Solace: A 13-year-journey from page to screen

An intelligent supernatural thriller

More than 13 years ago, when producer Beau Flynn first read the supernatural thriller Solace, a spec screenplay written by the then-unknown writing team of Sean Bailey & Ted Griffin, he knew immediately he wanted to make it.

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Solace tells the story of a veteran FBI detective (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his younger ambitious partner (Abbie Cornish) who enlist the help of a reclusive, retired civilian analyst, Dr. John Clancy (Anthony Hopkins) to help solve a series of bizarre murders. When Clancy’s exceptional intuitive powers, which come in the form of vivid and disturbing visions, put him on the trail of the killer (Colin Farrell), the doctor soon realizes his gift of second sight is little match against the extraordinary powers of this elusive murderer on a mission.

“The story and characters in Solace were unique,” said Flynn, who has produced more than 30 films including the critically acclaimed Choke, Requiem for a Dream and Tigerland and blockbusters such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, and Hercules.

Screenwriter Sean Bailey, who also serves as one of the film’s executive producers, is currently President of Walt Disney Studio’s Motion Picture Production, overseeing all live action film development and production for Walt Disney Pictures. Recent films releases include Maleficent and Saving Mr. Banks. Prior to joining Disney in 2010, Bailey produced Disney’s TRON: Legacy, Miramax’s Gone Baby Gone, Matchstick Men and Best Laid Plans. From 2004-2008, Bailey partnered with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore in the company LivePlanet, among other projects, developing and producing the Emmy-nominated “Project Greenlight” which aired on HBO and Bravo.

Screenwriter Sean Bailey, who also serves as one of the film’s executive producers, is currently President of Walt Disney Studio’s Motion Picture Production, overseeing all live action film development and production for Walt Disney Pictures. Recent films releases include Maleficent and Saving Mr. Banks. Prior to joining Disney in 2010, Bailey produced Disney’s TRON: Legacy, Miramax’s Gone Baby Gone, Matchstick Men and Best Laid Plans. From 2004-2008, Bailey partnered with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore in the company LivePlanet, among other projects, developing and producing the Emmy-nominated “Project Greenlight” which aired on HBO and Bravo.

“Solace is a film that makes people think. These were characters I cared about and there were issues the story dealt with that transcended morality and humanity. In dealing with euthanasia and end-of-life questions, fate and the right to live, it touched on a lot of provocative subjects. First and foremost, Solace was entertaining, but it also had impact, making it a very different and special film.”

Flynn’s producing partners Tripp Vinson, Thomas Augsberger, and Matthias Emcke agreed and they optioned Solace just as Bailey became co-producer of “Project Greenlight” and co-founder of Live Planet (with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) and the Griffin-penned adaptation of Ocean’s Eleven for director Steven Soderbergh made the duo two of Hollywood’s most in-demand talents.

“We got lucky in the timing and suddenly we had a hot project from hot writers,” said Augsberger.

“Beau and I were pretty proud when Toby Emmerich, who had just started his new job as head of production at New Line said, ‘We want to option this from you’ and then said ‘Let’s make this film together at New Line.’”

Emmerich’s strong support of Solace kept the project at the studio for more than 10 years as various writers, directors and actors came and went.  At one point, New Line, seeking a marketing hook, was looking to make Solace a sequel to the blockbuster Se7en, with Morgan Freeman attached.

Screenwriter Ted Griffin wrote the screenplays for Ocean’s Eleven, Tower Heist (with Jeff Nathanson) and Ravenous, among others. He co-wrote (with brother Nick) Matchstick Men, which he also produced (alongside fellow Solace screenwriter Sean Bailey). His other producing credits include the Oscar-nominated films Up In The Air and The Wolf of Wall Street, in which he also appeared, as well as the Fran Lebowitz documentary Public Speaking. He wrote and appeared in the Clio Award-winning advertisement The Key To Reserva, directed by Martin Scorsese, and wrote Scorsese’s 2013 Dolce-Gabbana advertisement “Street of Dreams,” starring Matthew McConaughey and Scarlett Johansson. In 2010 he created and executive-produced the television series “Terriers” for FX.

In another incarnation, director Mark Pellington was attached and the studio brought in screenwriter James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) to do some revisions, but the film never moved to production.

