Exploring New Forms of Storytelling with Ed Solomon – Part I

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Best known for writing cultural blockbusters such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Men in Black, Ed Solomon has created characters that became house-hold names and stories that are still enjoyed by audiences, long after their initial theatrical run. Most recently, Solomon worked with Steven Soderburgh to craft HBO’s new series and storytelling app, Mosaic. While the series can be watched in a linear fashion on traditional HBO outlets, a more immersive and user-driven experience can be had navigating the story through the app.

Solomon sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about how this new approach to storytelling was created and developed. This is part one of that interview.

John Bucher: Ed, you’re obviously someone who has mastered the more traditional screenplay structure. When did you become interested in pushing the art form forward and experimenting with branching narratives?

Ed Solomon: Well first, I would actually rephrase the question because I would not feel like “mastery” is the right term. As I began today with a new story, I had the feeling which I have at the beginning of every story, which is a deep sense of disorientation and a deeply enveloped sense that I don’t know how to tell the story and I don’t know how to write. And at the time, I have to remind myself that that’s the right feeling to have at the beginning of something, because I’ve found that whenever I feel that I “know how” to tell a story, I think I’ve already defeated myself.

I’ve come to really believe that every story we tell has its own unique needs. Its own unique rules. And it wants to dictate how it needs to be told, and your job is to listen and then to collaborate with it as you develop the story together. So, I would immediately disagree with the statement that I’ve mastered any form. Not at all. When somebody says to me they “know” how to write a movie, I often write them off completely and figure they are deluding themselves and it would be very unlikely that something very meaningful is going to come out of that.

Having said that, I would say that I have spent a lot of time working in the studio/screenplay system and writing in that form. I will say that it’s not the form that I struggle with. It’s the writing. It’s very, very rare that we get to really write in any kind of meaningful way anything truly interesting when working for the studio system. The opportunity to fully explore is just rare.

I was very excited about the idea of doing something nobody’s really done before. But not because of the form itself. Because of the creative possibility inherent in the form, and because of the freedom to explore what was given to me by Casey Silver, the producer, and Steven Soderbergh, the director.

It was a no-brainer for me. Four years ago Casey approached me. They had an IP that they had been toying around with and wanted to know if I wanted to help Steven put together a ten-minute prototype to see if the film would even make sense to collaborate on and tell a big long story. I was like, of course. I mean, why wouldn’t I want to do this?

After Steven shot this little ten-minute piece and decided he wanted to try something longer, I said I will clear my plate of everything. I will take whatever time is necessary to do this. I will take whatever deal that HBO wants to offer me to do it. I will take as much time as is needed, and we just went forward.

And what I loved about it, among many things, was the excitement of not having rules in front of you. You know, internal rules based on having done this before, because I had never done it before, or external rules based on a studio or a network telling me how this thing needs to be structured. That was really exciting because, when I look back now at the things in my life that I’m the proudest of creatively, they were things that didn’t come with a set of prescribed rules to them.

Whether it was because we were just ignorant to the rules, like with Bill and Ted, where we literally had no idea how you wrote a screenplay and just tried to make people laugh, or whether it was The Garry Shandling Show where we were trying to break rules we didn’t even understand because nobody on the staff was super experienced in any form other than comedic joke writing and some TV writing, but for the most part we were just trying again to go make ourselves laugh. And then on bigger stuff like Men in Black, I was trying to explain to one of the actors, Tommy Lee Jones, who was saying to me, make up your mind. It’s either comedy or science fiction — it has to be one or the other.

Or whether it was X-Men which, like an idiot, I took my name off of. When I wrote the first draft of X-Men, the producer told me that the head of the studio at the time was literally yelling about me saying, “You told him to write a comic book movie, and he’s written them like real people.” And they were not happy with that.

I always feel like there’s a different way to do this, and I don’t actually know what the rules are, but I’m going to go with something more internal, in my mind and my gut. I had a lot more creative and professional success. So for me, this was an opportunity to fully throw away every preconception I had and let that sense of the unknown be exciting and invigorating rather than daunting. And it was that.

