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: Why have so many novelists and playwrights from the East, people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, had such a terrible time out here?
WILDER: Well, because they were hired for very big amounts of money. I remember those days in New York when one writer would say to the other, I’m broke. I’m going to go to Hollywood and steal another fifty thousand. Moreover, they didn’t know what movie writing entailed. You have to know the rules before you break them, and they simply didn’t school themselves. I’m not just talking about essayists or newspapermen; it was even the novelists. None of them took it seriously, and when they would be confronted by their superior, the producer or the director, who had a louder voice and the weight of the studio behind him, they were not particularly interested in taking advice. Their idea was, Well, crap, everybody in America has got a screenplay inside them—the policeman around the corner here, the waiter in Denver. Everybody. And his sister! I’ve seen ten movies. Now, if they would only let me do it my way . . . But it’s not that easy. To begin to make even a mediocre film you have to learn the rules. You have to know about timing, about creating characters, a little about camera position, just enough to know if what you’re suggesting is possible. They pooh-poohed it.
I remember Fitzgerald when he was working at Paramount and I was there working with Brackett. Brackett, who was from the East, had written novels and plays, and had been at Paramount for years. Brackett and I used to take breaks and go to a little coffee joint across the street from the studio. Oblath’s! we used to say. The only place in the world you can get a greasy Tom Collins. Whenever we saw Scott Fitzgerald there, we’d talk with him, but he never once asked us anything about writing screenplays.
Pictures are something like plays. They share an architecture and a spirit. A good picture writer is a kind of poet, but a poet who plans his structure like a craftsman and is able to tell what’s wrong with the third act. What a veteran screenwriter produces might not be good, but it would be technically correct; if he has a problem in the third act he certainly knows to look for the seed of the problem in the first act. Scott just didn’t seem particularly interested in any of these matters.
Takeaway: Here’s a money quote: “A good picture writer is a kind of poet, but a poet who plans his structure like a craftsman.” That combines the spirit of movies which are both art and commerce, the poet for art, the craftsman for commerce. Right-brain, left-brain, heart, head, whatever metaphor you like, a screenwriter needs both.
Here are links to the first seven parts of the series:
Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.