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

January 3rd, 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.

In today’s excerpt, Wilder follows up about working with famed German director Ernst Lubitsch and in particular the romantic comedy trope known as “meet-cute”:

INTERVIEWER: When you first met Lubitsch over lunch, did you think of that meet-cute on the spot?

WILDER: No, I already had that. I had been hoping to use it for something, and when he told us the story of the picture I saw how it might fit. I had dozens of meet-cutes. Whenever I thought of one I’d put it in a little notebook. Back then they were de rigeur, a staple of screwball comedies. Every comedy writer was working on his meet-cutes; but of course we don’t do that anymore. Later, I did a version of the meet-cute for The Apartment, where Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, who when they see each other every day have this little routine together. And in Sabrina, where she reappears and the younger Larrabee, William Holden, doesn’t recognize her—him not recognizing her becomes a kind of meet-cute. When Sydney Pollack was remaking that movie, I told him they should make the Larrabee family’s company a bankrupt company, and Sabrina’s competition for the younger Larrabee the daughter of a Japanese prospective-buyer.

Some takeaway:

* Always be prepared for a good idea: Wilder carried a “little notebook” around with him to jot down ideas. Today, we have our smart phones with voice memo apps. If you have an inspiration for a story concept, a line of dialogue or a bit of business, record it so you won’t forget it.

* Push yourself to generate more and more ideas: You may have lots of story ideas in reserve. But are any of them great ideas? And even if you have some great ideas, are any of them absolutely killer ideas? And even if you have some absolutely killer ideas, why not come up with more of them? You want a long, vibrant writing career, right? Well, you need ideas to fuel your creativity. And if you get into the habit of generating them, that helps to sustain the process.

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

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

  1. jannagummo says:

    So… why don’t we use meet-cute’s anymore. I would argue (and perhaps unconvincingly so) that most Romantic Comedies still use them. In fact most films do… don’t they?

    I need a sign that says… “WWBWD?”

    1. Scott says:

      Janna, you still see meet-cutes in rom-coms, other movies as well. It’s such a trope at this point, it requires, I think, a push beyond 10, and go to 11. One louder, if you will per Spinal Tap. Be better, fresher, smarter, can’t rely on easy when it comes to meet-cutes.

  2. jannagummo says:

    I gotcha… Spinal Tap reference took me a moment.

    Meet-Cutes… do you keep a list of them? For your writing I mean? How do you know if it’s unique and fresh?

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