On an oppressively hot August afternoon, Ed Solomon has found a cool, quiet spot in the basement laundry room of his girlfriend’s Manhattan brownstone. Although COVID-19 has prompted many with means to flee the city, New York has been home for the wildly successful but relatively anonymous screenwriter for the past four years, and he’s content to ride out the pandemic here, where he has a network of film and TV friends, including frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh.
Solomon is slightly self-deprecating when pressed to discuss his work. “I’m not a super confident writer, but I have faith,” he says. “Every new script I start, it’s as if I’m learning how to write for the first time. Confidence makes you stop questioning. And I think once you stop questioning, that begins your end.” This coming from a guy who can command up to $3 million for a screenplay and $250,000 a week on rewrite jobs, say sources (Solomon refused to discuss the salary figures).
His latest project, the third installment of the Bill & Ted franchise, brings him back to his first. He and UCLA classmate Chris Matheson created the most excellent duo back in 1983 as part of an improv group. Fast-forward 37 years, and the “whoa” bros, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, are back with Dean Parisot’s Bill & Ted Face the Music, which Orion Pictures will release on demand and in theaters Aug. 28.
If Bill & Ted’s four-decade trajectory is improbable, so too is that of Solomon, a Hollywood Zelig who has intersected with everyone from Shane Black to Garry Shandling to Tommy Lee Jones to Bryan Singer. In a testament to his endurance, the divorced father of two has notched a sequel-spawning hit in each of the past four decades: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (’80s), Men in Black (’90s), Charlie’s Angels (’00s) and Now You See Me (’10s). Despite working in an industry where youth often is valued over experience, Solomon is still going strong at the age of 59, with projects in the works with Soderbergh, J.J. Abrams and David O. Russell.
“What distinguishes him is just a kind of baseline compassion for other people. He’s aware of the fact that you can make people laugh without being mean or cynical,” says Soderbergh, who has three upcoming projects with Solomon. “His level of craft with plots and characters is very rigorous. Then I can come in and do this sort of Jackson Pollock, throwing things around, but he gives me a lot of room because the foundation is so solid.”
As a child growing up in suburban Boston, Solomon envisioned the idea of being a writer. At age 8, he wrote a letter to NBC’s Laugh-In with some sketch ideas. He also suggested the show air an hour earlier so as not to interfere with his bedtime. He received a reply asking for parental permission to share the ideas with the show’s writing staff, but his parents balked. “I don’t know what they were planning to do with my suggestions. Maybe make fun of them? My parents saying no and X-Men are my two biggest professional regrets,” he says with a laugh, the latter a reference to his famously removing his name from the 2000 film.
A few years later, Solomon’s family moved to California, where he remained for the next 47 years. On his first day as an undeclared undergraduate at UCLA, he performed a stand-up routine at the Comedy Store in Westwood during open-mic night. “I had a great set, and I thought, ‘I’m quitting school. I’m going to be a comedian,’ ” he recalls. “The next week, the whole set bombed. I retreated so far away from writing or comedy, I became an econ major.”
A year later, he ventured back to the Comedy Store and overheard someone say that Good Times star Jimmie Walker, who was performing that night, was looking for writers. He approached Walker, who “tapped me on the head, very patronizingly, and goes, ‘We’re always looking for writers, son,’ ” Solomon says. “That night I typed up 22 jokes with a cover letter. I mailed it, and two weeks later I got a check for $100 for two jokes.”
He started writing jokes regularly for Walker and joined the UCLA Comedy Club, where he met future legend Black and became his roommate (“Shane remains one of the most purely gifted people I have ever known in terms of raw talent, the ability to craft a story, to come up with ideas,” he says). During Solomon’s second stand-up show, the headliner was Shandling. “After my set, Garry came up to me and said, ‘You have two very good jokes in there. The rest you can get rid of. Do you think you’d be interested in writing with me?’ ” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Watch me work. Let’s talk after.’ “
Thanks to Shandling, Solomon landed a staff gig on Laverne & Shirley as a senior. Racing between UCLA and the Paramount lot every day was overwhelming. “I was OK but not great,” he notes. “I didn’t get hired back, and I didn’t get another TV job. In a way it was the best thing that probably could’ve ever happened to me because had I gone straight into that ’80s sitcom world, it would have fried me. I probably would’ve gotten wrapped up in all the drugs those people were doing.”
Instead, he moved in with future Epix president Michael Wright and joined an improv group, where he and his friend Matheson came up with Bill and Ted during a 15-minute skit.
“When we came up with it, we were not stoned, though everyone thinks we were,” he says. “I was not a stoner then. I had a bad experience in college and I had a fucking meltdown because I was such a wimp. I’m much better about it now that it’s all more controllable,” he adds with a laugh.
After a year of the duo’s fleshing out the characters, Matheson’s father, sci-fi novelist Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) suggested they write a Bill & Ted screenplay, and they did so on spec. After many nos, they set up Excellent Adventure at Interscope Pictures for $5,000, which they split. (They received an additional $15,000 to rewrite it, $10,000 to polish it and $105,000 when it was made.)
Interscope exec Scott Kroopf, who produced all three Bill & Ted outings, remembers the script crossing his desk. “It had a lot of infectious dialogue where you just kind of found yourself quoting it,” says Kroopf. “And Ed’s the kind of writer the director really wants on set because he’s quick, and he’s great at getting information out of other artists and synthesizing it.”