In 2008, after Flynn worked with legendary actor Anthony Hopkins on the blockbuster horror-thriller, The Rite, which grossed more than $100 million worldwide, the two were looking to find another film to do together, so Flynn gave the Oscar-winning actor the Solace script.

“The idea of working with the great Anthony Hopkins again was a dream,” said Flynn. “Tony is an incredible actor who brings a gravitas and experience that raises everyone’s game. I thought he would respond to it, and he did. Tony’s been a terrific partner and has been very loyal and very committed to this project during the five years it took to get it made after he came on board.”

Hooked by the story’s strong characters, Hopkins signed on to play the lead role of Dr. John Clancy, a retired civilian analyst for the FBI whose psychiatric knowledge and ability to delve into the mind of a killer goes beyond his clinical training –into the supernatural.

“If it’s well written, it’s always interesting and this was well written. It is a very, very good script,” said Hopkins, who also serves as one of Solace’s executive producers.

“It is also loaded with implications of another dimension of life. I’m not really too spiritual, but I certainly am open to the idea…Without getting on the bandwagon about it or preaching anything, I have had experiences in my own life, synchronicity, psychic experiences and I think there’s something definitely beyond me, something much deeper than I can possibly understand.”

Hopkins’ Academy Award-winning performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the critically acclaimed box-office smash Silence of the Lambs as well as its hit prequel Red Dragon and blockbuster sequel Hannibal arguably made the acclaimed actor one of the cinema’s most iconic serial killers.

“Tony certainly has a little bit of a brand name when it comes to serial killer movies,” said Augsberger. “We’re thrilled to have him on so many levels. He’s not only one of our greatest living actors, but he’s been a terrific partner to us for many years, following the project out of the studio and into the independent realm.  I think Solace gives him the opportunity to explore things that he may already have explored from a different angle, creatively.”

With Hopkins attached, Flynn and Augsberger continued to develop the film at New Line.

When the studio wanted script revisions, Hopkins suggested bringing in award-winning screenwriter Peter Morgan, with whom Hopkins had worked with on the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon (2008).

Flynn said Morgan’s finished draft was locked and ready to shoot as the search for a director continued.

Director Afonso Poyart’s first feature film 2Coelhos (2 Rabbits) quickly became a hit in the filmmaker’s native Brazil and garnered attention and acclaim for the young writer-director-producer in its U.S. debut at the Brazilian Film Festival in Los Angeles. Poyart wrote, directed, produced, co-edited and acted in the inventive, fast-paced action film, 2 Coelhos, and will serve as an executive producer on the Tango Pictures English-language remake. He is now getting ready to direct/produce his next film, Vale Tudo, a UFC co-production based on the life of Brazilian MMA fighter José Aldo.

Director Afonso Poyart’s first feature film 2Coelhos (2 Rabbits) quickly became a hit in the filmmaker’s native Brazil and garnered attention and acclaim for the young writer-director-producer in its U.S. debut at the Brazilian Film Festival in Los Angeles. Poyart wrote, directed, produced, co-edited and acted in the inventive, fast-paced action film, 2 Coelhos, and will serve as an executive producer on the Tango Pictures English-language remake. He is now getting ready to direct/produce his next film, Vale Tudo, a UFC co-production based on the life of Brazilian MMA fighter José Aldo.

In 2011, Flynn finally found who and what he was looking for after watching Brazilian filmmaker Afonso Poyart’s feature film debut, 2 Coelhos (2 Rabbits), a frenetic, action-heist film with a mesmerizing mix of visual effects, animation, graphic overlays and live action. Flynn thought Poyart would be the perfect choice to direct the unique, visually provocative, supernatural thriller.

“As a producer, I flipped for it,” said Flynn.  “His film 2 Rabbits had all the elements I was searching for – a strong point-of-view, great visuals, good performances, confident direction. I’ve always been a huge fan of supernatural thrillers so when I read Solace, I immediately knew that there had never been a movie like this made and I wanted someone who could approach the genre and material differently. So, I sent Afonso the screenplay and he took to it. When I met with him, his vision and aspirations for the film were identical to mine, and I knew he was the only person to direct it.”

