Screenwriter Ed Solomon on Soderbergh, Noir, and How Bill & Ted Saved His Career
Ed Solomon talks trade secrets, mistaken identities, working with Steven Soderbergh, and the enduring excellence of Bill & Ted.
Steven Soderbergh’s noir crime feature, No Sudden Move, is set in 1954 Detroit: back when automakers drove the city and mobsters rotated their tires. This isn’t just another heist movie from the director of Ocean’s 11, even though it centers on a big score and hosts an impressive cast. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro play two small-time criminals hired to steal a document which is very valuable to some powerful people. It’s a big-ticket item which can revolutionize the auto industry, and the price keeps going up.
For the movie, Soderbergh colludes with the Big Four Automakers to cloud the atmosphere. The caper careens through a smoggy set of turns, picking up passengers like Ray Liotta, Jon Hamm, David Harbour, Brendan Fraser, and Bill Duke (in killer shades) for a wild ride downhill. It all stops with Mr. Big, played with beneficent malignancy by Matt Damon.
Nothing is what it seems in No Sudden Move. It was written by Ed Solomon, a veteran best known for his work on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Charlie’s Angels, Men in Black, and The Garry Shandling Show. And Solomon spoke with us about exploring dark themes, working with Soderbergh, and how he intends to continue changing how stories can be told.
Den of Geek: I really, really enjoyed No Sudden Move, and I agree, ulterior motives are sexy.
Ed Solomon: That’s very funny. I remember the moment I wrote that [line] and I was like, “Is this just me? And is this an indication of something maybe not so great about my personality?” I actually thought that, I literally thought that, and it’s funny. You’re the first person who’s ever said that. That’s really hilarious.
It made me ask the same questions about myself. Was that the creative key to the script?
Yes. The drive that got me excited about every character at every moment was that they had a secret motive. Every character had a secret motive that they weren’t letting on, to the other characters. And that’s what gave it its energy for me as a writer. It gives a kind of excitement, because what happens then is the actors don’t get to just act with so much subtext. But as a writer, you get to, you know that you’re writing people that are saying one thing but thinking something else, and that’s where all the energy is for me as a writer.
When you were first brought together with Soderbergh, how much of a story was there, or was it just a concept?
We had a concept. We wanted to do just a spare, noir drama for Don [Cheadle], and maybe a couple of other people. The concept was some guys get called together to pull off a little heist that just goes drastically sideways. And are these people? And where is it set? We decided on Detroit. We were thinking about what era does it take place in? We were thinking maybe the ’50s. And that led to Detroit, because ’50s Detroit is just so American, and a lot of things were changing in Detroit at that time. There were fascinating things happening, and there was a lot of racial tension, and the city itself was remodeling itself in the way that America was remodeling itself. It was going from trolleys and cities to freeways and suburbs.
A lot of communities were getting displaced. And knowing we were writing, that Don was doing this, it was like, “What’s going to give Don’s character the courage of his convictions?” It just seemed like the right backdrop for it. So really we came in at a concept and then started throwing story ideas around together for a few days. Then I went off to do my outline. And then I gave him a beat sheet, which he gave me the thumbs up on, and then I had a few ideas for the end. Like the big seven-page aria that comes toward the end of the film. That was an add after Steven read the beat sheet. He’s like, “Let’s bring it to this kind of operatic conclusion, with these intersecting sectors of society.”
He gave me the not undaunting charge of, “Write a seven-page monologue.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do my best.” And then, he obviously read the draft and he had some notes. We did a revision, and the next rewrite we did was when we got the cast on. It was not one of those scripts that was constantly developed. That’s one of the great things about working with Steven. Also, I wrote it on spec, so I didn’t have to worry about studios giving notes or anything like that. Because again, I had Steven there, and Steven and I both knew how he was going to end up making the film. So we got to make it how we wanted to see it before giving it to the studio.
How do you personally get into the head space for a period piece?
