Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 10]

February 13th, 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: Does the script you’ve written change as you direct it?

WILDER: As someone who directed scripts that I myself had cowritten, what I demanded from actors was very simple: learn your lines.

That reminds me. George Bernard Shaw was directing a production of his play Pygmalion, with a very well-known illustrious actor, Sir Something. The fellow came to rehearsal, a little bit drunk, and he began to invent a little. Shaw listened for a while and then yelled, Stop! For Christ’s sake, why the hell didn’t you learn the script?

Sir Something said, What on earth are you talking about? I know my lines.

Shaw screamed back at him, Yes, you know your lines, but you don’t know my lines.

On a picture, I would ask the actors to know their lines. Sometimes they would study the part at night and might ask me to come by to discuss things. In the morning, we would sit in chairs around a long table off to the side and read the day’s scene once more. It was wonderful to work with some actors. Jack Lemmon. If we were to start at nine, he’d be there at eight-fifteen with a mug of coffee and his pages from the night before. He’d say, Last night I was running lines with Felicia—his wife—and had this wonderful idea. What do you think here? And he’d go on. It might be wonderful and we’d use it, or I might just look at him, and then he’d say, Well, I don’t like it either. He worked hard and had many ideas, but he never was interfering.

Sometimes I’d have an actor so stubborn that I’d say, All right, let’s do it two ways. We’d do it my way, and I’d say to my assistant, Print that. Then to the actor, All right, now your way. We’d do it his way with no celluloid in the camera.

Takeaway: We writers sit in solitude, communing with our characters and carefully crafting our stories. We may do that in a vacuum, but our hope is that the script gets transformed into a movie. And when that happens, actors get involved. That’s when a special kind of magic can happen.

So we must always remember, everything we write in terms of action and dialogue ends up in the hands of actors. Give them characters into which they can sink their teeth and find that magic.

Here are links to the first nine parts of the series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

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

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