More than 2 million Americans are now behind bars, according to the Justice Department. That’s one out of every 142 U.S. residents.
Where do those who are eventually released go? What do they do? If they were incarcerated for murder, how do they deal psychologically with their crimes?
In the new film “Levity,” writer-director Ed Solomon floats a story premised on such questions. He recently spoke to EthicsDaily.com from his office in Santa Monica, Calif., about how he and his characters deal with lightness in a world governed by gravity.
“Levity” tells the story of Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), a man freed from prison after two decades for killing a convenience-store cashier.
Manual wanders back to his old neighborhood in search of something—anything to give his life meaning. He encounters a street-wise preacher (Morgan Freeman), a strung-out suburbanite (Kirsten Dunst) and a woman who responds to his need for connectedness (Holly Hunter).
Solomon’s experience with incarcerated teens gave him the script idea. When Solomon was studying economics at UCLA, he tutored teens in a maximum-security juvenile facility. He was especially struck by one teen who kept a picture of the person he had murdered.
That experience stuck with Solomon, who intermittently tinkered with the story as he built a screenwriting career.
The California native wrote for “Laverne and Shirley” and later “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” He then shifted to feature movies, penning 1989’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” with college friend Chris Matheson.
“We never thought it would get made,” Solomon said of the comedy about two time-traveling suburbanite teenagers. But it did, grossing over $40 million and sparking a sequel. Solomon went on to write other blockbusters, including “Men in Black” and “Charlie’s Angels.”
“Levity” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” may seem like the far ends of the writing spectrum, but a screenwriter’s approach to writing both is not necessarily altogether different.
“My best shot at getting a handle on it [a script] is if there’s an emotional state of mind that accompanies it,” Solomon said. “It tells me what the key signature is.”
The signature for “Bill and Ted’s” was “a giddy optimism,” he said. “Levity” was “a different key signature, much more like a minor key—more complex, conflicting feelings.”
“I would try to get in touch with my own sense of isolation, detachment, a longing to belong to the human race,” he said, “but a deeper feeling of disconnectedness.”
Research—at least partially—helped Solomon discover that key signature.
As he worked on the script, he interviewed people who had committed murders as teenagers. Without exception, he said, all of the convicts were trying to reconcile themselves to society, to work in the community, to help others.
“There were definite consistencies,” he said of the group. “They were all trying to work with kids in one way or another. If they had no religious belief, it was a secular thing. If they believed in God or something, they were doing it through a church group.”
But each bore a burden. Its name: futility.
“Every single person I met thought what they were doing was futile,” he said. “They could help as many kids as possible, but they could never make up for what they had done. And yet they were compelled to do it.”
“It was a painful irony,” he continued. “It was unknowable if they were ever going to make up for what they did. It’s like a bottomless pit, in a way. They don’t know when they’ll stop falling.”
In the movie, Manual’s incarceration actually serves as a kind of net.
“Being locked up for Manual was the only way that he felt there was any kind of justice,” he said. But when he’s let out of prison, he’s lost.
Solomon said if Manual believed in a religious discipline, the movie would be less interesting, because the character would have a clearer path to redemption. But Manual doesn’t believe in God, and his disbelief puts him between a rock and a hard place.
Solomon professes no definite religious point of view, either.
“I would not consider myself a person of faith,” said Solomon. “And I wouldn’t call myself an atheist because you have to be equally convicted. I’m somebody who’s confused by it all.”
“We tend to be a culture with compassion,” he said, “yet we often choose selectively who we’ll have compassion towards. It’s easy to have compassion toward people who deserve it. The real challenge is finding it for people who don’t warrant it.”
“A culture with real compassion would be an amazing thing,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s possible.”
It might not be. It might be, in a word, levity.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Read our review of “Levity.”
Click here for information about free “Levity” screenings in select cities.