Emmerich and New Line agreed and Poyart came on to the project in 2011 when the film was set up at the studio.  Poyart, who spent 15 years as a commercial director in Brazil, wrote, directed, produced and edited the action-packed tale of police corruption 2 Coelhos, which was released in Brazil in January 2012 and quickly became a hit. The action thriller premiered in the U.S. at the Brazilian Film Festival in Los Angeles later that year and was acclaimed for its non-linear narrative and innovative filmmaking style.  Tango Pictures brought the rights to an English-language remake with Poyart as an executive producer.

Poyart said after the success of 2 Coelhos he read a number of screenplays before “falling in love” with Solace. “This film has the perfect balance of structure, story and strong characters,” said Poyart. “It is intelligent, suspenseful, action-packed and visually compelling. I was particularly attracted to the opportunity to explore the cinematic potential of the script and to step into the mind’s eye of someone with psychic abilities, played by Anthony Hopkins, and visualize what he sees.”

“Afonso had a lot of ideas about the characters and getting inside Clancy’s head, so he put together a presentation to show how he wanted to do it,” said Flynn.  “He had really strong opinions on how to make Solace feel unique. Suspense thrillers are a familiar genre and Afonso wanted to make it fresh, to create the feeling of being inside Clancy’s mind and show it as distinct from the real world.”

For Hopkins, Poyart’s artful blend of visual imagery and technical expertise is what makes him the ideal director for Solace. “He has a particularly visual insight into everything,” said the actor.  “He’s quite a visionary director who is great with images. Like Ridley Scott, he’s a fine filmmaker. I play a psychic who knows a lot about people and my job with the FBI is to track somebody who is a serial killer. Afonso has a unique way of looking at the world through the camera and the ability to put the images my character sees onto the screen.”

Poyart’s years of experience as a commercial director gave him the production, editing and visual and special effects experience that Solace needed. “It’s not going to be a special effects-heavy film, despite the visions,” said Augsberger.  “Although visual effects play a role, Afonso clearly has the film in his mind and how it all looks when it’s finished. He knows how all the pieces fit together. He has an incredible intuition when it comes to finding unusual but story-supporting camera angles and the technical expertise to know what cameras to use to shoot it.”

Poyart says Solace is a “very different animal” from his debut feature, 2 Coelhos, although he concedes both films do have events and characters which move the story along quickly. “Both films also have action and fast movement and a visual intensity to the pace and editing, and the second act of Solace is a roller coaster,” said Poyart. “Solace gives me a chance to explore the characters more than I’ve done before.  It’s an intimate journey of three characters – Clancy, Joe and Katherine–and the emotional components of their stories are the film’s greatest strengths.”

Afonso Poyart’As Poyart, Hopkins and the producers continued to develop the film, it became clear New Line was supportive of the project, but unable to green light it.  “New Line and Toby were great, but genre films are harder than ever to make,” said Flynn. “Studios are very focused on franchise films, tent poles and films with action or big marketing hooks, so it’s increasingly difficult for smaller films and genre films like suspense thrillers to get made.”

In January 2013, Flynn said New Line “finally let the option go for the first time so we could get it made.” Flynn and Augsberger got the rights back and had interest within days.

“We had a very strong response and lined up four financiers right away,” said Flynn. “Claudia Bluemhuber of Silver Reel came in quickly. She’s super passionate and very smart about films and really supports producers’ and directors’ visions. Glen Basner also came in as a partner and sales agent and we got the film green lit right away.”

With Basner’s FilmNation Entertainment selling foreign and Bluemhuber’s Silver Reel covering the gap financing, the Flynn Picture Company and Eden Rock Media had the cameras rolling in Atlanta, Georgia less than six months later in May 2013.

After more than a decade of revisions and false starts, Augsberger says the reason why Solace got financed and made as soon as it went the independent route was simple: “Solace is a very smart thriller for grownups with interesting characters,” he said.  “There’s no cliché here. It’s probably one of the best scripts I’ve ever read in terms of how tight it is.  It became incredibly focused because it went through so many filters, but I’m happy to say we stayed true to the original. The screenplay for Solace was just as good when I first read it, as it is now.”

A strong cast

With strong characters, a twist-filled plot and Hopkins as the lead, attracting actors for the supporting roles was easy. “Anthony Hopkins is a magnet for actors so we were able to assemble a strong cast around him” said Augsberger. “Once we bought it back from New Line we continued to attach actors like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Abbie Cornish and Colin Farrell. It came together very quickly.”

