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: Did you ever feel disappointed with your results, that the picture you had imagined or even written hadn’t turned out?
WILDER: Sure, I’ve made blunders, for God’s sake. Sometimes you lay an egg, and people will say, It was too early. Audiences weren’t ready for it. Bullshit. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s bad.
The tragedy of the picture maker, as opposed to the playwright, is that for the playwright the play debuts in Bedford, Massachusetts, and then you take it to Pittsburgh. If it stinks you bury it. If you examine the credits of Moss Hart or George Kaufman, no one ever brings up the play that bombed in the provinces and was buried after four shows.
With a picture that doesn’t work, no matter how stupid and how bad, they’re still going to try to squeeze every single penny out of it. You go home one night and turn on the TV and suddenly, there on television, staring back at you, on prime time, that lousy picture, that thing, is back! We don’t bury our dead; we keep them around smelling badly.
INTERVIEWER: Is there one you have in mind?
WILDER: Don’t make me. I may lose my breakfast.
Now, I do have to admit I was disappointed by the lack of success of some pictures I thought were good, such as Ace in the Hole. I liked the movie very much but it did not generate any “must-see” mood in audiences.
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll have a rough time, and the film will turn out all right. On Sabrina I had a very rough time with Humphrey Bogart. It was the first time he’d worked with Paramount. Every evening after shooting, people would have a drink in my office, and a couple of times I forgot to invite him. He was very angry and never forgave me.
Sometimes when you finish a picture you just don’t know whether it’s good or bad. When Frank Capra was shooting Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, after the last shot she said, Will that be all Mr. Capra?
We’re all done.
All right. Now why don’t you go and fuck yourself. She thought the picture was shit, but she won the Academy Award for it.
So you’re never quite sure how your work will be received or the course your career will take. We knew we’d gotten a strong reaction at the first big preview of Sunset Boulevard. After the screening, Barbara Stanwyck went up and kissed the hem of Gloria Swanson’s robe, or dress, or whatever she was wearing that night. Gloria had given such an incredible performance. Then in the big Paramount screening room, Louis B. Mayer said loudly, We need to kick Wilder out of America if he’s going to bite the hand that feeds him. He was with his contingent from MGM, the king then, but in front of all his department heads, I told him just what he could do. I walked out just as the reception was starting.
Although the movie was a great success, it was about Hollywood, exaggerated and dramatized, and it really hit a nerve. So on the way down the steps I had to pass all those people from MGM, the class studio . . . all those people who thought this picture would soil the taste of Hollywood.
After Sunset Boulevard, Brackett and I parted friends. Twelve years together, but the split had been coming. It’s like a box of matches: you pick up the match and strike it against the box, and there’s always fire, but then one day there is just one small corner of that abrasive paper left for you to strike the match on. It was not there anymore. The match wasn’t striking. One of us said, Look, whatever I have to give and whatever you have to offer, it’s just not enough. We can end on the good note of Sunset Boulevard. A picture that was revolutionary for its day.
* Takeaway: This speaks to William Goldman’s line about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. But as Wilder’s words and demeanor suggests in order to work in the movie business, you have to have a tough skin.
Here are links to the first four parts of the series:
Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.