Several ways. Yeah, I watched the movies, but really the bigger thing was going there. Going there and really being in the spaces that these people existed in at that time, those that are left in Detroit. Talking to people who were alive then. Spending time, there was an exhibit at the Detroit Public Library that a woman named Emily Kutil, had put together called “Black Bottom Street View.” They had taken all these photographs back in the ’50s of these neighborhoods that later got raised, and Emily recreated the experience of moving through, those neighborhoods, by using photographs in the library. She basically blew the photos up and you would walk down these aisles, which represented each.
I listened to music from the time I listened to people speaking from the time, I listened to recordings from the mid ’50s, in Detroit. I searched out as much as I could to get a tangible feel, a visceral feel. But at the end of the day, it’s about using all of these pieces to create an emotional space as a writer. I tend to write more from an emotional state than an intellectual state. So, once I could find myself in what felt like, the emotional frame of mind of each character, I found it easier to really be there in that time. And we had some very helpful consultants, as well. A man named Jamon Jordan is credited in the film, ironically and totally coincidentally, he’s an extra in the film. And his picture, he is in the frame that my screen credit is. My screen credit comes over his picture, which he and I [are] thrilled about.
Jamon runs an organization called the Black Scroll Network and they do walking tours of the African-American history of Detroit. He and I went through the script together, and of course Don and I went through the script together. I mean, every actor, we all went through the script together. But at every turn, it’s about trying to keep making it more authentic and more real, and more inhabited and more alive.
So you played Joey Biltmore in a 10th grade production of Guys and Dolls.
Reading that tweet made me have to ask you, what was it like being a staff writer on Laverne and Shirley?
Of course, it would make you think that. Oh my God, that’s amazing. Well, this is Den of Geek, after all. I could expect nothing less, then that kind of deep dive. That’s amazing.
Actually, here’s what’s funny. I will happily tell you about Laverne and Shirley in one second, but that experience on Guys and Dolls had more of an influence on the language of Bill and Ted. Meaning Damon Runyon, and that strange cadence and odd use of sometimes, somewhat anachronistic language was an influence for me. Not for [Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure co-writer Chris Matheson]. I asked Chris about it. I was like, “Were you into Damon Runyon as well, or was that just me?” And he’s like, “That was just you.” And I was like, “Oh.” That had more of an influence on the creation of Bill & Ted, for me, than anything else. More than surfer dialogue or valley talk, or stoner talk. Any of that, it actually was Damon Runyon to me, funnily enough. And it was because I had been in Guys and Dolls that I got into Damon Runyon.
But Laverne and Shirley, it’s a really interesting thing. It changed my life in many ways, but probably not the ways I would have thought it was going to change my life. It made me a professional writer, but I wasn’t great at it. In other words, I was in over my head with a bunch of real professional ’80s comedy writers, and I was a senior in college. I wasn’t quite ready. I had gone from writing jokes for comedians and writing plays that were performed at UCLA to being in a room of pros, and it was stressful and difficult, and I was still a senior and I didn’t get hired back into another sitcom. And in a way, I am really grateful.
At the time, I thought I had failed, because it took me about two years. Where I was doing standup again and writing jokes, and selling jokes, and writing for a game show, and doing anything I could to stay afloat, and borrowing money from my parents to live. I almost gave up, almost thought, “I’m my own worst nightmare. I’m a flash in the pan,” but had that not happened, I wouldn’t have approached Chris Matheson and said, “Hey, would you like to write something together?” And he, and I would not have written the Bill & Ted script, which is the thing that actually turned my career around and got me back on the map. It got both of us on the map, and then it relaunched my career from a different angle.
I think had I actually succeeded on Laverne and Shirley, in a certain way, I probably would have fried [out], as one of those ’80s TV writers, as those ’80s TV writers often did. Not just from drugs. But the environment itself – I don’t think was a super healthy one for a writer at that time. For me, at least. It was just a lot of competition, not the way I would want to be as a writer.
Plus, I think there’s a certain state of mind you have to maintain that I was unable to maintain. So, in a way, I attribute my failing out of Laverne and Shirley to the relaunching of my career in a way that was probably more appropriate for where I wanted to go. It was hard. It was a very stressful experience, and I never felt like I fit in. And I never felt like I could contribute comedically at the level that those people were. It took me about four years or five years to be able to feel comfortable in a writer’s room with other comedy writers.
