Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 1]

January 2nd, 2013 by

My favorite writer-director is Billy Wilder. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

In the spring issue of the 1996 Paris Review, there is a terrific interview with Wilder. I thought it would be a great way to kick off 2013 by digging into it to see what storytelling lessons we could glean from one of Hollywood’s master filmmakers.

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: Coming to the American movie industry at a time when many distinguished German directors were working, did you feel part of a special group?

WILDER: There were some excellent German directors, led by Mr. Lubitsch, but I simply met him and shook his hand; he had no interest in me when I arrived. In fact, he was very reluctant to give jobs to Germans; it was only four years later that he hired me. I had written some pictures in Germany, usually working alone. But when I came here I had to have a collaborator on account of my unsteady English and my knowledge of only about three hundred words. Later I found that if I had a good collaborator it was very pleasant to talk to somebody and not come into an empty office. The head of the writers’ department at Paramount had the good idea to pair me with Charles Brackett, a distinguished man from the East, who had gone to Harvard Law School and was about fifteen years older than I. I liked working with him. He was a very good man. He was a member of the Algonquin round table. He had been the movie critic or theater critic on The New Yorker in the beginning, the twenties.

One day, Brackett and I were called in to see Lubitsch. He told us he was thinking vaguely about doing an adaptation of a French play about a millionaire—a very straightforward law-abiding guy, who would never have an affair with a woman unless he was married to her. So he married seven times!

That would be Gary Cooper. Claudette Colbert was to be the woman who was in love with him, who’d insist “I’ll marry you, but only to be the final wife.” As the meeting was being adjourned, I said, I have a meet-cute for your story. (A “meet-cute” was a staple of romantic comedies back then, where boy meets girl in a particular way, and sparks fly.) Let’s say your millionaire is an American who is very stingy. He goes to a department store in Nice on the French Riviera where he wants to buy a pajama top, but just the top, because he never wears the pants. She has come to the same counter to buy pajamas for her father, who as it happens only wears the pants. That broke the ice, and we were put to work on that picture, which became Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.

Lubitsch, of course, would always find a way to make something better. He put another twist on that meeting. Brackett and I were at Lubitsch’s house working, when during a break he emerged from the bathroom and said, What if when Gary Cooper comes in to the store to buy the pajama top, the salesman gets the floor manager, and Cooper again explains he only wants to buy the top. The floor manager says, Absolutely not, but when he sees Cooper will not be stopped, the floor manager says, Maybe I could talk to the store manager. The store manager says, That’s unheard of! but ends up calling the department store’s owner, whom he disturbs in bed. We see the owner in a close shot go to get the phone. He says, It’s an outrage! And as the owner goes back to his bed you see that he doesn’t wear pajama pants either.

Some takeaway:

* As a writer, know your strengths and your weaknesses: Wilder already knew he could write; as noted in the interview, he had made many movies in Germany, mostly writing alone. However since he did not have a strong grasp of the English language, he knew he had to work with a collaborator. Fortunately he worked primarily with two great ones: Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond.

* Know a good high concept when you see one: A millionaire refuses to have affairs, so he must marry any woman with whom he becomes infatuated. Clever idea for a screwball comedy of the era.

* Know the tropes, memes, and dynamics of the genre: Romantic comedies required a ‘meet-cute,’ so Wilder embraced that fact.

* Always look for a topper: It’s easy to be satisfied with a good set piece or scene idea, but push yourself to top what you’ve come up with, like the bit of business Lubitsch added to the scene noted above.

* Find a mentor: Wilder zeroed in on Lubitsch. In fact even after Lubitsch was long gone, Wilder had this sign hanging up in his Beverly Hills office:

How would Lubitsch do it? A Mentor even beyond the grave, compelling Wilder to push himself harder in his creative efforts.

Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.

2 thoughts on “Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 1]

  1. jannagummo says:

    I love Wilder.
    Where the heck do you find these interviews?

    1. Scott says:

      Janna, there are other interviews with Wilder including one from the 60s in Playboy.

      I find a lot of interviews on my own, but over the years a bunch of readers have become eyes and ears for the blog, and send me links to writer interviews. Just another great aspect of the GITS community.

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