In college, I tutored in a maximum-security prison for kids who had committed violent crimes. I met a 17-year-old boy there who had killed a 16-year-old boy earlier that year. He had been tried as an adult and sentenced to life. Though we were only together for a couple sessions, he left an impression that to this day still haunts me.
He kept a cracked, yellowed newspaper photo of his victim in his pocket. And he would constantly pull it out, unfold it, gaze at it, then put it back in -- only to remove it again and stare at it some more.
The sentencing judge not only made the boy finger his victim's personal effects, he also made him wear the dead boy's clothes. The boy told me he even had to put his victim's jacket, and it made him feel "spooked." "Like I didn't know that this kid was, like, a human being or something," the boy said. It was the judge, in fact, who told him to keep the boy's photo.
But the judge never told him he had to look at it forever.
And yet he couldn't let it go. It was as if by staring at this two-dimensional image he was trying to reconstruct some three-dimensional persona. As if a kind of understanding would emerge, a way of grappling with the magnitude of his actions.
It was this relationship -- these two boys, total strangers now bound forever by one horrible deed -- that was the initial inspiration for "Levity."
In researching the movie, I spent time with a lot of people who had committed murder when they were kids. I met some through youth groups, others through church and community programs. Some I interviewed extensively, others I just followed around for a while. They were all different ages, yet each had in common that he was trying to come to terms with the consequences of what he'd done. Some (those who believed in God) were trying on a spiritual level, others (those who didn't) on a secular level. For all of them it was a kind of obsession.
The other thing they had in common was a sense of futility. At the end of the day, none actually thought he could ever make up for his mistakes.
When I sat down to write the script, I called a friend, Naomi Levy, who was a rabbi at a Conservative temple in Venice. I told her I wanted to tell a story that questions whether any number of so-called "good" acts can outweigh one very bad one. And I told her I want the central character to not believe in God. (It seemed to me that if he believed in God, there would be more of a proscribed path for him to follow, and that was too easy.) I asked her what my protagonist might have read that would underscore his belief that he would never be redeemed.
Naomi pointed me to Maimonides, a 12th-century Talmudic scholar who wrote about the five steps one must follow to achieve redemption. The last three involve making right with your neighbor, making right with God and being in the same place and behaving differently.
"Levity's" central character, Manual Jordan, knows he can't return the dead boy like a stolen chicken. And he doesn't believe in God. And since he is convinced that time makes certain one is never in the same place twice, Manual knows there's no hope for him.
But Manual has a conscience, and he's obsessed with trying to salvage some version of a life. And even though he knows his is perhaps a lost cause, he desperately wants his somewhat hesitant presence on the planet to not be wasted. So he bumbles and stumbles, disconnected from the flow, never really knowing where he's going, yet somehow guided by what may be seen as his best intentions.
So often I think we feel our behavior as individuals doesn't have any effect; that what we do doesn't really matter. "Levity" looks at how, to the contrary, the world around us can actually hinge on our individual actions. What we do can have direct, instantly determinable consequences, or our words and actions can ripple away behind us, in subtle ways we never know and could certainly never predict.
For instance: the boy who started this whole thing off. At 18 -- just two weeks after we met -- he was transferred to a state penitentiary. I never heard from him again. My guess is he's still there. And he'd certainly have no recollection of our time together -- I was one of dozens of tutors. So there's no way he could possibly imagine how our brief conversation had any effect on anything. Most likely, he was just trying to get out of talking about math and English.
But, looking back, if I follow the steps that lead to this very moment, right now, as I sit at this table writing this piece, I arrive at that image of that nearly 18-year-old staring at that photograph of that eternally 16-year-old.
And I think about how those two boys -- completely unknowingly -- changed my life. Â
Ed Solomon makes his feature directing debut with "Levity," which he also wrote. The film opens April 4 in Los Angeles and New York.