But back to your original question, certain things stayed with me from all those years, like the need to write rich, meaningful, nuanced characters. The desire to make every scene as textured and meaningful as possible. With The Garry Shandling Show, we knew we had to have a complicating element. We tried to build it really simply and not get in the way with the gimmick of it. Never. Never get fascinated with the form, but rather use the form as the way to actually tell the story that we’re trying to tell.

One of the most important mindsets to have is the mindset of a beginner at every stage so that you’re open to the things that take you to a deeper level. So, you’re not going into anything with a jaded eye or a cynicism. You’re approaching everything with a kind of reverence for the piece itself. And I find that reverence to be crucial, meaning when you go into something not with a sense of, curiosity, “Wow, how do I do this? How do I approach this in a way that is going to work?” I find that to be much more conducive for me to explore the story.

John Bucher: I love the photo on your website of you sitting before all these note cards. I have to assume that that is the product of how you went about crafting the script for Mosaic. Can you talk about how that process went?

Ed Solomon: We had an office in Chelsea on 27th Street in Manhattan. There were three of us in that office. Two tech people and me. And I said to one of the other people who was a consultant on the project, “We’re going to need to fill this room with white boards.” So, he went and ordered a few whiteboards and put them up. I said, “No,” and then I just laughed. “I don’t think I was clear. We really need to fill the room with white boards, and they need to be metallic, magnetic whiteboards, because we’re going to need to use magnets and we’re going to need to write and scratch … We are going to need every inch of space.”

We then reordered a whole bunch more, and we literally filled every single wall, with magnetic dry erase boards. And then what we started to do is, I would hand write either on pieces of paper or literally hand write on the wall itself using fine point dry erase pens and we began in one corner, and I started just writing down everything that happened in the chain of events. There was this character, Olivia Lake, she had this story in her mind, she bought this property, and such and such, and then she met this man, etc. I just wrote it in chronological order of events, every single thing that happened until the entire story in a non-narrative sense, in a chronological sense, was up on the wall.

That took about two full walls. And the reason we did it analog is because we knew we needed to look at the full story from a lot of different directions. We needed to be able to sit in the middle of it and both see it. It was a way of just practically working while also being aware of us both having the same kind of reference while also keeping us from getting lost in the muck and mire knowing that we were going to have six to eight hours worth of material. We probably did that from, I want to say, January of 2015 through late March, early April of 2015.

Then around mid-March or so Steven said, “Now we can take this and create an outline where we now take every single hand-written scene and sequence, put it down onto index cards, and organize it in a way that I can see a full movie like a narrative. If we can do that by June, then I believe we can shoot this thing in October or November.” So the next process was turning each scene into an index card. Then I replaced each of these handwritten scenes with an index card that contained the basic information of each scene, and had it all up on these other two walls. Then Steven and I sat in the middle of the room and started to transfer index cards from walls one and two to wall three which became my large narrative board. By mid-June, we had it all up there, and we had the story how we wanted to tell it. That’s what you see in the photo on my site.

I’m really proud of that photo because it represented so much work. But we basically created a diagram on one wall and by mid-June Steven said, “Okay, I know what this is. We can shoot. All that’s left is the writing,” he joked. We’d done the hardest thing which is all the thinking. And now that all that’s left is turning it into scenes. If you’ve got your story lined up, the scenes come in really fast. And in fact, that was the truth. I now had to write through July, August, and September — 265 pages — the stuff we were going to shoot in November and December. I knew that I also had to write the stuff we were going to shoot in February and March, which was another 165 pages, which was all the stuff that took place in the past tense, and then while we were on set, we added about 100 pages, just new ideas that kept coming to us.

So, I had about a 500-page script at the end of the day, but the real work, the real hard work, was in breaking the story. Which is what took most of the time. It seems the biggest thing we did right in this was getting the story together before I did the scene work. Writing is 5-10% thinking, and then 90-95% typing. I always feel like it’s 99.9% thinking and then 0.1% typing, you know? It’s like think, write, mull, sketch, think, think. It’s like measure twice, cut once, but no. I think the longer you measure, the better. It’s always going to change. The longer that you measure, the better that your piece is going to end up being.

Download the Mosaic app for free here.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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