And in the Garry Shandling writer’s room I met some of the funniest people I’d ever met in my life, and I could never get to the comedic level they could, but I was comfortable enough to be able to add whatever my two cents would be to any situation. And that room was much more fun. I think I had just grown up a bit.
Why does Bill & Ted continue to strike a chord?
I have asked myself that question because when it first came out, it was eviscerated by critics. It was pummeled. Every serious critic, and in particular, the non-serious critics. Because for the most part, they didn’t even let serious critics review it; they’d give it to their third- or fourth-year critics, and they just trashed it. So I was like, “Well, why did it sustain? Why did it not just last, but weirdly grow, over a few decades?”
Look, it started as the characters. It was how Chris and I, who originally played these characters just screwing around, but what Chris and I were always really attracted to in Bill & Ted, was this ebullience, this sweetness, this lightness of spirit and this sort of ‘yes!’ quality to them. They feel things deeply, but they adjust quickly and come up with a plan and move forward with the best, best, best of intentions at all times. That’s a really lovely place to inhabit, as a writer.
And then when the baton was passed to Alex [Winter] and Keanu [Reeves], they took it over so beautifully. And I think there is a beneficence of spirit, of kindness to the characters, a sweetness, that I think floated to the surface and kept Bill & Ted alive over the decades. And it did fine, it did well enough as the first film to warrant a second film, barely. It’s not like it did that well, but over time, people discovered it. And it’s what made it difficult to make a third movie, because there were no “numbers” to support it. “Why should we make a third movie? The first two didn’t do all that well.” It was more anecdotal. “But everywhere we go, people seem to know it, and people seem to want a sequel. And couldn’t we do it for them?”
It took John Wick getting where it was, but it also took the rise of social media to let audiences have a voice. So that when someone would say, “Is there going to be another Bill & Ted movie?” Then the studio finally started to see, or I should say the powers that be finally started to see, “Holy moly, there’s a lot of people out there that seem interested in this.” It took that, to get the movie made.
Going back to the tweet, when I read your responses, I thought you had a bit part on Kolchak. And then I found out that you were a real suspect on the Night Stalker case. Was that the worst review you ever got?
Well, that’s hilarious. Let me just put it this way. Being a suspect, which lasted only about 15 minutes and it was a misunderstanding. It was basically, my roommate’s car, which I had cosigned for, was stolen years later and taken to the scene. It was stolen by Richard Ramirez, it was still registered to my address and to me, I guess. So for 15 minutes, people were like, “Wait, is it you? You’re the prime suspect.” And then it was like, “Oh, wait, no, it’s not you. It’s not you, you’re asleep in your room, in Westwood and this murder took place 90 miles away.” But for a few minutes there, it was kind of weird and surreal.
But that was not even as bad as those initial reviews of Bill & Ted. I remember a review of Bill & Ted where the reviewer was reviewing a movie the following week, Friday the 13th, it was Jason Takes Manhattan. And the guy was like, “Here’s an idea. How about Jason Takes Bill and Ted?” I go, “Come on, dude. You don’t have to kill us again. You killed us last week, geez.”
It’s pretty funny because here in my office, somebody printed out one of the headlines. After I tweeted that, of course, I should have known that this thing was going to follow me in a way that I didn’t expect. Meaning when I tweeted it, I thought it was just kind of a funny anecdote. I didn’t expect the barrage of clickbait headlines saying things like “Bill and Ted writer was once suspected of being the Night Stalker killer.” Plus, for about two weeks, if you Googled Richard Ramirez and went to his Wikipedia page, my picture came up with it. It was funky. And then the headlines that they were doing were crazy. So people at my parents’ retirement community, friends of my parents, would be like, “What is this?” Because for people who aren’t actually reading beyond the clickbait, they’re looking at a picture of Richard Ramirez and a picture of me, saying I was a suspect along with him.
