“Solos” is one of those projects that historians will look at years from now and instantly recognize as a COVID-19 production. One or two actors performing in one closed set and a short story that finds them mostly speaking to themselves or, in some cases, other versions of themselves. And, despite the participation of Helen Mirren, Anthony Mackie, Constance Wu, Anne Hathaway, Morgan Freeman, and Uzo Aduba, among others, it suffers the worst sin; it’s simply a bore. But for creator David Weil, the anthology series has a personal connection, even if it’s a big swing and a miss.
Weil, who created the Amazon Prime Video hit “Hunters,” says, like all of his writing, he was inspired by the stories his from his own family. And, as you might guess, writing it was a somewhat cathartic process during the initial stay-at-home period of the pandemic. And, clearly, there’s good and bad that comes with that baggage.
In a conversation earlier this month, Weil dived into the genesis of “Solos” and remarked on the news that Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh had joined the cast of “Hunters” second season, which he says will start production very soon.
The Playlist: Most obvious question first, as always. What made you want to make this particular series?
David Weil: I’ve always wanted to create a series that returned to how I fell in love with stories first, and the best storytellers that I knew were members of my own family. So, “Hunters” was inspired by my grandmother, and I remember sitting around her kitchen table over a bowl of her famous chicken soup and telling me her stories of her experiences during the war. I remember my older brother around a campfire telling ghost stories, scaring the hell out of me as a young kid. And so I just loved the idea of one individual in a single room transporting us through stories. One actor in one room is a very rare and scary thing to do for a network to program, but I think that over the course of the past year, though that has always been my desire, the accelerant really was the times in which we were living in. So writing “Solos” for me, I started writing in May of last year; it was a time of great isolation as we all felt and loneliness and solitude. My entire family lives on the East Coast; I’m here in LA. I haven’t seen them in a year and a half now. And so, in certain ways, I think that I felt like I was reconnecting with them through these characters. Through Peg (Mirren), I discovered things about my mother through Tom (Mackie), my father and his battle with cancer, and my brother and his battle with cancer. And so these were very personal tales that really allowed me, I think to connect with the people I love most and to find a sense of, I guess, partnership at a time when there was really so much disconnection.
That would be a rapid turnaround if you started writing in May. How fast did this all come about?
It all came very quickly, though, and I think in part it was because it was a time of so much creative arrest. I think people were feeling so stifled by the moment. And when I spoke to the three other wonderful writers Stacy [Osei-Kuffour] and Bekka [Bowling] and Tori [Sampson], all whom I’ve worked with before and said to them, “Can you create something? And here are the parameters. It’s really a moment for you to feel free to tell a story about a character or an idea or a theme or a question that you’ve wanted to tell for a very long time but haven’t had an opportunity to do so because of the narrative conventions of film and television.” I first wrote “Tom” in May, then I wrote “Peg” right thereafter, and it just flowed out. I pitched the idea to Anne Hathaway, which was the first actor that I spoke to for the piece. She really loved the idea of the episode of “Leah,” and she was so collaborative. So, it was really like firing on all different cylinders to try and get the material ready so that we could shoot in part because, unlike “Hunters,” which is so massive and such a spectacle and we had to push production because of COVID, this was actually a show that you could shoot incredibly safely with one actor in one environment. And so there was a real desire on Amazon’s part to shoot this as quickly as possible because we could and because we could do it safely and still be creating great content and great art.
Earlier today, I spoke to Uzo Aduba about “In Treatment,” and we also talked about this. I don’t know if you know this, but she met the assistant who helped her memorize all her lines for both shows on “Solos.” She took her to “In Treatment” because it was very similar in that there was so much dialogue. Were any of the actors you reached out to who were weary of so much dialogue or the idea of performing such long monologues?
This is an incredible cast. I think they looked at the piece, and you’re right; these are monologues or one-act plays, and I love monologues. The Red Dress monologue from “Requiem for a Dream” is my favorite thing in the world. Shylock speeches in “The Merchant of Venice.” I remember films and TV and plays by their monologue. And so this was such an exciting opportunity to do that, but I think they saw the challenge in it. I think that Anthony Mackie said to me… And look, he studied at Julliard, and he can do anything he wants now in the world. And what he saw in “Solos” was a real challenge and opportunity where he not only had to learn 25, 30 pages of dialogue that was just him, but he had to play two roles. And so I think you’re right. I think it was a bit terrifying, but I think in that fear, I think that’s where these great actors saw an opportunity. Morgan Freeman, for example. I mean, he had so much dialogue in his piece, he’d probably have 30 pages and the best compliment was just on set one day; it was probably day two, and we’re filming, and he was just like, “Man, this guy likes to write.”
Let’s talk about Anthony Mackie’s episode where he plays two versions of himself in the same scene. In many ways, he has the most challenging performance to pull off. Can you talk about the difficulties just in terms of a production aspect for shooting that and what Anthony’s reaction was to being pitched this episode?
He loved it. Again, I think he saw a great challenge in the piece of Tom. From a directorial point of view, I wanted the humanity and the writing and the acting to lead with all these pieces. I never wanted the effects to feel too heavy, so it was a very conscious decision between myself and our cinematographer, William Rexer, that we would never really cross the line with these actors very much. They do interact at that moment where they do the handshake. But other than that, I really wanted it to be focused on the emotional life of the piece rather than the gimmick or trick that I had written the piece’s concept. I think one of the most amazing things in watching Anthony perform and just seeing him as an actor was that when he was playing Tom in that scene, not only was he performing as Tom and inhabiting that life in that role; he also had to be looking across the sofa and thinking in his mind how he would perform Edward. It was a duet with just himself. I honestly don’t know how he did it; I just know that he’s incredibly talented. When he ended a sentence as Tom, he then picked up right as Edward and I didn’t have to do much to do [in the editing room]. That was all him.
One last question for you about “Hunters” season two. When are you starting production, and should we assume Jennifer Jason Leigh is the new baddie, or is that making just an obvious assumption?
Man, she’s great, isn’t she? We’re starting production very soon. I mean, look, I think that in “Hunters” especially, you never know who’s a villain and who’s a hero, right. And I think that’s part of the beauty, so I’ll stay mum on that question. But it’s going to be a really thrilling season where I think many of the conventions that we dove into in season one will be upended, a lot of great rug poles and turns and emotional twists. So I’d love to talk to you about it once it’s out again. I’m very excited.
“Solos” is now available on Amazon Prime worldwide.