The first images of Ed Solomon's thought-provoking film, "Levity," came to the writer-director while tutoring in a maximum-security youth prison in Calabasas two decades ago. "One inmate kept a photograph of the boy he had shot, and he kept touching it, fingering it," he said, speaking quietly and intensely in a Santa Monica cafe on a recent afternoon. "He was struggling to understand that it was a human life he had taken, but he was only 17 and serving the first year of a life sentence. And that haunted me. I began wondering, 'What would he be like as an adult? Where would he go if he were let out of prison and what would he do with the photograph?'"
One of the first images in "Levity" -- the opening night film of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival this week -- is a yellowed newspaper photograph of a convenience store clerk on the graffitied wall of a prison cell. The cell belongs to Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), who is doing life since murdering the clerk but is suddenly released on parole. Subsequently, he wanders through his old neighborhood, hungry for atonement, tenuously befriending his victim's sister (Holly Hunter) and an enigmatic preacher (Morgan Freeman).
"Read a book once on redemption, was written in the [12th] century" he says in voice-over while riding the subway, looking out of place with his battered suitcase and long, gray hair. "Man said there was five steps toward making amends."
Solomon said the "man" is actually the Jewish sage Maimonides; he says he learned about the "steps" when he and his wife-to-be, Cynthia, took a Judaism class with Rabbi Naomi Levy at Temple Mishkon Tefilo seven years ago.
"That was crucial for the film," said Solomon, 42, a self-described "lapsed atheist." "Manual doesn't believe in [some] of the steps, and he says he doesn't believe in God, yet he's so desperate for redemption he acts in a way that contradicts his beliefs. As the preacher says to him, 'Why be afraid of a God you don't believe in?' I wanted the boundaries within the film to be at least as unclear as they seemed to me in my real life."
Solomon has been grappling with spiritual questions since growing up in a Reform Jewish home in Saratoga in the Bay Area, where he felt, "tradition was a big part of Jewish communal life but without the conviction of faith." Meanwhile, his Christian friends attended fervent high school fellowship meetings where, they said, they prayed for him. "I started to feel, 'I'm so different from these people,'" said Solomon, who requested a meeting with his family rabbi.
Over drinks at a San Jose coffee shop, the 16-year-old revealed that he was struggling with his faith. "But the rabbi just looked at me and said, 'Me, too,'" Solomon recalled. "Today, I might take comfort in that, but at the time, it just underscored my sense of feeling disconnected and out of place."
Comedy was one of the ways Solomon learned to connect with people, first by bonding with his father over Mel Brooks films and later by creating funny sketches for high school shows. By his senior year at UCLA, he was writing jokes for comics such as Garry Shandling; by age 21, he was a staff writer on TV's "Laverne and Shirley" and the youngest person ever admitted to the Writers Guild of America. After co-authoring 1989s "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" with Chris Matheson, he went on to earn screenwriting credits for films such "Leaving Normal" (1992), "Men in Black" (1997) and "Charlie's Angels" (2000).
But when he tried to sell "Levity," his most personal project and directorial debut, he says he "literally got hundreds of rejections." In a business where artists are often pigeonholed, people wondered why Solomon wasn't peddling a comedy. "A producer friend went so far as to tell me that 'Levity' was career suicide," he said.
The turning point came when he got the script to Thornton ("Monster's Ball"), who remembered how Solomon had fought for him to star in "Leaving Normal" when he was an as-yet unknown actor. Thornton committed the next day.
"I related to the idea of being someone who doesn't really know how to fit into society, because I feel that way, particularly in the film business," the actor said in "Levity's" production notes. "I tend to play a lot of characters who have more going on inside than they appear to, and I also seem to play loners and outsiders. What I liked about Manual Jordan is that he's obsessed with getting forgiveness, yet he doesn't know if it's possible to find redemption."
While Solomon says he was "terrified" on the set, it helped that Thornton shared his vision of Manual as a lost soul "wandering like a ghost through the city." The theme was enhanced by subtle, drifting camerawork and by "people constantly laughing and engaging with each other just out of frame," he said.
The character shares something with the teen Solomon tutored in prison years ago -- and with the director himself. "I wanted this movie to live in that uneasy space between the secular and the spiritual," he said.
Levity will be screening at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan 17, 18 and 25. For more information, visit www.sundance.org