Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 12]

February 15th, 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: Film really is considered a director’s medium, isn’t it?

WILDER: Film’s thought of as a director’s medium because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot—the telephone book? Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.

Recently, the Writers’ Guild has negotiated with the studios to move the writer’s credit to a place just before the director’s, a more prominent position, bumping aside the producers. The producers are screaming! You look at an ad in the papers and they are littered with the names of producers: A So-and-So and So-and-So Production, Produced by Another Four Names! Executive Producer Somebody Else. Things are slowly changing. But even so the position of a writer working with a studio is not secure, certainly nothing like a writer working in the theater in New York. There a playwright sits in his seat in the empty parquet during rehearsals, right alongside the director, and together they try to make the production flow. If there is a problem, they have a little talk. The director says to the writer, Is it all right if the guy who says, Good morning. How are you? instead enters without saying anything? And the playwright says, No! “Good morning. How are you?” stays. And it stays.

Nobody consults the movie writer. In production, they just go wildly ahead. If the star has another picture coming up, and they need to finish the picture by Monday, they’ll just tear out ten pages. To make it work somehow, they add a few stupid lines.

In the studio era, screenwriters were always on the losing end in battles with the director or the studio. Just to show you the impotence of the screenwriter then, I’ll tell you a story from before I became a director. Brackett and I were writing a picture called Hold Back the Dawn. Back then, no writer was allowed on the set. If the actors and the director weren’t interpreting the script correctly, if they didn’t have the accent on the right word when they were delivering a gag, if they didn’t know where the humor was, a writer might very well pipe up. A director would feel that the writer was creating a disruption.

For Hold Back the Dawn, we had written a story about a man trying to immigrate into the U.S. without the proper papers. Charles Boyer, who played the lead, is at rope’s end, destitute, stranded in a filthy hotel—the Esperanza—across the border, near Mexicali or Calexico. He is lying in this lousy bed, holding a walking stick, when he sees a cockroach walk up the wall and onto a mirror hanging on the wall. Boyer sticks the end of the walking stick in front of the cockroach and says, “Wait a minute, you. Where are you going? Where are your papers? You haven’t got them? Then you can’t enter.” The cockroach tries to walk around the stick, and the Boyer character keeps stopping it.

One day Brackett and I were having lunch across the street from Paramount. We were in the middle of writing the third act of the picture. As we left our table to walk out, we saw Boyer, the star, seated at a table, his little French lunch spread out before him, his napkin tucked in just so, a bottle of red wine open on the table. We stopped by and said, Charles, how are you?

Oh, fine. Thank you.

Although we were still working on the script, Mitchell Leisen had already begun to direct the production. I said, And what are you shooting today, Charles?

We’re shooting this scene where I’m in bed and . . .

Oh! The scene with the cockroach! That’s a wonderful scene.

Yes, well, we didn’t use the cockroach.

Didn’t use the cockroach? Oh, Charles, why not?

Because the scene is idiotic. I have told Mr. Leisen so, and he agreed with me. How do you suppose a man can talk to some thing that cannot answer you? Then Boyer looked out the window. That was all. End of discussion. As we walked back to the studio to continue to write the third act, I said to Brackett, That son of a bitch. If he doesn’t talk to the cockroach, he doesn’t talk to anybody! We gave him as few lines as possible . . . wrote him right out of the third act.

INTERVIEWER: Was that one of the reasons you became a director, the difficulty of protecting the writing?

WILDER: That was certainly one of the reasons. I don’t come from the theater or any dramatic school like the Strasberg school, and I didn’t particularly have ambitions to be a director, to be a despot of the soundstage. I just wanted to protect the script. It’s not that I had a vision or theory I wanted to express as a director; I had no signature or style, except for what I learned from when I was working with Lubitsch and from analyzing his pictures—to do things as elegantly and as simply as possible.

Takeaway: Yes, movies are a director’s medium. It’s they who go off and make the movie. As a writer, you may get lucky and have a director who sees your vision for your story. They may even invite you to the set to participate in production. But as Wilder noted, the default mode is not to have the writer around lest they create a “disruption.” If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you must understand this reality. If you can’t stomach someone having total control over your stories, you have two choices: Become a writer-director or go write novels.

But let’s end on an up note. Remember the saying, “Write what you know”? Check out the plot element from the movie Wilder mentions above Hold Back the Dawn, about a man trying to immigrate to the United States, stuck at the border in Mexicali. Then watch this video of Wilder accepting the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Award:

“I write movies.”
“Write some good ones.”

It’s one of the greatest stories ever… and I have that quote at my desk: “Write some good ones.”

Billy Wilder. Ever the storyteller.

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

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

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