Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 4]

February 4th, 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: You’ve indicated where Lubitsch got his ideas. Where do you get yours?

WILDER: I don’t know. I just get them. Some of them in the toilet, I’m afraid. I have a black book here with all sorts of entries. A little bit of dialogue I’ve overheard. An idea for a character. A bit of background. Some boy-meets-girl scenarios.

While I was working with Mr. Lemmon for the first time on Some Like It Hot, I thought to myself, This guy’s got a little bit of genius. I would love to make another picture with him, but I don’t have a story. So I looked in my little black book and I came across a note about David Lean’s movie Brief Encounter, that story about a married woman who lives in the country, comes to London, and meets a man. They have an affair in his friend’s apartment. What I had written was, What about the friend who has to crawl back into that warm bed?

I had made that note ten years earlier, I couldn’t touch it because of censorship, but suddenly there it was—The Apartment—all suggested by this note and by the qualities of an actor with whom I wanted to make my next picture. It was ideal for Lemmon, the combination of sweet and sour. I liked it when someone called that picture a dirty fairy tale.

Some takeaway:

* Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. 90% of the struggle to surface story ideas is simply to be aware of the stimuli filtering into your consciousness or bubbling up from your subconscious. Radio, TV, Internet, newspapers, magazines, overheard conversations, song lyrics, poems, memories, images, sounds, smells, the world is exploding with raw source material. And much of the time, we just blithely saunter through it all, unaware that the greatest story idea of all time could be passing us by… as we pass it by. So elevate your consciousness. Make sure you remind yourself at least a few times a day: Listen. Look. Learn. Then take all that in and add one more “L” to your list: Logline. See if you can take what you’ve sourced and fashion it into a workable logline. Most times, either you can’t or it won’t be a decent story idea. But all you need is one killer idea to completely change your life.

Now let me add this. I started off the New Year with this series, then the chaos of life intervened and I simply forgot to pick up on it. But then this happened the other night: I had a dream. A good dream. Actually a great dream. No, it did not involve Scarlet Johansson [get your mind out of the gutter, people]. It was about someone even better!

I am on the back lot of a Hollywood movie studio. Accompanying me is Billy Wilder. The old Billy Wilder, unlit cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth, shuffling along beside me. We are having a conversation about movies. What’s more, he is being really cordial to me, somewhat of a surprise because Wilder was known to be something of a curmudgeon to people with whom he wasn’t familiar. But here we are, meandering between sound stages, chatting away.

Then I am excitedly showing him this post — one of those weirdly magical dream moments where suddenly we’re standing in front of a laptop computer — in which I stated that The Apartment is a perfect movie. So here I am proudly showing off my blog — why I would think Wilder would be interested in anything I would have to say is beyond me — and he scrunches up his face, bends toward the computer, smudges his forefinger across the photo of Jack Lemmon straining spaghetti with his tennis racquet, then looks up at me, smiles, and says, “That was a fine movie.”

We continue walking. I am listening to his voice, I know he’s talking about movies, but I’m not tracking any of his words, just the sound of his German accent, and I’m in utter delight to be beside this cinematic icon. Finally he stops, turns to me, and says, “You know, anyone can be an actor.”

That was the end of my dream. So many things shocked me about it. I don’t often remember my dreams, and when I do, they’re more likely to be deeply dark apocalyptic scenarios or run-of-the-mill anxiety numbers (e.g., I’m one credit short of graduating, I can’t find the classroom, I’m doing a pitch but can’t remember the story). To have a nice dream, highly unusual. And to have one with Billy Wilder of all people… well, it completely made my day.

I’ve been trying to parse deeper meaning from that line: “You know, anyone can be an actor.” But I believe the subtext of what he was saying was this: What about that series you started with me? And so it’s back, brought to you by Billy Wilder via my subconscious.

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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

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