On October 24, The Austin Film Festival kicked off its twenty-sixth year of promoting the art and craft of storytelling by championing the work of writers, filmmakers, and all artists who use written and visual language to tell a story. Most film festivals are just about filmmakers, but this Austin project bills itself as a “Film Festival and Writers Conference,” so that’s why I learned about Bill and Ted.
The opening welcome session was hosted by AFF Executive Director and Co-Founder Barbara Morgan. Morgan introduced the staff members responsible for organizing the festival, judging the 6,000+ entries, coordinating and promoting the events, and generally keeping the incredibly complex event moving along. But the real star of the session was screenwriter Ed Solomon.
Solomon attended the first Austin Film Festival 26 years ago and has been a supporter ever since. When Bill & Ted Face the Music comes out in 2020, he will have had a major release in each of the last five decades.
Solomon’s movie career, along with co-writer Chris Matheson, began in 1989 with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. During the ’90s his films included Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Men in Black, and Leaving Normal. In the 2000s he worked on, among others, Charlie’s Angels, X-Men (uncredited), Imagine That, and Levity (which he also directed). In the 2010s, he graced the silver screen with Now You See Me and Now You See Me 2.
Solomon said, “It stuns me being on a panel instead of just attending. We are all on a continuum. It starts with the thought ‘I want to write,’ and it continues your whole life.”
Solomon was encouraging to writers attending the conference. “What you can gain from any panel is unknowable,” he observed. “What’s important is your state of mind. You must want to push outside the boundaries of your experience, and you’re here, that’s what’s important. You’ve initiated a process, a process of growth, of metacognition. Writing is about understanding how you process the world. It’s not about how much talent you have. It’s about how you manage and grow your talent; how to find your comfort zone and get just outside of it. Know that you don’t have a process. You have habits.”
He also had cautionary advice about “competition mentality” and networking.
“I spent the first half of my career rooting for everyone else to fail,” he said. “Then I realized that it’s not a zero-sum game. Once I understood that and began rooting for my friends, my life turned around. You’re not competing with one another.”
Solomon feels that much of what writers are told about networking is nonsense. “It inhibits your ability to proceed,” he said, “because it makes us believe we have to ask permission. The idea that you must meet an agent or producer here? Very low odds. Look to your left and right. Those are the people, your fellow travelers on this path, this solitary profession, that should be your network.”
He continued, “Barbara mentioned Bill and Ted. My friend Chris and I decided to do an improv group without an audience, just to push ourselves. One night we came up with these characters. We messed around with Bill and Ted for a year before we thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we put them in a script?’ None of us can judge our work. It takes interaction with other people. You need others to tell you the hard truths. Our work is never as good as we think it is when we complete it. We always need others.”
Barbara Morgan interrupted at this point: “Tell the Gary Marshall story, Ed.” Gary Marshall was the writer/producer known for many of the most famous comedy shows on TV, including Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, and the show that Solomon wrote for, Laverne & Shirley.
Although famous for his movie work, Solomon’s career began as a comedy writer. At 19, in 1979, he sold his first joke to comedian Jimmie Walker. This led to him writing for Gary Shandling.
Solomon recalled, “When I was first told I could get a job on Laverne & Shirley, I was very pretentious. ‘No, I wouldn’t want to work for that show.’ But when they offered, I jumped at it. That’s where I met Gary Marshall.”
Eventually, he left Laverne & Shirley to pursue movie writing.
Then he saw Marshall again at a conference. Solomon explained, “I thought I’d go over and tell him how I moved on in the industry and he’ll be happy to hear that. I got his attention and said, “I’m not writing for TV anymore.’ Before I could explain, he said, ‘Keep trying, I’m sure it will work out.’ And he walked away. Ten years later, I was on a panel with Marshall and afterwards I decided to remind him of that encounter. I thought, ‘He’s going to find it hilarious when I finish this story.’ So, I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, Gary, I’m not writing for TV anymore.’ Before I could say anything else, he said, ‘Don’t worry, it will work out, don’t give up,’ and he walked away. That was the last time I ever talked to Gary Marshall, so, if any of you die soon and see him in heaven please finish the story for him.”
Ironically, Solomon is writing for TV again, having recently completed the HBO mini-series Mosaic.
To find out more about participating in next year’s Austin Film Festival, you can watch its PBS series On Story, attend one of its year-round events, or, of course, check its website.
(Photos by author)
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