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: What was it like working as a writer for a studio?
WILDER: When I was a writer at Paramount, the studio had a swarm of writers under contract—a hundred and four! They worked in the Writers Building, the Writers Annex, and the Writers Annex Annex. All of us were writing! We were not getting big salaries but we were writing. It was fun. We made a little money. Some like Ben Hecht made a lot of money. All the writers were required to hand in eleven pages every Thursday. Why on Thursday? Who knows? Why eleven pages? Who knows? Over a thousand pages a week were being written.
It was all very tightly controlled. We even worked on Saturdays from nine until noon, knocking off half a day so we could watch USC or UCLA play football in the Coliseum. When the unions negotiated the workweek back to five days, the executives ran around screaming the studio was going to go broke.
There was one guy at the studio whom all the writers turned in their work to—a Yale man who was at Life when his classmates Henry Luce and Briton Haddon founded the magazine. Everyone at the start of the magazine had the option of getting something like seventy-five dollars a week or part of his salary in Time stock. Some buildings at Yale were built by people who went for the stock. Our guy at Paramount used to say proudly, I went for the cash.
INTERVIEWER: What happened to the thousand-plus pages a week that were being generated?
WILDER: Most of the writing just gathered dust. There were five or six producers, each specializing in different kinds of pictures. They would read the writing over the weekend and make comments.
INTERVIEWER: What were the producers’ comments like?
WILDER: I was talking once with a writer who had worked at Columbia who showed me a script that had just been read by Samuel Briskin, one of the big men at that studio. I looked at the script. On every page, there was at the bottom just one word: improve.
INTERVIEWER: Like The New Yorker editor Harold Ross’s imperative “make better.”
WILDER: That would be one word too many for these producers. Just improve.
Takeaway: How about these?
* “All the writers were required to hand in eleven pages every Thursday.” 11 script pages per week. Why not set that as a goal for yourself? Hey, if it worked during the heydays of the studio system, why not for you?
* “Most of the writing just gathered dust.” That’s right, most scripted projects do not get produced. But if you land a writing gig or sell a pitch or script which never gets made, that money you earn for your writing services… guess what? You get to keep it!
* “On every page, there was at the bottom just one word: improve.” Like I wrote in this Business of Screenwriting post, there are three groups of people in Hollywood, and two of them don’t know how to solve a script’s story problems. They do, however, know how to say “improve”. And that’s where you – the writer – come in. They see you as a problem-solver. And that’s why you need to learn and do everything you can to become a card carrying member of that third group: People who not only can determine what’s wrong with a story, they can fix it.
Here are links to the first ten parts of the series:
Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.