“What great actors have in common is they come prepared with a strong point of view about their characters,” said Poyart. “Tony, Colin, Abbie and Jeffrey all brought ideas that enhanced the characters and worked for the story and film. Working with actors to develop the characters is a process in which I sometimes change what I thought and sometimes they adapt to what I see. It’s great when actors come up with things I never expected that really adds to the character or scene. Being open to sharing your vision is the best part of collaborating and working together.”

Morgan, whose FBI agent enlists his friend and former colleague Dr. Clancy out of his self-imposed retirement to help with a baffling serial murder case, said a smart story and acting alongside Hopkins proved an irresistible combination.

“First and foremost was Tony Hopkins,” said Morgan. “To work with someone like him is maybe the greatest thing that any actor can experience. It has been truly a thrill to play with him as an actor. Beyond that, I know Beau and had worked with him before and I met with Afonso and liked his vision of what this movie was and what it could be. Solace is a really smart script, written by some really talented, smart guys. The story was there. It’s hard to come up with an original idea anymore, but this was an original idea and that’s the difference between this film and other movies in the genre. I don’t know that it’s necessarily been seen before. As it goes along, it makes you think and guess and try to figure out what’s happening. Those are fun movies not only to watch, but to make.”

To play the role of the serial killer Charles Ambrose, the filmmakers wanted to play against type.  They also needed to find an actor who could hold his own in the pivotal series of dialogue-and-action heavy scenes opposite Hopkins. Flynn, who produced Colin Farrell’s first film, Tigerland (2000), thought the Golden Globe®-winning actor (In Bruges) might be interested in the role since Farrell had played a villain before, but he had never played a serial killer.

“I was thrilled to get to work with him as an actor in Solace. He’s a very special person and a brilliant actor and since Tigerland, he’s obviously become a giant movie star,” said Flynn. “It was a huge coup to have him in our film. The scenes between Tony and Colin are like a classic stand-off of heavyweights in the ring. Watching those two work is a like a clinic for actors. Colin took his character in a fresh, bold completely different direction. He played Ambrose in a grounded, very real, not histrionic way.”

Adds Augsberger: “It’s hard to find a movie star willing to play a serial killer and in this case a supporting role.  Anthony’s in every scene of the movie while Colin appears mostly in the third act, but it was a very important role to cast. We’re very happy to have a very strong, brilliant actor like Colin to play opposite Anthony in those key moments where their characters play chess and come face-to-face.”

Farrell was excited about both the screenplay and Hopkins.  “When I heard Anthony Hopkins, the idea of working with him was pretty cool,” said Farrell.  “Then I read the script and it was a really, really good read. It’s very unique and different and I knew all my scenes were going to be with Tony and that was really exciting. I can’t stress enough – really exciting.”

Hopkins said Farrell is “as obsessive as I am” when it comes to researching and developing a character and “we had a terrific time.” The two discovered a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called “The Leaden Echo” which both wanted to find a way to work into the screenplay. “We were taking about it, when I suggested, how about putting that into the script, in that little scene about decay and the inevitability of death and how much we try to keep beauty, which all but vanishes and decays, which suits the themes of the film,” said Hopkins.

Farrell said while working with Hopkins on their characters and scenes, he would “send Hopkins a text message at 3 a.m., put my head on the pillow and I’ll look and he’ll be answering.” Farrell said working with Hopkins “spoiled me rotten” because Hopkins “always has his finger on the trigger ready to go and have a chat about scenes and character. He seems to do something that is not usually mutually exclusive with actors in that he takes it all seriously and is also very light. He doesn’t wear any of the seriousness as a badge. He’s a beast of an actor, a gorgeous looking dude, and I loved working with him.”

While Solace presents the crimes of a serial killer and follows the action as the characters try to solve them, it also pushes beyond the traditional confines of the genre with a thought-provoking issue at its core: euthanasia.

“It is an intelligent movie that raises certain questions that you can talk about after going to see it,” said Augsberger.  “It’s very entertaining and suspenseful and it makes you think. It was written more than a decade ago at a time when Dr. Kevorkian was in the news and yet, the ethical considerations of euthanasia are still very relevant and controversial. There are clinics in Switzerland where you can go and get assisted suicide just for being depressed – you don’t have to be sick anymore. And what are your choices if you discover you have an illness that is hereditary and affects your unborn children? These are issues we’re still debating and defining.”