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: How do collaborators work together?
WILDER: Brackett and I used to share two offices together with a secretary in between. When we were writing he always laid down on the couch in my office while I would walk around with a stick in my hand.
INTERVIEWER: Why the stick?
WILDER: I don’t know. I just needed something to keep my hands busy and a pencil wasn’t long enough. He always had the yellow legal tablet, and he wrote in longhand, then we’d hand it to the secretary. Brackett and I would discuss everything, the picture as a whole, the curtain situations—first act, second act and then the end of the picture—and the curtain lines. Then we would break it down and go to a specific scene and discuss the mood and so forth, then we’d figure out what bit of the story we’d tell in those ten pages of the scene.
INTERVIEWER: Was it the same working with I. A. L. Diamond?
WILDER: Pretty much the same as with Brackett. Discuss the story, break it down into scenes, and then I would dictate and he would type. Or he would sit there thinking, and I would write on a yellow tablet and show it to him.
How’s this? I’d say.
No. No good, he’d say. Never in an insistent way, however.
Or he might suggest something to me, and I’d shake my head. He’d just take it, tear it up, and put it in the wastebasket, and we’d never come back to it.
We had a great deal of trust in each other. But sometimes with writing you just can’t tell, especially if you’re writing under pressure. Diamond and I were writing the final scene of Some Like It Hot the week before we shot it. We’d come to the situation where Lemmon tries to convince Joe B. Brown that he cannot marry him.
“Why?” Brown says.
“Because I smoke!”
“That’s all right as far as I’m concerned.”
Finally Lemmon rips his wig off and yells at him, “I’m a boy! Because I’m a boy!”
Diamond and I were in our room working together, waiting for the next line—Joe B. Brown’s response, the final line, the curtain line of the film—to come to us. Then I heard Diamond say, “Nobody’s perfect.” I thought about it and I said, Well, let’s put in “Nobody’s perfect” for now. But only for the time being. We have a whole week to think about it. We thought about it all week. Neither of us could come up with anything better, so we shot that line, still not entirely satisfied. When we screened the movie, that line got one of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in the theater. But we just hadn’t trusted it when we wrote it; we just didn’t see it. “Nobody’s perfect.” The line had come too easily, just popped out.
Takeaway: First of all there’s this:
Cut to 1:40 in the clip. There’s I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond. There’s Wilder. And there’s Wilder’s stick! Looks like a fly-swatter to me.
Beyond that, notice how Wilder breaks a story: Start big, “curtain lines” or if you prefer plot points, then “break it down to scenes,” then write. Note that relationship: Scenes service the story. You have to figure out the Big Picture in order to have any chance of knowing how and what to do with each scene.
There you go. More screenwriting wisdom from Billy Wilder. That… and get a goddammed script!
Here are links to the first six parts of the series:
Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.