Editor’s Note: In solidarity with the WGA strike, Ed Solomon is not participating in Max-generated promotional events or press for “Full Circle,” only in interviews arranged through personal connections like this one.
The Max series “Full Circle” is one of the most ambitious, audacious, and satisfying thrillers to hit streaming in years, an intricately structured and consistently surprising ensemble piece that’s as broad in its scope as it is deep in its insights. The botched kidnapping at the story’s center brings together a wide array of fascinating characters from different backgrounds, ranging from the struggling to the wealthy and from criminals to law enforcement agents working for the U.S. postal service, all of whom are rendered with precise journalistic detail and profound empathy. It’s remarkably complex and complicated — but according to writer Ed Solomon, it was even more complicated in its original conception.
“This began when Steven [Soderbergh, who directed all six episodes of ‘Full Circle’] and I were working on ‘Mosaic,’ which was a branching narrative,” Solomon told IndieWire. “Mosaic” was available as both a linear version on HBO and an interactive version via an app where the viewer could choose different perspectives from which to watch the series; initially Solomon and Soderbergh planned something similar for “Full Circle.” “Learning from what we did right and what we didn’t do right on ‘Mosaic,’ we were wondering if we could do a sort of 2.0 version of a branching story, something where you could view the story from different angles where the antagonist in one person’s story would be the protagonist in another’s. Depending on how you were looking at the story, you’d have an entirely different experience of this one event.”
Ultimately the filmmakers decided to scrap the branching version of “Full Circle” and focus on the linear story in order to avoid compromising either, but the origins of the idea remain in the series. Continually shifting perspectives both challenge and reward the audience, as scene after scene provides fresh revelations that require the viewer to recalibrate their feelings about the characters. The complexity did not come easy, as Solomon began by writing three different versions of the story, each from a different point of view. “There was the Sam [Claire Danes] and Derek Browne [Timothy Olyphant] story where you didn’t really have access to the Guyanese characters’ inner lives,” Solomon said. “They were just people who crossed the paths of these other characters. Then I wrote another version from the point of view of the Guyanese characters, Louis [Gerald Jones] and Natalia [Adia], where the Browne family are objectified antagonists. Then I also wrote a third version that was Mel Harmony’s [Zazie Beets] story.”
The idea was for Solomon to make each character as fully dimensional as possible and to work out the twists of the convoluted crime plot. “That created a 586-page script,” Solomon said, adding that once Soderbergh committed to directing the piece, they whittled it down to essentially a nearly 400-page film script. “I wrote it as one long movie,” he said. “Then we broke it down into episodes.” The key challenge from the beginning of the process to post-production was figuring out when and how to reveal information. “That is a question for every movie, but especially for a mystery, because sometimes if you withhold too much information people fall out of the canoe and they can’t get back in. The rest of the ride is no fun. But if you reveal too much, you lose the tension.”
Solomon and Soderbergh wrestled with the issue right up until the last possible minute. “We were going back and forth not just until picture was locked, but until we locked sound,” Solomon said. “We were still adjusting, realizing it was too blunt here, but people might start to get confused over here. And one of the things I’ve often found is that when you have a sequence that seems long and boring, the answer isn’t to cut it. When that happens you lose information and deepen people’s confusion. Sometimes by adding a little information you can make people feel more hooked in, and the sequence actually feels shorter.”
Solomon finished work on “Full Circle” just days before the WGA strike, which led to a new project that he began for his own benefit but which is now a wonderful resource for all writers and aspiring writers. “Initially I thought about taking some classes so I could push myself and learn something during the strike,” Solomon said. “Then I thought, what if instead of taking classes I got together with small groups of writers I felt I could learn from, which is basically everybody.”
As Solomon began contacting writers he found that everyone was excited about the idea of getting together to share knowledge about their approach, and he realized he might be onto something bigger. “It felt weirdly selfish to hog it all for myself, so I came up with this idea of doing a free workshop for people, for anyone interested in talking about the craft of writing,” Solomon said. The result was “Word by Word,” a weekly Zoom workshop that runs on Thursdays and offers the public the chance to hear insights from writers like Jesse Armstrong, Susanna Fogel, Adele Lim, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Eric Roth. “The workshops are free to everyone, the only thing we ask is that if people are able, they donate to one of three strike funds that we provide links for.”
The workshop has reinvigorated Solomon after what he described as the hardest job of his life writing “Full Circle.” “We locked sound on the Friday before the guild went on strike, and I thought a month off would be enough for me,” Solomon said. “What are we in, July? And I’m still recovering from the work of ‘Full Circle.’ It’s funny, my girlfriend, who’s a phenomenal writer, called me today from the theater where she’s working on a play. She asked what I was doing, and I said, ‘Today’s the first day that even the concept of writing something else sometime in the future makes even the tiniest amount of sense.’ Up until that moment I hadn’t been able to understand the idea of writing anything ever again.”