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 adds more insight into his relationship with German director Ernst Lubitsch:
INTERVIEWER: You have a gold-framed legend on the wall across from your desk. How Would Lubitsch do it?
WILDER: When I would write a romantic comedy along the Lubitschian line, if I got stopped in the middle of a scene, I’d think, How would Lubitsch do it?
INTERVIEWER: Well, how did he do it?
WILDER: One example I can give you of Lubitsch’s thinking was in Ninotchka, a romantic comedy that Brackett and I wrote for him. Ninotchka was to be a really straight Leninist, a strong and immovable Russian commissar, and we were wondering how we could dramatize that she, without wanting to, was falling in love. How could we do it? Charles Brackett and I wrote twenty pages, thirty pages, forty pages! All very laboriously.
Lubitsch didn’t like what we’d done, didn’t like it at all. So he called us in to have another conference at his house. We talked about it, but of course we were still, well . . . blocked. In any case, Lubitsch excused himself to go to the bathroom, and when he came back into the living room he announced, Boys, I’ve got it.
It’s funny, but we noticed that whenever he came up with an idea, I mean a really great idea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there.
I’ve got the answer, he said. It’s the hat.
The hat? No, what do you mean the hat?
He explained that when Ninotchka arrives in Paris the porter is about to carry her things from the train. She asks, Why would you want to carry these? Aren’t you ashamed? He says, It depends on the tip. She says, You should be ashamed. It’s undignified for a man to carry someone else’s things. I’ll carry them myself.
At the Ritz Hotel, where the three other commissars are staying, there’s a long corridor of windows showing various objects. Just windows, no store. She passes one window with three crazy hats. She stops in front of it and says, “That is ludicrous. How can a civilization of people that put things like that on their head survive?” Later she plans to see the sights of Paris—the Louvre, the Alexandre III Bridge, the Place de la Concorde. Instead she’ll visit the electricity works, the factories, gathering practical things they can put to use back in Moscow. On the way out of the hotel she passes that window again with the three crazy hats.
Now the story starts to develop between Ninotchka, or Garbo, and Melvyn Douglas, all sorts of little things that add up, but we haven’t seen the change yet. She opens the window of her hotel room overlooking the Place Vendôme. It’s beautiful, and she smiles. The three commissars come to her room. They’re finally prepared to get down to work. But she says, “No, no, no, it’s too beautiful to work. We have the rules, but they have the weather. Why don’t you go to the races. It’s Sunday. It’s beautiful in Longchamps,” and she gives them money to gamble.
As they leave for the track at Longchamps, she locks the door to the suite, then the door to the room. She goes back into the bedroom, opens a drawer, and out of the drawer she takes the craziest of the hats! She picks it up, puts it on, looks at herself in the mirror. That’s it. Not a word. Nothing. But she has fallen into the trap of capitalism, and we know where we’re going from there . . . all from a half page of description and one line of dialogue. “Beautiful weather. Why don’t you go have yourselves a wonderful day?”
INTERVIEWER: He returned from the bathroom with all this?
WILDER: Yes, and it was like that whenever we were stuck. I guess now I feel he didn’t go often enough.
* When you’re stuck, change the scenery: I was just talking about this with a writer the other day. Why is it when we go for a walk or a run, take a drive, step in the shower or… yes… go to the bathroom… our mind suddenly goes: Bing! Enter with a problem. Exit with a solution. Whatever the reason, it seems to work, even if it means engaging in bodily functions.
* Think of visual solutions: The default mode for many writers is to use dialogue to claw their way out of a story problem. Remember: Movies are primarily a visual medium! The default should be a visual. Half-page of description. One line of dialogue. Problem solved.
Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.