It was hilarious, and it was a little freaky. But of course after a week or two, the news cycle shifted, and you no longer found it. But for about a week, if you Googled me all you got was that I was a suspect in the Night Stalker [case]. It was not good. And I was just recently single, too. My girlfriend and I had broken up a month and a half earlier, and that meant if I was going to date someone and their friend was going, “Let me Google your date to see if I can find out anything about him,” it would not have boded well. It did not bode well, but it was pretty funny.
When you worked with Soderbergh for Mosaic, you were changing the way stories are delivered, and I want to know if you have any other plans to bend visual arts?
Yeah, I do. And we do. And we’re working on a new thing that I’m not allowed to get into any detail on, I’ve actually been asked not to. But it’s another thing that we’ve designed to be able to be told in various different styles. And what was the ultimate challenge of Mosaic was also the greatest gift of Mosaic. There was a moment when Steven and I looked at each other and went, “How often, especially when you’ve been doing this as long as we have, do you get to do something that is so challenging, that flexes so many muscles that you’ve never used before? That you can’t help but come out the other end of it, a better writer.” And that, to me, was one of the many great gifts of Mosaic.
One was working with Steven, which was an absolute high point, developing a relationship with him. Which led to No Sudden Move, which led to this new thing, which led to me bringing him on to help us get Bill and Ted Face the Music off the ground. He was an exec producer on that. So that was of course, one great thing, but just on a creative level. Having to design a story, where each character in the story has to be worthy of their own movie, because you’re also going to tell the story from their point of view, just like you can tell it from someone else’s point of view.
The notion that every villain is the hero of their own story, or every human is the central character of their own movie. That was really at work in Mosaic. It forced me to really upgrade how I thought about what I wrote. And it also was so difficult an endeavor, it took so long and it was so difficult and so invigorating that it made other writing seem easier. Because every decade or so, I really think a creative person has to really look at the work they’re doing and make sure that they’re not falling back on old habits or old tricks. Or, for sure as a writer, not getting into a mindset of, “Oh, I know how to do this.” I think that’s death for a writer.
I think, for me, the healthiest balance is that combination of confidence and insecurity. Not even confidence. Faith, I think is probably a better word. Like, “I don’t know if I can do this, but I think if I stay with it long enough, I’ll figure it out.” To me, that’s the sweet spot. No Sudden Move was a genre I’ve not written in and a tone I hadn’t written in. That alone was reason to do it, with a director I trusted and I really admire, and with whom I love working. For an actor, I’ve always wanted to work with? Don. That was like, “I’m going to do this and I’m going to work my ass off to get it right.” That’s that was my attitude on it. “And when I get out the other side of it, I want to be a better writer.”
And that’s my goal with everything, now. “When I get out the other side of this, I want to be a better writer than I was when I started it.”
No Sudden Move is a twist on noir, gangster, and industrial crime films. How did you come to the catalytic converter, and what research were you doing on the actual crime of it?
There’s always a relationship between research and writing. How to do the right amount of research without getting bogged down, and how to learn from the research and how to use the research to help you with where you want to go with it. I knew that the characters were going to be trying to steal something and we also said, “It might be cool if it’s initiated by one of the smaller auto companies, against one of the bigger ones.” I was looking for interesting innovations that happened in ’54 or ’55 that might have happened with GM or with Ford, or with Chrysler, that maybe Studebaker would have been wanting, or Nash, or something.
And then I thought, “Wait a minute, it’s going to be much more interesting if it’s an innovation that they tried to bury, as opposed to that they tried to actually bring out into the world?” And I was like, “What kind of stuff? What were they doing wrong back then? What have they uncovered that they forgot?” That led me to discovering this notion of the pollution control technologies that the automobile industry was forced to collude [on]. And so, for the first time, there was a lawsuit, the City of Los Angeles sued the Big Four, the Big Four lost, and the Justice Department ruled that the Big Four had to collude. For the first time, they had to collaborate, share technology, to come up with ways to reduce emissions in the automobile.
