denizens of a sordid rave club across the way.

In exchange for enduring 15 minutes by the clock of Miles' preaching, the nightclubbers' expensive suburban cars are protected from the local thieves. Guarding the cars is Manual's all-night job--that and sometimes taxiing home one hard-partying girl (Kirsten Dunst). In his spare time, Manual makes friends with Adele (Holly Hunter), the sister of the man he killed.

"Billy agreed to do the movie about six hours after I called him about it," Solomon says. "Then he called in twice with two different suggestions of how to do Manual. One was that the character ought to have long straight hair. The second idea was that he ought to be like a ghost--and that we should show this by his outsiderness. He would never take his coat off, never loosen up. He would be inhabited by fear and preoccupied with his past."

As Solomon explains the film's title, "Levity is what is missing from this person. By removing himself from the flow of humor, he's lost his point of reference."

Unlike the common writer-turned-director, Solomon has a natural filmmaker's eye. The opening scenes in an unnamed city that could be anywhere from Chicago to Buffalo look both futuristic and squalid--as they would appear to a man who had been entombed for 22 years.

"I wanted the film to be like that opening scene," Solomon explains. "I mean, off-balance. I wanted the landscape more of a metaphor, a reflection of the guy's inner life, past and present. The film uses silence; it holds on longer than the ordinary film. So it either works for you or it doesn't."

He counsels a similar gut-level reaction in directing. "There are a lot of things that can let the film get away from you: the politics of the financing and the actual physical difficulties of a hundred people on the set--and trying to examine something as delicate as a piece of acting. So many things can be destroyed. I did trust the people around me, but trusting the way I felt was another matter." Roger Deakins, the noted cinematographer who shot Levity, urged Solomon on: "We all signed on because of what you wrote. Don't gussy it up."

Excellent Adventure

Like so many comedy writers, Solomon isn't a yukster. ("I do feel often like a bitter outcast, a feeling I just carry with me," he tells me.) In school in Saratoga, Solomon was a prodigious playwright, who used to take a break from writing by watching movies at the long-gone Vitaphone Theater; he'd also head to downtown San Jose to Camera One to watch the collected works of Woody Allen. He began gag writing in school.

Solomon had penned seven plays by the time he was about 21. After he went to UCLA, he staged the play Stripjoint, which landed him a job as a writer for TV's Laverne & Shirley, a task he performed without feeling temperamentally suited for it.

One of Solomon's plays began his screenwriting career. Solomon and the writer Christian Matheson rented a theater "in a seedy part of Hollywood" and enlisted actors Marc Jaffee, Mark Cendrowski and Ryan Rowe for a play about a class of drawling high school loafers with a vague sense of world history. Hired to convert the stories of Bill and Ted into a screenplay, Solomon and Matheson did the job in a week: "Three days to outline, four days to write. Then there were two years of rewriting, and then the movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was made. They took out everything that was great in it to make it palatable. It's not close to the movie it could have been. The critics all panned it, and then the sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, comes out, and it gets glowing reviews it doesn't deserve. I can't really enjoy the first film, thinking about the movie it might have been."

In Levity, though, Solomon has done work to be proud of. This strong debut shows what we all hope are regional Northern California qualities: a lack of ostentation, a search for inner light, an emotional link with politics even at the expense of being mocked for compassion.

Levity is part of a small groundswell in the current cinema that opposes the public fascination with punishment. Examples would include Tom Tykwer's Heaven, which asks for forgiveness of a woman branded as a terrorist. The Son, by the Dardenne brothers from Belgium (a film never released in the valley), makes Irreversible's gloating over revenge look like the grind-house fodder it is. And the new documentary Stevie is a sensitive but unflowery essay on the cost of forgiveness. Even the rigged Alan Parker movie The Life of David Gale tells of the unreliability of capital punishment.

These films all have their problems, but they are what movies ought to be at their best: a court of last resort for the guilty and the despised.

Levity (R; 100 min.), directed and written by Ed Solomon, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Billy Bob Thornton, Holly Hunter and Morgan Freeman, opens Friday at Los Gatos Cinema, Camera 7 in Campbell and the CinéArts in Palo Alto.

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From the April 10-16, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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