Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 5]

February 5th, 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: Sunset Boulevard?

WILDER: For a long time I wanted to do a comedy about Hollywood. God forgive me, I wanted to have Mae West and Marlon Brando. Look what became of that idea! Instead it became a tragedy of a silent-picture actress, still rich, but fallen down into the abyss after talkies. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” I had that line early on. Someplace else I had the idea for a writer who is down on his luck. It didn’t quite fall into place until we got Gloria Swanson.

We had gone to Pola Negri first. We called her on the phone, and there was too much Polish accent. You see why some of these people didn’t make the transition to sound. We went to Pickfair and visited Mary Pickford. Brackett began to tell her the story, because he was the more serious one. I stopped him: No, don’t do it. I waved him off. She was going to be insulted if we told her she was to play a woman who begins a love affair with a man half her age. I said to her, We’re very sorry, but it’s no use. The story gets very vulgar.

Gloria Swanson had been a big star, in command of an entire studio. She worked with DeMille. Once she was dressed, her hair done to perfection, they placed her on a sedan and two strong men would carry her onto the set so no curl would be displaced. But later she did a couple of sound pictures that were terrible. When I gave her the script, she said, I must do this, and she turned out to be an absolute angel.

I used stars wherever I could in Sunset Boulevard. I used Cecil B. DeMille to play the big important studio director. I used Erich von Stroheim to play the director who directed the first pictures with Swanson, which he in fact did. I thought, Now, if there is a bridge game at the house of a silent star, and if I am to show that our hero, the writer, has been degraded to being the butler who cleans ashtrays, who would be there? I got Harry B. Warner, who played Jesus in DeMille’s biblical pictures, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Buster Keaton, who was an excellent bridge player, a tournament player. The picture industry was only fifty or sixty years old, so some of the original people were still around. Because old Hollywood was dead, these people weren’t exactly busy. They had the time, got some money, a little recognition. They were delighted to do it.

Some takeaway:

* Parse that first paragraph and you learn something about the creative process. The initial inspiration for Sunset Blvd. was Wilder’s interest in doing a comedy about Hollywood. The movie, of course, switched genres to a drama. That occurred when Wilder hit on this idea: “Tragedy of a silent-picture actress, still rich, but fallen down into the abyss after talkies.” And then this: “Someplace else I had the idea for a writer who is down on his luck.”

What can we learn from this? Sometimes stories don’t come to us whole cloth, rather they evolve over time. We may conjure up a story conceit, a shred of an idea. Don’t let it go, write it down. Then keep thinking. Play it this way or that way. This genre or that genre. This Protagonist or that.

If you come up with a kernel of a story idea, but it doesn’t reveal itself as a movie in full, don’t toss it. Keep it. And keep working it.

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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

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