The pair became the “flavor of the month,” Solomon recalls, and were immediately hired to write the sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. That led to a call from Solomon’s agent saying that director Roland Joffé, coming off The Killing Fields and The Mission, wanted to meet. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, my dream. I’ll be working with a serious filmmaker.’ So I go in for this meeting, and he says, ‘We have the rights to this video game, Super Mario Bros.’ “
Though his draft helped the film secure a Disney deal, he was disillusioned and reunited with Shandling to write for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. In 1993, producer Walter Parkes gave him a copy of the Men in Black comic book. Solomon thought it was too dark and serious, but he liked the concept. His take attracted Tommy Lee Jones, hot off his Oscar win for The Fugitive.
“My very first meeting with him, he let me know in no uncertain terms that I didn’t know what I was doing and I had to make a choice: ‘It’s either a comedy or science fiction. Make up your mind,’ ” Solomon recalls. “I believe he added ‘asshole’ after that.”
But the end product, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, melded the two genres seamlessly and became an unexpected megahit for Sony in 1997, earning $589 million worldwide and propelling Will Smith into the star stratosphere thanks to a combination of rave reviews and box office. That led to Fox hiring Solomon to write Bryan Singer’s X-Men. But Solomon’s name never appeared on the final cut thanks to behind-the-scenes drama. Though he and Christopher McQuarrie wrote the majority of what wound up onscreen, McQuarrie — angry at the studio over its treatment of him — removed his name and urged Solomon to do the same. Singer’s assistant David Hayter, who contributed to the script, wound up with sole credit.
“It was a dumb move,” says Solomon. “But I’m proud of being the first person to write a superhero movie with real people.” As for the residuals and backend compensation he gave up? “It was probably $2 million,” he says. “Just saying that stings.”
His name did wind up on Sony’s unlikely hit Charlie’s Angels in 2000, which echoed his tumultuous X-Men ordeal. “X-Men and Charlie’s Angels were both big clusterfucks with a lot of people coming in.” The film went on to earn $264 million worldwide.
Based on his string of successes, Solomon had two choices: keep doing big projects or use his savings to make something creatively satisfying. “I’ve never done something because of money or said no to something because of money — ever,” he says. So he opted to try his hand at directing his own script, the 2003 indie Levity, about a convicted murderer who returns to his hometown seeking redemption. Even with a cast of Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter and Kirsten Dunst, the Sundance film polarized audiences. “Critics really hated it, and it was incredibly painful,” he says.
Still, the studios continued to call. He became one of Hollywood’s go-to guys when a script needed to be knocked into shape. He was hired to do a production rewrite on 2013’s Now You See Me and wound up with full screenplay credit. (In addition to writing the 2016 sequel, he is now producing the TV adaptation for Turner.) He also has worked anonymously on “some giant franchises that I’m bound to secrecy on, one as recently as last year,” he says.
Some of Solomon’s less appreciated work has led to his biggest breaks. The box office and critical failure of Ed Zwick’s Leaving Normal, which Solomon wrote early in his career, led to a long friendship with Casey Silver, Universal’s president at the time. In 2013, not long after his divorce from Cynthia Cleese, daughter of John Cleese, Solomon was looking for something new in his career as well. That’s when Silver told him Soderbergh was seeking a writer on an experimental project. The result was Mosaic, a 2018 HBO murder mystery released as a traditional show and an app in which viewers could choose the POV from which to view the plot. He says, “It turned out to be one of the greatest openings in my life.”
Now he and Soderbergh collaborate frequently. They have HBO Max’s Kill Switch, about a group of criminals brought together under mysterious circumstances, going into production in September, with Jon Hamm, Benicio Del Toro and Don Cheadle. They also are making a hush-hush series for the platform tentatively titled Full Circle, based on a 550-page spec Solomon wrote over two years (“Both a linear, straight story as well as a branching narrative, so two entirely different ways of telling the same story,” is all Solomon will say). And he brought in Soderbergh to executive produce the long-gestating Bill & Ted Face the Music, a movie that provides its own full-circle moment for Solomon’s career. In fact, Solomon was so committed to the project that he took a significantly reduced salary and put his earnings back into the budget to keep the film from falling apart.
He sees Soderbergh as a mentor the way Shandling was until his death in 2016. Solomon gets emotional relaying the last time he saw the comedian, at a health food store in Santa Monica, weeks before he died. “Garry was the first person who said, ‘If you really want to write, you know you could do it. It’s a long path, but if you maintain the focus and objectivity, you can do it.’ ”
Demand for Solomon’s work shows no signs of slowing. He just turned in the script Beta, written for Abrams’ Bad Robot and Paramount, which he dubs “a science fiction sort of a romantic thriller.” He’s penning romantic comedy The Ex for Netflix. And he is working on a secret film with Russell, who calls Solomon “hilarious yet a very serious thinker.” Meanwhile, the pandemic has him reaching into the past — he reconnected with Black via Zoom for the first time in years.
“We were like a frat for movie lovers,” he says of his UCLA crew. “Those voices have stayed with me in a very big way. I look back, and I feel like I’m at the beginning of what I’d like to call the middle of my career, though I know I’m old enough to not be in the middle. But I’m pretending it’s the middle for a while longer.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.