So for the first time in history, the auto industry, the Big Four, collaborated on something. And what they ended up collaborating on was not coming up with an answer, but finding an answer and then burying it. And I thought, “Okay, that’s more interesting.” In my research on Detroit in the ’50s, I discovered the deep potency of this idea of the cities re-landscaping themselves. And then those same companies were pulling up the trolley tracks, red-lining districts, making it so certain people couldn’t live in other communities. They destroyed Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, which were these thriving, African American residential and business communities. And I thought, “Well, that’s an interesting backdrop. And so, what if we set it against this changing landscape of Detroit?”
I knew we had Don, and so it also made sense that the person that he would be with would represent the other side of the spectrum, someone who is racist, and these two guys have to work together. [And the other guy] is not only racist, but he’s dealing with someone who’s smarter than him, and ahead of the game more than he is. So he’s got to deal with a kind of appreciation for this guy, that he’s kind of grown up distrusting, without knowing him. It seemed to give a deeper fuel to the back and forth between these two guys, as they’re trying to fuck each other over, over the course of the movie.
We were not trying to do a “socially conscious film.” We were really trying to just make a fun yarn. And to me, it just added to the fun, because it added to the potency of the characters. Like it gave Don’s character more muscle and more of a sense of righteous indignation. And it gave Benicio’s character more of a deeper character place to come from when dealing with Don’s character. It was not designed so that it would be “about something bigger.” It was actually designed to just give a bit more weight, so that the characters were more fun. It’s funny, because I’ve heard it referred to as a gangster movie, and it literally never crossed my mind, that this would be a gangster movie. Never. Until today.
I’m the gangster geek at Den of Geek, so I have to look at it that way. And I got to say, Matt Damon’s character is scarier than Luca Brasi.
You know what? I appreciate your saying that. And that’s why I’m like, “Yeah.” And that guy, he’s not in any kind of organized crime, but he’s legit scarier. And yet, he’s probably the most civilized of everybody. I appreciate what you’re saying, actually. Very much appreciate that. Luca Brasi, that’s so funny. I was thinking about Luca Brasi, just recently.
I think about him all the time. Almost everything you’ve worked on has pushed barriers. The Garry Shandling Show changed television, you changed entertainment.
I’ve always wanted to try to push boundaries, wherever I could, partially for purely selfish reasons of not getting stale. And not falling back, as we were saying before, and not falling back on so-called old tricks or old habits, because I’ve always wanted to have longevity. I’ve always wanted to constantly improve as a writer, and be vital. I don’t want people throwing a bone at me, just so I can work. I want to be able to have something to say that’s meaningful. It’s been both good and bad for me. It’s been good for me in that, it has kept me growing, but it’s been bad in that I’ve fallen on my face a lot.
I’ve really taken some swan dives and landed on cement. And that’s hurt. However, I think truthfully, taking chances and failing has probably led to more success and longevity than the successes I’ve had. Weirdly. It’s great to have success, because it makes you be perceived as viable by the people who make movies and who hire writers. But honestly, as a writer, it’s better to have failures as long as you have the emotional resolve to be able to get up and keep walking, and look honestly at where those failures are your fault.
I don’t think it’s possible to have all success anyway, but if I guess if you have all success, nothing’s a problem for you. But I think most of my friends who have a lot of success and don’t have a lot of failure, who are writers, don’t usually have a lot of longevity, which is interesting. And I don’t exactly know why except I think you stop challenging yourself, and your work stops becoming relevant. I think. I’ll know more in a decade or two, and we’ll get back on it. And we’ll see if my strategy worked or didn’t.
The new movie finds relevance today by going back to the past, and by going back to the filmmaking styles of the past.
I’m so grateful to hear you say that. Steven used these Kowa, I think that’s those anamorphic lenses that he had fixed on top of the RED monster camera, the digital camera. So that’s why it has the look it has, and I really appreciate the way everyone really went for authenticity. I think sometimes you can speak better about the present when you’re speaking, and you set it, in the past. Because sometimes you need that distance to be able to actually see yourself. And then when you’re just looking at a current, cutting edge, modern story, it somehow doesn’t resonate as much. It doesn’t have as much poetry.
No Sudden Move is available to stream on HBO Max.